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Mar 24 2011

Taking Our Fear Seriously

In today’s reading, we have Rebecca Watson ready to give up on the internet.

I actually got one point wrong in that video and have wanted to do an update for some time, but every time I try I get another round of comments like the above and I decide it’s not worth my emotional well-being.

I’ve taken to simply ignoring YouTube comments, but for some reason today I responded. I checked out this guy’s profile (warning, autoplay video) and he subscribes to a lot of science stuff, including good friends of mine like Captain Disillusion. I wanted to know what was happening in this guy’s head. Specifically, I wanted to know why someone would call me a bitch and then write something that I basically said in the video (but a bit more eloquently I hope): genital mutilation is wrong, whether on boys or girls.

It’s ugly. If you write about women or read about women or are visibly a woman with opinions on the internet, it’s not going to surprise you. Read it anyway, unless more of that would be bad for you today.

Then The Bloggess takes some time to get serious.

I realize that I write a (satirical) sex column and blog about my life and you might think that’s an invitation to send me creepy emails, but it’s really not. At all. You continue to try to contact me and I continue to ignore you. You send me strange messages that scare me. I realize you’re probably not aware of how you’re affecting other people but you probably need to seek help. And I’m not the person to help you. Talk to your parents. See a doctor. Please. Because my guess is that I’m not the only woman who you’re emailing. And I’m probably not the only one that you’re scaring.

Let me assure you, you don’t know me, and the things you write make my family and myself very, very uncomfortable. I know that’s not your intention but if you don’t stop, I will contact the police.

Jenny also, wisely, tells her readers not to face something like this alone if it happens to them. She tells them to ignore the messages that have told them not to “make a scene.” Smart. Very smart. And needed. I do wish, however, that she’d also taken a moment to remind people to take these stories seriously when they’re the person someone chooses to lean on.

It isn’t easy, knowing what to say when someone tells you they’re scared. Trust me. I know. I’ve heard some incredibly dismissive things from usually thoughtful people when I’ve brought up something like this. I’ve been told some powerfully toxic individuals were “harmless.” I could have collected a thousand variations of “Maybe he just….”

Rebecca’s post has more comments than I care to count referring to “he” or “the commenter” or telling her, “There are good people out there. This is just one guy.” She quoted four bits of nastiness in her post.

Stop this, please. Stop trying to make it better by managing the one person you have some influence over–me (or whoever is complaining). I’m not the problem. Trying to make me think I’m exaggerating isn’t going to make the actual problem any smaller. It’s big. It’s ugly.

If it’s more than you can deal with, how about you just tell me so. You might think a statement like that doesn’t reflect very well on you, but it does a whole lot better than getting into an argument with me about my safety. Or just learn how to say, “That sucks. Can I help?” There’s probably something you can do, and there’s a good chance it’s small.

Even if not, just listening helps immensely. Besides, you never know when you might learn something from it. For example, today’s New York Times reports that the man believed to be behind the 2001 anthrax mailings had a long history of stalking and revenge against women, confessed to various psychiatrists over the years.

The report adds new detail to the F.B.I.’s account of Dr. Ivins’s eccentric and sometimes criminal secret life, including his obsession with a sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, and break-ins at some of its chapter offices. It documents his preoccupation with several women, including his two laboratory technicians, his stalking behavior and his penchant for long night drives to mail or drop off packages, often under assumed names.

One of his therapists took this seriously (pdf). Typically, she was then dismissed.

His therapist became so alarmed that she sought legal advice from her practice’s malpractice insurance carrier and made tentative inquiries with the local police department. She later quit the practice because the physician in charge, referred to as Dr. #3 in this report, did not share her concerns about Dr. Ivins’ dangerousness.

The report details a number of ways in which communication breakdowns led to Ivins keeping his security clearance, but if she had been supported in her fears…well, who knows what would have happened. She wasn’t taken seriously, so it didn’t.

Unless you’re dealing with someone of an age that monsters under the bed and in the closet are developmental milestones, the chances are that the women in your life are strong enough and independent enough that they don’t scare easily, much less confess to it. If the behavior aimed at them is getting to them badly enough that they bring it to you, it’s worth not waving away. It’s worth hearing, worth seeing. It’s worth putting together to watch for patterns. It’s worth understanding that there are probably also intangibles that get lost in the telling that would impress you more if you were there.

In other words, it’s worth taking seriously.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    D. C.

    Sorry for the diversion, but backing up one from "fear" to "it really happened" let's also recall that when the scary things actually happen to people, all of those diversions into comforting ourselves are not helpful.Sheesh — you'd think that someone I loved was a victim and her "friends" were less than supportive, wouldn't you?

  2. 2
    Stephanie Zvan

    I'd assumed that, D.C. The only part that might be unusual is that you noticed. For that, I thank you.

  3. 3
    Heather M. Rosa

    When you think you can comment anonymously in the internet, it's easy for some to put their worst self out there. It gets attention, often from others like themselves, and they can just reinforce each other. If it ended there, then maybe not such a big deal. I'm an ass, you're an ass, let's go bray together. Problem is, you can never tell when that mutual admiration society will turn into a mutual instigation society. One nasty comment can become another's reason to act. Fear seems the only rational response.

  4. 4
    D. C.

    Stephanie, you'll sometimes find me speaking up for those who Just Don't Get It. Partly because I know damned well I have been in that group on several topics and honest induction tells me I still am on others.

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