Illustration by Jonathan Rodriguez for BuzzFeed News

How Men’s Rights Leader Paul Elam Turned Being A Deadbeat Dad Into A Moneymaking Movement

Paul Elam has become the face of the modern men’s rights movement by rallying against false rape accusations and divorce courts that favor mothers. But exclusive BuzzFeed News interviews with his estranged daughter and ex-wife show that his pet causes are very, very personal.

The first time Bonnie met her father, Paul Elam, he cried like a baby. It was a summer day in 2005, nearly 25 years after Elam relinquished his parental rights in court and refused to pay child support for Bonnie, whose name has been changed, and her younger brother. Bonnie and Elam felt awkward at first as they smiled through their tears across a restaurant table, marveling at how much they looked alike. Elam told Bonnie that he was sorry he had failed her and that he wanted to develop a relationship.

The last time Bonnie saw Elam was in 2011, after Elam spanked her son for opening a refrigerator door. In the years between, Elam struggled to be a good father to Bonnie and a good grandfather to her sons, and Bonnie and Elam eventually became strangers to each other once more. But Elam did become a father figure of sorts to scores of men who feel disenfranchised from what they see as an increasingly feminized society. They call themselves men’s rights activists. Over the past few years, Elam has established himself as their most vocal and controversial leader.

The men’s rights movement, which emerged in the 1970s as a response to second-wave feminism, may still be a fringe phenomenon in the United States, but Elam has revitalized it for the social media age. In 2008, he founded A Voice for Men, now the movement’s most popular website, which has birthed a broader online community where aggrieved men swap memes and commiserate. His work has helped fellow activists attract sympathetic media attention, launch franchises all over the world, and seek mainstream acceptance. Some politicians now use the movement’s talking points to enforce antiabortion laws and attract voters who care about “fathers’ rights.” Popular conservative pundits echo the movement’s critiques of feminism when talking about the government’s response to sexual assault on college campuses.

Paul Elam Adam Serwer / BuzzFeed News

Elam’s takes on gender are often attractive to men dealing with the painful aftermath of divorces, custody battles, and rejection. He preaches the gospel that men’s failures and disappointments are not due to personal shortcomings or lapsed responsibility, but rather institutionalized feminism and a family court system rigged against dutiful fathers, as well as a world gripped by “misandry,” or the hatred of men.

The men’s rights movement has some dedicated critics, such as David Futrelle, who has chronicled the movement’s rise on his blog, We Hunted The Mammoth, for years. But A Voice for Men is often portrayed in the media as a relatively sober voice of reason in the abrasive world of men’s rights. “If Men’s Rights Activism has a Gloria Steinem, it is Paul Elam,” Emmett Rensin wrote this week for Vox. “The website is one of the oldest and, if there is such a thing, most respected hubs for MRA activity. Elam and his staff do, at the very least, engage in genuine advocacy on behalf of men.” Rensin didn’t cite any examples of said advocacy. This is not surprising, given that the site’s advocacy efforts are difficult to discern.

What is clear is that Elam has amassed tens of thousands of followers — and lined his pockets with their donations to the for-profit AVFM, which are estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. (When asked how this money is spent, Elam told BuzzFeed News that A Voice for Men’s finances were “none of your fucking business.”)

Elam is equally tight-lipped about where his inspiration comes from. He likes to remind his followers that he knows the sacrifices men make thanks to his own experiences, which he speaks of often. But in telling his life story again and again, Elam has conveniently left much out.

Now, exclusive interviews with Elam’s ex-wives and daughter and newly uncovered court records shed light on a man who, they told BuzzFeed News, has depended on and emotionally abused the women in his own life.

For example, although Elam compares the family court system’s treatment of fathers to Jim Crow, he abandoned his biological children not once but twice. Although Elam says that “fathers are forced to pay child support like it was mafia protection money,” he accused his first wife of lying about being raped so he could relinquish his parental rights and avoid paying child support.

His ex-wife and his daughter said he has only been able to make A Voice for Men his full-time job because of the women who have supported him throughout his life.

“People come to Paul for advice on parenting, even though he has two estranged biological children that he did not raise or take care of,” said Bonnie, who, along with her mother Susan, Elam’s first wife, spoke publicly for the first time to BuzzFeed News. (Susan’s name has been changed, because, like Bonnie, she fears Elam’s followers will retaliate against her.)

When Bonnie tracked Elam down back in 2005, he told her that he would understand if she hated him for abandoning her as a baby.

“I said hatred wouldn’t solve anything, and he was floored,” Bonnie recalled. “He thought I would be this maniacal, stark-raving crazy woman. Or at least, that’s what he wanted me to be.”

Elam was born in 1957. In his own words, his father, Gerald, was a “rigid, authoritarian” Army veteran who was “physically abusive and violent” to Elam and his older brothers. His mother, Ann, was a nurse, as well as a “very hardworking housewife” who took care of the children. Yet, as Elam recalled in a recent interview on AVFM, “There was something wrong with the picture. It took me a long time to figure out that it wasn’t my father who was in charge.”

Men’s rights activists often cite the first time they realized it’s a woman’s world. They call these “red pill” moments, after the scene in The Matrix when the main character is faced with the decision to swallow a red pill and recognize the true nature of the world or take a blue pill and continue living a lie. For Elam, that revelation came at age 13, when his mother tried to force him to take his diarrhea medicine.

Elam’s brothers held him down on the kitchen floor while his mother screamed and hit him with a wooden spoon until a concerned neighbor knocked on the door. “I felt like I was engaged in the battle of my life,” Elam said. “I was a rebel from that moment on … I’m still that 13-year-old kid on the floor that won’t take the medicine.”

When Elam was 17, his mother grabbed a photo of his high school crush out of his hands without asking him first. When Elam took it back from her, his father belted him. Elam’s analysis of the incident was that his father’s life was solely about serving his mother — “and nothing else.”

“I followed in many ways in my father’s footsteps,” Elam said. “If I was attracted to a girl … it was my job to please her, and to be and do anything to please her. My instant reaction to women was to please and serve without question.”

Elam wrote in his biography on the site that he did a quick stint in the Army before he met 18-year-old Susan in San Antonio, Texas. As Susan recalled it, Elam first approached her at a local bar, where they played pinball. Susan’s parents didn’t approve — they thought she was too young to date — but the two were married in March 1978 regardless. Susan was 19 and Elam was 21.

They had no money and no place to live, so Susan joined the Army and started basic training. Eventually, she was assigned a placement and the two moved to Tacoma, Washington. In the meantime, Elam was drinking heavily and using drugs, and sold Susan’s belongings to go on a trip to Florida, Susan said. According to records, he was arrested in Fort Lauderdale just three months after their wedding for sleeping on the street. (When asked about the incident, Elam told BuzzFeed News that he had “no idea what you’re talking about.”)

Elam expected Susan to “run around the house barefoot taking care of everything,” she said, but also didn’t appear to be very interested in making money or supporting her in other ways. One day, Susan said, she was raped by a friend of Elam’s. Soon after, she was pregnant, and too scared to tell Elam what had happened.

When Bonnie was born in 1979, Susan breathed a sigh of relief: Her daughter was white, like Elam, and her assaulter was not. Soon, the truth came out. “I couldn’t hide it anymore,” Susan said. Elam told her she had asked to be raped, and that she had slept with his friend because she was bored with her marriage. “I told him he had no idea,” Susan said. “How could he have? He wasn’t even there.”

When asked if what Susan said was true, Elam told BuzzFeed News, “My personal history in a relationship from fucking 20, 30 years ago — is this how desperate you’re getting?”

Two months after Bonnie was born, Elam was arrested for violation of Washington’s drug laws and illegal fishing, according to state records. A few months later, Susan was pregnant again. Before her son was born, Susan left Elam, who, she said, was drinking and using drugs regularly.

Susan received full custody of both children after their divorce in February 1981. Elam was granted visitation rights every other Sunday afternoon, but only if he wasn’t “under the influence of alcohol or drugs or in the company of people under the influence of alcohol or drugs.” He was also ordered to pay child support every month as well as some previously owed child support and a variety of other debts and court fines. But he didn’t. So Susan took him to court again. Finally, he wrote a petition to the court explaining that he didn’t believe he should be held in contempt of court or pay attorneys’ fees because he didn’t think Bonnie was his.

“Susan has a history of promiscuity which never, to my knowledge now, ceased during the three years that we were married,” Elam wrote in the petition. He said he would take a paternity test, but that he felt he had “paid enough for the unfaithfulness” of his ex-wife. Susan said she never read the petition in which Elam questioned her fidelity. But, at the time, her parents convinced her to end the legal battle and cut Elam out of her life without forcing him to prove his paternity. They had never liked Elam, and told her they’d help her raise her children.

According to records, Elam was ultimately held in contempt for failure to pay child support. His punishment was a $100 fine and 30 days in jail. He was ordered to pay $1,200 in unpaid debts, upon which, both parties agreed, his parental rights would be terminated.

Susan didn’t hear from Elam again for years, until he sent her parents a letter apologizing for his actions, chalking them up to his drug use. She didn’t write back. Less than a year later, Elam was married to another woman.

Now, Elam often writes about false rape allegations. “Should I be called to sit on a jury for a rape trial, I vow publicly to vote not guilty, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the charges are true,” he once explained in a blog post, due to how often he believes women lie about being assaulted.

Another favorite topic is how unfair family courts are to fathers. He once wrote, “The day I see one of these absolutely incredulous excuses for a judge dragged out of his courtroom into the street, beaten mercilessly, doused with gasoline and set afire by a father who just won’t take another moment of injustice, I will be the first to put on the pages of this website that what happened was a minor tragedy that pales by far in comparison to the systematic brutality and thuggery inflicted daily on American fathers by those courts and their police henchmen.”

While Elam has written many more posts on these pet causes, he has never publicly acknowledged his own turbulent history with rape accusations and divorce courts.

Growing up, Bonnie only knew two things about her biological father: his name, which was on her birth certificate, and her mother’s recollection of him as a deadbeat, drug-addicted loser. “He’s probably in jail if he’s not dead,” Susan used to tell Bonnie.

But Bonnie didn’t have an easy childhood without Elam, either. She says she was molested by a neighbor and physically abused by someone Susan was dating. When Bonnie was 26 and pregnant with her second son, she decided to track Elam down for herself so she could learn more about her genealogy.

After his divorce from Susan, Elam became a successful drug and alcohol addiction counselor; he’s said he was the clinical director of three substance abuse recovery programs as well as a private contractor. But by around 1999, Elam said he quit to be a truck driver. He had also been married and divorced two more times.

His second wife did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ repeated requests for comment. His third wife would not speak on the record — because she believes Elam will retaliate against her if she does — other than to say: “I never want to have any contact with him ever again, ever.”

Elam has said he was a “zombie” before he read MRA founding father Warren Farrell’s The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex, published in 1993 and considered the bible of the men’s rights movement. After reading it, Elam fine-tuned his melodramatic flair for writing about “evil women” in a series of published letters to the editor of the Houston Chronicle about “opportunistic feminism.” “Male-bashing feminists, contemptuous of the patriarchy and the traditional role of women in it, are alive and well and more politically powerful than ever,” he wrote in a July 1999 letter to the editor.

But by the time Elam received Bonnie’s letter, he was still years away from launching his own website. He wrote her back on May 30, 2005:

I was totally shocked to get your letter today, but I am glad to tell you that your efforts have paid off. I am the person you have been trying to find.

Elam went on to explain that he wasn’t sure he was her biological father, despite the letter he had sent Susan’s parents years ago, apologizing for his behavior while under the influence. But, Elam said, he didn’t want to focus on logistics:

If I can divert things for a moment here, all this business is rather sordid and cold, and there is something else on my mind I’d rather be saying. Bonnie, I hope I am your biological father. [Your brother’s] too. I owe both of you a tremendous debt whether I am the man who fathered you or not. There was a time that I held you while you went to sleep and looked at you seeing the most beautiful thing in the world. I just said some unflattering things involving Susan, but the more important truth here is that I failed both of you.

Elam offered to pick up the tab for a paternity test, and they agreed to meet to discuss further. But when the two locked eyes, Bonnie said, Elam wept. “Now we know,” she remembered him saying. They decided it would be a waste of money to go forward with testing.

“It wasn’t even like, do we kind of look alike?” Bonnie said. “I was looking at myself. I saw myself in him from my face to the bend in my elbow. It was weird. Your whole life, you go around not looking like anybody, and all of the sudden your doppelgänger is sitting right in front of you.”

Bonnie and Elam hit it off right away. They didn’t just look alike: They both loved sushi, hated American politics, and shared the same dry, sarcastic sense of humor.

Elam was on the road for weeks at a time and wasn’t around all that often — Bonnie guesses she only saw him for a total of two weeks over six years — which is why she thinks it took some time for “the honeymoon period to end.” The first time Bonnie remembered noticing Elam had anger issues was around eight months in. She took a trip to Houston to visit him on her own without her husband and kids. They planned to eat Vietnamese food and play Rock Band. Bonnie heard Grandmaster Flash was playing at a local museum event, and asked if Elam and his girlfriend wanted to go.

“He freaked out for no reason,” Bonnie recalled. “He said, ‘Absolutely not, I’m not listening to this n****r rap shit.’” (“Of course I didn’t say anything like that,” he insisted to BuzzFeed News.)

This outburst made her cry. “I was like, wow, it’s only OK to have a relationship with my dad when I’m agreeing with him.” Still, the relationship continued to progress. One night, the Elams went to dinner as a family: Bonnie, Paul, Susan, and Bonnie’s brother, from whom the family is now estranged — he’s been in and out of jail on drug charges for years. Unsurprisingly, it was awkward.

“I looked at Paul and said, ‘You accused me all these years of being unfaithful, and I never was; the only time I ever was, was when you put me in a situation where I got raped,’” Susan recalled. “He got up and walked away mid-sentence, and that was that.”

She told Bonnie she wasn’t happy that they were in touch, but said she knew Bonnie had to make her own decisions about her father for herself.

When Elam was on the road, he would entertain himself by participating in what Bonnie called “internet troll wars” about men’s rights. Elam has said that he “started AVFM from a semi truck, with a laptop, driving 10, 12 hours a day.” (“I’m a determined person,” he told BuzzFeed News.) By 2008, he was blogging under the name “The Happy Misogynist.” Bonnie was his first subscriber. He wrote to her in August 2008 from his brand-new blogging email address to thank her for her support, calling her “Lonely Girl” since she was not only the first subscriber, but also the only woman.

At first, Bonnie was happy her dad had a hobby; she was interested and supported his passion and was proud when he began to gain a real following. As the mother of two sons, she was concerned about resources for young men, and thought his perspective — he said he was a drug abuse counselor and noticed men were getting abused so he made it his mission to find them resources — was admirable. She said she remembers Elam made thousands of dollars through online fundraising in just days to launch A Voice for Men that year.

“I thought, Wow, this is the culmination of all his hard work,” Bonnie said. “He wanted to be a writer, and now he had a platform. Who doesn’t want something like that to happen for them? He was doing work he loves, he was getting people excited about a topic that needs more light, and I thought he was really going to change things.’”

What she termed her father’s “shock jock” rhetoric didn’t bother Bonnie in the beginning. But by July 2009, he was penning things like “A Message to Women”:

There is a problem with the women in this culture… And the “freedom” women gained on this frenzied path of vengeance and victimization went to its final end? It doesn’t appear to have settled well. Women are growing increasingly violent. They are matching men in domestic violence, blow for blow, and they are causing the lions share of injury and death to children in the home.

None of this quite resonated with Bonnie, who thought of herself as “the antithesis of everything” Elam was describing. She had been abused and molested, and had a tough childhood, but had raised two sons with her husband of 17 years. She didn’t even consider herself a feminist, but “pro equal rights.”

Elam assured Bonnie that he was only being sensational to drive his point home. “He does a lot of stuff just to get a rise out of the public,” she said. “He said there’s no such thing as bad press. He knew in order to get something out in the spotlight, especially something as niche as men’s rights, you have to overblow it.”

When asked how AVFM has grown so quickly, Elam told BuzzFeed News, “By provoking the feminist establishment. The readers come to our site and find out they’ve been lied to.”

Men’s rights activists say they are driven by what they see as gender-based prejudice shaping culture, driving disparities in unemployment, education, criminal justice sentencing, and outcomes in family court. They complain that laws like the Violence Against Women Act discriminate against male victims of sexual or domestic violence because men have been demonized by feminists and their allies as inherently violent. Since women can choose to terminate a pregnancy, they argue, it should be easier for men to opt out of paternity. They believe there is an epidemic of false rape claims shattering the lives of innocent men.

Comprehensive data on custody battles is difficult to produce because of the multiplicity of relevant factors such as age, legal representation, income, employment, and child-rearing responsibilities at the time of divorce. Mothers are almost always the custodial parent in the event of a divorce, but the vast majority of custody arrangements are not contested, and the percentage of women gaining sole custody has decreased sharply since the 1980s. Though many in the men’s rights movement are convinced of an epidemic of false abuse and sexual assault accusations, studies show that there are few false accusations of rape and abuse, even in the context of custody battles.

“You don’t have to look too hard to see that for the most part men are in charge of the Congress, of the major corporations, of income and wealth and opportunity, and at the same time a lot of men aren’t benefiting from that,” said Kim Gandy, a former president of the National Organization for Women who now runs the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “Men are disproportionately benefiting from it compared to women, but there are plenty of men who have been left out of that.”

Many of the issues men’s rights activists point to are real, or at least grounded in reality.

Many of the issues men’s rights activists point to are real, or at least grounded in reality: There is a growing gender gap in higher education — though an increasing number of both men and women are earning college degrees. Studies have found gender disparities in criminal justice sentencing that can be explained by multiple factors, but likely also involve internalized stereotypes about men and women. Men are actually less likely to attempt suicide but more likely to succeed at it. In a society where prison rape remains a familiar punch line, male victims of domestic and sexual violence are often ignored or stigmatized.

Other claims are less grounded. The Violence Against Women Act is so named because women still suffer the brunt of domestic violence, but gender nondiscrimination is written into the statute. Fatal intimate partner violence has fallen drastically since its passage, but more dramatically for violence against men than violence against women. (Elam himself has written, “I am 6’8” tall and 285 pounds. If a woman five feet tall and 110 pounds soaking wet hits me, I am going to hit her back.”)

Men’s rights activists have attacked the “ever-expanding definition of rape, for women” by the Centers for Disease Control and the FBI, accusing them of ignoring male victims of sexual assault. Yet the definition of rape was indeed expanded in 2012 — to include men. The prior language defined rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.”

Elam calls AVFM “the largest men’s human rights group of its kind anywhere,” though it does few of the things human rights groups typically do. It provides no services, offers no legal aid, and litigates no cases. It does not regularly lobby lawmakers, advise candidates, produce public policy proposals or original research. Elam told BuzzFeed News that A Voice for Men focuses on “bringing attention to injustices” by “pushing for a change in the dialogue” and publicizing the plight of men mistreated by society. On occasion, A Voice for Men has drawn attention to custody battles on behalf of men they feel are being railroaded by the legal system.

And it does provide villains, most frequently women, feminists, and their male allies, mocked in MRA circles as “manginas” and “white knights.” Elam’s efforts have also gone into podcasts and other ancillary projects, like the website Register Her, which once listed the personal information of women who were deemed to be hateful toward men or were believed to have made false rape allegations, and a recent online imitation of a domestic violence charity. Last year, one podcast featuring Elam promised to help men deal with “crazy” women, positing that “getting rid of her without resorting to the use of duct tape, plastic bags, and shovels can get a lot more complicated.”

In 2011, after feminist writer Jessica Valenti’s personal information was added to Register Her and Elam went after her on his radio show (“We’re gonna be all over her like Ron Jeremy on a drug-addled bimbo,” he said, calling her a “chickenshit” and “scared little girl”), Valenti was so inundated with threats that she contacted the FBI and, she said, left her house until things died down.

Projects like these are why Elam and his website have become known less for political or policy advocacy than for his abrasive approach to debate. In one post, Elam wrote that “all the PC demands to get huffy and point out how nothing justifies or excuses rape won’t change the fact that there are a lot of women who get pummeled and pumped because they are stupid (and often arrogant) enough to walk [through] life with the equivalent of a I’M A STUPID, CONNIVING BITCH – PLEASE RAPE ME neon sign glowing above their empty little narcissistic heads.”

“The claim that Elam and his friends are merely trying to have a conversation about the rights of men in modern society is bogus. What it’s really about is the defamation of women as a group; that’s called misogyny,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has described AVFM as part of a network of “misogynists” and “women haters.”

Bonnie said she and Elam stayed close as he continued to grow his audience. Once, he even posted a photo of himself and his grandsons to social media. “It is a matter of pride and love,” he wrote. “These two are a gift from my beautiful daughter. Of all the amazing art she creates, these two are without compare.”

“The unfortunate thing is that there were really good moments, where he wasn’t totally narcissistic and self-centered and mad at the world, or if he was he hid it well,” Bonnie said. “Sure, they were few and far between, because he never really had to raise a kid and only had concern for himself, but we did have good times.”

Things started to fall apart in 2011. Elam told Bonnie he stopped working due to an injury and stopped responding to her, shutting himself in for months. He used to take her out to dinners and pay her cell phone bill, but now Bonnie was paying his. When she didn’t hear from him, she would drive to Houston to make sure he was OK and try to snap him out of it.

“I am struggling to find work, living off Stacy and have used up every dime of savings. I am in a state so bad the only thing I can compare it to is when I was shooting dope,” Elam wrote in an email to Bonnie in 2010. “I have buried myself in writing because it numbs the pain and makes me think of other things, like instead of feeling like a failure.”

She said that he would “flake” on her to spend time with his girlfriend, Stacey, whose father was ill. When Stacey’s father died in 2011, the couple moved into the apartment her father had been living in, according to public records. Eventually, Bonnie said, the two weren’t even dating — she called them “roommates” — Bonnie said he was driving Stacey’s car and spending Stacey’s money. He didn’t go back to truck driving.

“Here he is on the internet bashing women, yet he’s living off a woman,” Bonnie said. “She facilitated him living off his passion. And online, he was like, ‘Don’t give that bitch a dime,’ or whatever. That’s when I realized he was making excuses.”

Elam invited Bonnie and her family to see his new place, decorated with “expensive furniture and a big Sub-Zero fridge.” The trip didn’t go well: Bonnie felt like he just wanted to show off his new stuff, and he didn’t seem to have the attention span to spend much time with her children. Then, Bonnie said, Elam spanked one of her sons for simply opening the fridge. That’s when she decided to leave.

The two didn’t talk for three months, until Elam called Bonnie on her birthday and left a message with an apology that wasn’t enough for her. Bonnie didn’t call back, figuring she had been easy enough on Elam by letting him into her life so quickly — she wanted him to try harder. That was over three years ago.

“I think it’s weird that he advocates for fathers and he had an opportunity to step up, but the one time something got uncomfortable he bailed. He didn’t fight for me. He should fight for me. I think I’m worth fighting for.”

As she’s watched his star grow, she thinks that he probably rationalizes her actions. “I think he probably feels somehow that this is all my fault because I wasn’t willing to call him back and beg for his forgiveness, even though he hit my child and put me in an uncomfortable situation,” Bonnie said. “He probably compartmentalizes fuel for justifying how he feels about women. He’s probably found some way to explain that it’s my fault we are not close anymore, or that he’s not obligated to me.”

Elam told BuzzFeed News that his personal life was “none of your business,” but he did not deny any of Bonnie and Susan’s story, other than Bonnie’s allegation that he referred to Grandmaster Flash’s music as “n****r rap shit.’”

“You talk to whoever you want to, you print whatever you want; you fuckers are not digging into my personal history,” he said. “I owe you nothing.”

Illustration by Jonathan Rodriguez for BuzzFeed News

Last June’s international conference on men’s rights was not just an important moment for the movement, but also a bid for mainstream attention and acceptance. Originally slated for the DoubleTree Hilton in Detroit, the conference had been moved after local feminist activists protested the venue and there was a demand for further security costs from the hotel after it was deluged with threats.

Elam has credited Farrell’s writing with being a catalyst for Elam’s immersion in the movement; Farrell returned the favor by presenting Elam to around 200 of his fans.

“I saw that [A Voice for Men] was not just a website,” Farrell said. “This was a person who had reached out to thousands of people, all around the country and the world, that was piecing together pieces that no one else in the history of men’s issues had ever been able to piece together.”

Elam told reporters at a Q&A session set up for the press that this was not “a gender war.”

“What we’re talking about in a men’s movement to address these issues is not pointing at where women got it wrong, but where society got it wrong.” Elam referred obliquely to his past incendiary remarks by comparing them to the moment at the 1968 Olympics when black American athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in a black power salute to protest racism in the United States. “Have there been moments in the rise of this burgeoning movement that have resembled a raised fist in the face of a shocked society? Yes, but that is the nature of all movements for justice denied,” Elam said.

Many speakers at the conference were representative of Elam’s rhetorical style — and many were women, a fact that Elam and his followers often emphasize.

Photograph by Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork

Before the conference, seeking to raise money to “defray the costs of added security and insurance,” Elam raised more than $32,000 in a short time, blaming “fascists and ideological thugs who would use heinous threats to maintain control of a public discourse that is in dire need of balanced, sane change.” Shortly after the conference, and after he had used the alleged threats to raise cash, Elam wrote that he believed the threats had been “concocted nonsense on the part of the Hilton.” He did not say whether or not he would be returning the money.

A Voice for Men is a for-profit limited liability corporation, and so its finances are nearly opaque from the outside. Asked repeatedly by BuzzFeed News how the donations were spent — including those raised for “security” related to the conference — Elam said, “It’s none of your fucking business.”

The first meeting of A Voice for Men’s International Conference on Men’s Issues at a VFW hall in Saint Clair Shores, Michigan, on June 27, 2014. Fabrizio Costantini For The Washington Post / Getty Images

Later, however, Elam acknowledged in a post excoriating “dumpster divers from MSNBC” that “every dollar goes right in my pocket,” but that it is nevertheless well spent in advancing the cause. “The way I look at it is that the donations are given freely by people who get a really great website (that they could just get for free) and who believe that I use this operation to further issues that they think are important to them.”

One place where it does not appear to go is to the more than 30 staffers who, according to Elam, work for A Voice for Men.

“Everybody who came in is a volunteer,” said John Hembling, the site’s former editor who has since left A Voice for Men and has dedicated himself more to writing and his own activist group — named Community Organized Compassion and Kindness — which he said will soon offer a domestic violence hotline for men. “For a short period of time I was getting paid a fairly token amount as an AVFM employee, but as far as I know nobody else is getting paid simply because we’re really too small for that to be viable at this point.”

Asked by BuzzFeed News whether his staff was compensated or volunteers, Elam replied, “Volunteers.” A 2014 assessment by the firm Dun and Bradstreet cited one employee on the books and estimated “sales” at $120,000 a year. The site’s store, called The Red Pill Shop, sells T-shirts, cell phone covers, and Christmas ornaments.

“I really don’t think Paul is making an income from this,” Hembling said. “I think he’s basically floating at about level and he’s got some other sources of income that help to keep things running. I’ve been part of the fundraisers for a number of years while I was with AVFM and I know that we’re always looking at, are we gonna break even this month?”

Illustration by Jonathan Rodriguez for BuzzFeed News

Bonnie still holds out hope that Elam might use his platform and funds to create real change.

“I really believe in and care about men’s rights,” she said. “If they were focused on legislation, or even just creating an open dialogue, I could see a true validity for what they are doing, but they haven’t done that. They have no intentions of actually creating a solution. It’s been almost 10 years and they have nothing to show for it.”

It makes her angry that Elam has made himself into a martyr when his history speaks to the contrary. “Here you have men asking him for advice on how to get kids back, and he doesn’t say, ‘I was a really shit dad and a drug addict and I hate women and I’m not going to talk about my estranged kids or spanking my daughter’s son for opening up a fridge.’ He says women are awful, but I’m a woman. I raised two boys. I’ve been a victim of abuse but I didn’t let it affect me. He says women are needy, but I reached out to him in his time of need. The list goes on.”

Susan and Bonnie have repaired the rift that opened between them when Bonnie decided to give Elam another chance.

“He sits there taking all these people’s money and all he’s doing is sucking them dry,” said Susan. “That’s what he’s done all his life — to say it’s the woman’s fault, and not make men look at their own mistakes.”

Bonnie said that if Elam wanted to change and “show some accountability and humility,” she would still be open to a relationship with her father, but she isn’t holding out hope.

“It’s his loss,” she said. “I have a great life, and he chose not to be a part of that. I don’t want to be a prisoner of my past.”

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update

This piece was updated to include a portion of a 2010 email from Elam to Bonnie clarifying his living situation and state of mind at the time.



















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