“One midsummer afternoon in 2013, I got a message on Twitter from my dead dad.”
So begins what is probably the most horrifying yet ultimately inspirational cyberbulling story I’ve ever heard. Lindy West, a feminist critic and writer, shared her experience of confronting her Internet troll on “This American Life” last week to show that sometimes, you can’t just accept the abuse that has become upsettingly normal for online female journalists and writers.
West received hundreds of HORRIFYING cyber threats — we’re talking rape and death threats — back in 2013, when she was writing articles against rape jokes for Jezebel. For the most part she followed the common advice given in this situation and she didn’t feed the trolls (AKA, she didn’t respond). But she couldn’t ignore a man who went so far as to create an account in her recently deceased father’s name — he even located factual information about her father and the West family so the outreach was scarily on point. For Lindy, that crossed an upsetting and very personal line.
It was that experience that made her decide to stop taking the silent road and to fight back. In her next piece for Jezebl she called out her troll. As she said on “This American Life,” “I wrote sadly, candidly, angrily about how much it hurt, how much that troll had succeeded.” She decided that for her, speaking out was better than being silen.
Shockingly, instead of attacking her even more or disappearing, the troll did the unthinkable: he came forward and apologized.
“I don’t know why or even when I started trolling you,” he wrote in the email apology. “I think my anger for you stems from your happiness with your own being. It served to highlight my unhappiness with myself.”
He went on to explain the lengths he had gone to in his abuse (creating four different accounts), and what made him see the light.
“I can’t say sorry enough,” he wrote. “It was the lowest thing I had ever done. When you included it in your latest Jezebel article, it finally hit me. There is a living, breathing human being who’s reading this.”
When West reached out to understand why he decided to apologize and why he began trolling in the first place, he said that West brought out his own insecurities. While West wrote bravely and shamelessly in her articles about being fat (her words), he was struggling with accepting his own weight. Reading writing from a woman who was that confident while he so obviously wasn’t was threatening, to his masculinity, to his pride. So he chose to threaten back.
Everyone feels a little braver sitting in front of a computer screen, but when he read her words and realized the pain he’d caused a real person, he apologized and vowed to stop. To prove his sincerity, he even made a donation in memory of West’s father to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance where her father was treated.
“Conventional wisdom says never feed the trolls. Don’t respond. It’s what they want.” West said on “This American Life.” Now, she’s learned that it’s actually “our silence” that they want and that living courageously, bravely, loudly, and completely is what threatens them and (hopefully) eventually silences them.
West says that she has never heard of a troll apologizing before, and we certainly can’t expect it to happen again any time soon. But she genuinely believes that this particular person has changed, and she has forgiven him. That possibility for change and forgiveness is in everyone. And while Internet harassment remains a horrible reality, at least in this instance West was able to find her peace.
You can listen to the episode below: