I don’t know how many of you caught Lindy West’s segment on “This American Life” recently, but she reprised and expanded on it a bit in this piece for the Guardian. It’s about her experience with her worst internet troll, a man who created a Twitter and Gmail account in the name of her recently deceased father, and used it to harass her. The story has an unusual ending, and it is most definitely worth your time. I thought I knew from hate mail; reader, I didn’t.
But I, too, once had a troll, a certain troll, a particular troll. For all I know, I still do. (I’ve long since stopped allowing him to stay rent-free in my head.) I’ve mentioned him in passing here a time or two. His name is Rich Reynolds, he lived in Fort Wayne when I did and for years, he insulted me without mercy in the guise of being a self-appointed media critic.
Here’s how it went: Starting in the early 90s, once or twice a week, sometimes more, he would send out a fax called Media Watch. It went to all the newsrooms in town. The librarian would take it off the machine and post it on the bulletin board. Everybody read it.
From the beginning it was pretty lame, and years of practice did not improve it. He seemed to base his authority on a claim to have once worked for my very own newspaper, phrasing it something like this: “When we” — he always referred to himself as we — “worked for Stewart Spencer at the News-Sentinel…” He was never on staff, although as I recall he had once been a stringer in “the region,” as the outer counties were called. You newspaper people know that stringers =/= staff, but whatever. I know Stewart Spencer probably couldn’t have picked him out of a police lineup, anyway.
As I said, he was no David Carr, or even Howard Kurtz. His criticisms were things like lists of who was cool and who wasn’t, who was pretty and who wasn’t, etc. Physical attractiveness was something of an obsession with him, and it was there that he always started in on me: “Why is the News-Sentinel publishing Nancy Nall, when she’s so ugly?” Yes, really. “She offends our aesthetic sensibilities,” etc. It’s standard practice for newspaper columnists to have their work run under a mugshot, and mine offended him. I was also regularly called fat and a terrible, terrible writer.
(When he devoted an entire issue to my awfulness, he was fond of illustrating it with one of Lucien Freud’s obese nudes. Like this one.)
I could go on, but the details are boring and rapidly fading from memory. I’ve always understood that writing a column is a special sort of job, and a certain amount of abuse and hate mail is part of the deal. Hey, I had a column! Some people would simply be predisposed to dislike me because they didn’t have a column. And I’ve always made a policy of not talking (much) about him, but for casual mentions here and there. But this passage from West’s essay stuck with me:
Over and over, those of us who work on the internet are told, “Don’t feed the trolls. Don’t talk back. It’s what they want.” But is that true? Does ignoring trolls actually stop trolling? Can somebody show me concrete numbers on that? Anecdotally, I’ve ignored far more trolls than I’ve “fed”, and my inbox hasn’t become any quieter. When I speak my mind and receive a howling hurricane of abuse in return, it doesn’t feel like a plea for my attention – it feels like a demand for my silence.
And some trolls are explicit about it. “If you can’t handle it, get off the internet.” That’s a persistent refrain my colleagues and I hear when we confront our harassers. But why? Why don’t YOU get off the internet? Why should I have to rearrange my life – and change careers, essentially – because you wet your pants every time a woman talks?
My friends say, “Just don’t read the comments.” But just the other day, for instance, I got a tweet that said, “May your bloodied head rest on the edge of an Isis blade.” Colleagues and friends of mine have had their phone numbers and addresses published online (a harassment tactic known as “doxing”) and had trolls show up at their public events or threaten mass shootings. So if we don’t keep an eye on what people are saying, how do we know when a line has been crossed and law enforcement should be involved?
To be sure, Rich Reynolds never threatened me (although he’s a person of interest in another matter I’ll get to in a moment) and confined his attacks to repetitive remarks about my looks, weight, arrogance, how much all my co-workers hated my guts and so forth, interspersed with demands that I be fired. In this matter, he was like a mental patient painting my picture with his own feces on the walls of his cell (an image my friend and fellow blogger Lance Mannion came up with). Never have I felt so deliberately misunderstood. I’ll cite one example, because I happen to have the column in these very archives. It’s the one I wrote about my retiring boss, Joe, and part of it went like this:
At work, unlike any other area in our lives, we can be almost entirely self-invented. We write the script of an endless movie starring ourselves: “The Receptionist No One Appreciated,” “The Secret Life of Tech Services,” and that famous documentary, “Payroll: What They Know About You, You Can’t Even Imagine.”
Everyone else in the office is watching our movie, perhaps coming away with a message different from the one the director intended. And we’re all one another’s supporting players; in one, we’re the sympathetic friend, in another, the villain. Sometimes both.
This, he said, was preposterous; now this woman considers herself a movie star? How big is her ego, anyway?
I know what you’re thinking: He’s crazy. I’m in full agreement! But at some point, it didn’t matter. Because as time went on, his targets dwindled until there were only a few – me, a couple people at the other paper, some others. More were singled out for lavish, generic praise, along the lines of “we’ve never read anything as smart as X, by Y. He’s as good as anyone working in Chicago or New York,” etc. And that is a very powerful thing, especially when you’re 23 or so.
See, Fort Wayne is an entry-level media market, and lots of people who work for the TV stations and newspapers are either fresh out of college or close to it. What do they know from a real media critic? Not bloody much. No one likes to be called awful names, even by a fool. And soon, it became obvious who came in for abuse and who for praise in Media Watch: If you talked to him and made him feel important, you were golden. If you wouldn’t return his calls or hung up on him (as I did, twice in one day; he never called again), he’d start with the needles.
I’ll never forget walking past the desk of a colleague whom I liked, a fellow sassy malcontent. As I came up behind her, I could see she was working on an email. Addressed to Reynolds. The opening line, “Dear Rich, Thank you so much for including me on your list of…” I was stunned. And there was one editor for whom I never had much respect, but the day I heard her tell a reporter on the phone, “The Media Watch guys think you’re doing a great job,” what shreds there were blew away like cobwebs in a hurricane. Conversely, there was a TV weather lady who was, y’know, a TV weather lady, and not someone I’d be naturally inclined toward. But she never would truck with him, and bore his insults with grace and humor. I had to like her after that.
I knew a TV producer who would chitchat with him as a form of insurance against abuse. He was tight with the wife of an editorial writer for a time. And I can only assume that one local TV anchor must have taken him out for lunch or something, because the encomiums he heaped on her blonde head would have embarrassed a Kardashian.
I really, really tried not to feed this troll. But on the day the column I linked above appeared, besides the by now familiar comments on my looks, he gave the shank a twist: I made a reference in the lead to the last years of my mother’s life, when she was in a nursing home. He thought a person who would put their mother in a nursing home deserved some abuse, and delivered. It wasn’t exactly setting up a fake Twitter account in her name, but it was close, in terms of the effect it had. I wrote a letter to my own colleagues, which I posted on the bulletin board. I said that I knew some people talked to him and fed him information, but that I wanted them to be very clear who they were dealing with. If you’re envious of my job or salary, that’s one thing, I said, but if you funnel it through this guy, please be aware of what you’re aiding and abetting: This is your friend. This is the shit he does.
It was a shaming letter, and I don’t know if it was effective. But damn, it sure felt good to write.
Back to Lindy West: I’m spoiling her essay slightly by telling you her troll eventually revealed himself to her, apologized, shut down the fake accounts and explained himself: He was abusive because he was in a miserable place in his life, and he came clean and apologized when he found his way to a better one. From the known facts about Reynolds – that he had some measure of family wealth, mainly – I can only assume something similar, that he found himself living in this D-list media market and couldn’t break in higher than regional-stringer level. Sometimes money provides a cushion so soft that you can find yourself spending the days watching local TV, reading the papers, and wanting to be part of the action. Even in Fort Wayne goddamn Indiana.
It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the guy. But that thing I mentioned above, about never threatening me? A while back, years after I left Fort Wayne, a member of this blog’s commenting community was called into the boss’ office and shown a letter, purportedly from an “internet monitoring service,” calling the company’s attention to their employee’s commenting activity on this very blog, during business hours.
“And he copied and pasted, without any context, every comment I’d ever made at your site. Years’ and years’ worth,” the subject of the attack wrote me this week. (If he wants to reveal himself, he can.) We later heard from the proprietor of another popular Fort Wayne blog that the same thing was done to at least one of his commenters, too.
I’m not making any accusations, y’understand, even though right around the time this happened, Media Watch published a blog item complaining about internet goofing off on company time. I’m sure it was just a coincidence. And no, no action was taken against our commenter, nor the others.
Reynolds always styled himself a great scholar of the classics; I recall him mentioning a reporter covering some story “needs to read Aquinas” or some such. So I’ll sign off with a line from Miranda in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” but in the great tradition of Reynoldsian point-missing, I’ll twist its intent from the original:
O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
And aren’t we all the poorer for it?