Can the Publicly Rich Ever Be Loved?
Unpacking the Perception Box of Elizabeth Koch, CEO of Catapult
The literati were all a twitter this week over the New York Times profile of Kansas billionaire heiress Elizabeth Koch and her new trade-marked endeavor, Perception Box. Click your heels together three times because we are about to enter the world of the ultra-wealthy big dark money class.
The feature elicited public hatred for Elizabeth Koch, the Koch family, the journalist who wrote the piece, and the New York Times itself. Some are saying this profile, written by “Hollywood reporter” Brooks Barnes, is the final straw for the New York Times; they’ve ended their subscription.
Did you know there are sites to remove paywalls? Like this.
Shortly before this piece, the Times sparked outrage with the same literary community over the publication’s lack of coverage of news pertinent to the rights of trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people. An open letter circulated against the Times, signed by at least two of the writers I mention here—Roxanne Gay and Matt Bell, though clearly, they are both still reading the Times. The signatures on the letter read like a who’s who of literary/MFA fiction, and I bet many of the writers who took a stand against the Times are also entangled with Catapult, Koch’s publishing company, which makes this profile all the more infuriating.
The situation brings together issues of class, the literary community, and the wellness and psychedelic therapy sectors, as well as reminding us of the differences between “earned media” and journalism. The whole affair raises so many quandaries that I can’t cover them all in this post.
Who is Elizabeth Koch?
Koch is the daughter of Charle’s Koch, worth an estimated $66 billion according to the Times, and the owner of the 2nd largest privately owned company in the United States, Koch Industries, which generates an estimated $155 billion annually. The family, often referred to as “The Koch Brothers” in public discourse, are known for their anti-climate change activities and financial support for the Republican party, though they self-describe as Libertarians.
While we don’t know exactly what Elizabeth Koch’s net worth is, various outlets estimate it between $200-900 million. In 2022, Forbes listed Koch’s aunt, Julia Koch, as the richest woman in America.
Elizabeth Koch’s grandfather gained some of his wealth by running oil refineries for Stalin, and he helped construct an oil refinery for the Nazis. Many portray the Kochs as villains and mascots for corporate greed. They’re also known for environmental violations, labor violations, and antitrust violations. According tothe Koch family continues to do business in Russia despite the current war.
The gist of this scandal is that Elizabeth Koch pissed off the writing community by shuttering the workshop and magazine arm of her literary publishing company Catapult, thereby laying off countless writers. She is a co-founder and the CEO of Catapult. Catapult didn’t give their writers advanced warning; the writers found out about the situation via Twitter.
Fast forward a week or so and Elizabeth Koch, Catapult’s owner, is in the New York Times rambling about her vague, pop-psychology, new-age wellness company called Perception Box, which will also be a publisher and a film production company.
Authors with Catapult publishing contracts were left wondering what comes next.
Why Talk About This?
Before we lift the lid further on the Perception Box/Catapult/Koch PR fiasco, let me explain that as someone who’s waded in the waters of both the ultra-rich and the extremely poor, I’m fascinated by class conflict, especially the line between admiration and the guillotine. Where does pride turn to shame and luck switch to disgrace?
What role do trust fund babies have in society?
Should they be big spenders? Solo economies? Philanthropists? Work in the family business? Should they lay low and try to blend in, or be outed?
We simply can’t toss out the rich. This isn’t the French revolution; we have to live and work with these people.
Koch and I also share some similarities. My grandfather, like hers, was a successful chemical engineer (albeit a holocaust survivor, not a Nazi enabler). I’m also into wellness, literary fiction, and psychedelics, and I’ve done an MFA. I’ve even dabbled in non-profit work and attempted to “help” people, though I soon realized that I’m pretty incapable of doing anything besides managing my own affairs, and even that I don’t do as well as I think I should… So I stopped… but not Elizabeth Koch… She believes she can change the entire world for the better, one person at a time.
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Perception is Everything
A mix of PR placement and cringe, the Times piece explains that Koch doesn’t want people to hate her. She’s been living her whole life actually in a way designed to elicit minimal hate, from hiding her identity during an MFA at Syracuse to… well, she doesn’t really offer any other attempts but insists she’s tried.
Her efforts to eschew loathing are clearly a failure based on the comments and tweets the article elicited, some of which are so mean that I can’t bring myself to copy and paste them.
Beyond the specifics of this profile, many dislike women with money and journalists, to begin with, so readers really let it rip in the comment section.
Koch also described herself in the profile as apolitical. Onliners were quick to point out her “homemaker” Republican campaign contributions:
However, these donations happened quite a while ago. Are rich women allowed to change or make mistakes? Haven’t we all supported certain candidates, or issues, or ideologies, and later regretted it? Per Koch in the interview, she no longer donates to the Republican party. Instead, she’s contributing to her latest endeavor, called Unlikely Collaborators, a non-profit (cough, tax mitigation strategy) designed to foster “self-investigation.”
Related to Unlikely Collaborators is the for-profit project known as Perception Box.
According to Koch, Perception Box is an “invisible mental box that every human being alive lives inside that distorts their perceptions.”
Meanwhile, her father and his companies are influencing popular opinion with their own foundation and ad campaigns. They’ve been accused of founding the Tea Party. The Times’ profile omits these facts.
Why would the daughter of a man known for distorting perceptions want to create a company to alter individual perceptions?
A current MFA student at Syracuse, Koch’s alma mater sums it up:
From what I can tell, Unlikely Collaborators combines navel gazing techniques Koch tried herself and repackages them in new words. Another goal of the non-profit is to bridge the gap between people and expand minds. Sounds good. Sure. But what does it really mean? According to the Times, she’s accumulated $100 million dollars towards this end and partnered with a movie exec and a venture capitalist to make it happen.
Think Goop Wellness, but with tax breaks and free blankets.
Let’s also take a moment to stop right here and acknowledge that there is no such thing as a “non-profit” in America. That term is misleading. For someone like Koch, who is annually trying to minimize her tax burden, a portion of her philanthropy is generating profit for herself and others through tax relief, which is a form of income.
The website of Unlikely Collaborators looks like a cross between a 90s feminist zine and an original Joan Didion book cover.
It’s highly doubtful that the Times would showcase Koch or this organization if she wasn’t a billionaire already. They’re dropping this piece because of the Koch name and no other reason. They know conflict equals clicks and people love to hate the rich, even when they show up as altruistic.
Step aside, Anna Delvey, maybe there’s a real heiress on the grifter scene.
What’s in the Box?
What’s inside Perception Box? Is it a subscription? Workshops? A methodology? The website is painfully vague, but for sure they’ll be selling something soon, perhaps when MDMA or shrooms are finally federally legalized. An image on their page shows someone sad doodling with a carrot.
Or maybe Koch’s husband, Jason Kakoyiannis, has something up his biotech sleeve that will go in the box. He looks like Jared Kushner and his businesses include making designer lab meat, fake sugar, and food from mold. He also traffics in genetically modified things, like the Koch family, known for their involvement in Monsanto and genetically engineered totalitarian farming.
Now, I’m all for modern technology making life better, but can we really trust these people?
Plus, Koch has a literal creative writing MFA and self-reports that she can’t finish her own novel, so how is she qualified to offer global therapy? Like, I admire the big vision, but…
Even literary great Roxanne Gay, author oftook the time to weigh in.
Koch also explains that she aims to produce films and publish books with Perception Box themes.
With all these different tax shelters on the go, no wonder she can’t finish her book. Did she begin writing it during her time at the coveted Syracuse University MFA where she lied about her true identity? I wrote to Elizabeth Koch and asked for a comment on this, but she has yet to respond.
I can’t wait for one of her former MFA classmates to come forward and publish a tell-all essay about Koch as a student. Or maybe they won’t because she’s had them already sign NDAs… Was she taught and advised in her disguise byhimself?
Who didn’t get to go to that MFA because Elizabeth Koch went? Perhaps, science fiction writer Matt Bell, author of the acclaimed books Appleseeds and Refuse to Be Done, as well as the excellent writing craft Substack,…
Before settling into her role as a philanthropist, Koch attempted freelance journalism, even covering the trial of Martha Stewart, but she said she found freelancing, “excruciating and lonely.”
Koch insinuates that Perception Box is all about escaping from the prison of “limiting beliefs,” but limit she did—by cutting back her own publishing company, Catapult, and shutting down its magazine and workshop arms.
Now, I think very few writers realized Catapult was a pet project of the Koch clan. I didn't. I'd often seen their workshops advertised on Instagram but had never signed up because they were more expensive than a college credit, which I found ludicrous for zoom meetings. I shared this sentiment in a comment on a post byand another follower rightly pointed out that Catapult paid authors what they deserved for teaching. Yes, fair point, but it rings especially hollow to charge a high price to writers (who are almost always broke) when your CEO is a billionaire heiress.
Since the announcement of the Catapult layoffs, a Perception Box page was added prominently to the Catapult website top navigation menu, now with Elizabeth Koch’s name all over it and with links to her non-profit, Unlikely Collaborators.
Did she think no one would notice?
Writer,describes it brilliantly:
Koch and Psychedelics
To end her own depression and explore her “pain holes,” aka trauma, Koch tried ayahuasca and MDMA ceremonies, a silent retreat, a nudist colony, literary magazines, and more. She also donated a ton of money to MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, working to legalize MDMA, which is a good thing.
While the financially minimalist, psychedelic philosopher Daniel Pinchbeck writes compellingly about reasons why we don't want venture capitalists and big dark money mixed up in plant medicine on his Substack,, I tend to think that the war on drugs is so awful and destructive that if rich people want to pitch in money and earned media to promote the legalization of psychedelics, I'm all for it. Have at it. I also support the culturally and environmentally responsible drinking of ayahuasca for those who seek it, so I don't fault Koch for this; it's the best part of the Times profile for me.
While wealthy white women talking about psychedelics can come off as irritating, privileged, neocolonial, spiritually bypassing, and all the things… I’m still in support of adults publicly talking about their own illegal drug use. And if not the rich, then who? Most people cannot risk being arrested for illegal drug use and possession. Elizabeth Koch can and should take this risk. Being a force of civil disobedience is one of the best roles for trust fund babies, in my opinion, and Ayahuasca and MDMA should not be illegal and should not lead to jail time.
But regardless, her activities sound like globs and globs of tax breaks and an attempt to clean up her family name while doing exactly what her dad does—influence people through questionable means.
A Million Little Pieces (of money)
Koch has another similar do-better project—a research foundation (ahem tax break) called Tiny Blue Dot.
Tiny Blue Dot’s mission is to fund research related to her concept of Perception Box and it doles out grants “to measure the effectiveness of such techniques and interventions for neurotypicals and/or clinically defined populations and to track their basis in the brain using appropriate tools.”
In other words, Tiny Blue Dot is perhaps a tax-deductible way to do market research or to serve the goals of Perception Box, like the legalization of MDMA. Or maybe it’s not, hard to say. While the website claims it’s “Worldwide,” it appears to only be in the U.S. and in Italy. Aside from MAPS and the Allen Institute, a non-profit doing bioscience research, all their grants have gone to universities.
“Shiv,” I learned, is a rich girl character on the HBO show Succession who jumps around between endeavors and does whatever she wants.
For Perception Box, she’s likewise invested in a partnership with SIY Global, a Google spinoff that sounds exactly like her non-profit, but targeted to corporations and employees with offerings such as a program called “Search Inside Yourself.” They partnered with Fitbit to bring employees increased mindfulness.
Again, so many projects, no wonder that sprawling MFA novel of hers is still a WIP.
Koch’s father says he’s delighted with his daughter’s work. He also used to make her listen to economics audiobooks while forcing her to run in the snow at 5 am according to the Times article.
Is her whole life about being liked by the entire world? Or by him? Has she had him challenge his perception box? The Times themselves have written not one, but several very negative pieces about the Kochs. Is Elizabeth single-handedly trying to absolve the family’s bad name one lavender-scented washcloth at a time?
Is her work anything more than the equivalent of Mobutu Sese Seko giving villagers free TVs while his regime plundered the Congo’s natural resources?
Between her and Prince Harry’s overall noxious obnoxiousness, the whole thing begs the question again—can the children of the ultra-wealthy be anything besides villains? Will trust fund babies always be despised by the public?
What should the ultra-wealthy do? Build rockets? Make solar energy from simulated moon dirt? Do a little here and there, free a death row inmate or two, then fly around looking glam on their private jet?
Furthermore, I dare say, the public seems to prefer a rich villain to an altruistic one. At least when the wealthy are in asshole-mode half the universe seems to respect and admire them.
How should Elizabeth Koch spend her time? Vacay in San Tropez and manage her own personal assistants? Giveaway all her wealth? Hide under weighted blankets?
Folks are starving, homeless, at war, and blind. Do we really need to invest millions in therapy catchphrases and inner-child workshops? Like maybe, but also nope. Do we need inexperienced people working to solve complex issues?
To be honest, I personally like the things Koch is pushing, which makes her mission harder for me to hate, but as the saying goes, “charity starts at home,” and she’s worked on herself, so why not work on changing her family’s harmful business practices?
There is even a petition for her to speak out against her family.
In the petition, it says in regards to Catapult and its publishing subsidiaries:
The writers and artists Elizabeth Koch publishes -- through Soft Skull, Black Balloon, and Counterpoint -- shouldn’t be used to launder her family’s name. Unless Elizabeth Koch goes on the record to support stopping the climate crisis at its root, all the good work Catapult does risks being perceived as a greenwashing front for the family businesses fueling catastrophe.
SHE HAD THE EAR OF THE NEW YORK TIMES and she didn’t take the opportunity to challenge or respond to any of the public complaints or accusations against her father.
Conversely, can we really fault her for staying close to her family or not giving away her fortune? Who abandons their family? Almost no one in their right mind would give away their every cent. I don’t think these are realistic expectations, yet the people of the Internet demand them.
Is it better for rich kids to do nothing publicly? Is it just entitlement that’s fueling her global endeavors? If she hates her name so much and is so ashamed, why doesn’t she change it? Why doesn’t she run her foundation anonymously? Why is she getting her PR people to push for a profile in the Times?
Should we boycott Catapult? But then that just hurts other writers… A strike at Catapult sounds equally problematic, harming the writers under contract.
A Final Word
Please let me know in the comments what you think about this story and the ethical questions it raises.
Also, I pushed this out faster than my normal pieces, since it was timely; if you see any errors, please let me know. I try my best but I’m rarely perfect.
As her Perception Box tab on Catapult says, “at its best, reading is a consciousness-expanding activity. It can push us beyond the thresholds of our own experience and teach us about all experience, even when that experience seems difficult to relate to or understand.”
Boy did she use the word “experience” a lot in that paragraph…
It’s hard not to appreciate what Elizabeth Koch is pushing if you take it at face value. But that’s the thing, we can’t.
No matter what the Koch family does, the public will probably mostly still hate her.
Sorry honey, you’re gonna need a lot more blankets. Please don’t sue me.