About that viral essay
As it turns out, many of you do care.
A confluence of events led to my publishing that essay. The previous week I’d heard that one of my former colleagues from a different magazine had been fired from The Atlantic. She was my idol. She’d once written fearlessly about her 3 abortions. When I worked with her at Elle she would always include everyone in ideas meetings, and if someone had an idea, no matter who they were, from the most junior editorial assistant to the researchers, she’d champion them and their ideas. She was fired over a mistake. But then I also learned that the former editor of The Atlantic who had forced me out of my job, and who had also made what some might consider a colossal mistake at the New York Times that led to his resignation, was in talks to possibly write for The Atlantic. As it happens, I had also just finished reading an article by Gaby Moss about leaving her job and her writing was so direct and unflinching it inspired me to tell my story, in my own voice, finally.
I’d written the story over the years so many times I’ve lost count. I’ve written so many different drafts. I say drafts and not versions because it’s always been the same story, it’s just I’ve written it in different ways, with different starting points with different framing, depending on whatever had triggered me to bring it all up again, and the triggers came from everywhere. But the story was so long and convoluted it was hard to tell. Especially when I tried to do it in a more measured way, adding in links and supporting evidence and arguments.
I didn’t even get out of my bed to write that essay. I wrote it with the fury of a thousand suns, my fingers typing so fast, the words screaming out of me. I don’t remember how long it took me to write it but I was vaguely aware of my husband popping his head into the bedroom to see if I was coming down for breakfast, then lunch.
I sent the draft to a friend to have her look it over, and in the meantime my friend Anne* called to chat. I told her I’d written it, it was still pulled up on my screen, but I still hadn’t heard back from the person I had emailed it to approximately 30 seconds ago, and I had lost all patience.
I’m going to publish this, I told Anne. Okay, but do you maybe want to wait an hour? Come back to it in a few days after you’ve really thought it over? Anne, I’ve been thinking it for 5 years of hours I yelled and then hit publish, then tweeted it out to my 500 followers. I noticed in the tweet that I’d forgotten to include a photo so I went back in and did that quickly. In the time it took me to add the photo, it had already been curated by Medium. In the time I was on the phone with Anne it was read more than 40 times, which is more than anything else I’d written had been read even after weeks of being published. It was a 15-minute read and Anne said she wanted to hang up and read it and call me back. In those 15 minutes I watched the number of views in my analytics screen grow. The person I had emailed it to read wrote back and said she had a bunch of work to do that morning but she could look it over in a few hours and I told her to forget it, it had already gone viral.
Someone slid into my DMS and told me I’d misspelled plum in the first sentence. Mortified, I went back into the document and fixed it, but because it was in the first sentence, which was visible with the headline, it was embedded in the metadata and I couldn’t figure out how to change it.
“She’s drunk!” declared a man in the comments. Not so, kind sir, I stopped drinking alcohol three years ago but I sure could use a drink right now, I thought.
In my essay I asserted that no one cared. But over the next 24 hours I came to learn that many people did care. My essay struck a chord with people not only in media, but across all industries. A celebrity tweeted it saying it matched her own experience to such a degree she was having trauma. I was flooded with women (and some men) reaching out to me with how my account resonated with them. “I’m shaking” one woman said. So was I. I crawled back into my bed and told my cat I wasn’t taking any calls at this time.
Why did people suddenly care? I’d written about my experience, albeit more indirectly, many times. In fact, it turns out reporters were able to find tidbits I’d written about in other essays to piece together the players in this one. I saw someone subtweet about Easter eggs. Did I do it on purpose? Did I leave all those clues as some kind of masterminded plot to take down the patriarchy? I’d like to say I’m brilliant enough to pull off such an endeavor but the truth is much more simple than that. I’d written about it so many times because I simply couldn’t not write about it. Over the years since leaving The Atlantic I’d done everything I could to exorcise the events that led me to leaving my job, but nothing was working, and truly, no one cared.
So why now? I’m not sure but I think it has to do with how I told the story. I told it in my own voice, like I was talking to a friend. There was humanity in how I spoke. People could envision me as a fully formed person and empathize with what I had experienced, and it resonated with them because they themselves had gone through similar (and in many cases nearly identical) experiences. One woman said that when she read it and shared it with her sister, her sister asked her if she had actually written it.
I think it also resonated because I laid it out so simply, using simple language. I told a story. Here’s another one:
One afternoon I was in the bathtub, where I spend the majority of my time these days, and I was talking to my friend Anne about Poldark, the PBS series we’d both watched and loved. I was telling her she should dress her cats up as Poldark and Demelza and put on a show for her husband, Charles*. We were talking about all the other characters we could include in our production, and which animals we’d cast in the various supporting roles and she said that no matter what, no one was playing Elizabeth, one of the characters in the show, because Elizabeth was a conniving, evil, man stealing bad word.
What? I asked shocked that Anne would think this. Are you kidding me, I asked. Elizabeth was engaged to be married to Poldark, then he took off for war, everyone thought he was dead, but then he waltzed into a dinner party in honor of Elizabeth’s engagement to someone else. But she was still madly in love with Poldark, and she waited by the window patiently, in her drafty estate, for Poldark to show up on his handsome steed and marry her.
He did not.
But he did, later, break down her door and rape her.
What? Anne screamed at me. That wasn’t rape! She was out to get him and she seduced him. Anne, I said, she was sitting at her vanity brushing her hair and he literally broke down the door, charged into her room, threw her onto the bed and raped her and she got pregnant. She waited by her window for days for Poldark to show up (her current husband died in a mining accident so she was going to be a single mother with no prospects). Poldark bailed.
Anne, Elizabeth died after getting raped and getting pregnant and having to induce an early labor to fool her current husband into thinking the baby was his. Yet she’s viewed as a conniving bitch. This story was written by a man and this way of thinking was then adopted by everyone who read it and that, my friend is what is known as internalized misogyny.
Anne silent on the other end.
Wow, Jennifer, you should really write an article about this. I laughed and said I was pretty sure there was quite a bit of material written about it already by people far more academic than me.
Still, she said, the way you explained it to me made sense.
So I think that’s perhaps why my essay resonated. I wrote about it in my own voice, telling a personal story. I was human. People relate to other humans.
She’s brave, she has guts, she’s fearless, people say. Well, maybe some of those things are true, but I am definitely not fearless. This experience is terrifying.
After I hit publish I walked downstairs and told my husband what I’d done and told him we were likely going to get sued. My husband, who is a human Xanax — he was once in a car accident and the car was literally hanging off a cliff and the driver was freaking out, and my husband, calmly, reached up from the back seat and turned off the ignition, then sat on the side of the road and comforted his then girlfriend, who had sustained a head injury, until the paramedics came.
Okay, he said. He’d been expecting the possibility that this would happen.
It’s terrifying for other reasons, one of which is having the spotlight shine on you after exposing something terrible that happened to you and then having everyone look to you to solve it. To this I say, if I knew how to solve this problem I’d still have my job at The Atlantic, a job I loved, was very good at, and never wanted to leave. I’d also have had access to the brilliant copy editors and fact checkers, all of whom I hold in the highest esteem, and who know how to deploy a semicolon, something I still haven’t mastered as I am the queen of run-on sentences.
While I was in my bed, I watched AOC tell the story of what happened when the deadly mob broke into the Capitol. I watched her tell her story, in her own words, about what it was like to think you were facing the last moments of your life.
In the same 24 hours Evan Rachel Wood came out and named Marilyn Manson as her abuser.
They are telling their stories in their own words and they deserve our empathy, but still people dismiss them as being overly dramatic or trying to get attention or manipulate people.
I was told my former boss at The Atlantic felt that women who cried were trying to manipulate them.
When I worked at Teen Vogue a junior editor made the mistake of buzzing two renegade filmmakers into Condé Nast. They called from the lobby saying they were there for an appointment, and she believed them, but really they were there to run amok through the halls of Vogue making some gotcha movie, which it turns out they were semi famous for. The managing editor up at Vogue called to ask why the hell the junior editor had buzzed them in, and the Condé Nast lawyers were calling asking me for details.
The junior editor who had made the mistake broke out in hives. She was so terrified she was sick. I asked her to come into my office and tell me what happened. As she was telling me the story, my eyes filled up with tears. I could feel the terror and embarrassment she was feeling and my heart hurt for her. When she noticed my tears she looked so shocked she stopped crying. She immediately started to calm down. Her breathing became more regular, and she started to relax and we got to the bottom of how it all went down, together. I was able to compose an email to the Vogue managing editor in defense of my young colleague and she was treated fairly and with compassion.
Since my essay went viral everyone wants to talk to me. My phone is a terrifying vibrating beast. I had to turn it off completely for 24 hours, which scared me because I knew that through all the noise there was likely something important being said that would give me clues as to my fate that I needed to know about.
Reporters are trying to get in touch with me to answer questions. People are trying to get me to go on their pod casts. Literary agents have asked if I’d consider writing a book.
Here’s the thing: I don’t want to disappoint anyone. It would be so easy for me to go on a podcast and say something foolish and throw away any momentum for change my essay has created. I’m not an academic (though I’d like to play one on TV). I’m a lady with an experience that many, many other ladies have experienced.
When my former boss left the New York Times I tweeted about it and it got some attention, but it got lost in the noise. But a woman on Twitter, a Black woman, pointed out that what I experienced fit the pattern of what many other marginalized groups have been experiencing for generations. I’m privileged to have my platform in ways that many others aren’t in the same way I’m privileged to leave a routine traffic stop with my life.
I’m so grateful for the people who reached out to me to share their stories, and for the Mighty Forces that gathered around me, casting what I felt, and hope continues to be, a spell of protection. So many other people do not have this privilege.
Let’s hear from some of them.
**Due to the high profile nature of this story I’ve changed my friends’ names to protect their privacy.