I remember the vast majority of the times I’ve been bullied or hated.
The first time was when I was six. I was talking to a boy I liked, and this girl — Angela Something — came up behind me and pulled down my pants. Thankfully, it was Friday. I was mortified and needed the weekend to decompress from this (albeit childish) trauma and hope that everyone had forgotten it by Monday. (I’m pretty sure they did.)
After that incident, I mostly kept to myself, which helped me avoid direct confrontation with bullies. But in high school, I got into theater, became more social, and was definitely outspoken — both in the way I talked and the way I dressed. During graduation rehearsal, one of the more popular girls took a look at my outfit (a backless shirt with no bra, a mini jean skirt, and leggings) and asked me if I was trying to look like Pat Benatar “or something.” I knew she meant it as an insult, but Pat Benatar is a rock goddess, so I took it as a complement and left it at that.
Many of my boyfriends’ friends have hated me, either because they disliked my personality or resented the time my boyfriend spent with me instead of with them (What can I say? Sex can sometimes take priority over video games, disc golf, and/or beer). It bothered me, but I couldn’t force them to like me, so I chalked it up to a loss, was civil to them in public, and tried not to let it bother me too much.
But I never reached that first-grade level of anxiety and shame again — until I started receiving hate mail.
Full disclosure: I mainly write personal essays for online publications. I write about my relationships with other people in these essays: my lovers, my family, my friends. Basically, if you’ve met me, it’s possible you’re going to end up seeing a renamed, not-too-detailed version of yourself in my writing.
Some of the content may read like a subtweet in that only the person(s) involved would know the piece was about them. Some of it could probably be figured out by most people who know me and/or who I’m writing about. It depends on the essay. But I always take appropriate measures to safeguard someone’s identity. The point of my writing is to take my personal experience and make it applicable to a wider audience in the hope that someone might relate or be helped, not to “out” someone for some temporary annoyance or indiscretion.
Regardless, I’ve received hateful comments and email as a result of what I’ve written. I know — believe me, I know — “don’t read the comments.” However, when the vast majority of them are positive, getting that feedback is a great reminder that I’m not just verbally masturbating with my pieces. Maybe I’m helping people after all.
And then the other comments come in:
“It's one thing to histrionically mine your own sub-par life for barely paid bylines but to do it to another person...You seriously need to grow up. But hey, watching your Twitter's become a spectator sport.”
“Sounds like you're blaming your bad choices on a diagnosis instead of taking responsibility! Good luck making things work with your cheater husband of an ex-boss!”
“Your extreme privilege and ignorance is showing. You know nothing about blackness, nothing about race. Beyond disgraceful. You are not an ally to people of color. And whoever told you University of Rochester is a new Ivy is lying to you. If you hadn't listened to them maybe you wouldn't be a divorced bartender living with three roommates pushing thirty, thousands of dollars in debt. Delusional.”
“You call yourself a writer and editor and don't know the difference between farther and further? For shame. Hint: you shoot a basketball from FARTHER away, not further. Look it up! Who would hire you?”
Those are just some of the responses I’ve gotten. And to be fair, that last one has a point, but I get tripped up by some of the weird grammar rules like lay vs. lie and further vs. farther, okay? I’m a work in progress.
But the others, as far as I can tell, are just meant to be cruel.
The first message was in regard to a hastily blogged (and hastily taken down) piece in reaction to an email from someone I loved and once dated telling me they had tried to kill themselves. The only way I knew how to process the information was to write about it. Should I have published it? Probably not without checking with said person first. But at his request, I did remove the piece and have never spoken publicly of it since.
The second was in response to a piece I had written about my experiences with bipolar disorder, particularly with mania. In it, I disclosed that I had cheated on my husband, and that part of that decision had to do with being in the midst of a manic episode at the time.
The third addressed a piece I had written about how listening to rap, hip-hop, and other traditionally “black” forms of music can help educate white people about races other than their own, and help inform their own intersectionality.
And the fourth...well, that’s just a grammar issue in a hastily posted tweet about a Golden State Warriors game.
The point is that instead of discussing the merit of my writing or the content or quality of my pieces, every (anonymous) emailer chose to attack me personally, to undermine my life and value as a person.
Have I made mistakes? Absolutely. Every writer — every person — has. But do I deserve for my life to be called “sub-par”? For the consequences of my mental illness to be mocked? To be called “delusional” and ignorant? To imply that I shouldn’t have a writing career? Absolutely not.
And I’m not alone in this.
My Twitter feed is filled with women screenshotting hateful, threatening, or misogynistic things that were sent to them in response to their tweets or writing. Not a day goes by that I don’t see an example of someone being mean (because let’s call it what it is) a) because they could, and b) instead of having a civilized conversation about real issues.
There’s even a third option: simply disagreeing with what someone says, then letting it go — but that doesn’t seem to cross people’s minds these days.
So I’ve taken a leaf out of these women’s books and started sharing my own hate mail via Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
I don’t share identifying information because I don’t want to start a witch hunt. This isn’t an eye-for-an-eye situation. What I want to do is show other people that they’re not alone when they experience such attacks.
This is a post-Gamergate world we’re living in, and unfortunately being cruel to women in response to their experiences, politics, and opinions is the new normal. But that doesn’t mean we have to deal with it alone, or take it lying down.
So many women receive messages like I have, but never say a word, either out of shame, or self-hatred, or fear that someone’s hateful words about them will somehow damage their public image, or because they believe they’re alone.
In fact, the opposite is true.
It’s shameful to take the time to write something meant to hurt another human being, not to be the recipient of such hate.
What someone says about you online (publicly or otherwise) should never touch your self-esteem, no matter how much it may hurt. Their words say nothing about you, but reveal everything about them. Putting yourself out there is brave and wonderful. Always remember that.
Most importantly, you’re not alone. This is why I make my hate mail public and will continue to do so as long as I receive it. Change needs to come, and the first step is awareness.
It’s not us, not the writers and activists and thinkers, who need to silence ourselves. Instead, through sharing these experiences, we can create a community of strength and dignity, even under the weight of abuse.
No one person can do it alone, but together we can bring attention to what needs to be fixed.
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Liz Lazzara is an androgyne writer, editor, and activist specializing in mental health, addiction, and trauma. They have written online copy for rehab centers, and essays, narrative nonfiction, and journalism for multiple online and print publications. They are currently working on a manuscript about complex post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction, and they are affiliated with Active Minds, the Mental Health America Advocacy Network, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the National Association of Memoir Writers, the Nonfiction Authors Association, No Stigmas, and the One Love Foundation.