How Harlan Ellison Lost His Legacy To Poor Personal Conduct

Yamini Pustake Bhalerao
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Harlan Ellison

Controversial science-fiction author Harlan Ellison passed on in his sleep on Thursday, at the age of 84. The author who penned numerous short stories like I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream and Jeffty Is Five, also penned perhaps the most popular Star Trek episode called The City on the Edge of Forever. However, many people reminded those mourning his death that Ellison groped author Connie Willis in 2006 on stage at the Hugo Awards.


Despite being hailed as one of the best Sci-Fi writers of his generation, Ellison lost his credibility due to his poor personal conduct and rightly so. His tarnished legacy is a proof that no matter how talented you are, your art is always shadowed by your personal conduct. And that your legacy will, in the end, pay the cost of your misconduct.

It is not so easy to separate art from the artist

We live in times when it is almost impossible to separate art from the artist. Gone are the days when being misogynist, cantankerous or chiding off groping as a joke would work. People no longer fall for the risqué behaviour which many artists display in the name of an enigma. In this era of the Internet, social media and increased awareness about sexual misconduct, even artists have to live under the microscope, that is the public eye.

Thus, artists increasingly end up destroying their own work of labour, when they fail to keep their behaviour in check. The most recent examples of losing their legacy courtesy sexual misconduct are Louis CK and Kevin Spacey. Two stalwarts in their profession, who enjoyed a cult following, until karma caught up with them.

While many artists have been accused of sexual misconduct in the past, not many have suffered the rebuff from their fans, that CK and Spacey received. I recall a Podcast from some time ago, where Louis CK’s fans admitted to finding his jokes inappropriate, in the wake of the allegations against him. The same jokes, which used to incite pleasure and laughter now induced guilt.

For fans of Ellison’s literature, his legacy is now shrouded by the groping scandal.

But is it right to criticise a deceased artist for his callous conduct?

Must we stop enjoying films starring Spacey or jokes made by Louis CK forever? Will the history always redline their body of work with their personal misconduct? Moreover, what would give the same treatment to a celebrated artist from the past? If we find out that he committed monstrosities like rape or abusing children?

Yes, is the answer to all these questions. No art or body of work, no matter how significant or path breaking, must come at the cost of someone’s sexual safety or dignity. To an extent, it was the tag of greatness in their field which gave these men a free pass to get away abusing the powerless - women and men alike. They abused our love for their work to make someone’s life miserable. They hid behind their artistic skills and unleashed their personal demons.

So, instead of criticising those who are talking about Ellison’s poor personal conduct in wake of his death, let’s remember that he is solely responsible for marring his own legacy. That goes for every living or deceased legend. If you want the world to remember you for your great work and not personal shortcomings, then make sure to not abuse the love your fans shower on you because then there would be no forgiveness for you. Ever.

Also Read: Groping is an offence, Downplaying Its Severity is a Big Deal

Yamini Pustake Bhalerao is a writer with the SheThePeople team, in the Opinions section.  The views expressed are the author’s own

Sexual harassment #MeToo groping Harlan Ellison separating art from the artist