On Thursday, xoJane published an essay titled “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing,” which outlines a series of petty grievances with a woman who, the piece reveals, later committed suicide. It’s a strange and deeply insensitive piece; simultaneously judgmental, self-absorbed, and unreflective, particularly since the subject matter is a young woman who suffered from schizoaffective disorder.
The piece, originally published with the byline of writer Amanda Lauren, engages in the voyeurism and spectacle typical of a kind of first-person essay, without any of the obligatory reflection. The only lesson learned from this piece is that xoJane shouldn’t have published it.
Lauren recounts the unraveling of this former friend, a woman, who Lauren acknowledges she hadn’t spoken to in years before she died. There are long, sanctimonious descriptions of the “former friend’s” Facebook page that, put bluntly, are downright vile. Throughout the piece, it’s clear that Lauren is concerned only with herself; there’s no attempt to empathize with a mentally ill woman, no attempt to intervene in her “former friend’s” clear unraveling. There is only Lauren’s concern with herself:
My voyeurism into her life lasted for another week or two until she started talking about me. She referred to me as her frenemy and revealed some personal information I had once shared with her. I became concerned about people knowing this, but then I realized no one was reading it. I wondered why she was even talking about me, but then I realized when I unblocked her, I probably ended up on her Suggested Friends list. This entire ordeal was upsetting and I sent a message to Facebook asking them to remove the post. Then I blocked her again. This was putting unnecessary negative energy into my life.
The essay somehow manages to get worse; by its merciful end, Lauren concludes that her “former friend’s” life was a complete waste. “Her death wasn’t a tragedy, her life was,” Lauren writes. “She was alone and terribly unhappy when [she] died,” she continues without, apparently, any sense of irony about this sentence.
The reaction to the essay was swift, with xoJane’s commenters asking why this piece even existed; what was its purpose? At some point after publishing the piece, xoJane removed the byline and closed the comments. When I read the essay around midnight, it still had Lauren’s byline, but by this morning the byline had been changed to “Anonymous.” The cache of the website, however, still had Lauren’s byline listed.
At publication, xoJane (which is now owned by Time Inc.) had not yet returned a request for comment; we’ll update if we hear back.
As Laura Bennett noted in her Slate piece about first-person essays:
First-person writing has long been the Internet’s native voice. As long as there have been bloggers, there have been young people scraping their interior lives in order to convert the rawest bits into copy.
Yet the underlying formula of such essays is usually didactic or affirming to the micro-communities which they target. xoJane’s approach has always been slightly different; instead of seeking that kind of cosmic reflection, a universal lesson learned, the website nebulously values opinion, no matter its value. Bennett recalls the internet outcry over another now internet-infamous xoJane essay in which a young white woman remarked on the lack of black women in her classes, which got so much backlash xoJane changed that author’s name as well.
Rebecca Carroll, formerly an editor at xoJane, recalls reading one submission by a white woman about how few black people were in her yoga class that was “pretty tone deaf, just totally un-self-aware.” It would have taken too much time to fully overhaul it. Still, Carroll published it, knowing that—brutally honest as it was—it was sure to be provocative. “There was an enormous backlash, and the writer was traumatized,” Carroll says. “I felt like I just shouldn’t have run the piece at all, because I fundamentally misestimated how prepared the writer was for this to go public.” So many of these recent essays make a show of maximal divulgence, but are too half-baked and dashed-off to do the work of real introspection.
It’s a well-known fact that outrageous confessionals—the kind that populate xoJane’s section, It Happened to Me—garner traffic. Outrage, disgust and anger are the stuff of going viral (a phrase that conjures up disease as much as anything else). Yet xoJane seems to consistently cross an unspoken line, confusing any woman’s opinion as one inherently worth publishing, no matter the opinion, or its costs.
It’s a system of mutual exploitation of sorts, xoJane’s editors meet traffic goals while writers like Lauren get attention. Lauren has a history of writing so-called “provocative pieces.” Her byline graces essays like, “Staying Hot For My Husband is ESSENTIAL to a Successful Marriage,” on YourTango and “I Think Husband Hunting in College Is Actually a Good Idea,” also on xoJane. The latter, a celebration of Princeton Mom, speaks to exactly where Lauren maps her literary (ahem) affinities: namely, that being the most hated woman in the news cycle is good for the bottom line.
And Lauren seems to be milking her dead “former friend,” for all that the anonymous woman is worth. A quick look at her Twitter mentions shows that—in between some righteously angry writers and editors—she’s getting inquiries from England’s ITV network, as well a one from Good Morning America’s segment and booking producer, Katie Conway (Conway has since deleted her inquiry, but Lauren’s response is still on her timeline).
That the personal essay, with its often awkward dance between commodification and attempting to reveal truth, is the internet’s most difficult genre, something that Jia Tolentino has extensively written about here at Jezebel. “The genre, to me,” Jia recently wrote, “has always seemed like an attempt to spin gold out of shit and straw.” But in this case, xoJane hasn’t managed to produce any gold, just shit.
Update: xoJane removed the article, replacing it with “An Apology From xoJane.” It’s currently on their homepage with EIC Jane Pratt’s byline:
I deeply regret the hurt that this article has caused and understand that it has perpetuated stigma and diminished the lives of people with mental illness. I am committed to immediately reviewing our vetting process to ensure that this experience has a positive influence on the ways in which we at xoJane present all women going forward.
In 2013, the site issued a similar mea culpa and set “guidelines for articles that go up on the site.”
Image via xoJane.