Karen Monahan’s accusations represent a potentially new chapter in the #MeToo movement, in which the allegations against a public figure are not primarily about sexual violence or harassment, but emotional abuse.
MINNEAPOLIS — When Keith Ellison became the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006, it made him a national star: a charismatic young black leader who was now a symbol of the Democratic Party’s commitment to diversity and equal rights.
Back home in Minneapolis, he was revered in a close-knit circle of progressive activists. He began a romantic relationship with one of them, an environmental organizer named Karen Monahan, who moved in with him in 2015.
Monahan posted photos on social media of the two hiking, traveling and attending a party at the White House with President Barack Obama and the first lady.
Behind the scenes, though, their relationship was rocky. Monahan often accused Ellison of cheating on her, leading to blowout arguments, according to more than a dozen people who knew the couple.
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Now, as Ellison runs for attorney general in Minnesota, Monahan has accused her former boyfriend of emotional abuse and says he once shouted profanities at her while trying to drag her off a bed.
Ellison denies abusing Monahan and said in a statement after the allegations emerged that he cares “deeply for her well-being.”
Democratic Party leaders in Minnesota have asked a lawyer to look into Monahan’s allegations but continue to support Ellison’s bid to become attorney general.
The questions about Ellison come eight months after Sen. Al Franken, another popular progressive leader in Minnesota, resigned amid allegations that he made unwanted sexual advances. Now, Ellison, a high-profile leader on the left, is fighting for his reputation and facing a tough campaign with an opponent using the abuse allegations against him.
Monahan’s accusations represent a potentially new chapter in the #MeToo movement, in which the allegations against a public figure are not primarily about sexual violence or harassment, but emotional abuse. But the allegations against Ellison, who declined a request for an interview through a spokesman, are turning into a test among many liberals for where to draw the line between a messy relationship and an emotionally abusive one, and some say they are not sure where it is.
“I want to make sure that women are believed,” said Betsy Hodges, a former mayor of Minneapolis who identifies as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and who used to see Ellison, 55, and Monahan, 44, together at political events. “I also want to make sure that we follow a process when we evaluate. A bad breakup is not the same thing as abuse.”
Monahan’s accusation about the altercation on the bed has drawn the most attention. Yet the core of her allegations against Ellison regard what she calls “narcissist abuse,” a term that is not officially recognized in psychiatry but that is gaining popularity online as a way to describe suffering experienced by partners of self-centered people.
“Narcissist abuse is very difficult to understand,” Monahan said. “It’s the gaslighting, it’s the habitual lying, it’s the making it seem like it was my fault for even asking why something happened.
“It was crazy-making. My hair was falling out, I was anemic — narcissist abuse is horrid.”
In summer 2016, about a year after Monahan moved in, Ellison began to tell his friends that the relationship was not working out. That August, Ellison attended a conference on transgender issues and then met with a female friend to talk to her about legal papers she had received from her ex-husband. Monahan accused him of cheating, recalled Shay Berkowitz, a friend of Ellison’s who has volunteered for his campaigns.
“They didn’t bring out the best in each other,” she said, adding that the relationship ended at that time, but Monahan remained in his house until she could get her own place.
It was after that fight that Monahan said she was lying on a bed and listening to a podcast episode when Ellison asked her to take out the trash. When she did not respond verbally, he grew angry, she said.
In a profanity-laced tirade, she said, he asked her to leave and called her a bad guest. “He kept trying to pull me and pull me and pull me off” the bed, she said. “And I just laid dead. Because I was scared.”
Ellison left to catch a flight, she said, but warned her to be gone when he returned.
Monahan said she had a cellphone video of the incident, but she has declined to make it available to reporters. She told CNN that she misplaced it, but she wrote on Facebook that she would not provide it because victims should not be forced to prove their claims. Shortly after she made the allegation, Monahan called the police and said her computer had been hacked and “that email conversations between her and Ellison have been randomly deleted off of her laptop,” according to the police report.
Monahan said that after the alleged incident, she borrowed money to pay the deposit for her own place, but she did not consider the relationship to be over until January 2017, when she discovered text messages on Ellison’s phone to two other women. She sent him screenshots of the messages and accused him of “soul-rape,” according to text messages she postedon social media. She told him she might write a memoir about their relationship. He warned her not to violate his privacy.
Ellison’s current girlfriend, Monica Hurtado, said she had only seen him treat women with respect.
“Karen is suffering. She is a victim — not of Keith, but of others during her childhood,” Hurtado said. “Keith has been very clear in saying that nobody is out of the circle of compassion and that includes Karen.”
About a year after the breakup, Monahan sent an email to Hurtado, accusing her of stealing Ellison’s affections.
“Your desires, and how you acted on those desires, in this whole situation had nothing to do with Keith’s well-being,” Monahan wrote. “You thought of your needs, what you wanted, your desires, and it didn’t matter who you hurt.”
In recent months, Monahan has posted almost daily on social media about being a survivor of “narcissist abuse.”
Despite the allegations, Ellison won his primary. Now he faces Doug Wardlow, a Republican who already has made an issue out of the allegations.
“Minnesota Democrats have preached that we must believe domestic-violence victims,” he posted on his website. “That is, until it is one of their own.”