Credit: Welsey Hamilton for Chicago Reader

A charismatic person somehow emanates levity, intimacy, and self-assuredness, all at once. Charisma is talked about like it’s an inborn quality—but I think it’s something that’s summoned. My story this week is born, in part, from a desire to understand what charismatic people are like when they’re not being watched—and who gets hurt when image supersedes reality.

In this case, two progressive arts organizations serving Black and Brown youth—Young Chicago Authors and Free Write Arts & Literacy—are reeling over allegations of sexual abuse by a former employee. Among many themes, like misogyny and the cult of celebrity, I wanted to look at the many, varied attempts at accountability and transformative justice, both the good and the bad. I did this not to challenge the value of community-based healing—you will notice that “cancel culture” does not appear anywhere in my story—but to document how messy and surprising and nonlinear it can be.

A question I raise in the piece (“What happens when abusers and enablers use this process to their advantage?”) is something I grapple with. There are many people who have been thinking about these questions longer than me, and I won’t pretend to be an expert. In the story, I did my best to examine the harm that occurs when language is warped, vulnerability is exploited, and real people are treated as collateral damage in the quest to protect institutions. In the same way the organizations I covered are trying not to look away, I also tried not to look away.   v