“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
— William Shakespeare,
Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2
Eric Francis Coppolino has been a presence in the Hudson Valley’s media and arts scene for three decades. His home base was Chronogram magazine, where for over 22 years — under the pen name Eric Francis — he built a faithful following with his monthly astrology column. As an investigative reporter, he published deep dives into PCB contamination in the Hudson River and on the campus of SUNY New Paltz. His reach extends beyond Kingston with columns in Marie Claire and the New York Daily News. He also has a website, “Planet Waves,” a regular podcast and numerous clients to whom he provides detailed and personalized horoscopes.
From these platforms, Francis frequently broadcast his views on sex and the links between sex and spirituality. His online fine-art photography work, Book of Blue, features erotic images which are at times displayed prominently in the window of his North Front Street studio. In the pages of Chronogram and elsewhere, he’s written frank, opinionated pieces on masturbation, polyamory, bisexuality and his own theory of “self love” as a sexual orientation.
In February, Francis turned his attention to another hot-button issue — the #metoo movement. In his column that month, Francis wrote a critique of the movement, titled “Eric Francis’s Reflections on #MeToo” in Chronogram and “Take a Step Back” on Francis’ site. The piece took aim at the movement’s methods, its potential unfairness to men, and its exclusion of male sexual-assault victims.
Then all hell broke loose.
First one, then a handful and eventually more than a dozen women came forward to relate experiences with Francis. Those experiences ranged, the women said, from creepy, persistent or unwanted come-ons to Francis using his status to manipulate women for sex. By May, Francis had lost his column at Chronogram, a weekly show on Radio Kingston, a contract with Dutchess County-based Omega Institute, and a speaking slot at an upcoming astrological conference.
The story of Francis’ downfall is a story of #metoo and the “deplatforming” movement — where activists target those whose views or actions they oppose by putting pressure on the media outlets and institutions that give them platforms to take those platforms away — played out against the backdrop of Kingston’s insular Uptown arts and media social scene, and the cosmic universe of astrology.
“It was nothing coercive in any way,” explained Chronogram editor-in-chief Brian Mahoney of the allegations against Francis. “But it was a pattern of behavior that we did not want associated with Chronogram. We have a brand that I have spent 20 years building up, and I do not want it to be associated with someone who’s viewed as a creep.”
While some men implicated by #metoo have responded with contrition, self-reflection or a quiet retreat from the public eye, Francis has responded with threats of legal action against the women who publicized the allegations and by doubling down on his criticism of #metoo in a series of articles published on “Planet Waves.” In comments on Facebook and in an interview with an investigator hired by Chronogram to look into the allegations, Francis has issued what amounts to blanket denial of improper behavior. Instead, Francis views his downfall as “political payback” from a small group of women using exactly the kind of “guilty by accusation” tactics that he critiqued in “Take a Step Back.”
His payback was for writing the article “challenging…[the] guilty-by-accusation method,” Francis told investigator Ryan Poscablo, according to a transcript Francis provided to Ulster Publishing. “The article so explicitly and directly describes what…then happened that it would be funny if it were not so tragic.” In a July 2 piece that has generated considerable discussion, The New York Times politically conservative opinion columnist David Brooks expressed his view that the millennial generation detected less “day-to-day difference between men and women than in previous generations.” In what he termed “the political showbiz sphere,” however, where Donald Trump’s cartoonish masculinity squared off against cartoonish Why Can’t We Hate Men, “we see the usual social-media game of moral oneupsmanship in which each tribe competes to be more victimized, more offended and more woke.”
Reports of Francis’ questionable behavior towards women have long floated around what #metoo activists call a “whisper network.” In Kingston, that network wove through the writers, artists and other media types who live and work in the Stockade district and the cafés and restaurants they frequent. But the first public allegation came from across the country when Dana Barnett, a diversity and inclusion specialist for the Washington State Bar Association, wrote to Chronogram to express her anger over Francis’ #metoo column and what she says is her own negative sexual experience with him.
“What he wrote felt like the same thing he did to me. I don’t know if it’s a line, a move to say ‘I’m really interested in healing, I’m a feminist, I want social justice,’” said Barnett of decision to come forward. “But seeing him do that in a place where he has a lot of influence felt very dangerous to me.”
In the late summer of 1996 Barnett was 18 and a virgin, newly arrived on campus for her freshman year at SUNY New Paltz. Barnett said she met Francis, who would have been 32 that summer, at an on-campus drum circle where he was the only non-student present. Barnett had been an environmental activist in high school and was eager to meet and learn from like-minded people in her new home. A conversation with Francis at the drum circle about PCB contamination led to an invitation from him to learn more about the issue in a one-on-one setting, Barnett said. Barnett said Francis showed up in his car packed for a picnic and drove her up in the Shawangunk Mountains. The pair walked deep into the woods as Francis turned the conversation from chemical contaminants to sex.
“He said people were really hung up on sexual issues; he presented himself as someone who was very knowledgeable about spiritual matters,” recalls Barnett. “And I was this young hippie activist person who prided myself on being really open-minded about alternative lifestyles and ways of being.”
Later, Barnett said, they stopped by a stream where Francis lit incense and gave her a tarot card reading that she described as “very deep and personal.”
Barnett’s voice cracked when she described what happened next: a sexual encounter that left her immediately feeling “awful, dirty, confused, manipulated, haunted.” Barnett said she had decided when Francis showed up packed for a picnic that if he made a pass at her she would simply brush it off. That resolve, she said, weakened in the woods, with the sun going down and her unsure how to get back to the car, much less campus.
“The reason I went along with it is that I wasn’t sure what would happen if I didn’t,” recalls Barnett.
Later, she said, she heard similar stories from other people on campus. Friends told her that they had seen Francis’ name on a “wall of shame” at a Take Back the Night anti-rape event on campus later that fall. She began to see her experience with Francis as part of a broader pattern of behavior targeting young women.
“I remember thinking at the time, this is a really dangerous person,” said Barnett.
Speaking with an investigator hired by Chronogram to look into the misconduct allegations, Francis flatly denied any encounter with Barnett. According to a transcript of the May 10 interview provided to Ulster Publishing by Francis, he told Poscablo that he could account for all of his sexual partners during that period and Barnett was not among them.
“No, it didn’t happen. Ever. Ever,” Francis told Poscablo, according to the transcript.
Barnett, meanwhile, points to an erotic poem sent to her by Francis shortly after their encounter. Barnett shared images of the typewritten poem signed to her by Francis and the postmarked envelope it came in. The poem, titled “Returning Milk to the Mother,” aligns with details of the sexual encounter related by Barnett.
Three other women interviewed by Ulster Publishing said Barnett had told them the story of her encounter with Francis many years previously. Brook Celeste Lillard met Barnett through activist circles around 2000. She recalls Barnett recounting how she went to meet a man to talk about environmental issues in the Hudson River and “it turned into a date.”
“It struck me as one of those sexual experiences where an older man has power and uses it to get what he wants from a significantly younger woman,” said Lillard.
Barnett was alerted to Francis’ #metoo column by her friend Julie Novak, a writer, comedian and co-founder of the local story-telling collective, “TMI Project.” After Chronogram ran an edited version of Barnett’s letter — one that omitted her reference to her personal experience with Francis — in its April edition, Novak ran the complete version on her personal Facebook page. The post made its way to Hudson Valley Feminists, a private moderated Facebook group. There, stories began piling up about Francis’ alleged behavior towards women over the years.
Francis has written of “guilt by accusation.” He wants to know what his critics propose as an alternate community standard to consent. He believes those who find him so objectionable are projecting their own dark stuff: “It’s always about the person they’re projecting onto. That creep. That weirdo, stalker and manipulator. That infamous, condescending, womanizing, abusive pig. They are talking about themselves.”
Hillary Harvey is a photographer and journalist who’s been associated with Chronogram since 2004, most recently as editor at large. She also hosts “The Source,” a news program on Radio Kingston. Harvey said she saw a potential story when she initially saw women posting their Eric Francis #metoo stories and coming to her personally to share their experiences. But, she said, she quickly decided that sharing two employers with Francis created an untenable conflict. Instead, she set out to document the women’s stories to share with management at Radio Kingston and Chronogram which, she believes, were unaware of the scope of the allegations.
“People were talking about Radio Kingston and Chronogram in incredibly unflattering terms, and I felt protective because the people who work there are good people and a lot of this stuff they might have been unaware of,” said Harvey. “I thought it could be helpful for me, because I saw it all, to just collect and gather and share it with them so they could make their decisions.”
On April 10, Sari Botton, a local writer and editor, hosted a meeting to discuss the allegations against Francis. At the meeting and over the next few days, 10 women gave recorded statements to Harvey about their interactions with him. Harvey then collected eight more recordings, along with corroborating documents including texts and emails. All told, Harvey said, she spoke to some 24 women who had recounted unpleasant experiences with Francis.
One who allowed a Harvey to share a transcript of her recording on the condition that her name not be used met Francis in 2007 when he offered her some editing work for Planet Waves. The woman, who was then 25 and a single mother to a newborn son, said that she had been doing the job for a few weeks when Francis invited her to his home to have her chart read and for dinner with him and his then-girlfriend.
During the reading, the woman recalled, Francis interpreted her chart in terms of sex, telling her that she should be more “sexually free and sexually open” and offered to work with her to help her become “more open and free and artistic like my chart said I was supposed to be.” Meanwhile, the woman said, Francis explained how he and what he called his “girlfriend of choice” had an open relationship in a way that she interpreted as an invitation to a threesome.
“I really felt like he was implying that they wanted to have sex with me, which I feel anybody would have gathered from that conversation.”
Later during dinner she said Francis “railed on her” for going to court to get custody of her son from an ex-husband. Francis, she said, accused women of abusing the court system and blamed her for having a baby with a man who left her. Feeling insulted, the women said she beat a hasty retreat from the residence, vowing to work with Francis at a distance. The next day, the woman told Harvey, Francis sent a new batch of files, writing “I’ve got some new editing work for you.” Inside the files were images of Francis masturbating onto mirrors. The woman said that she had been hired to edit Planet Waves and was shocked and disgusted to be sent images from Francis’ personal erotic photography blog “Book of Blue.”
“I opened up the email and I felt like somebody smacked me in the face. I felt really degraded,” said the woman, who told Harvey she believed Francis sent the photos as a kind of retaliation for her refusal to have sex with him and his girlfriend. “This was supposed to be a good job that I could do from home…and at that point I just quit and I never spoke to him again.”
Another woman recounted going to Francis’ studio after he offered a free chart reading. After the reading, the woman said he masturbated in her presence. The woman said Francis asked first and she consented. But added that she did so out of a concern for her own safety — she had previously experienced a violent sexual assault and feared a confrontation with Francis — rather than desire.
“If I had known [that Francis intended to masturbate in front of her] I would not have gone,” said the woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “If I felt I could have left and been safe leaving, I would have.”
Other women shared with Harvey emails and texts from Francis. In one, he writes of his desire “to lick out your ass.” The recipient of the text, a then-24-year-old New Paltz business owner, told Harvey that she considered the message inappropriate because nothing in her previous conversations should have given him the impression that the solicitation would be welcome.
“There was never any indication from me that I was interested in him,” the woman said in a recording shared with Ulster Publishing. “It was kind of predatory in nature because there was no reciprocation.”
Another woman who works at an Uptown Kingston café shared an email she said she received after she asked Francis to add her to his Planet Waves email list. The email, titled “About your belly,” reads in part, “My first inclination was to lick that cute little belly of yours. Then my mind said: I bet that girl smells good … Please tackle me sometime and wash me in your hair and your scent and let me feel your delicious strength…and I’ll give it right back to you if you want.” The recipient forwarded the email to her boyfriend writing above it “Ughhh Creepy Eric Francis.”
Kathleen Griffin recorded a statement for Harvey. Griffin, a 43-year-old writer and artist, said she met Francis shortly after moving to Kingston in 2014. At a writer’s event at Backstage Productions on Wall Street, she said, Francis asked her if she would be interested in modeling for him.
“It seemed like a creepy line from some creepy older dude. I was like, ‘Wow, this guy is a total creep,” recalls Griffin. “In my recollection I was rude to him to kind of put him off.”
Instead of being put off, Griffin said, her blow-off seemed to spark a need in Francis for some kind of “small harassing interaction” whenever they ran into each other. Griffin said that Francis would continue to approach her and try to talk, even after her boyfriend confronted him about the behavior and she told him in no uncertain terms to “fuck off.” Francis’ attention, she said, caused her avoid certain streets and businesses where he was a regular. “Individually these things are so small, but collectively it’s like I don’t want to walk down the street in Uptown Kingston.”
Griffin said her discomfort with Francis was so intense that, when she discussed joining a new writers’ co-working space run by Botton, Griffin let Botton know she would only be interested if Francis was not part of it. Botton said that she had already heard the same request from two other women before she spoke to Griffin. Meanwhile, Botton said, she’d already decided Francis would not be welcome based on her own interaction with him. According to Botton, she was barely acquainted with Francis when he walked up to her on Wall Street a few years ago and said, out of nowhere, “My therapist said I have to stop dating women 21 and under but I said if they’re over 18 they’re fair game.”
“I just thought it was wildly inappropriate,” said Botton of the comment. “And it told me how he saw women: predatorily as game to be hunted.”
Griffin said that much of her interaction with Francis occurred at outdated café, a popular spot on Wall Street on the ground floor of the same building that houses Chronogram. The café has become a hub for Uptown’s media and arts community. One day, Griffin said, she was waiting in line for coffee when she felt something in her hair and turned to see Francis, who, she believes, had placed his nose to the back of her head to smell her hair. In September 2017, after Francis approached her again as she sat at an outdoor table and asked to pet her dog, Griffin wrote an email to the café’s owners asking that Francis be banned from the establishment for harassing her and other women.
“In fact I am not sure I have ever met a woman in Kingston who doesn’t have a creepy Eric Francis story of one kind or another, being lewd or inappropriate,” Griffin wrote in the email.
Griffin said she followed up the email with a conversation with the café’s owners but was left with the sense that they did not feel they could ban Francis because of his relationship with Chronogram — their landlord.
“If this was a bar and anyone was harassing me like that, they would have thrown them out of the bar,” Griffin said.
On May 29, Griffin filed a report with the Kingston Police Department detailing her interactions with Francis. Griffin said that the last straw came when Francis boasted about having a “mole” inside the #metoo Kingston group that had coalesced around him. When she hosted a meeting of the group at the Kingston Writers’ Studio, a meeting that was set up via the private email chain, Griffin said that Francis showed up just as she was unlocking the door to the studio and stood close, staring at her until she slammed the door in his face.
“This man is scary and will not leave me alone,” Griffin wrote in a sworn “deposition of witness” taken by a Kingston police officer. “He is obviously so obsessed that he is reading my private emails and showing up when I am supposed to be in places. He has physically invaded by personal space on several occasions, cornering me and putting his face in my hair. I am asking for your help and protection before this becomes worse.”
Griffin said the police report was followed by a phone call from an Ulster County assistant district attorney (she said she did not recall his name) who told her that the only potential criminal allegation — the hair-sniffing incident — had occurred outside the statute of limitations, while the rest of the behavior she described did not appear to be illegal.