Emma Cline, whose 2016 breakthrough debut novel The Girls heralded her as an emerging voice in the literary world, is being sued for plagiarism by her ex-boyfriend, author Chaz Reetz-Laiolo.
Reetz-Laiolo, whose suit was filed in San Francisco federal court on Nov. 29, alleges that Cline surreptitiously deployed keystroke logging software to plagiarize phrases and plot points from his manuscripts, which would later end up in The Girls.
Cline filed a countersuit on the same day, disputing many of the claims in Reetz-Laiolo’s suit while contending that the keylogger was used as means of protecting herself within an abusive relationship.
Reetz-Laiolo and Cline began living together in Berkeley in the summer of 2010 after becoming romantically involved the year prior. It was during their cohabitation, Reetz-Laiolo alleges in the complaint, that Cline deployed a keylogging software called Refog on her personal computer in order to track, and later access, his personal bank accounts and e-mails. Screenshots embedded in the suit allegedly show Cline accessing Reetz-Laiolo’s bank accounts and his e-mails, where she searched for keywords like “mom” and “ass” and looked through correspondence with editors on his Gmail account.
He also alleges that these e-mails contained manuscripts of his work, which he says she plagiarized from. Embedded in his complaint is a table of eight purported instances of Cline’s plagiarism. (At least three carry no attributions to Reetz-Laiolo’s work, with one cited as a common phrase he used in conversations.)
Reetz-Laiolo also alleges that Cline had intentionally kept Refog on the device after he had bought her laptop in 2013 with the understanding that it was “wiped.”
Two other plaintiffs in the suit, including a former partner of Reetz-Laiolo and a mutual friend, also allege that Cline had used the keylogging software to track their personal e-mails. They are seeking unspecified damages.
Cline’s suit, however, depicts Reetz-Laiolo as an abusive partner seeking retribution for his ex-girlfriend’s rapid ascent into success.
While they lived with each other, the suit details, “Reetz-Laiolo’s behavior toward her turned violent and abusive,” going on to list a series of violent acts Reetz-Laiolo allegedly committed during their nearly-three year relationship, such as destroying her belongings, punching walls and in one incident, choking her to the point of losing her breath.
Her complaint states that Refog, the spyware in question, was used solely to track Reetz-Laiolo’s possible infidelity. (Reetz-Laiolo, in his suit, alleges that the relationship was intended to be non-monogamous from the beginning, without any mention of their tumultuous history.)
Cline’s complaint goes on to allege that Reetz-Laiolo himself partook in surreptitious tracking and plagiarism. Her complaint includes accounts of Reetz-Laiolo emailing himself her private journals and other writings of hers, which she says he lifting from for his own work. She also alleges that he coerced her into selling him the computer.
The Girls, Cline’s debut novel, centers on a woman recounting her adolescent involvement in a Petaluma cult bearing resemblance to the Manson Family -- themes that Cline argues in the suit recurred in short stories drafted as far back as 2008. The book itself earned accolades from publications like The New Yorker and The Washington Post.
The media coverage surrounding the suit and its participants, inadvertently, has become a focal point of both suits. A piece in the New Yorker broke various legal spats that led up to the complaint, including a draft of the complaint issued in May that contained, among other explicit content, lewd images of Cline.
"Cline’s lawyers are attempting to manipulate the important national conversation about sexual harassment to muddy the clear case of Ms. Cline’s plagiarism and illegal activity and to silence our clients, whose privacy she deliberately invaded over a span of years," writes Reetz-Laiolo's counsel, Boies, Schiller, Flexner, in a statement.
In October, Cline detailed her experiences of sexual assault in the publishing industry for The Cut, closing off the story with her experiences of Reetz-Laiolo's abuse.
Cline is seeking $75,000 in emotional damages in this counter-suit, in addition to requesting that Reetz-Laiolo's infringement claims be dropped.
Both writers are, or have previously been, Bay Area residents. Cline was born in Sonoma, where her parents own a winery. Reetz-Laiolo has lectured at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism and served as a senior editor for SOMA Magazine.