One downside of living in the 21st century is that the phrase “promotional fetus ransom crowdfunding hoax” now refers to something that happened.
For the past few weeks, the owner of the anonymously registered website prolifeantiwoman.com claimed to be a 26-year-old graduate student in the first trimester of a pregnancy. On the original version of the website, which can still be viewed here, “she” threatened to have an abortion on July 10 unless pro-lifers gave her 1 million dollars in the 72 hours after July 7, in which case “she” would give the baby up for adoption and put all of the money in a trust fund.
The whole proposition was figured as a protest against “her” state, which “very recently passed extremely restrictive abortion laws” and as a challenge to pro-lifers, who “she” said “[care] very little about saving lives and far more about controlling women.”
But if abortion extortion doesn’t sound like something even the most ardent abortion advocate would do, you’d be right. When the website opened for donations early Tuesday, it turned out to be a publicity hoax for some dude’s shitty novel. Surprise!
Chad Kultgen, who has been writing some version of his modestly successful nihilistic angst novel The Average American Male since 2007, apparently hoped that the website would generate buzz for his new novel Strange Animals, which, based on the publisher sampler—the only part of the book that one should bother reading and, only then, to gawk at it—comes across as a caricature of a militant atheist feminist intellectual who devises a similar crowdfunding scheme.
When Kultgen’s protagonist Karen sees a plus sign on her pregnancy test, here’s how she immediately reacts: “She said, ‘Fuck,’ and flipped open her laptop to Google the nearest Planned Parenthood.” The scene reads more like an evangelical fever dream of a modern young woman reacting to her pregnancy than an authentic depiction of any possible human experience.
Speaking of Christians, when a missionary accosts Karen on the street earlier in the novel, she calls him a “misogynist piece of shit” for believing that God is a man because that’s what feminists do, right?
In a later chapter, Kultgen offers this tantalizing clue as to where Karen’s “hatred for religion and the patriarchal culture it inspired” came from:
“The event that stood out in her mind as the moment she became aware of her active hatred for religion was in junior high school. She was walking to algebra class, and she began to feel something making her underwear wet. It was her first period.”
Of course it was. As a whole, Kultgen’s work on contemporary American masculinity reads like a bizarre mashup of Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk without the gift for satire. And a menarche reference is exactly the sort of hare-brained attempt at exploring a woman’s inner life that one might expect from a writer whose breakout novel may have been based, in part, on his own ex-girlfriend and television writer Hilary Winston, whom the narrator refers to as a “fat-assed girlfriend.”
According to Winston’s website, which includes such topics as a book she wrote about the two of them, Kultgen wore “ironic Jesus T-shirts” and would introduce her to people with “jokes” like “Have you met my fat pig girlfriend, Hilary?” Charming.
Despite the resemblances between Winston and the girlfriend in the novel, Kultgen insisted to The New York Times in 2011 that his character was not based on her. Kultgen did not respond to The Daily Beast on this particular detail. But in an interview with LAist in which Kultgen does address Winston’s book about them—particularly her claim that he rarely leaves the house except to go to Olive Garden—he granted his interviewer this insight into his dining habits and his attitudes toward women:
“[I]f visitors are coming from out of town and they have recently dined at their own Olive Garden back home, I like to take them to the Four Seasons hotel bar where we can get drunk and watch upscale prostitutes try to pick up older businessmen. And if it’s a slow night at the Four Seasons, you can just follow the Beverly Hills prostitute track to Sidebar or the Peninsula. All great bars, all great pro-watching.”
It may not seem possible at this point but Kultgen’s recent publicity stunt is even worse than his own writing and his public persona. For one, it has already backfired spectacularly. At the time of this writing, Strange Animals has accrued seven customer reviews on Amazon, all of them one star, all of them critical of Kultgen posturing as a pregnant woman to sell his book.
“It’s rare that I am so irritated by an advertising strategy, but this is beyond the pale,” writes one reviewer.
“The abortion stunt was sick,” writes another. “I hope it brings you everything you were hoping for.”
Given that his publisher HarperCollins counts quotes like “Chad Kultgen is the epitome of everything that is lewd in this world” as “critical praise,” it probably will.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, HarperCollins said, “Strange Animals is a book that deals with controversial issues. We knew Chad intended to promote it in a provocative way but HarperCollins did not participate in the creation or promotion of the website.”
Although many in the media have been aware of prolifeantiwoman.com for weeks now, most outlets except for tabloids, pro-life websites, and, of course, Fox News refrained from posting about it until now because there was no way to verify the identity of the domain holder. In other words, Kultgen only succeeded in advertising to the audience most inclined to buy into the idea of an atheist intellectual woman who holds a fetus hostage for cash. What he has successfully sold so far is a stereotype to people who already believe it to be true.
For anyone with even a cursory understanding of the political landscape surrounding abortion, on the other hand, the hoax was easy to spot from a distance.
Someone knowledgeable enough to have a sophisticated critique of the pro-life movement—like Kultgen’s crowdfunding character on prolifeantiwoman.com—would already know that pro-lifers do put their money where their mouths are. The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), which is the largest pro-life organization in the U.S., posted over $6 million in expenses in 2013. The Catholic organization American Life League spent nearly $5 million in 2012. That’s not counting the money spent by other, smaller organizations, including the 2,500 or more crisis pregnancy centers in the U.S.
An actual educated pro-choice woman would be aware of these figures and would accordingly know that trying to extort pro-lifers proves nothing.
The only thing that made the website seem remotely authentic was a reference to the recent passage of a waiting period law in the pregnant woman’s state of residence. In June, North Carolina passed legislation requiring women to wait 72 hours between state-mandated counseling and an abortion procedure.
In an e-mail to The Daily Beast, Kultgen maintains that he “wasn’t pretending to be anything” by posing as a pregnant woman on prolifeantiwoman.com.
“I’ve always been curious to know what might happen if a girl actually did this,” he wrote. “That’s why I wrote an entire book about the subject.”
And so he did, although he seems to have already proved what would happen if someone tried to go viral with an abortion extortion hoax: nothing. For his part, Kultgen told The Daily Beast that he is “both surprised and pleased with the results” of what he calls an “experiment” in “augmented marketing,” and, essentially, that all press is good press.
“Anyone is obviously free to feel however they like about it, critical or otherwise.”