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October 3, 2014 | Nonfiction

An Open Letter to the Internet

Elizabeth Ellen

An Open Letter to the Internet photo

I never wanted to be an essayist. I remember Blake Butler asking me to contribute to HTML GIANT years ago. Roxane Gay asking me to send her essays for The Rumpus. I greatly appreciated the interest, the asking, but essays weren’t my thing. I didn’t feel political. I didn’t want to be known for my opinions or to think of my opinions as something other people should read or take note of or care about. Maybe I wanted more privacy. Maybe I was worried I’d start to take my opinions too seriously. Or that I’d focus on nonfiction to the detriment of my fiction.

So here I am writing an essay I both don’t want to write and feel compelled to write above doing anything else right now because no one else is writing it.

I am scared to death, I’ll tell you that.

People who care about me have urged me not to write this.

“People already have their opinions formed.”

“It’s too soon.”

“People will hate you.”

Everyone is scared. But not everyone is of one mind. I’m not even of one mind. My thoughts are scattered and varying and there is so much grey area. I don’t know if anything I am about to say is “right.” But something needs to be said. And I can’t allow my fear to guide me any longer. I have written an essay each of the previous two evenings and chickened out on posting them each of the following mornings.

[I am thinking right now of the studies that show that female students raise their hands in class with the same frequency as male students until they enter puberty and then females begin second-guessing themselves, only raising their hands if they are a hundred percent certain they have the right answer…]

I am not certain I have the right answer.

I am certain I don’t. Nor am I practiced at the art of essay writing. I don’t have the proper terminology at my grasp. I am ineloquent. Enough excuses.

Let’s stop being scared.

When I sent the first essay to a female friend of mine she said, “You can’t say this. You’re blaming the victim if you say this.”

But those are not my guidelines. I did not agree to that. I am a woman, too. I am capable of deciding for myself. Of setting my own guidelines for myself.

(Do you want women to speak their minds or don’t you? Or do you only want a woman to speak her mind when it gels with what you’re saying? When it supports your argument?)

I was raised in the ‘70s by a young, single mother who marched for women’s rights, had books by Gloria Steinem and Anais Nin and Virginia Woolf on our shelves, and who wrote poems ‘in defense of Yoko Ono.’ She also often worked two jobs at once. Still, she took the time to assign me books she thought were important for me to read. The Color Purple. The Good Earth. One by Herman Hesse, I’m blanking on; maybe Siddhartha. I remember her handing me ‘Lust’ by Susan Minot in (I believe) The Paris Review as a teenager to read. She was also married (and divorced) three times by the time I was ten or eleven (she had me when she was 19). She was also a victim of domestic violence. She was also arrested for domestic violence. Okay, so she’s not perfect. None of us are (getting to my own imperfections soon). But she taught me to think for myself and to stand up for myself. She showed me what a strong, independent woman is. She told me to be unafraid.

So today when I felt insane reading some of what is out there on the Internet, I turned to my mother (something I do all too infrequently as an adult, unfortunately). I wanted a woman from another generation’s perspective, specifically, a woman who had marched for women’s rights and considers herself a feminist. I sent her the Gawker piece and asked for her opinion without stating my own. I left the house for a couple hours. When I got back there was a reply from her stating almost verbatim my thoughts on the matter:

“So I read what you forwarded me. my thoughts? Hummm. I wouldn’t call it rape. The Sophia female clearly tried to dissuade him but didn’t say no, didn’t get up and go in the other room, didn’t stop what was going on. I think we’ve all been in situations where we had sex that we really didn’t want to have as we didn’t want to ‘rock the boat’ or didn’t have the nerve to say no and just wanted to get it over with. Who knows what he would have done if she simply said, listen stan, I’m not doing this.

"I know it took me some time to be able to say no in weird situations and have it turn out ok. I’ve slept with guys in the same bed without having sex and we remained friends. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had sex and got the hell out and said to myself, thank god that’s as bad as it got.

"Maybe the guy’s a scumbag as some of them say, but I wouldn’t call him a rapist.

"I think the Sophia character hasn’t taken responsibility for her part in the scenario. It’s almost like entrapment on one level: she stayed with him several days, had sex with him, never said I hate this or don’t do this, then turns around and writes a damning story about it. So he’s a jerk who used his position to press females into sex with him, yes. He admits as much. People will do what they can get away with. I didn’t get that he had any malice. And he obviously has no charm and ability to woo a woman. Sounds like a very young immature guy who capitalized on his literary position. But not a rapist.

"And I do have problems with women who won’t take responsibility for their actions. Was he supposed to read her mind? No means no but you have to say it. And she obviously was using him for a place to stay, for access to a writing venue?? I don’t know. So she didn’t want to jeopardize getting what she wanted; hence she waited until later to decry the situation. In essence she gave sex in exchange for whatever it was she was there to get.

"You’re right, it’s delicate.

"And I like your thoughts at the end of the email, that it’s a sad thing. You can express yourself. Just remember, not everyone is going to love you, so you have to either say what you mean so you can live with it, or not say anything. I guess that would be my advice.”

This is almost as much as I want to say about that case. Except to say that rape is not a word I throw around casually. It is an extremely damning word and should be treated as such. When the decision was made to make this story public, we all became members of a jury. So I get to say my opinion, too. I echo my mother’s words: maybe the guy’s a scumbag, but I wouldn’t call him a rapist.

And, yes, there is a goddamn difference.

To publicly humiliate and shun and incriminate someone to the point his career and public life is over, you better have more evidence than this.

And you can say I’m shaming the victim. But I say you’re wrong. I am saying there are two victims in the above story. And you’re shaming one and not the other. I’m saying you can’t have it both ways. You can’t hold one accountable and not the other.

(And if you want to know, I met Stephen once. I was predisposed not to like him because he had rejected me twice from Pop Serial. But he was okay. He was fine. I’m not going to sit here now and say, “I always knew he was creepy.” Or “I knew he was doing bad things.” Because the logical next question is, if you knew, why didn’t you do something? (and, no, I didn’t actually know. I am making a point based on comments I have seen others make on the Internet))

Now let’s talk about what I maybe found most enraging (as opposed to sad or painful; don’t (purposefully) misunderstand me) in this whole shameful/shame-filled debacle this week.

It was a comment (I believe) linked to or copied into the Gawker article in which someone on a social media site said something like, “Another white male editor down. Yay! Female empowerment!”

If this is anyone’s idea of gaining female empowerment, count me out. If celebrating the ruining of another person’s life is cause for celebration, I don’t want any part of it.

But guess what. It’s really not that hard to start a literary journal. Pop Serial wasn’t that big of a deal. Shabby Doll House and Illuminati Girl Gang are just as good; no, are better.

But what are we talking about? Are we talking about rape or are we talking about the disparity of males to females in the literary community?

In the same Gawker article the author named several male writers and editors in our community to make a point, I guess, that it is run by men? But as off topic as that comment is, it’s not even true. It was a slanting to prove a point (what point I’m not sure). And just as many recent articles (not on Gawker) have pointed to the women starting/running/editing literary journals currently/in the recent past: Sarah Jean Alexander, Gabby Bess, LK Shaw, Roxane Gay, me.

And it’s really not that hard to make a name for yourself in the literary world in the traditional manner: writing for years in your bedroom anywhere other than New York City or Brooklyn, having your work rejected for many of those years, sometimes accepted, getting to know other writers and editors little by little over the period of a decade.

Oh wait. I guess that is hard.

But you know what. It’s what Roxane and Tao and Blake and Chelsea and I all did.

(If you’re nineteen or twenty (or any age, really, but this seems to be the age of the people who do this), stop emailing me asking how you can get Mira or Tao to read your shit or follow you on Twitter. Write something decent. And don’t send me a shittily written story about abuse. The fact that it’s about abuse is not enough to warrant publication in a literary journal or on a literary website (imo). Ditto: cancer story. Ditto: anything story. The writing comes first. I’m sorry if this is offensive to you. But someone should tell you before you turn twenty-one (or whatever age you are, again, a generalization. I know quite a few twenty-one year olds who write circles around me: hello, Mira). You’re going to have to work a little harder.)

I’m getting off topic, but that’s because these articles have all been so off topic.

I want to get to my imperfections.

(Well, I don’t want to, but we need to; I need to.)

When I was a young person I coerced three children younger than myself into open-mouthed kissing; a boy and two girls, one of which was my half-sister (though we were not raised in the same household or even the same state). Granted, I was, to the best of my knowledge/memory, nine or ten and the children were all about three or four years younger than I was. I know you’re going to say this doesn’t count. But think of finding me in your five year old’s bed. Think of my grandmother finding me on top of my sister in hers. I was shunned. Rightfully so, I thought. Separated from my sister (I was never caught in the other two cases and in none of the cases was clothing removed). I remember being sent down to the swimming pool (who knows the logic behind this) while my grandmother comforted (?) or talked to my sister. I remember feeling like a monster. Ashamed. Crying alone in the water (in my memory it was evening, dinner time; maybe there were other people but in my memory I am alone). I don’t remember if this was the last time it happened (I know the incidents all occurred that one year). I don’t remember being molested myself (that is the logical next thought, I realize). I don’t know why I did it. I still don’t understand why. (My sister and I don’t talk. I never see her. I don’t know if this is based on what happened then or if this is based on any number of other reasons why half-siblings or any siblings may or may not talk as adults. I have often wondered how much or if she remembers; if it was a traumatic experience for her. I have never asked. I haven't seen her since our father died nineteen years ago.)

I think it is important to tell you this because I think it is important for us all to remember our faults and those things we are most ashamed of.

Recently, a friend of mine came to me distraught, in tears, asked if she could confide in me. (She isn’t writer or a member of the literary community.) It was something about one of her children. Something one of them had done. The now-grown child was facing prison time. My friend told me I was the only person outside their immediate family she felt comfortable telling because she knew I wouldn’t judge her child.

Later, in the same evening, she told me that when I had broken up with a boyfriend, “I hated you. I could show you the messages I wrote [name of boyfriend]. I still have them.”

My friend failed to see the irony, I guess.

Of valuing me as a friend who wouldn’t judge her son for his crimes but not affording me the same courtesy.

Needless to say I had no interest in seeing the messages she wrote in defense of my boyfriend or accusatorily of me.

(And I want to return here to Sophia. I would never judge her, nor would my mother, were we not being asked (by Sophia? By ‘the public’?) to judge the entire situation.)

So let’s get to Tao Lin.

Where do we start?

Do we start with age of consent laws? Because they are constantly changing, from culture to culture and decade to decade. (Is this really what you’re concerned with, though? The law? Or is it something else and you’re using the law as any easy way of attack?) I have actually researched them a bit over the years for a novel I am writing. I find the frequency and range with which they fluctuate from country to country and time period to time period highly fascinating and often without reason and staggering. I also find it completely sexist. There is almost no law regarding males and age of consent. At least there weren’t until very, very recently. (Why would we need one?  If it’s sex, a male is consenting to it! And herein may lay the true basis for everything being yelled about this week. The fact that we women are still made to feel bad about sex. ‘Casual sex’ especially. We still feel the need, a lot of the time, to justify why we engaged in it… this is a discussion I would love to see more of; how we raise girls STILL to save their virginity or to wait until they’re in a ‘committed relationship’ but encourage boys to have sex whenever/wherever; and, yes, as the mother of an eighteen year old female, I watched this happen in other families with great frequency just a couple years ago. It was jaw-dropping, the hypocrisy of liberal, educated parents, in the way they parented teenage sons vs teenage daughters.)

When I was seventeen I spent a summer dating my best friend’s brother’s best friend, a twenty-four year old I desperately wanted to lose my virginity to. He was a musician, good looking, cool, sweet. But the age difference freaked him out. He was afraid of the laws or my mother... So he broke up with me at the end of the summer, broke my heart (my first experience with heartbreak!), and I ended up losing my virginity to a clumsy guy my own age at a party over Christmas break, in someone else’s bedroom, the act in no way romantic. Oh, how I would have preferred my twenty-four year old!

It was not at all uncommon for friends of mine (females) to date older boys/men. I would say four years was the average age gap (the male always older).

Which is all to say, I don’t think age is the real issue here. When it comes to Tao Lin.

BUT get it straight: to the best of my knowledge, based on public statements, you are accusing him of ‘statutory rape.’ AND YES THERE IS A DIFFERENCE. Because as stated above, laws change from year to year. It’s a matter of politics, not (necessarily) a matter of morality.

And thus, half my friend’s boyfriends could have been accused of the same: ‘statutory rape.’

But again, I don’t buy that this is what the hysteria is about.

I think the hysteria is a) getting caught up in the whirlwind of ‘taking down’ male writers/editors b) a mistaken belief that this (these takedowns) is equal to female empowerment c) the tweets of E. R. Kennedy.

So let’s talk about E. R. Kennedy.

I know very little about E. R. Kennedy (to be truthful, I don’t even know whether to refer to E. R. Kennedy as a him or a her and I am not trying to be disrespectful I just literally don’t know; have heard only rumors and don’t want to go by rumors when addressing the gender of a person).

I, like you, probably, ‘know’ what I read in Richard Yates, a work of fiction.

But let’s make that point: what E. R. Kennedy has stated in recent days does not vary greatly (or at all?) from what Tao Lin wrote of a fictional relationship in a novel.

And let’s be honest. Most of us who read Richard Yates knew who it was based on. Some of us (not me) even met the person in question.

So that it comes to anyone as a surprise, these allegations, baffles my mind.

Up until last week, almost every person making negative comments on the Internet with regard to Tao Lin had all the knowledge (or most of it) we have today and still (I am betting) would have been or was ‘stoked’ if given the opportunity to hang out with Tao or be retweeted by Tao or go to a reading by Tao.

So don’t be so fake.

I’ll say I remember reading Richard Yates and Taipei and being impressed with the writing but thinking, probably saying, “God, I’d never want to date Tao Lin.”

I mean, yes, he comes off, in those fictional books, as controlling and nitpicking and manipulating and even occasionally cruel.

But that doesn’t make him a rapist.

And since when is emotional abuse grounds for public shunning? Because, let me say this, I know very few people who haven’t at one time (or plenty of times) been guilty of emotionally abusing someone, myself included (just ask my friend; she’ll show you the messages she sent my boyfriend in support of him when she ‘hated’ me).

Should we have a public shunning a week?

I mean, we’re having one a day currently…

Everything I can think to say regarding E. R. Kennedy feels…condescending or pitying or…I don’t know. I believe E. R. Kennedy. Tao believes E. R. Kennedy (to the best of my knowledge). Tao was a shitty boyfriend; at times he may have been, almost assuredly was, emotionally abusive.  But I believe the ages of each person involved played almost no role in what happened or a very small role. (This is an outsider’s opinion, as are all of our opinions, excluding Tao’s and E. R. Kennedy’s.)

When I was twenty-five, I married an eighteen year old. I never thought of our age difference at the time. When we met we thought we were the same age (I don’t know which age that was, just that we didn’t think it was different or we never stopped to ask until we were in love and then we didn’t care and this all happened in the matter of days). (It’s only now interesting to me that I was seven years older than he was, that he was eighteen. There was so much more interesting about him and our relationship then to think about something like age.) A year after we married he had his first psychotic break. He was hospitalized a month. I remember my father-in-law making some ‘passing comment’ to me in the E.R. about my husband having told him about some guy I’d flirted with months before, seeming to infer something, I wasn’t quite sure what, this ‘flirting’ being the root of my husband’s breakdown, maybe? I remember saying, “But nothing happened. I barely even talked to the guy.” And my father-in-law saying, “But perception is reality.” I thought about that for years. But I think my father-in-law’s perception of the situation was that something about my marrying his son had caused his son’s breakdown.

Ugh. I’m losing my train of thought. Or what I am trying to say.

This is way more complicated, all of this (not just Tao Lin and E. R. Kennedy but all of it), than any article I have read so far even comes close to saying.

Let me get back to my personal experience with Tao, as everyone seems to be sharing his/hers.

I started publishing online shortly (very shortly) before him (to the best of my knowledge). We emailed a handful of times over the first six or seven years I knew him or knew of him. I met him very briefly in 2010 at a reading. And then I met him again last year, spent a few hours with him, just talking in his room (with another female writer). Since these things seem important to know currently: I found him charming, soft-spoken, funny, sometimes infuriating in the way someone who is stoned and also has tendencies to be controlling can be infuriating. Overall we had a nice, fun evening. He never once has struck me as ‘creepy.’ He has never been anything but polite and nice to me. I would say our friendship is based on two things: writing and animals, as we both have a great interest in both.

But none of this really matters, does it.

And it probably isn’t all that interesting to you because it’s not salacious. It doesn’t support the theory of Tao being a monster. Because he’s not one. Not more than I am a monster, anyway. Probably not more than you are either, if you sit with yourself long enough alone in a room and think for five minutes (or two seconds).

I think ultimately, the problem I have had this week with the way things have been handled is the lack of humanity that has been shown throughout.

I have viewed rage.

I have viewed one-sided compassion.

I have yet to view true empathy.

For every human being involved.

Even if we agreed that every man we know is a rapist, is this how we should handle that knowledge? With public shunning and the dehumanization of them? Has this sort of behavior or tactic ever worked in the past with anything? Has it ever brought healing or people together or educated people or elicited true change or positive outcomes?

Did we learn nothing from the public witch trials?

Aside from scaring the shit out of people to the point they are afraid to voice a dissenting opinion?

As the child of a single mother, as the mother of an eighteen year old daughter, as a publisher of strong female voices (and some male ones too), I think I have made my case my entire lifetime as being a supporter and champion of women.

There is nothing I want more in this world than to see strong, independent women (especially young women) work for and achieve their dreams, to be successful and self-confident and self-sufficient and healthy. And I am a hundred percent behind helping them work toward their goals.

But not this way.

Not like this.

And one last thing: I refuse to be afraid of my fellow women. Of entering into a discourse with them for fear I will say something they don’t like. That’s not what our moms marched for. It’s certainly not what mine marched for. Let’s remember this.

image: Tammy Mercure