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Re: Hate Mail

Amy Kurzweil | Longreads | November 14, 2018 | 2,322 words
Posted inEssays & Criticism, Featured, Nonfiction, Story, Unapologetic Women

Re: Hate Mail

After receiving a string of menacing emails, Amy Kurzweil wonders: Can she safely extend a writer’s empathy to men who harass her on the internet?
Illustration by the author

Amy Kurzweil | Longreads | November 2018 | 9 minutes (2,322 words)

I’ve received 15 emails from my internet stalker in the past four days. It’s like watching an inmate from behind a two-way mirror. He read a short story I wrote once satirically titled “The Greatest Story Ever Written.” It’s about a group of male writers who lose their way. He didn’t like it. I think I’m open to criticism, but I wonder whether I really am. This correspondence has progressed for months: he condemns and insults, then catches himself being too harsh, too forward. Sometimes he apologizes. He thanks me for listening. He sends emails to courteously correct typos in his previous emails, and even these offer a Nietzsche quote as an epigraph. “We spared neither ourselves nor others…” He invites me to read his latest blogpost. If it won’t break your legs, he says, just tell me if you like it. I think about what it really means to like something. I compose responses to him in my head; clever, angry things about the patriarchy. But I don’t send them.


The first internet comment I ever read about myself was on YouTube, listed under an interview I’d done with my father. I was 25. Ray Kurzweil’s daughter has nice legs but her boobs aren’t that big. When I read it I thought: I feel like my boobs are pretty big. And also: I knew that dress my mother bought me was too short. And also: I felt ashamed. I was sorry I’d brought a body into a communion of ideas. I should have worn tights. The event was called “Women at the Frontier.” It honored women making great strides in technology. A snowboarder who lost her limbs spoke about prosthetics. Daughters of innovative men in technology interviewed their fathers.

I asked my dad, the inventor and genius, “What do you think you’ve learned from me?”

“You’ve helped me become a better writer,” my father answered.

After my first book came out, when I was 30, I received an email from a boy. In my head he was newly bar mitzvahed, 13 years old, wearing a kippah and a black suit — that’s the scene his gmail photo conjured. But he wrote like a real man, an ironic one. Should I be your husband? was the subject line. I sent back what I felt was a cunning response: The wedding has been scheduled for 12 December. Your mother should wear lilac. Your sister is not invited. I was very proud of my wit. I hope seven children suits you, and if they aren’t all girls I will cast the offending parties into the river in baskets. Do not try to retrieve them.

I’m not one to cold-message women on facebook, another man cold-messaged me on Facebook. He said I’d come up in conversation on a date with a woman he met on Jswipe. He said he read my book, thinks I’m attractive, has a hunch we would get along. I composed a message in my head: I am pleased to receive the news of my fame. It’s been a dream/fetish of mine to know my name is on the lips of young Jews on internet dates all across this country. Be fruitful and multiply with this woman and may all your children’s names begin with A. But something told me he wasn’t one for irony. The man’s technically unacknowledged message still lives in that wasteland of Requests, with the whatups and hiiiis and like my pages, and the Uber driver from Florida who found me somehow — I was in Naples for the Jewish Book festival and I must have been fishing for readers. Definitely interested in the convo we were having. Let’s talk over dinner next time you’re in town.

My internet stalker, however, isn’t seeking marriage or dinner. He isn’t interested in my body; He wants to volley with my mind. Amy, We need to fight, or else I shall keep thinking of things to say to you. My internet stalker uses the word “shall.” He’s refined. He’s quoted Lord Chesterfield from 1774 and Matthew Arnold from 1849. These are not writers I’ve read, but Arnold’s The Strayed Reveller sounds like the man I avoid at parties. My boyfriend says: ignore him. He sees me in my defensive stance, resisting the palpable urge to hold up my hands, like the gesture I make passing a neighbor’s barking dog: I’m not on your property and I have nothing to hide.

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