The year 2011 was a very good one for Steve Roggenbuck. The writer dropped out of his poetry MFA program, a prelude to life as an itinerant poet and viral literary sensation. He published “DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM,” quickly building a devoted following among the young literati.
In 2011, Roggenbuck hadn’t yet been canonized as “one of the bright stars of Alt Lit” in The New Yorker. Alt Lit was still getting started, and it was powered by the internet, which gave its writers artistic inspiration, tools of expression and methods of building community. Anyone with access to a computer could find themselves on the fringes of a burgeoning literary movement. And at the center of that movement was Roggenbuck, a baby-faced twenty-something. So when Ashley Olson, a then 16-year-old who wrote poems and short stories, started talking to Roggenbuck online, it felt like the beginning of something big.
“Steve messaged me at one in the morning on August 31, 2011,” Olson told The Daily Beast. “He said something like, ‘I need you to defuse a bomb in my heart,’ and we just started talking.”
Olson had never spoken with Roggenbuck before or met him in person, but she had added him on Facebook. She friended “a bunch of strangers from this online community” which many of her friends were also part of, and she knew that the poet was a major figure. “I had friends who went to his event in my city, and who really looked up to him,” she recalled. “This was a man who I knew was very prominent, even at that time, he was someone who was known. Sure it was on a micro level, but that meant something to me. And here he was actually reaching out to me. Me! This nobody, this high school kid. So it felt very special.”
Earlier this month, Olson posted some excerpts from those old conversations on Twitter. “i kind of fantasize of a girl i can do anything i want with,” Roggenbuck writes in one screenshot, “but i think i have shunned that part of me because i feel like it was sexist of me or something…but u would like want to be a sex slave, hehe?” Another message reads, “not that i would want to do this… but just curious if u have fantasies of being peed/shitted on…i know some ppl do.” Olson replied that she did not.
“oh hay do u want me to duct tape u, like ur mouth,” he continues, later writing, “what if i tie u on a bed.. and then duct tape ur mouth…i will pull ur head up so you can barely take a breath and then I will shove it back down and force u to suck more.”
Olson told The Daily Beast that Roggenbuck’s messages became explicit within hours of their first exchange. She explained that most of their communication occurred “that August and September,” although they continued to speak intermittently over the next year. “It was very highly concentrated at first, and he very quickly turned the subject from talking to me to discussing sexual masochism and threesomes and stuff like that.”
“So all of that happens in the very first conversation that we had,” Olson concluded, “within the first few exchanges, basically, where not only did he ask, and was made fully aware, that I was a minor, but he also made a conscious decision to introduce sexuality to the conversation in these very violent ways—even knowing that I was 16.”
In other screenshots that Olson shared on social media, Roggenbuck talked about coming to visit her, and mentioned the prices of different bus lines that he could take to her state. When Olson expressed doubt about finding time to meet up and “convincing” her parents, he responded, “hehe well ur parents mayb wouldnt have to kno.. its just that u would have to be gone for a while.. like hours hehe.” Olson told The Daily Beast that, “I have every reason to believe he was serious, because he was researching flights and bus tickets, different bus lines and different dates, he was plugging all of that in, he was talking about a hotel.”
While Olson didn’t have the language for Roggenbuck’s behavior that she does now, she remembers knowing that she “really didn’t want him to come” despite her competing desire “to perform the behaviors that allowed me to have this kind of positive recognition from someone I respected and admired.” Looking back, she sees this reticence reflected in her messages to Roggenbuck, which are full of hmms and I don’t knows—“or I’d just type gibberish,” Olson noted.
“I didn’t want him to come, and I was afraid of it. But I also didn’t realize that this was a disingenuous attempt to use me for sex.” The situation felt “inevitable” at the time, like she “couldn’t stop it.” Roggenbuck ultimately decided that he couldn’t afford the trip, and he and Olson fell in and out of touch. They would stop talking, she explained, “and then he would apologize and say ‘there’s a girl closer to me who I’m seeing now, so I’m not interested in talking to other girls.’ That happened a few times. So that solidified for me that he wasn’t interested in me outside of a sexual context.”
“The whole situation is that he sexually objectified me,” she said. “He viewed me and all of these other people who are coming forward now, these children, as sexual objects. And there’s no remorse there. I was never a person to Steve, and I never will be.”
In addition to Olson, The Daily Beast spoke with four other people who say that they were targeted by Roggenbuck when they were teenagers. The youngest, Caitlin Stovall, was 15 when she began talking to Roggenbuck online. Like Olson, she was a high school-aged, virtual participant in the Alt Lit community, although she describes herself as more of an “observer,” at least at first.
A sophomore in a small town in Georgia, Stovall felt a remove from her classmates—so she went online. “I decided to start corresponding with a lot of these [Alt Lit writers] on Facebook, and I was really excited when Steve accepted my friend request,” she told The Daily Beast. “He started talking to me—I think that he was the first person to talk to me—and he was just like, hey, thanks for the add, of course with his ‘creative misspellings,’ and I was talking to him basically the way that he was talking to me. It seemed perfectly innocent at first—I was talking to this cool poet, and I felt important because he was talking to me.”
Those “creative misspellings” are a hallmark of Alt Lit. According to The New Yorker, Alt Lit is “usually written in the internet vernacular of lowercase letters, inverted punctuation, abundant typos, and bad grammar.” At the time, to young fans like Stovall, this elevation of internet communication as art probably made literature, and the people that make literature, seem accessible. Seen in a different light, an adult man talking to a teenager, and using her own language as if to purposefully downplay the age gap, feels far more sinister. Or as one Twitter user wrote this week, “kind of fucked how the original alt lit novel came out of an exchange between a pedophile and his victim (hey tao!) & almost like that all too recognizable ‘alt lit’ voice was manufactured by tao lin, steve roggenbuck & stephen tully dierks specifically to appeal to teens.”
In 2014, Alt Lit experienced a wave of accusations against some of its most powerful players. Stephen Tully Dierks, the editor of the Alt Lit mag Pop Serial, was accused of sexually abusing a visiting writer after he offered her a place to stay (the allegations were made in a since-deleted Medium post, in which Dierks was cloaked in a pseudonym). Two other women came forward with allegations against Dierks; one of them, Tiffany Wines, told the Daily Dot that she began befriending Alt Lit writers through Steve Roggenbuck in October 2012, “a few months shy of my 17th birthday.” Wines surmised that, “Pedophilia is Alt Lit’s dirty little non-secret,” citing the allegations against Tao Lin, who was accused of statutory rape and abuse by his ex, E.R. Kennedy. Lin documented his relationship with Kennedy in his 2010 novel, Richard Yates.
Dierks and Roggenbuck were close friends and collaborators. In an August 2014 interview, just a month before the Dierks Medium post, the two sat down to talk about Roggenbuck’s small press and community residence Boost House. They also discussed toxic masculinity, white male privilege, and the concept of men as “weapons.”
Ashley Olson was involved in the movement toward exposing abusers in the Alt Lit community; she was 18 or 19 at the time, and recalled feeling unsatisfied with the ultimate outcome. “I didn’t feel like the conversation was handled very well, and I didn’t feel like the survivors were protected,” she told The Daily Beast. “There were some people who were really heavily attacked and criticized for coming forward. And Tao Lin still has a career as far as I can tell. A lot of those people seem to still have their careers.” She thought about sharing her experience with Roggenbuck, but, “I never felt I could come forward. I was too afraid.”
In response to the slew of allegations in the community, Roggenbuck publicly condemned “the individuals responsible for these actions.” He wrote a Tumblr post in October 2014 stressing the need to examine “the issue of CONSENT in our own lives.”
“Be aware: if you’re older or more sexually experienced, you probably have more power,” Roggenbuck wrote, three years after he sent Ashley Olson those first messages. “If you’re a man and the other person is not a man, you probably have more power. if the relationship is new and the person is nervous trying to make sure you like them, you probably have more power. if you fill some position of notoriety or status in the person’s job or school setting (or arts community!), you probably have more power. if more than one of these are true, you probably have significantly more power. you should be very extra aware and careful in these situations to not use any pressuring language (or actions), and to make it clear to the other person that you are 100% ok with not having sex.”
Frances*, who began dating Roggenbuck in 2011 when she was 18, said that she wasn’t shocked when the poet emerged from 2014 unscathed. “Steve built this cult-like culture around him—the way he spoke and the way he behaved, and this soft approach to poetry and community, and this innocence that he brought.” Frances also cited his popularity, saying, “I don’t think that his victims thought that anyone would take them seriously. Or maybe they thought it was probably just me, and it wasn’t really violent, the way that Stephen Tully Dierks’ behavior was violent. [Roggenbuck] was a lot more calculated than a lot of those people, and he played a longer game than they did.”
Olson firmly believes that Roggenbuck learned from those 2014 sexual-assault cases. “He dissociated from his friends and his colleagues, and he started to adopt this brand as a feminist. That was his reaction. And he turned around, he pivoted, and he tried to profit from it.”
Jack*, who was in a committed partnership with Roggenbuck beginning in 2014, also cited the poet’s self-branding as a feminist, a leftist, and “a kind of moral example for people.” They believe that this deliberate positioning worked in tandem with the way that he “used his relationship [with Jack] and the fact that he was in a relationship with a trans person to make himself seem safe to other trans and non-binary people.”
They continued, “While the majority of the people [coming forward] have been women, there’s also a number of us who are not. I’m trans, and I’ve been medically transitioning for about a year now, and part of my experiences with him was him fetishizing my transness, and using it as fodder for his sexual excitement and fantasies. But it was only affirmed when it was sexualized; in every other instance he tried to persuade me from seeking the medication that I need, and multiple times said things to me like, I’m afraid of your voice changing. He one time said ‘aren’t you afraid that I’m not going to be attracted to you anymore?’, which, as a trans person, that’s one of our biggest fears, being unlovable to our current partners.”
Meanwhile, publicly, Roggenbuck presented as an ally, “Which he used to gain power, and I think to distance himself from these actions,” said Jack. “For the longest time, it was hard for me to believe that he was a predator and that this was a pattern of behavior.”
After Olson shared her screenshots on Twitter, a number of people reached out to her with their own stories about Roggenbuck. When she spoke with The Daily Beast, she had been in contact with at least 15 accusers who represent a range of allegations, from predatory behavior to emotional abuse and sexual coercion. In reaction to the social-media allegations, the branch of the International Socialist Organization that Roggenbuck was actively involved in announced that he had been expelled from the organization for a minimum of five years. The Mountain Standard Time Festival told The Daily Beast that they’ve cancelled Roggenbuck’s upcoming performance.
Still, Stovall told The Daily Beast that she’s seen fans come to the poet’s defense on social media. “All of these supporters are coming forward like we forgive you, you’re still a pillar of the community,” she said. “There’s so much toxic masculinity throughout Alt Lit, and you see it dating back to Tao Lin, and it’s just really unfortunate that things have turned out the way that they have, and how predictable it is. Women can’t be safe in artistic communities.”
The allegations against Roggenbuck, which include stories of reaching out to teenage fans, offering to meet up while on tour for sexual liaisons, and writing poetry about them, are intrinsically tied up in Alt Lit and his elevated status within the movement.
Becca* met Roggenbuck on the internet in 2011. He visited her town in the spring of 2012, when she was 18. During that visit, “He pressured me into physical contact and created situations where we’d be alone, his presence was always intense, I was being backed into corners so it became difficult to avoid kissing him despite not wanting to.” On one or two other occasions, Becca alleged, “he put me in situations where I was forced to share a bed with him,” asking her to drive him between towns for readings “so I was in unfamiliar spaces, around much older people with unclear sleeping arrangements.”
Frances, who remained friends with Roggenbuck after their four-month-long relationship in 2011, also described sexually-coercive behavior. “He was just like very pushy with the way he would touch me or be close to me,” she told The Daily Beast. “He would always be touching my hips or pulling on my waistband, or getting close enough to kiss me but not kissing me because we both had partners… And even if we would sleep next to each other and not have sex and not be physical together, I would wake up to him touching me, touching my boobs or just like spooning me. It wasn’t anything to where I could get angry or storm out, but it was always just a little bit too far.”
She also alleged that Roggenbuck used his platform to try and get close to her, reaching out with offers to publish her and include her in various projects. “It always felt like the only reason why I was included was because he wanted to still sleep with me,” Frances said. “He would ask to put me in things, and it wouldn’t feel fair, because I didn’t even submit, I didn’t even know about it! And when he would be in [the state where Frances lived] he would ask me to read with him, and I would always say no. But that would always turn into ‘can I see you’ and ‘can I come over,’ and then that would turn into sexual coercion or romantic coercion.”
Jack recalled manipulative behavior and “sexual coercion” that mirrored Frances’ account. Jack ended their romantic relationship with Roggenbuck last fall, after an ex of the poet’s told them that he had “crossed their boundaries sexually.”
“Throughout the winter, even after our romantic relationship ended, he was just very persistent, being like I love you and do you want to be romantic with me,” Jack told The Daily Beast. “There was one time in February where he had sent me this long message being like, I really miss you, is it ok if I share fantasies that I’m having about you—but then acknowledged later in the message that I had expressed not wanting to be romantic with him and not wanting to have those kinds of things expressed to me. So it was a lot of that for months.”
Roggenbuck issued a statement in response to Olson’s allegations on Twitter, captioned “I’m sorry.” In the statement, he wrote that, “I do not think it was okay the ways I talked to a 16-year-old when I was in my 20s, and I have been ashamed about this for years.” Roggenbuck insisted that, “I did not have a habit of talking to 16-year-olds this way,” but that’s exactly what Roggenbuck’s accusers are alleging—a pattern of sexually-predatory behavior, targeting teenage fans. Caitlin Stovall recalled that, as a sophomore corresponding with Roggenbuck online, “there were points where he did become sexual with me.” In messages that were reviewed by The Daily Beast, he told her that he would have a crush on her “if I was a boy in yur highschool,” saying “your beautiful than heck.” Stovall recalled the day that Roggenbuck told her he had had a sex dream about her. She was 16 at the time.
“He was preying on somebody who was not sexually experienced, so it was a perfect opportunity for him to groom somebody,” Stovall told The Daily Beast. “And he would message me flirtatiously, intermittently, and then the last message that I got from him—this was right before I created a new Facebook account and chose not to add Steve—he messaged me and was like hey, I’m going to be in Tampa, I would love to see you. And I was still a minor at the time. But he was very excited about the opportunity to meet me, and I just feel like when he was on tour especially, he was probably preying on people all over the country.”
When Stovall read Olson’s initial tweets, old memories immediately resurfaced: “It was just such a flood of, oh wow, he did that to me too.” She’s connected with other accusers on social media, and they’ve exchanged screenshots. “They were pretty much all the same,” Stovall observed. “Everything that he was saying to us was so rehearsed. He knew how to get what he wanted.”
“That sort of behavior, preying on young women, that’s not something that’s going to change between 25 and 30. That’s not something that just evaporates overnight, especially with how consistent and persistent he was with girls my age, for so long. It’s very much still who he is. And it’s not OK, his apology was not OK, none of this is OK.”
As many people have recently pointed out, Roggenbuck went dark on social media around the time that #MeToo started up. Jack is confident that Roggenbuck knew it was only a matter of time until someone published a tweet like Ashley Olson’s. “He expressed to me in our relationship that he was struggling with being a public figure, and he struggled a lot with people saying negative things about him,” they recalled. “But I always thought it was in a way of people saying mean things about his work or disliking him as a person. Now it’s clear to me that he was afraid of these things coming out.”
Roggenbuck emerged from the last wave of accusations against Alt Lit abusers as an outspoken feminist, preaching the gospel of enthusiastic consent. Now that the conversation has turned toward his alleged pattern of sexual predation, Frances thinks that the poet is probably contemplating his next act. “I think he has enough sense to know right now he shouldn’t be saying anything other than sorry—but honestly, I’d give it six months before he comes back and starts his reconstruction of his brand. And he’s really good at it, so I think he’ll be successful. I mean Tao Lin had a bunch of stuff out about him and he just put out another book.”
“I don’t know if he’s going to keep writing poetry,” she continued, “but whatever he does he’s going to do it publicly, and he’s going to have supporters.”