Right-wing pundit Rachel Marsden emerged from her latest high-profile breakup as the Internet's femme fatale
Rachel Marsden, the Canadian right-wing pundit, “Republican strategist” and woman you never want to break up with, is back. No surprise there. Over the past decade, the columnist, blogger and cable-network talking head who has appeared alongside the likes of Carl Bernstein, has shown indefatigable resiliency in rising from the flames, singed but unbowed. Her instinct for pushing attention-grabbing hot buttonsdate rape, allegations of leaks in national security, charges of Wikipedia malfeasance— is unerring. Her crash-and-burn entanglements with men up the male-authority food chain—from swim coach to Internet billionaire—have established Marsden as a modernday avenging Fury, a figure out of tabloid noir. Their messy endings have resulted in a revision of sexual harassment policy at a Canadian university, a book, a B-movie thriller, criminal charges, and, long before Julie Couillard, an investigation into possible breaches of national security.
Marsden’s status as the Internet’s reigning femme fatale was sealed earlier this year with her very public breakup from Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. After the 41-yearold Internet entrepreneur announced he and the 33-year-old Marsden were “no longer involved” on his Wikipedia discussion page, Marsden retaliated with a template for cyberromance revenge: she auctioned off clothing she said belonged to Wales on eBay, then released instant messages that suggested Wales violated his own site’s rules. The spat received international media coverage and resulted in scrutiny of both Wales’ and Wikimedia Foundation’s practices that verged
on full-blown scandal before fading away.
The same cannot be said of Marsden, who in mid-June resurfaced in a CNN report, weighing in on the U.S. presidential election. Michelle Obama is fair game as a political target, she opined, a view that will surprise no one who has ever crossed her path.
Rachel Marsden veered into national consciousness in the late 1990s as the Simon Fraser University student who cried date rape, accusing school swim team coach Liam
Donnelly of sexual harassment during what she said was a 16month romantic relationship. The two had met at a local swim club in 1990 when Marsden was a teenaged competitive swimmer. She later tried out for the SFU swim team, but quit after a few weeks. Donnelly denied the charges and ever having had an intimate relationship with Marsden. In 1997, an internal SFU investigation found him guilty of “severe sexual harassment” and he was fired. He fought back, alleging Marsden had in fact harassed him since 1992. Months later, he was reinstated and exonerated of all charges after making public suggestive emails and sexually explicit photographs sent by Marsden. The aftermath of the lightning-rod case dragged on for years. Marsden, who admitted to some of Donnelly’s charges but held to her original allegations, was championed by feminists—ironic given her later vilification of them. The university was disgraced; several faculty members, including SFU’s president, stepped down.
Marsden remained at the school, where she was dogged by other harassment complaints, none proven, one from criminology professor Neil Boyd, who says he went to the police. In the most bizarre twist, SFU harassment policy coordinator Patricia O’Hagan, who had befriended Marsden, accused the student of harassing her-including calling her more than 400 times. No charges were laid, though the university warned Marsden to stay away from Donnelly and Boyd. Marsden’s history of making claims against men didn’t seem to deter male interest in her, says Boyd. “There were all these guys going out for coffee with her after class,” he says.
The lurid B-movie details of Marsden’s alleged harassment of Donnelly-condoms scattered around his yard, repeated messages made using a voice-altering machine—are said to have inspired the 2002 teen flick Swimfan. By then, the stalker was a familiar figure in popular entertainment-from Glenn Close’s threatening turn in Fatal Attraction to the stalker as comic figure in The Cable Guy. Yet little is known of stalker psychology, says Toronto forensic psychiatrist Graham Glancy. “We didn’t use stalking to describe anything but tigers before 1990,” he says. In 1993, stalking—or “criminal harassment”—
was added to the Canadian Criminal Code as an offence punishable by up to 10 years in prison. It was seen to further strengthen laws that protected women.
TO PROSECUTE WONEN FOR STALKING IS VERY UNUSUAL
In 2002, Marsden was charged with the offence after her breakup with 52-year-old Vancouver radio host Michael Morgan, who ended their year-long on-again, off-again relationship. By then Marsden was styling herself in the mould of incendiary pundit Ann Coulter. After graduating from SFU she studied journalism and busied herself establishing right-wing bona fides-joining U.S. think tanks, contributing to blogs, and hosting a Vancouver open-line radio show where she interviewed Coulter and Gordon G. Liddy, and also met Morgan.
The evidence against Marsden included repeated phone calls and emails to Morgan along with threats to humiliate him by releasing photographs and personal papers. The police also discovered she had surreptitiously set Morgan’s email to blind copy her all of his correspondence without his knowledge.
Prosecuting women for stalking is highly unusual, says Reid Meloy, a San Diego, Calif.based forensic psychiatrist, author of The Psychology of Stalking: Clinical and Forensic Perspectives, and one of the first researchers of the female stalker. “There’s this bias—that it can’t be that bad a thing,” he says. “I’ve heard anecdotal cases where police say ‘You’re lucky to be chased by this woman.’ ” About 80 per cent of stalkers are men, he says; all tend to be of average or above-average intelligence. “Their ability to manipulate is quite extraordinary,” he says.
Marsden pled guilty. She was given a conditional discharge and sentenced to 12 months’ probation. In his May 2004 ruling, Justice W.J. Kitchen conveyed confidence she had learned her lesson. Still, he warned those who came into contact with her to exercise caution: “The public will be on notice that she has reacted inappropriately to upset and frustration, and consider this when dealing with her in the future.” He cited a psychological report presented to the court that described Marsden as “immature in her personal relationships,” though ‘extremely extroverted” and possessing some histrionic, attention-seeking traits, while showing no signs of mental illness or personality disorder.
Meloy says the assessment is unusual. “It’s rare to see a person who stalks who doesn’t have a psychiatric or psychological abnormality.” One of the biggest misconceptions about stalking, he says, is that it’s sexually motivated. “The research shows it’s about attachment, and securing long-term affection. It looks like in many cases there’s a severe disruption of attachment-there’s a loss of a parent figure.” Whether Marsden fits that profile isn’t known (Marsden declined to be interviewed by Maclean’s), although her father, Claude, a high-school teacher, was stripped of his certificate by the British Columbia College of Teachers in 2000 for having a sexual relationship with a l6-year-old female student.
Marsden found no shortage of willing male mentors. In 2003, B.C. Conservative MP Gurmant Grewal defied the objections of party officials to hire her on contract in his constituency office. “She is talented and has a lot to offer,” he told the Vancouver Sun. She left Grewal’s office in 2004 after the media tracked her down, discovering she worked there under an alias.
Sexual provocation was central in Marsden’s early self-marketing. In a bid to capture the attention of male newspaper editors she attached sultry photos to her CV. One photo on her website showcased her in a bustier, micromini and black stockings, the skimpy attire cannily deflecting attention from her scant journalistic experience. She literally became a poster girl of the right as Ms. December in the “2004 Babes-of-the-GOP” calendar, a title she boasted about, as she did a note from Ken Starr. (“To Rachel, with all good wishes,” he wrote.)
Marsden’s professional and personal lines could blur. One man who met with her to offer advice on the set-up of her media and political consultancy business recalls her dressed in cocktail party gear. After their meeting, she invited him for coffee. A brief liaison ensued. When he was unwilling to continue a relationship, Marsden was persistent, he recalls, so much so he ended up blocking her emails and phone calls. He says he knew about her past, but chose to ignore it.
Such doggedness was an asset within the competitive landscape of cable-network news, with its 30-second news cycle. Young, telegenic women capable of snappy sound bites were gold. Dennis Miller invited Marsden onto his short-lived CNBC talk show. Fox News took notice and she became a regular “Canadian” commentator on Bill O’Reilly’s O’Reilly Report, though she didn’t hide her disdain for what she regarded as the mushy politics of her native land. “From gays to pot-smokers, Canada is turning into a tyranny of minorities and special interest groups,” she wrote on her blog. “My homeland is starting to look about as appealingly progressive as the cesspool of Soddom [sic] and Gomorrah.”
Michael Marzolini, the chairman of Pollara, a market research firm, has known Marsden for years and finds her witty. “Not in a classical William F. Buckley or G.K. Chesterton kind of way,” he says. “It’s a very disrespectful, in-your-face kind of sassy wit, which has its attractions for the younger generation.” Her brash style impressed Les Pyette, then publisher of the National Post, who hired Marsden in 2005 to write a twice-weekly column. “He wanted to make her a star,” recalls one editor at the paper. Two months later, she was taken off the op-ed page after an anti-Muslim column she submitted was deemed unacceptable.
The Toronto Sun gave her a forum.
FOX GROOMED HER AS A NETWORK BRAND NAME
By then, Marsden was being groomed by Fox as a network brand name. She moved to New York in early 2007 after snagging a gig as a panellist on Red Eye, a daily satiric news roundup that aired at 2 a.m. Marsden provided a poised presence amid the frat-boy melee, seated so her crossed legs always appeared on camera. She held her own within that soporific crowd. “Hillary Clinton fills out a cup better than Peyton Manning,” she cracked. Another time she questioned the hygiene of Pakistani cricket players. Her rising star at Fox caught the attention of Salon, com, which ran a profile detailing her past. The story ran shortly after a Red Eye discussion of the Duke University rape case in which Marsden dismissed the idea that, if the charges were dropped, the female accuser should face ramifications. “Charges are laid, charges are dropped. It happens all the time,” she said. “Unless she can get charged with mischief and they can prove she lied, then no. That’s the process and the process works.” When host Greg Gutfeld asked her: “Don’t you think that being accused of rape is as bad as being raped? Those guys’ lives were ruined!” Marsden shot back: “Let’s give it 10 years and see if their lives were ruined.”
Marsden left Red Eye in May 2007. The New York Post’s gossip sheet Page Six covered her departure. On her blog, Marsden announced she’d been told the show “is heading in a ‘different direction’ from its inception, and I am the ‘first casualty.’ ” She called the experience “the first time that I was ever considered the ‘sane one’ on any program, so I am grateful for that unique opportunity.” In September 2007 she was back in the headlines after announcing another rancorous romantic split, this one involving potential threats to Canada’s national security. Under the headline “Rachel’s Jerk of the Day,” she posted a photograph of Ontario Provincial Police Const. Tony Backhurst, an undercover member of the provincial anti-terrorism section. She claimed Backhurst shared details of classified Canadian counterterrorism operations during a two-year intimate relationship, allegations she repeated days later in an email sent to the OPP Backhurst admitted having a
brief affair with Marsden, whom he met at a Toronto shooting range in 2005, but denied a longer relationship or leaking documents. His lawyer, Andrew McKay, claims Marsden and Backhurst met less than a handful of times. “He told her on numerous occasions that the relationship was strictly platonic,” McKay says. Marsden lashed back, making public emails allegedly from Backhurst (minus her responses) that featured racist jokes, sexually provocative references and Backhurst’s avowal he had found in her his “soul mate.” She also sent the National Post sexually explicit (though unidentifiable) photos that she claimed Backhurst had emailed her. An internal investigation cleared Backhurst of wrongdoing, says McKay, who wonders if the emails had been doctored. “She has a history of tamper-
ing with technology,” he says. McKay says Backhurst tried to lodge a criminal harassment complaint against her with police, though no charges were laid. The fallout was devastating for his client, who is back at work, McKay says. “It compromised his job security, it compromised his physical security and it compromised his relationship with his family,” he says.
Marsden denied stalking Backhurst. “I live in NYC,” she wrote in an email to the Toronto Star in December 2007. “If I was going to ‘stalk’ anyone from that kind of a massive distance, it sure wouldn’t be that loser,” adding: “Anyone who reads my blog or column knows it would be [French President] Nicolas Sarkozy!”
In November, the Toronto Sun dropped her column, a move a senior editor chalked up to “a desire for fresh voices.” On her blog, Marsden blamed the paper’s new editor-inchief Lou Clancy for caving to backlash in the blogosphere to a column she wrote minimizing the effects of “water-boarding,” the practice of torturing by drowning: “I suppose that those who object to terror suspects getting water up the nose would say that, as a young competitive swimmer, I was also tortured,” she wrote. Marsden torqued the controversy into a publicity op, selling T-shirts brandished: “CIA Center For Aquatic Excellence Waterboarding Team.” She again referenced swim team imagery in an appearance as a panellist on CNN’s The Situation Room alongside Carl Bernstein, where she was billed as a “Republican Strategist,” though her experience working GOP backrooms is vague. “One man’s torture is another man’s CIAsponsored swim lesson,” she cracked.
SFU professor Boyd, who wrote a 2004 book Big Sister: How Extreme Feminism Has Betrayed the Fight for Sexual Equality about the SFU fiasco, sees Marsden’s media profile reflecting what’s distasteful about popular culture: “Any person who’s prepared to make extreme statements and can do so with bravado and who seems cosmetically appropriate will be paid attention to. And the more bizarre and extreme the better.”
Marsden is less tolerant when it comes to extreme statements made about herself. Her acute recognition of the power of online defamation, in fact, brought her into Jimmy Wales’s orbit. Unhappy with her profile on the open-platform encyclopedia, she went to the top, emailing Wales to have her Wikipedia profile purged of comments she believed libellous. Whether Wales, who’s at work on a search engine he hopes will one day usurp Google, ever Googled Marsden is unknown. A self-described “rationalist” and Ayn Rand devotee, Wales has said publicly he and Marsden struck up an online friendship during which he offered to meet her to “give some feedback on her website design and business model” for a political networking and jobsearch website she was setting up.
SHE HIT BACK WITH A TEMPLATE FOR CYBER-RONANCE REVENGE
In late February tech industry blog Valleywag, com published allegedly leaked instant messages between Marsden and Wales that suggested Wales used his influence to improperly make changes to her entry so he could continue “f***ing [her] brains out.” In another exchange the two compare broadband services around the world, with Wales griping about miserly download speeds offered in America, to which Marsden responded: “When you talk about megabits [sic] and broadband, you have no idea what that does to me. lol.” The next day, Wales announced on his Wikipedia page “he was no longer involved” with Marsden. He acknowledged her Wikipedia entry was not up to their “standards” but that he had recused himself from reviewing it. He also claimed he met with Marsden only once in February, adding “gossipy stories suggesting that I have been in a relationship with her ‘since last fall’ are completely false.”
The assertion didn’t stop blogosphere speculation that Marsden was the reason Wales, who had recently split with his wife, had suggested Wikipedia move its head office from Florida to New York last fall.
Marsden claimed to have been blindsided by Wales’s rejection and responded bitterly via Valleywag.com. She also managed to marshall her hurt into a marketing opportunity that dovetailed with the launch of her website, modelling a “twice-washed” sweater and T-shirt she claimed were Wales’s on eBay. (The Pronto-Uomo sweater had one bid for more than US $1,000, the black Starter shirt had one for more than US$2,000. Whether Marsden profited financially from the sale is not known.)
The breakup became a cause célèbre—both in the blogosphere and in the mainstream press. Wikipedia was thrown temporarily into disrepute. Marsden too was subject to blistering criticism. One exception was an anonymous post on allswool.blogspot.com, a blog run by a former Wikipedia employee, which expressed admiration: “Rachel Marsden is the personification of Gaia’s Revenge. It’s almost like she was put on Earth for the sole purpose of exposing creeps who screw women over and behave abominably. In this case she has done a lot of people a major favor. Count me as a fan.” Its language echoed an earlier email Marsden sent to media website Gawker.com in February 2008 to announce an upcoming appearance on the Fox Business channel. In it, she heaped praise on Fox News’s founder: “Eve always been a big fan of Roger Ailes—and am always honoured to be asked to contribute to anything this great man has built.”
In an email exchange with Maclean’s Marsden downplayed any negative fallout from her breakup with Wales. “No one pays any attention to online garbage—or sensational press,” she wrote, before adding, “If anything, it’s been a career boom.” Marsden, who counts Liberal MP Denis Coderre as one of her many Facebook “friends,” forges ahead. There’s a new project in the works—“something major,” she promises. Count on it.