The stories of abuse by members of the Orwells were disheartening to hear, but it’s hard to say they were surprising. There was the bathroom graffiti that shouted in all caps what many women knew for years. There were bands that stopped performing with them and people that stopped associating with them. There were rumors, whispers and open secrets.
The allegations weren’t surprising because somewhere, some time, it got lodged in our cultural consciousness that the artists we love get to live by a different set of rules. That being famous gives you autonomy over the bodies of others. That if you could play rock ’n’ roll, then the sex and drugs were guaranteed.
There are plenty of reasons why we shouldn’t be surprised by the stories about the Orwells, but we can still be disheartened, because while the abusers may be gone from the public eye, the music scene they preyed upon is still here, left wondering how this happened, and what to do next. The story doesn’t end with the accusations. There’s still work to be done, trust to be regained, and a community to rebuild. In Chicago, the rebuilding is being done by the same group of women who first brought the accusations against the Orwells to light.
One of those women is Riley Kmet, a former fan of the Orwells who currently lives in Ohio. She was part of the small group of women that started the public backlash against the Orwells after Metro announced that they had booked the band for a Nov. 23 show.
After a tweet from Rita Hess denouncing the show, Riley herself tweeted that the band is “full of homophobic, transphobic, racist sexual abusers,” and said she would name specific instances of abuse for anyone interested. As her tweet gained more attention, Riley said she started to receive direct messages from users sharing their accounts of alleged abuse and/or rape at the hands of Mario, Henry and Grant.
“It was shocking how many people reached out and replied, ‘I totally saw this coming,’” Riley said. The “open secret” nature of the abuse was something that many of the women involved commented on. That members the Orwells were known in Chicago and other cities as serial abusers, yet were still booking shows and playing national tours, was something that they couldn’t stomach.
“Seeing that they were trying to make any sort of ‘comeback’ was so horrifying,” Riley said. “I know how the music circuit goes: hometown show to test out new material, new album drop, and then typically a long tour. The thought of Mario Cuomo, Henry Brinner, and Grant Brinner on a national tour abusing girls across the country made me sick to my stomach.”
Madeline, also from Ohio but currently attending school in Chicago, said she felt the same way. “When I discovered the Orwells, they were, to me, a touring band. Once I moved and got acquainted with the Chicago scene, their status was different. I saw that the rumors going around had a lot of truth to them.” When she saw Riley share her story on Twitter, Madeline felt that she had to back her up with her own accounts of predatory behavior.
With their stories joining the growing chorus of grievances being shared on Twitter, Riley and Madeline were soon added to a group text with other women who had come out publicly against the Orwells and were trying to think of ways to get their show at Metro cancelled. This group included Rita Hess, who initially tweeted against the Orwells show, and a few others who had known about their predatory tendencies for some time. After having so many women reach out to her privately with messages of abuse, Riley says she was compelled to start a Google doc as a sort of compendium of evidence. When she shared the document, Riley says the number of accounts she received sky-rocketed.
The document itself is staggering. It’s over 20 pages in length, and filled with graphic firsthand accounts, screenshots, and pictures. These stories were all shared with Riley, Madeline, Rita and the other women in the group, who edited and posted the accounts to the document.
Even with so many firsthand accounts made public, there were many more victims that could not bring themselves to share their stories outside of private messages. “There are so many stories I was not given permission to share that still burn in my mind,” Riley said.
This document would serve as the basis for a tidal wave of change and accountability that is still sweeping over Chicago’s indie music scene. It was an important step forward from the cacophony of social media towards an organized form of empowerment. Because while social media was instrumental in bringing the allegations against the Orwells to light, the wildfire tactics of Twitter callouts can only be relied on for so long. This is something that Riley herself notes, saying that it was only after members of prominent bands in the scene denounced the Orwells that her tweets began to gain more attention.
By compiling evidence and providing a platform for victims, Riley, Madeline and the other women involved ensured that the quiet acceptance of abuse was shattered and replaced with a thousand angry voices.
But again, the accusations are just the beginning.
With the infrastructure of the Google doc set, Alex Manley, a student at Columbia College, began the process of building a continued system of support that could outlast the “fleeting attention of influential men and bands in this community.” She started the Abusers Chicago Email/ Support Network (firstname.lastname@example.org) as a “place for victims to write to for general support as well as to anonymously share their stories and allegations.”
Through the Abusers Chicago Support Network, Manley says she has an avenue to “spread public awareness about predators, make other victims feel safer and more supported, as well as hold people who are predatory accountable for their actions.”
She says she plans to share accounts of predatory behavior with other prominent Chicago bands, as well as venues, booking agents, and event coordinators. She hopes that they will “use their agency to spread awareness and stop playing shows with predatory people.”
The Abusers Chicago Support Network email has been shared publicly by prominent bands throughout Chicago, and Manley notes that she plans to have signage at venues in the near future.
But even that was not enough, Manley felt. She started a monthly support group for victims “to come and freely share, feel supported, as well as be provided with information on legal action, affordable counseling, mental health resources, and more.” The first meeting will be held on Sept. 14, and will continue for as long as needed.
The effects of these women’s campaign are being felt, however gradually. Bands from across Chicago have released statements through their Twitter or Instagram feeds condemning abuse and showing support for victims. Some, like Post Animal, have laid out concrete plans to make shows safer and more welcoming. Venues and booking agencies have also stated their commitment to show safety. Many have reaffirmed their partnership with the Chicago-based Our Music My Body campaign, which advocates for safety and accountability at music festivals and venues.
But this is not the story of venues and bands and their commitment to fighting abuse. It’s the story of the women who experienced it, and who had to fight to make their voices heard in the first place. And while they are being heard now, many of them feel that their work is far from finished.
“I still don’t think that the band breaking up is enough to rectify the pain they have caused,” Riley said.
“I wish that people with influence in this community had realized sooner that it is in fact possible to publicly condemn predators while also respecting that the victims’ stories are theirs to tell,” Alex Manley noted. “There is a responsibility to speak up rather than quietly cutting off contact.”
It seems that Chicago’s indie music scene is not finished with its reckoning, not yet. More bands continue to be named, and many of the people involved seem to think there’s still more to come. But with the systems of support in place, they’re hopeful that the rebuilding will end with no voice being relegated to the realm of whispers and rumors.