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Recently, I had a worrisome thought. After reading yet another tweet from a troll on the internet telling me to shut up and go away, I actually wondered: Wait a second. Are they right?
I’m Anna Maxymiw, a writer and an editor who works at Pagemasters North America, an editorial production company that provides services to The Globe and Mail. I was also a complainant in the case against Steven Galloway, a former professor at the University of British Columbia, that rocked the Canadian literary world and continues to create ripples as other institutions wrestle with their own systemic issues.
The investigation and the ensuing fallout across social media spurred many after-effects, but the biggest one I grappled with was doubt. Turns out that reading messages from people telling you to drop dead or that you deserve what you got or that you’re a stupid, lying, good-for-nothing woman does, in fact, make you doubt yourself.
Unfortunately, handling trolls seems to be a terrible rite of passage for women on the internet. In her book Shrewed, Globe writer Elizabeth Renzetti says that “you only have to be a woman with an opinion and a WiFi connection to understand precisely how annoying, damaging and enraging it is to live in the digital age. … For a not insignificant number of women … social media is a daily slog through a toxic swamp.” In the end notes of her book Sex Object, writer and journalist Jessica Valenti includes dozens of e-mails she received from trolls. Click the link with caution: It shows page after page of disgusting sentiment, filled with the worst things you could say to a woman, the tamest of which demand she “get back in the kitchen.”
The abuse gets even even more vile for women of colour. BuzzFeed writer and editor Scaachi Koul left Twitter in early 2016 after white men mobbed her when she asked for pitches from … anyone but white men.
Earlier this year, in the wake of the verdicts in Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine’s deaths, #settlercollector was created in order to help divert racist comments away from Indigenous people on social media: Someone getting harassed could use the hashtag, and settler allies would step in to debate and report the harasser. The vitriol directed toward Indigenous women, in particular, via that hashtag was repulsive. In June, actress Kelly Marie Tran, the first woman of colour to land a leading role in a Star Wars film, was chased off of social media by racist and sexist trolls who were intent on telling her how much they disliked her on-screen presence in The Last Jedi. (Her co-star, Daisy Ridley, had already quit social media because of comments she was receiving.)
In comparison to some of the racist malice I see directed at my peers, my trolls seem almost tame. “I will send your name, story and contact information with military precision to the many I know will be interested in the true life horror drama you unleashed. You deserve to be in prison,” one e-mail threatens. “[Your voice] does not need to be heard. Drop dead idiot,” another says. If I ever want to renew any doubt in myself, I just need to read these e-mails, look at comments on any piece written about the UBC investigation, or flick through particular hashtags on Twitter.
But I want a long career of writing, of existing. So here’s how I learned to cope with the hatred: I looked to other women in my field, other women on the internet who I admired and followed their lead. Koul came back to Twitter; she turned her experience into a powerful chapter in her book, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter. Last month, Globe journalist Marsha Lederman defended her reporting on the UBC case in response to a Twitter troll, and I silently fist-pumped. And Tran wrote a scathing op-ed in The New York Times about her experience: “I had been brainwashed into believing that my existence was limited to the boundaries of another person’s approval,” she said. “I am not giving up. … I am just getting started.” These women might doubt themselves at times, but they mute that voice in their head (and probably mute lots of people on Twitter, too). In continuing to make their presence known, they prop up all of us who also feel the same way about ourselves.
One of my more recent pieces of hate mail says: “Will you ever go away? A fragile victim, with an ego and mouth that won't stop. Please, leave us alone.”
To which I answer: I am not giving up. I am just getting started.
What else we’re reading:
I really like Rebecca von Hoff’s piece in The Globe about motherhood and fly fishing. Angling is a world that can feel inhospitable to women, let alone mothers, so to read about how her “life feels incomplete without time on the water” was bolstering. I’m really looking forward to more female voices joining the discussion on fishing, because I also know what it’s like to be one of a few women out on the lake. So Rebecca’s piece dovetails nicely with what I’m also reading: the final proofs for my memoir, Dirty Work, out May 7. It’s about working as a housekeeper at a remote fly-in fishing lodge in Northern Ontario, and explores subjects such as catching your first pike, cleaning up after men and what it’s like to spend a summer in the boreal forest.
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