The Harsh, Central Truth of the Viral ‘Bad Art Friend’ Story

The main character’s flaws are a reflection of our own.

An illustration of a woman holding a cellphone
Getty; The Atlantic

Updated at 4:45 p.m. ET on October 7, 2021.

The title of the journalist Robert Kolker’s cunning essay in The New York Times Magazine,Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” is a bit of misdirection: There are no friends here. The article’s URL, which ends “dorland-v-larson,” is more revealing. The story swiftly became an obsession among the very online, as readers debated its moral and meaning.

Kolker’s tale is one of aggression. At first the aggression is of the passive kind, originating from the slighted and smarting Dawn Dorland, unnerved by her fellow writer and Facebook acquaintance Sonya Larson’s silence on Dorland’s decision to donate a kidney to a stranger. Dorland later learns that Larson was quite aware of Dorland’s deed, and had in fact written a lauded short story in which a Dorland-esque character pesters her own kidney-donation recipient about that very thing. Eventually, the aggression transforms into the open, vicious kind: Dorland accuses Larson of plagiarism, and Larson sues her for defamation and tortious interference. More than a year later, Dorland files a counterclaim that allows her to catch Larson mocking her spitefully in group chats with Larson’s writer friends. Dorland then goes on to—and perhaps still does—haunt events Larson appears at, never quite letting the issue rest. (Per the writer Celeste Ng on Twitter, Dorland pitched her own story to the Times.)

Dorland is undoubtedly the most fascinating character in Kolker’s story—pitiable yet galling in all three Dorlands that appear. The first is Dawn Dorland’s version of Dawn Dorland, the story of who she is as told by herself, both to the world generally and to Kolker. Brought up near the poverty line in rural Iowa, Dorland told Kolker that she learned from her mother’s steely self-reliance, while also internalizing a certain sense of exclusion and isolation that still seems to cling to her now. She writes of a childhood tainted by abuse, trauma, and loneliness. In adulthood, Dorland’s sense of loss or emptiness seems to manifest in an oceanic gentleness, a tentative and hopeful search for connection, for “building bridges.” In altruistically donating a kidney to a stranger, she raised this tendency to its highest form, linking herself permanently—vitally—to someone else in need, then campaigned for the cause of organ donation so as to inspire webs of connection everywhere.

But that level of need, which can register as wan and endearing, can also arrive as demanding and judgmental: This is Sonya Larson’s Dawn Dorland. For Larson, the problem with Dorland’s persona is that her neediness asserts a burden on others. Because she is wounded, traumatized, searching for love and acceptance, others are implicitly obligated to supply affection and friendship, even if they’re not exactly thrilled by the proposition. For this reason, Dorland becomes Rose, the jackass at the center of Larson’s now-infamous short story, an overbearing, entitled, privileged white woman for whom organ donation is simply a plot device meant to draw other players unwillingly into supporting roles in the story of her life. She’s the most grating sort of person, the kind who disguises taking as giving, theft as charity, demands as pleas.

And then there’s Kolker’s Dawn Dorland, a carefully shaded and complex figure who appears, fittingly, sitting in tall grass wearing a dress printed with a foliage-esque motif in the essay’s sole photograph of her—camouflaged, almost. Kolker writes straightforwardly of both Dorland’s “sunny earnestness” and her inclination to retaliate against Larson—“first a little, and then a lot.” Both tendencies seem to exist within her, though she seems aware only of the former. His own sympathies seem to shift back and forth between the two litigants, which has the effect of casting Dorland in light and then shadow, light and then shadow. Is she a genuinely kind if damaged person standing up for herself against a ring of successful and fashionable authors who consider her a nobody? Or is she a manipulative creep in a kind soul’s clothing? Kolker, it seems, doesn’t want readers to feel exactly sure.

Not that his subtle work has stopped a cascade of decisive social-media judgments against the woman. And so here is my portrait of Dawn Dorland: People being neither fully good nor fully evil, she’s likely neither; people being products largely of their time and place, she likely is. Especially now, especially working within the arts, especially in educated and liberal-leaning circles, there’s a certain cachet in having been wounded, wronged, injured in some way—not only a cachet, but a near-limitless license for aggression. What could never be justified as offense can easily be justified as self-defense, and so the key to channeling antisocial emotions into socially acceptable confrontations is to claim victimhood. Dorland, in particular, went looking for hers, soliciting Larson for a reason the latter hadn’t congratulated her for her latest good deed, suspecting—rightly—a chillier relationship than collegial email etiquette would suggest. She kept seeking little indignities to be wounded by—and she kept finding them. Her retaliations quickly outpaced Larson’s offenses, such as they were.

In that sense, Dawn Dorland could be the patron saint of this god-awful, morally incomprehensible social-media age. Which isn’t to say this last portrait is an icon. It’s really more of a mirror.

This piece originally stated that Dorland sued Larson. In fact, she filed a counterclaim in response to a lawsuit filed by Larson.