Only Slightly Shorter Than The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, But at Least You Don’t Have to Memorize It.

by Alexa on March 29, 2011

{Delay in posting brought to you by Seeing My Father for the First Time in Four Years, Under Circumstances Appropriate for Depressing and Overwrought Short Fiction—no, no I’m NOT kidding, and like most every other event of the past three months, this is a matter deserving of a whole entry of its own, and I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but just between us? I think 2011 might be trying to kill me.}

Before we get started, I’d appreciate it ever so if we (well, YOU) could agree to read this whole thing before commenting. It might seem like an odd request, but there is a part of this entry (possibly more than one, now that I think about it) that might tempt a person to emit a screech of fury and skip directly to typing. Maybe, instead, that would be a good time to take a cleansing breath or throw some small, unbreakable object. That’s a fine idea, actually. Find yourself something for throwing and have it nearby, next to your snack. But no typing until the end.

So! she says, clapping her hands briskly together: let’s begin.

A few days after Simone’s birthday, I opened my Inbox and saw the subject line indicated below by a helpful red arrow:

(WAIT! No typing! Use your small, unbreakable object!)

I am posting this screenshot not for dramatic flourish, but because I can think of no other way to adequately covey the experience of seeing an email titled “[YOUR CHILD’S NAME] Must Die.”
My first thought, bizarrely, was about punctuation: At least it’s not an exclamation point at the end, I thought. Then I decided the period was worse—more chilling. Then I realized that while I was thinking about punctuation and feeling my insides go cold and then hot and then cold again, I still hadn’t opened the message.
I wanted to recreate that stomach dropping flush of horror in you not just because I am A Giver, but because if I’m going to ramble on and on (and ON) about my reaction, you might as well understand what I was reacting to. Only you will just have to trust me as to what information is necessary to that understanding, because I won’t be posting the rest of the email. I’ll tell you about it, but without quotes. If my emailer wants the rest of his words public, he is going to have to pay for his own damn hosting space, or visit one of the many public forums where people can (and do!) mock children. (HINT: This is not one of them.)

Here is what I will say:

-Nowhere in the message did the author actually threaten Simone. Or me, for that matter. He said he hopes she dies a horrible death before adulthood—but, well, wishing doesn’t make it so. He did propose, in so many words, that *I* kill Simone, which suggestion I have rejected.

-While the vitriol was ostensibly directed at my daughter, it was largely of the UR BAYBEE’S UGLY!!!1!! variety and seemed specifically designed to provoke *me* (which makes sense, as Simone isn’t much of a reader just yet).

-The author has a history of commenting here and elsewhere online, if you expand the definition of “commenting” to include “lobbing hate speech and inflammatory statements with the obvious intention of creating an outraged kerfluffle.”

-The author is grievously misinformed about the impact of Simone’s early birth upon her current medical status and the likelihood of her need for future assistance from the state. (This lack of reading comprehension is maddeningly rampant among my hatemailers and online detractors. I give to literacy programs, I volunteer, and still people manage to come away from hours of perusing my website with the impression that my daughter is blind, deaf, and in possession of a stunning array of developmental problems that leave her with little quality of life.) I’m sure it says something unflattering about me that I find it far more difficult to not respond to these factual errors than I do to ignore the insults.

-Nothing in the text compared to seeing the subject line, but it was a profoundly ugly message.

After reading it in full, I instinctively closed the door to my office, not wanting Scott to see it before I was ready to show him. I felt sick and angry and weirdly ashamed. After all, I had thrust Simone out into the online nethersphere, exposing her to these sneering halfwits. I didn’t much feel like trusting the world with my baby anymore, and not just because of this most recent salvo—Simone has been a target of Internet mischief-making since her birth, and three years of studiously ignoring cruelty takes it out of a person. I’d been happily sorting pictures of her 3rd birthday celebration for a post, but after the email I was disinclined to share them. I wanted to write about the email, and the ways its alighting upon the already heaping weight of online ugliness had tipped some internal scale of mine, but I found I couldn’t.

I strongly suspected that I was either over or under reacting—possibly both—and decided I shouldn’t post about the situation until I figured out which it was. Maybe people would think I was making a mountain out of a molehill: this was a documented shit-stirrer trying to get a rise out of me, nothing more. Maybe people would think I wasn’t taking this seriously enough; they would lecture me about lawyers and scold my naivete. Probably there would be some of each.
I swung from one extreme to another myself, alternately flippant and litigious. I did file the pertinent reports, and in the process had a conversation with a kind police officer who characterized the emailer as “some nut giving unsolicited parenting advice.”
“If you can call ‘Kill her’ parenting advice,” I said, and we both had a good laugh.

Part of what made my own thinking about redrawing Internet boundaries so muddled was that I kept stumbling back upon Conventional Wisdom gleaned from the writing of others who’d dealt with similar dilemmas. Alas, Conventional Wisdom made contradictory demands upon me. One such set of demands goes like this: Do Not Acknowledge Internet Trolls/Do Not Let Internet Trolls Dictate Your Behavior. The idea is to proceed as if the incident never happened at all, so as not to give them the satisfaction of knowing that they “got to you.” Attention will only encourage them, because attention is what they want, so we mustn’t give it or The Terrorists Win. But if the reason I am not posting about something someone wrote is directed at producing or not producing a certain reaction in said someone, doesn’t it seem to anyone else like that is allowing said someone to influence my behavior just as much as writing about it would? {Ed. Note: Whew!}

“There’s this idea that If I post about it, he wins,” I explained to Scott a few days into my internal stalemate. He snorted, and then said something very wise:

“He doesn’t ‘win.’ Trust me, this guy isn’t winning anything—he’s not taking time out of his busy WINNING Schedule to make fun of 3-year-olds.”

Of course, he was right, but I still couldn’t seem to write anything, so instead I thought about it. A lot. Not just about the “Simone Must Die” email, but about writing online, and privacy and honesty and anonymity and cruelty, and how the lines we are unwilling to cross move when there are children involved. And now I am ready to inflict share this jumble of thoughts upon with you.

(Oh, you thought we were done? Sorry! I’m just getting started.)
(I did warn you, after all.)
(This would be a good time to unwrap your snack.)

People are tediously fond of comparing the online community to high school, but there is one way in which this comparison is in fact very apt: both tolerate a lack of basic decency that would be unthinkable in most other public environments. In high school, on a daily basis, I saw people pushed, humiliated, taunted, and laughed at. I can honestly say that I never once did the same (and Simone had better be able to say as much when she is older, because that right there is one behavior I will not abide). There was one girl in particular at my school who was the butt of seemingly every joke, and one day while she was being teased by a gaggle of our classmates I slid into the seat next to her and tried to be friendly. It didn’t go well. She assumed that I was making fun of her myself; why else would I be talking to her at all?
Treating a person so badly for so long that she is suspicious of anyone who would do otherwise changes who they are. I’ve never understood how anyone, teenager or no, can be so intentionally, casually cruel. How can you think so little of another human being that you feel entitled to belittle them for your own amusement?

We all have unkind thoughts, and I’ve said unkind things privately that I would not want repeated in public. I try to do this as rarely as possible, even between friends, but I’m human, and like most humans, I don’t like everyone. I also don’t go around *telling* people that I don’t like them, online or off. I may argue with them, but I am capable of remembering that not every opinion needs to be expressed. There is nothing noble about taking time out of your busy day to tell a stranger that she is a bad mother, even if you think she is one.
(It’s children, more than their mothers, who are considered public property. The less utopian side of “It Takes a Village” is the woman scolding you for taking your baby—the VILLAGE’S baby—outside without a hat.)
People often get stroppy about the first amendment at this point in the argument, and it tries my patience, that it is so difficult for some to understand what is a relatively simple concept:

Having a right to do something does not necessarily mean that doing that thing is right.

For a long time—years—I never deleted a comment. With the exception of spam, they were all allowed, no matter how hateful. I had the vague impression that to do otherwise would be tenuously adjacent to censorship, that if I was going to “put myself out there,” I had to be prepared to take whatever anyone wanted to dish out. Eventually I managed a distinction between dissent and irrelevant bile, but that still left a strange breed of commenter who, while not flinging obscenities for sport, made a habit of consistently posting extraordinarily rude remarks, often overlaid with a veneer of topic-appropriateness. A few months ago I started banning those as well, and posted the following update to the previously nonexistent comment policy here at Flotsam:

1. I continue to welcome respectful dissent, but I will no longer welcome those who make a habit of leaving snide, passive aggressive comments exclusively or anonymously.

2. Comments that are cruel and/or irrelevant, i.e. those that are composed of pointlessly insulting remarks upon my appearance/my child’s appearance/how boring or unamusing you find my website (you know, THIS site, the one you’ve chosen to devote your limited time to perusing) will be promptly deleted and the commenter blocked.

Criticism has always been part and parcel of writing for public consumption, but the tenor online is different, and seems to foster a uniquely depersonalized nastiness. For some reason, the Internet has given many people the impression that social contracts and standards of decency are suspended online, as a corollary to the possibility of anonymity. They aren’t. The presence or absence of consequences for bad behavior is irrelevant. The wrong thing doesn’t stop being wrong when no one is watching.

Some of my sternest censure is reserved for those who profit by cultivating outrage. There is money in outrage now, lots of it. I wonder how some sites reconcile posting high-minded musings on the horrors of bullying alongside headlines and articles designed to polarize and infuriate. I’ve seen the courting of controversy defended as “sparking debate” in a revoltingly disingenuous attempt to apply a Serious Journalism patina to what is essentially an online successor to The Jerry Springer Show. Comment sections explode with personal attacks; moderators and authors call for civility but do little to enforce it. Then they publicize the conflagration—Have you seen this? Have you heard what These People are saying about Those People?—in a manner that seems equal parts mischievous teenaged Mean Girl and I Claudius-worthy guile.

I write creative nonfiction; I am used to navigating the tricky ethics of writing about people who actually exist. I am already selective in what I write about my family, both online and off. Considering a subject’s reaction to what I write about them is familiar territory, but considering their reaction to criticism of what I write about them is not. People are quick to remind one another that The Internet is Forever, but I wonder how many think about the fact that “forever” applies not only to their own websites, but also to those discussing them. How will Simone feel stumbling across strangers opining that she ought never to have been allowed to live at all? I can hope or believe that she will be able to roll her eyes at their stupidity, that the love and gratitude expressed by other strangers will far outweigh it, but I’m not sure that I have the right to assume that risk on her behalf. Simone is three, and at this age I do have a tremendous amount of control—for now, her exposure to the world is largely at my discretion. Why not take advantage of what—with the advent of Facebook and Twitter and tweenagers broadcasting their every movement in poorly-spelled shorthand—is becoming an increasingly brief window of opportunity? I can’t prevent anyone from ever saying a cruel word about my daughter, but I can make a decision to limit the access I provide to her.

In short (ha haaa!) the question is this: if I KNOW that writing about my young child has made her a target of mockery—however irrational and ill-informed—do I have a responsibility to protect her stories and pictures from being used as fodder for it? Does this send a message that I value her right to privacy, or does it say something much more complicated by giving weight to the words of a bully?

******

The People of The Internet seem to agree that we have a responsibility to avoid trampling upon our children’s privacy online, and to consider their possible future feelings about our writing. On the other hand—a triumphant fist, really—there is an increasingly defensive mandate for truth-telling, and not as in “not lying.” This is a touchier, feel-ier, CAPITALIZED Truth-Telling. This goes along with the Conventional Wisdom dictating that letting hatemail stop me from writing about my family means ceding some nebulous advantage to Evil.

I have two problems with what I have observed among those proposing this stance. One is what I will call Rosa Parks Syndrome (if you have not read that essay by Sarah Vowell, you owe it to yourself to take a break from this screed treatise novella post and do it now). In this case, the syndrome manifests itself in a lot of We will not be silenced! We are mothers who blog! Un-silent mothers! Death to The Patriarchy, one lyrical anecdote at a time! sort of talk. Before you retrieve your small, unbreakable objects in order to throw them at ME, let me say that even five years ago, I’d have been with you, and I still do believe that there is tremendous value in women writing about their everyday lives—as mothers and otherwise—online. Other People’s Archives were my What to Expect When You’re Expecting. However, at this point it seems a little thin to continue insisting that the voices of a group of largely white, moderately well-off mothers with Internet connections are being systematically ignored and silenced, especially when this battle cry is mostly taken up by people who have been able to turn membership in the largely-white-moderately-well-off-mother demographic into a financially viable business model.

I fully agree that motherhood is undervalued. (I also think it is overvalued, which is part of why mothers are subjected to such intense and unfair public scrutiny, but the intersection of those statements is a complicated can of worms and have you not SEEN how long this is already?) I especially agree that writing about motherhood is a good way to get yourself shelved in the Pregnancy & Childbirth section (AHEM), and I could write a whole other screed treatise novella post about the pigeonholing of female writers writing about traditionally female subject matter (with a subsection on the special circle of irrelevance reserved for those who add humor to the already dangerous combination of being female and writing about parenthood—Calvin Trillin and Ian Frazier escape by a penis-length!). Online, though, this ostensible persecution just isn’t there. If anything, domesticity is rewarded. Mothers online make up an extraordinarily privileged group wielding huge influence. It’s not that some people don’t take those who blog about motherhood less seriously than those who blog about technology—they do, and it’s silly—but mothers who blog probably face less discrimination for being mothers than most other segments of the mothering population.

My second, and primary, problem with the credo of Truth-Telling is the almost fanatically absolute value it grants to honesty. Over and over, I see honesty being treated like a magical forcefield. This attitude is not confined to the Internet—there are plenty of poorly written memoirs that attempt to stand purely on the rawness of their content—and in general the shocking and the bare have begun to be viewed as exempt from considerations of both taste and ethics. Honesty is not the same thing as artistic merit or moral rightness, and is not a defense to criticisms of either.

I haven’t written much about this, but I was teased fairly ferociously from kindergarten on. I was a weird kid, and then I was funny looking, and later I dressed like a cross between a drag queen and a Japanese cartoon character.
Even in the first grade, I was a big proponent of the don’t-let-them-know-they-got-to-you school of thought. I may have cried at home, but in the moment I did no such thing. Ever. Happily, I had a Smart Mouth, and this is a tremendous asset when confronted with bullies. Bullies are usually with friends, and thus especially easy to embarrass—make the friends laugh at the bully, and no one need ever know about the painful lump in your throat. You can convince people that you’d never believe that what the bully said was true, that being called ugly doesn’t faze you in the slightest.

By the end of junior high, the teasing had become so expected that I didn’t bother with my Smart Mouth anymore. Instead, I behaved as though the jeering figures were erased from reality, adopting the same middle-distance trance as one does when dealing with NYC Sidewalk/Subway Shouters. I won’t pretend it never upset me at all, but it became such a part of the fabric of my school day that I remember very few specific incidents. One that sticks stubbornly to the inside of my skull is from high school: my locker was next to a short, jock-y, popular boy who tormented me whenever he got the chance, and before Math one afternoon I was getting a book out of my locker when he and his friends ambled up and started in on me. I don’t remember what they said, but I can assume that deep-throated shouts of “FREAK!”—released as close to my face as possible—were in the offering. I ignored them, moving unhurriedly about my business, and then I walked to class. It wasn’t until I was seated at my desk that I unshouldered my backpack and saw the great, viscous pool of green snot that had been horked onto the top of it.

I didn’t like being shouted and laughed at or spit on. The teasing would almost certainly have petered out if I had stopped wearing giant platforms and fake lashes and sequins glued about my eyes. The strange thing to me, looking back, is that it never occurred to me to do so. I don’t mean that I considered the option but dismissed it out of hand, I mean that I did not consider it at all. This was not out of courage or strength of principle, though I will admit that it did take a certain settling of the shoulders to walk into school each morning. I wasn’t immune to the idea of “cool,” but I had the same unwavering faith in my version of it as my tormentors did in theirs: I would sooner have DIED than wear khakis or a button down shirt, and if the only way I could dress the way I liked was to make the clothes myself and put up with gawking, laughter, and tourists taking pictures of me at the mall, so be it. It wasn’t defiance for defiance’s sake, or because I felt honor bound to stand up for the rights of middle-class girls everywhere to wear goggles and dangerous shoes.
There was nothing especially admirable about my behavior, but I do admire the lack of calculation involved in it. I seem to be making a lot of grand, philosophical-type statements, so I might as well go ahead and make another: knowing that an action will result in criticism or trouble and doing it anyway is not inherently brave or good. When she is older, I hope that Simone feels secure enough to be true to herself in the face of opposition, but I want that impulse to come from inside of her, not from a self-conscious insistence on Not Backing Down.

As usual, I have failed to come to a pleasingly definitive conclusion. (I wonder sometimes if ever I will come to a pleasingly definitive conclusion about anything, try as I might.) There is no “safe” number of pictures or posts or mentions below which Simone will cease being a target, and mean people aren’t going anywhere. Why not excise her from my public life altogether? What’s the point of posting about her less? I don’t feel any closer to an answer than I did the day I saw that subject line in my Inbox, but I’m increasingly certain that’s because there isn’t one, not really, at least not a One True Answer, a Right Thing To Do. I think worrying less about carving out some sort of widespread policy on Internet exposure IS the answer, or as close as we get, and part of that is accepting that there is no rulebook, and maybe there shouldn’t be, because maybe the rules don’t come from anywhere but us, and probably they change all the time.
I do know that the idea of omitting my greatest source of joy, of keeping entirely mum on the topic of the strange and exhilarating and remarkable experience of witnessing and shepherding the growth of a whole new human…well, the idea of that makes this site seem pointless. Not because I exist solely as a mother (only one of the essays I am working on now mentions Simone at all), but because while I don’t believe that full disclosure is a mandate, or honesty a virtue unto itself, I do believe in the importance of telling our stories, and my daughter is, sometimes, an inextricable part of mine.

I often think that reading—most art, really—is like a vast, temporally flexible game of Marco Polo. (Not the most sophisticated metaphor, but there you go.) We are desperate to see reflections of our own lives and experiences pinned down and made richer and more coherent with language. They help us understand ourselves and our world, and give us the relief of knowing that we’re all in this together. I wrote a whole damn memoir, for god’s sake, and I wrote it because I know firsthand the loneliness of being unable to find an echo. When some woman carrying one live baby and one dead one, or sitting next to an isolette, whispers “Marco!” I want my book, flawed as it is, to be the “Polo!” called reassuringly back to her.
On our best days, I think that this is what blogging does, and with an immediacy that is breathtaking. We owe that immediacy to the Internet, along with unprecedented access to other people and their stories, and I often think I owe much of both my physical and mental health to that access. That access is also the source of comments that imply that I’m a bad mother because my house is messy and email messages that tell me to kill my daughter. It’s complicated.
So. I might post about Simone, or not, according to my internal whim. I have a lot of faith in my internal whim, or at least I am trying to.

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