Community Trauma in Geek Spaces
It’s difficult to put into short, succinct words the emotions I feel as I scroll through the accounts and personal stories that have come to light in the last few days. It was laborious to try to describe to my non-geeky friends the scope of the damage that this Community has been delivered at the hands of some very powerful, influential, and stubborn people. Eventually the term ‘Community Trauma’ came from my mouth, and I felt it was the best shortcut to describe the sudden change in the power dynamic we’re seeing unfold.
Community Trauma is a term used to describe the sudden feeling of betrayal when a prominent member of the community is outed by his or her insidious and treacherous actions. It’s what a small town feels when the local dentist is revealed to be a perpetrator of domestic violence. It’s what a group of friends feel when they find out their friend has stolen thousand of dollars from the group's pockets. It is the feeling we have when we find out that a paragon of enthusiastic consent and the coordinator of so many geeky events is, in fact, a sexual predator.
It’s a term we can use to describe our feelings, while giving the victim or victims of a person space to discuss or disclose their own experiences on a personal level. But we, as a Community, must find a way to talk about how the shift will change the way we love and communicate between ourselves.
The Geeky Cult of Personality
Adrian Teodor Popan, in his dissertation "The ABC of Sycophancy: Structural Conditions for the Emergence of Dictators’ Cults of Personality," describes a cult of personality as "quantitatively exaggerated and qualitatively extravagant public demonstration of praise of the leader".
Popan also notes that "The cult of the leader has been already defined by scholars in various ways. Only two characteristics of the cult have been identified by all scholars who deal with the phenomenon: first, it is defined by a quasi-ubiquitous praise, manifested through eulogistic articles in mass-media and adulatory public parades, and, second, the adulation of the leader is not entirely sincere, but largely coerced through employing the state apparatus in the organization of the named parades.”
While most published works on the cult of personality are mainly focused on political leaders and their movements, it does not mean that the geek or nerd cultures are immune to such cults. Over the years, Jeff Mach has cultivated a finely crafted image that is ubiquitous within his social circles. Much of the paperwork he does to coordinate events is generally under the name ‘Widdershins, LLC./ Widdershins INC’. To the public his events are all branded as ‘by Jeff Mach’ or ‘Jeff Mach Events’. This form of branding is intended to evoke Jeff, or what the individual perceives to be Jeff Mach, and not the abstract concept of his conventions. This we can see tangibly in Jeff’s parades, his knighting ceremonies, his one-man bands. There is no delegation, there is no sharing of the limelight. It is all Jeff, all the time.
The greatest difficulty with this setup is that the praise is generational. It only lasts for one lifetime; with the death of a prominent figure, either literally or metaphorically, the praise suddenly has no value to the community as a whole, and another power vacuum is established. Many folks who work communities in professional capacities are generally wary and advice against working in the framework of a Cult of Personality. In some eyes the cult is fleeting, shallow, and opportunistic. It goes against the ethos of many that try to establish a Community on the foundations of longevity, transparency, and accountability. But all can agree on the fact, that when a paragon of a community is not adherent to the ethos of their group, the cult will eventually reveal the underside of its workings.
The Inevitability of Community Trauma
As with all toxic community protocol, it generally takes one event for the floodgates to open. Two weeks before Wicked Faire (2018) was to happen Jeff Mach put out a personal call for volunteers on his personal and business Facebook pages. It seems, after that instant, that the gates to the dam broke and someone said ‘I had enough being silent’.
Suddenly posts warning about Jeff’s business practice come to light. Then someone’s personal account of their discomfort regarding Jeff Mach. Then, accounts of sexual coercion and consent violations come out from the woodwork. Underage grooming, solicitations for sex, even accounts eerily sound like instances of prostitution in lieu of a paycheck. Brenna Kali Skirata, blogger of Owl Eye View, continues to collect documentation regarding the company and Jeff Mach on her site.
The Community is damaged severely by such information. What’s being told, and the 10+ years of documented behavior, go against some of the ethos and policies that have been crafted by Widdershins, LLC./ Widdershins INC. Yes, some of them even from Jeff’s own mouth. It’s noticeable. It’s tangible. So much so that even Jeff knows it. In the days after the initial wave of information came out, Jeff Mach has already changed his branding from ‘Jeff Mach Events’ to ‘Just Magical Events’. With no official word of his resignation to the company, our social groups and are communities are valid in their concern and their skepticism moving forward.
Community Trauma, in its most abstract form, can be a descriptor used to describe how the group as a whole is affected by actions and events outside of the individual’s control. Community Trauma can be described as the opposite of flourishing or even resilience of the community.
On January 30th, 2017 at 9 PM Tammy Shipps, acting COO/CFO of Widdershins, LLC./ Widdershins INC. announces on Facebook Live that the Event, Wicked Faire Reborn (2018) would most likely be cancelled after 50+ hotel reservations had been cancelled in light of Jeff’s actions, the company’s statements about his actions, and a statement given via email by Chief Executive Robert Garafolo of the West Windsor Police Department.
Community Resilience, A Call to Action
With the events unfolding surrounding Jeff’s own Watergate Scandal (or as I like to call it: Just Jeffgate), moments of Community Resilience have already sprang up regarding the incident. As of January 28th, 2018, 25 performers, volunteers, vendors, and prominent members of the Community have denounced Jeff and his company with the intent of encouraging others to seek better and safer spaces to enjoy in. In light of this, another 25 members of the community have stepped up to discuss their personal interactions with the company and with Jeff personally. Much of this content spans over the course of 10 years, a pattern of behavior that simply cannot be waved away with a simply apology and ‘do better next time’ attitude.
The more difficult part in enacting the resilience of this community, in my mind, would be re-establishing smaller events and communities. The immediate area in which Widdershins, LLC./ Widdershins INC. has become more or less an event monopoly. In the pursument of Jeff’s personal interest, he has made it difficult and almost impossible for smaller conventions to secure funding or space without his own personal touch. Notice I said almost.
So I bring out a call to action to my fellow geeks. Continue hosting events, secure funding where you can, create reasonable expectations to what you do and how you do it. Encourage the people you know to encourage safe spaces and safety protocols. Codify and normalize the language of enthusiastic consent. Be good to your business and business partners. Identify those that seek to harm themselves or others within your community. Bring on Staff and Volunteers that can be vetted and are there for the event, not for themselves. Let us break this Cult of Personality.