The Orwells Credit: Sue Kwong/original photo by Kelly Puleio

Content warning: sexual assault

For years, women in Chicago had been warning each other to steer clear of the Orwells. Ugly rumors about the local garage band traveled mostly along back channels, fueled by whispers at DIY shows and graffiti in the women’s room at Cole’s. On August 26, private talk finally led to concerted public action when former Orwells fan Riley Kmet, who now lives in Ohio, created a Google Doc where she and several other women collected and posted specific but anonymized allegations of sexual assault, sexual abuse, rape, misogyny, homophobia and violent behavior against three of the five members of the Orwells: front man Mario Cuomo, drummer Henry Brinner, and bassist Grant Brinner.

Founded in 2009 in suburban Elmhurst, the Orwells had long been infamous for their rambunctious rock ’n’ roll attitude, personified most clearly onstage by the unapologetically rowdy Cuomo. For longtime fans who’d never suspected that the band’s antics had anything to do with reality, the detailed catalog of allegations came as a shock. But for others, the reckoning seemed long overdue. At the forefront of the latter group stand the women who worked with Kmet to compile the document and generate attention for it on social media.

Of those women, only Kmet claims to have had a negative experience personally with anyone in the Orwells. The others are all fans of Chicago music, familiar with the city’s rock scene and devoted to the notion that it should be a safe place for everyone. Rita Hess made the first public move: on June 17 she posted a photo of Cole’s bathroom door on Twitter, which was covered in graffiti that named not just the Orwells but the Brinners specifically, accusing them of rape and abuse. This was well before the band kicked off a much larger backlash by announcing on August 24 that they’d be playing another high-profile show at Metro on November 23.

Hess says she remembers hearing about the Orwells as early as two years ago, but the sketchy rumors that reached her barely scratched the surface of what the band has since been accused of doing. “My boyfriend told me that they had a bad reputation, but it was more for being violent or having crazy raucous shows than anything else,” she says. “He had been at the show at Bonnaroo that got cut off mid-set because the crowd was absolutely insane and Mario was egging them on instead of controlling anything.” When she saw the Orwells at Chop Shop in 2016, she says it was “fairly uneventful.” But she does remember something that seems potentially significant in retrospect: a girl in the audience who spent the whole show sobbing. “I never found out who she was, or why she was crying.”

Hess continued to hear stories of abuse through the grapevine, including several in a group chat for Twin Peaks fans that she’d joined in summer 2017. “I never felt like I had enough information to call anyone out,” she says. “To this day, there are stories I learned from this group chat from women who refuse to tell their story—because they know that Mario will figure out it’s them.”

Hess’s reluctance evaporated after she noticed the graffiti in the Cole’s bathroom in June. “I took a picture of the bathroom door that had all the graffiti on it, saying things like ‘The Orwells are rapists’ and ‘The Binners are twin rapists,’” she says. “That same day, Jack Dolan [of Twin Peaks] tweeted ‘Elon just joined Rauner, R. Kelly, Jeff Bezos & the Emanuel brothers on the illustrious Chicago shit list. There’s many others, please list more.’ So I replied with the picture of the door and said, ‘The bathrooms out here can finish the list for you.’ I was positive that it would start to get noticed, but it made no impact at all.”

A few weeks later, provoked by a fresh round of R. Kelly denunciations, Hess tweeted the picture of the door again and called out the Chicago rock bands who were dragging Kelly but remaining silent about abusers in their own scene. This time, Hess reached people outside her circle—she was retweeted by the likes of Audiotree and the Chicago Band Boy account.

“When the Orwells announced the show at the Metro, it sort of hit me that something actually needed to be done this time, because it would be so unfair for them to still have a thriving career when they have abused and manipulated so many people.” —Bess Connelly

Genevieve Tolentino, who lives in Florida and who met Hess in that same Twin Peaks chat, recalls first hearing rumors and stories about the Orwells in a different group chat in early 2017. Bess Connelly, who would later join Hess and Tolentino in contributing to Kmet’s Google Doc, says she first heard stories about Cuomo “probably three years ago.” (Other women were involved too, but they aren’t quoted here.) Hess, Tolentino, and Connelly agree that the Metro announcement lit a fire under them. “The show at the Metro got announced on Friday, August 24th. I legitimately panicked,” Hess says. “I was so upset that after all the attention that the door tweet got, they were still getting bookings—and in Chicago at that. So I did the only thing I could think of to do, and I tagged bands—men with a platform—and demanded they say something.”

The Metro show also provided a catalyst for Connelly to step up. “When they announced the show at the Metro, it sort of hit me that something actually needed to be done this time, because it would be so unfair for them to still have a thriving career when they have abused and manipulated so many people,” she says. “Since I have no history with anyone in the band at all, I suppose I felt obliged to help the survivors who were too scared to speak up about their experiences with them yet.”

Tolentino explains that the show announcement and Hess’s tweets tagging bands led to a snowballing reaction. “All our friends started retweeting, and it started to get a lot of attention. All the bands that were tagged—and even some that weren’t—responded back denouncing the Orwells as well. Everyone started talking about it.”

From there, the three got in contact via social media with Kmet, who was likewise fired up by the Metro announcement. They began compiling the Google Doc, filling it with stories that women had sent them via DM. “I had an uncomfortable experience with Mario [Cuomo] when he sent me unsolicited nudes,” Kmet says. “I’ve had close friends abused by them. I was such a big fan and they let me down in such a big way that I had to speak up and let other fans know who they were supporting.” Encouraged by the response Hess was getting on Twitter, she tweeted her own opinion of the Orwells, calling them “a band full of homophobic, transphobic, racist sexual abusers.”

“The tweet gained a lot of replies,” Kmet says. “Many of the replies were some reiteration of, ‘Yeah, I totally called this. I was at a show in *insert random city* and witnessed them do some gross stuff.’ People started sending me messages sharing their accounts. It began to be overwhelming, and I felt the need to compile and organize all the evidence we had proving the Orwells were abusive in an easily accessible, editable, and shareable format.” Kmet started the Google Doc, and she worked with Hess, Tolentino, Connelly, and two other women to put everything they had on the Orwells in it: lyrics about mistreating or killing women, old screenshots of the band’s ugly social-media posts, personal stories they had permission to share. “The more people shared it, the more women came forward,” Hess says. “It was so draining hearing from so many people, seeing how scared everyone was, seeing the horrific nature of what the Orwells had done—and I kept telling myself that what I was feeling was nothing compared to the trauma that these women dealt with daily.”

In the nearly 40-page document, dozens of women anonymously share their stories. One woman recalls how Cuomo coerced her into losing her virginity to him when she was 17, while another shares screenshots of Cuomo making reference to having sexual contact with 15-year-olds. Several other stories include details of coerced or borderline violent sexual encounters with Cuomo—kissing young girls in the front rows of Orwells concerts without their consent, for instance, or cornering a woman he’d invited over to his apartment, then sending her a hostile and threatening text message once she’d left. The document also includes several allegations from women who claim they were subjected to nonconsensual sexual experiences with either Grant or Henry Brinner.

Sue Kwong/original photo by Kelly Puleio

The women who assembled the Google Doc say they wanted the Metro show to be canceled and for the band to take accountability for their actions. However, they never expected everything to happen as quickly as it did. On August 27, the day after the Google Doc went live, the Orwells issued a statement denying all allegations of sexual assault against the three implicated members. That same day, the Metro show was canceled (it’s still not clear whether the band or the venue pulled the plug). On August 29, the Orwells announced that they’d disbanded with a terse post on all their social-media platforms.

“I became pretty confident that their show would get canceled, but I don’t think any of us predicted that the entire band would break up,” Connelly says. “It makes me wonder—if all of this happened one or two years ago, would it have had the same results? It makes you think about how many less people they could have hurt if something had been done earlier.”

All the women involved in the outing of the Orwells hope the music community will become more vigilant about abuse and complicity in abuse. “One thing I’ve learned from this is that silence hurts,” Hess says. “Abusive people thrive on the idea that their victims won’t say anything—they manipulate people into thinking that they’re more powerful, that they’re dangerous, that you’re never going to get the justice that you want, that your voice won’t be heard. But that’s not true.”

Connelly describes the Orwells’ breakup as just a small victory in the grand scheme of things, in part because the band hasn’t said anything about the allegations since the initial denial—there was no closure, no accountability. “Even though it’s great that they’re finally over, the Orwells aren’t the only bad dudes in the Chicago rock scene,” she says. “There is still work to be done. A lot of men in the ‘scene’ should be terrified right now.”

Hess agrees. “I think they hope the buzz will die down and that they can lay low. I think the disbanding is a huge success, but it’s just one part of the overall goal.”

Kmet was ecstatic about the breakup at first, but her grief and anger quickly returned when she remembered that most of the women who shared their stories are still enduring trauma from those events. “The memories of the things that I read through pierced through me, because ‘disbanding’ does nothing to rectify the hurt that they have caused,” she says. “There was no apology, only an empty statement that hardly even sounded as though it was written by any actual member of the band.”

Tolentino agrees. “They still have a lot to answer for. Them disbanding doesn’t erase what they’ve done to so many people,” she says. “Going forward, I think real accountability is going to be key to making progress. The men in this scene need to step up and start calling out abuse when they see it. Even if it’s their friends. And bands need to be serious about illustrating how they’re going to try to create safe spaces for fans that come see them. Post Animal did a really good job on their Instagram story of giving tangible steps that they’re going to take make shows safer. I really liked that. That’s setting a good example and being a good ally.”

The discussion started by Hess, Kmet, Connelly, Tolentino, and other music fans may still be rippling outward. “I hope this is a wake-up call to all music fans, bands, and venues in this city,” says Hess. “The women aren’t playing around, and everyone saw what we could do once we teamed up. We are demanding safe spaces, accountability, diverse lineups, safety, and honesty.”

The Orwells have made no further announcements since they disbanded. On September 4, I reached out to Orwells manager Larry Little of Fortress Music via e-mail, requesting comment on the allegations in this story. No one had replied by the time of publication.