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Within minutes of announcing that xoJane had just picked up my article on gun culture in America, I had two separate friends call me.
One is an SEO marketer, and the other is an infomatics expert. Both of them are men, and both were concerned about the fast and furious traction the article was getting.
“I just think we should lock down your blog, look at the security, just to be safe,” said one.
“I want to make sure you’re protected out there,” said the other.
These were puzzling statements, until media outlets started calling. It was only then that I started to give some credence to my friends’ demands to re-evaluate my web presence and scrub any direct contact information from my freelancing avenues.
There are a dozen feminist-oriented news sites in my daily reader, but I chose to submit to xoJane because the commentariat has a reputation for being a kind, thoughtful one.
But my article wasn’t destined just for the xoJane community; thousands of re-tweets and Facebook likes slingshotted it across the web, and within 24 hours my personal email address and phone number had been carefully ferreted out by the handful of people who hated my essay.
Not only were some people commenting on the article with hopes that I would be raped and murdered, but others were contacting me directly to demand penance for the audacity of telling my story.
The xoJane commentariat may be kind, but the more general Internet sentiment seems to be SHUT UP, BITCH, MEN ARE TALKING. Writing about heirloom tomatoes or household cleaning tips is one thing -- talking about current events is another.
I’d been prepared for disagreement over the essay; I’d welcomed it right in the very text, in hopes of having a dialogue at a time when the national conversation seemed consist only of wailing monologues.
I’d been prepared for the “she doesn’t know what she’s talking about” dismissives and the “UR doin’ it wrong” feminists. But I was totally unprepared for the level of violence and hatred from a small (but very loud) handful of voices.
Even though it was overwhelmed by compassionate and warm feedback, I was unnerved that some people didn’t just disagree with me -- they wanted my very existence, my very humanity, erased, as painfully as possible, starting with my vagina. They wanted to hurt me, and they made it clear they would derive grotesque pleasure from doing so.
At best, the response level seemed insanely disproportionate. At worst, I didn’t want to contemplate.
“What is this, your first day on the Internet?” my SEO friend demanded. “Shake the haters off.”
My infomatics friend forwarded me articles from Rebecca Watson, Naomi Wolf and Cory Doctorow as a form of exploration and solidarity, essays ranging from other personal experiences to academic explanations on why the Internet reactions more violently toward women than men.
They didn’t make me feel any better.
A mere four days after my article came out, I found myself half-awake in an airport on my way to New York City to do UP with Chris Hayes, the single interview request I’d accepted.
“I don’t want to be the poster child for gun control,” I’d said to the producer over the phone. “We have 20 dead kids in Connecticut who are already the literal poster children for gun control.”
As I watched Wayne LaPierre give the formal NRA statement on an airport television, I thought to myself that it was probably only a matter of time before a dead cat showed up on our front porch, Stephen King style. Ha-ha.
And then suddenly, that wasn’t far-fetched or funny.
I dialed my husband.
“Hey,” I said. “When you let the dogs out while I’m gone, could you go out with them? Don’t let them go out alone? Especially at night?”
“Yes,” said my husband.
“Do you understand what I’m really saying?” I said.
I felt funny, and over-imaginative in that moment, but then again, I’m the funny-over-imaginative one in our marriage. My husband is a contemplative, pacifistic, and infinitely practical soul.
My next phone call made me feel even more bizarre; I’d already dialed the number before I realized why I was doing it. It was to another friend of ours, a gun expert, who had made a loving big-brother fuss over my article.
“Listen,” I said, talking softly while trying to find private spot in the busy terminal. “This is going to sound bizarre and ironic, but would you bring some shells over to the house for my husband? Maybe birdshot, if you have it? He’s more likely to accept birdshot.”
My friend had been keeping up with the comments and emails, and his response was swift and unquestioning. “Sure thing. You have that little 12 gauge over-and-under, don’cha? We’ll drop ‘em by on our way to dinner.”
I was positive my husband would accept the box of shells politely with an internal eye-roll at the melodrama of his wife, and then put them in a drawer or on a shelf somewhere, forgotten, but somehow the gesture made me feel better.
When I returned home Saturday night, I saw that the shotgun was still locked in its case, but my husband had moved both it and the shells to the bedroom.
I had plenty of time alone in airports and my hotel room over the next two days to contemplate just what was going on out there, and why I’d made those two phone calls.
After I’d left Texas, I’d had recurring nightmares for a few years -- even well into my marriage -- of what I’d do if my ex-boyfriend showed up at our front door, even though that front door was now 1,200 miles away. If he did show up, it probably wouldn’t bearing flowers and offering a heart-felt apology.
I’d wake up in the middle of the night with a start, stare into the darkness, and wonder what I would do and how that would go. I’d already bet my life on him once, and almost lost it.
And then I’d try to roll over in our queen-sized bed, and realize I was mercilessly pinned in by three dogs and the sleeping body of my husband, and it would all snap into place; it wasn’t just my life, but my family as well. And in those moments, I knew exactly what I would do, what I had the strength to do, if he ever showed up with his old intentions.
Among the phone calls I received when that article went live, there was one other I haven’t mentioned: Samantha, my best girlfriend from college.
“I think this is a wonderful article, an important article, but...”
I could tell she was fencing, dancing around something like she did when she knew she was about to say something that went against our own shared feminist theory background. She was starting and stopping, sampling words and then discarding them.
In the end she just blurted it out:
“But, Haley, aren’t you scared? What if he reads it? Aren’t you afraid of what will happen?”
My answer fell like a hammer, heavy and solid. I’d already turned the question over in my mind for years; I’d just neglected to ever say the words out loud before.
“No, I’m not. And I’ll tell you why: I’ve always known that I lost three years to him, and that was plenty. But now I understand that I’ve lost more than that -- I’ve been a professional writer for a decade, and I’ve always been terrified to take a by-line for myself because what if. So I write speeches for other people, I write articles that will never have my name on them, I post essays behind Facebook’s privacy controls -- I’m tired of laying low, Sam. I’m a writer and I’m going to write. Like Mama says, ‘Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.’”
And on the flight home, on the drive from the airport, upon walking into our bedroom -- the room that houses a 1930s “engagement” set of bedroom furniture Luke bought me after he proposed, the room that we gleefully painted “Cincinnatian blue,” the room where Luke sometimes strokes my back and reads aloud to me when I can’t fall asleep -- walking into that room and seeing that gun case by his bedside table, I slowly got it. It gelled. It set up like a sweet custard, flipped on like a lamp in a dark place.
Trolling is an abusive behavior; it’s fundamentally the same as punching a stranger -- or a loved one.
And those trolls were standing in for my ex-boyfriend, doing his work for him from afar. Playing on my fears in order to control my behavior. The texture may be different, but the core remains constant. We hate you because we are afraid of you. We want to kill you because we want to kill all the things we fear. We know no other way.
I seldom write to be “right” or even consistent. I just write to be honest, with myself, and with you. It’s easy to discuss simple emotions; a thousand news anchors do it 24 hours a day. I have no interest in that; I craft writing out of complex emotions, because I like people, and people are complex creatures.
I wrote this essay listening to the music of my mother’s generation, mostly because 1960s protest songs are what she sang to me as lullabyes, and I listen to them when I am unsettled.
Country Joe and the Fish. Donovan. The Byrds. Creedence Clearwater. Janis Joplin.
And I can tell you that what he sings is honest, and true.
Hatred is just fear dressed up in riot gear. It’s a simple emotion. Truth riles hatred into a frenzy because it’s complex, and hatred can’t compute. Truth is the best weapon because it’s not a weapon at all -- weapons destroy, but truth creates. Truth walks right along behind hatred, exchanging land mines for oak trees and smiling all the way. It’s an artisan extending a hand to a mercenary, saying, “Come, friend; there are other worlds than these.”