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?

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.

***

I used to think if I could just express myself well enough, then everybody would be nice to me. Is this why I became a writer? The poet Marge Piercy says writing is its own cure. I have to like it better than being loved. And I have to like it better than being nice. But I don’t want to toughen up. I want the world to soften.

My internet stalker isn’t seeking marriage or dinner. He isn’t interested in my body; He wants to volley with my mind.

My internet stalker links to one of my cartoons on instagram. In the drawing, a girl is seated behind a small table, smiling; on the table hangs a sign: Free Association. My free-associating associate says he liked the cartoon at first, but now he feels it’s missing something. This reminds him: There is another thing which has been bothering me for long in your work…an air of the desire to appear little and small and harmless and “likeable.”

The friend I live-text my life to says I should contact someone official about my internet stalker. She says he’s deliberately using intimidation tactics. There’s a whiff of fatal attraction, she says. She’s been stalked before. Is there an internet teacher I can tell? Where is the gmail police? I don’t block him yet; I want to keep an eye on him. If he comes for me Law and Order SVU style, perhaps my friend and my boyfriend can remote into my phone — together they know all my passwords — and solve the mystery of my disappearance based on the 18th century poetry this man has most recently quoted for my edification.

But really, I don’t block my internet stalker because I’m compelled by my own shame. How much do I need to be liked? I do my best to avoid the black hole of this question: I don’t google myself. I don’t read the comments anymore. I read only the most professional reviews. But once the dark gravity of judgement has me in its grasp, once it’s in my inbox, I can’t look away. Fleetingly, it feels true that I should be tested. That in asking the world to consider my voice, I’ve invited the revelers to broadcast me theirs: You take in ideas like a tourist takes in a place. I think, therefore I’m accused. Shame and fear feel the same to me, a burning just under the breast bone, through the body to the bra strap. I became a writer because I’m interested in understanding. Can everything be understood? Am I cut out for a life of the mind?

Ich halte diese Gemeinheit Shakespeare’s und Balzac’s mit Mühe aus: ein Geruch von pöbelhaften Empfindungen, ein Cloaken-Gestank von Großstadt, kommt überall her zur Nase.” My internet stalker does his own translation work. “I endure the commonness of Shakespeare and Balzac with difficulty; a smell of uncouth perceptions, a stench of the populous city, reaches the nose from everywhere.” It’s Nietzsche. I nod my head to that ubermensch, so often misunderstood, so often summoned as a signpost to greatness, a confirmation for the confused or the despotic that some people are true, pure, gifted — and others are not. I wonder where my dog-eared, pencil-lined copy of Twilight of the Idols lives now — the only Nietzsche book I ever read thoroughly, given to me by the first young man I fell for because he loved ideas.


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Re: “commonness,” I respond in my head. I thought by now I’d have let go of the responsibility I feel to every man who shows me the cracks in his mind. The desire to heal. But your voice, dipping in and out of nonsense, drudges up that old impulse. Language binds because we fill its gaps with our own histories.

 

Re: “commonness…” Untyped. Unsent. I believe in truth. I believe some works of art are beautiful and others are not. I believe we succeed in some ways and we fail in others. I believe some ideas are immutable, like 1 and 1 being 2. Not everything is subjective. Some people are smarter than others. But given that our access to these evaluations is so imperfect, haunted as we are by the approval of our parents, our teachers, the first people we ever loved deeply, who ever hurt us irreparably, and the idols that light up their minds, given that we are so burdened, so muddled, so alone, and that the most sensitive among us may well be closest to the light, can’t we, at least, be nice?

 

***

A year after my book came out, the bar mitzvah boy emailed me again. This time he had read my book and he liked it. It feels like you’re writing my life. You’re a really good writer. Now I feel like a jerk for emailing you before. He apologized for reading my book in the library and not buying a copy. I told him libraries are important institutions. And also he should please get a minimum of five friends to all pay actual money for copies of my book. He told me my book inspired him to ask his grandmother questions about Poland, to write down her memories and the names of the streets in the Jewish ghetto where she lived, before it’s too late. This was the very thing I wanted my book to do to the kind of Jewish boy who emails an author without reading her book because he likes the way her hair curls. I want to meet a nice Jewish girl like you one day who can connect with me on these levels, he says, but all the Jewish girls I’ve met so far kinda suck. So he downloaded Jswipe.

Authors get intimate notes because our minds enter other people’s minds, our hearts their hearts. Lonely people want to tell us about it. If we feel safe, we respond. Maurice Sendak sent a drawing to a young fan. Thank you for corresponding with my son, the mother penpal-ed back. He liked your drawing so much he ate it.

Sometimes I think about what people are eating when they read my book. Which pages are stained with what kind of grease. I’ve found pictures on Instagram of my book posed with well-tossed salads, hanging out with other smiling books, or casually reclining on a stylish couch, pages fanned open seductively. My book has a range of intimate experiences without me. She is a concise portal to my inner life, a sliver of my consciousness lighting up somebody’s breakfast.

***

My internet stalker admits there are some matters we can agree upon. In a fit of pleasantness, he links to an image of mine he calls lovely. It’s a drawing from my book: a mother (mine) bends to kiss her child (me). Her eyes are closed, the child’s eyes wide open, expectant. The child holds herself at the ribs, as if she might fall apart, but her face is placid, soothed by the approval of an authority’s love. The mother says, I think you’ll be alright.

 

I remember my mother seated on a black couch, my bright blue book in her lap. She smoothed a hand over the soft cover. “It’s so well done,” she said. This comment seemed to come from the diaphragm, from that place where shame lives and dies. Beyond aesthetic judgments, contested memories, philosophical disputes, lives gratitude, a sigh of relief that sings: Thank you for caring about our lives.

Authors get intimate notes because our minds enter other people’s minds, our hearts their hearts. Lonely people want to tell us about it.

I search my inbox for hate. The first response I actually sent. Re: “hate mail,” I wrote. Be this hate mail or “hate mail,” it’s very disturbing… I hope you’ll end the practice here. The response that welcomed more. Too nice, too mild. I see it now: the curated attack. A lexical puzzle for the heady writer. Is it really hate if it’s scare-quoted? Is it really aggressive if it comes through a screen? Is it violence if it’s invisible? Is it really scary if I’m the only one who sees it?

I compose a second and last message to my internet stalker. This is harassment. Cease and desist… I send a draft to my boyfriend, then my friend. She and I edit the response together in our shared note, our merged external consciousness. We write clearly and directly, invoking authority in case the behavior finds its way to other inboxes. Meanwhile I receive three more emails from my internet stalker. I berate myself for wasting so much time composing an email to a person I want to disappear. Then I apologize to myself. I receive one more email from my internet stalker in the time it takes to copy and paste my note into an email and send it. I click block whip fast; life ticks back to normal. How easy it supposedly is to keep myself safe.

I became a writer because I notice too much, feel too much, need to share. The sensitive child’s survival turned career. I want to be a charitable writer, to see the world from beyond my tribal loyalties. I’m capable of being this kind of writer because I believe that everyone is fundamentally reasonable. How to stay charitable while staying safe? How to see the world clearly, openly, from behind the defenses I need to get through a woman’s life? Dear men on the internet who want something from me: I refuse to lose it — the part of me that’s accessible, that’s kind, the part of me that’s willing and able to understand the likes of you.

* * *

Amy Kurzweil is a New Yorker cartoonist and the author of Flying Couch: a graphic memoir. Her writing and comics have also appeared in The Believer Magazine, Catapult, Lenny Letter, The Toast and many other places.

Editor: Sari Botton