Intimidation by Internet

intimidation by internet       1.23.14

The web can be a welcoming community where people try out new ideas, even identities. But for some, the anonymity that's possible on the web engenders deep malice with no repercussions.

Since I read Amanda Hess’ January 6 article, Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet, I’ve thought about it every single day and talked about it almost as often. In case you think backlash against outspoken women is a thing of the past, read this article.

Amanda Hess writes the kind of articles I love to read. For instance, Television Critic Doesn’t “Get” Why Lena Dunham is Naked All the Time takes a male journalist to task for suggesting that Lena Dunham shouldn’t appear naked on TV since he doesn’t consider her tittilatingly hot. Hess’ writing combines outrage and logic to call outdated assumptions and attitudes out on the carpet. Unfortunately not everyone responds with joy to her articles.

Threats against Hess have some common themes. Rape is a favorite, along with decapitation and gun violence. Some of the anonymous harassers go after her appearance, “I see you are physically not very attractive. Figured.” (Implication: a woman can only have a voice if she’s deemed, what, pretty?)

Since Hess’ piece came out, other female journalists have shared similar stories. In the New York Times, Amy Wallace describes how she was called the C-word and a prostitute, after writing a critical article about the anti-vaccine movement. People who disagreed with her created mock articles about her rape and Photoshopped her head onto the body of a woman in a strapless dress.

After Amy Harmon wrote an (excellent) article about genetically modified crops in Hawaii, she too was harassed. She too received a Photoshopped image, this one of her head superimposed on a woman in a leopard-skin bathing suit.

Apparently, to take a woman down, the most obvious weapon is the fact that she’s a woman. In the words of Sarah Silverman,

You were saying something, Ma'am?

…it really is different for women. Even in the brightest of pop culture, as soon as you’re at an age when you have opinions and you’re outspoken and you know who you are, you’re very much encouraged to crawl under a rock, and be embarrassed by any wrinkle. Or by still being alive.

Online hatred is not limited to women. On the NPR program, On Point last week, a male caller described “hundreds of death threats” he received in response to his anti-SUV campaign. And just read the comments of any online news outlet for a dose of free-floating vitriol.

Where does all this malice come from? The web provides a shield of anonymity that enables bad behavior. Like drivers who rage at other cars that happen to contain people, Internet trolls are safely separated, not only from their targets, but from any repercussions for their actions. They don’t have to know their victims; they don’t have to care what it feels like to receive hateful messages from a stranger.

In 2012, Adrien Chen of Gawker uncovered the identity of Michael Brutsch, the real-life man behind the troll, Violentacrez (sounds like Violent Acres). Brutsch had created a depressingly popular section on Reddit called “Jailbait” featuring photos of underage girls in bikinis and short skirts. Some of the photos were taken “on the street” without the girls’ knowledge. Others were downloaded from Facebook. When it was his turn to be revealed online, however, Brutsch pleaded with Chen,

My wife is disabled. I got a home and a mortgage, and if this hits the fan, I believe this will affect negatively on my employment,” he said. “I do my job, go home watch TV, and go on the internet. I just like riling people up in my spare time.

After stripping teen girls of their humanity under headings like “Chokeabitch,” and “Rapebait,” Brutsch tried to leverage his human story to get a reporter, who unlike Brutsch, went by his actual name, to take pity on him. Happily, Chen didn’t cave and Jailbait came down.

Online harassment is far from an equal opportunity phenomenon. Africans Americans, Hispanics and women come up against offensive online language and images more often than white men. A huge majority (88%) of teens see online behavior they consider cruel or mean, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens are bullied online three times as often as other teens.

Telling victims of online bullying and cyberstalking to stay away from the Internet is not

Have an opinion and let the world know.

the answer. The web has become integral to many people’s lives. Going offline is akin to saying goodbye to your career for journalists and many other professionals. Many LGBT teens say they find support and community on the Internet that they’re hard-pressed to find in their physical surroundings.

One answer is to speak up. Have an opinion and let the world know it, ideally with your identity out in the open if you can. Amanda Hess started the conversation. Let’s keep it going.

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Before the Buffer Zone

before the buffer zone      1.22.14

We were in the car, my husband and I, when Nina Totenberg’s voice came on the radio, interviewing the lead plaintiff in a case that would go in front of the U.S. Supreme Court that day. In question are the buffer zones that have been enforced around Planned Parenthood clinics in Massachusetts since 2007. Totenberg was out in front of the clinic in Brookline, Mass., interviewing Eleanor McCullen, a 70-something grandmother who told her the buffer zones infringe on her right to try and talk women out of having an abortion as they head into the clinic.

I had a head-exploding moment. “That is such an inaccurate picture of what it’s like out in front of the clinics,” I told my husband. He knows, I’ve gone on about this before. I didn’t need to convince him so I wrote a piece for Cognoscenti, describing what I saw as a volunteer escort for Planned Parenthood in the early 90s: large crowds of poster-wielding protesters harassing women at a time when it’s safe to assume, they’d rather be left alone.

When Cognoscenti told me they wanted to use the piece, I celebrated and then braced myself for an outpouring of anti-abortion rhetoric. To my surprise, both on Cognoscenti and Facebook, the vast majority of people who commented also found the protesters out of line and added their details of bad behavior at the clinics:

  • A man with a framed photo of John Salvi in his hand screaming at a woman who sat crying on the curb
  • Women having to shoulder their way through crowds shouting “Murderer” so they could have a gynecological check-up
  • A woman who was handed a rose wrapped in cellophane on her way into the clinic, only to discover that the person who gave it to her had chopped off the rose’s head so it would fall in her lap when she opened it

It’s been 20 years since I was a volunteer escort for Planned Parenthood, but the scenes outside of clinics that provide safe, legal abortion services are just as bad, if not worse, as they were all those years ago.

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A Curious New Year

a curious new year      1.14.14

I wasn’t going to make a New Year’s resolution this year. Back in my 20s, I used to vow

Each January I would bring grapefruit to work and watch them go soft on my desk.

every January to eat more fruits and vegetables. For the next several weeks, I would bring a grapefruit to work, place it on my desk, and watch it slowly go soft. Why make resolutions on January 1, I thought, when there are 364 other days in the year for me to be more healthy, more efficient, and more proactive in pursuing my goals?

But around January 3, my thinking changed. A new year affords a new start, as do the first day of a new month or first day of a new week. From a certain perspective, Monday is the best day, full of new hope and  opportunity. And, being human, there are still so many things I want to do better, or do for the first time. So okay, I was in, but I hadn’t decided on a resolution.

It came to me when my husband and I were out cross-country skiing. The snow was fresh from a recent storm, the cold air burned the inside of my nose, and the physical distance from my everyday life gave my brain a chance to breathe. The resolution:


I will approach 2014 with curiosity.

Curiosity gives me an excuse not to know all the answers. I can experience uncertainty not as a failure, but as a starting point. Silly as this sounds, I was stuck in a long line of traffic the other day and in the spirit of curiosity, thought, “I wonder what will happen if I go right instead of left.” The answer turned out to be, more traffic. It was rush hour after all, but because I’d turned off the beaten path in a mindset of curiosity, I didn’t get flustered.

Curiosity in the pool helped me work on a shoulder-saving breathing pattern.

A few days later, I participated in a one-hour swim. Other years I’ve swum without stopping for one hour, thinking that gutting it out like that would elevate me in the eyes of my teammates. (The people I swim with are wonderful but I don’t think any of them truly cares if I swim without stopping.) Also, I’ve been over-straining my left shoulder by always breathing to the right. For the past few years, I’ve been trying to build sufficient lung capacity to breathe every third stroke instead of every second stroke: Breathe to the right, three strokes later to the left, and so on. Coaches, other swimmers, and anyone who understands basic anatomy tells me this spreads the load more evenly between both shoulders. If I swam without a break for one hour, there’s no way I’d be able to do it. So I decided to take a 5-second rest after every 100 yards.

After about 500 yards, I was running out of breath even with the 5-second breaks and had to make another choice: keep doing flip turns and revert to breathing every second stroke, or switch to open turns, which would allow me to take a big gulp of air every 25 yards and give me a better chance of sticking with breathing every third stroke.

It should have been an obvious choice but it wasn’t. It was a very big deal for me when I finally started doing flip turns. All the cool kids do flip turns. I feel very conspicuous anytime I do an open turn. The swimmers I admire most do flip turns: Dara Torres, Michael Phelps, most of the people on my team. But so what? I wanted to know what it would take for me to swim for one hour breathing every third stroke, and if my shoulder would feel less worn out. So I switched to open turns. Granted, I was a little embarrassed. Clearly I’m not the bad-ass swimmer I strive to be, but I had a good swim. I hit a good rhythm and by the end of the hour, breathing every third stroke felt smoother and than breathing every other stroke. And then I iced my shoulder. Now this is progress.

As a side note, I also plan to be a more active blogger in 2014, and curiosity will be my guiding principle.

Onward to a curious 2014.

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How to Make Your Writing Group Work

how to make your writing group work                8.29.13

Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper
until the drops of blood form on your forehead.
Gene Fowler

I have plenty of writing advice posted around my computer and copied into notebooks, but none has made me laugh out loud like Gene Fowler’s statement. And I thought I was the only person who sometimes believes it would be easier to squeeze blood out of my forehead than write a decent sentence. The best writing looks effortless. But to write anything worth reading, you have to face the question, why will anyone care? It’s a simple, sometimes crippling question made all the more treacherous by the fact that writing is almost always done alone.

For the past year I’ve been part of a writing group. We get together regularly to share and discuss our work. The group provides us each an audience that knows and cares whether we write or not. Here’s a post I wrote for Grub Street Daily, with a healthy dose of input from the group, about what we learned during our first year together.

And by the way, if you live anywhere near Boston and are looking for a friendly, high-quality writing resource, check out Grub Street for writing workshops, events, consultation, and a thriving community. It might help you answer the why? why? why? of your writing process.

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Funeral for a Friend

funeral for a friend 8.2.13

This May, my dear friend, Franco, had a sudden and severe series of aneurysms. He was 50 years old. It seemed fair to assume he was in the middle, not the end, of his life but of course, you never know. What we did know was that a few months earlier, when his father was dying, Franco told his sister he wouldn’t want to be kept alive if he didn’t know what the doctors were doing to him. Within hours of his arrival at the hospital, Franco’s doctors believed the damage to his brain was too extreme for him to ever recover. After four days with no sign that Franco knew what the doctors were doing to him or ever would, his family and closest friends made the decision to remove life support so his his body could follow his brain.

The day after he died, Franco's friends created a memorial for him on Castro Street.

Franco grew up in Rhode Island and spent his 30s and 40s in San Francisco and Berkeley. His sister assembled a group of his east-coast friends to help plan a memorial in Rhode Island. In respect for Franco’s life and values, this ceremony would be non-denominational, which excuse the pun, is both a blessing and a curse. I’ve been to plenty of traditional religious funerals that feel more like an insult than a celebration. In the worst case, the priest had to pause and consult his notes every time he came to a place in the cookie-cutter service that required him to say the deceased woman’s name. To be fair, at another religious funeral, one of the most beautiful ceremonies I’ve ever attended, the priest stepped down from the altar and spoke candidly about his time with my friend’s mom in the last months of her life. Continue reading

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For Those Who Cheer on Marathon Day

for those who cheer on marathon day                   5.6.13

Thank you to Boston Magazine for posting this as part of the series, The Shoes We Wore.

I had not expected so many people to cheer for us. Erin and I were not the kind of runners who normally inspire wonder. We ran the Boston Marathon in 2001 with a goal of finishing in 4 hours, 30 minutes. If anything, people might look at us and think, what determined women. We trained on deserted streets in the early mornings, but on Marathon Monday, the streets were packed with people cheering for us. I hope to never forget what that felt like. Long after the elite runners zipped past, thousands of people stuck around and kept cheering. In 2013, people like this were hit by the bombs.

Erin had a race number but I did not, so we lined up with the bandits, unofficial participants at least one-quarter mile from the starting line: behind the sleek runners in tiny shorts, behind runners fast enough to qualify, behind people like Erin who had raised money for charity. As a group, the bandits looked like they’d just rolled out of a bar. Most were in old T-shirts and shorts, some were in costume, two wore Blues Brothers suits. While we waited to start, a dozen or so men peed into bushes around the edge of some family’s yard. Continue reading

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Pink Intentions

pink intentions       6.29.12

I recently had the uncomfortable experience of going to the movie, Pink Ribbons, Inc. with a friend who has been through two bouts of breast cancer in less than six years.

The movie looks at “pink washing” and how the phenomenon has effectively glossed over questions such as why breast cancer continues to flourish despite all the walks and fundraisers. In the course of many of our lifetimes, a woman’s risk of breast cancer went from 1 in 20 in the 1960s to 1 in 8 today.  Add to that the fact that only about 50% of women with breast cancer have a known risk factor for the disease and the waves of pink seem, at best, misguided. Why aren’t more campaigns aimed at reducing environmental hazards so fewer women get breast cancer in the first place? Why is early detection promoted as our saving grace?

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Pink Ribbon Overload

pink ribbon overload        6.29.12

by Beverly Biehl, guest blogger

On Mother’s Day, my family knows to avoid the color pink in any gifts for me. I’m 5½ years out from my own brush with breast cancer, and have had my fill of that color.

I lost it in front of a Girl Scout wearing a Pink-beribboned bucket hat

When National Breast Cancer Awareness Month rolls around in October with its ocean of Pink, I put up my mental barriers and try to enjoy a fuchsia-free fall. It was when I got blindsided by a Girl Scout wearing a Pink-beribboned bucket hat talking about the importance of a mammogram that I lost it.

Breast cancer ribbons have become the latest in tacky fashion accessories. Women are being lauded as “heroic” for simply following a prescribed course of treatment for a disease that kills only 40,000 a year. By comparison, heart disease kills 350,000 women and strokes kill another 96,000. Yet the American Heart Association’s Red Dress campaign hasn’t achieved the cachet of that ubiquitous pink ribbon. I keep asking myself why: What is it that makes one particular disease more visible than the other?

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We Are All Genetically Programmed to Die

we are all genetically programmed to die       6.2.12

Less than two years after Anne got married, her husband’s parents called with the news that his sister had a rare brain disorder and he might too. At first, the news changed everything. And then, in a lot of ways, it changed very little.

Severe migraines were the first sign of the reduced blood supply to Bonnie's brain.

Pete’s sister, Bonnie (not her real name) had been diagnosed with Cadasil, an inherited condition in which blood vessels to the brain become thick and congested. Usually migraines are the first sign that the brain is trying to make do with a reduced blood supply, typically around the age of 30 or 40. Anne’s sister-in-law was 48. Her diagnosis came after a period of train-stopping migraines and an MRI that revealed early brain damage.

One of the hallmarks of Cadasil is a series of mini-strokes that kill tiny portions of the brain. Bonnie’s damage is clustered around the lobe that Cadasil targets first. Over time, this damage will accumulate and cause progressive dementia. By the time Bonnie is 60 or 65, she will likely depend on her family to manage her every need. By that time, she might not even know who they are. “Cadasil takes away every aspect of a person’s life and personality,” says Anne. “You can’t remember. You can’t talk. You can barely walk.” Continue reading

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In Autism’s Shadow

in autism’s shadow      5.12.12

My last blog told the story of how my friend came to grips with her son’s autism. This entry looks at the situation from her younger son’s perspective.

For several years after the diagnosis, Peter watched his parents’ world revolve around his brother. Plenty of second-born kids grow up in their older sibling’s shadow, but try having an older brother with autism. Peter had just turned 1 when his parents got word of TJ’s diagnosis. And, as Peter is quick to point out when things don’t go his way, “It’s not fair.”

An early photo of Peter.

Looking back, his mom, Lauren, agrees. It wasn’t fair that Peter had to sit on the sidelines for several key years so his parents could focus on TJ. As Peter formed his first words, his parents lived in fear that TJ would never do the same. When other kids played at the Gymboree, Peter stayed home so a legion of specialists could play games with TJ.

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