Bad Discourse Friend: The Unraveling of a Viral Story (Part 1)

NOTE: Hi friend. My advice to you is not to read this post. Like, don’t even get into it. This is a very long post, reconstructing events from an already very long story, that I think I just wrote out because…I don’t know. I felt like I needed to understand it. It’s not even done yet, and it’s already far, far too long. Turn back now, save yourself, and maybe you can dip back in when I get to the part where I have something more theoretical to say about the themes in all of this. As many of you know I'm spending all my time in the ICU with my dad at the moment, and this post just sort of...happened in the midst of that.

Anyway, you’ve been warned.

Last week, a controversy swept across the literary internet that was so powerful it managed to upstage the announcements for both the Nobel Prize in literature and the finalists for America’s National Book Award. But it wasn’t about a Big Four publisher, a star agent, or a famous bestselling author—at least, not directly. The drama centered around two lesser known writers, both of whom had yet to publish a book. The two women were now locked in a nightmarish legal battle at the center of which, according to a New York Times Magazine article (“Who is the Bad Art Friend?”), were issues of plagiarism, artistic freedom, and race.

If you asked your average Twitter user what happened, they might have said something like this: a white woman named Dawn Dorland decided to make an altruistic kidney donation, but then wouldn’t stop bragging about it on social media. When online acquaintances failed to like or comment on her copious, self-aggrandizing posts, she would hunt them down and demand to know why they had not given her the attention she deserved. One of these online acquaintances, an Asian American woman from the Boston area named Sonya Larson, was inspired by her posts to write a short story about kidney donation, only to have the white woman claim ownership over the topic, sue her for plagiarism, stalk her, subpoena her private group chats with friends, and try to ruin her career. People threw around words like monster, narcissist, and sociopath.

The trouble is, after reviewing many of the court documents, as well as original emails, social media posts, and texts provided through legal discovery, I was surprised to note that very little of the above paragraph is actually true.

Yes, there was a woman who donated a kidney. Yes, there was a short story about a kidney donation, an accusation of plagiarism, and a lawsuit. The kidney donor is white and the short story writer is an Asian American woman of mixed white and Chinese descent. But the rest? Not so much.

I should say now that I don’t know and have never met, corresponded with, or talked to either Dawn Dorland or Sonya Larson. Before last week, I had never heard of either woman, and had not read a single word either had written. I had also never heard of GrubStreet, a Boston-based organization mentioned in the New York Times Magazine piece, despite it being a well-known creative writing nonprofit. That’s probably on me. I have never lived in Boston, and although I have been invited to take part in various panels for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), the timing was never right, and I have never attended a writing conference.

This is all just to explain who I am in relation to this story, which is to say, pretty much nobody. But I have a keen interest in the issues it has raised, and besides: trying to parse the truth about disputed stories by sifting through primary documents is basically my whole professional “thing.”

So here we are.

I decided to treat this the way I would any story I report on. I always go to the original primary source documents whenever possible, and arrange everything that is available in chronological order. You’d be surprised how often this will change the narrative topography of a story once everything can be seen in the context it originally happened.

So anyway, back to the Bad Art Friend, or as some are calling it, Kidneygate.

I first assumed this would be a single post, then quickly realized that wasn’t possible.

Before I could write about what this story meant, for writers, for readers, and for the people who find themselves depicted in fiction, I felt I needed to understand what actually happened.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Part One: Bad Art Friends

Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson met sometime between 2005 and 2007 at GrubStreet. Dawn was taking part-time classes there. Sonya was the organization’s full-time Program Director. Later, Dawn would become one of GrubStreet’s writing instructors, making the two women coworkers in addition to writing colleagues in the broader sense, with Sonya in a senior position.

Whether or not the two women were “friends,” in addition to being employees of the same nonprofit, is something of a subjective point. To Dawn, they were. She says in legal documents that the two confided in one another, shared meals together, visited each other’s homes, socialized together with their respective partners, attended each other’s birthday parties, and that Dawn even went to the memorial service for Sonya’s partner’s mother.

Sonya, on the other hand, later said in court documents that they were not friends, noting that “I don’t think I have ever been in a room together with Dawn Dorland, just the two of us, at any time in my entire life.” To be fair, none of the activities described by Dawn (parties, meals, cocktails, invitations to each other’s homes, writing conferences, etc.) would require the women to be the only two people in a room. But Sonya stressed that she and Dawn were coworkers, and said that most, if not all contact between them was professional, not personal.

What we do know is that Dawn and Sonya worked for the same organization, and interacted on social media in a friendly manner. Dawn repeatedly referred to their relationship in emails to Sonya as one of “friendship,” and to Sonya as “a true friend,” without Sonya correcting her.

In 2009, the New Yorker staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar wrote a feature for the magazine called “The Kindest Cut,” about altruistic kidney donation. Dawn says she read the article and was inspired to consider becoming an altruistic kidney donor herself, meaning that she would donate one of her kidneys to a stranger. Six years later, in 2015, she was finally ready to begin the process.

By all accounts it was this decision, and her subsequent social media posts about it, that would spark what happened next.

On April 22nd 2015, Dawn—who had since moved to Los Angeles but was still employed by GrubStreet—created a private Facebook group to keep friends and family informed about her upcoming kidney donation. It was not made available to her wider Facebook list. To announce the creation of the group, Dawn wrote:

“Dear Friend, You’ve been invited to this private/closed group because I have disclosed my upcoming kidney donation to you, or because I regard you as someone who will be supportive. If I have misjudged your level of comfort or squeamishness, or if you simply do not wish to receive updates via this platform, please feel free to decline the invitation, or to leave the group at any time. You can always contact me at [REDACTED].

Otherwise, welcome! […]”

Dawn has said the group initially had just two dozen members. Sonya stated in court documents that it was more like 250. A later screenshot showed 68 members (the number may have fluctuated as people joined or left). Group members had to accept the invitation in order to see the private posts.

Sonya Larson was one of the people who accepted that invitation, as were several other of Dawn’s coworkers at GrubStreet. These appear to have included GrubStreet’s Director of Online and Special Programs, Alison Murphy, as well as fellow GrubStreet writing instructors Whitney Scharer and Sari Boren.

Dawn underwent surgery for her kidney donation at UCLA Health medical center on June 24th 2015. Her kidney was given to save the life a local father of twelve children. The recipient’s wife, who had not been a match to her husband, in turn donated her kidney to a young mother in Portland, Oregon, who had previously been on the deceased donor list. This short chain of two kidney donations is called “a paired exchange.”

The next month, Dawn decided to write a “donor letter,” not to the recipient of her own kidney, but to the woman at the end of the donor chain—the mother in Oregon. This fact has often been mistaken in conversations about the story, since most readers seemed to believe that Dawn had written to the recipient of her own kidney, as the fictional donor in Sonya’s story does.

(Here is Dawn’s donor letter, which she shared to her private Facebook group:)

Something about Dawn’s kidney donation posts, including her donor letter, rubbed several of her GrubStreet coworkers the wrong way. On October 7th, Whitney Scharer texted Sonya.

“I have to say I’m now following dawn dorlands kidney posts with creepy fascination,” she wrote. “This latest one is AMAZING.”

She did not mean “amazing” in a good way. As part of her kidney donation advocacy, Dawn had been asked to be a part of LA’s New Year’s Day Rose Parade float for One Legacy, a non-profit organization “dedicated to saving lives through organ, eye and tissue donation in the seven-county greater Los Angeles area,” according to their website. They are the largest such organization in the world.

But Whitney was not impressed, and neither was Sonya.

According to their messages, Whitney and Sonya were not just annoyed by the fact that Dawn had been invited to participate in a parade float in support of organ, eye, and tissue donation, but by the encouragement for others to volunteer as organ, eye, or tissue donors too. In particular, they seemed to resent Dawn’s use of hashtags on social media.

“I guess I feel like it’s hard to think someone is being altruistic when they use hashtags like #domoreforeachother and #livingkidneydonation,” Whitney texted. “I don’t know…a hashtag seems to me like a cry for attention.”

“Right???” Sonya replied, “#domoreforeachother. Like what am I supposed to do? DONATE MY ORGANS?”

“[…]And yes, Sonya,” Whitney texted, “you have TWO KIDNEYS. DONATE ONE!!!”

“Godamnit,” Sonya replied, “I’m trying to be a nice person!! Don’t lop off my body parts!!!

On December 17th 2015, Sari Boren also texted Sonya about Dawn’s kidney donation advocacy.

“HAVE YOU SEEN DAWN’S LATEST POST??!!” Sari texted in all caps. Dawn had described the decision to donate an organ to an unknown recipient as sending her kidney “into the void with no certain outcome, partly to say that we have the power to make decisions based on hope, not fear.”

“I thought she sent her kidney into the abdomen of a religious dude with lots of kids,” Sari texted Sonya.

The texts also referenced other conversations the women had had about Dawn, suggesting that she may have been a frequent subject of in-person discussion.

“Remember when we were talking about her emotional food? And how she just keeps pulling the lever to get more? That’s exactly what this is,” Sonya texted back.

Once again, the conversation was disparaging. Once again, Sonya was bothered by Dawn’s use of a hashtag on social media to encourage organ donation.

By that time, dunking on Dawn Dorland seems to have become something of an obsessive hobby for several of Dawn’s fellow GrubStreet employees.

“I know I am constantly, constantly texting you about dawn dorlands kidney donation, to the point of being creepy,” Whitney texted Sonya on January 3rd 2016, two days after Dawn had taken part in the One Legacy float, “but have you seen her photos from the rose parade? Something called “judging day?” WTF?!!?”

Every year, the Rose Parade has three judges who award prizes for what they consider to be the best floats. The floats are judged prior to the parade, so that the winners can be announced via banners that precede them while the parade is en route.

“I haven’t,” replied Sonya, “WHAT IS JUDGING DAY??”

“Judging Day sounds so totally fucked up!” Whitney texted.

“Right??” Sonya replied.

It is unclear what, exactly, Whitney and Sonya found so disturbing about the tradition of awarding prizes to parade floats. Dawn’s Facebook posts about the Rose Parade also highlighted other organ donors and recipients who had taken part in the festivities.

Later that month, Sonya texted Sari again, this time via a group chat with other GrubStreet employees. By that time, Sonya was finishing up a short story called “The Kindest,” about a woman who receives a kidney from an obnoxious altruistic donor, and is forced through obligation to interact with her. The donor recipient in the story, named Chuntao, is Asian American, and the donor, named Dawn, is white. The fictional Dawn writes directly to the recipient of her own kidney, asking to meet her.

The story presents the idea that a sick person, such as a person in need of a kidney, is awarded a kind of special status, resulting in them receiving a lot of attention from nearly everyone they’ve ever met.

“When we were dying,” an early draft of Sonya’s story began, “everyone was nice to us. Nurses washed our hair. Old teachers and old roommates and total randoms came to see us, kissing our bandaged hands[…] They were riveted. They leaned forward. They were hungry and we were their food.”

Sonya wrote:

Hey Sari—if you have a moment, could I talk to you on the phone for like 10 minutes?

I think I’m *DONE* with the kidney story but I feel nervous about sending it out b/c it literally has sentences that I verbatim grabbed from Dawn’s letter on FB. I’ve tried to change it but I can’t seem to—that letter was just too damn good. I’m not sure what to do…feeling morally compromised/like a good artist but a shitty person…

Plus Dawn just sent me a note that said, “Can’t wait for the Muse!! Good job! Kisses”

The Muse was a GrubStreet writer’s conference run by Sonya.

Indeed, the portions of text of the donor letter included in this early draft of Sonya’s story were identical to text found in Dawn’s real-life letter. The biggest difference was that the real letter had been a single page, whereas the fictional letter was described as being “six whole pages" with “details about her surgery, the preparation, the PT. It went on.” The real Dawn had included no such details.

A reply came, not from Sari but from Whitney, also in the group text:

“Sari will have good advice! I bet Alexandria will too,” Whitney texted, likely referring to fellow GrubStreet instructor Alex Marzano-Lesnevich. “That email from Dawn trails some strings…”

The phrase “trails some strings” is a quote from Dawn’s donor letter, meaning that the people Sonya was writing to about her kidney story were familiar enough with Dawn’s original letter (or at least Sonya’s copied version of it) to make jokes using its language.

An excerpt of an early draft of The Kindest by Sonya Larson, in which the kidney donor is named Dawn and quotes from Dawn Dorland’s real-life donor letter, as found in the court documents.

By this time, Sonya was not only in a senior position at GrubStreet, but was also part of a powerful writer’s group called the Chunky Monkeys. Co-founded in 2012 by GrubStreet board member and Instructor Representative Jennifer De Leon, it was made up entirely of current and former GrubStreet instructors and staff. The name came from the concept of presenting “chunks” of one’s writing at the group’s mandatory three-hour monthly meetings. According to a 2019 write-up in Publisher’s Weekly, the group has eleven members: Christopher Castellani, Chip Cheek, Jennifer De Leon and her husband Adam Stumacher, Calvin Hennick, Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, Celeste Ng, Grace Talusan, Becky Tuch, Whitney Scharer, and Sonya Larson.

Members of the Chunky Monkey writer’s group, made up of current and former GrubStreet employees. Back row: Calvin Hennick, Sonya Larson, Whitney Scharer, Chip Cheek, Grace Talusan, Celeste Ng, Christopher Castellani, and Alex Marzano-Lesnevich. Front row: Becky Tuch and Adam Stumacher. Not pictured, co-founder Jennifer De Leon. Photo via Publisher’s Weekly.

What’s notable about the Chunky Monkeys is that they aren’t your average struggling writer’s group. They are part of the publishing world’s rare, ultra-elite of writers, some of whom have earned book advances in the high six or even seven figures. Celeste Ng is a celebrated two-time New York Times bestselling author whose second novel Little Fires Everywhere was adapted for Hulu by stars Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington. Chip Cheek shared on social media that his debut novel Cape May sold for $800,000. Christopher Castellani, who is also GrubStreet’s Artistic Director, won the 2004 Massachusetts Book Award, and has a book “currently being adapted for film,” according to his website. Alex Marzano-Lesnevich’s widely reviewed memoir The Fact of a Body was an Amazon bestseller and is being adapted for HBO. Grace Talusen’s memoir The Body Papers won the The Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing and was a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection, and Calvin Hennick’s memoir Once More To The Rodeo received a Kirkus Star. Becky Tuch has published widely and founded the writing website The Review Review. GrubStreet board member Jennifer De Leon is the award-winning author of three books, and her husband Adam Stumacher has taught at MIT and Harvard, and is a regular commentator on NPR. Whitney Scharer’s debut novel The Age of Light sold at auction for a reported one million dollars.

In early 2016, when Sonya was workshopping “The Kindest” with the group, several of the Chunky Monkeys—or “Chunks” as they call themselves—had not yet published their first books. By 2021, however, only Sonya and Becky had yet to land a book deal.

It was this group, along with fellow GrubStreet employees like Sari Boren and Alison Murphy, to whom Sonya was appealing with her creative and moral quandaries. Based on Sonya’s repeated questions to her friends, as well as to Dawn’s and her mutual colleagues, she was concerned not that the story was good, but about whether or not it was ethical to submit or publish it. However by February 16th 2016, Sonya had signed a contract with Plympton audiobooks to record three short stories, one of which was “The Kindest.”

Dawn Dorland, living in Los Angeles and teaching writing workshops for homeless women in addition to her work with GrubStreet, remained ignorant about all of it.

Despite her privately stated disapproval, Sonya continued to engage with Dawn in ways that appeared friendly on social media, and to interact with her in person at the Muse writing conference and at AWP. By the time the first anniversary of Dawn’s kidney donation rolled around, “The Kindest” audiobook had already been recorded.

“The timing is impeccable,” GrubStreet’s Director of Online and Special Programs Alison Murphy wrote to Sonya in a Slack conversation.

Alison was sharing a screenshot of a Facebook post by Dawn, in honor of what Dawn called her “kidneyversary.”

“Oh my goodness,” Sonya replied, “Is this for real??”

The conversation had an admonishingly religious tone. Alison said that perhaps due to her “Christian upbringing,” she felt “VERY strongly” that a good deed for which one sought and received praise did “not count with God.” She even made a reference to Mathhews 6:3, writing “when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your giving may be done in secret.”

Alison and Sonya agreed that Dawn’s “gift” appeared to be transactional, and that what she was getting in return was nothing but “Facebook approval,” which was, as Alison put it, “THE MOST FUCKING WORTHLESS THING ANYWAY.”

“EXACTLY,” Sonya replied.

Alison said that it was, however, “SUCH a good thing to write fiction about.”

A Slack conversation between GrubStreet’s Director of Online and Special Programs Alison Murphy and Sonya Larson from June 24th 2016, as found in the court documents.

Then in a comment under the very post that Alison had shared with Sonya, another writer associated with GrubStreet, Tom Meek, told Dawn that he had recently heard a story read aloud by Sonya about kidney donation. He even tagged Sonya in the comment. He wondered, had Dawn been the inspiration?

Six days later, Dawn sent Sonya an email.

After two paragraphs discussing Sonya’s upcoming writing residency at the Vermont Studio Center, she asked about the kidney story.

“Hey, I heard you wrote a kidney donation story,” she wrote. “Cool! Can I read it?”

Sonya did not immediately reply.

Whitney texted Sonya yet again to make fun of Dawn’s latest Facebook post about kidney donation.

“God, is this for real?” Sonya texted back. “There is just SO much going on in this paragraph. Like I could do a close reading of it for hours.”

Sonya texted again: “Also, my day has come. Dawn wrote directly to say she’d heard I’d written a story about kidney donation and she wants to read it. Haven’t written back yet.”

She added a grinning emoji.

Whitney advised Sonya to lie and claim that she was still revising the story, and therefore wasn’t comfortable sharing it. Sonya agreed, but waited a further nine days before writing back to Dawn.

When she did write back, after replying to Dawn’s comments about her upcoming writing residency, she said that yes, she was indeed writing a story “about a woman who receives a kidney,” which was “partially inspired” by Dawn’s own donation. She wasn’t ready to share it yet, however, but would be “happy” to do so once it was finished.

Dawn replied less than four hours later.

“Hey, girl!” her email began.

But while her tone was still sunny, something else was starting to creep in.

“I admit,” Dawn wrote, “I was a little surprised to hear you’d been working on something like that since we’re friends and you hadn’t mentioned it (and you hadn’t seemed interested in joining the fb group or interacting with my story too much—maybe I got the wrong idea there?).”

This sentence, expressing uncertainty about Sonya’s interest in her kidney donation, is what is being cited when Dawn is accused of tracking people down to ask why they had not liked or commented on her Facebook posts. There is no evidence that she contacted anyone else to ask the same question.

Sonya replied that she had indeed joined the group, but spent the rest of the email expounding on how separate her story was from Dawn’s own experience.

This was not what Dawn was looking for.

Seeing Sonya as a friend, Dawn wondered why she hadn’t wanted to talk to her about her kidney donation, in order to be supportive, or for research purposes for her work. Something felt “off.”

Dawn had assumed that the reason Sonya hadn’t replied to or liked any of her kidney posts was that she might not have seen them. Now that she knew Sonya had seen them, she wondered why she had never interacted with them, given that she was writing a story with a kidney donor in it.

“If you had already kicked off your fictional project at this time,” Dawn wrote, “well I think your behavior is a little deceptive. At least, weird.”

Of course, Dawn was absolutely right. She said she felt uncomfortable, and asked how Sonya thought she might feel in a similar situation. She offered to talk about it on the phone.

As others have noted, this is when Sonya likely started to realize that she had a problem.

She wrote to her editors at Plympton, and asked if it was too late to change the story, since the donor letter “included a couple of sentences” that she had “excerpted” from a real life letter. Then she wrote to Dawn.

“I am sorry you feel this way,” Sonya wrote, “that is not my intention. I want you to know that I absolutely do support your donation; I think it’s tremendous.”

But Dawn wasn’t asking for Sonya’s approval. She was confused by the behavior of someone she considered a friend.

Sonya and Dawn were talking past each other. Dawn was asserting the validity of her hurt feelings, while Sonya was concerned with right and wrong in the context of her own art.

“That cool, Sonya,” Dawn replied, “but not an apology (for which I would have been grateful). Though you have consistently reverted to art as a defense, I have stressed that this interaction has upset me as a friend.”

Dawn said that she had trusted Sonya, had made herself vulnerable to her, and felt that the only conclusion she could draw was that she had been mistaken about the closeness of their friendship.

“You’ve known what was going on in your mind for a year,” Dawn wrote, “I’ve only just caught up.”

Still, if Sonya felt that she and Dawn were not actually friends, she did not correct her. When she finally heard back from her editors, she was told that it was indeed too late to change the text of “The Kindest.” It had already been recorded.

She emailed the Chunky Monkeys for advice.

“I don’t even understand why she’s so convinced it’s ‘about’ her,” Celeste wrote.

“Well, the character was named ‘Dawn’ in an earlier draft,” Calvin pointed out.

Sonya explained that she had already told Dawn that it was her donation that sparked the idea.

“Perhaps, as Whitney has suggested, once she reads the story she’ll feel relief in seeing that it’s not ‘about’ her,” Sonya wrote.

“As I have already expressed to Sonya, I think this whole thing is total bullshit,” added Whitney. “I find it deeply narcissistic to be pissed about someone ‘taking’ your story—THAT YOU PUT PUBLICLY ON FACEBOOK FOR ALL TO SEE.”

“Maybe she was too busy waving from her floating thing at a Macy’s Day parade instead of, you know, writing and stuff,” wrote Jennifer.

“Oh my god. Totally giggling right now,” Sonya replied.

“The first draft really *was* a take-down of Dawn, wasn’t it?” Calvin wrote.

He volunteered that the issue was a little “muddy,” and that Dawn’s hurt feelings were not “completely invalid.” Neither was the fact that Sonya felt “icky,” he said. Still, he stated as fact that Dawn was an “obnoxious person,” who seemed “more and more to us like someone who is only able to ‘feel’ in the form of passive-aggressive or self-aggrandizing Facebook posts.”

Adam had some choice words about Tom Meek for outing Sonya, but then said that according to Joyce Maynard, a writer should write a story as truly as they can, and then just before publishing it, send it to the people effected, “not for their permission, just so they hear it from you first.” This, Adam said, applied to fiction as well as to nonfiction.

Celeste, who didn’t know Dawn or follow her on social media, mostly wanted to support her friend and that friend’s artistic choices.

Sonya agreed that Dawn’s feelings weren’t invalid. She just wished that Dawn were handling it differently. She did not, as Adam suggested, ever send her the story.

When Dawn didn’t hear back from Sonya for several days, she wrote again.

She knew nothing about the audiobook contract or the discussion amongst her GrubStreet colleagues about their perception of her organ donation advocacy on social media. Sonya was important to her. This second email was direct about her hurt feelings, but not angry or insulting. She expressed a desire to mend things. Her habitual Kindly email sign-off was replaced with Love.

When Sonya failed to respond to this second email within 24 hours, Dawn followed up with a third.

“Am I correct that you do not want to make peace?” Dawn asked. “Not hearing from you sends that message; please let me know. I am concerned first and foremost to lose you as a friend—I had considered you a good friend.”

Again she ended with Love instead of Kindly.

Although Dawn was being neither unhinged nor unreasonable, these are the kinds of emails that would stress a lot of people out—especially those prone to avoiding confrontation. It seemed like Sonya wished that Dawn would simply go away, like a Facebook post after you mute it. But Dawn clearly felt she had a real friendship to fight for, and wasn’t afraid to go out on a limb to do so.

The next day, Sony replied. She did want to make peace, she said.

“I, too, don’t want to lose our relationship,” Sonya wrote.

Dawn was relieved, and even apologized for asking Sonya to let her read a story she hadn’t been ready to share.

“I can see how my asking to read the story might have worried you that I was trying to take control (if that’s what did it),” she said. “I’m sorry.”

She wrote that she looked forward to giving Sonya a hug when next they saw each other.

And then, for two years, Dawn let it drop.

Sonya and her colleagues at GrubStreet, however, were not done making fun of Dawn Dorland.

On August 15th, less than a month later, Alison asked Sonya via Slack conversation if she had heard anything from Dawn since the audiobook version of “The Kindest” became available for purchase.

“Thankfully not,” Sonya wrote, “but I have a feeling that this shit isn’t over […] If that story is ever published, she is totally going to murder me!!”

“Whatever,” wrote Alison, “we’ll all ice her out if she tries to mess with you.”

In January of 2017, still working as an advocate for kidney donation, Dawn was asked to be a “Laker for a Day” as part of a partner program between the L.A. Lakers and UCLA Health, to promote organ donation and her donor agency.

Once again, it was Whitney who was quick to comment.

“Omg dawn dorland on the Jumbotron,” she texted Sonya that same day.

“Holy shit I just looked it up,” Sonya replied. “THIS IS AMAZING. her making the heart sign with her hands. YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS UP1!”

“Agreed. Fiction cannot top the Jumbotron,” Whitney wrote.

“She is, in her own odd way, much like Trump,” Sonya replied.

Later that year,”The Kindest” was finally accepted for print by the literary magazine American Short Fiction. In a Slack conversation with Alison, Sonya said she was excited but also scared.

“That’s a good combination of feelings,” Alison wrote.

“Is it????” Sonya asked. “UGH.”

“I mean, it’s a terrible combination to feel, but I think it’s a sign that you’re doing something right.”

Alison may have interpreted Sonya’s fears to be generalized, when in fact she meant something very specific. Then again, she may have known exactly what Sonya was afraid of.

“Whatever,” Sonya wrote. “If she tries to come after me, I will FIGHT BACK!!”

“I will join you!” Alison replied.

Sonya noted that Dawn had quietly unfriended her on Facebook, without contacting her about it, suggesting that Dawn may have finally intuited Sonya’s true feelings about her.

Alison suggested that if Dawn were to object, that Sonya should “post it to Grub Writer’s of Color.”

“Because the great thing about that,” Alison said, “is that if Dawn came after you, they would draaaaaag her.”

“Hmm,” Sonya replied. “That is actually a really good idea. Truly!”

Later that fall, Dawn continued her organ donor advocacy by appearing in a short video put out by UCLA Health, encouraging people to explore both living and deceased organ donation. Her experience with the Laker for a Day project had also been turned into a video that was widely shared on Facebook, and ended up emboldening a man named Brian to donate his own kidney to help his ailing father, Dana. He said that it was seeing “this girl”—tall, sunny, healthy-looking Dawn—smiling at the Laker’s game that made the donation feel possible to him.

“If she can do it, I can do it,” he said. “That’s my point of being here. To be like Dawn. To be like the other people who do this. To get the word out. It feels like almost a calling to me.”

Brian and Dana were also Lakers for a Day, and made their own video as a way to “give back” and support organ donation.

At this point, Dawn had still never read “The Kindest.” It was published in American Short Fiction but was not available online.

Then in March of 2018, Sonya asked the editors at ASF to make the story available without a paywall, and they complied. It was chosen to be featured at the 2018 Boston Book Festival that summer, as their One City One Story selection, and would be printed and distributed all over town. By coincidence, it was then that Dawn says she finally came across the story by accident, and was shocked by what she found.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated that Sonya had addressed Dawn as “hon” on social media. It was Dawn who addressed Sonya as “hon.” It also mistakenly referred to Alex Marzano-Lesnevich as “Alexandria.” I regret the errors.