Sherrilyn Kenyon, one of the world’s most successful authors of paranormal romance novels, lives on a wooded cul-de-sac in Franklin, Tennessee, a wealthy suburb of Nashville. When she moved there in 2011, seven of her books sat on the New York Times best-seller list, and in a speech she gave at a conference that year, she thanked her husband for never losing faith in her — for remaining by her side as they teetered on the edge of homelessness. But in the years that followed, the romantic narrative she’d told about their life took a series of turns so dramatic and morbid they almost could have been lifted from one of her novels. Her career foundered, her health eroded, her marriage crumbled, and, according to a lawsuit she recently filed, the dream home where she and her husband had raised their three children turned into a crime scene. It was there, Kenyon alleges, that her ex and one of her former assistants hatched a “Shakespearean plot” to murder her by poison.
Kenyon filed the complaint in January, about nine months after her husband sued for divorce. In the sprawling 81-page document, she accuses him of tormenting her and undermining her success at every turn throughout their 28-year marriage, stealing from her, mismanaging her business affairs, and sabotaging her relationships with her fans and professional contacts. But Kenyon’s most shocking allegations concern her health. About five years ago, the lawsuit claims, her hair and teeth started falling out and she developed intense nausea, tremors, disorientation, bone loss, facial swelling, and a peculiar metallic taste in her mouth. Tests of her hair, blood, and nails appear to reveal that she’d had high levels of toxic heavy metals in her system, including lithium, barium, arsenic, and mercury. Her suit notes that her husband had taken out a hefty life-insurance policy on her and “stood to gain millions of dollars upon her demise.”
Kenyon’s fans were outraged. More than 7,000 signed a Change.org petition seeking justice for the woman they called their “Author Goddess.” The news spread quickly, capturing headlines in the Guardian and the Washington Post and earning her an interview with Dr. Oz, who reviewed her test results on TV and pronounced them “concerning.” Kenyon’s estranged husband, in his response, praised Kenyon as a “brilliant fiction writer” but added that she had “irreparably blurred the line between fiction and reality.” Through his lawyer, in a statement to the press, he said, “These astonishing and unsubstantiated allegations may stand as her best fantasy creation yet.”
Kenyon still lives in the home she once shared with her husband, a contemporary English Tudor with a mottled stone façade. It sits at the end of a long driveway in a subdivision hemmed in by thickets of oak. When I arrived one recent afternoon, a friend of Kenyon’s answered the door. She was a frazzled middle-aged woman with a poof of frizzy hair. An elegant cat with golden fur was meowing at her feet. “It’s a Bengal,” she whispered, scooping it up and smoothing its coat. “They’re very expensive.”
From the outside, the house looked like all the others in the neighborhood. Inside, it was crammed with oddities. Statuettes of fairies, wizards, and gargoyles crowded an antique display case. A black chandelier with flame-shaped bulbs hovered over a Victorian-style dining-room set; a stuffed raven was perched on a wreath of knobby twigs. Peering out vacantly from the shadows were skull candles and skull-handled walking sticks, skulls carved from crystals and skulls engraved in pool cues. As Kenyon emerged from the basement, she winced at the daylight struggling in through the blinds. “Oh my God,” she rasped, flinging up a slender hand to shade her eyes. “The light is killing me.”
She was pale and drawn, in her 50s, with a regal posture and a classically beautiful face. A curtain of dark bangs hung over one eyebrow. She wore hearing aids in both ears, the result of a childhood ear infection that had gone untreated, and an oversize black cardigan embroidered with the likeness of the ghoulish Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas. She walked with a limp. “I keep breaking my toes,” she said with a bitter laugh. “Frail bones.” We set off on a tour of the house, Kenyon padding from room to room in black leather ballet flats while her childhood friend, Sheri Jacobs, trailed close behind. Jacobs had introduced herself as “the other Sheri.” She’d been helping Kenyon out since Kenyon’s husband left; in those 11 months, Kenyon had rarely ventured out into the world. Save for the occasional fan convention or court appearance, she’d passed her days scouring the house for proof of the various crimes she claimed her husband had committed against her. There, Kenyon said now with an outstretched finger, was the desk where he’d stolen the computer full of evidence; there was the koi pond from which he’d stolen all the koi; there was the letter he’d left her after he moved out. When she mentioned him, a muscle beneath her left eye twitched. “I really thought he was gonna kill me,” she said. “I really thought he was gonna kill me and bury my body.”
At the height of her fame, nearly a decade ago, Kenyon was the dark queen of paranormal romance, a genre populated by ghosts and witches and goblins. She had a knack for conceiving of outrageous plot twists, and her books were rife with acts of extreme violence — murders, mutilations, torture scenes spanning hundreds of pages. Her most popular series, “Dark-Hunter,” followed a band of immortal warriors as they waged an eternal battle against a race of demons. These heroic Dark Hunters suffered terribly, often enduring cruel betrayals at the hands of their families, but things always worked out for them in the end. Each book paired a different Dark Hunter with a love interest, and the couple’s electric chemistry invariably sparked passionate sex and undying devotion. Through love, they could regain their souls and rejoin the world of mortals.
As Kenyon told it, the story of her 28-year marriage bore some resemblance to these fictional romances, with a noble hero rescuing an anguished heroine from a background blighted by violence and neglect. Or at least that’s how she saw it for years. “Sadly, I loved him,” she said, “until I realized he poisoned me.”
She was sitting at her kitchen table with Jacobs and her 19-year-old son, Ian, barely touching the spread of chicken and biscuits she’d set out. She spoke with the theatrical flair of a natural raconteur, ramping up the suspense with whispered innuendos, breaking up the tension with spirited impressions, deepening her Georgia drawl in moments of anger. Like the supernatural events that pervade her fiction, the narrative she laid out stretched the bounds of credibility, the twists growing more bizarre the longer she spoke. But neither her son nor Jacobs raised an eyebrow. Ian would later tell me he was convinced that even the darkest part of the story was true — that his father had tried to murder his mother. “It definitely happened,” he told me, his tone calm and steady. “There’s so much evidence.”
She began at the beginning, with her miserable childhood. Understanding where she came from, she said, was the key to understanding how she’d ended up with a man who would try to kill her. She grew up poor in Fort Benning, Georgia. She said her parents fought constantly, overturning furniture and smashing dishes. She looked up to her drill-sergeant father, who taught her how to hunt with a bow and arrow, but he walked out when she was 8 and she saw him only once in the decade that followed. After he left, her mother went to work at a convenience store, leaving her in the care of her grandfather, a faith-healing Evangelist who “chased demons,” and her grandmother, a taskmaster who would beat her for the smallest transgressions, like failing to pick up her toys before dinner. Kenyon’s aunt, Linda Allred, said she remembered Kenyon’s grandmother as a “hard woman” who wielded a plastic track from a Hot Wheels set like a whip. “Those things will lay you open like a razor blade,” Kenyon told me. She pushed up the sleeves of her cardigan to show me pale marks hatching the insides of her arms. “Belt buckles,” she said. Her younger brother, a musician who goes by the name Warchild, told me, “There was a lot of physical and mental abuse in our house. I always admired her for being able to walk away from it.”
Writing was an escape — and an outlet for Kenyon’s anger. One of her first efforts, at 8, was about a girl with telekinesis who murdered members of her family. When she was 13, a friend slipped her The Flame and the Flower, a classic bodice ripper about a domineering ship’s captain who rapes a penniless orphan and is eventually redeemed by her love. As problematic as that premise may sound today, Kenyon found it empowering: “It was the first book I ever read about someone like me — bad home, bad family — who didn’t end up dead, in jail, or pregnant at 15. She got a happily-ever-after.” Soon she was making up her own romance stories, adding supernatural elements influenced by her mother’s passion for horror movies and her grandfather’s belief in the practice of casting out demons.
She met her husband, Lawrence “Ken” Kenyon, when she was 18, in a sociology class at Georgia College. At the time, she said, he seemed “so much better” than the people she’d grown up around. He was quiet and shy, from a middle-class family. (Someone who later worked for the Kenyons described him to me as a “soft man” who called to mind Mister Rogers.) They split up after a few months. But then, when she was 22, her older brother died in a car accident. She was still grieving when she and Ken got back together. For many years after, one friend told me, “Sherri always described him as her savior. He was her grounding force.”
In the early years of their marriage, they struggled financially. She worked odd jobs at bookstores and temp agencies while he went to law school. (He went on to practice law for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Nashville.) At one point, the couple’s house went into foreclosure. They lived in a cheap hotel, then in a car, then a roach-infested apartment. She wrote feverishly through all of it. At her fastest, she could dash off a book in two weeks, barely sleeping, living off honey-roasted peanuts and Coke. They raised three children, all boys. One of her sons later told me that his mother was so consumed with work she spent hardly any time with the family: “I think the most meals we ever ate together were maybe twice a year: Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
Kenyon said she sold six novels in the early ’90s — the first for a mere $500 — but after that run, she didn’t sell another for four years. She received more than 150 rejection slips in one year, she said. Publishers told her there was no market for what she was writing. As Jeffe Kennedy, who also writes in the genre, put it to me, there were authors who wrote sexy love stories and authors who wrote stories with “really cool heroes and demons and world-building,” but aside from Kenyon and a handful of others, “you didn’t have people doing both.” Then, in 1999, as Kenyon remembers it, an editor at St. Martin’s offered her around $5,000 each for Night Pleasures and Fantasy Lover, the first installments in what would become her groundbreaking “Dark-Hunter ”series. The books were an immediate hit with romance readers. Hip and dark and snarky, they stood out both for the intricacy and ambition of Kenyon’s world-building and the dirty inventiveness of her sex scenes. In one passage, the heroine’s cat allergy becomes an issue when she goes down on a half-feline “were-hunter.” She sneezes but perseveres. “Some things are worth suffering for,” she notes, as she dips her head to “gently lave the tip of him.”
Her most devoted readers referred to themselves as Menyons, or Minions. At readings and conventions, some of which were dedicated solely to her work, Kenyon excelled at connecting with them, remembering their names and even the names of their friends and relatives — people she’d signed books for but had never met. Several fans told me that the books, with their themes of pain and perseverance, helped them cope with trauma in their lives. As one Menyon put it, “You don’t feel so alone.” Kenyon basked in the attention, playing to the crowds at these gatherings in ways that didn’t always sit well with the romance establishment. In 2007, she appeared at a convention wearing a three-foot, faux black swan as a hat. Nora Roberts, the genre’s standard-bearer, took offense, suggesting that Kenyon’s outfit was unprofessional. But by 2011, she was earning millions a year and her stature as one of romance’s leading voices was undeniable.
That was the year the Romance Writers of America, the genre’s preeminent professional association, invited her to deliver the keynote address at its annual gathering. With her family’s financial struggles finally behind her, Kenyon credited her “supportive hubby” for encouraging her to pursue her dreams. As friends and family would later confirm, Ken had been instrumental in helping Kenyon become a successful writer, traveling with her to conventions, managing her career, and taking care of the kids while she was buried in work. “He was proud of her,” Kenyon’s aunt told me. At the time, Kenyon seemed proud of him, too. “Heroes aren’t just on paper,” she declared at the convention. “Real men are out there, and they will stand by you and hold your hand through hell itself.”
She sees it all differently now, of course. “He was always on my back,” she told me, the muscle twitching beneath her eye. “He was always criticizing me.”
That speech turned out to be the pinnacle of Kenyon’s success, the grace before the fall. What happened next depends on who you believe. If Kenyon’s account is true, she was the victim of an elaborate conspiracy aimed at ending her career and, ultimately, her life, culminating with the alleged poisoning. But several people who know her made a point of telling me that her propensity for spinning outrageous yarns wasn’t confined to her writing. While her eldest and youngest sons, who were both living with Kenyon, took her side in the divorce, her middle son, a 23-year-old game designer named Cabal, said he’d always found it hard to trust her. “She’d tell us these crazy stories. They were always just so outlandish,” he recalled. “I honestly couldn’t tell you if she really believes them.” Someone who used to work for her (and who asked to remain anonymous out of fear that she would sue him) expressed similar misgivings. “She has a vivid imagination. At the drop of the hat, she can make something up.”
To some extent, the decline of Kenyon’s career in the years after she gave that keynote speech can be chalked up to the sort of mundane problems that befall many best-selling authors. Not long after she appeared on that convention stage, paranormal romance, the genre she’d helped popularize, fell out of fashion. And some of her readers began to feel that her books, which had once been tightly constructed, were becoming tired and unfocused, with plots that contradicted each other and doubled back on themselves. “Kenyon has jumped shark so many times I have no idea what is going on half the time anymore,” complained a reviewer at Smexy Books, a romance and urban-fantasy review site, about Stygian, the 29th “Dark-Hunter” novel. “Kenyon has begun to lose control of the series.”
Over the following years, Kenyon’s sales declined. And it was during this period, according to Cabal and her former employee, that she became obsessed with a successful rival author named Cassandra Clare.
Kenyon and Clare had a contentious history. A few years after the “Dark-Hunter” series took off, Kenyon had learned that Clare planned to publish her own series featuring characters known as Dark Hunters. Clare ultimately decided to call them “Shadowhunters,” but Kenyon wasn’t appeased. Beginning in 2013, a film and then a television series based on Clare’s books were released. The former employee of Kenyon’s who was afraid of getting sued told me that Kenyon “coveted” Clare’s success: “Clare was making it good, and she wanted to destroy that. She just couldn’t handle it. She told me once, ‘I would sell my soul to the devil to get what I want.’ And what she wanted was to be the biggest.” Cabal recalled his mother’s obsession with Clare casting a pall on the household. “To this day, I have a lot of anxiety about hearing loud stomping,” he said. “I’d be in my room and I’d hear Stomp! Stomp! Stomp! and the door to the living room would slam open, and she’d just start screaming about how Cassandra Clare is this ‘fucking whore.’”
In 2016, Kenyon filed a lawsuit claiming that Clare had stolen her ideas, characters, story lines, and graphics. But many of the ideas Kenyon accused Clare of lifting were tropes found in countless works of fantasy and romance. The lawsuit notes, for example, that both Dark Hunters and Shadowhunters have “enchanted swords that are divinely forged, imbued with otherworldly spirits, have unique names, and glow like heavenly fire.” (“Cassie Clare did nothing wrong,” Clare’s lawyer, William L. Charron, wrote in an email.)
If Kenyon hoped the lawsuit would right her career and allow her to regain the fame and adulation that was slipping from her grasp, it had the opposite effect. The publishing world was baffled by it. The fantasy author Kelly Link, a friend of Clare’s, referred to Kenyon on Twitter as a “sandpit of strangeness and misery dressed up in a swan hat.” Fantasy readers called her “salty.” Soon after the suit was filed, Kenyon revised it, dropping the accusation that Clare had violated Kenyon’s copyrights, one of the lawsuit’s central claims. The remaining claims, concerning Clare’s cover designs and branding, were settled for an undisclosed amount. To pay her legal fees, Kenyon said, she and her husband had to take out an extra mortgage on their house. “The house was paid for,” she said. “Now it’s hocked up to the hilt again.” According to Kenyon’s ex, the battle hurt her in other ways, too. In his divorce papers, he contends that her crusade against Clare caused her “mental state” to begin “deteriorating.”
The year after Kenyon filed the lawsuit, fans noticed that she seemed unwell. At her convention, only a few dozen people showed up, as opposed to the hundreds she’d drawn at her peak. She sat in her booth, the color drained from her face. “She would just stare into space,” one fan told me. “It was like she was in a daze.” Her aunt said Kenyon complained of dizziness and headaches. Tish Owen, an author and psychic, recalled a lunch where Kenyon relayed that her doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her. “She had a terrible pallor to her,” Owen said. “I was very afraid that she was going to die.”
Her sales, by then, had slowed to a trickle — only one of her books made it onto the Times best-seller list that year, and only for a week. That fall, according to Kenyon’s lawsuit against her husband, her longtime publisher, St. Martin’s Press, ended its relationship with her. Her “Dark-Hunter” series found a new home with another imprint, Tor, but some of her titles were canceled and others delayed. When I reached out to St. Martin’s, the publisher declined to comment. Her current publisher and agent wouldn’t speak either, and neither would her previous agents or editors. When I managed to catch one of them on the phone and told her I was writing about Kenyon, she cut me off. “Let me just stop you right there,” she said. “The farther I am from this story, the happier I’ll be.” She hung up the phone.
Kenyon insists there’s a single explanation for her softening book sales and all her other misfortunes. “Everything bad that happened happened because I was married,” she told me. Sitting at her kitchen table, she said it was her husband, not her, who was “obsessed” with Cassandra Clare. She said he pressured her to go after the author, even though she knew it was a bad idea. And that was just one of the many alleged acts of sabotage she’d laid out in her lawsuit against him.
Kenyon wrote most of the lawsuit herself. “It’s so much easier if my clients start out drafting,” said the lawyer she was working with at the time, Connie Reguli. “And Sherri’s an author, so she was very verbal.” The complaint reads at times like a gothic novel, with florid sentences, melodramatic plot twists, and cryptic references to witchcraft. Only a handful of paragraphs discuss the alleged poisoning and its purported effects on her health — her crumbling teeth and alarming hair loss, the “excruciating stomach cramps,” and the “respiratory issues that left her unable to walk across a room without aid.” Page after page detail trivial incidents, investing them with sinister meaning. At one point, Ken is accused of placing “a large flower arrangement near her computer where cats would upset it onto her work.” Kenyon claims he tried to derail her career from the start. She says he meddled in her relationships with editors and agents and “raged with jealousy” when she spoke with them on the phone. She portrays him as a controlling, toxic presence who “didn’t see what she did as work and refused to respect it as a career.”
Ken was not the only person Kenyon held responsible. According to the lawsuit, many of his alleged crimes, including the poisoning, involved a woman named Kerrie Ann Plump, who is named by the complaint as a co-defendant. By Kenyon’s account, the biggest blow to her marriage and career came when Ken hired Plump as a tutor for Ian in 2014. Plump soon began helping Ken manage Kenyon’s business affairs. According to Kenyon, this was a disaster. She claims that Plump bungled the plans for author events, mismanaged the online store, and made Kenyon “look bad” by taking subtle digs at her in emails to industry professionals and disparaging her books to fans behind her back.
Like the charges leveled against her ex, many of Kenyon’s accusations against Plump are astoundingly petty. In a passage with echoes of Edward Gorey, the complaint alleges that she at one point “failed to procure the cake for the party,” forcing “the extremely ill Ms. Kenyon” to find a bakery that could provide one. Rudeness is a major preoccupation. On page 30, Plump is accused of being “rude and condescending” to fans and to Kenyon; on page 41, we learn that Plump was “exceptionally rude” to Kenyon’s publisher. Kenyon showed me more than a hundred pages of printed-out emails that Plump had sent to agents, editors, and event organizers. Scattered among them, in bright red letters, were notes that Kenyon had written to her lawyer denouncing Plump for incompetence and treachery. In one seemingly innocuous exchange, Plump had informed a convention organizer that Kenyon had “a few particulars and preferences for panels and scheduling at these events.” “THIS IS A LIE!!!” Kenyon declared in her notes. “My preferences are to make it as easy as I can on the Con people. OMG!”
At the kitchen table, Kenyon began rifling through a mess of papers — documents from her old copyright case, a composition book from 1974. “Show and tell,” she sang out like a second-grade teacher. She pulled out a photograph of a piece of junk mail addressed to Plump at Kenyon’s home. “That’s how comfortable she was here,” she said. Kenyon believed that Plump and Ken were having an affair. She recalled them laughing together while watching a movie and referred me to her facialist, who said she’d once seen Plump rest her arm along the back of Ken’s seat while the two were driving somewhere.
Kenyon claimed she grew progressively more ill during this period, suffering from stomach cramps, anemia, and respiratory problems that left her incapable of walking across a room by herself. She noted that Plump’s duties included serving her food. “Ain’t that fascinating?” she said, her eyebrows rising suggestively. In 2017, according to Kenyon, things took a turn for the worse when Plump began sleeping in a guest room at the house. Around this time, Kenyon says that Plump and Ken kept her isolated in the basement “like a prisoner,” screaming at her whenever she tried to leave. (Plump declined to be interviewed, but sent a response through her lawyer: “Ms. Plump categorically denies all allegations and maintained a professional demeanor in all interactions on behalf of Ms. Kenyon and the Kenyon family.”)
During the holiday season that year, Kenyon’s aunt, Linda, stayed at the house. She told me her niece seemed weak and sickly, refusing to join the family on trips to the movies. Linda and Ken were close, but he seemed to be avoiding her. “The only time he really sat down and talked to me, he just started telling me that he was so unhappy he couldn’t even get out of bed,” she recalled. The former employee of Kenyon’s told me that Ken came home one night around this time to find his wife and a psychic “putting a spell” on a rival author. “It was shocking to him,” said the employee, who has remained friends with Ken. “He felt it was demonic. He said that he did not know her, that her rage and anger was so bad she was a totally different person.” (Kenyon denies ever casting spells on anyone.) Not long after, Ken walked out. A few weeks later, he filed for divorce. Kenyon told me that she was blindsided by this, but according to Ken’s divorce papers, he’d had “grave concerns” about Kenyon’s “deteriorating mental state” for years and felt he “could not take one more day” of her “degrading demeanor.” (Through his lawyer, Ken declined to speak with me.)
In the months after he left, Kenyon said, she came to believe that he had been stealing and hiding money from her, siphoning more than a million dollars from the family’s bank accounts. In his divorce filings, Ken says he did transfer some of the family’s joint assets to his accounts but only for the purpose of safekeeping. According to these filings, Kenyon “purposely withheld access to funds from him” throughout their marriage and spent their money recklessly, booking first-class flights to conventions, staying at five-star hotels, splurging on cosmetics and clothes, burning through tens of thousands of dollars a month. Ken was now demanding half of her assets, including half of any future earnings from the titles she’d developed while they were married, along with alimony. All Kenyon wanted, she told me, was to start over somewhere new. “I’m trapped in this house, with all these bad memories,” she said.
By this point in our conversation, the sun had set behind the woods on her property, and she’d changed into penguin-print pajamas. She’d shown me a bald patch on the back of her head and the implants where her teeth had been before the poison allegedly rotted them away. But she still hadn’t addressed the most pressing question raised by her sensational lawsuit: Why was she so certain that her estranged husband and former assistant had been conspiring to poison her? How had she come to the conclusion that her many different health problems tied back to them?
Kenyon got up from the table, left the room, and returned a few minutes later with a pair of hairbrushes. She said she’d come home from a convention about a week after Ken walked out to find the home “raided.” His computer was gone, furniture had vanished, a pair of revolvers were missing, and oddly, the hair had been cleaned out of all her brushes.
She held out the brushes to me. One was bare, the other densely threaded with dark brown hair. “This is what they normally look like,” she said, jostling the one covered with hair. With a dramatic gesture, she thrust out the other one: “That’s what I came home to.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what point she was trying to make. There was a lull in the conversation. Then Jacobs, the friend, piped up with a rhetorical question. “If you raid the house,” she asked me, “why would you stop and clean somebody’s hairbrush?”
“Why?” Kenyon echoed.
Did they think that Ken and Plump feared that if Kenyon got the hair tested, it would prove that she’d been poisoned?
“Yeah,” Kenyon said. “I think they did.”
But wouldn’t it have occurred to them that she could have just tested the hair on her head?
“I don’t think they thought about that,” Kenyon said.
As soon as she laid eyes on the brushes, Kenyon said, she thought back on how ill she’d been and remembered vomiting uncontrollably after eating meals that Ken and Plump had brought her. She realized she’d already been feeling better in the days she’d spent away from them. In an instant, the unfocused misery of her life reorganized itself with perfect clarity into a narrative of cruel betrayal, not unlike the kind she’d been enthralling her fans with for years. In her “Dark-Hunter” series, humans become immortal heroes only after they are betrayed and murdered by someone close to them, often a spouse. As their souls leave their bodies, Artemis, the Greek goddess, offers them an opportunity: If they join her eternal army of demon-slayers, she’ll allow them to exact revenge on their betrayers.
Kenyon bagged up the hairbrushes and had samples of her blood, hair, and fingernails sent to a lab. When the results came back, they appeared to confirm what she already believed about her ex. “If there’s a God in heaven,” she said, “he deserves to be in jail.”
I spent three days with Kenyon at her home. With every hour that passed, her story, like her books, grew longer and darker and harder to follow. It wasn’t just Ken and Plump who were out to get her. Her lawyers in the plagiarism case had played “a shell game” with her, she said; the judge in the divorce case was colluding with Ken; some of her own publishers had schemed against her. Her cast of villains kept expanding, even as their roles became increasingly obscure. Spending time with her was like stepping into the world of her fiction, an alternate reality where demons lurked behind every door. In Ken’s legal filings, he made a similar point: “It is as if Wife is mentally morphing into one of her fictional characters in her fantasy, sci-fi novels.”
If Kenyon was living in a fantasy world, she wasn’t living there alone. On my first night at the house, Jacobs walked around pinning up black sheets over the windows. “He took all the rifles,” Jacobs explained. “He took the guns, the two handguns, all the ammunition. If he’s standing out in the dark …,” she trailed off. “The guy snapped,” she said. “Basically he just snapped.” (In his legal filings, Ken says he hid the family’s firearms from Kenyon because he was afraid she might use them against him. “Husband has a genuine fear of being killed by wife,” the filing says.)
On my second night, we retreated to Kenyon’s writing room, a carpeted cave in the basement darkened with heavy crimson drapes. The room was packed with candles, kachina dolls, half-burnt wands of sage, bags of herbs, goblets, crystal pyramids, and crystal balls. Kenyon told me she used to read people’s palms professionally, but she stopped when one of her premonitions came true. “I looked into my brother’s hand, and I saw death,” she said. “I quit doing palms after that.”
She was lying back in a recliner, enveloped in the stuffing, her face inscrutable in the gloomy light. “When I look back at my books,” she said, her voice sinking to a hoarse whisper, “there’s a lot of things that came to be.” She insisted that I read Born of Legend, a novel of hers from 2016. The hero, a survivor of horrific child abuse, is stabbed with a poisoned knife and later shot with a poisoned dart. At one point, when his love interest buys him a melon, he inspects the rind for needle marks, demanding: “Have you any idea how many times I’ve had my food poisoned or tampered with?” “It’s weird,” Kenyon continued. “It’s like, do I manifest it? Or is it cognition? What the hell?”
Kenyon had her blood, hair, and nails tested for 21 different heavy metals. The results, which she shared with me, appeared to show elevated levels of chromium, beryllium, manganese, nickel, cadmium, antimony, platinum, mercury, lithium, selenium, tin, barium, thorium, and arsenic. These tests are the basis of her claim that she was poisoned. But when I spoke with Dr. Ernest Lykissa, the lead scientist of the lab that performed the tests, he said the concentrations of heavy metals in her system weren’t high enough to support her theory. “In this case,” he said, “the only thing I see is environmental exposure.” He thought she’d probably absorbed the metals from her surroundings — from the paint in her home, for example, or the exhaust from her car.
Kenyon never had any direct contact with Lykissa. To get tested, she stopped into Any Lab Test Now, a strip-mall operation that promises to have patients “in and out in 15 minutes.” It collected the samples of her blood, hair, and nails and forwarded them to Lykissa’s company, ExperTox, which then produced a list of the toxins found in the samples and their concentrations. In order to have those results interpreted by a scientist at ExperTox, Kenyon would have had to pay extra — a step she didn’t take, according to Lykissa. When I mentioned this to Bruce Goldberger, the president of the American Board of Forensic Toxicology and the director of forensic medicine at the University of Florida, he found it troubling. At my request, Goldberger had reviewed Kenyon’s test results and had come to the same conclusion as Lykissa — that she hadn’t been poisoned. But he felt that Lykissa’s company had failed her. “She’s convinced herself that her illness is associated with poisoning,” he said; by giving her results without any analysis, he continued, ExperTox allowed that belief to endure.
Goldberger and other toxicologists I spoke to said they would never test patients for toxins without first meeting with them or speaking with their physicians. If they had met with Kenyon, they would have asked her about her medical history and her eating habits. They would have wanted to know if she ever dyed her hair (she did) and if she had been going through menopause when her most recent symptoms appeared (she had). But Kenyon told me she never saw a toxicologist. Cabal, her son, said that she’d always been sick, that her teeth had always been bad, that she had lived on fast food for as long as he could remember, and that she rarely exercised or got enough sleep. “She is by far the most unhealthy person I’ve ever met,” he said. “Her not being sick was rare.” (Kenyon later claimed she did meet with a toxicologist and that she had other test results that confirmed her theory. But her publicist refused to let her discuss them with me, saying they’re part of an “ongoing investigation.” Last year, Kenyon reported her allegations to the local sheriff’s department; the office confirmed that it was investigating. It declined to comment further.)
The toxicologists I spoke with told me they’ve received dozens of calls from people who believe that their romantic partners are trying to poison them. The evidence almost never bears this out. Although intentional heavy-metal poisoning was once more common (the Black Widow bumped off her victims with arsenic), it’s extremely rare today. And yet persuading people that something else is to blame for their ailments often proves impossible. “It becomes a fixed false belief they carry with them,” said Edward Boyer, a medical toxicologist and a professor of emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School. He brought up a case in which nearly 200 students and teachers at a Tennessee high school falsely believed they’d inhaled toxic fumes. “Previously, we had witches and goblins and ghosts that we could ascribe bad things to,” he said, paraphrasing an editorial he’d read about the incident. “Now we have toxins.”
On our last day together, I asked Kenyon if she thought her health problems could have stemmed from the stress of her career declining. “I’m under more stress now than I was then,” she fired back. She had one more thing she wanted to show me — something that could only be attributed to Ken’s desire to control and destroy her. She and Jacobs led me to a cabinet in the living room, and Jacobs swung open the door to reveal a tangle of electronics and wiring. “This is what Paco did,” Kenyon announced.
Along with her husband and Plump, Kenyon had named Paco Cavanaugh, the family’s IT specialist, as a defendant in her lawsuit. She didn’t accuse him of conspiring to poison her, but she alleged that he had assisted Ken with various tasks, like “destroying computers” and “shredding documents.” At one point, the lawsuit quotes Cavanaugh telling Kenyon, “Paco can get into anything here. He sees all and knows all.” (Cavanaugh’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.)
Kenyon began leading me through the house, flinging open cabinets, sweeping her hand at wires and metal boxes. “It’s like everywhere you go, there’s more,” she told me. “He controls everything!” Ever since Ken left, she said, computers and security cameras around the home had been turning on and off at random intervals, as though of their own volition. She insisted that Ken and Cavanaugh had worked together to wire the house so they could remotely control every aspect of her environment — the lights, the security cameras, even the temperature of the pool. And then she said, “We had a heartbeat in the house.”
After she filed the lawsuit, Kenyon explained, she was in New York with Jacobs when the housesitter told them that the sound of a heartbeat had suddenly begun to pump through the home’s sound system.
“We told her to call the police and go get the gun,” Jacobs said. “A few minutes later, the heartbeat stopped.”
“As soon as she got the gun,” Kenyon said. “It’s like they were watching her. They knew.”
When she and Jacobs got home, Kenyon said, it started again. “That’s why we had to actually kill the brain of the system and rip all the intercom systems out to get it to stop,” she said, gesturing at the remnants of one of the intercoms.
As we stood in the dream home that Kenyon had torn apart, looking at the broken intercom, Jacobs played a recording of the suspicious noise on her phone. It did sound like a heartbeat, but certain questions remained. For one, even if Kenyon’s husband had conspired with the IT guy to torment her via the smart-home system, why would he have chosen that particular sound?
Kenyon’s reply was matter-of-fact. “We were married in Richmond, Virginia, home of Edgar Allan Poe,” she said. “His favorite thing is ‘The Tell-tale Heart.’”
In April, two months after my visit, Kenyon appeared in court for a hearing in the divorce case. In the middle of a contentious discussion about her Dr. Oz interview and her history of posting about the case on social media, Kenyon stormed out of the room. As she was leaving, according to a court document, she called one of Ken’s attorneys “a fucking liar.” (She denies this.) The judge ordered Kenyon to return to court and apologize to the lawyer. Back in the courtroom, Kenyon demanded, “Would you like me to apologize to the pedophile family while I’m at it, who molested my children?”
As the court fell into bewildered silence, Kenyon repeated the charge of pedophilia — a claim she’d never made in any of her legal filings or in our conversations, or had ever offered any evidence to support. “The statement you just made is deplorable,” replied the judge. “It does not show any rational basis whatsoever.” He held her in contempt of court and sentenced her to ten days in jail. Kenyon paid bond and was released that day. After she got out, she fired her lawyer, Reguli, for failing to stick up for her in court. Reguli, for her part, told me she still stands by Kenyon and their lawsuit. “This has just been very stressful on Sherri,” she said. Since then, Kenyon has hired a new lawyer, her third since the divorce began. That lawyer has filed an amended complaint, scrubbing out the language about “rudeness” and most of the other eccentricities, though not the allegation that Ken and Plump poisoned her.
When you strip away Kenyon’s most dramatic claims, you’re left with a quotidian story, if a tragic one, about a person reeling from the bitter dissolution of a 28-year marriage. Several people who know Kenyon well, including her son Cabal, told me they hope she seeks therapy. Others said they wished she’d just focus on her work. A fan who met Kenyon at a book signing in the ’90s and became friends with the author told me she’d urged Kenyon to “hunker down and write some really fantastic books and get back on top the way you got there to begin with.” She wasn’t surprised when Kenyon didn’t take her advice. “That’s not her personality,” said the fan. “Her whole childhood was a fight.”
A few weeks after the courtroom incident, I spoke with Kenyon on the phone. She told me she’d stopped working on her novels. “The characters aren’t there,” she said. “They’re just not talking. I’ve got nothing.” She said the same thing happened to her after her brother’s death more than 30 years ago. “My belief in the way the world should be was shattered,” she said. Still, she hasn’t given up writing altogether. Since filing the lawsuit, she has chronicled her narrative of betrayal on Facebook and in newsletters, thanking her fans for helping her “rise up and defend against the evil that is trying to storm our gates and tear down all we have built together.” In a post about the recent courtroom debacle, she likened her husband and his lawyers to “fiction writers,” accusing them of making up stories about her. “But I don’t want to dwell on their cruelty,” she added. “I don’t want to dwell on that monster. I would much, much rather be writing my books where monsters get what they deserve.”
Shortly after this piece was published, Kenyon’s publicist reached out with a number of clarifications. An earlier version indicated that Kenyon and Jacobs rarely left Kenyon’s home. It has been clarified to reflect that only Kenyon rarely left her home. The story has also been updated to reflect that Kenyon at one point lived in a car, not a U-Haul, her home has blinds, not shutters, the black swan hat was not taxidermied, and her older brother is not her “favorite” sibling.
On July 26, 2019, Kenyon dropped her lawsuit against Ken, Plump, and Cavanaugh. In an email, one of Ken’s lawyers suggested that she did so in response to a motion his team filed requesting dismissal and sanctions for “filing unsubstantiated claims of far reaching conspiracies.” In a statement provided by Kenyon’s publicist, the author said she was merely “tabling” the lawsuit for financial reasons, in order to focus her money and energy on the ongoing divorce litigation instead. “However, I maintain a strong and steadfast belief in the merits of this case,” she wrote. “As the great Margaret Thatcher once said, ‘you may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.’”