Can "stanning” be a form of recovery? Healing and trauma in fandom communities

My fingers could type what my lips had trained themselves to never say. Technology provided my voice

Published May 29, 2023 2:00PM (EDT)

Woman making heart shape with hands at music event (Getty Images/Antonio Suarez Vega)
Woman making heart shape with hands at music event (Getty Images/Antonio Suarez Vega)

At a decibel so loud it creates seismic tremors in the steel support beams of Reunion Arena, a crowd of 19,000, mostly female preteens and 20-somethings, let out animalistic cries of adoration. I'm one of the frenzied bodies.

Head thrown back, fist in the air, my hips gyrate to the beat like a nimble metronome. Beside me, the 50-year-old mother of my fandom-made friend, a woman I'd only met two hours ago, leans her shoulder against mine as we sing. Digital getdown!

Twenty-three years later, I don't remember her name and scarcely what she looked like, but we sang the lyrics to a song about cybersex together like the very best of friends.

It had been the digital world that brought me to the arena in Dallas that night in June 2000 to see 'N SYNC. The woman's daughter, Becky, who I can still remember, was the reason I was there. Becky told me that she and another friend had managed to get floor seats, and she offered me an available one. The catch was I'd have to sit with her mom. 

It was five days before my 20th birthday. We'd survived Y2K. The No Strings Attached Tour had sold a million tickets on the first day of sales. On the brink of my 20s I felt the optimism of having the rest of my life ahead of me which felt infinite. It was a new feeling for someone who had so often thought of ending her life.

The previous fall, a boyband and its fans had saved it.

Becky was one of the visitors on my 'N SYNC message board hosted by Angelfire. She'd found my site through a webring, a grouping of amateur sites with a centralized theme. I was a part of multiple 'N SYNC fanfiction webrings from 1999 to 2001.

I hadn't set out to become a fanfic writer or to host a website.

N Sync at Rose Bowl No Strings Attached tourPop sensation 'N SYNC perform at the Rose Bowl June 9, 2000 to promote their new album, "No Strings Attached" in Pasadena, Ca. (Steve Grayson/Online USA, Inc/Getty Images)The major life transition of leaving home for college and feeling isolated in my dorm room was a dry brush ahead of a growing wild fire. I wandered the campus cafeteria solo and sat down steeped in the awkwardness of a sort of self-imposed, public solitary confinement. When I got to college, I no longer had the distractions of overachievement I had in high school. I had to be alone with myself, physically and mentally, something I'd avoided since I was five years old. That's when the sexual abuse by one of my relatives first began, when I wanted perfection or death.

In one of those lonely bouts, I went to the 'N SYNC official website one night. Supposedly, you could email the band members through the site. When no reply came, I searched Netscape for some other means to connect with anyone associated with the band.

What I found were fan sites.

* * *

At the time, depression and mental health weren't as widely discussed as they are today. Three decades before #metoo, neither was sexual abuse. Oh sure, we'd sat through school trainings on good touch and bad touch, but I didn't know one single person who said they had been molested. I thought it had only happened to me. I was on survivor island, party of one. I couldn't stand to look at myself in the mirror. I stopped brushing and combing my hair and began to pull it back into an increasingly tangled bun every day. I brushed my teeth with my eyes cast down at the sink. It would be another two years before I entered therapy and was diagnosed with severe depression. That was the only diagnosis available to me then. Now, we know what I was struggling with is Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

According to the DSM, PTSD can develop if someone has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event that involved "actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence." In 1999, most of the general public thought of PTSD in terms of soldiers returning from battle and not survivors of sexual trauma.

Even when I was hurting the most I could count on those in the fandom and their stories to pull me back from the ledge.

It was because of a friend that I made through the 'N SYNC fandom that I was encouraged to make my outcry of sexual abuse. Thanks to her, in the fall of 1999, I used AOL's Instant Messenger to tell my mom about the years of molestation.

My fingers could type what my lips had trained themselves to never say. Technology provided my voice.

My parents put me in therapy. I would be placed on an antidepressant by a psychiatrist and attended sessions with a psychologist once a week. 

Even when I was feeling better, I never left the fandom or my friends online. It was because of one of them that I was beginning to heal.

Old School AOL Instant MessengerOld School AOL Instant Messenger (Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)What I found on the first message board that night in 1998 were other girls like me, enamored with the band and wanting to connect with other fans.

At its most basic definition, fanfiction (fanfic) is stories written by fans that are based on previously existing characters, worlds and situations from a TV series, film, book, comic or video game that are then used to create new plots. (Caitlyn Carson, Dalhousie University, What is Fanfiction and Where to Find it: Definitions and Fan Archives

Fan creations have expanded beyond written words to artwork, comics, fancams and compilation videos. When I clicked on the fanfiction link at, I found a place where writers were treated like the Jane Austens and Stephen Kings.

"I'm going to post a new chapter tonight!" Someone would post, and a dozen comments underneath it would follow.


I read a handful of other stories before I was motivated to write one. The plot was a love triangle trope. It was an angsty, melodramatic mess written by someone who had never even had a boyfriend at that time in my life, but I was proud of it. When I printed the completed fanfic, I had almost 300 pages and 52 chapters. 

"Engaging in fantasy is an escape that can be a really healthy coping strategy when it's used the right way."

I was buoyed to continue writing and posting by the feedback from users with names like iluvlance and babybluegirl. Even when I was hurting the most I could count on those in the fandom and their stories to pull me back from the ledge.

I soon built up a following, made friends and created my own site. No one in my real life knew I wrote fanfiction. I'd kept the secret of my abuse for years because of the stigmas of being a survivor: guilt, shame, and blame. Fanfiction became another secret, for many of the same stigmas.

* * *

Julie (a pseudonym she asked me to use to protect her work) is a 30-year-old licensed professional counselor in New York. Julie writes fanfiction. She believes many of the stigmas that keep the writers of fanfic in clandestine operations on spaces like Tumblr is fear of judgment from those outside of fandom and elitism in the literary world.

"Unfortunately, that stigma has spread to me," she said. "I think there is some belief that fanfiction is something that only people with no life do. Maybe it's associated with nerds or geeks, people who don't engage with the real world. Maybe, also, if you're somebody who really, really likes literature and you do a lot of reading, you might feel like fanfiction is the poor man's book. 'Why would you want to read or write fanfiction when there's so much original content out there?' So, I think that could be why people are afraid to admit it to others."

It is estimated that more than 100 million people online read or write fanfiction.

Wattpad had 94 million registered users in July 2022. AO3 (Archive of Our Own), another fanfiction platform, was home to over 185,000 stories in October 2022.

Many studies have been conducted on fanfiction and who writes it, but the demographics are ever changing in large part because of online platforms that make posting to a specific audience easier. However, a 2013 census survey of AO3 participants contained 10,005 responses: 77.2% were between 16 and 29. Mid-teens to late 20s now seem to comprise the majority of fans that participate in fanfiction on AO3.

Still, writers of fanfiction can often be reluctant to talk about their stories and sometimes, it's because of where and how it started.

Feeling socially awkward in middle school, Julie found the bonding glue with other girls was being a fan of "High School Musical," although she said it was a bit embarrassing to look back on it now.

"We all really loved the movie. We spent a lot of time talking about it," Julie reminisced. "But once we took it to the internet it became a whole new world."

A friend told her about The site, founded in 1998, has survived the collapse of other tech platforms. Today, reportedly has more than twelve million registered users and publishes fan content and hosts stories in forty different languages.

"It started with reading and commenting. I'm not sure how long that went before I decided I was going to take it up as a writer myself."

She says discovering fanfiction and community in fandoms helped her to cope with being an awkward tween with social anxiety and scoliosis. 

"I guess in a similar way that was me growing up a little more, but still playing pretend. I was engaging in fantasy but I was making friends through that. Since you're able to find an online community, if you feel like there are people you don't connect with in your day to day life, whether it be in your household or at school, your peers, there's just more options there. You can feel like you're seen or understood … I find that engaging in fantasy is an escape that can be a really healthy coping strategy when it's used the right way and in moderation," she said. "But when it comes to writing fan fiction, you can imagine worlds, settings, characters in whatever way that serves you."

Julie said she often created female main characters that possessed confidence in their day to day lives or sexuality that she found herself to be struggling to express in her own life.

"Technology can be very positive for those seeking connection."

Brenda McBride, a licensed clinical social worker with the 1 in 3 Foundation said,  "Coping mechanisms can be adaptive or maladaptive, and whereas certain coping mechanisms like alcohol or drug use are unhealthy, it isn't always easy to discern. Sometimes the reason we start a behavior is not always the reason we continue the behavior. Any coping mechanism taken to an extreme or as the 'only tool in the toolbox' can be unhealthy. Even exercise, which is healthy, if the only tool or used in extreme, can be unhealthy or fuel an eating disorder. I think it is important to have a toolbox of coping skills that can be utilized in balance."

McBride says red flags to note about fanfiction is the impact on the writer's general life. "The most significant warning sign would be if a coping mechanism begins to isolate us, interfere with our work/home/relationships, or result in shifts in our mood, health, eating and sleep pattern."

McBride also cautioned over fandom turned obsession as well through the development of a parasocial relationship

"Technology can be very positive for those seeking connection. Particularly for people in isolated or rural areas. Depression can impact a person's sleeping and motivation, and if someone is awake at 2 a.m., there's not a therapist open, but online support is."

It is from a deep fixation with a celebrity, media or public figure that the term "stan" was created. Rapper Eminem's 2000 slow and haunting song about an overzealous fan has morphed into a term more closely associated with superfans like Swifties and the BTS Army. In some cases, these fandoms have been accused of social media attacks against anyone who posts commentary or what is perceived as a negative critique of the artists. 

However, Julie believes that sometimes in the people fans idolize, they see something they aspire to be, which can be a positive.

"Although that character or person they idolize doesn't have the same kind of relationship back with them, it can feel so validating to either find a public figure or a real person, whether it's a celebrity or an influencer, whatever the case may be to say, 'Oh that person kind of reminds me of me," Julie said. "Or, maybe, 'I want to be a little bit more like that person or I strive to be like that or follow the message that they put out there.'"

SupernaturalSupernatural (CW)Julie has seen this effect in the "Supernatural" fandom.

"While [the 'Supernatural' fandom] can be intense at times, it is filled with fans who unite over a message of 'Always Keep Fighting,'" she said. "This message was promoted by not only the themes of the series but also the cast of actors who have also shared their own mental health challenges with the fans. It's a fandom where you will find a lot of fans crediting a TV show for saving their lives."

As a mental health care provider, Julie says she has not had many people in her office that have openly admitted to writing fanfic, but in some cases where a client has strong interest in a particular topic, she has suggested it.

"I think fanfiction as an outlet is just like a branch off of creativity and creative writing as an outlet," she said. 

"G" (a nickname she asked to use) is a 21-year-old Swiftie, but it was following the music of My Chemical Romance (MCR) in her teens that started it all.

"I was only 14 when I was sexually assaulted," G explained. "Up until that point, I had never really needed to be truly angry about anything before. (MCR) allowed me to explore my anger in a healthy way, and helped me feel like I wasn't just damaged goods . . . The song that really got me through everything as a teen was 'I Never Told You What I Do For a Living.' I don't think I could realistically put into words how important that song is to me. I was recently able to see them live for the first time at their reunion tour, and to my complete and utter disbelief they actually played it! I literally fell to my knees, sobbing uncontrollably. It felt like an amalgamation of all my healing over the years."

Rocket Raccoon in Guardians of the GalaxyRocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) in "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3" (Disney)G is an artist whose drawings and comics have been sold in online auctions. Her most frequent drawing muse is Rocket Racoon from Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy." G says she connected deeply with film director James Gunn's depiction of the traumatized lab animal with human traits. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Rocket's backstory is one deeply rooted in trauma and rage.

"MCR was what I needed as a young teenager navigating my sexual trauma, and Rocket is what I need as an adult navigating my sexual trauma. The difference in perspective that you gain from being an adult looking back on everything is astounding. You have to grieve when becoming a grown-up under these circumstances. It's hard to navigate. To me Rocket is a spot-on representation of how it feels. If I can get across that feeling to even one person looking at my art, it'll all be worth it."

Having grown up with technology as a Gen-Zer, G says she's become a citizen of a digital community where she is free to share her art and express herself.

"I've always connected with people through my art. It's definitely my love language, which is one of the reasons I love doing fanart so much. It lets me meet people who love the same things that I do, and I get to make them happy in the process . . . Some of my closest friends live on the complete other side of the planet."

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I'm writing about us

"Fandom reflects back something inside someone."

I text Ipsi, my friend from Boston. We met online on a baseball message board in 1999. She loved Nomar Garciaparra of the Red Sox. I loved the Yankees Derek Jeter and Seattle's Alex Rodriguez. We both loved NSYNC. Almost a quarter of a century later, we still text each other when there is baseball news of interest from our favorite players.

An Indian-American immigrant, her path crossed with mine during a difficult period in both our lives.

Ipsi says, "I think your friendship was meant to be. I was a teenager, having just lost my father. I didn't know how to handle it. I wanted an escape from the dark, so I turned to things that would pull me out from time to time."

We have celebrated and supported each other through breakups, matrimony, motherhood and many baseball seasons. We have never met in person.

Ipsi moved from the baseball message board to my own and followed my writing. We would chat on AIM for hours, or interact with other gossiping fans.

The day after the concert in June 2000, I logged on to tell her all about the show. 

A moment I will never forget came during NSYNC's performance of "I Want You Back." My seat next to Becky's mom was just rows from stage left and an elevated platform. JC ran up that platform to the rail. He was right in front of us. Everyone around me, including my friend's mom, hurried to grab their cameras — film cameras and disposable cameras. When the spotlight hit JC, I kept right on dancing and singing, and he pointed at me, mimicked my dancing and ran off to the other side of the stage. After the shock wore off, I remember Becky's mom shaking me and screaming. It took me several breaths to find my own scream. Less than a year after my outcry, during one of my most difficult summer's back at home, I floated on that moment garnered through fanfiction forums until I returned to college in August.

Reunion Arena has been demolished. Angelfire went extinct with Netscape. 'N SYNC went on an indefinite hiatus in 2002. But so many friendships that started with fandom have remained.

"Fandom to me is multifaceted," Ipsi texts. "It's not cookie-cutter, when you like this thing, you're a fan, then you can't like anything else. Fandom reflects back something inside someone. Aren't we all more than one thing?"


By Maya Golden

Maya Golden is an Emmy nominated and Associated Press award-winning journalist. She is a graduate of Texas A&M University. Maya is the founder of the 1 in 3 Foundation, a non-profit supporting survivors of sexual violence. Her memoir, "The Return Trip" (Rising Action Publishing Collective, November 14, 2023), details Maya’s road to healing and recovery after years of sexual abuse and sexual assault. She travels the country speaking about topics including mental health, wellness, education and equality in the workplace.

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