Troll Pox

December 3, 2018 § 48 Comments

gritzBy Ona Gritz

When I was four years old I caught a case of chickenpox that had been making the rounds in my neighborhood. My mother’s reaction to those first telltale spots was to say, “Uh-oh…” but I felt delighted. My big sister had just gotten over the virus, and a few of my older friends—kids already in school!—had had it too. I was, of course, unfamiliar with the phrase rite of passage, but I recognized one when it spread across my skin in a connect-the-ots rash.

“I can’t come out to play,” I yelled from my window when my recently recovered upstairs neighbor happened by, pushing a doll carriage. “I’ve got chicken box now.”

One morning, fifty years later, I checked my email and discovered I’d been contacted by a troll. He had read an essay of mine about marriage and disability that I’d had the good fortune of publishing in a national newspaper—a first for me. “I think your article got way more praise than it deserved,” he wrote, “so I critiqued it here.”

Staring at the link he’d provided, I felt only the slightest temptation to click on it. I’d received lovely responses to that essay from good friends, strangers, and even a few writers I admired. Did I really need to know what this one disgruntled reader thought? I moved his message to the trash.

That was the end of it. Except it wasn’t. I wondered about this stranger who, for whatever reason, felt compelled to tear me down. It was disturbing but also oddly flattering. The next morning, I posted about it on the wall of an online writers’ support group. Even as I clicked the share button, I recognized my four-year-old self, calling proudly out the window about my chickenpox. I’d gotten trolled just like writers in the big league do. I wanted people to know.

Members of the group quickly jumped to my defense, as I knew they would.

Gross. Delete and move on!!!

How wonderful that your piece made him think?

Love your haters. They’re your biggest fans.

Later, I tried to recall the first time I’d read an online essay and noticed a rash of vitriol in the comments section. Five years before? Ten? I remembered feeling shocked and also queasy. What was it, I’d wondered, about this author’s writing that made people want to hurt her? The answer, I now knew, was quite likely nothing in particular. Anonymity together with access to a very public platform is a potent combination. Hating had become a thing.

Is this really who we are, I’ve asked myself since then, whenever I make the mistake of browsing the comments section of nearly any online essay. Are most people fuming, jealous, and condemnatory at their core? Inevitably, I had to ask an even tougher question. Am I?

The answer is no, but unfortunately it is also yes.

I’m almost unfailingly kind to people. As a writer, I have no trouble genuinely celebrating the successes of my peers. Where I falter is in the private recesses of my brain. A city dweller, I’ve spend many hours of my life on public transportation, and that’s usually where I hear it—the bitchy, judgy nattering that passes for idle thought.

Do you think we’re in your living room? I silently ask the woman fighting with the person on the other end of her cell phone.

How many times can you use the word like in one sentence? I imagine saying to the teenager chatting with friends in the seat behind mine.

Perhaps worst of all, I catch myself thinking something along the lines of, Are you really wearing those shoes with that outfit? As though I’m some kind of fashionista, which, believe me, I’m not

I don’t know why I have such a vocal inner troll, though I suspect it mostly points to my own insecurities. Whatever the cause, once I noticed the tendency, I worked to counter it by consciously making positive observations as I passed through crowds in my travels. Such soulful eyes. What an infectious laugh. And, yes, Nice shoes!

Not unsurprisingly, I got waylaid on my road to recovery during the 2016 election season. When, along with pollsters and nearly everyone I knew, I felt confident Hillary would win, I took pleasure in watching her opponent prove himself to be a bumbling, lying, hate-filled, scandal-ridden, racist, ablest, xenophobic, sexist buffoon. (Truth be told, I’ve taken genuine pleasure in lining up those adjectives just now.) “We’re so much better than this,” I scoffed, even as I relished the taste of disgust like a SweeTart on my tongue.

Certain his presence on our airwaves and in our consciousness had an expiration date, I allowed myself this relapse. But now that this bombastic hater actually holds the most venerated office in our nation, I’ve come to see kindness as a crucial act of resistance.

Meanness, after all, really is a virus. Once airborne, it quickly spreads. And if the Troll-in-Chief can be said to have any genius at all, it’s that he knows just how to spread that particular germ. We either rage along with him or rage at him. This may fuel us, but it in no way nourishes us. Compassion does that, as does community, as does sharing our stories. This, of course, is where we writers come in.

These days, there’s a vaccine for chickenpox, which is to say we can put a little of the illness into our bodies and it will protect us. Not so with hate. But what we can do—particularly those of us whose work involves sharing our experiences, ideas, and discoveries on the page—is make sure hate never has the last word.

Ona Gritz’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Utne Reader, MORE magazine, and elsewhere. “It’s Time,” which appeared in The Rumpus, was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. Her books include the memoir On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability, and the poetry collections Geode and Border Songs: A Conversation in Poems, written with my husband, Daniel Simpson.

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