In the autumn of 1998, I broke up with my high school girlfriend and drove a little over an hour to begin my freshman year of college. A week later, I found myself in handcuffs, locked up in a psych ward, and terrified. All because I said a few things in anger that I didn’t even mean.
I had it coming, but I didn’t understand then.
It seems like every day I wake up to a new piece of harassment lit, another story where somebody is getting rape and death threats online, another occasion where personal safety is compromised in a completely impersonal way. And every one of those stories reminds me of my own story and the harm I inflicted, both on others and myself. With every article I read, I find myself wondering two things:
Why did I do it?
What can I say to people who still do it and get away with it?
At first blush, both questions would seem to have easy answers. I did it because I was angry, because I could, and because I'd lived a pretty consequence-free life up until that point. And for people who might find themselves under similar circumstances and who enjoy the consequence-free world of the Internet, I could say: Stop.
But in reality, those questions aren’t simple. They cut to the core of how dangerous we allow our world to be and, more important, how dangerous we allow ourselves to be, often without even realizing it. As little as I like admitting it, that’s what happened to me — I allowed myself to be dangerous. And seeing so many stories about what it feels like to be harassed, it's made me realize the importance in telling my story from the perspective of the harasser who learned to stop the hard way.
The year is 1998, and I am about to graduate high school. I go to private school, I don't worry about bills. I’ve never had a run-in with the law. My life is blissfully simple, even for an 18-year-old kid from the Jersey ‘burbs.
And I am desperately infatuated with my dream girlfriend. And I say “dream girlfriend,” because I don't think I ever saw her for who she actually was, only what I dreamed she should be. In my mind, she is gorgeous and funny and smarter than anyone. If she wants something, she makes it happen. She has a wicked smile and a butt my hand never leaves. Eighteen-year-old me has never met anyone like her. In his mind we are meant to be and, oh, what a beautiful fairy tale he can build around her and their perfect love.
The trouble with crafting fictional stories out of your real life is that you can start believing you can control where that story is going.
In the summer before college, I decided it was wrong for my girlfriend and me to stay together. There was never a discussion; I just knew a breakup was best. Yes, despite how amazing I kept telling everyone she was, I was confident I knew what was best for my girlfriend better than she did. I'd been writing our love story all along, so naturally I knew how it should end. I don't remember exactly how she took the news, because I had already decided she would be heartbroken. What really mattered was my noble sacrifice. I was allowing her to move on, you see, and I was devastated.
I packed up my things and moved on with my life. I met a bunch of new people. I was thrilled. Life was starting fresh. College was going to be the best time of my life.
Then I started talking to my ex on the phone. Now, an important thing to know is that we had never had sex. We went to Catholic school, and the indoctrination of sex = bad had gotten to both of us. Or so I thought.
But my ex informed me she had just had sex. She agreed to it, because the guy was willing to perform a particular sexual act that I refused to do. She also told me this new guy was just like me, but better for her in every possible way.
Let me pause, because it is entirely possible you do not have positive feelings for my high school ex-girlfriend right now. I get it, trust me. But keep in mind that you don’t know what she was feeling at the time or why she told me what she did. I don’t know either. Hindsight isn’t always 20/20. But bear in mind, even if she’d told me about the sex out of spite, I had spent the previous year sorta kinda controlling our lives. So from that perspective, it's a little easier to understand why, maybe, she wanted to let me know I didn't get a say anymore.
But that’s my thinking today. In the moment, I lost my goddamned mind. Didn't my ex understand how much it had hurt to let her go? Why didn't she still love me the way I still loved her? I had this story all mapped out. WHO THE HELL WAS SHE TO RUIN IT?
With no way to get to her directly, I decided to get to her sideways. I wanted to make her feel something worse than the sadness and anger I was feeling -- I wanted to make her afraid.
And so I did the thing that has become so commonplace in an online world. I spent the entire day telling every single person who would listen what a heartless, lying bitch she was. I said that I wanted to wring her neck. I said I wanted to kill a lot of people — strangers, her friends, her family, the guy she'd fucked. I wanted to make her watch. And then I told everyone I would kill her. I came up with ways of slowly killing someone. I wondered if there was a liquid I could submerge her in so that she would very slowly and painfully dissolve.
I never told her these things in a direct way. I just put them out into the world so she would know. I called her brother, and I told him everything.
And this is all basically Internet Trolling 101. A person says or does something that someone else (or, more often, multiple someone elses) doesn’t like, something that departs from an established narrative, and the response is to drag their name through the mud and make them scared. Whatever form it may exist in now, #Gamergate was initially started by a letter a guy wrote detailing the sexual behavior of his ex.
And just like so many people who have made similar threats before me, and maybe like you yourself, I did not mean a word of what I was saying. I was just angry. Someone hurt me, and the thought of hurting them back was the only thing that made me feel a little better.
It took about 24 hours for me to purge my need for revenge. I woke up the next day and felt better, more or less.
Then there was a knock at the door.
It was the police. They handcuffed me and I was taken to be fingerprinted, after which I was taken to the nearby hospital for a psych evaluation. The social worker who met with me felt I had become a danger to myself and others. I tried to appeal to her, tell her to ask the people that knew me.
Unfortunately, I forgot that I had only known these college people for a week. My very kind roommate, it turns out, had a relative who'd recently committed suicide so, when I went off the deep end, he didn't hesitate to make a phone call. Likewise, the other friends I'd made all thought I was a lunatic. "Psycho Dan," they’d nicknamed me.
Things were not looking great.
By the time my parents found out what had happened, my fate was sealed. I was being kept in a robin's egg blue room with a small circular window. Other than the social worker, the only other person I spoke with was a janitor, who said he thought I was pretty. He told me not to bother telling anyone he'd said that, because no one would believe me. Oh, the irony: Some of the punishments I’d imagined for my ex were now happening to me.
My parents secured permission to have me relocated to a safer hospital. I was medicated there, my shoelaces were taken, and I was assigned a room.
My second week of "college" was spent in that psych ward. I made no friends. I did not speak much. I taught myself how to play the piano at the end of the hall, and I thought about taking my own life.
I couldn’t blame my ex. She had nothing to do with it. She wasn’t even the one who called to complain about me. No, this hospital bed was one of my own making.
But then a very strange thing happened -- my ex came to the hospital and she bailed me out.
She told my attending physician that she did not fear for her life. She said she believed that my words were just that -- words. She did that thing where she decided something was going to happen and then made it happen.
In spite of the fact that many people thought my ex should have pressed charges, I was released. She let me kiss her and tell her that I still loved her, that I was sorry and I didn't even know why I said the things I did. We went out for lunch. It was nice.
I have never seen her since. She indulged my fantasy one last time, and then she was gone.
It took me an entire year and a change of schools to get back on my feet.
But despite how dire this all may sound, the title of this story is 100 percent true -- my getting arrested for harassment? That was the good part. If that hadn’t happened, if I didn’t have to question why I thought making violent threats was a viable solution to my problems, I might have kept hurting people that way. I might have kept thinking I know what someone else’s story should be. I might have kept trying to control their story, to make their truth fit with mine.
It’s easy to do that on the Internet. When everyone has a voice, you’re going to hear a lot of voices you don’t like. Sometimes those voices will find an audience and it starts to feel like your story, the story you want told, is being drowned out. It isn’t, but it’s very easy to feel that way. And that's the trap.
From experience, let me tell you that giving out people’s personal information or threatening them is not worth it. I'm not talking about the immediate consequences I faced either, not the arrest or the psych ward. Let's face it, most people don't face those sorts of consequences over online harassment.
But from a purely pragmatic standpoint, once you've engaged someone, directly or indirectly, by threatening or wishing them harm, you have guaranteed that they will never listen to anything you say after that, no matter how well-worded or thoughtful. "I'm going to kill you, but also here's this important fact!" has never and will never work on anyone.
And beyond pragmatism, there's a much more life-altering reason why harassment isn't worth it.
The worst part of this story isn't that my first year of college was ruined. It isn't that I was arrested, and temporarily institutionalized. The worst thing is that somewhere out there is a woman I used to know who, every so often, may wake up in the middle of the night scared.
I don't know much about her anymore. We both moved away. We both moved on, got married. I heard she has kids.
But one time, years after these events took place, I talked to someone my ex is still friends with and later, when her friend told her about the encounter, it gave my ex nightmares.
Her friend did not speak to me again.
I can't tell you with absolute certainty how my ex feels about me now. She may not care at all. But I know how I feel. Even having that one piece of evidence that my mere existence could still provide her with some residual dread guts me. Because, deluded though I was, I did actually care about her. I may have lost it and wanted to upset her in the short term, but even the tiniest possibility that my actions could cause anyone residual, permanent harm now is horrifying. What happened may not keep her up at night, but it still keeps me up.
Some of this might feel familiar to you. Maybe you've felt emboldened to go hard on the offensive or are thinking of doing it. Maybe there's a person, a movement, a job, or even a hobby that you love so intensely that, right now, you feel justified, good even, about the thought of scaring off anyone who would upset or alter that love.
But I'm telling you — stop. Don't. Because I did that. I screamed to anyone who would hear and, in turn, scared off anyone who might listen. I used scare tactics to wrestle back some control, and scared the people that mattered most into taking away what little control I had. I wanted people to see me as the one who was wronged and wound up with only the certainty that I was wrong, and am still wrong almost two decades after the fact.
And while I'm glad that I was able to learn from that experience, and learn not to make idle threats again, it still haunts me, because the guilt of having harassed someone is a life sentence. It's still the first thing I think of when I read stories of online harassment. It's still the nagging voice in the back of my mind every time I meet a new person that says maybe I'm not worth knowing.
It’s what’s making me write this now — in the hope that you'll read this story and realize that saying or hoping someone should suffer over a disagreement really isn't worth it. Then maybe we can all get some sleep tonight.