In high school, Mike B. made it hard for me to get out of bed in the morning. There’s no logic to who gets chosen as the object of one’s vitriol, other than perhaps the fear of someone or something other–disgust toward a person who doesn’t conform or blend in. Mike B. was relentless. His friends vandalized my locker and all the girls on the kick team (think cheerleaders, only cooler because these were the kind of girls who smoked Newport Lights and swiveled their slim hips) called me “Fro” because my hair didn’t blend. My hair wasn’t fine and smooth and like Renee’s. Renee sat in front of me in A.P. Bio and she was a smart girl but she played dumb because she filled out in all the right places and with Renee you didn’t hit bases, you knocked her right out of the park. Boys didn’t like hot girls who were smart. It just didn’t make sense. But Renee was the only one who was nice to me–she didn’t ridicule me like her friends did, and when I tutored her in English and she helped me in Bio, she confided that none of these people matter. Mike B. was one of her best friends but on that afternoon in her bedroom, she rolled her eyes and said, Mike B.? Wait ten years. He’s going to be such a loser. Renee would tell me about the boys she slept with and the boys she didn’t want to sleep with but had to sleep with anyway because this was high school and she was Renee and she was popular and she didn’t want to be the girl who didn’t give guys a good time.
For two years I was the subject of Mike B.’s torment. I devised alternate routes home in fear of him driving beside me, yelling out his insults and taunts. I ate lunch alone in the senior lounge or in teachers’ offices because I was the kind of girl teachers trusted. Renee opened doors; I closed them. I was miserable but had a certain satisfaction when I received acceptance letters and scholarships to all the schools to which I applied–NYU, BU, UPenn, Fordham–and Renee confessed to me that Mike B. was going to community college if that.
Ten years later, a chorus of people from my high school somehow tracked me down and sent invitations for a reunion at a waffle joint in Long Island. I browsed the website they’d set up, which reminded me of a Geocities page, and it amazed me that the people who made my life miserable were intent to find out what I was up to. What ever happened to “Fro”, they probably wondered. Word had gotten out that I’d attended Fordham and Columbia, that my career was somewhat successful, and Mike B. still hadn’t left Valley Stream.
High school’s supposed to be terrible, right? Par for the course, right? But how is it that you can remember those days, hallways, and the places you hid, so vividly? We never remember the kind words, rather we feel old wounds opening up, raw and fresh as if you’re forever paying homage to that old hurt.
I can’t imagine high school and the internet because my only solace back then was the fact that there places Mike B. and his tormentors couldn’t reach. For brief periods of time, it was as if everyone in that school ceased to exist.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately–the ways in which people exact their minor and major hurts. People subtweet about their hate-follows and hate-reads. People talk smack behind other people’s backs to then kiss-kiss, hey how are you? to that person’s face. People leave hateful comments tearing apart someone’s appearance: well…if she didn’t want to hear how fat she was, she shouldn’t have posted that picture online, which reminds me of a similar refrain: if she hadn’t worn that short skirt or that tight top, she wouldn’t have gotten assaulted. Same country, different state. Groups exist on the internet devoted to the care and feeding of hate.
Yesterday, I read two articles about trolling and hate, and saw a tearful Brianna Wu on SyFy’s new show, “The Internet Ruined My Life”. Brianna tweeted last night that she was afraid of her mentions, and amidst all of the support for her bravery, for not backing down against men who make it their business to “put women in their place”, there were articles and tweets calling her story a “great comedy”, lambasting her with cruel retorts. Just the other day, I tweeted a retort to an outspoken feminist friend who routinely gets trolled by men, and a self-proclaimed Neo-Nazi called me a cunt.
We live in a country that espouses free speech, but many are forced into silence in fear of the hate avalanche. I’m in a private Facebook group, and many of the women who are writers talk about not reading the comments of their published articles out of sheer self-preservation. A few bloggers shared stories about strangers calling CPS based on their opinions of a blogger’s particular Instagram post, and their views on how a mother should/should not raise her child. Because, as you know, an online representation of one aspect of someone’s life is the complete story, the whole of someone’s life (/sarcasm). A few years ago, I was the subject of a man’s ire, someone whom I believe I knew (or at least had come into contact with during my agency career, which makes the whole situation that much more jarring), who essentially rambled on about how much he hated me, how I was a troll, etc, because I stood up for women who had been ridiculed because of their appearance. A decade ago, a small circle of literary bloggers posted cruel blind items about me and I remember being at work, in front of my computer, reading these posts and my whole body going numb.
While it’s unrealistic to expect that everyone will love you, what you do, or what you choose to put out into the world, that knowledge doesn’t remove the sting you feel when you saw yourself as the object of someone’s ridicule on the internet. While the taunts of the Mike B.s of the world in the early 90s have a limited shelf-life, words published online leave a permanent indelible mark. It’s public, made searchable by your family, colleagues, and friends. It’s a cruel reminder that always hovers, whispering, we don’t like you.
The spectrum of cruelty feels seemingly infinite–from the side-eyes and whispers behind one’s back to the full-blown doxing and harassment of women and minorities online, made that much more ubiquitous in today’s frightening political climate where people wear their hate as a badge of honor. And we’re all culpable, we may have talked shit behind someone’s back and played nice in front of their face, or we may hate-read someone’s blog or Instagram waiting for the object of our ire to stumble and fall. Or maybe we leave anonymous comments–words that burn and hurt. We’ve all been cruel in one way or another.
I’ve been guilty of double-talk and hate-reading, and I always felt dirty doing it because I know exactly what I was doing, felt horrible for doing it because I wouldn’t want someone to do this to me. But it was hard, especially when I was deep in my depression and sneered at everyone living their best life because, frankly, I was jealous and wanted that life too. In January, at the height of my depression, I read a post from Paul Graham that put me on pause. Life is short, and we’re literally giving away time in our life to others. He talks about arguing online with strangers. He writes:
But while some amount of bullshit is inevitably forced on you, the bullshit that sneaks into your life by tricking you is no one’s fault but your own. And yet the bullshit you choose may be harder to eliminate than the bullshit that’s forced on you. Things that lure you into wasting your time on them have to be really good at tricking you. An example that will be familiar to a lot of people is arguing online. When someone contradicts you, they’re in a sense attacking you. Sometimes pretty overtly. Your instinct when attacked is to defend yourself. But like a lot of instincts, this one wasn’t designed for the world we now live in. Counterintuitive as it feels, it’s better most of the time not to defend yourself. Otherwise these people are literally taking your life.
Hating people is exhausting. Perhaps it’s easier to hate than to be empathetic and kind because that requires us to be vulnerable and exposed. It forces us to ask that uncomfortable questions about ourselves. What about her bothers me so much that I have to leave that comment, say that thing behind her back? And hey, awful people who do awful, stupid things, exist, but we have a choice to devote our attention to them. We choose to give them our life in exchange for the privilege of hating them, publicly or privately.
The past six months have been the hardest I’ve ever known. I have to devote all of my energy to putting one foot in front of the other. I have to wake every day to this financial anxiety and devise ways in which I can get back to a place of stability. My time and energy are precious–they’re things I can’t ever get back–so I’ve made a conscious choice to lay down my anger, jealousy, annoyance, and fear. Years ago, a wise friend told me that crooks undo themselves, always, so there’s no need for us to contribute to their inevitable downfall. So why should I waste my time picking apart others when I can instead use those moments to put myself forward and spend time with people I do love. I don’t hate-read and while there are people in this world I do not like, I no longer devote my energy tending to that dislike.
You have one life. Why would you waste it hating people and acting on that hate? Where does it get you? Does it move you forward? Ask yourself why you might feel so satisfied in a feeling that’s so destructive?
Why not focus on yourself and moving your shit forward?
You might wonder why there’s a donut in this post. I had a crap day and decided to leave my house and treat myself to a donut. That’s why.