UPDATE: After readers responded, Waldman and Chabon have decided not to go ahead with the show.
The San Jose Mercury News reported on Tuesday that Berkeley authors Michael Chabon—Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of such bestsellers as Telegraph Avenue and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—and his wife Ayelet Waldman, an accomplished non-fiction author, had signed on to develop a slate of shows for CBS “including a series or movie on the Oakland Ghost Ship tragedy.”
The 2016 Ghost Ship fire claimed 36 lives, thrusting the traumatized and reticent Bay Area nightlife underground into the national spotlight. Litigation is ongoing. Outcry on social media over Tuesday’s CBS announcement was swift from survivors and victims’ family members. The news that the tragedy was to be fictionalized and broadcast by people who weren’t members of the nightlife community or circle of Ghost Ship survivors and family was devastating for many.
“CBS signs production deal to create a TV series or movie based on the Ghost Ship Fire. Who’s down to organize a serious protest?” one poster, a husband of one of the victims, wrote on Facebook, sparking more than a hundred comments of support. “I’m a Ghost Ship survivor and I vehemently opposed this project,” wrote Jon Axtell on Twitter. “You have no connection to our community and have no right to tell this story. Profiting off our grief will only bring a firestorm of criticism and opposition from all of us.”
“Please, please, please don’t do this. You will be hard pressed to find any surviving family member or friends who would trust the likes of a team of outsiders to tell these stories. Not to mention it’s too soon and it will always be too soon. This is not your story to tell,” wrote another Twitter user.
The announcement comes at an especially sensitive time. The criminal trial is set to be replayed after the jury was split on convicting Ghost Ship operator Derek Almena in September. (His partner Max Harris was acquitted.) Currently, depositions are being taken for a civil trial, which starts in May.* Many victims and supporters feel that the tragedy is still an open wound, with lack of closure from the courts and ongoing grief in the community. And some are worried about protesting publicly, in case it endangers their case.
“Making a show about the Ghost Ship tragedy is in INCREDIBLY poor taste in every possible way,” wrote another Twitter user. “Absolutely heartless, especially considering the families and friends have had no closure and ongoing court cases.”
“I felt completely blindsided when I saw that,” a family member who wished to remain anonymous told me. “Maybe wait 10 years, or maybe never, for something like this. And make sure it comes from the community, now some outsiders swooping in for money. I don’t care how talented they are or how many awards they have, you can’t just do something like this and not even inform the people who are still grieving. This is definitely retraumatizing, and we haven’t even had any closure yet. It’s too much.”
I reached out to Chabon on Twitter about the announcement. He responded, “Just to clarify: The Ghost Ship project will be adapted by journalist Elizabeth Weil, based on her own reporting. @ayeletw [Ayelet Waldman] and I are producing it, under the terms of an overall agreement with CBS Studios that is not for any one story or project in particular.”
Just to clarify: The Ghost Ship project will be adapted by journalist Elizabeth Weil, based on her own reporting. @ayeletw and I are producing it, under the terms of an overall agreement with CBS Studios that is not for any one story or project in particular.
— Michael Chabon (@michaelchabon) December 11, 2019
The revelation that the show would be based on Weil’s reporting propelled the outrage further. Weil’s 2018 multi-thousand-word, moony-eyed profile of Max Harris in the New York Times magazine, dreamy photoshoot included, was widely reviled for its sympathetic foregrounding of Harris’ incarceration at the expense of centering the voices of the victims and their families. (The East Bay Times won a Pulitzer for its reporting on the tragedy, and KQED, 48 Hills, and other local outlets have all published in-depth reports and tributes, based on knowledge, research, and affiliation with the community.)
“As the parent of one of the 36 victims, you couldn’t have picked a more hurtful source,” responded Brian Hough, father of Travis Hough.
As negative reactions mounted online, Waldman herself leapt in, tweeting: “I would love to hear your thoughts. Please reach out to me directly at my email, which is available on my website www.ayeletwaldman.com. It goes directly to me.”
I would love to hear your thoughts. Please reach out to me directly at my email, which is available on my website https://t.co/JeaL6Myc9P. It goes directly to me.
— Ayelet Waldman (@ayeletw) December 11, 2019
Dozens of Ghost Ship community members responded and began posting their responses from Waldman, who at first addressed each email personally, but then seems to respond with rote phrases, possibly due to the volume of submissions. My own exchange with Waldman is posted below, and she has posted a similar response to her Twitter account. (It has also come to light that Waldman was a major donor to Harris’s GoFundMe account for post-trial living expenses.)
Waldman’s responses have been sensitive and thoughtful, but remain rooted in the thought that her and Chabon’s storytelling abilities entitle them to take on such a narrative—one, it should be said, of mainly queer and people of color without a lot of money, many of whom were longtime fixtures of a marginalized DIY scene that Chabon and Waldman have no history with. KQED journalist Nastia Voynovskaya has just posted a detailed story that amplifies some of the other voices in the community responding to the announcement.
Waldman’s email to me:
I am so grateful to you for reaching out. We are from the East Bay (Michael and I) and our kids knew kids who died. One of the reasons we are interested in telling this story is to tell the complete story, the way we did with Unbelievable on Netflix, the way we did about the occupation of Palestine in our book Kingdom of Olives and Ash, and the way I did in my book Inside This Place, Not of it, Narratives from Women’s Prisons. I am a former public interest lawyer and my work has always been about social justice.
I am interested in honoring those whose lives were lost, and those whose lives were destroyed or changed. And I want to bring attention to what has happened in our community, and why it happened. And to remind the country that our artists, our “weirdos,” those who stand at a slight remove, are actually those who see most clearly what’s wrong with our society.
I could go on and on, but I really hope you and those you’ve been in touch with can help us.
It is very early days. I don’t even know if anyone is going to buy the show yet, if anyone will agree to tell this story the only way we are willing to have it told, in large part as an indictment of the power and money that is destroying our communities, but also as a story about loss. We are the parents of 4 kids, 2 of whom could so easily have been at that party if they were home. They go to parties like that all the time. The story of those beautiful artists we lost, and the story of their families needs to be told.
*Correction: The original version of this story stated the civil trial begins in January. It begins in May.