On Friday, The Guardian posted a piece by author Kathleen Hale, a well-connected young author who once became so obsessed with the writer of a one-star review of her novel on Goodreads that she stalked her, only to find that the critic was using a fake name and identity. Can you pick a side yet? I'm on Team Nobody.
The story—at least how Hale tells it—goes a little something like this. Hale's publisher, HarperTeen, sent advance copies of her novel to book bloggers to get a sense of what they thought of it. The bloggers were then expected to post their assessments to sites like GoodReads, hopefully generating buzz prior to its release. Hale was warned to avoid GoodReads like teen YouTube stars are warned to avoid reading their comment sections. But, also like a teen YouTube star, Hale was unable to resist. And once she began picking at it, she couldn't stop herself. It didn't take long before things Got Weird.
The saga began when she found a review written by a book blogger named "Blythe Harris" that particularly upset her.
"Fuck this," it said. "I think this book is awfully written and offensive; its execution in regards to all aspects is horrible and honestly, nonexistent."
Blythe went on to warn other readers that my characters were rape apologists and slut-shamers. She accused my book of mocking everything from domestic abuse to PTSD. "I can say with utmost certainty that this is one of the worst books I've read this year," she said, "maybe my life."
Other commenters joined in to say they'd been thinking of reading my book, but now wouldn't. Or they'd liked it, but could see where Blythe was coming from, and would reduce their ratings.
"Rape is brushed off as if it is nothing," Blythe explained to one commenter. "PTSD is referred to insensitively; domestic abuse is the punch line of a joke, as is mental illness."
A reasonable critique, if it were true, but Hale says that there is no rape in her book (others who have read the book have reached a different conclusion). The author's response scans as a drastic leap: she began tracking the online movements of Blythe Harris—her Instagram account, her Twitter, her Facebook—and discovered a number of inconsistencies she found troubling. And after even more emotionally damaging digging, Hale was pretty sure that Blythe Harris wasn't even a real person.
Still, she wanted to talk to Blythe, to figure out why the book had made her so angry, but Blythe didn't seem interested. In a last-ditch effort to get Blythe to speak with her, Hale requested the reviewer conduct a pre-book release interview and was able to get her home address to send her "giveaways." Once Hale had Blythe's location, she looked up the house on Google Maps. She reviewed census data and telephone directories and discovered that nobody named Blythe Harris had ever lived there.
It gets weirder.
Hale says that her next step was to pay for an online background check on the name of the woman who lived at the address belonging to "Blythe." That bit of sleuthing revealed that Blythe's real name was actually something else entirely (Hale refers to her as "Judy"); that she was 46, not 27; and that she wasn't a married mother of two. Hale then rented a car, drove to Judy's house and knocked on the door before freaking out and dropping a book on the front step.
Even though Hale calls that moment her "personal rock bottom," she continued to stalk Blythe/Judy, calling her at work and pretending to be a fact checker, demanding an explanation for who "Blythe" the book blogger was and why she was pretending to live at Judy's house. She asked why sample books were being delivered to Judy's address, and Judy claimed she hadn't gotten book deliveries for years. Hale called a "contact" at a publishing house, who, for some reason, confirmed to Hale that book deliveries had been received by Judy/Blythe as recently as a couple of weeks ago.
All along the way, she had the blessing of Nev Schulman, famed elevator emoter and woman-puncher, who offered his trademark brand of empty platitudes as advice.
The entire saga reads like a textbook case of Team Nobody. Blythe/Judy, who Hale says had been stealing pictures of her neighbor and spends her free time writing factually inaccurate one-star reviews of books that haven't been released with the intent of hurting people, sounds like she should find a different hobby. But, then again, she's not peering into a stranger's window and calling them at work because they said a mean thing on the internet. Stealing photos from a neighbor is creepy; stalking is illegal.
More notably, though: this isn't the first time that Hale has aggressively pursued someone and publicly bragged about it. This weekend, a tipster sent us this piece Hale wrote for Thought Catalog two years ago, wherein she describes a chance run-in with Lori, a troubled girl with an eating disorder who had, years ago, accused Hale's mother of sexual abuse.
But here, at the movie theater, Lori looked happy. I stared hard, caught her eye, and smiled nervously. She and her friends scurried off. I was seeing a different movie but went in after them anyway, and sat down a few rows ahead. When the previews started, I went up to Lori.
"You're fat," I shouted. And then I poured the entire bottle of hydrogen peroxide on her head.
In Lori's written statement to the police, she drew arrows pointing to supplementary exaggerations, underlined certain half-truths for emphasis, and wrote in the margins to fit everything she needed to say. The finished piece succeeded in making her into more of a victim, but was nevertheless false. It was very imaginative, though. Sometimes, when I am feeling gracious, I think that maybe she should have been a writer.
"She saw me and ran from the theater to go and buy her weapon, thinking only of my demise, and would not stop laughing."
A sympathetic judge let Hale off without punishment, but that didn't stop her from doing what she referred to in her Guardian piece as "light stalking;" she says she followed Lori's movements online. One day, she contacted her via AOL Instant Messenger, and within an hour, a police officer showed up to give her father a firm talking to about how his daughter shouldn't stalk a girl she once assaulted.
Ever since reading the Guardian piece for the first time, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. I sympathize with Hale's feeling of helplessness in the face of what felt to her like people unfairly turning on her. And I'm sure most people who have ever written online understand the feeling of wanting to have a face-to-face conversation with a vitriolic critic. It's that fantasy confrontation, where all of your stored l'esprit de l'escalier flows freely. I've even skimmed the Twitter feeds of professional and romantic rivals after a drink too many, an hour too late. I get that urge.
But you do not go to somebody's house. You do not call somebody's place of employment. You do not pose as a fact checker and demand personal information. You definitely don't call a girl with an eating disorder fat while pouring hydrogen peroxide onto her head, and you do not run away laughing like a maniac after the fact. Hale's thoughts are defensible; her actions are not.
Hale's not without her own powerful supporters. Her fiancee, Simon Rich, is a writer for SNL and the New Yorker. Her fiancee's mother, Gail Winston, is an executive at Harper Collins, the house that is publishing her book. Her future father-in-law is Frank Rich, of the New York Times. And her friend, John Mulaney, is also in her corner.
Book bloggers—the ones who read and review books because they love it, and do it for free, and are in a mostly symbiotic relationship with people who write those books—aren't as pleased. Twitter's Kathleen Hale tag is a veritable e-waterfall of anger today, some of it measured, some of it nakedly angry. Others in the community have taken to their own blogs, penning responses to Hale's article that are well-argued and smart. The most level-headed of responses comes from SB Sarah of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, who writes that, in addition to being terrible, Hale's stalking was a deleterious exercise, helpful to nobody.
Hale's account of her determination to connect personally with the reviewer leads me to believe that for Hale, there was no separation between book and author. She "longed" to speak with the reviewer, as she said, and that longing makes me question why that contact was so important? Why would Hale order a background check, call that person at work, and then go to her home address? Why was that so important? What was she hoping to gain? What did she win through all that effort? That she was right, that one person was in fact using two names and one or both disliked Hale's book? That if she could just talk to this reviewer, she could...accomplish what? Changing her mind? By showing up on her porch and leaving a creepy book as a gift/message?
Once you put a book or an article or listicle or pamphlet or gif set or manifesto out there, Sarah argues, you lose control of it. That's the final step of writing: you let other people read it, you let them react. You step back.
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