Imagine a workplace where any time you took a stand on a controversial issue, a choir of men who disagreed ticked off a litany of violent acts that should be done to you. Not awful enough? Picture an office where hundreds of men drop by your cube to, as shrewd feminist essayist Lindy West writes, inform you that “you’re too fat to rape, but perhaps they’ll just saw you with an electric knife.”
It’s unfathomable that modern American society would tolerate such threatening language as valid expressions of differences of opinion. No sane boss would tell his or her employees to get over it, or “hey, just don’t listen to the taunts,” if this was happening face-to-face.
But what about when it happens online? As West writes in her excellent new memoir Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, this nasty breed of vehemence is a regular and under-addressed workplace occurrence for many female journalists who make a living shedding light on issues pertaining to how we treat and talk about women -- particularly self-proclaimed fat women like her.
“Pretty much every day, at least one stranger seeks me out to call me a fat bitch (or some pithy variation thereof),” she writes, adding that together with rape and injury threats, “This is the barbarism — the eager abandonment of the social contract — that so many of us face simply for doing our jobs.”
You may recognize West’s name from her work as a columnist for the Guardian, or a freelancer for New York Times, Cosmopolitan, and GQ. Or perhaps you remember her as the Jezebel staffer who wrote a vulnerable essay about the “low-grade hostility” she faces from other passengers every time she flies simply because she’s a fat woman. The online responses to that article, she writes, included such disgusting comments as “I wouldn’t stoop to feminist levels and wish her bodily harm — castration/acid burning her face, etc. — on her, but if I did…”
Maybe you remember her coming out against rape jokes, because, as she writes, “there is nothing novel or comedic or righteous about men using the threat of sexual violence to control non-compliant women.” She went head to head on Totally Biased with comedian Jim Norton over that issue. Their debate stoked yet another avalanche of horrid comments that she details in Shrill, such as this one: “Holes like this make me want to commit rape out of anger.” The rampage against her was so strong that West, who came up in the Seattle comedy scene, decided to quit going to open mics and comedy shows completely, which was “the toll of rocking the boat in an industry you love.”
In a phone conversation to promote her book tour for Shrill, West tells me she has PTSD from the deluge of raging rape comments that were directed at her.
“I have a hard time going to comedy clubs and seeing stand-up, and that’s not from an ideological perspective, but from a physical perspective,” she says. “When I go to a comedy club I’m like, ‘Which of these open mic comics lurking in the back corners has told me they hope I get raped and die on Twitter?’ I don’t feel comfortable there any more.” It’s a heartbreaking admission from someone so preternaturally funny in both the personal and political arenas.
One particularly revolting instance of online abuse got national exposure, when West contributed a moving piece about it to This American Life. In the segment, she details how she confronted a troll who had impersonated her recently deceased, beloved father in order to launch social media attacks against her. Their eventual phone conversation, which West describes in Shrill, serves as a monumental moment for anyone who has gone to battle with any level of troll, from the garden personalized-attack variety to the more insidious Gamergate and swatter variety detailed in a recent New York Times Magazine story. West’s harasser broke down, apologized, and admitted that he’d gone after her out of jealousy of her confidence. She now has an admirable level of empathy for trolls, many of whom she believes are just miserable people hiding behind the Internet.
I'll acknowledge the experiences coloring my own views here: You don’t work in digital media without dealing with some level of trolling. When I was editor-in-chief at The Bold Italic, we were constantly weeding out heinous responses to our writers’ personal essays. But in reading this memoir by West, a writer I’ve long admired for her wicked sense of humor and astute observations on the way women are shut down, I had to wonder, is “troll” still the right word for this deluge of venom that people at her level of visibility battle?
A troll sounds like an evil monster, sure, but he’s a li’l guy. Turn off your computer and he disappears. What West describes, in detailed account after detailed account throughout Shrill are activities she rightly categorizes as workplace harassment. Dealing with them, she writes, “[is] costing me time, potential income, and mental health.”
“More significantly, though,” she adds, “it’s part of a massive, multifarious online harassment campaign that has saturated my life for the past decade — and, on a broader scale, is actively driving women off the Internet.”
So I ask West if the thinks “troll” is still the correct word to encapsulate someone whose actions have such serious psychological consequences.
“There are still people who I think the term troll is perfectly fine for,” she says. “It’s a hard thing to make a taxonomy of. There are people who are just screwing around and aren’t trying to emotionally traumatize people.” The difference, she adds, is when you look at the vicious language and the cumulative harm it does. “When people are posting your home address and threatening to rape you and clearly, deliberately trying to cause harm, we need to call that what it is,” she says. “We don’t need to give it a cute euphemism. We can call it harassment and stalking.”
And when we do have the right language, then what? How do we deal with these linguistic knives? West doesn’t offer universal answers, especially since, as she emphasizes, her background isn’t in tech. In Shrill, she describes her personal method of coping, which is a combo of A) “don’t click on anything,” B) “mock and block” the person, and C) “wine.” If you follow her on social media you can watch plan B in action, as she slays her taunters with mostly witty comebacks like an action hero picking off the bad guys one by one. But she doesn’t want to set a standard that everyone needs to be such a warrior.
“I don’t ever want to say that there’s one model for what you should do, because I don’t even want to say that it’s anyone’s responsibility to weather this kind of garbage,” she says. “But I hope that in the end we’ve managed to hang on to some of these voices who might otherwise have been driven away. I want to help provide a pillar of solidarity and for people to know they’re not alone.”
She says she hears often from young writers, especially women, who say they want to get into blogging but are afraid of getting ripped to shreds. “I just want to be visible, not being destroyed by that, for people who need to see that,” she said.
I don’t want to paint the picture that Shrill is a book only about harassment, because it’s not. It’s also a book detailing how Lindy West, a girl who was too good at making herself “small” — speaking in whispers, retreating into fantasy novels — became one of the preeminent feminist bloggers of this social media era, one who is equally hilarious and heartfelt. The key to her evolution can’t be wrapped up in a single chapter or an easy aphorism. It’s in the culmination of battle after battle — with The Stranger’s then-editor Dan Savage when he went on a horrid blogging tear about fat people while West was still working for that paper; with pro-rape joke activists and fat chauvinists; and with her own self-image.
Along the way, Shrill has many vulnerable and non-troll-y personal moments, about her father and his terminal illness, about her husband and how their relationship nearly fell apart, and about her body and all the moments she went from being horrified at its monthly bleeding or ability to break chairs to appreciating its strengths.
For a book that’s so politically and socially-minded, Shrill is also infused with warmth and self-effacing humor, which is to be expected from a writer who has long been comfortable telling her personal story in order to shed light on the universal. (See also: #shoutyourabortion, the successful social media campaign she launched with two Seattle friends to turn the narrative around abortions from being shameful and/or secretive to being a very practical experience for some women).
And West says there’s more humor to come. Her main priority now is to get through a follow-up to Shrill — which she loved writing because working on a book “keeps me off the Internet.” The concept behind the next one is secret for now, she says, but she will divulge that it’s going to be funny.
“I always just wanted to write funny things,” she says. Instead, she says she got dragged into more political writing, which she also loves and feels is very necessary. But while Shrill was “really political and really feelings-y,” she now wants to take time to write a book that shows her comic side — and, she adds with a laugh, “is light on feelings.”
Lindy West reads from Shrill on Tuesday, May 24, at Book Passage in Corte Madera, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., at 7 p.m. Details here.