What actually happened around OpenCon in 2016?

I’ve written a lot recently about the events around the OpenCon statement, including about the ensuing ‘mobbing’. In this post, I want to describe my experiences surrounding OpenCon in 2016 that led to that statement.

But first, why am I writing this story? The problem I am facing at the moment is that my private life has become something of a public spectacle, since the public OpenCon announcement (October 2019). Let me tell you, it does not exactly feel very wholesome watching both ex-partners and total strangers sharing elements of my private life on social media.

The articles that I have been writing about this whole incident are some of the most popular I have ever posted. Some friends have even been encouraging me to start a new career in self-help and therapy/emotional support after all the crap I have been through the last few years of my life. But still, very few know the full story behind this incident, and yet thousands have queued up to cast judgement on me.

So, here it is.

Several months before OpenCon, I had broken up with my then partner, Franzi Sattler. It was an incredibly difficult decision, but the best for both of us during what was becoming an increasingly unhealthy relationship. Instead of dragging things on, I decided it wold be best to leave Germany and start afresh. This is when I began my more "nomadic" and independent lifestyle.

After the break-up, Franzi exhibited a number of behaviours that were quite saddening, and what I understood to be of someone who was in a lot of pain. No-one ever wants to see someone they once loved suffer. For example, she began turning up randomly at my work office and events I had organised in Berlin (including an OpenCon satellite), and she even ended up seemingly following me to Thailand at the same time as me shortly after that.

As well as this, she constantly aggressively messaged me in public and private, even posting on multiple social media platforms that I had “domestically abused” her. As this was simply false and no evidence was presented, I thought best not to engage at the time. More recently with the events around the OpenCon statement, I saw that these accusations re-emerged and were extensively shared by both the Palaeontology and Open Science communities, and again with a total lack of any evidence or context. In fact, I have now noticed that Franzi has been making these same accusations in public quite frequently since the break-up. But why?

This is the part that of this story that is so strange, it deserves a Telenovela episode. There is a person out there, an old "friend" of mine, who has a problem with me because we once had a disagreement and fall out about Open Access. So, as revenge for this, he now attacks me through my ex-partners by telling them about how horrible a person I am.

Shortly after Franzi and I had broken up, she sent me a letter with all of the awful things that he had said to her about me, which apparently were so unreal to her that they gave her a panic attack. He did not know Franzi at all before this, had never met her, and had never even spoken to her, but emerged from the shadows during a time when she was vulnerable to tell her that I had "abused" her. As far as I am aware, he has done similar things to at least 3 of my ex-partners so far. He never seems to tell them how or why I apparently did so, but manipulates them enough for them to make public statements about these things, instead of simply getting over the ends of the relationships.

When this started many years ago, I was disappointed but not surprised at this person and the behaviours that Franzi was exhibiting because of him, but chose not to engage. But, now because circumstances are different, I have been forced to send Franzi a formal cease and desist letter, a process which I find absolutely heart-breaking. This letter extensively documents the severe extent and impact of her behaviours, including the absolute falsehoods of the accusations for abuse. This is part of the formal process as a British citizen for initially attempting to civilly resolve cases of defamation before going to the courts; something that I have no wish for.

Back when all of this was happening, I had many other things to be worrying about. I had 6 weeks of back-to-back talks and conferences around Europe and North America, with my PhD viva smack in the middle of it all in the UK. However, due to Franzi's actions, instead of concentrating on passing my PhD and giving these talks, I was forced to spend most of my time doing 'damage control' with our mutual friends and colleagues in private. It was overwhelming and exhausting, but also disappointing that so many ‘friends’ seemed to publicly encourage her behaviour, rather than providing any sort of real comfort and support that she so clearly needed.

Around this time, and several months after the break-up, I also started dating another person. Back when I lived in Germany, this person had helped me understand just how unhealthy my relationship with Franzi had become, and had been a strongly supportive friend during the break-up. While starting a new relationship so soon after the previous one had ended might not have been the smartest idea at the time, I was happy to have some light among all of the darkness at the time.

However, even this was short-lived. My new partner and I had made plans to travel around South-East Asia together shortly after I had passed my PhD and OpenCon in Washington DC. But, just before OpenCon, my new partner messaged me to tell me that they had slept with their ex-partner, and was still in love with them. Though they at least had the honesty to tell me this, it ripped through my heart, which was already suffering enough due to the previous break-up. Clearly, starting this relationship was not an intelligent decision on either of our sides.

I spent most of my days around that time in a deep sadness, wondering why I had allowed myself to get into such a bad situation. I have entries in my journal from that time telling myself to run away from this new relationship and take care of myself instead, but I did not listen to my own advice. Love makes us do weird things some times. Irrespective, I set off to OpenCon while all of this was happening, and being an active member of the OpenCon community, and having been crowd-funded to attend, I had to cover all of this up and pretend everything was okay. It was a place with friends and colleagues where we would be having important discussions, and I needed to be at my absolute best.

So, what does one do in this situation? I wore a mask. I smile too much, I constantly tell jokes to make others laugh and smile too. I presented an outer image of security, when in fact the opposite was true. I became such a parody of my true feelings, in the hope that everyone just assumed that I was okay. Because I don’t want others to see the real pain that I was going through. I didn't want anyone to share that suffering, because I loved those people and don't want them to hurt either. Instead, I focused on work and on making others as happy as possible too. This is something that in my past, I sadly got used to, effectively covering up how I really felt inside.

Through this time, I was barely sleeping, drinking too much coffee, and also drinking too much alcohol. I know this isn’t great, but at the time it sure did feel like it helped. Which leads us to the incident at the final social event at OpenCon 2016. That evening, I remember being warned about my behaviour. One of the organisers, a friend at the time, took me outside from the social event, and said I needed to watch my behaviour. I was not told what I had done, to whom, who had apparently said something about me, or any details. If I had done something wrong, I at least wanted to know what it was so I could make up for it and apologise, but that was frustratingly impossible.

In my state at the time, this intervention from OpenCon was not helpful and felt incredibly patronising. I thought I was just being happy and playful with friends, and everyone was having a good time. A lot of people were drunk and dancing, and I did not see how I was behaving any differently to others. No one else had raised any problems with me that night or indicated that I might be being overly-flirtatious or anything. One other female participant has even messaged recently saying that she didn't mind me playfully kissing her on the cheek that evening, as we were long-time OpenCon friends and she was definitely in control of the situation. There was never any indication that anything I was doing was causing any harm to anyone.

Shortly after this warning is when the dancing incident happened. That I thought this person was a friend, thought I was being playful, and was going through a difficult time in my life does not excuse or legitimise what happened; it was and always will be unacceptable when such a boundary is crossed, even with friends and colleagues. Thinking back now, I simply should not have been at OpenCon, and should have perhaps been spending my time recovering instead. It was just one of a series of bad decisions that I made around that time.

Either way, after that incident, I guess that someone reported me for it. Bastian Greshake-Tzovaras, who I was staying with at the time, was asked to take me home. I still did not understand what I had done wrong, so Bastian and I had a huge fight about that. The next day, as far as I was concerned, everything was okay. Bastian and I joined an anti-Trump rally, and that was that. I was still deeply sad about how things were with my personal life, but just had to crack on with life.

A couple of weeks later, the other person involved in the incident called me up to discuss it. At the time, it was like an "Oh, that's what happened!" moment of clarity. I apologised profusely for my stupidity, we resolved it, and moved on only on the condition that they were happy to forgive me.

Nothing seemed to happen for 2 years until OpenCon decided to escalate the incident and privately tell me that they had decided to ban me (November 2018). I remember being highly confused when they called me up. They didn’t seem to care that the incident had been resolved for two years already.

As I felt I had outgrown the OpenCon community anyway, and that others would benefit more from ‘my space’ at future events, I had no problem accepting and respecting their ban. Given that the minor incident had been resolved, and the way that OpenCon conducted things with such secrecy, the whole thing felt so surreal. I also hate fighting, and didn’t really feel like challenging the decision or that there was any value in doing so. It was their community, and they can manage it how they want. Whenever I have thought it necessary, I have informed people about the nature of the ban.

I do not usually like to discuss elements of my past relationships in public. However, seeing as several of my past partners seem to have been happy enough to share pretty terrible lies about me in public, I feel it is now necessary to make my experiences public. I have since even reached out to both Franzi and my subsequent partner to see if either of them wanted to discuss why both had not only lied in public, but were also so prominent in orchestrating the recent 'mobbing' against me, especially after our relationships have been finished for so long. Both of them have ignored me.

I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not attempting to justify or excuse my behaviour with this post. I am also not trying to make out that I was some perfect little angel in my past relationships, and have always accepted my part in their ending. I remain happy to be held accountable for my past actions in a fair way. I consider this story to be relevant background information to an incident that has had a huge impact on my personal and professional lives. Presently, I am still waiting for OpenCon to tell me that their actions were motivated by something other than a malicious character take-down.

I also believe that telling the truth is a prerequisite for justice. If people still want to judge me, that is fine, but at least let it be based on proper information, rather than lies and rumours. Nothing I have written in this post or any other is untrue, and I have no reason to deceive any of you. I have nothing to hide from you all, and my conscience feels clear.

Really, I just want to get my life back on track, and keep fighting for Open Science! And this is what I am focusing most of my time and energy on at the moment, and can feel my emotional health recovering from the last few years each day.

I also want this story to serve as a possible lesson though. If you see someone behaving abnormally, perhaps misbehaving, it is always best to show compassion first before casting judgement. Is someone drinking too much, more than usual? There is probably a reason for it. Believe me when I tell you that if someone seems like they are constantly trying to make others happy, there is a pretty good chance they might be feeling depressed. It is good to be able to spot the signs, and you never know what other people are going through in their lives.

During OpenCon, I received no such empathy from the organisers. But that was more my own fault for covering things up so much and so badly. But hey, that’s what guys are taught to do. Keep your problems and feelings inside, right?