Behind one of Twitter’s most outspoken social justice personalities is a history of abuse
Warning: this piece contains descriptions of sexual assault
“You always remember your very first viral tweet,” Eugene Gu tells me. For him, it was a joke about Betsy DeVos and the “Bowling Green Massacre.” The tweet got 460 likes when he had just 200 followers on Twitter, and it was a thrilling, empowering feeling. “Now,” Gu says, “it almost feels like when patients get a drug tolerance, and you need a larger and larger dose of the same drug to get the same physiological effect. Now I find that if one of my tweets get 4,000 likes and retweets, it’s just business as usual.”
You might recognize Gu from another one of his viral tweets — a photo of himself in his hospital scrubs, taking a Colin Kaepernick–inspired knee to protest white supremacy, the one that got 51,000 retweets and 182,000 likes and made him an Asian American social justice hero. Or maybe you’ve seen his op-eds for HuffPost and The Hill, or his appearance on Democracy Now! Or maybe you’ve spotted him in Donald Trump’s replies, often one of the first to tell the president that what he’s doing is wrong. Or maybe you heard about the federal lawsuit he joined (and won), along with six others, against Trump for blocking users on Twitter.
Gu had learned just how powerful the platform could be: it was a tool that could amplify his voice and politics, but also be a tool of manipulation — used to bully his critics or silence those he abused. Eventually, the same platform that built him up would threaten to be his undoing.
The way he tells it, Gu’s story began early one morning in April 2016, when two armed US marshals showed up at his door. He’d just gotten home from a long night of surgery in the trauma unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where he was a surgery resident, when he heard the violent banging on his door. The marshals waited outside. They didn’t need a warrant, they told him. They had a congressional subpoena.
”It just totally floored me,” Gu says. “These are words that ordinary, everyday people don’t really know or have to deal with in their daily lives.” Before the marshals showed up, he lived an ordinary life. Like many Asian Americans, he told me, he was focused on the hard work of becoming a doctor. He was liberal leaning, but uninterested in “getting involved in the messy politics of activism.”
But as it turned out, the research he’d started during medical school had put him in the heart of a controversial battle. Gu studied babies with congenital heart disease, and later those with bilateral renal agenesis (babies born without kidneys — who have a nearly 100 percent fatality rate). He wondered if he could use tissue from aborted fetuses to save newborns. The tissue, he reasoned, was going to be classified as biohazardous waste and thrown into the incinerator anyway. What if it could save lives instead?
Gu opened a small lab called Ganogen with a few friends and colleagues. They bought their own equipment — autoclaves, rats for experiments — and ordered fetal tissue from a company called StemExpress to implant in rats. Ganogen’s operations were ostensibly legal, but in 2015 the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion organization, released a sensationalist and heavily edited video that claimed that Planned Parenthood employees were “stealing baby parts” for StemExpress. The video alarmed conservatives like Tennessee congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, who issued subpoenas to dozens of companies that were using fetal tissue for research, including Ganogen.
“I think it was an altruistic thing [StemExpress] was doing, and they were punished for it,” Gu says. (Acquiring fetal tissue for research is legal as long as it’s not for profit; anti-abortion activists insist that StemExpress was making a profit. StemExpress chief executive Cate Dyer told The Washington Post, “We want to accelerate lifesaving research, that’s what it’s all about.”) Gu had hoped to publish some of the data he’d collected for Ganogen, but the subpoena effectively “silenced” him, along with the promising field of fetal-tissue research. Not long after, Vanderbilt brought Gu into an office with the hospital’s program director, the director of media relations, lawyers, and “all these top-level people.” (Gu says this meeting took place in April or May of 2016; Vanderbilt says this meeting did not take place, though Gu was “counseled repeatedly about the need to assure that his social media activity did not interfere with the primary purpose of his employment.”)
According to Gu, Vanderbilt advised him to speak very little about his research, and to be “extra careful about journalists, be extra careful even to Democratic congresspeople.” They suggested that Gu lie low. “It didn’t make any sense to me,” Gu says. He’d spent his whole life lying low, doing what he was supposed to do. Instead of being praised for his research, he got a congressional subpoena as punishment. He no longer wanted to stay silent. “Based on everything I’ve learned throughout my life — studying American history, understanding how the political system works — in our country and in a democracy, the only way to safeguard your rights is by speaking out and making your case.” So Gu decided to fight back.
He defied Vanderbilt and appeared on NPR’s Science Friday to discuss the subpoena and his research. After Gu’s NPR appearance, his tweets started getting more replies and retweets, and his follower count grew. If he was going to battle his program, he learned that social media would be a powerful weapon in his arsenal.
Gu saw Colin Kaepernick and the football players who took a knee to protest white supremacy and police brutality. In September 2017, he decided that he would do the same thing, remembering something that happened to him at Vanderbilt a few years ago. It was a “very traumatic event,” Gu says. In January of 2016, he had been driving to work when a couple in a car flagged him down in the garage. He stopped the car and rolled down his window, unsuspecting. He recalls hearing the couple yell, “Hey chink! You can’t fucking drive!” Gu parked and tried to head to the hospital, but the man from the car followed him, grabbed Gu’s name badge by the lanyard, almost choking him. He followed Gu up nine flights of stairs to the hospital, even pulled Gu’s patient files out of his hands. Gu called the police, but they told him that they didn’t think the man was dangerous.
In Gu’s telling, when he demanded they press charges, the cops said that the man could also press charges against Gu for reckless driving. Both men were arrested. The incident stunned Gu. His voice rises when he recounts it. “It’s beyond preposterous to be given a misdemeanor arrest for being racially and physically attacked in your own hospital, where you’re not even believed by your own police.” It reminded him of the congressional subpoena, the injustice of it: he was doing research to save the lives of babies, yet was accused of killing them. It was like a “bizarro opposite world,” and he’d never experienced anything like it until he left California for Tennessee. According to Gu, he tried to process the incident through Vanderbilt, but “[Vanderbilt] didn’t really care that much internally.”
Now, however, he had enough time to process what happened. Besides, #takeaknee was now a hashtag and a social phenomenon. That afternoon, wearing “the same white coat and scrubs I wore on that day I got attacked, in the same hallway [the man] was stalking me,” he explains, he stopped one of the nurses walking past, knelt down, raised one fist, and smiled for his photo.
As Gu recounts it in an email: “An African American nurse passing by took the photo for me and raised her fist in solidarity when she saw me take a knee, and I raised my fist too and that’s why I am smiling in the photo because we both smiled when we did that gesture.”
According to Gu, not long after he posted the photo, a patient’s mom started making aggressive Facebook posts about him, using “derogatory names and pretty racially tinged language.” When she finally met him at the hospital, she asked him to leave the room, suggesting that his political beliefs made him unfit to treat her son. Weeks later, Vanderbilt placed Gu under suspension, citing performance issues. Vanderbilt also stated that it would continue an investigation into Gu’s personal safety and the safety of other employees. Gu says VUMC called the suspension “nonpunitive.” He wondered, How could it be anything else?
The battle was on. Gu posted excerpts of the letter from VUMC about his probation on Twitter. According to Gu, the medical center asked him to clarify that his views on Twitter were his own, and not those of Vanderbilt. They also pinned a tweet (first tagging Gu directly, then deleting his handle from the tweet), reiterating their social media policies. (According to VUMC, “[Gu] was never instructed to edit or modify the substantive content of his social media activity.”) On Twitter, Gu called that bullying. “They’re trying to suppress me so hard and ruin my career,” he tells me. The drama not only unfolded on Twitter, but was widely reported in media outlets — from BuzzFeed News to USA Today — which portrayed Gu as victim and hero.
After months of uncertainty, on July 1st, 2018, Vanderbilt ended Gu’s residency contract, denying that the termination had anything to do with his activism. In a publicly posted letter, VUMC wrote: “Our administration, faculty, and residency program leaders have shown a consistent commitment to the principles of diversity, integrity and fairness, and will continue to adhere to these principles even when unfairly and falsely accused of not doing so.”
The letter strikes a defensive tone to me — reading it now, to me it almost sounds as if Gu wasn’t the one who’d been wronged by VUMC, but somehow that things might have been the other way around.
I spoke to @DoctorMeowskis over the phone not long after the news about Vanderbilt came out. Allison* (her name has been changed to protect her identity) is a 30-year-old medical student in a “middle of nowhere” town within driving distance of Tennessee. Her voice is bright, a little chirpy. Allison began turning to Twitter as an outlet for the stresses of medical school. She quickly became part of the #MedTwitter world, where doctors and medical students discuss their work, ask earnest questions or offer advice, or tweet medical puns and jokes. Allison liked to post funny, candid anecdotes from her life: detailing a date with a cardiologist (which #MedTwitter compared to watching Grey’s Anatomy), or talking about her struggles with her studies. One day, around December 2016, she got a DM from Gu, telling her that he was impressed by how open she was on Twitter.
It was months before Gu would become Twitter famous for his kneeling photo. Allison had been impressed by his credentials — a surgeon who had gone to Stanford and Duke — and thought he looked cute in his pictures. Their conversation turned from DMs to texts, which turned into phone calls. In the beginning, Allison says, Gu was charming. They talked about Marsha Blackburn, and when Gu talked about his research, he told her how much respect he had for the women who donated the aborted fetuses. “When he talked about that, he was a very impressive man,” Allison says.
They spent hours on the phone. “[Gu] called me a lot, even when he was at work,” Allison says. “He’d spent 15, 20 minutes standing in the stairwell. I thought that was cute.” They talked about other things, too, like their views on marriage and children. And they talked about Twitter. Allison gave Gu tips on how to get more followers: you make a hashtag about something that’s trending, then jump in the conversation. She remembered when Gu tried out the strategy for the first time how happy he was that it worked. He told Allison that they would become Twitter’s “power couple.”
Finally, Gu invited Allison to visit him in Nashville for Valentine’s Day in 2017. He promised to show her around town, and to let her shadow him at work. “Hell, yeah!” Allison said. She got lost trying to find his apartment building, and then, when she met him, she was surprised at how different he seemed from the impression he’d made online. From his picture, she’d imagined him as cute, tall, and confident. In person, he seemed mousy and uncertain, and he apologized constantly.
There would be many more disappointments on that visit. It turned out that she couldn’t actually shadow Gu at work, since he’d forgotten to get permission from his program. And when they went out to lunch, he was often on his phone, “focusing more on Twitter than me, asking me to retweet stuff.” He spoke about how much he wanted to get “revenge” on Vanderbilt through his Twitter following. His apartment was a mattress on the floor and a dining room table.
“I was like, Wow, okay, that’s how a big-time surgeon lives,” she says. They took a nap, and when she woke up, he was already between her legs, putting a condom on. “It was over as soon as it began. I didn’t have time to think about it… I guess we kind of said we’re seeing each other. I was a little upset about it,” Allison says. “I wasn’t really sure I wanted to have sex with him.” But then again, she reasoned, she couldn’t feel too upset. She’d agreed to come to Tennessee as a date, after all. The next few days, Gu left her alone while he went to work. She went to the Whole Foods near his apartment, bought him snacks and pineapple (his favorite fruit). She was looking forward to Valentine’s Day, when Gu promised to go on a real date. But when the date came, they were interrupted again by his feud with Vanderbilt.
Gu’s adviser had asked him to come in for a meeting, where they told him again that he couldn’t speak badly about VUMC online. “He got really angry,” Allison says. When he eventually calmed down, they went to a local pizza place for their romantic date.
”You’re the only person in the world I can talk to,” Gu told her. “If it wasn’t for you, I might have killed myself tonight.” Back at Gu’s apartment, he started “pawing” at her while she tried to refuse. She tried to push him away. He kept at it. “It was just like that until he passed out. That’s when I got up, turned on the shower, and was crying.”
And then there was Mary. @MaryLauryMD had introduced herself to Allison on Twitter even before Allison had met Gu in person. She didn’t think anything unusual of their conversation. After all, Allison had talked to other female doctors on Twitter, many of whom turned into real-life friends. But her conversations with Mary took strange turns, especially after the Valentine’s Day visit. Mary often talked about Gu: “I follow Gu because I saw him on the news,” she’d say. And: “I think he’s so hot, and I’ve never had sex with an Asian guy before.” Mary said that she printed out Gu’s picture and posted it on her wall. “I make sure I retweet him all the time so he notices me,” Mary said. “He’s retweeting you a lot … are you dating him?”
Allison told her no — even if Gu called her “baby” over text, they weren’t officially in a relationship. “I was scared that if I told [Mary] we were dating, she would go psycho,” Allison says. “She seemed creepy, like she would get aggressive and post it all over her timeline and dox me.” Mary’s messages were making Allison nervous. When she brought the DMs to Gu, he quickly dismissed it. He told her that many people wrote to him on Twitter, but Allison was the only one he talked to.
Allison’s contact with Gu slowly tapered off in the months after they met. Eventually, Allison muted Gu’s account. (She thought he would notice if she unfollowed him, and she didn’t want to risk it.) Eventually, Mary’s messages stopped coming, too. Then, in July 2018, another controversy struck #MedTwitter, with Mary at the heart of it. She’d accused an account called Dr. Glaucomflecken of donning blackface. Dr. Glaucomflecken’s avatar was an ophthalmoscope dressed up with a top hat, cartoon eyes, mustache, and goatee. One could potentially interpret it as blackface — or see it as a personified, accurate representation of a black medical instrument. Allison thought it was ridiculous. She had been following Dr. Glaucomflecken for a while, and “he never said anything mean about anyone.”
After Allison saw that Gu had retweeted Mary, she decided to call out Mary’s bizarre accusation. Her spotlight on Mary drew others’ attention, too. While Allison was out, her friends texted her. “Did you see that people are saying Mary is actually Gu on Twitter?”
Allison freaked out. Then she saw the growing evidence: Mary posted pictures that were actually Gu’s, and posted things about Vanderbilt that no one other than Gu would have known. The hospital where Mary claimed she worked didn’t list a doctor under her name. When Allison finally tweeted at Gu to stop tweeting as Mary, the account was immediately deleted. “That was enough evidence for me,” Allison says. “This Mary character who I’ve met would have loved this controversy. She would have loved the chance to defend his honor.”
Before I spoke to Allison, I had noticed unsettling tweets from Mary Laury’s profile, too. I was writing a profile on Gu, and I’d been trying to get in touch with some of his critics. Though I agreed with Gu’s left-leaning political views, it was clear most media coverage of him was very one-sided: they only told Gu’s story, the one that made him out to be a victim and hero. I tweeted at an especially ardent critic, the (now deleted) @NefariousMD, asking for his perspective on Gu. @NefariousMD often posted screenshots of an unsettling piece of Gu’s past: a series of arrest citations, including filed restraining orders and allegations of domestic violence. I’d come across the allegations early in my research, and asked Gu about it in our interviews.
Gu told me that all the charges from the filings had been expunged. “The labeling of these things sound terrible,” he said. “You can’t use family law court filings that get dismissed by a judge as evidence of wrongdoing, but you can paint a really bad picture about someone.” He said the citations were tactics of an overly aggressive lawyer, and that it wasn’t fair to bring his ex-wife into the story. At the time, I’d agreed. But still, something gnawed at me, something that didn’t feel quite right. Maybe it was how easily Gu sounded indignant during our interviews, or the tense, charged terms he used to describe the alleged discrimination he suffered, or how, in every narrative, he was always the victim.
A day after I tweeted at @NefariousMD, I got a surprising email from Gu. “If you do a story with [@NefariousMD’s] input, it would be a gross miscarriage of journalistic integrity and ethics,” Gu wrote. And: “any allegations of domestic violence are completely unwarranted… Please know that any publication insinuating that I committed any act of domestic violence will be met by a libel and defamation suit.” He emphasized again that there were no court records for the arrest charges and criminal records in the screenshot often shared online, which meant that they’d been expunged by a judge.
The tone of his email was completely different from any of our prior interactions. The email seemed unwarranted, excessive. I looked back at @NefariousMD’s tweets, trying to understand what would unnerve Gu so much that he would try to stop me from even having a conversation. Aside from posting domestic-violence screenshots, @NefariousMD also tweeted about Gu’s “sock puppet accounts,” including @MaryLauryMD. I’d noticed Mary’s account before, and it hadn’t seemed remarkable. There were tweets about social justice issues and retweets of other physician activists. But her replies to @NefariousMD took a very different tone.
She spoke as if she knew @NefariousMD personally, implied that he was a fellow resident in Gu’s residency program, and alleged that he was responsible for a patient’s death in increasingly graphic terms. “The public demands to know why @nefariousmd got away with ramming a central line into a patient’s carotid artery, killing the patient with a massive stroke. Is this standard of care at Vanderbilt? Why is a white resident like @nefariousmd held to a different standard?” she tweeted.
In the course of one day, June 8th, I counted over 60 tweets directed at or related to @NefariousMD in intense, graphic language. Finally, Mary went even further, posting a photo of a patient on a hospital bed: body bare on the operating table, lines and tubes inserted into his chest, perhaps the same patient she alleged that @NefariousMD had killed.
The tweets were disturbing; the photo was shocking. Even if @NefariousMD had been racist at work, even if he had been responsible for a patient’s death, I couldn’t imagine what it’d be like to be constantly reminded of your mistake, to see a photo of a patient you lost posted in a public forum.
Days after Mary posted the photo, @NefariousMD’s Twitter account was deleted.
Mary Laury’s account was bizarre, aggressive, and confrontational, unlike Gu’s, and I wanted to understand what, exactly, Gu was trying to do with Mary’s account. Did it exist to torment other users, defend himself from perceived attackers? Could he have been doing it for fun? For possible answers, I spoke to Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor in Communication, Culture, and Digital Technologies at Syracuse University and author of a book on online trolls. According to Phillips, Gu’s alter ego account made perfect sense for someone with a high profile. “In some ways,” Phillips tells me, “it sounds like brand management.”
Gu had built a popular persona as a staunch progressive, a social justice activist. He’d gotten extensive, positive press coverage of his story: the hardworking Asian American doctor attacked by conservatives, by his own medical program for daring to stand up against racism. “By cordoning off his positive account from the more antagonistic account, it allows the media coverage to be more universally beneficial to his narrative and his brand,” Phillips says. The fake account, meanwhile, was a way for Gu to freely retaliate against critics, without harming the identity that he’d so carefully built up.
It’s much harder to pinpoint why he might have felt the need to be hostile at all. “My work has deliberately sidestepped psychological profiling questions,” Phillips says. “In many cases, we just don’t have access to people’s inner emotional ecosystems. Even if we [do] … people are really busy trying to manage their public perception. There’s a very high likelihood that someone accused of problematic behavior is going to downplay it or lie.”
Phillips believes it’s the performative element of social media that most influences someone’s decisions and behaviors. People’s behavior online tends to correlate to a group norm: “If the performative expectation in [Gu’s] mind is that he needs to behave in this highly progressive, staunch social-justice orientation, of course that’s how he’s going to behave.” But on Mary Laury’s account, Gu was free. And while Gu’s case may seem extreme, brand management is something that everyone does, online or off. It stems, after all, from the same basic human desire: as social creatures, we want to be accepted and loved.
And the way Gu became obsessed with his Twitter following, brought it up often in his offline life, imagined it as a tool of revenge? Perhaps that wasn’t so far-fetched, either. According to Phillips, Gu was using social media in exactly the way it was designed to be used. Twitter and Facebook aren’t incentivizing restraint, after all: they incentivize communication and exaggeration, the more the better. Gu’s case was a “grotesque extension of how a lot of people use these sites and are encouraged to use these sites by the sites themselves,” Phillips says. “These companies make money off convincing people that social media engagement is a validation of a person’s worth, that our sense of self-worth, who we are and why we matter, is tethered to quantitative metrics. And that can go to a very ugly place very, very quickly.”
Allison had told me that she hadn’t wanted to go public with what happened between her and Gu: he was supporting good causes, and she didn’t want to take anything away from that. But discovering the Mary Laury account pushed her over the edge. In July 2017, she tweeted: “I’m freaking out now knowing my ex boyfriend was tormenting me with a fake female account. Sending me DMs obsessing over him, asking intimate details about my sex life, and then trying to convince me they slept together. I’m going to be sick.” She described a man obsessed with his Twitter following, a date that turned into something resembling sexual assault: “He is on top of me, groping me, trying to kiss me as I keep trying to get up and telling him no. Moving my face away from his kisses. He kept saying he wanted to have unprotected sex so he could get me pregnant so I could never leave him. I continued to fight him off until eventually he tired himself out and passed out.”
For a while, before I spoke to Allison, I debated about whether to write this story, too. Even if Gu had a shadow side, even if he had unresolved questions from his past, he had experienced racism in his residency program, and he was starting conversations that were important. But maybe it was just as unfair to erase the complications. Maybe Gu could be both a victim and entitled by his role as a victim.
Not long after Allison’s tweets went viral, Gu posted his own account of what happened between the two of them on Twitter. In his version, Allison was the seducer, and he the unwilling victim. Allison’s allegations were “100 percent empathetically false,” he said. He denied many details from the Valentine’s Day meeting, including the fact that he went in for a meeting with Vanderbilt. He sent a sexually explicit voicemail and a drunk voicemail that he allegedly received from Allison months after the Nashville visit as evidence of his innocence. On Twitter, he claimed that Mary Laury’s account was “an anonymous account people close to me created to address the trolling issues I was encountering from Trump supporters on Twitter. After a while I also shared access of this account to help combat the trolls.” Gu described using the burner account to “turn [Allison] off from me and drive a wedge between us romantically.” (Later, in an email to The Verge, he contradicts this statement: the Mary Laury account was “was originally an account meant for my mom to learn how to use Twitter. That must be clarified.”)
On Twitter, Gu ended with a broad statement against sexual assault and harassment. “Men can be victimized by women too. And false accusations without due process is a weapon of terror,” he wrote. “I know public figures are supposed to handle whatever attacks come our way, but sometimes things are just too much for a human being. I’ll be taking a break from Twitter.”
His Twitter break lasted just 19 days. Then he was back online, posting familiar tweets about activism. If you read his timeline today, you wouldn’t be able to spot any signs of the whirlwind with Allison and Mary Laury. Today, he’s up to 257,000 followers. Sometimes voices in his replies call out his alleged abusive behavior toward Allison and his ex-wife. But the block button is an easy click away, and he still has plenty of supporters.
He still tweets about Vanderbilt (from December 5th: “we need a full and thorough investigation of a culture of silence and zero accountability in medicine”). But he also posts photos of himself with a happy-looking new partner, accounts of the two of them watching Miyazaki movies together, and sometimes what sounds like a softer approach to activism. “We all have an innate desire for violence, bullying, and revenge hardwired in our limbic system,” he tweeted on January 4th. “Left unchecked, we can behave just like animals to each other. But as human beings, we also have a neocortex that allows us to show compassion, forgiveness, and mutual understanding.”
And another time: “It never hurts to be a little more kind. Even to our enemies.”
And another: “Anything can go viral these days as long as they are sensational enough. But the difference between Fake News and the Truth is that the truth lasts until the end and never goes away. Lies vanish under the scrutiny of time and investigation.”