A Cards Against Humanity Writer Called Out Racism at Work. He Ended Up Institutionalized Against His Will.
Former writers at Cards Against Humanity open up about how a Black employee’s habit of calling out racism in the cards’ jokes landed him in a psychiatric hospital against his will.
Over the summer of 2018, Nicolas Carter, at that time a writer at the Chicago-headquartered company Cards Against Humanity—maker of the infamous card game of the same name—reconnected with his childhood friend Josh Schmidt, now a yoga and meditation teacher.
“We were both thinking about how we perceive reality and what is our truth and how we understand the world,” Schmidt told me. Carter had been working at Cards since February 2016, when the writers’ room was first developed, and early in his time there, had become a favorite. But lately, he said he felt more aware of patterns of racism and classism in the cards, which made up a boundary-pushing game where players combined clauses to make the most provocative and funny sentences. His conversations with Schmidt, whom he has known for 20 years, began in the midst of a move towards non-religious spirituality that he felt was helping him find a center in the competitive, uncertain Chicago comedy scene.
When Carter was hired at Cards, the company had been on an initiative to bring in writers who could help them “punch up,” so that rather than piling onto marginalized people for their identities and societal disadvantages, the cards would aspire to humor that challenged authority and power. Things started out well enough, yet, two years into the job, Carter and other non-white writers at the company were now seeing more clearly how this plan had manifested as a system of tokenism.
On June 23, Polygon published an article by journalist Nicole Carpenter exposing a racist and sexist work culture at Cards Against Humanity, which among many allegations contained reports about Carter’s experience of challenging a proposed “the N-word” card. Not long after the article came out, co-founder Max Temkin, who was also accused of sexual assault in his college years, left the company. Cards Against Humanity posted a statement denying Carter’s version of events, much of which he tweeted, and included a Slack exchange between Carter and Temkin about the “the N-word” card with Carter’s name blurred out. Carter told me that his sunny responses to Temkin were obviously sarcastic, as that is not how he would typically communicate in Slack.
Days after the Polygon piece went up, in a Medium post delving into what he described as his own experiences of racism and classism at the company, Carter accused former senior writer Andy Kushnir and, indirectly, former co-head writer Jo Feldman—who are married—of contacting his family in August 2018 and convincing them he was mentally ill and needed immediate help, ostensibly because he was pointing out racism and classism too often during writers’ room sessions, which he believes they interpreted as behavioral issues. Carter’s revelations—about racism and the nature of the truth—dovetailed with what his managers and a few of his coworkers at Cards Against Humanity, as well as his own parents (who declined to comment for this piece), saw as a radical and troubling shift in behavior. By the end of August, Carter found himself institutionalized in an emergency psychiatric hospital in Chicago for five days.
According to Feldman, Carter had been “speaking really quickly, interrupting his co-workers, accusing them of recording him, yelling at them, standing up and monologizing at random (one time allegedly about how Jews committed insurance fraud).” Carter denies this and says emphatically he does not feel this way. “He often looked tired and sweaty,” she added. Feldman says this was stark, unusual behavior for Carter, and that a few other writers—who asked to comment strictly off the record, so their identities and personal accounts are not known to me—had complained to HR. Kushnir responded with a similar characterization of Carter’s behavior, saying that he had been friends with Carter since 2014, and reached out to his sister and then corresponded with Carter’s mother out of genuine concern. Both Kushnir and Feldman emphasize that they did not advocate for hospitalization or know that it would occur.
The Daily Beast spoke to six of Carter’s close friends and a different set of coworkers, all of whom say that from their vantage point, he was not expressing unusual or alarmingly agitated behavior preceding or after his institutionalization. Two of those writers, including Kelsey Kinney, were in the writers’ room at the time; Ali Barthwell, who was let go from the company in 2018, was not. All of them did confirm, however, that he was indeed happier or more animated than he had previously been, and Kinney and one other writer said he had been speaking up more directly and insistently in the writers’ room about racism and classism expressed in the cards.
According to Barthwell, Carter’s friend and former colleague, as well as another friend who never worked at Cards but wishes to remain anonymous for reasons unrelated to this piece, a new agency job (Carter’s job at Cards was part-time) and the financial freedom that went along with it had led to an increased happiness and an overall sense of optimism in Carter. Carter told me that this job stability was the impetus to his brighter outlook.
What’s confusing about Carter’s involuntary admission is that, technically speaking, he went to the hospital of his own volition. But the question of consent here is important, because Carter says he went along with his parents under the assumption that he would be going in for a standard therapy session and without the knowledge that a coworker, the spouse of one of his managers, had spurred this mission; it’s possible that his parents, who declined to comment for this piece, didn’t know what their son was in for either.
“At the hospital, the only services they have are emergency mental health services,” Carter told me. At that point, he thought that he would simply allay his parents’ fears that their son had unchecked mental health problems that would compromise his future. But what would ensue would become Carter’s own nightmare.
“My dad came to my apartment [in Chicago] that morning [Friday Aug. 24, 2018], and that Friday night [I was admitted],” Carter told me over the phone. “I didn’t let them in; I told them I wasn’t going to see them. ’Cause I got the sense they weren’t being honest with me. They were wanting to come check on me and they weren’t telling me why. It felt hurtful, and I just didn’t want to see them. I was like, ‘I don’t want to see you if you don’t just want to hang out with me. Why don’t you just trust me that I’m OK?’ At that time I didn’t realize it was my one of my coworkers [who had called them].”
Carter eventually agreed to see his parents, who had driven to Chicago from New York. He had previously recognized trauma experienced in his own childhood and was open to speaking with someone as a path towards healing. “I said, ‘OK, I’m gonna talk to somebody.’ [My dad] drove me [to the hospital]. We walk to the emergency room, there’s ‘EMERGENCY’ in huge letters [over] the desk. And my dad’s looking around, like, ‘My son would like to check in for an evaluation.’ I can’t remember the exact term, but I think he said ‘evaluation.’ And [the staff at the desk] were like, ‘Are you sure?’ And he was like, ‘Yes.’ And then they asked me, ‘Are you sure?’ You know, this is my dad [taking me in]. It’s not a big deal [to me]. I didn’t know what the hell the process was and that they were trying to warn me. I wish I had looked it up on my phone. I just had never had any experience with this stuff. I’ve been to a therapist before, but I didn’t know what any of this was like.” A little more than a month after he was discharged, Carter was let go by Cards Against Humanity, by phone.
As I reported on Carter’s story, multiple conflicting accounts emerged, which spoke not necessarily to a nefarious string of lies by any party, but to the insufficient methodology we are offered and sometimes devise ourselves when trying to enact community care and processes of accountability. Whatever the state of Carter’s mental health, was it appropriate for his coworkers and manager to become involved without Carter’s consent, without informing him of their intentions? Would it have been possible—and perhaps, in the context of a professional environment, preferable—to address behavioral issues without pathologizing?
And even if his colleagues had handled the situation the way they would’ve wanted if they were in Carter’s place, was Carter right to feel angry that his perspective was ignored, and that the care he received was—to him—ultimately more traumatizing than productive? It seemed that a long-running joke about Cards Against Humanity’s lack of a proper Human Resources department (COO Nicholas Markos served as the HR point person) had arrived at a dramatic juncture.
There is also, concurrently to the culture at Cards Against Humanity or potentially any workplace, an often paternalistic history of mental health care rife with everything from small yet reverberating misinterpretations to serious abuse, particularly toward Black people and often even with the direct participation of other racialized people. From what I could gather, Carter’s parents were just as concerned as some of his coworkers. Carter says that after his institutionalization, they had a conversation where he expressed his anger about what had happened, and that they listened. He told me he understands his parents’ perspective, yet disagrees with it. The context that is often missing from third-person narratives about mental health is that while Carter’s behavior may have legitimately alarmed people in his life, how had they made him feel—and did they know it?
As a Black man at Cards, Carter was surrounded by mostly white writers. As he and three other former Cards writers I spoke to said, many of the most competent and outspoken writers of color—especially Black women, like highly regarded comedy writer and performer Ali Barthwell—seemed to get pushed out of the company for dubious reasons.
Barthwell told me that as an hourly contract worker at Cards, she was never questioned about her occasional decisions, communicated ahead of time, to take other, better-paying work instead of going to meetings at Cards. It was only just before she was fired that these absences appeared to become an issue. She says her bosses Feldman and Weiss told her she was being let go in order to make the writers’ room smaller. One other writer, a white man, was also let go at the same time and later given the same reason. Barthwell told me she wonders if he was let go as well to make it seem like her firing wasn’t retaliatory, but she shared no evidence of that.
About Barthwell’s firing, Kinney, who is white, told me, “I remember not really understanding why she was let go, but Ali is a very experienced and well versed writer and she’s not shy about sharing her opinion. I felt like the entire atmosphere of the room was based on not really contradicting the people who were in charge of the room. My coworkers of color and especially any Black women in the room, I felt, were not given any recognition, any time, any consideration for their contributions. [They were] always met with indifference or at times hostility. When I started, I feel like Ali just stuck to her guns. She always fought for her ideas cause she knew they were good, and I feel like she got fired [for] that reason.”
Feldman maintains that Barthwell was let go due to budgetary reasons and Weiss acknowledges that while she and Feldman might have handled the culture in the room better, they never intentionally cultivated a culture of racial discrimination.
In their conversations that summer, Carter and Schmidt had discussed objective versus subjective reality. Was there really a universal, observable truth that everyone could get on board with, or did everyone see the world differently, only intersecting with the perspectives of friends, family, colleagues, and relative strangers from time to time? To four of the former Cards Against Humanity writers I spoke to, the writers’ room seemed to operate on the assumption of an objective truth, but one that could only be determined through a framework of upper-class whiteness. If you openly contradicted that reality, you had better watch out.
Another former writer told me that as a white person, they may have missed a lot of the racial dynamics of the room at the time, but that they observed a clear trend over two years of the writers’ room going from fun and lively to unprofessional and toxic. Both Feldman and Weiss say they made concerted efforts to institute a diversity and inclusion program in the writers’ room, but were turned down by their own bosses, Cards Against Humanity’s founding partners, on the grounds that it was led by an ex-employee. Feldman provided Slack messages between Weiss and a partner confirming this.
The next time Carter and Schmidt would dig into the question of the objective versus the subjective came under more surreal circumstances.
On Aug. 30, 2018, Carter called Schmidt to tell him that he had just been discharged after five days at the emergency psychiatric unit at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center. “We were both kind of going through this process of exploration, exploration of perception and reality and all this kind of stuff,” Schmidt told me. “So maybe some of the stuff he said to his parents or his coworkers was a little out there, but it was, and still very much is, his truth.” (Carter also spoke to several colleagues and friends either directly after or during his time in the hospital, including Barthwell, Kinney, friend Alex Furlin, a friend who requested to remain anonymous, and two other former Cards Against Humanity writers who spoke on the condition that their identities not be revealed. Each of these sources was able to corroborate Carter’s account of his institutionalization as well as some of the events surrounding it.)
Carter had been admitted to the hospital on a Friday evening and was told he would not officially be evaluated till the following Monday. That Friday, he says he was detained in a bare room in hospital scrubs for six to eight hours. He did walking meditation and push-ups to pass the time, which he says his evaluating psychiatrist later interpreted as potentially manic behavior. According to official documentation of his psychiatric evaluation, the psychiatrist also interpreted Carter’s fast talking as “pressured speech” and questioned whether he really had been writing a novel for two years or was having grandiose delusions about being an author. Carter told me he wasn’t allowed to show his evaluators his manuscript to prove he wasn’t deluded.
In the evaluation document, the psychiatrist reports that Carter is “[n]ormoactive, speech is mildly fast, mildly hyperverbal, but non pressured [sic]. Mood is ‘happy’’, Affect is somewhat hyperthymic. [T]hought process is linear and logical. Thought content is negative for [suicidal ideation/homicidal ideation], denies [auditory verbal hallucinations], no apparent delusions, insight and judgment are poor-fair.” The patient’s “chief complaint” is listed as “I came on my own to appease my parents.”
In his Medium post, Carter wrote that this psychiatrist, a white woman, told him that since his parents are anti-racist (or Black Studies) scholars, he should be able to understand that “race doesn’t really matter.” Carter also alleges that after a meeting with the doctor and his parents the Monday after his admission, the psychiatrist introduced a certificate process that, unbeknownst to him, would legally allow for him to be admitted for an additional two days.
The Daily Beast obtained documentation of the petition for involuntary admission, which was signed by Carter’s parents and a witness, a crisis therapist working at the hospital, as well as a mental health counselor at the hospital. There did not appear to be a judge’s signature on the form or any indication of which court the form would have been submitted to. In Illinois and several other states, a 72-hour, or three-day, hold is ordinarily the maximum evaluatory hold for a patient without a court-filed petition for involuntary admission. But Carter’s timeline of admission is complicated because there was a weekend that fell in the middle of his stay, and because the hospital stipulated an “emergency admission by certification,” which allows for an involuntary hold without a court order after evaluation (though the petition must still be filed with a court). According to the “Rights of Admittee” section of the form, weekends and holidays are excluded from the 24-hour evaluation deadline. Carter says his involuntary admission petition form is backdated to Friday, Aug. 24 (the day of his admission to the hospital), but that the form was actually signed after his evaluation, on a Monday.
In the evaluation document, the psychiatrist writes that Carter “likely is manic, though will continue observation to further validate diagnosis prior to recommending treatment, especially given [patient’s] resistance.” And in the diagnosis she writes, “mood disorder, unspecified, r/o bipolar disorder.” Carter told me that he was given medication, which he took once. It incapacitated him so much that he says he spat it out the next time it was administered to him. (It’s common for people diagnosed with mood disorders to be debilitated by the medication they are given, and there are increasing cases of some of these patients seeking alternative approaches to health care, though this is controversial within the medical field.) In the “plan” section of the diagnosis, the psychiatrist writes, “continue observation of manic symptoms, continue to observe to determine if 2nd certificate [referring to the petition for involuntary admission] is appropriate. Contact parents/coworkers for collateral,” referring to secondary or indirect input about Carter’s behavior.
The Daily Beast reached out to Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center for comment, to which they responded:
“The physician named has demonstrated a strong commitment to delivering safe and compassionate care as an invaluable member of our behavioral health department, singularly focused on supporting patients’ emotional and mental health needs.” They added, “Out of respect for patient privacy, we don’t comment on individual cases.”
When I spoke to Carter, he spoke quickly, though at a speed that might be described as common to anyone who lives in any major city or on the east coast. (Carter grew partly up in Baltimore, the Bay Area, and central Pennsylvania, having constantly moved around as his mother pursued her PhD and his dad taught at universities.) In our conversation, he was animated, yet reflective and patient, and was able to point out which of his behaviors he believes the psychiatrists and therapists at Advocate were pathologizing. Still, the bigger question seemed to be about how much autonomy someone perceived as having mental illness, rightly or not, gets to have over their lives.
Feldman told me that she first met Carter in 2011, and that eventually she and her husband Kushnir developed a close friendship with him that she says was broken apart by the recent events surrounding Carter’s institutionalization and departure from Cards. She sent along text messages which she believes demonstrate that closeness, and in my own review of them, I certainly saw her point, but also could not draw definitive conclusions. Who you feel close to at any time in your life is very dependent on what your “truth” is, as Schmidt put it. And if a friend becomes your manager or your coworker, does this purported intimacy become license for them to stage a workplace intervention that doesn’t involve you?
A representative for Cards Against Humanity wrote to me in response to a line in a previous non-investigative piece in which I wrote, “As former Cards Against Humanity staff writer Nico Carter wrote in a harrowing Medium blog post, pointing out societal and workplace racism directly led his white bosses to send him, a Black man who grew up in poverty, to a mental hospital[...]” Cards Against Humanity responded:
“The accusation his white bosses sent him to a mental hospital is false. There are only two ways for someone to be involuntarily committed to a mental institution in Illinois: a court order, or an emergency petition. If an emergency petition is signed, a hearing must take place within 7 business days, a mental health professional must testify, and the petitioner must ‘prove the case by presenting clear and convincing evidence before the judge can order involuntary admission or involuntary treatment.’ No Cards Against Humanity employee participated in such a process because such a process never occurred.”
Documentation of Carter’s petition for involuntary admission shows that indeed such a process was gestured toward with the petition signed by Carter’s parents and a witness. There is no proof or indication, however, if the petition was ever filed and approved by a judge. In any case, Carter was still held for an additional two days. That it’s unclear—not only to me but to Carter himself—if the letter of the law was followed in involuntarily admitting him for two additional days is disturbing but not exactly surprising. Years ago, I volunteered for several months in an emergency psychiatric unit in New York where I learned that such units are one of the most high-stress zones in hospitals; psychiatrists move quickly through their rounds in the midst of squeezed schedules and many patients, some of whom may be in the throes of extreme episodes or don’t know their rights.
But because Carter was held over the weekend when psychiatrists don’t tend to work in hospitals, it seems that hospital staff may have moved to hold him for another two days, until the following Wednesday, when he was discharged. The evaluation document doesn’t seem to present evidence that Carter was a danger to himself or others, but that he may have been manic, depending on how an individual doctor or therapist looked at things; Carter believes that this was confirmation bias on the part of the psychiatrist who saw him, though he felt that some of the therapists he spoke to were more understanding.
The Cards Against Humanity representative also later wrote:
“Mental health issues are complicated and painful, for family, friends and colleagues alike. Anyone who has cared about someone with mental health issues knows that speaking about it is incredibly difficult.
“Nico’s colleague contacted his sister independently of the company. We believe he acted out of a genuine concern for Nico’s mental health and safety. We wish nothing but the best for Nico.” In an earlier statement, the representative also referred to that “colleague,” Kushnir, as a “personal friend” of Carter’s.
Carter told me Kushnir is not and was never a real friend, which both Feldman and Kushnir dispute. Kushnir also provided text messages to prove their friendship, and also offered instances of Carter’s kindness toward him, including trying to help Kushnir get a job years prior and giving Kushnir and Feldman travel tips for Italy, since Carter’s parents had conducted research there when he was a child.
As with Feldman’s anecdotes and messages, it is difficult to say if these are proof of a mutually intimate friendship or of Carter’s gregariousness. From 2017 to 2018, Carter and Kushnir texted casually, usually about Carter’s issues with manager Julia Weiss. In those texts, which span over several months from December 2017 to May 2018, Carter expresses frustration with Weiss’s conduct at work and Kushnir responds with irreverent negative commentary about Weiss.
In an email exchange between Carter and Kushnir dated Sept. 27, 2018, just a month after Carter was discharged from Advocate and right after he was let go from Cards over the phone, Kushnir wrote in response to an email Carter sent to his colleagues after his firing [sic throughout]:
“I just want to say. I love you. And I won't ever stop showing you kindness. No matter what.
“I’m not a medical professional, but I’ve noticed a dramatic shift in your behavior. I’m worried about you. I wish you would seek assistance. I think you could benefit greatly from it.
“Nothing but love, always.”
Carter responded, “keep it,” and then followed up a day later [sic throughout]:
“Also you know nothing about me you psychopath. Leave me alone. You’ve acted like a monster. Out of love? Your love is dangerous. You ruined our room out of your love. You never knew me well enough to love me. We’ve hung out once years ago. What ever made you think you were a real friend of mine? Or knew anything about me. I’ve never been vulnerable or intimate or shared a thing with you. You don’t know me well enough to know if there’s something wrong with me. And I have been going to a medical professional, asshole. Since everything you put me through. And they agree: no fucking issues but racism. Your racism, however, takes the fucking cake. To talk to my sister, my Little sister before me. You need to re-examine yourself and your racist perspective.
“So, keep it, Andy. And keep your opinions to yourself. Keep your ‘love’ to your family and hopefully you never put another ‘friend’ through what you’ve put me and my friends and my loved ones and my family.”
According to several of the former Cards writers I spoke to, Kushnir had previously spread rumors about coworkers’ mental health, even beyond the context of casual text messaging. Barthwell, Kinney, Carter, and one former Cards writer who wished to remain anonymous all mentioned that Kushnir went up to other writers expressing concern about a manager’s state of mind. Whether or not Kushnir’s armchair evaluations of coworkers and others were confirmed by doctors or not, the nature of his engagement speaks to the commonness of ableism.
Real or perceived mental health issues are often stigmatized in both subtle and overt ways, with concern often taking the form of a seemingly benign paternalism. I love you, I know what’s best for you, you’re not yourself, I want to make sure you get the help you need. Many of us have said these things to people we know well and don’t know at all without recognizing that our postures of concern and authority may be hurting a lot more than they are helping, particularly if they are not framed by active consent.
We see this in the current conversation around celebrities and mental health—from Britney Spears to Kanye West to Azealia Banks—as well in media depictions of mental health interventions: a wise and loving figure tells you about yourself.
One depiction, however, stands out: In the 2011 film The Hours, a fictionalized Virginia Woolf complains, “I’ve been attended by doctors, who inform me of my own interests.” In this film’s narrative, humanity is defined by the right of a patient to decide the way they live, no matter the consequences. It’s a righteous declaration, and one that’s hard, in practice, for many of us to live with.
Carter and Weiss, his other former manager at Cards, also have a difficult history, with sometimes converging yet significantly differing narratives about how the following events occurred.
According to Carter, the two had two sexual encounters in 2017, after Weiss attended a writing session with Barthwell, Carter, and another writer where they were crafting a parody on President Donald Trump’s statements about Frederick Douglass for Black History Month at Carter’s apartment in Chicago. Carter and Barthwell both say that after everyone else had left, Weiss hung around to watch a movie. Carter told me that they “hooked up” that night, after which he felt that the relationship shouldn’t continue. They engaged again one more time, according to Carter, before—he says—he broke off the relationship.
Weiss, who still works at the company, told me in response to several questions over email, “There was no ongoing relationship. Nico pursued only two sexual encounters with me over the course of a few months in early 2017. Both instances occurred at his apartment and began with him offering me a massage. I’m deeply embarrassed and regretful that I engaged in this.” Weiss also wrote that “[n]either of us ended it directly as there was no ongoing relationship” and that while she considers both encounters sexual in nature, she would not describe what transpired as sex.
Carter told me that after that, he began to feel that Weiss was “bullying” him at work. The three other writers I spoke with confirm that there was a pattern in the workplace of Weiss seeming unusually cruel to Carter. Weiss disputes this characterization of events, and responded to these allegations saying that “Nico always had playful banter with myself and other members of the room. That banter stopped and things became awkward and cold between us a few weeks after our final encounter, due to his behavior toward a friend of mine.”
Theresa Stewart, a former designer for Blackbox (a company owned by Cards Against Humanity) and a friend of Weiss’—and the first worker to speak out publicly against the company—confirmed to me over the phone that Weiss told her that she and Carter had two sexual encounters and that Weiss was “in a bad place” at the time.
According to Carter, Feldman later asked him directly if anything had happened between him and Weiss. He said yes, and shortly thereafter, on May 30, 2017, Carter received an email from Cards partners and co-founders Eli Halpern and David Munk that they were aware of a “relationship between you and one of your superiors” and they were putting him and Weiss on paid leave for the week while they “consult[ed] with HR to figure out how to proceed.”
The Daily Beast obtained subsequent text messages between Carter and Feldman in which Carter tells Feldman that, well after their week of leave, nothing had been done about Weiss’ conduct toward him and that he would like the issue to be properly addressed. In text messages between Carter and Kushnir from 2018, Carter shares that Weiss wrote him an apology letter.
“Two founding partners contacted me stating that they learned of ‘office gossip’ regarding Nico and me. We were given a paid week off during which Nico and I had separate, private conversations with management. We were asked if we felt comfortable working together and both said yes. I was told that Nico did not seek further mediation and I said that if he didn’t feel that need, then I didn’t either. At this time any managerial duties regarding Nico shifted to Jo. I did not treat Nico negatively upon our return. Our working relationship improved, and soon after we apologized to each other and became friends again, as we had been prior.”
On Sept. 27, 2018, about a month after he left the emergency psychiatric unit, Carter was fired but only after, according to Carter, he had already expressed a desire to leave. In an email from Cards Against Humanity’s Chief Operating Officer and de facto HR person Nicholas Markos to Carter, Markos claims that Carter had already given his notice and that he was not being let go, but rather, the company was following through with his resignation as made to Weiss. But Carter told me that when he went to Weiss to resign, she apologized to him and “begged” him to stay, and that’s what he did. In contemporaneous text messages between Carter and Cards senior staff writer Becca Levine, both express shock about the call between Carter, Markos, Feldman, and Weiss that resulted in his firing.
But Weiss paints a very different picture of the proceedings around Carter’s departure from the company, saying that he in fact did resign, but during the call, and not during his previous meeting with her:
“Nico asked to meet with me. During this conversation he stated that we were allies, and he expressed wanting to quit, wanting to stay on as a remote writer, and wanting to stay in the room but reduce his hours all in the course of one or two sentences. He said he wanted to think on it, and I told him I would bring up these options to management, which I did. I didn’t attempt to sway him in any direction but offered support. The swift back and forth in thoughts and feelings during the meeting were part of the concerning pattern of his changed behavior.
“About 20 minutes after Nico’s meeting with me described above, an employee expressed concern about Nico’s behavior and apprehension about working with him.
“At that point, because multiple people in the office had complained about his actions over the preceding couple of months, and because of his recent overall performance and behaviors, Jo and I were encouraged to dismiss Nico. We were concerned for Nico’s well-being, so Jo and I were prepared to offer him generous severance and the possibility of returning to his job in the future. The call occurred two days after the meeting mentioned above, not two weeks. During the call, Nico insisted that we couldn’t fire him stating that he had already quit—which I believe is what Nick Markos referenced in that e-mail—so we were unable to grant Nico the agreed upon severance offer. Nico didn’t resign prior to this call.”
On Oct. 4, 2018, a week after the call with his managers and HR, Carter filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR) against Cards Against Humanity, alleging race and mental disability discrimination (whether or not you have a mental disability, if you are fired because your employers believed you have one, you can file this claim), and sexual harassment, relating to Weiss’s alleged retaliation against him in the office. On June 5, 2019, founding partner Max Temkin attended the fact-finding session at IDHR along with Weiss, Feldman, and one lawyer for the company. Carter attended with no lawyers and only Barthwell, who had already been fired at that point, as his emotional support.
Barthwell told me that “part of [Carter’s] racial discrimination complaint was that he was penalized more harshly than others and in front of other people.” At a show put on by Cards, for instance, Carter walked over to a cooler to pick up a beer. “And it was apparently during a moment when he wasn’t supposed to be up moving around and he got shushed,” Barthwell told me. “I wasn’t there for that [show], but again, I can totally see it happening.” According to both Barthwell and Carter, Temkin said that Carter shouldn’t have been drinking at the performance. But several former Cards Against Humanity writers I spoke to told me that beer and wine were provided to everyone—including Feldman and Weiss, who partook—not only at performances but in the writers’ room, too.
“Max [Temkin] had seen people drinking. There was a normalized culture of drinking in the office, but in that fact-finding mission [during the mediation], they said, ‘There’s no way that you would be drinking during work,’” Barthwell explained. “And I remember thinking, Oh, if they lie about this, they’ll lie about anything.”
Carter ended up receiving a $20,000 settlement from Cards Against Humanity in 2019. The Daily Beast obtained documents confirming this settlement, $10,000 of which Carter received immediately, and $10,000 of which he received after six months as long as he did not discuss the settlement or mediation with anyone.
Barthwell was not allowed back in the room when the settlement was drawn up, since the Cards Against Humanity lawyers claimed Barthwell was a “journalist” (she has freelance work writing Bachelor recaps and reviews for Vulture, but insists she is in no way a journalist). Despite the fact that Barthwell was not in the room during the settlement agreement and did not sign anything, part of the non-disclosure agreement that Carter signed stipulated that Barthwell was also not allowed to discuss the mediation or settlement. “I’m not a lawyer, but I got friends and family who are,” Barthwell told me, “and they will let you know that you cannot enter a contract where you signed someone else’s rights away.”
Throughout the investigation, a predictably messy portrait emerged—one in which, it seems, nearly everyone had acted, at best, unprofessionally, against the even more unprofessional backdrop of an edgy company that did not have a formal Human Resources department. The question lingered: Who is responsible, and to what degree? In any hierarchical chain of command, the burden either shoots up or down and rarely rests within. Everyone, including Carter’s own parents—whom he was very protective of in our conversations—did what they thought was right, even when they may have been very wrong. In that way, corporations might be, in a twisted sense, kind of like people.
Carter told me that after his time at Cards was over, he took out a loan to start his own company, The Juicebox, an improv training program that focuses on comedy performance as a kind of art-based therapy for people in Chicago. Its website describes the theater’s training as “combin[ing] the best ideas from meisner, improv, and zen.” A few of Carter’s close friends I spoke with met him because he was their improv coach while they attended college, and many expressed their initial shock that his institutionalization occurred.
The night Carter was admitted to Advocate, he was supposed to attend a friend’s birthday party, and when he didn’t respond to text messages about his absence, two of his friends told me that was unusual behavior—Carter would always text back. On Twitter, Daily Show comedian Jaboukie Young-White shared Carter’s Medium post and wrote [sic], “Nico was my improv coach for 4 years in chicago. i learned so much about acting and comedy from him. if i've ever made you laugh he's a big part of that. this really fucking hurt to read.”
One former Cards writer, a person of color who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me that while people may express shock or incredulity about this story, its substance is actually fairly mundane. Interpersonal dynamics—whether real, distorted, or some combination of both—can easily become the concerns of the state, at which point racialized people tend to be at the most risk and the least likely to be believed or trusted by authorities.
Many of the people and certainly the wealthy institutions Carter holds responsible for his institutionalization are worried about their own futures—will his personal perceptions and public allegations limit their own ability to move on and up? You could call their fear ironic, but by now, we should know better.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Carter and Weiss “slept together” twice in 2017. Since the article’s publication, Weiss has clarified that while she considers their encounters sexual in nature, she would not describe them as “sex.”
It has also been updated to reflect Cards Against Humanity's recognition of its writers' union on July 17, Barthwell's role at the fact-finding mission for IDHR as emotional support (rather than as a witness), and the correct year of Barthwell's departure from the company: 2018, not 2017.