My boyfriend cheated on me with an older woman. While it still hurts to write that sentence, I didn’t realize until I’d re-read it three or four times that I’d used the word “older” to describe her. A much better word would be “scary” or “vengeful." But no, I instinctively used the word “older” first and foremost. And maybe that’s because at the end of the day, when I look at what the woman did to me in the wake of their infidelity, I feel like –- at her age -- she really should have known better.
The Other Woman's name was Andrea*, an unhappily married mother of three. Finding out about the affair was a devastatingly heartbreaking, gut wrenching and soul-shaking experience, but for a variety of reasons I’ll not go into today, my boyfriend and I were eventually able to begin a dialogue amidst that destruction that carried us forward together in really healthy ways.
At the time it happened, though, I had no idea how to process any of it. It had blown my heart completely apart. So, like any tortured writer, I took to my blog to write about it –- because what good is having a creative outlet if you don’t use it, right? I didn’t write posts railing against “the other woman” and I didn’t call Ben* any number of the nasty-worded titles I had running through my mind.
Instead, I wrote about the fact that I felt utterly sunk in a whirlpool of confusion and grief, with a dash of weird, effed-up desire for Ben thrown in for good measure. The blog became an incredibly helpful tool for me to sort through my thoughts with, and it created a discussion with friends and family that was both grounded and revelatory.
But blogs also attract trolls.
And trolls love to beat on the downtrodden. Especially if, in their critical little troll-brains, they decide you did something –- anything -- to deserve your suffering. I’d had the occasional troll visit my site before, but I was fairly boring so they never stayed for very long. This time, however, it felt like they were moving in.
I tried not to let the negative comments take away from all the kind ones, but they got harder and harder to ignore. I knew that I could block IPs on my blog, so I went through the comment history to ID the IPs, and noticed that all of the hateful comments shared the same address. I wasn’t dealing with trolls -- plural -– I was dealing with one nasty troll king or queen.
So I wrote a post about how I was being harassed on the site. I probably shouldn’t have, but at this point I was so angry at my attacker that it seemed the only way to speak to them directly (they were using a bogus email address to leave the comments so I couldn’t contact them that way). Their response was almost instantaneous. Not only did my confrontational post make me a “whiny, desperate, drama queen” who deserved to be cheated on, but apparently I was now also an “angry radical feminist lesbian misandrist” who should “go f***” my own mother.
I blocked their IP address. I stopped writing anything personal. I focused on healing in private and used the blog to tell silly jokes or to catch friends and family up on the boring minutia of life instead of the meatier reality. I thought that my troll would get bored and go away.
I was wrong.
I began receiving emails from people claiming to have received bullying and “inappropriate” emails from me. When I wrote back asking them to clarify what it was they had received, nobody responded. I changed all my passwords, went through every inch of my hard drive, and found no proof anywhere that anyone had broken into my email, much less emailed anything weird to anyone from any of my accounts.
Then I received another comment on my blog from a proxy IP address. It read “Karma is a bitch” and included a link to an STD shaming/revenge site with a newly created entry in my honor.
Now, the beauty of these types of websites is that they’re generally operated by soulless, angry men who house their operations in offshore servers, making it difficult for anyone to do anything about them. The website my cyber-stalker had pounced on was STDCarriers.com (now defunct), featured on CNN three days prior by an appalled Anderson Cooper. The fallacious claims stated that I had several STDs and never used condoms because I used my sexual experiences as “creative research.” They also pulled a photo from my website, so there was a picture of my smiling mug stationed directly above the litany of offenses.
Even worse, the listing came up in page one of my Google search results.
I still remember sitting at my kitchen table in the wee hours of the night, shaking like a leaf while I tried to make sense of what I was seeing. Eventually I got up to check the locks on my doors and windows before retreating to the floor-space under my table to cry.
What I couldn’t understand then, was what I had done to deserve this kind of attack! I started making lists of people who might be angry with myself or Ben -- was there anyone I’d had any kind of conflict with over the past year? It was an incredibly short list.
Ben’s best friend had been acting weird the past few months and we thought he might be doing drugs, maybe he’s gone off the deep end? And then there’s Jane, who disagreed with me on a project I was heading up at work, but that can’t possibly have planted this much loathing in her! Who else? Who else would be so upset with me that they’d spend this much time harassing me?
The only person I could even imagine being this angry with me was an author whose work I’d given an unfavorable review to a year prior –- but I still found it incredibly unlikely she was the perpetrator considering how poorly written and personal the cyber attacks had been.
So I scraped all the mucus off my face, climbed out from under the kitchen table, and reached out to a friend who worked with the Sheriff's department. He let me know that what I was describing qualified as cyber-bullying and that I could file a report (which I did). He also told me that since the site used a photo that I had taken myself, I could try to get the page taken down on copyright infringement (which I did).
All that was left for me to do was wait, try to get some sleep, and try not to jump every time I heard a loud noise.
But I couldn’t really focus on anything except how absolutely helpless I felt. As a writer and an educator, people do occasionally Google me. What if my students were Googling me? Or their parents? The STDCarriers site was such an obviously trashy site –- would anyone think it was legit? All a person needs to do to add someone to the site is sign up with an email address. In order to get yourself removed, however, you had to send a verified medical diagnostic proving that you’re STD free to the owner of the website -– a process that would take weeks and be a gross invasion of privacy!
And, much like isanyoneup.com, the site creator was a complete misogynist with a chip on his shoulder the size of Canada, so there was no appealing to his good nature.
My only hope was to create my own account with STDcarriers.com so that I could use it to direct-message the person who posted the information about me with a request to take it down (which I did). Not holding my breath that they’d listen to me, I crossed my fingers that the copyright infringement complaint would be taken seriously enough to take the page down.
I also shut down my blog.
When I spoke with the officer handling my case, he seemed to have little hope for a quick resolution. He took down the IP address, talked about the futility of going after the site-creator, and let me know if I had further contact with my stalker to call him.
So I waited.
And I stopped writing. I felt too vulnerable now -– as though every word could incite an attack, and the words that had been racing through my brain before, now stood frozen in their tracks.
Until miraculously, my profile page on the STD website came down. Cyrus Sullivan, the STDCarriers.com creator, was on his way to jail for threatening to kill a woman who was speaking out against him online, and his site got shut down as a result.
I thought that maybe it was all over.
Till a few months later, when I got a call from the detective handling my case -- he had finally been able to get a warrant on the IP address and tracked down my stalker. It was Andrea.
My heart dropped into my stomach.
I’d like to say it made sense, made me feel better –- but instead it just left me stymied. How could a woman who had already done so much damage persist in inflicting more? She was the one who’d pushed her way into my relationship -- What had I done to her?
And how crazy did she have to be to have gone so far?
The detective told me he would contact her. I was scared that it might stir up more drama, but I knew it was also the best chance I had of scaring her away.
A few days later, she emailed me from her personal account. She told me that she’d been contacted by a “very rude police officer” who ”seemed to be under the impression” that she’d been harassing me. Andrea then went on to say that she’d told the officer that she’d been on the receiving end of cyber harassment herself -– from me. And that maybe we’d both been victims behaving badly. Then she closed with “By the end of the conversation, I got the distinct impression from him that he’d chalked the whole thing up to ‘Girls being catty.’ At least now we can both put all of this behind us.”
Do you see what she did there? One conversation with the police and the whole thing was chalked up to “lady drama.” Never mind the fact that I had emailed Andrea only ONCE during the whole she-bang to tell her to please stop contacting me with her litany of ‘let me explain’ emails. Never mind the fact that if she wasn’t lying, and someone else had been cyber-harassing both of us, it was super creepy and bad and still kind of a big deal.
Nope. As far as she and the detective were concerned, it was all water under the bridge.
But it was the last I heard from her -- or the troll.
My boyfriend and I did a lot of fighting, a lot of talking, and a lot of healing together that year. We even moved to a new state for a fresh start and are doing really well. I don’t know what the future will bring, but I know that I feel good about the decisions I’ve made and I’m positive about our future together.
But I haven’t written anything even remotely personal without using a pseudonym since. I don’t know if I ever will. The cost to my sanity and peace of mind was just too great. And while I like to think Andrea has moved on from both of us, I’ll never really know for certain.
And that still has me writing scared.
(*Names and some details have been changed to protect the identity of the author.)