This vast numbness. Staring out the window of my office. Seeing nothing. Thinking nothing. Trying to resist pouring wine so early in the day, which has become my habit over the months of hard writing. Drinking and crying—especially towards the end. By then, the build-up was intolerable.
Sometimes my husband would find a glass tainted deep red as he stacked the dishwasher in the late afternoon. He’d frown: ‘Have you been drinking?’
‘No,’ I’d say, although this is clearly untrue. In response he didn’t say anything. There was no point. The situation was too fragile and he knew that.
On the day I finally submitted the first draft of my non-fiction book, Troll Hunting, to the publisher my mother called: ‘What a relief! You must be so thrilled.’
‘It nearly cracked me in half,’ I replied with a flat voice. My mother changed the subject.
Trying to understand this lethargy, this peculiarity, I scan my past for something that might match. Something that mirrors the apathy and unwillingness to do anything apart from aimlessly scanning Facebook. Lying in bed staring at the ceiling fan turning.
The only thing that comes to mind is sitting with my father’s wasted body the day after he died of cancer. My sister, Kate, put a heavy, carved stone heart into his stiff claw-like hand and he held it still in death.
The sense of relief that he wasn’t suffering anymore—followed by the exhaustion of grief and the dark cloud that became his absence. The book is like this. Just a tired emptiness. A loss.
In high contrast to my learned and steady father, my book about predator trolling was like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. As I wrote in its early pages, I’d been talking to trolls for a long time. People even called me a ‘cyberhate expert’. But as I sat down to write those 100,000 words, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And those things I didn’t know—dark, miserable and unrelating—shredded me as a person and writer.
The book opens with a troll. His name is William Atchison. At 21-years-old he gunned two people down at his former high school in Aztec, New Mexico, and then shot himself. He wanted to kill more people but didn’t manage it. The local police told the press they had no idea of his plans. But in fact, his misery and his desire to kill was plastered all over the internet for anyone to find. If they were looking. Which they weren’t.
Start as you mean to go on. Isn’t that the saying? My book does go on like this. On and on in layers of misery that are largely ignored by the community. Those young men so angry and so full of hate. They hurt us. They hurt me. The writing hurts me.
Over the year Troll Hunting took to spawn, sleeping pills did not keep me asleep. I woke up at 2am nearly every night. Sometimes I was already crying. My dreams were strange. The bodies of all the dead people I’d been writing about during the day would be littered along a dark road in those free form night-time imaginings, only their outlines visible: TV personality, Charlotte Dawson. Hacker and troll, Jaime Cochran. Hacker, troll and terrorist Junaid Hussain. High school shooter and troll, William Atchison. Paralegal, civil rights activist and victim of the Charlottesville riots, Heather Heyer. Threat analyst and hacker Adrian Lamo. They all die again in the pages of my book.
Yet in their interviews with me, I’d hear the trolls telling me over and over: Words on the internet never hurt anyone.
Yes. Maybe it’s more convenient for all of us to believe the age-old saying: Sticks and stones will break my bones but words with never hurt me.
That way we’re less afraid. The truth though, is the opposite of this. And it soaks into every pore the deeper I get into this mess. Words are where violence starts.
As psychology researcher Allison Skinner notes in an article on The Conversation website, multiple academic studies show dehumanisation is ‘associated with an increased willingness to perpetrate violence.’
‘At its most extreme, dehumanising messages and propaganda can facilitate support for war and genocide,’ Skinner writes. ‘It’s long been used to justify violence and destruction of minorities.’
Case in point. Alarmed at the rhetoric coming from a far-right conference of white nationalists, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum released a statement in 2016 which said in part: ‘The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words.’
We use words because they have power. We use words in love and in hate. Although they might disingenuously say otherwise, predator trolls use them to cause real-life harm. They try to incite people to suicide. They get people fired from their jobs. One of the trolls claimed credit—with some justification—for inciting an act of terrorism in Garland, Texas in May 2015. Two people were shot dead.
Even right now, in the face of this tsunami of hate, I’m using words to try and unravel some of that damage; or in an attempt to stop them happening in the future.
When you are falling, the people around you try and help. They call and message and send you things. One of my oldest friends, Laura, sends me a book. It’s called Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal by the British author Jeanette Winterson. It’s a gloriously written work about a terrible childhood—and the lifelong search for happiness. Beauty and destruction and madness.
Still. At first, I can’t understand why Laura has sent it. Then I find a sentence which jumps off the page and ends up inside me, making my heart race:
It took me a long time to realise that there are two kinds of writing; the one you write and the one that writes you. The one that writes you is dangerous. You go where you don’t want to go. You look where you don’t want to look.
Yes. This is the horror of the book I’ve just written. I looked in all those terrible places and in fact, the book wrote me. It brought me face to face with myself. Facing not just the trolls, but demons of my own, too. White women are cancer, the trolls told me. Oh they hate women. They hate feminists and Jews and people in mixed race marriages. The irony is not lost on me. I’m their perfect hate match. (I’ve even had cancer myself.)
After the book, a kind of paralysis sets in. It’s hard to face the world. Get out of bed. Get my kids to school. Smile at the other parents at drop off time. Sometimes I go back to bed afterwards.
A writer friend, Melanie Tait, sends me the link to a podcast. It’s the Australian writer Richard Flanagan talking to the BBC about his searing book, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The prize-winning novel is a fictional account of Australian prisoners of war working, and dying, on the Burma Railway in August 1943.
‘When the book was done, it’s not that I had to wrest myself out of an imaginary world. It’s just that I felt an emptiness take hold of me like I’d never felt and I could do nothing for about three months.
‘And I just sat by the fire. I didn’t even read. I felt just a terrible emptiness….And at the end of it, I realised I understood nothing, nothing at all. I think what I find as I write each book, at the end of it is I feel a little less,’ Flanagan says.
How did Melanie know? It’s like he took the inside of me and held a mirror up to reflect the nothingness. The indescribable thing that writing about this world of violence and hatred and relentless misogyny and white supremacy has taken from me.
‘The world is unfair, unjust, unknowable, out of control,’ Winterson writes in a kind of strange echo. She writes that although we may tell a story to exercise control, stories are only ‘compensatory’ and offer a version but ‘never the final one.’ This rejection of certainty—or perhaps more accurately, confirmation of ambiguity—suits me just fine. It’s a relief. The stories my book tells are not immutable. Neither am I.
Dr Cait McMahon is Managing Director of Dart Centre for Trauma and Journalism, Asia Pacific. She’s believed to be the only psychologist in the world to be working full-time on the area of journalism and trauma.
As a rule, McMahon says journalists are resilient. However, she also knows that inevitably there are ‘moments where this gets worn away’.
‘We know through research, and lived experience that exposure to traumatic content, direct harassment, violence, human depravity and feeling under threat can have serious mental health consequences. If you are exposed to that repeatedly the accumulative trauma can have a corrosive effect,’ she tells me.
McMahon notes that my experience isn’t unusual. When I ask other writers whether they too have been through this, a surprising number say ‘yes.’
Kerri Sackville is a newspaper columnist and the author of three books of personal non-fiction. Her latest book was about dating in midlife and she told me to her, publishing it ‘felt profoundly exposing’.
‘I believe that to write effective personal non-fiction (memoir) you have to write the full truth as though no-one is going to read it, and then edit back later to protect yourself and others.
‘Even though the book is quite light, there is so much pain in it. I had to rigorously examine myself and my mistakes and my humiliations and heartbreaks and it just completely exhausted me. By the end I thought I would never be able to write another word about dating. Or another word. I was utterly drained,’ Sackville says.
McMahon points out that most research examines the impact of the traumatic event or events on the journalist/reporter/writer. It doesn’t go in the other direction. ‘We have not examined enough the impact of the actual experience of writing such stories on the author,’ she says.
What’s also clear me in researching this essay is that it’s not just writers of non-fiction who are impacted by their writing work. Just as Richard Flanagan expressed, fiction writers can experience trauma as a result of their work too. McMahon is not surprised by this. She explains that fiction can offer a kind of simulation of the real world. ‘When someone reads, or watches on screen, a fictional bush fire and people fleeing in terror the reader experiences real fear in themselves despite the abstraction,’ McMahon explains, and ‘it stands to reason that to create that type of reaction in the reader, the author first must find that experience of fear or terror in themselves to be able to create that simulation. The portrayal may be fictional but the human feeling that has created the abstraction is real.’
McMahon goes on to say that ‘…there needs to be a period of recovery after such immersive work, fiction or non-fiction.’ A person ‘may need to recalibrate…which could possibly emerge as an emptiness, a type of depression, or a “weirdness.”‘
At this point, I’m nodding my head furiously; yet still wondering how I could have done things differently. How could I have been more careful and not paid such a big price for diving into the writing of my book in such a deep and open-hearted way?
Consequently, I ask Dr McMahon: How do we balance being empathetic with not getting emotionally damaged?
‘This is an interesting question for all reporters of human experience, fact or fiction. You must become empathic to be able to understand the other experience and to report on it.
‘However, there is a lot of space between being empathic and being emotionally damaged. In that space is emotional literacy: understanding your own emotional experience, reflection, knowing your own limits and boundaries, self-care, mentorship, and basic knowledge of the impacts of stress and trauma on our physical, emotional, behavioural and existential selves. This will be different for each person [but] having a plan that includes these strategies before beginning the empathic work is important,’ she says.
For my part, McMahon refers me to a psychiatrist who specialises in post-trauma intervention for journalists. It’s a relief because by now, I can see there’s no getting out of this alone.
The psychiatrist tells me that just like police and emergency services personnel, journalists are a ‘high risk’ category for trauma; my PTSD is substantial. Beyond Blue’s website describes PTSD—or post-traumatic stress disorder—as ‘a particular set of reactions that can develop in people who have been through a traumatic event which threatened their life or safety, or that of others around them.’
Reading this definition jolts me right back to the start of my journey into cyberhate and its real-life consequences. June 2013. Predator trolls threatened me and my family as a result of a story I’d written and broadcast on ABC radio. I remember lying in bed late at night alongside my husband as the torrents of online hate poured in. We got a death threat and lay awake with cold fear. Were our two little girls going to come to harm because of my work as a journalist?
Knowing that journalists are practical and that they—we—want the tools to shift things forward and get on with reporting and with life, the psychiatrist starts rapid work on giving me strategies to cope; she wants me to know that you can get better from this.
Given how you’re feeling, she asks, why do you want to publicise your book? What is your goal?
Her question sharply focuses my blurry mind. It’s so important to me to change the conversation about cyberhate and predator trolling. Stop all those people coming to harm. That’s the ball I have to keep my eye on in all of this mess. Despite this beast on my back, I have to be ready to face the media in a few months’ time when the book is launched. I will use words. I’ll get up off the floor and fight this fight.
Ginger Gorman is a social justice journalist and author of Troll Hunting: Inside the world of online hate and its human fallout.