News and Commentary

Life After Cancellation: How One Literary Agent Reclaimed Her Life From The Mob

DailyWire.com

Literary agent Colleen Oefelein knows a lot about living under the uncomfortable glare of a media spotlight she never sought. In 2007, she was working as an Air Force captain and chemical engineer when her boyfriend’s ex, equipped with a drilling hammer and an 8-inch folding knife, attacked her in an airport parking lot. The incident made news around the world because Oefelein’s boyfriend (now husband) was an astronaut, as was his former lover, who was charged with attempted murder and kidnapping. The story, which became known as “The Astronaut Love Triangle, involved details so outlandish — like the fact that the perpetrator allegedly wore a diaper to save time — it eventually inspired a 2019 movie starring Natalie Portman.

It was a harrowing period and one Oefelein would never want to relive, but in a way, she tells me now in a soft voice that belies the  commanding jobs she’s had in the past, that experience prepared her for the second time she would face a swarm of negative headlines — an attack that came in the form of a cancellation mob.

A New Career

After the trial against her assailant was over, Oefelein and her husband relocated to Wasilla, Alaska, a region of glassy lakes and snow-capped mountains, where she began to process her trauma through journaling. That turned into writing a memoir, which eventually led her to publish a novel. Through the process, Oefelein learned the ins and outs of the publishing industry. As a high-energy literature lover, she realized that, along with being an author, she had the ideal skills for helping other would-be writers find homes for their work.

She spent the next few years working for a small, startup agency. But when it closed in 2018 due to the owner’s illness, she gratefully accepted a position as an associate with the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency (JDLA), an established boutique outfit with offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Looking at their roster of clients that included bestselling authors like “Elf on The Shelf’s” Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell, and celebrities like Ed Asner and Tippi Hendren, Oefeleien thought big things might be on the horizon. She gave little thought to the fact that she didn’t share her new employer’s politics.

“I knew the first time I talked to [owner Jennifer De Chiara] that she was on the Left,” Oefelein tells me. “She was very, very proud of having met the Clintons. She talked about that a lot.”

In general, Oefelein finds politics boring, but she is a Christian, and if pressed to describe her ideology, says she considers herself a moderate conservative who leans left on a few issues. So she wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about how partisan her new colleagues were, and she disliked the amount of time they wasted bashing President Trump during meetings: “I kept thinking, ‘Man, I have things I need to do. Can we just get back to business?’ It was a little frustrating.”

Further frustrating was when, in January, an open letter began circulating in the publishing world calling for agents and editors to pledge not to work with any member of the Trump Administration or anyone associated with it. Three of Oefelein’s coworkers signed and encouraged others to do the same.

Privately, Oefelein thought, “I’m not signing a petition to not work with people. That’s ridiculous,” she recalls. She also thought, “Wow, you know, what a way to really alienate a segment of the market.”

Still, she kept her objections to herself and threw her energy into attracting quality authors and manuscripts, something her agency advised her to use social media to accomplish.

“I’m not really a big social media user,” Oefelein shares, “But in our one of our monthly discussions our guidance was that we needed to do more to connect to people more on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and stuff like that.”

Thus, when a comedian she followed on Twitter mentioned that he was going to Parler and Gab because he appreciated their commitment not to police speech, Oefelein thought the platforms sounded like new opportunities to reach untapped talent. In November 2020, she opened accounts herself and began cross-posting the same content she put on Twitter and Facebook, offering free manuscript critiques and describing the kinds of books she was interested in representing — mostly romance and young adult novels.

What she never posted, unlike her associates who routinely shared strident left-wing views on all manner of subjects, was anything remotely political.

‘A Voice of Unity, Equality, and One that Is On the Side of Social Justice’

As writer Kat Rosenfield has detailed in The New Yorker, the world of young adult fiction has become an increasingly toxic whisper network wherein anonymous burner accounts torpedo the careers of agents and authors for such offenses as writing about characters with another skin color or calling the police on Black Lives Matter looters. Oefelein’s crime was opening that Parler account.

On January 25, the day after her birthday, she woke up to a message from De Chiara:

Dear Colleen:

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Twitter is blowing up with negative tweets about JDLA, all in response to your joining Parler and Gab.  All of this presumably happened late last night, and I found out about it through emails at 7 am this morning from assistants and agents who are following all of it on Twitter.  Not a nice way to wake up on a Monday morning.  

I don’t care about anyone’s political affiliations, but if it will adversely impact my agency, then I do, and I must take swift action.  I’m sorry, but we have to part ways.

Oefelein, an early riser, saw it at 4:30 A.M. Alaska time. After sifting through the many tweet threads mentioning her name, she was able to pinpoint the source of the storm. A secret account by the name of @YAWhispers had tagged Chiara with a screenshot of Oefelein’s announcement that would-be authors could also find her on the new free-speech-friendly platforms. “Does @JDLitAgency know or care that one of their agents frequents alt-right social media like Parler and Gab,” the account asked.

Other Young Adult authors and wannabes began pelting the agency with replies (many since deleted) condemning Oefelein with claims like, “These specific platforms (Parler/Gab) are gathering places for white supremacists/Nazis.” Competing agent Beth Phelan, who has been embroiled in other “social justice” pile-ons, amplified the discussion, eventually warning everyone who had mobbed Oefelein that Rosenfield was writing about the incident.

“Hey all [Kat Rosenfield] tweeted about the whole colleen/parler thing so if you tweeted or replied or anything just a heads up in case you wanna lock or delete,” Phelan said, before adding, in an implication that Rosenfield’s reporting might endanger them, “Stay safe.”

Chiara, without so much as calling her employee to discuss the matter, immediately agreed that Oefelein had been wrong to open accounts on platforms known for welcoming conservatives. (Note, The Daily Wire reached out to Jennifer De Chiara and did not receive a response).

“The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency was distressed to discover this morning, January 25th, that one of our agents has been using the social media platforms Gab and Parler,” she said. “We do not condone this activity, and we apologize to anyone who has been affected or offended by this.” A minute later she added, “The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency has in the past and will continue to ensure a voice of unity, equality, and one that is on the side of social justice.”

Less than an hour after that, she announced that Oefelein had been fired — all before Oefelein even had a chance to check her email.

Suddenly, with Newsweek calling her for interviews and Tucker Carlson asking her to come on his show, Oefelein, through no fault of her own, once again found herself in the spotlight.

Having been through a terrible media ordeal once in her life, Oefelein was, at first, tempted to withdraw and hide from the uproar, especially when the mob began mocking the suffering she’d endured in 2007.  Friends called her, incensed on her behalf. “You need to know that they’re bringing up your crime and making fun of it — they’re laughing because you were a crime victim!’” Oefelein remembers her friends telling her. “And I was like, ‘Well, of course they are. They’re awful people. I already know that.’ But my friends were outraged.”

Given the invasive callousness with which the press treated her and her husband 14 year earlier, Oefelein finds it difficult to talk to reporters even now. “Whenever I get calls for stuff like this, I get a migraine,” she explains to me quietly. “I mean, I still struggle with PTSD, and I used to get physically ill for days before talking to the media. It was this feeling of dread like, ‘How are they gonna twist what I say this time?’”

And after spending more than a decade rebuilding their life, she expected her husband to tell her they should just unplug and go camping while the cancellation drama played out without them. Instead, to Oefelein’s surprise, he encouraged her to tell her story.

“He just told me, ‘This is something you really need to speak out about because this is happening to a lot of people,’” Oefelein recalls. She decided, for the cause of free speech and for sake of her clients, to grit her teeth and push back.

Though, she strongly suspected she would no longer have any clients.

Refusing to Be Cancelled

“So I went on Tucker and just kind of publicly told everybody that, yes, I was this awful, social justice failure,” Oefelein jokes. “And I didn’t know where it was gonna go after that. I was kind of looking forward to maybe doing other things.”

Her clients, however, didn’t want her to do other things. Though she explained her fears that she would be blacklisted by editors and publishing houses, every single one asked Oefelein to continue representing them.

“They said, ‘We want you to stick with us,’” she remembers. “And they all wrote emails to Jennifer [De Chiara] the next day because their contract was with her, not me, and said, ‘We’re terminating our agreement, effective immediately.’ So I thought, okay, well, I guess I have my own agency now. We’ll just plug away at this and see what happens.”

Still, she was by no means confident that the rest of the publishing industry would prove so honorable. Despite the vitriol she’d received on Twitter, a number of other agents, authors, and editors reached out to express their outrage at how she’d been treated. But those messages were private — making deals with her publicly might be another matter.

What Oefelein found was that, if you’re courageous enough to stand up to noisy pockets of extreme illiberalism and keep going, even the mainstream publishing industry can still provide plenty of people more focused on producing great art than policing their colleagues’ views.

“Sure enough, I’ve sold two books already,” Oefelein shares, a solid number for a brand-new agency whose first order of business was pressing on through a P.R. nightmare.

The first, a middle grade historical adventure by Jared Agard titled “Dread Watch,” released in September. The second, a Young Adult fantasy by Brielle Porter was announced in Publisher’s Weekly on July 7 and will debut in Spring 2022.

Oefelein says she hasn’t noticed any difference in her professional communications with editors or other agents, though, perhaps unsurprisingly, some who are friendly with her in more formal communications have unfollowed her on social media.

“I even had one of my author friends say to me, ‘I have to unfollow you on Twitter, but I’m still following you on Facebook. And we’re still friends, right?’” she chuckles. “And I was like, ‘I’m not really sure. I don’t even know how to answer that.’” That said, she’s resolved not to dwell on the people who have disassociated from her in public. “Twitter is not real life, right? Those people are not your friends,” she says. “I have a real life; I have real friends, a real family. I focus on those.”

Oefelein, who has a degree in German, was also a linguist during her time in the Air Force, and she recalls seeing a monument next to the opera house in Bebelplatz square in Berlin. Known as “The Empty Library,” it’s dedicated to the books that were burned in the Nazi era. The image of vast, empty shelves sunk in the ground among 18th century cobblestones has always stayed with her.

“Why burn books?” she wonders aloud. “I always felt like such a thing is a sign of a decaying society and never could have guessed then that it might happen here. When you prevent people from hearing or reading different points of view, it’s never a good thing,” she says. “I always thought the publishing industry’s job was to ensure that all of those perspectives are available. So when you see this move to eliminate, not just some, but all perspective on a certain political side from the very people who are supposed to be the guardians of ideas, what can I say…” she trails off. “It’s scary.”

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

Already have an account? Login