EDIT: Account updated.
EDIT: Aella disagrees with some of this, see my comment below for my reply.
Further stories may be anonymously shared with: [email protected]
(Audience note: this is being posted here in order to have a place on the internet to be referenced from. It was originally intended for private distribution, but it was later decided that it would be more beneficial if it were publicly referenceable, to prevent people from getting different ideas of its contents. It refers to some characters and events within the Berkeley rationalist community as though the reader is familiar with them. The intended audience will already have some context for this; I will not elaborate further here.)
Some folks apparently got wind that I was working on a post about Aella. (It was to be a follow-up to Right View, which left on the cliffhanger about how wrong view manifests in the world, in case my stance was unclear.)
I do not have any desire to be the undertaker of this ceremony. Aella is someone with whom I’ve been on friendly terms for some years now; though we have our — sometimes rather extreme — differences, and though I think that she is probably evil, I nonetheless have valued my conversations with her, and would love (though I am not optimistic) to see an outcome to this local situation that allowed us to keep talking from time to time.
However, one of the things that happened as a result of the spread of the knowledge of my post is that people started coming forward asking me to anonymously post accounts of her behavior that they did not want tied to their names.
This puts me in a difficult situation. As a Buddhist, I strive to follow the principles of right speech; namely: to not speak falsely, to not speak divisively, to not speak so as to cause harm, and to not speak in a random, disorganized way. So as far as I can tell, I will not fully avoid harmful speech or divisive speech in this situation no matter what I do, because there seems to be a conflict of interest between Aella and those in danger due to her behavior. Therefore I will strive not to speak falsely or idly in what follows, and otherwise to just do my best. (Also the tone is somewhat more somber and subdued than it had been in earlier drafts, prior to my having realized the severity of the situation.)
If the rumor of my working on a post has spread as far as Aella herself, then I have little doubt that she has a response prepared; in any case, I expect that she may try to retaliate to this post as best she can. While my personal attack surface seems fairly small, I regret any emotional pain, hardship, or inconvenience that comes to friends or family as a result.
I believe that what I have heard may rise to the level of criminal behavior that should be prosecuted. But at the very least, it seems to me to be extremely concerning, and a demonstration that Aella is an untrustworthy individual who is not acting in good faith and should not be empowered in the way that she currently is.
Without further ado, here is account one (this is the one account that I currently have permission to share):
Thanks for giving me a chance to talk anonymously about Aella and my experience with her. I don’t talk about her often because I don’t like badmouthing people. Also people say she’s vindictive.
I’ve only been to one of Aella’s parties but one was enough. The environment felt so uncomfortable that I spent hours and hours hiding alone and crying. The party had a lot of nudity and sex, everyone was on drugs, and it was set up so that consent as a guiding light was being continuously questioned. Maybe it could have been ok if I had known in advance that it would be a sex party with blurry consent practices but I didn’t, I thought I was just going to a normal burner party. It also wasn’t easy to leave for logistical reasons so once I was there I was stuck.
The only person I found who validated my feelings was another woman who I finally met towards the end of the party who was going around talking about how it wasn’t a safe environment. I was so grateful to her for saying something because I had almost gaslighted myself into believing that the problem was actually myself, I was just insecure, etc. In retrospect I think there must have been a lot of other women who were scared who just didn’t want to show how stressed and alone they felt in this extremely sexual blurred lines environment with a lot of horny drugged men around and no easy way to leave.
When I finally got home and talked to my friends I learned that Aella is well known for hosting parties with sketchy consent practices. I never went to one of her events again and I warn other people not to go all the time.
I want to point out that I’m not a shrinking violet. I go to burner & sex parties all the time. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve had sex in public. I also don’t judge Aella for being a sex worker. She seems like she works hard and I admire her success. But it seems like a lot of her success is organizing these events where women end up in weird sketchy situations. Maybe it feels great for some of the women who go. But I wouldn’t want Aella to be in charge of anything that demanded compassion or clarity.
[UPDATE:] There have been questions posted on social media about whether my account of Aella’s party is real. I stand by the account, but I decline to give a year or other specifics, because I’m worried that providing that information would help Aella triangulate my identity. However, in the interest of intellectual honesty, the single detail I think someone could contest is whether Aella was the “actual” organizer of the party I attended. It’s true that she wasn’t the only one organizing it but she was easy to observe as central to the event while it was happening and it was privately described to me as being her party. Obviously it was a party full of illegal activity so it’s not surprising that it’s hard to prove it was “really” organized by her.
Corroboration of this account comes from another friend, who has told me on condition of anonymity that one of the features of Aella’s parties is a game called “drugs roulette,” in which people consume various substances without knowing what they are. Many of the substances one can imagine employing here — most saliently, rohypnol, the date rape drug; but also others — would put people into compromised states in which they could not consent to further sexual activity imposed on them by people who may not even have known that their sexual partner was thus compromised. To make matters worse, this is apparently being done under a house rule of “you are never allowed to talk about it with anyone.” Also, there is reason to believe that one of the things Aella enjoys doing is consensual non-consent torture, designed to break people. (Employment of consensual non-consent had been a major damning accusation of Brent Dill.)
Now, on to the cancellations. This is where I switch to my own voice; I have watched these up close, and probably have unique information here that is not yet widely known.
By my count, Aella has attempted five cancellations within the broader Rationality community and adjacent groups. The first was Brent Dill, in 2018; I saw this up close and know many details about it. The second and third were Joscha Bach and another individual whose name I currently forget; these occurred in a private Facebook group, and seemed more speculative, like she was putting out feelers and testing out how a cancellation attempt of them might go. (They contained the same broad features and patterns of her other cancellations, namely the premise that she had a “poopy person detector” that was 100% accurate or nearly so, and that these people were manipulating frames in vague, hard-to-pin-down ways.) The fourth was MAPLE and OAK, in January of 2021. (Interestingly, this occurred just two weeks after OAK’s grant from the Survival and Flourishing Fund was paused due to its executive director, a Rationalist, stepping down. Months prior, she had put out feelers for an OAK cancellation in her private Facebook group.) The fifth is Leverage Research, which is currently ongoing, and began shortly after Leverage was awarded a grant by Emergent Ventures.
I will talk more about the Brent cancellation below, casting doubt on the epistemic processes involved, and therefore on the outcome that they reached. It is not my intention for this post to be an exoneration or even a defense of Brent; if anything, he was subject to the same Rationality community blind spots as Aella is. I think, for example, that it may be good to have charges pressed against him by the aggrieved parties — both because this would result in a higher-quality investigative process into his behavior and culpability, which might find him guilty of some crime, with a clear sentence; and also because I have kept up with him, and it would seem that the outcome of this process has been substantially more dehumanizing to him than imprisonment.
I also acknowledge that whatever flaws her process had, Aella at the least did initiate some process. Something had to happen with Brent; as far as I am aware nobody had any particularly coherent plans about it at the time.
And last, I should emphasize that I do not view Aella as a fully isolated actor in this situation. I think she is almost certainly very bad; she should not have power, and should not be a decisionmaker in this or any other community, informally or otherwise; however, she occupies the position she does due to the cowardice and ignorance of a very large number of people in the Rationality community and beyond. (This post is in part an attempt at undoing some of that.)
So — some facts regarding the Brent case:
Aella initiated it — she was @mittenscautious. She was roommates with “Persephone” at the time. She gathered the stories together, set up the inbox, and made the Medium account.
There is an anonymous, unverified report that someone was hired for half a bitcoin (in 2018, so about $3,000) to edit drafts of the stories, and that they made factual changes to them in order to better generate outrage.
CFAR had previously had its internal judicial board review the “Persephone” case and come to a decision on it. (I believe the decision was “innocent” but I’m not sure; this is certainly the belief currently in broad circulation.)
The case presented by the Medium posts contained information that CFAR had not seen.
The Medium posts went viral.
Various people participated in “sensemaking” threads on Facebook and elsewhere. These were another common feature of Aella cancellations; and by my read, people’s responses tracked prevailing social feeling about what was going on with shockingly little dissent. At first, the posts were overwhelmingly trying to “take care of” Brent and make sure he was okay; later, they were overwhelmingly accounts of how people didn’t like Brent, felt creeped out by him, thought he had lied to them or was dishonest, etc. Speaking with people who did hold dissenting opinions at various times, the overwhelming feeling was that they were “not allowed” to post them, or were too fearful of attack to do so.
Eventually CFAR capitulated to the frame. They decided that Brent had “hacked” them, underwent a big internal purge, let go of a key staff member (who had been a member of Brent’s group), and scrubbed any “Brent” flavored material from their curriculum.
Afterwards, CFAR gave up on community leadership of the Berkeley Rationalists.
My intuitive read of this sequence of events, at the time as well as now, was:
Brent did something bad.
CFAR initiated an investigative process to determine what was to be done. That process reached a certain result.
Aella contested that result, and initiated an investigative process of dramatically lower fidelity, but higher memetic virulence.
Due to the strength of Aella’s frame, CFAR capitulated and ceded de facto control of the community to her.
As regards the MAPLE and OAK cancellation attempt, I will decline to speculate for now, in part because I have a conflict of interest; I am an alum of those orgs (and am writing this piece on my own, not on behalf of them.) I will simply note that in my view they are doing extremely valuable work that is rare to see in the world; in my eyes, those who train there are heroic, even if — in fact, especially because — they are not perfect.
As regards Leverage: Aella recently crashed a party I was attending. This, I later learned, was the day that Jessica Taylor’s post about her experiences at CFAR and MIRI came out. When I sat next to her, she was reading that post. What follows is my recollection of our conversation.
Aella started off by expressing visible, audible dismay at the post. “Why is she doing this? This is undermining my frame. I’m trying to do something and she’s fucking it up.”
I asked her: “why do you do this?”
She said: “because it feels good. It feels like mastery. Like doing a good work of art or playing an instrument. It feels satisfying.”
I said: “and do you have any sense of whether what you’re doing is good or not?”
She said: “hahaha, you and Mark Lippmann both have the ‘good’ thing, I don’t really get it.”
I said: “huh, wow. Well, hey, I think your actions are evil; but on the other hand, I don’t believe everything I think.”
She said: “yeah, I don’t really mind being the evil thing. Seems okay to me.”
And that’s all I have for you. I don’t know how else to end; if this were a cancellation, it might include a bit of “frame control” to try to tell you how to receive all of this and what to do about it. (The end of “Brent: A Warning” is an illustrative example.) But that’s not my goal; on the contrary, I simply want you, reading this, to have courage, discernment, and compassion; to be reasonable, and to take appropriate action as you see fit.
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