“…the boundary between the civilized world and our worst selves is just an illusion.”

I don’t agree with Lindy West’s politics. I dislike her demeanor. I don’t even think she’s a very good writer. But I found this recent segment she did for This American Life (H/T Cinzia) both fascinating and sad.

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, Say It With ALL CAPS.

I recommend clicking the link above and listening to her segment – Ask Not for Whom the Bell Trolls, It Trolls for Thee – because hearing her interview the anonymous man who was so viciously cruel to her is quite touching actually. But if you can’t listen to it, read the transcript below.

Lindy West

One midsummer afternoon in 2013, I got a message on Twitter from my dead dad. I don’t remember what it said exactly. And I didn’t keep a copy for my scrapbook. But it was mean.

And my dad was never mean. So it couldn’t really be from him. Also, he was dead. Just 18 months earlier, I’d watched him turn gray and drown in his own lungs. So I was like 80% sure.

And I don’t believe in heaven. And even if I did, I’d hope to god they don’t have fucking Twitter there. It’s heaven. Go play chocolate badminton on a cloud with Jerry Orbach and your childhood cat.

But there it was, a message. Some context– in the summer of 2013, in certain circles of the internet, comedians and feminists were at war over rape jokes. Being both a comedy writer and a committed feminist killjoy, I weighed in with an article in which I said that I think a lot of male comedians are careless with the subject of rape.

Here’s just a sample of the responses I got on social media. A quick warning, these are internet comments about rape, so it’s going to suck.

“I love how the bitch complaining about rape is the exact kind of bitch that would never be raped.” “Holes like this make me want to commit rape out of anger.” “I just want to rape her with a traffic cone.” “No one would want to rape that fat disgusting mess.” “Kill yourself.” “I want to put an apple into that mouth of yours and take a huge stick and slide it through your body and roast you.” “That big bitch is bitter that no one wants to rape her.”

It went on like that for weeks. It’s something I’m used to. I have to be. Being insulted and threatened online is part of my job, which is not to say it doesn’t hurt. It does. It feels– well, exactly like you would imagine it would feel to have someone call you a fat cunt every day of your life.

When I got that message from my dad, it was well into rape joke summer. I was eating 30 rape threats for breakfast at that point, or more accurately, “you’re fatter than the girls I usually rape” threats. And I thought I was coping. But if you get a blade sharp enough, it’ll cut through anything.

The account was called Paul West Donezo– Paul West, because his name was Paul West, and Donezo, because I guess he was done. He was– done being alive, done doing crossword puzzles, done forcing me to sing duets at dinner parties, done writing little poems on the back of every receipt, done being my dad.

The little bio on Twitter read “embarrassed father of an idiot– other two kids are fine, though.” His location– dirt hole in Seattle.

The profile photo was a familiar picture of him. He’s sitting at his piano smiling in the living room of the house where I grew up. The day they sold that house– when I was 25– I sat on the stairs and sobbed harder than I ever had before, because a place is kind of like a person, you know? It felt like a death.

I wouldn’t cry that hard again until December 12, 2011 when I’d learned that a place is not like a person at all. Only a person is a person. Only a death is really a death.

My dad lost consciousness on a Saturday night. That afternoon, when we could feel his lucidity slipping, we called my brother in Boston. You were such a special little boy, he said. I love you very much. He didn’t say very many things after that. I would give anything for one more sentence. I would give anything for 140 more characters.

The person who made the Paul West Donezo account clearly put some time into it. They’d researched my father and my family. They’d found out his name, and then they figured out which Paul West he was among all the Paul Wests on the internet. They knew that I have a brother and sister. And if they knew all that, they must have known how recently we’d lost my dad.

Conventional wisdom says never feed the trolls. Don’t respond. It’s what they want. I do that. It doesn’t help.

I could just stop reading comments altogether, but sometimes I get threatening ones, like the other day someone said I should get Charlie Hebdo’ed. Colleagues of mine have had their addresses published online, had trolls actually show up in person at their public events. If I don’t read comments, how will I know when they’ve crossed the line?

I could just stop writing altogether. I’ve thought about it. But it seems to me that our silence is what the trolls want.

Faced with Paul West Donezo, I was stuck with the question, what should I do? If I respond, I’m a sucker. But if I don’t respond, I’m a punching bag. So I did what you’re not supposed to do. I fed the troll.

I wrote about Paul West Donezo in an article for jezebel.com. I wrote sadly, candidly, angrily about how much it hurt, how much that troll had succeeded. And then something amazing happened.

The morning after that post went up, I got an email. “Hey Lindy, I don’t know why or even when I started trolling you. It wasn’t because of your stance on rape jokes. I don’t find them funny either. I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self.

I have emailed you through two other Gmail accounts just to send you idiotic insults. I apologize for that. I created the paulwestdonezo@gmail.com account and Twitter account. I have deleted both.

I can’t say sorry enough. 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 shit. I’m attacking someone who never harmed me in any way and for no reason whatsoever.

I’m done being a troll. Again, I apologize. I made a donation in memory to your dad. I wish you the best.”

They attached a receipt for a $50 donation to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance where my dad was treated. I guess he found that out in this research too. It was designated Memorial Paul West.

I didn’t know what to say. I wrote, is this real? If so, thank you.

The troll wrote back one more time, apologized again, and this time, he gave me his real name. I could have posted it online, which he knew. But I didn’t. And I’m not going to be saying it here either.

That was almost 18 months ago, but I still think about it all the time because I still get trolled every day. If I could get through to one troll, the meanest one I ever had, couldn’t I feasibly get through to any of them, all of them?

Was he special? Or did I do something right? I wonder how he would tell me to respond to the people trolling me today. I wish I could ask him. But then I realized, I could.

Lindy West

I don’t know. I guess I’m just kind of nervous. But it’ll be OK, right?

Chana Joffe

Yeah.

Lindy West

This is me in a studio with producer Chana Joffe-Walt and a phone.

[TELEPHONE RINGING]

Man

Hello?

Lindy West

Oh, hello?

Man

Hello?

Lindy West

Hi. How are you?

Man

I got to tell you, I’m really nervous at the moment.

Lindy West

I’m a little nervous also.

Man

At least I’m not alone.

Lindy West

No, no, not at all.

I asked him why he chose me. He’d said in his email that it wasn’t because of the rape joke thing, so what exactly did I do?

Man

Well, it revolved around one issue that you wrote about a lot which was your being heavy– the struggles that you had regarding being a woman of size, or whatever the term may be.

Lindy West

You can say fat. That’s what I say.

Man

Fat. OK, fat.

Lindy West

I write a lot about body image, about the stigma and discrimination that fat people face, about being a fat woman. He told me that at the time he was about 75 pounds heavier than he wanted to be. He hated his body. He was miserable. And reading about fat people, particularly fat women accepting and loving themselves as they were, infuriated him for reasons he couldn’t articulate at the time.

Man

When you talked about being proud of who you are and where you are and where you’re going, that kind of stoked that anger that I had.

Lindy West

OK, so you found my writing. You found my writing, and you did not like it.

Man

Certain aspects of it.

Lindy West

Yeah.

Man

You used a lot of all caps. You’re just a very– you almost have no fear when you write.

Lindy West

Yeah.

Man

You know, it’s like you stand on the desk and you say, I’m Lindy West, and this is what I believe in. Fuck you if you don’t agree with me. And even though you don’t say those words exactly, I’m like, who is this bitch who thinks she knows everything?

Lindy West

I asked him if he felt that way because I’m a woman.

Man

Oh, definitely. Definitely. Women are being more forthright in their writing. There isn’t a sense of timidity to when they speak or when they write. They’re saying it loud. And I think that– and I think, for me, as well, it’s threatening at first.

Lindy West

Right. You must know that I– that’s why I do that, because people don’t expect to hear from women like that. And I want other women to see me do that and I want women’s voices to get louder.

Man

I understand. I understand. Here’s the thing. I work with women all day, and I don’t have an issue with anyone. I could’ve told you back then if someone had said to me, oh, you’re a misogynist. You hate women. And I could say, nuh-uh, I love my mom. I love my sisters. I’ve loved my– the girlfriends that I’ve had in my life. But you can’t claim to be OK with women and then go online and insult them– seek them out to harm them emotionally.

Lindy West

In my experience, if you call a troll a misogynist, he’ll almost invariably say, oh, I don’t hate women. I just hate what you’re saying and what that other woman is saying and that woman and that one for totally unrelated reasons. So it was satisfying at least to hear him admit that, yeah, he hated women.

He says he doesn’t troll anymore and that he’s really changed. He tells me that period of time when he was trolling me for being loud and fat was a low point for him. He hated his body. His girlfriend dumped him. He spent every day in front of a computer at an unfulfilling job. A passionless life, he called it.

And then gradually, he changed. He enrolled in graduate school. He found a new relationship. He started teaching little kids. He had a purpose.

Slowly, his interest in trolling dried up. We verified nearly everything that he told us about himself. Except, did he really stop trolling? I have no way of knowing, but I believe him. It felt true. And if this was all a con, it’s one that cost him a $50 charity donation.

We talked for over two hours, and I spent a lot of time trying to get him to walk me through his transgressions in detail– the actual physical and mental steps and how he justified it all to himself. I felt like if I could just get the specifics, gather them up and hold them in my hands, then maybe I could start to understand all of the people who are still trolling me.

Lindy West

How did you even find out that my dad died? How did you–

Man

I went to my computer. I googled you– found out you had a father who had passed. I found out that he had– you had siblings. I forget if it was three total.

Lindy West

I have two siblings.

Man

So–

Lindy West

Did you read his obituary?

Man

I believe I did. I knew he was a musician.

Lindy West

Yeah, I wrote that. I wrote his obituary.

Man

What I did was this. I created a fake Gmail account using your father’s name, created a fake Twitter account using his name. The biography was something to the effect of, my name is– I’m sorry, I forget the name– the first name.

Lindy West

His name was Paul West.

Man

I wrote, “My name is Paul West. I’ve got three kids. Two of them are great, and one of them is an idiot.”

Lindy West

Yeah, you said embarrassed father of an idiot.

Man

OK.

Lindy West

Other two kids are fine, though. And then–

Man

That’s much more worse.

Lindy West

And you got a picture of him.

Man

I did get a picture of him.

Lindy West

Do you remember anything about him? Did you get a sense of him as a human being?

Man

I read the obit. And I knew he was a dad that loved his kids.

Lindy West

How did that make you feel?

Man

Not good. I mean, I felt horrible almost immediately afterwards. You tweeted something along the lines of, good job today, society, or something along those lines.

Lindy West

Yeah.

Man

It just wouldn’t– for the first time, it wouldn’t leave my mind. Usually, I would put out all of this internet hate, and oftentimes I would just forget about it. This one would not leave me. It would not leave me. I started thinking about you because I know you had read it. And I’m thinking how would she feel. And the next day I wrote you.

Lindy West

Yeah. [INAUDIBLE].

Man

And I truly am sorry about that.

Lindy West

(crying) Yeah, I mean, have you lost anyone? Can you imagine? Can you imagine?

Man

I can. I can. I don’t know what else to say except that I’m sorry.

Lindy West

Well, you know, I get abuse all day every day. It’s part of my job. And this was the meanest thing anyone’s ever done to me. I mean, absolute– I mean, it was really fresh. He had just died.

But you’re also the only troll who’s ever apologized. Not just to me, I’ve never heard of this happening before. I mean, I don’t know anyone who’s ever gotten an apology. And I just– I mean, thank you.

Man

I’m glad that you have some solace.

Lindy West

Honestly, I did have some solace. I forgave him. I felt sorry for him.

It’s so difficult to believe that anyone ever really changes. And he did it. I found immense comfort in that.

Toward the end of our conversation, I remembered that in his email he had confessed that he had harassed from multiple troll accounts, not just Paul West Donezo.

Did I ever write back? Was there anything I didn’t know? He said, yeah, one time he’d sent something mean from his personal account, and I retweeted it to all of my 40,000 followers. He was mortified.

Man

And I’m trying to remember what it was about. I think you had mentioned a comedian. You had tweeted about a comedian who had threatened to throw his girlfriend down the stairs?

Lindy West

Oh, no, he said he wished that I would fall down a flight of stairs.

Man

Oh, OK, and I think I said– I don’t know if I retweeted it or I– what did I say?

Lindy West

Oh. Oh my god, I remember you.

Man

Yeah, OK.

Lindy West

Oh my god.

Man

What did I say?

Lindy West

You said something like, I wish I could be the one to push her, or something. Or–

Man

Or I thought it was, too bad Lindy isn’t your girlfriend.

Lindy West

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh my god, I remember you.

Man

Yeah, that’s me. I’m a dick.

Lindy West

I can’t believe– I mean, there’s so many trolls. I can’t believe– I can’t believe I remember you.

Man

Yeah, that was me.

Lindy West

At this point, my producer Chana, who’d been listening, couldn’t stop herself from jumping in.

Chana Joffe

God, hearing you guys, you sound like you’re like, oh, you went to that high school? I went to that high school too. Holy cow.

Man

Yeah.

Lindy West

Well, you know, I mean it’s such a normalized part of my life now. I mean, honestly– and it’s kind of a relief to talk to someone who really knows what I’m talking about, even though he’s coming at it from the other direction. There’s almost no one who understands–

Man

Well, you know what, as a former troll, I’d never told a single living human being until now that I did this. So it’s good, in a way, to get that off my chest to get my secret life– my old life– I don’t know. It just feels good to exercise these demons.

Lindy West

It felt really easy, comfortable even, to talk to my troll. I liked him, and I didn’t know what to do with that.

It’s frightening to discover that he’s so normal. He has female coworkers who enjoy his company. He has a real, live girlfriend who loves him. They have no idea that he used to go online and traumatize women for fun.

Trolls live among us. I’ve gotten anonymous comments from people saying they met me at a movie theater and I was a bitch. Or they served me at a restaurant and my boobs aren’t as big as they look in pictures.

People say it doesn’t matter what happens on the internet, that it’s not real life. But thanks to internet trolls, I’m perpetually reminded that the boundary between the civilized world and our worst selves is just an illusion.

Trolls still waste my time and tax my mental health on a daily basis, but honestly, I don’t wish them any pain. Their pain is what got us here in the first place. That’s what I learned from my troll.

If what he said is true, that he just needed to find some meaning in his life, then what a heartbreaking diagnosis for all of the people who are still at it. I can’t give purpose and fulfillment to millions of anonymous strangers, but I can remember not to lose sight of their humanity the way that they lost sight of mine.

Humans can be reached. I have proof. Empathy, boldness, kindness, those are things I learned from my dad, though he never knew how much I’d need them. Or maybe he did.

He was a jazz musician. And when I was born, he wrote a song about me. And listening to it now, it feels like he wrote it for just this moment. I’ll give the last word to him.

Paul West

You’ve got a lot of nerve, little girl– bundles of nerve, little girl, to come here in a season full of doubt and tattered reason in a world you don’t deserve. You got a lot of nerve, little girl.