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The Knox Student

Student Read, Student Written, Student Led Since 1878

The Knox Student

Student Read, Student Written, Student Led Since 1878

The Knox Student

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April 15, 2024
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We are all the bad art friend: Dorland v. Larson and the ethics of inspiration

We+are+all+the+bad+art+friend%3A+Dorland+v.+Larson+and+the+ethics+of+inspiration

Who is the bad art friend? This is the question that Robert Kolker posed on October 5th in an article of the same name published in The New York Times Magazine. It chronicles the story of a woman posting about her nondirected kidney donation, her acquaintance writing a story about a white savior who donates a kidney, plagiarism charges, and the subpoenaed group chat messages that came out of the resulting legal battle.

After reading this nearly ten-thousand word article for the first time, I could not shut up about the bad art friend. The article did not do Dawn Dorland, the woman who donated the kidney, any favors. After leaving a writing conference about a year after her donation where no one mentioned it, Dorland wondered “Do writers not care about my kidney donation?,” a statement that I read aloud to a friend of mine in between bouts of laughter. 

If I had to answer Kolker’s question posed in the title, I would argue that the woman obsessed with getting people to acknowledge her years-past kidney donation was the bad art friend — especially because she had brought forth a lawsuit against Larson for allegedly plagiarizing a letter she had sent to the kidney recipient and published on Facebook. 

Writers are inspired by real life events on a daily basis. As Larson tells Kolker, “If I walk past my neighbor and he’s planting petunias in the garden, and I think, ‘Oh, it would be really interesting to include a character in my story who is planting petunias in the garden, do I have to go inform him because he’s my neighbor?” 

In my judgement of the bad art friend, it was easy to gloss over the subpoenaed group chat messages that revealed Larson was talking unfavorably about Dorland behind her back, even the ones where Larson admitted she had been inspired by the white-savior-esque actions of Dorland. What I focused on, instead, was the seemingly wild claim that Larson had plagiarized Dorland by using the concept of a letter written to the unknown recipient of one’s kidney.

A few days later, the narrative changed. 

While I skimmed over a single court document to figure out exactly what charges were being brought forth against Larson or Dorland (the judge dismissed Dorland’s claims of emotional distress, but no decision has been made about the alleged plagiarism/copyright infringement), others went deeper. Dan Nguyen (@dancow on Twitter) found a comparison of the first published version of the letter to Dorland’s privately posted letter, and new subpoenaed emails were brought into light.

Instead of simply taking inspiration from an acquaintance’s experiences and neglecting to inform said acquaintance, as Larson claimed in an email to Dorland, she had initially written a draft that referenced Dorland directly, with the letter posted to a private Facebook group pasted in the middle of it. In fact, Larson had been copying and pasting these private Facebook posts into her group chats to mock Dorland, at one point saying “I could write pages and pages more about Dawn,” and that “the woman is a gold mine!”

So, who is the bad art friend? Is it the woman obsessed with her own altruistic actions, who allegedly pitched this article for over a year until Kolker took it on? Or is it the woman who made fun of an acquaintance behind their back while mining their life for inspiration and allegedly committing copyright infringement along the way?

In the end, the bad art friend is probably me, because the second a new update comes out about this story, I will be telling everyone I know. 

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