My Story Went Viral: What I Wish I’d Known First

May 31, 2022 § 13 Comments

By Diane Forman

I never expected my story to go viral. Over two million views on a widely read commercial site. 11.5K likes and emojis on Facebook. Over 2.2K comments. The piece was syndicated and posted on Yahoo, Singapore News and elsewhere. A friend saw it as a top trending news story on her phone. A viral piece and huge readership—just what I’d been striving for as a writer!

I was completely unprepared for the aftermath.

It had taken me several years to gather the courage to write about my daughter’s estrangement, and this was well after we were reconciled. Reconciling took a great deal of time, space, personal change and effort to break long-established patterns. I wrote the story as a commercial rather than literary piece, citing not only my own experience, but research on estrangement and shame. I ended with hope because fortunately, our story had a happy ending.

I pitched the piece for Mother’s Day, a difficult holiday for many, with a personal goal of offering hope to those suffering from estrangement. I’d spent several Mother’s Days alone and would have loved to read an aspirational story of reconciliation on that day. 

My story was accepted for publication rather quickly, and the editor was responsive and compassionate about the content. But when the proof arrived prior to publication, I was taken aback by the title, which shouted “clickbait!” Having mostly written for literary magazines, I’d seldom had a title chosen for me. Certain my daughter would balk, I e-mailed the editor and expressed concern. According to him and his team, readers decide whether or not to click on a story in under a second— they were sure the title was a win. Against my intuition and better judgment, I agreed. I’d never had a story run with the promise of so many readers, with so many potential likes and tweets.

The story ran on Mother’s Day, in a subsection of the main site. My bio linked my website, and within hours I had dozens of kind emails:

Your love and insight were inspiring…

Your words were a balm for my broken heart…

I thought I was the only one who had ever gone through this…

Thank you for your story of hope. I read it over and over again. 

Over the next day I received over 150 messages from both grieving mothers and estranged daughters. There was some criticism, but most comments were appreciative and thankful. A few asked for writing support or wanted to join one of my writing groups, an unexpected perk. Several people wrote tomes of their own painful experiences. Some asked for the names of therapists, or provided their phone numbers and asked me to call them, or pleaded for help in reconciling with their own estranged children. In no way was I prepared for those questions. I am a writer and teacher, not a therapist.

But then the story appeared on the publication’s main site and its Facebook page, and things got ugly.

I was already concerned about the title, including the words “Perfect Mother.” Any cursory reading of my piece would indicate I never believed I was. But readers bashed me for calling myself perfect. They labeled me dysfunctional or mentally ill. Some said I was entitled, a terrible mother, and it was no wonder my daughter left. Some called me a narcissist or pathetic or mewling. The amount of vitriol was astonishing. At first I didn’t let the comments bother me, but after a while, I had to stop reading. Over the next days, I was so overwhelmed by hundreds of messages from my website, from both desperate parents and bitter haters, that I had to temporarily shut down my site.

This was a very tender spot of my actual life that strangers on the internet were trashing.

Many publications, commercial and literary, can continue to repost our pieces on social media for more clicks, and I couldn’t bear more insults. I contacted the editor, asking if he would consider changing the title of my story and removing personal information from my bio. Fortunately, he agreed.

When I decided to publish this piece, I knew people would wonder about my daughter’s side of the story, which was a fair question. I anticipated some criticism of my acknowledged codependent parenting. But I never imagined that my personal story would go viral, and that thousands of strangers would assault my character and call me names for writing a piece I believed was honest, loving and hopeful.

Would I place a story like this again in this type of publication, even with a wonderful editor? While I can’t control a reader’s response, I will better trust my instincts and intuition. I’ll think more carefully about the potential readership. I will never again consent to a title that makes me uncomfortable. Despite the number of people who thanked me, felt less alone in their own situations, and reached out in numerous ways—fulfilling my goal—I’d consider all angles before doing it again. I was and am proud of the piece, and know my words were comforting and affirming to many, but the hateful comments didn’t just bounce off. Our stories are pieces of our hearts, and we have to think carefully about how, when, where and even if we want them in the world.

Diane Forman has published in Boston Globe Connections, Intima: a Journal of Narrative Medicine, WBUR Cognoscenti, and elsewhere. Diane lives, writes, and teaches north of Boston. See more at Twitter: @WriterForman

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§ 13 Responses to My Story Went Viral: What I Wish I’d Known First

  • THIS title is a click-bait.
    Anything on the Internet (and in the ‘real’ world) can be misconstrued. There will be some people who will like what you have to say and those that do not – no matter WHAT you say. I don’t have to go viral to know that. And if you mean the volume of negative comments – then of course it rises exponentially with the number of all comments, which is to be expected from having gone viral. But sometimes we have to live to learn what impact those things have on us directly.

  • What a disheartening experience, Diane. I’m so sorry you went through this, and appreciate you sharing this here so others are warned. I’m trying to prepare myself for personal attacks when my memoir is published next year. It’s good to know you can survive.

  • michelleredo says:

    Eek! Gosh, isn’t this just every nonfiction writer’s nightmare? The fear of “success” being just one in a list of reasons that can keep us from fully exploring our story. The risk of misunderstanding. The risk of a headline creating hatred obstructing the empathy spiral that can come from connecting with another soul, in another place, but in her own similar yet distinct narrative. This is truly a brave retelling of the very wise words to always follow your gut! Please, be gentle to yourself in the recovery!

  • Diane, I read your essay and was touched by your self-reflection and desire to reconcile with your daughter. I also saw some of those negative comments. They perplexed me. I could only assume one of two things about the commenters: either they had not read your essay in full and were simply (and cruelly) expressing a knee-jerk reaction to a phrase or sentence they didn’t like; or, they were “trolls,” people whose sole purpose in life is to express hatefulness and make other people as miserable as they are. I enjoyed reading your essay. It was very moving, and I am so glad you and your daughter have reconciled. Yes, the title was clickbait, but pretty much all titles are these days. It’s nothing to hold against you. I hope you continue to write about your relationship with your daughter. You are not a therapist, but you are a wonderful writer, and, as you now know, sharing your experience can be helpful for other mothers AND daughters. I’m not a mother, but I am a daughter and your essay has helped me in reflecting on my relationship with my mother.

  • Thanks so much for this. I went through a terrible period with my daughter, too, SO painful. She lives in California (I’m in NJ). I ended up hiring a family coach out there, flying out and meeting with her and my daughter at an airbnb for 8 days, 2 hours a day, and things have been great ever since! I also relate to being trolled (and misunderstood) over an essay I wrote about my relationship with her. Those unfair reactions you got say a lot about the people making them, not you. You took responsibility for your role in the relationship. Your piece was great.

  • camilla sanderson says:

    1) Thank you for two brilliantly written articles (I Googled and read your article that went viral) and thank you for your reflections on the results of an article going viral! The effect of your writing on me is to make me think about the evolution of human consciousness…and I applaud you for this too! 2) I wonder if this is simply a confirmation of the sentiment, “We don’t see others as they are, we see them as we are”? 3) For me, this story drives home an ancient spiritual principle we can practice as writers, which I learned from the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita: *remain detached from outcomes* 4) Our Buddhist monk neighbors across the road here talk of the Eight Worldly Winds, and how important it is to maintain equanimity and not be blown over by any of these winds: Pleasure and Pain, Gain and Loss, Praise and Blame, Fame and Shame. In this respect I would offer that your writing has been extremely successful in that it has made people stop and think and consider their own experience of that of which you write. Brava! 🙏💖🕊

  • camilla sanderson says:

    p.s. I would also offer that this topic is in the zeitgeist as is discussed extensively in Bethany Webster’s work and her book, Discovering the Inner Mother: A Guide to Healing the Mother Wound and Claiming Your Personal Power.

  • Sue Ferrera says:

    Thank you for your honesty and sharing important information for other writers.

  • Melody says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. Keep your head up, and your pen down.

  • Mick Guinn says:

    As a memoirist myself, this was a worthwhile read, Diane. Thank you for sharing your experience so others might learn from it and hopefully avoid the painful parts.

    It’s instructive (especially for those of us with less publishing experience) to be reminded you don’t always get to choose your title. I’ve heard that often in regards to journalism and the clever, catchy titles on the LA Times Sports page, but was unaware the same fate could befall personal essay.

    The internet these days seems to be the Eternal Now of the Winter of our Discontent.

    Ordinary, less-public people are now subject to the same slings and arrows fired at the rich, famous, and powerful. I’m not sure how we’ll ever fix that and create a kinder, warmer culture in the cold of cyberspace.

    But it sounds like your initial essay and this follow-up created more connection than not. Thank you again for that.

  • Lisa says:

    The hostile replies to your estrangement essay remind me of book challengers who haven’t read the book, but seem to have heard about a specific line from someone else who heard about a specific line, etc. Congrats on both pieces. Sending good wishes.

  • In personal essays we peel our souls. Usually, the essays go to readers who appreciate the honesty, the craft and the chance to share with the experience. Unfortunately, the wider clickbaity world doesn’t care about these qualities and just wants a quick and easy sneer. They won’t even care about it for long; they’re too selfish and uninterested in the human condition. So sorry to hear you went through this.I hope you don’t mind if I share on Twitter.

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