• Denise McVea

This girl forced me to start my blog.

I've been meaning to start blogging about corruption and abuse of power for years. I finally can't avoid it.

I’ve been meaning for some time to start a blog about corruption and abuse of power.

For years, I’d have an idea for a blog post and then start but not finish it. Or I’d finish but not post it. Or post but not publish it … you get the idea. And it’s not because I didn’t have anything important to say. Quite the contrary. As a community advocate in San Antonio with a knack for finding scandal in public records, I had too much to say. When you are busy writing nasty letters to derelicts in power and then managing the inevitable fallout, writing a blog about corruption in Texas just seems like too much work. But I knew that one day I would not be able to avoid it, and that day has finally arrived.

This, my first blog about abuse of power, is about a 31-year-old woman named Hailey Laine Johnson.

On May 12, 2018, the San Antonio Express-News published a front-page story titled “Ex-student says writer acted improperly”. The article, written by staff writer Lauren Caruba, detailed Johnson’s explosive charge that local publisher Bryce Milligan groomed, seduced and molested her when she was his 14-year-old student at San Antonio’s North East School of the Arts. To hear Johnson, now 31, tell it, Milligan singled her out for “special” attention in class, crowned her his “muse”, gave her gifts, kept her on the phone all hours of the night, and repeatedly fondled her.

I had not even finished reading the article’s lead paragraph before it dawned on me in the most surreal way: I knew that girl. I recognized her immediately.

Or course, she doesn’t know me from Adam. But I was introduced to Hailey Laine Johnson about 17 years ago when I was a writer seeking a publisher for my second book, Making Myth of Emily: Emily West de Zavala and the Yellow Rose of Texas Legend. I was living in Guanajuato, Mexico at the time, teaching English at the university and publishing a small bilingual magazine. At the urging of a friend, I had submitted my manuscript to Milligan in the hopes that Wings Press would publish it. The book challenges Texas historians’ conclusions about the Yellow Rose of Texas legend and makes the so far undebunked assertion that the wife of the interim vice president of revolutionary Texas was of African descent. I was thrilled when Milligan accepted the book for publication. He agreed that the book had something important to say about how racial biases in Texas distort and submerge the historical realities and contributions of people of color. I saw him as a literary firebrand, a creative who was willing to shake up the nearly all white power structure that dominated the historical landscape in Texas.

Although Wings Press had agreed to publish the book, I remember waiting a very long time to sign any contract. When it finally happened, I was well ensconced in my life in Mexico, very far removed from the literary scene in San Antonio. I was so excited I declined Milligan’s offer to put me up in a beautiful bread and breakfast on the Riverwalk. I could stay with family, I said, but I was really looking forward to meeting him. I jumped in my Jeep and started the 12-hour drive north to San Antonio.

The day of our meeting, Bryce Milligan of Wings Press groped my left breast. And the man could not stop talking about his “muse”, Hailey Laine Johnson.

There was a lot going on that day, but this is what I remember: I met him at Wings Press, housed in the second story of the mother-in-law unit behind his King William District home. The office space was overcrowded and untidy but crammed with books, musical instruments and art. He talked about the books that he was publishing, gave me a couple, and discussed some of the artifacts and instruments in his house that caught my interest. Small in stature, bearded and balding, he had long hair and, if I remember correctly, tobacco-stained fingers. His most compelling feature, in my opinion, was a remarkably mellifluous voice. Hypnotic, you might say.

He went on and on about Johnson. He talked about how talented she was, how much she inspired him. How she was his muse. How they would talk for hours late into the night. I asked if he was publishing her. He said when she was ready, or something equivalent. I did get the sense that his excitement about her had more to do with his writing than hers. Yes, the idea of hebephilia crossed my mind, but he was so open about his affection, so engrossed in his whimsical musings, that I determined that, while disconcerting and inappropriate, his fixation must be innocent.

Then he stood up and embraced me from behind. I was still sitting. And in a deft move, his right hand was suddenly cupping my left breast. The action was smooth, seamless, practiced. I stood up and turned to face him. He looked chagrined.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Why did you do that?” I asked. He told me he thought we had a connection. I reminded him that he knew I was a lesbian in a relationship and that he was married. He complained that his wife was overweight and was as a result not interested in sex. I told him that if her weight was a problem for them, he and she should go to the gym together. Or something equivalent.

I would be lying if I told you that I turned to him in outrage and cursed him out. Or slapped his face. Or walked out in a huff. I did not do any of those things. I treated the grope as the pathetic transgression of a sad and lonely man. And to the naked eye, you could say I let it pass. But things between us changed irrevocably at that moment. My vision of a righteous literary adventure with Wings Press dissolved right there before my eyes. To me, the contract suddenly looked denser than before and needed to be reviewed again line by line. The manuscript proof suddenly looked like something I could have made myself. Bryce looked small. And weak. And unworthy of my talents.

I began to harangue him about the contract, asking dozens of questions and homing in on vague or inconsistent answers. I told him that I had noticed another publishing contract on his desk and had read the open page upside down. It had more favorable terms than the one that he had offered me, etc. Embarrassed, he unsuccessfully tried to explain away that inequity while I sat and watched him squirm. By the time his wife came home, Milligan was visibly flustered. When he and his wife stepped into the next room, I could hear him explain his harried state by saying that I was being difficult about the contract. I heard her tell him that if I didn’t like it, I could leave it. Or something equivalent.

When he returned, he sheepishly parroted that ultimatum but seemed genuinely surprised when I informed him that I would leave it. I grabbed the now tacky looking proof, scooped up the books he had given me, shook his nicotine-stained hands, and walked out of the house in King William. As far as I can remember, that was the last time I spoke to Bryce Milligan.

Over the years, I have rarely spoken about that episode, although I would think about it from time to time. I never feel the same way about it twice. Sometimes I feel regret that I didn’t punch him on principle. At other times, I’m proud that I took control of the interaction and exposed his fictional claim to power over me. Mostly, I feel relief that I avoided ties to someone with such serious character flaws. I published the book myself and made a tidy profit. I began the long road to mastering book publishing and am proud to be the publisher of a new community newspaper and Dear San Antonio, I’m Gone But Not Lost, a book about the late voting rights champion Willie Velasquez by local author Barbara Renaud Gonzalez. But I also felt shame. The few times I did speak about the incident, I merely said that Milligan “made a pass” at me. If I’m honest, it’s because I really didn’t want people to know that a man I respected grabbed my breast without my permission.

I’m glad I’m telling you now and I feel no shame at all. I thank Hailey Laine Johnson for that, for being brave enough for both of us. I read in the newspaper that she felt he had stolen her will to write and that she was battling to get it back. I hope that she will write and keep writing. If Hailey Laine Johnson writes a book, I will publish it.

#metoo #timesup #endcorruption #makethemaccountable

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