Troll-fighter Carrie Goldberg: "I became the lawyer I needed"

After being stalked by an ex-boyfriend, Brooklyn lawyer Carrie Goldberg set about to fight "psychos" and trolls

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 20, 2019 3:59PM (EDT)

Carrie Goldberg (Natan Dvir)
Carrie Goldberg (Natan Dvir)

Carrie Goldberg's Brooklyn law firm carries the motto "Fighting pervs, psychos and assholes since 2014." It's not a mission she set out on when she launched her career. But after a life-altering legal crisis, she changed direction and became a victims' rights advocate — one who refuses to "dress like a victim" and whose firm wants to "Expose that MOFO" and "Sue the hell out of who hurt you." She's now the author of a new book, "Nobody's Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and Trolls," a chronicle of her quest to change the system, and a call to action for all of us. Goldberg appeared on "Salon Talks" recently to discuss how she went from becoming an "involuntary expert on psychos" to taking her fights to the Supreme Court.

Watch our "Salon Talks" episode here, or read the Q&A transcript of our conversation below, edited lightly for clarity and length.

This topic is very personal to you. You have very intimate experience with psychos, trolls and stalkers. Talk a little bit about where you were in your life when you reached this moment of change and found your vocation.

I would say that I'm, originally, an involuntary expert in psychos. I've been working with traumatized victims since I first graduated from college. I was working with Holocaust survivors for about five years and then I went and got my law degree at night. I was working with tenants who were losing their homes and then with elderly people who were being exploited and needed guardianships. I was a lawyer already at that time. In 2013, I had recently ended a marriage very amicably and I was swept off my feet in a whirlwind relationship with somebody. It very quickly went from being, "Oh my God, I met somebody who's just so obsessed with me," to it becoming really frightening. It was, "Oh, I've met somebody who's actually obsessed with me."

When I ended the relationship because of the frightening things that were happening, he made it very clear through hundreds of texts and emails that he was going to be devoting the rest of his life to destroying mine. This was a short relationship. He sent lots of threats saying that he'd hired people to rape me. He would send me emails and say that he'd blind-copied professional contacts and colleagues and then he would cut and paste naked pictures of me into it. He filed false police reports saying that I was engaged in some sort of corruption with judges. At the time I was doing guardianship law, and all my judges were middle-aged women, and I was doing things like advocating for end-of-life decision making. It's not exactly really ripe for a big juicy corruption scandal.

My life was completely overturned. I moved out of my apartment, which I loved. My ex-husband had to take care of my dog because it wasn't safe for me to have a tiny dog and to be walking it in the neighborhood. I was working at a different location because I was so scared. I was so scared. I was getting constant threats. My family members also were. When I went to the police to report the harassment, they told me there wasn't anything they could do immediately and I should go to family court instead. But when I went to family court, the judge told me that I had a First Amendment problem. He said that. I had asked, "I would like a stay away order, not just to prevent him from contacting and being around me, but I also want him not to post these images and contact these people and do these things on the web."

The judge was just like, "It's his First Amendment right." That was a real Eureka moment for me, learning that this guy has the freedom of speech to express himself through my genitals or through pictures of me. It was true that there was no law protecting me from a lot of this behavior. After the criminal charges against me were dropped and he pled guilty and I got my restraining order, my life was unrecognizable. I no longer feared the same things I used to fear, because I had been living in actual fear of safety. I just had this moment of courage or arrogance or something. I quit my job and I decided that I was going to become the lawyer that I'd needed, because I couldn't find people to help me, people who were familiar with this psychotic, scorched-earth, jilted-ex type of behavior.

It's astonishing that in 2013 that was happening. It goes on. It continues. The internet is not a new thing. Psycho exes and stalking is definitely not a new thing. Yet so often what happens when someone is the victim of this behavior and they approach the justice system, it's as if this is a completely new concept and we have no idea. We've never really figured out how to manage this. It's so important to understand that what happened to you can happen to anyone. You don't even have to meet the wrong person. But I want to start with that, because you now see the red flags.

You start very early in the book talking about a client. You were able to figure out who might be behind her harassment because you recognized some of the signs of someone who probably would be predisposed to that. Nothing is perfect. But if you were to say to somebody, "When you meet someone and you start a relationship or you go out on a date, here are some things that you should look for right away and GTFO as fast as possible."

First of all, I think that there are some tips that I want to talk about. But I think for anybody who misses red flags, it's not your fault. It's completely the fault of whoever the crazy psycho, stalker, perv or troll is.

You don't have to have any interaction with someone for them to go wild on you. That's important too.

What I've found is that the most dangerous people, the serial stalkers, are people who seem really charming and seem really, really focused on you. A lot of my clients, they meet the offender on online dating apps and they have a lot of really intense communications before they ever meet in person. As a result, the client is pre-inclined to be really excited when they finally meet and will silence red flags that they might physically feel. Sometimes if you just meet somebody at a bar for the first time, our alert systems will tell us if somebody is not quite right. But if you already have decided that somebody's right, somebody's safe, you've already told them a lot of your secrets and they've told you theirs and there's already that emotional intensity, you're going to shut down your own alert system. It's a manipulative tactic, this oversharing and this manipulation to get somebody to share as much secret information before meeting, because that's how it works.

Then the relationships usually have patterns. There's really quick intensity, immediate jealousy, demands for total attention and total time. Usually then there's gaslighting. There are accusations that you're still seeing somebody from a past relationship. Then, in some of our cases, tech gets involved, where our offender will install key-logging software or they'll install GPS onto a victim's car. There's a lot of stalking and hacking that happens during the relationship.

In this case of Francesca, her ex had actually been impersonating a guy that she'd gone out on a couple dates with way before they'd ever met. He created a fake online profile and then posted naked pictures of Francesca onto it. He was creating all these dramatic issues that she had to then deal with. She went to him for emotional consolation, which then strengthened their bond even more.

It's pure evil, and yet also the sort of thinking that is extremely sophisticated. That's how these people do this and continue to perpetrate this against multiple victims. What happens next for a lot of people, whether it's this kind of situation or whether it's a completely different situation of stalking or online harassment, is that there can be serious consequences for the victims in coming forward and in trying to pursue justice. Teenage girls getting cut from teams, getting asked to leave their school, having employers contacted years later.

So often the victims continue to be punished again by a system that does not protect them. A high school student, a teenager should be absolutely protected, and then something like this happens. More than once you've seen this with your clientele.

By far the saddest cases are the ones where the victims are young and the schools are supposed to protect them. When my client comes forward about a sexual assault that they experienced by a peer, even in some cases at school, the victims have gotten suspended or in one case gotten kicked off the cheerleading team.

One of my most upsetting cases is a situation of a client of mine in Brooklyn. Sweetest girl in the world. Her best friend was her brother. She was really socially awkward. She had an IQ of 71. She had a history of communication delays, well documented. She was at school. She was 15. She was taken, coaxed into a stairwell by a group of seven people. She was then forced to give oral sex to two of the boys while the other five looked on or some of them guarded the doors. She then told the guidance counselor, who escalated it to the vice principal. One thing led to another and our client was suspended for having consensual sex on school grounds. There's no version of those facts where it could have been consensual. She wasn't old enough. Some of the boys were already 18. She wasn't old enough to consent. She was so outnumbered. She didn't have the capacity to consent. 

When you're suspended, then there's school court. She had these lovely NYU students who ultimately referred the case to us who were explaining to the school prosecutor, saying, "Okay, but let's talk about Title IX. There was never an investigation. Our client's the victim. She's not a perpetrator." They were coaxing her to just plead guilty to the charges. They said no and they hired us. Ultimately, it was discovered that there had been a previous incident under the same administrators in that same stairwell a few years prior.

This is happening now. These things are happening now in schools all over the country and in businesses and in homes, where someone is victimized and harassed and then looks for justice and instead winds up being punished.

The process can become just as traumatizing as the underlying act. There are all these layers of pain and injury. It's unbelievably disorienting and confusing and you can't make sense of it as a kid when you're not believed.

It's not just about kids. It's about adults who then have these photographs or straight-up lies and fake information sent to their employers, sent to their families. I want to talk about what happens when it's a "free speech issue" and the platforms are not held accountable. That is so astonishing and terrifying. This does not affect just women. One of the biggest cases you talk about, the client was a man and this was something that happened on Grindr.

Our client was impersonated on Grindr by his ex-boyfriend, who created online dating profiles with our client's picture. He then would set up sex dates with strangers as if he were our client and give them the address and the geolocation information to our client's home and to his job. He worked at a restaurant as a server. As many as 23 people came in a single day to his home to have sex with him. The offender, through direct messages and through the profile, would indicate that our client had rape fantasies, so that if he turned them away that that was just part of the act. He was setting our client up to be raped.

This is not an isolated incident. This kind of behavior also happens often.

It happens with impersonating on Craigslist ads, saying that somebody is a prostitute and then giving their home address. It happens with creating racist online profiles and setting people up to be targeted by mobs of harassers. So often dating apps are abused and weaponized by offenders.

Where is the accountability on these apps or on these platforms?  

There's a federal law that was passed in 1996 that has been bloated over the years to basically shield online companies from any liability when it comes to harm to their users. In the Grindr case, [the client] Matthew went to Grindr 50 times. He went to the cops 12 or 14 times. They told them to just handle it like a man. Men get a different kind of bias. He got a restraining order. He did everything right. When he came to me, I was like, "There's only one entity that can help you at this point." By then he'd had over 1,000 people come to his home and job. Can you imagine, one or two dozen times a day?

This is not an online crime. This is a tech device used to facilitate a very offline crime. These people were coming in real life. Matthew wasn't even a Grindr user at the time. Imagine having strangers come to your home and to your job to have sex with you and having to say over and over again, "Actually, no, I didn't send you. No, no, no. I mean I really didn't. This isn't part of it." 

And hope that that person is not violent, and hope that that person doesn't escalate it.

Matthew's roommate was attacked once. They would be lurking in the stairwells. They would be waiting for him when he was walking his dog. They followed him into the restroom when he was serving brunch to customers. There were a lot of emergency situations. I finally said, "We've got to get Grindr involved legally here," when they were ignoring his pleas for help. We got an order against them demanding that they exclude this user. They then told us in court on the record that they didn't have the technology.

Mind you, they own the patent to the geolocating technology. It's very sophisticated. They said they don't have the technology to identify and exclude abusive users. We said, "Then you've designed a defective product." It's an arithmetic certainty that if you have a dating app that's facilitating offline encounters, from time to time it's going to be abused by rapists, by predators, by stalkers. If you created that product and let it enter the stream of commerce without the most basic ways to control it and protect your users, then you've designed a defective product and we're going to sue the bejesus out of you.

We used product liability theories because we thought, "We're not suing them for anything that Matthew's abuser said," which would have immunity under the Communications Decency Act for third-party content. We're suing you for your own goddamn shitty product. My co-counsel and I thought this was a brilliant solution to getting around the Communications Decency Act. It was a legal theory that hadn't been tried. The judge thought we were full of it and dismissed all of our complaints at a very early stage, basically saying Matthew had no right in court. Meanwhile, the visitors are still coming. It's a current emergency situation. We're not suing for something that happened two years ago. We're needing immediate relief.

We appealed it to the Second Circuit and lost again. On Aug. 7, we filed a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States, now giving them the opportunity to rule on what is an incredibly timely and important and dangerous law.

This is about accountability on multiple levels. I want everyone to read this book, and I sure want my daughters to read this book. This is about abuse, and fighting it on an individual level and a systemic level,  as voting, active citizens. The book is called "Nobody's Victim," and you are nobody's victim.

Nope. None of you are, either.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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