A group of women scattered across the country, connected by Twitter and music, managed to take down a Chicago-based band of alleged sexual abusers. This collective effort, which resulted in canceled shows and the eventual disbanding of The Orwells, happened in just six days.
The Orwells, a rock band from Elmhurst, Illinois, that shot to stardom in 2014, came under fire after reports of sexual assault, homophobic language, violence, and a pattern of targeting underage fans circulated on Twitter, Reddit, and a Facebook page for Chicago’s DIY music scene. The allegations largely centered on vocalist Mario Cuomo, who was accused by multiple women of assault and sending unsolicited nude photos to underage girls, and brothers Henry (drums) and Grant (bass) Brinner. Guitarists Dominic Corso and Matt O’Keefe were not mentioned in the accusations. The band “emphatically” denied all allegations in a statement and did not respond to Consequence of Sound’s multiple requests for comment.
Rather than remaining amongst local fans, the details and collective pain of these incidents spread through social media. In group chats, female fans of The Orwells and other Chicago groups discussed why the abuse was tolerated and decided to take matters into their own hands. One group in particular urged a Chicago venue to cancel The Orwells’ hometown show and collected a massive Google doc to share victims’ stories anonymously. This grassroots effort through which nine women toppled one of Chicago’s most popular indie groups offers a unique blueprint for other #MeToo efforts in music.
Genevieve Martinez lives a world away from Chicago in South Florida, but started to listen to Chicago indie rock band Twin Peaks in 2014. She created a group chat with seven other female fans on Twitter circa May 2016 (though some had met at a show and exchanged contact information), and they would occasionally travel to shows together.
“We all had similar tastes in music and similar personal beliefs, so we all hit it off pretty quickly. Our group chat evolved from talking about music to discussions on politics, feminism, social issues, and mental health,” Martinez, 24, told Consequence of Sound. “They’re all some of my closest friends!”
She learned about The Orwells by association and tried listening to them in 2015, “but was super put off by their awful personalities in the interviews I would watch.” Martinez said that she always had a bad feeling about the band – which became known for raucous shows and drunken behavior — and “wasn’t very surprised when I started hearing bad stuff.”
In a growing group chat on Twitter, Martinez and others would discuss rumors about members of the band hooking up with underage fans, sending explicit messages they expected would be reciprocated, and generally acting inappropriately. “We found out through some people that it was common knowledge in Chicago what terrible people The Orwells were. Several months ago was when we started entertaining the notion of publicly outing them,” she said.
In June 2017, Martinez tweeted: “It is with great happiness that I can finally say with full courage Fuck. The. Orwells.” That tweet caught the eye of Rita Hess, a Chicagoland area resident and ardent supporter of her local music scene. While Hess generally kept to herself at shows, she too had heard about illegal behavior from The Orwells and slid into Martinez’s DMs.
“The Orwells’ abuse was not only a well-known scene secret, but it was something that happened to so many women WITHIN the scene. Girlfriends of band members, friends of girlfriends of band members, to the women that are in the front row every show, etc.,” wrote Hess, who was confounded that no one spoke up. “People were SO close to the abuse. They saw what happened to their friends and knew these awful dudes lived nearby. I think they didn’t want to start even more trouble.”
Amanda, who was not involved in the group chat, told Consequence of Sound that Cuomo pursued her sexually from age 15, sending her unsolicited nude photos and manipulative texts. They had consensual sex, although Cuomo (who was in his 20s) never asked her age, despite knowing Amanda was still in high school. “It’s very tricky to understand how I feel about it,” said Amanda, now 19. “Even though I thought I wanted to do it when I was 15, I don’t think I was mentally prepared to do that. Especially with someone who was so much older than me at the time, especially someone who didn’t care to ask my age, especially someone who tried to get me drunk in order to have sex.”
The group chat was an important resource and place of solace for Hess. “From day one of our friendship, they had my back with what I was saying about The Orwells and encouraged me to speak out,” she said. “They had created legitimate friendships with other bands’ members and heard things from them that made us believe we were doing the right thing by speaking out.”
The women in the group chat felt obligated to do something, but believed that stories of negative interactions with The Orwells weren’t theirs to tell. They spent significant time discussing how to avoid “outing” victims and speaking for others without consent. Then, a girl they knew posted a photo of a graffiti-covered door at Cole’s on N. Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago that read “The Orwells are rapists” and “The Brinners are twin rapists.” Hess rushed to the bar to get a full-frame photo.
“This was shocking to us because up to that point we had only heard rumors of Mario’s violent behavior and relationships with underage girls. This was the first time we had seen anything about rape or the Brinner twins,” Martinez said. “This was the moment we became serious about wanting to expose The Orwells. We mused on why nobody had spoken up about them when their behavior and acts were common knowledge for many years. We became frustrated because all we really had were secondhand accounts and rumors.”
Hess, Martinez, and others began tweeting and retweeting the image hoping to make waves. The group spent a couple weeks feeling helpless, like they were getting nowhere.
“People knew exactly where the door was. They might have even known the people who wrote that and why,” Hess added. “I think the door really exemplified the idea of the ‘scene secret.’ It was literally the writing on the walls. It was there. We all saw it. We knew it. We just needed people to listen.”
On Aug. 23, Hess saw Chicago venue The Metro promoting an Orwells hometown show in November. She tweeted at the venue, noting the band’s history of abuse and how no one was talking about it. Hess also tagged Twin Peaks and several prominent Chicago bands, who (along with several others who weren’t tagged in the tweet) denounced The Orwells’ behavior. Hess’ tweet was retweeted by friends, fans, bands, and several other women who would soon come into the group chat fold. Actress and social media maven Busy Phillips also called on SiriusXM to stop playing the band.
The show was canceled on Aug. 27, although it’s unclear whether Metro or The Orwells are responsible for the cancellation.
Western Springs, IL, resident Bess Connelly hadn’t had firsthand experiences with The Orwells but had heard stories about Cuomo and the Brinners for several years, including a friend’s personal experience with Henry Brinner. She, too, called for the Metro show to be canceled. “When they announced the show at Metro, it sort of hit me that something actually needed to be done this time because it would be so unfair for them to still have a thriving career when they have abused and manipulated so many people,” Connelly, 21, wrote.
Akron, Ohio, resident Riley Kmet, 20, noticed Hess’ call for a cancellation and tweeted about her own experiences with The Orwells – she had also received unsolicited nudes from Cuomo when she was 17 and said a friend was raped by a member of the band.
“The Orwells were one of my favorite bands until more and more of my friends throughout the years had uncomfortable experiences with them that subsequently made it harder and harder to enjoy their music,” she told Consequence of Sound. “It felt important to tweet about it because I had so many friends from Twitter who still loved The Orwells, and I wanted them to know the truth about the band they’re choosing to support.”
Martinez reached out to Kmet, who joined a chat with Hess and another woman named Emma (who was not interviewed for this article) about how to proceed.
As tweets about the Metro show and accusations of sexual assault percolated around social media, women began to reach out to various members of the group chat to share their stories. Kmet decided to compile the stories into a Google doc, which is 39 pages long as of publishing, that other members of the chat could edit as stories flowed in. The format was easy to edit and share and something that all the women had experience with through school.
The Google doc featured emails and screenshots from social media. A few stories featured screenshots of texts from Cuomo — including what appears to be an admission that he slept with a 15-year-old — and another account featured a picture of bruises and bite marks left by him. One woman wrote that she lost her virginity to Cuomo through anal sex, during which he refused to wear a condom; multiple women said Cuomo had propositioned them before they were 18. Many of the anonymous accounts belonged to friends of the women from the group chat, and many others are still unshared.Their document was quickly shared – so much so that Google docs was overwhelmed and duplicate documents had to be created.
“We weren’t expecting any sort of response. It just seemed overwhelming once the stories started piling in,” wrote Chicago-based Madeline Heuer, Kmet’s best friend and a document editor. “The scenario we are now in is 100% because of social media. I have read every story in that document, and they all sadden me … It was 100% the fault of the perpetrators in The Orwells.”
“Reading through all the accounts has brought me a deeply disturbed feeling I cannot shake. I will say that I have received messages that say they have felt a little less powerless in the wake of this,” Kmet wrote. “Hearing the stories of all the other girls, while hard, has helped a lot of people feel less isolated, ashamed, and at fault for what they experienced and has brought healing to many lives. Hearing that makes me feel so inspired and honored to have somehow helped these victims find a little peace in their lives.”
On Aug. 29, The Orwells announced that they were breaking up.
“I did NOT expect that all this would happen in just six days. I mean, as soon as people started to finally talk about it, it was like the floodgates had been opened, and people just started talking and it didn’t stop,” Martinez wrote.
The rapid succession in which a popular band succumbed to the voices of its victims is unheard of – a clear result of the social media age and mounting #MeToo politics. While the speed and success of their work surprised the nine members of the group chat, most questioned why it took so long for The Orwells to be held accountable.
Connelly said she felt confident that the group could get the Metro show canceled but couldn’t have predicted that the band would break up. “It makes me wonder if all of this happened one or two years ago, would it have had the same results?”
Kmet echoed that sentiment, adding: “I am so proud of what the unified effort of women has made happen in a week.” She wondered why other bands in Chicago’s music scene, particularly those that are friends with The Orwells and knew of their behavior, didn’t speak out sooner. At the very least, those musicians should have unfollowed or stopped supporting The Orwells, she said.
Local bands Modern Vices and Twin Peaks were quick to denounce The Orwells’ behavior on Twitter, and both retweeted the link to the Google doc. Twin Peaks were praised for doing so, but urged people to keep the focus on the women involved.
“I hope that the disbandment of The Orwells through the hard work and courage of women in the community will be a powerful lesson to all of us: listen to the stories of women, amplify their voices, and allow them to dictate the narrative,” Twin Peaks’ vocalist/guitarist Caiden Lake James told Consequence of Sound. “I’m grateful to have been shown a clear path in outing predators without sacrificing the privacy of those who have been victim to their predatory behavior.”
Being involved in Chicago music with The Orwells’ “scene secret” was horrible, Hess said. “It hurt so badly to see band members stand up for abused women in other communities but never ours. They condemned other communities’ abusers but never ours. I started to feel like if, God forbid, something happened to me at a Chicago show, that I wouldn’t be able to speak out in fear of staining the scene’s reputation.”
On social media, multiple Orwells fans expressed disappointment about the way in which the band has been judged in the court of public opinion. “Innocent till Provin [sic] Guilty! I’m sure the Band did NOT the first to do this! …. Happens with fame! Slander the Band without Court hearings NOT GOOD judgement!!! [sic],” tweeted Chicago-based fan @jerryranda1.
Chicago resident Eric Kolkey, a former tour manager who worked with The Damned, Ramones, Iggy Pop, and others in the ‘70s and ‘80s, suggested that some of the incidents in the Google doc are par for the course in rock ‘n’ roll. In a private Facebook group for fans of The Orwells, Kolkey wrote about his experiences on tour.
“We had women throwing themselves at band members. Really beautiful girls! We had groupies who would have sex with any guy holding a guitar. Sometimes they liked it and sometimes they had buyers’ remorse,” Kolkey wrote. “What we did not have back then was the ability to destroy a band and its members by telling some anonymous tales that could be broadcast to the world in seconds and have everyone reading these tales to believe them immediately without question. All it takes is a few stories without proof and in a few days your target is ruined.”
Marie Chatelot, a French Orwells fan and admin of the same private Facebook fan group, said she has attended approximately 30 shows and been to multiple parties with the band. “They always treated us with a lot of respect. I’ve always felt safe with them,” she told Consequence of Sound, noting that she had seen the band flirting with girls.
“I was first shocked to read the testimonies of all these girls, and quickly I was very surprised how people immediately reacted to this Google doc and were convinced that it was the only truth,” Chatelot wrote. “To me, making allegations on the internet just discredits the authenticity of the facts. None of the victims ever filed a report to the police, which would have validated the accusations.”
However, the social media response has encouraged some of The Orwells’ younger fans, including Heuer and Kmet, to renegotiate things they took for granted as teenagers. “We saw what went down when we were 15, but now that we are 20, we realize how fucked up some of the stuff we witnessed was,” Heuer said.
“It saddens me that this was an underground secret for so long, but I also know that there probably was not any sort of opportunity for the victims to share all their stories in one place until this document happened,” she continued. “I believe that this has sparked many women and men to not only observe the behaviors around them, but to speak up on those behaviors and, hopefully, call out any bullshit before it becomes a pattern of abuse like the case of The Orwells.”
Hess said there’s a healing vibe among members of Chicago’s DIY music scene.
“Our scene is incredible and is even better now that this horrific abuse has been exposed and we’ve come together from it,” she said. “It’s time that women, POC, LGBTQ folk, and more are included in shows, it’s time that venues listen to why bands are saying they won’t work with other bands, and it’s time that fans VET the people they listen to.”