Blindness and the Golden Hammer

Here is a chapter I’ve added to the draft of the 2018 version of Reluctant Polygamist, to help explain why the current narrative about Joseph Smith is what it is. Feel free to critique as you see fit.

In 1962 noted philosopher Abraham Kaplan addressed the American Educational Research Association at UCLA. Kaplan urged scientists to exercise good judgment in the selection of appropriate methods for their research. To illustrate how inappropriate the instrument at hand could be for a job, Kaplan joked, “Give a boy a hammer and everything he meets has to be pounded.” [1]

Kaplan called this “The Law of the Instrument,” and it has also been known as a Birmingham screwdriver, Maslow’s hammer, or the golden hammer. Whatever the name, over-reliance on a familiar tool is considered a cognitive bias, a systematic pattern of irrational judgment.

When it comes to judging the actions of Joseph Smith, historians outside of the Church hierarchy have relied over-much on explaining “polygamy” as arising from Joseph Smith’s personal sexual obsession.

Meanwhile, both detractors and defenders of Joseph Smith have fallen into the trap of inattentional blindness, the inability to perceive conspicuous truths that are unexpected. [2] This blindness accounts for the fraught interactions between historians and the LDS Church in recent decades.

History of the Saints – The Hammer of Sexual Depravity

Dr. John C. Bennett undoubtedly damaged Joseph Smith’s legacy during Smith’s lifetime more than any other individual. Dr. Bennett accused Joseph of every heinous sin imaginable, from attempted murder to treason to debauchery.

Bennett’s writings were widely republished, and Bennett engaged in an extensive lecture tour of the United States promulgating the idea that Joseph was sexually depraved and morally bankrupt. By 1847 all believers in a good Joseph Smith considered Bennett a foul liar.

Unfortunately, Bennett’s writings did contain some truth. When later generations attempted to reconstruct the past, the truths in Bennett’s writings caused many to believe all Bennett’s accusations might have merit.

A Study in Scarlet – Popularizing Mormon Depravity

The titillating accusations popularized by Bennett were given new life when Brigham Young proclaimed plural marriage a tenet of the Mormon faith in 1852. While the United States government focused on the possibility of Mormon treason, novelists were drawn to tales of malignant coercion and sexual misconduct.

The dime novels that became popular after the Civil War included Mormons in their repertoire of stock villains. [3] Novelists told of Mormon gold hidden in vast caverns beneath the Great Salt Lake. The stories featured damsels bravely rescued from Mormon men intent on seduction or worse.

The most famous 19th-century tale involving stock Mormon villains was written by Scottish physician, Arthur Conan Doyle. A Study in Scarlet introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes, a private detective. Doyle’s intrepid detective used cutting edge science to triumph over a Latter-day Saint organisation steeped in kidnapping, murder, and enslavement. [4]

Anti-Mormon fiction was not mere entertainment. Citizens of at least one Western nation tried to evict Mormons based on a popular novel. [5] In America, it was widely believed that Mormon sexual deviance and miscegenation was producing a new and inferior race. [6]

The Freudian Psychobiographer – Scholarly Assertions of Depravity

Fawn  McKay was  born into a poor but genteel Mormon family in 1915. Her Grandfather Brimhall had been President of Brigham Young University. Her uncle was LDS Apostle David O. McKay. [7]

Fawn’s family feared she would elope if she pursued post-graduate studies at the same school her boyfriend attended. They encouraged her to instead attend the University of Chicago for her Master’s Degree in 1934. Fawn’s family possibly thought of the University of Chicago as a “safe” school because many of Fawn’s grandfather’s colleagues were attending the Divinity School there. [8] In Chicago Fawn met and married Bernard Brodie, a Chicago native of Jewish descent. Along the way, Fawn decided she didn’t need to believe in God, much less the peculiar God of Mormonism.

Fawn decided to write a scholarly biography of Joseph Smith using Freudian psychosexual theory to illuminate the life of Mormonism’s founder. In addition to researching in the Library of Congress and the RLDS archives, Fawn went to the LDS Archives. In Salt Lake, Fawn gained unprecedented access by implying she was the daughter of David O. McKay. [9]

In 1945 Alfred A. Knopf published Fawn’s research, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith. Fawn’s Joseph was lazy and good-natured, an unsuccessful treasure seeker who invented the Book of Mormon to improve his family’s fortunes. Fawn portrayed Joseph Smith as a deliberate impostor who sought to repress his conscious artifice by deluding himself that he was a prophet. Focused solely on Joseph, Fawn interpreted information in the LDS Archives as suggesting Joseph had bedded numerous female followers. Where Dr. Bennett claimed Joseph had married a handful of females, Fawn  claimed Joseph married at least 46 women while still married to Emma Hale. [10] Fawn portrayed Joseph’s marriages as sexual and without any altruistic motivation.

The LDS Church did not initially act to counteract Fawn’s book, possibly because of her kinship with David O. McKay and George Brimhall. But in June 1946, the LDS Church excommunicated Fawn for apostasy. [11]

In 2005 respected scholar Richard Bushman published Rough Stone Rolling, a biography he hoped would supplant Fawn’s No Man Knows My History. However by 2007, Bushman wrote that Fawn had “shaped the view of the Prophet for half a century. Nothing we have written has challenged her domination. I had hoped my book would displace hers, but at best it will only be a contender in the ring, whereas before she reigned unchallenged.” [12] Even now, seven decades after initial publication, Fawn’s book  is the best seller among biographies of Joseph Smith. [13]

Camelot: Howard and Arrington Open the Archives

Prior to the 1960s, Church historians in both the LDS and RLDS Churches had been defenders of the faith rather than professional historians. Many of these gatekeepers were descendants of Joseph and Hyrum Smith or worked under the direction of such descendants. Joseph’s son and grandsons led the RLDS Church until 1978. In Utah, Hyrum’s son and grandson had leading roles in both the LDS Church Historian’s office and LDS Church leadership from 1865 until 1972.

In 1965 Richard (Dick) Howard, became the first professionally trained individual to become RLDS Church Historian. In that same year economist and biographer Leonard Arrington formed the Mormon History Association (MHA) to be a safe place where historians could discuss controversial subjects. In 1966 Arrington encouraged creation of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, which published many early MHA articles.

In 1970 Joseph Fielding Smith stepped down as LDS Church Historian when he became LDS Church President.

The next year, Hollywood veteran Samuel W. Taylor published Nightfall at Nauvoo, a popular novel set in Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo and filled with political and sexual intrigue. Dozens of pages of references gave the book the feel of a peer-reviewed research document. Nightfall aligned well with the Fawn Brodie view of Joseph Smith as sexual opportunist.

In 1972 Leonard Arrington was appointed to be LDS Church Historian. That same year, Howard hosted a gathering in his home that led to formation of the John Whitmer Historical Association (JWHA), an RLDS-focused organization intended to operate in friendship and cooperation with Arrington’s MHA.

As Howard and Arrington and their respective colleagues looked at their Churches’ histories through the lens of professional historical standards, a sort of consensus on the life of Joseph Smith would emerge, challenging the image of Joseph Smith as an honorable man inspired by God.

The New Mormon History and associated insights inspired creation of several additional Mormon-themed periodicals, including MHA’s The Journal of Mormon History, a popular magazine titled Sunstone, and Exponent II, focused on women’s issues. Mormon historians raised to believe a sanitized version of Joseph Smith’s history began to find documents that apparently substantiated claims made by Dr. Bennett and Fawn Brodie.

By 1974 the LDS hierarchy was actively trying to rein in Leonard Arrington and his protégés. Publications touching on plural marriage were to be reviewed before release. Scholarly articles depicting unseemly aspects of Brigham Young’s life and legacy were decried. Scholarly writings that challenged official Church lesson materials were deemed offensive. By 1977 Elder G. Homer Durham was installed as Director of the Historical Department with authority over Arrington’s activities. Ambitious projects were scrapped. Elder Durham insisted no manuscripts be published without his personal review.

Around this time Nancy Briggs [Rooker] began assembling material for a Ph.D. dissertation on Heber C. Kimball. LDS Apostle Boyd K. Packer reportedly confronted Nancy, demanding she turn over everything she had written and all her notes. [14] Nancy Rooker shifted her research focus from Kimball to the relatively obscure Mary Ann Burnham Freeze. [15] It is not known how many obedient scholars similarly responded to direction to avoid sensitive topics.

Meanwhile the RLDS Church in 1977 directed Dick Howard to investigate whether Joseph Smith had originated Mormon polygamy, as RLDS Professor Robert B. Flanders had claimed. In 1983 Howard was titular author of “The Changing RLDS Response to Mormon Polygamy: A Preliminary Analysis.” Though Howard was distressed by extensive edits RLDS leaders made to the article, the RLDS Church from that point began to abandon the position that Joseph Smith had never taught or practiced plural marriage.

Arrington was less successful at obtaining LDS Church tolerance for professional historical inquiry. He was dismissed without recognition in 1982, shortly before the death of his wife, Grace.

The Lighthouse, Signature and the September Six

In 1980, as it became clear that the LDS Church was clamping down on historians, the Signature Book imprint was created. Signature was intended to be a Mormon-related press that was not beholden to the LDS Church. Those who had researched under Leonard Arrington began to publish their findings outside LDS Church control.

In 1983 long-time ex-Mormons Jerald and Sandra Tanner founded a Christian non-profit named Utah Lighthouse™ Ministry. The Tanners’s mission was “to document problems with the claims of Mormonism and compare LDS doctrines with Christianity.…” An early Tanner publication gleefully reprinted extracts of William Clayton’s Nauvoo diary related to plural marriage, notes stolen from BYU Ph.D. candidate, Andrew Ehat. [16] The Tanners suggested this knowledge could destroy the Church.

In 1984 Doubleday published Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, written by Val Avery and Linda King Newell. Mormon Enigma, the most notable book following Arrington’s dismissal, portrayed Joseph Smith in a negative light. The authors were forbidden from discussing their book or their research in Church meetings. In 1986 Signature published Richard S. Van Wagoner’s Mormon Polygamy: A History, portraying Bennett as possessing “first-hand awareness of Smith’s polygamy.” [17] These works and similar books and articles emerging from historians trained under Arrington largely repeated the themes and conclusions Bennett, Brodie, and other critics had voiced. LDS Church leaders saw these writings as attacks on the Mormon religion.

In 1979 Sunstone had sponsored its first annual symposium in Salt Lake City. In November 1991, a little over a decade later, the LDS leadership warned about participation in symposia that made light of sacred things or which handled information in a manner that was damaging to the Church and its members. The allusion to the Sunstone Symposia was clear. As Church-affiliated professionals withdrew from participating in problematic symposia and publications, Sunstone and Dialogue became increasingly dominated by voices critical of the LDS Church.

The Spring 1993 Dialogue issue contained articles discussing the Mormon Alliance, an independent organization founded to expose instances of ecclesiastical abuse within the LDS Church. In September 1993 several individuals were excommunicated, many of whom had worked with Leonard Arrington. These became known as the September Six.

Though the LDS Church tried to indicate the action had not been caused by historical writings, September 1993 was seen by many as the beginning of unequivocal war between the LDS Church on the one hand and independent inquiry on the other. Each group wielded their favored tools. For the LDS Church, the instrument was ecclesiastical discipline. For scholars and critics, the instrument was attempting to pry believers away from faith in what the LDS Church wished to teach. Both the LDS Church and the critical scholars seemed blind to history that reinforced core beliefs of the LDS faith, history which allows us to see early Church leaders as humans striving to do what they thought was right in the midst of terrible circumstances.

In particular, as few acknowledged the illicit intercourse heresy and its scope, most were unable to perceive how liberally Joseph had forgiven. Brigham Young’s penchant for frequent excommunication was modeled, apparently without understanding his reasons or modeling the swift rebaptisms that often followed Young’s discipline.

In recent years, the LDS Church has moved towards historical transparency. In 2007 the Church magazine for adults, the Ensign, ran an article about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which was followed by an acclaimed book-length treatment published by the Oxford University Press.

In 2008 the Church History Department of the LDS Church established The Church Historian’s Press imprint “for publishing works related to the Church’s origin and growth.” In addition to publishing detailed volumes, high-resolution images and transcriptions of the original documents were made available on the internet.

In 2012 Elder Steven E. Snow was released as one of the Presidents of the Quorum of the Seventy in order to begin a transition into the role of LDS Church Historian and Recorder. In November 2013 the LDS Church began publishing essays about gospel topics that have been seen as controversial. In the days before publication of the first essay, the journal Religious Educator ran an interview with Elder Snow, where he stated:

“My view is that being open about our history solves a whole lot more problems than it creates. We might not have all the answers, but if we are open (and we now have pretty remarkable transparency), then I think in the long run that will serve us well. I think in the past there was a tendency to keep a lot of the records closed or at least not give access to information. But the world has changed in the last generation—with the access to information on the Internet, we can’t continue that pattern; I think we need to continue to be more open.”

Even with the vast amount of information coming forward, Joseph’s covenants with women are still routinely presumed to have been sexual. Specifically,  there has been no serious exploration of the impact Bennett’s illicit intercourse heresy had on events. However, the Joseph Smith Papers Project has not yet gotten to 1841-1842. Informal communications from the Church History Library confirms the women’s  statements before the Nauvoo High Council, describing the illicit intercourse seductions, will be digitized, and will certainly be available to the public by the time 1842 is covered by the Joseph Smith Papers Project. As data replaces prurient preconceptions about 1840s Nauvoo, there is hope that a new age of compassion and forgiveness can begin.

Blindness and the Golden Hammer – Notes

Use of the same tool to attack every problem is recognized as cognitive bias, a systematic pattern of irrational judgment. A reinforcing error is inattentional blindness, the inability to perceive conspicuous truths that are unexpected. When it comes to Mormonism, critics have continually accused Joseph Smith of sexual deviance. Both the LDS Church and its critics have ignored the illicit intercourse heresy and its logical aftermath.

In the 1840s Dr. John C. Bennett attacked Joseph Smith with claims that he was a sexual deviant. Other 19th-century writers continued these attacks. In 1945 lapsed Mormon, Fawn Brodie, wrote a highly acclaimed biography of Joseph Smith which attributed his actions to psychosexual motivations, clothing the critics’ golden hammer of sexial deviancy in robes of legitimacy.

In the 1960s both the RLDS and LDS Churches attempted to embrace modern historical methods. The RLDS Church eventually abandoned its conviction that Joseph Smith had never taught plural marriage. But LDS Church officials perceived the historians as emphasizing sexual deviance of early Church leaders. They acted to suppress this research.

As critics fought to reshape the LDS Church, Church officials consistently relieved them of active membership. Few seemed willing to forgive as Joseph Smith forgave. But there is hope for a better future.


[1] Horowitz, Milton J., “Trends In Education by Milton J. Horowitz, (Report on the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) held on February 19-21, 1962)” Journal of Medical Education, Vol. 37, Jun 1962, Association of American Medical Colleges, Baltimore, Maryland, p. 637.

[2] Mack, Arien and Irvin Rock, Inattentional Blindness, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1998.

[3] Dime Novel Mormons, also Viper on the Hearth

[4] Schindler, Harold, “The Case Of The Repentant Writer: Sherlock Homes’ Creator Raises The Wrath Of Mormons”, The Salt Lake Tribune, 10 Apr 1994, p. D1.

[5] Parshall, Ardis E., “‘The Matter is Having My Close Attention’: Discoveries into Winston Churchill’s Investigation of Mormonism in Britain,” Mormon History Association Conference, presented 11 Jun 2016.

[6] Reeve, Paul, “From Not White Enough, to Too White: Rethinking the Mormon Racial Story,” 2015 FAIR Mormon Conference, 7 Aug 2015.

[7] Bringhurst, Newell G., “Brodie, Fawn McKay,” Utah History Encyclopedia, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 1994. Online 4 Mar 2018 at

[8] LDS Perspectives on Church Education

[9] Fawn’s statement that this made her feel “guilty as hell.”

[10] Count taken from “List of Joseph Smith’s wives”, Wikipedia, online 4 Mar 2018 at

[11] Bringhurst, Newell G., “Brodie, Fawn McKay.”

[12] Bushman, Richard Lyman, On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary, Salt Lake City, Greg Kofford Books, 2007, p. 102.

[13] Derived from author’s research into rankings as of November 2014.

[14] Author’s conversations with Kenneth G. Briggs in Feb 2018. Nancy Briggs [Rooker] was secretary to BYU President Ernest Wilkinson in 1969. After stepping down as secretary, she was still Wilkinson’s speech writer. In these roles, she had access to all documents President Wilkinson could see. It is unclear what aspect of her developing dissertation caused Elder Packer such concern. Nancy’s 900 page University of Utah dissertation on Mary Ann Burnham Freeze was completed in 1982, suggesting Nancy’s initial research regarding Kimball occurred in the mid-1970s.

[15] Rooker, Nancy Briggs, Mary Ann Burnham Freeze: Utah Evangelist, Department of Communication, University of Utah, 1982. Sometime after 1982, Nancy married Paul C. Richards, BYU Director of Communications. Nancy died of cancer in 1988.

[16] Author’s conversations with Andrew Ehat in Feb 2018. See also Salt Lake City Messenger, No. 48, Jul 1982, online 3 Mar 2018 at

[17] Van Wagoner, Richard S., Mormon Polygamy: A History, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 1989, p. 24.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

10 thoughts on “Blindness and the Golden Hammer

  1. Your chapter brings us to the edge of the cliff and leaves us dangling. There is no mention of the Glasnost and Perestroika of subsequent LDS Church historians which has led to the Joseph Smith Papers, the scholarly essays on hot topics and an altogether more professional approach to Church history. Are you planning a subsequent chapter titled, “Every tool has its purpose, every tool in its place?”

  2. Thanks, Meg, I appreciate your efforts in this area. I have always felt the way you do, but without the inquiry effort that you do.

  3. As an avid reader from my youth I recognized the device of letting the reader know what a character is thinking as a valid part of story telling. When I encountered Fawn Brodie’s alleged history I recognized that she used the same device, thus proposing that she understood and could convey what Joseph Smith was thinking. I guess there are far too many people who fail to recognize that this should not be considered a legitimate merhod of retelling history. Unless the words ascribed to a real pereon are found in reliable documents, they are fiction. Whether one is a faithful believer, an apostate or a person fascinated by an amazing person, there is no validity in putting words in Joseph’s mouth or thoughts in his mind. Since first encountering Brodie’s work years ago I have been particularly cautious about both faith promoting stories and faith questioning stories. I feel this is a golden age for anyone interested in the real history of Joseph Smith. I have consistently found my appreciation for him supported.

  4. Dear Larry,

    You refer to some sort of LDS Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring), but these are terms associated with the downfall of a regime that was viewed as corrupt. As such, you seem to be buying into the subtext of the critics, where the LDS Church deserves to be overturned.

    The point of this chapter is that people are still assuming that Joseph was sexual with the women with whom he covenanted, whether critics or ostensibly faithful. While you may not be aware of it, the critics of Mormonism are still vocal and have not toned down their rhetoric due to the gospel essays or the Joseph Smith Papers. In fact, the November 2014 front page news “outing” Joseph Smith as having married 40 wives was a direct result of such critics plumbing the essays for the purpose of shaming the Church for releasing the information in such a surreptitious manner. As recently as January an archivist I talked with was actively concerned that a copy of a sensitive document he has in his stacks (which I have cited in my book) might be removed by the LDS Church.

    Me being me, I reached out to Elder Snow and explained the situation and why I felt strongly that the document should be made available to researchers. I don’t know whether my e-mail had an effect, but I was contacted about a month later by the Director of the Church History Library, Keith Erekson. Director Erekson explained that Elder Snow had requested Keith tell me that the document I was concerned about is slated to be digitized and should become available along with other 1842 documents as the Joseph Smith Papers reaches that portion of Joseph Smith Jr.’s ministry. Please don’t quote me on this, as I am paraphrasing Director Erekson’s words from memory.

    I’ll add a few words to acknowledge the more open approach to history the LDS Church has exhibited in recent years. But I reiterate that the fundamental cognitive distortion is still alive and well, preventing smart people in possession of all the data from seeing the illicit intercourse heresy. And if they don’t see that, they will persist in misunderstanding Joseph Smith’s restoration of Celestial marriage.

  5. I agree with Larry. Your chapter cuts off abruptly before it gets to the good stuff: the Joseph Smith Papers Project. I think at least a paragraph on that is in order. I don’t think this chapter has to cut off on a sour note.

  6. Larry and Tom,

    Thank you both for being long-time followers of what I’ve written.

    I’ve amended the end of the chapter (edits in blue) in response to your comments. Let me know if you think this addresses your concerns.

  7. Thanks, Meg!
    I appreciate your work and your willingness to stand up and be counted. You have spent innumerable hours researching and sharing your insights. It has expanded my vision of what may have been and allowed me to consider Joseph and Emma in new light.
    I am sorry my choice of adjectives gave a negative coloration to my comment. I used them to represent the positive change that resulted, at least in the short term, not for the negative origin that made them necessary. I am grateful you were willing to amend your article to give credit to the move toward greater openness and transparency from the Church History Department. I grant it is a work in progress, but, I applaud the spirit of the initial efforts.
    Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts in a public forum. I believe it to be a noble thing, firmly in the tradition of pamphlets, tracts and theses that have so influenced generations through history.

  8. Thank you!

    A little over a year ago someone invited me to participate in a Facebook group of Mormon historians. More correctly, that is a group of so-called historians who like to study Mormonism. Many are in the tradition of Fawn Brodie or worse. For example, Sandra Tanner and those who strongly admire her participate in that group.

    I think I was invited to the group because the fellow inviting me wished to make fun of me. Certainly, it doesn’t appear that he actually wished to consider my thoughts seriously, at least not at first.

    At any rate, I’ve enjoyed a seat in a forum that has no problem taking me rigorously to task for what they have seen as incorrect historical interpretations. And this is a forum where people often actually have the references at their fingertips and identify themselves by their real names and such. Predominantly, though, they study the Mormon movement the way an entomologist studies bugs. Some of them love the Mormon bugs they study, but many do not.

    I have learned much in that forum. And I feel I have held my own. Sometimes I’ve learned a prior reconstruction is untenable, but these are usually in areas that aren’t key to my research presented in Reluctant Polygamist. One exception was correction of my prior assumption that the mob attack that was reported to have caused Marietta Holmes’s death occurred proximate to her death. That isn’t key to my research, but correcting that in the text for the 2018 edition was non-trivial.

    Your challenge to me allowed me to push past my knowledge of Elder Snow as a genial fellow I’d encountered a few times to the architect of publication of the Joseph Smith Papers and the LDS Church essays. I loved finding his quote that was published in 2013.

    Those who study the Church like disgusting bugs wish to hear all leaders of the Church apologize for all the things the critics feel to be errors at every Conference, in every Church article, from every pulpit, with overt corrections to instructional materials at all levels. Anything less than this is seen as insufficient by some.

    Others, even if still thinking of the Church as a bunch of bugs, will praise the Church for the new era of transparency and challenge the other “entomologists” when they make strident critiques. In particular, when the strident decry inadequacy of summary documents, these antagonistic but professional historians will point out that the Joseph Smith Papers are thoroughly documented, and summary documents obviously would not be.

    At any rate, peer review is great! Thank you again for pushing back on me and giving me a chance to improve!

  9. Bennett was a charlatan, he made his living by lying – and unfortunately he took in Joseph Smith initially and as such was granted a high level of social status that made his subsequent deceptions and frauds all the more easy to accomplish. That such a man would become the default “source” for much of what the world thinks about Joseph Smith is disheartening, but not surprising. The only way Bennett could salvage (somewhat) his reputation was to ruin Joseph’s and distract people from what he (Bennett) had done.

    Seeing this history laid out was instructive. Thanks for putting it together.

  10. JSH, it is a common characteristic of the wicked to accuse their opposition/victims of the very sins they are doing. E.g. an adulterous husband will often accuse his innocent wife of varying degrees of unfaithfulness before his sins are found out. That way, when the truthful counter-claim is later made, the wrong-doer can paint it as mere retalliation.

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