by Kathleen Hale
Saturday 18 October 2014
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When a bad review of her first novel appeared online, Kathleen Hale was warned not to respond. But she soon found herself wading in
Hook, line and sinker: ‘I prowled Blythe’s Instagram and Twitter, I read her reviews, considered photos of her baked goods and watched from a distance as she got on her soapbox.’ Illustration: Anna Parini for the Guardian
Why do hecklers heckle? Recent studies have had dark things to say about abusive internet commenters – a University of Manitoba report suggested they share traits with child molesters and serial killers.
In the months before my first novel came out, I was a charmless lunatic – the type that other lunatics cross the street to avoid. I fidgeted and talked to myself, rewriting passages of a book that had already gone to print. I remember when my editor handed me the final copy: I held the book in my hands for a millisecond before grabbing a pen and scribbling edits in the margins.
“No,” she said firmly, taking the pen away. “Kathleen, you understand we can’t make any more changes, right?”
“I was just kidding,” I lied. Eventually she had to physically prise the book from my hands.
A lot of authors call this “the post-partum stage”, as if the book is a baby they struggle to feel happy about. But for me, it felt more like one of my body parts was about to be showcased.
“Are you excited about your novel?” my mom asked, repeatedly, often in singsong.
“I’m scared,” I said. Anxious and inexperienced, I began checking goodreads.com, a social reviewing site owned by Amazon. My publisher HarperTeen had sent advance copies of my book to bloggers and I wanted to see what they thought. Other authors warned me not to do this, but I didn’t listen. Soon, my daily visits tallied somewhere between “slightly-more-than-is-attractive-to-admit-here” and “infinity”.
For the most part, I found Goodreaders were awarding my novel one star or five stars, with nothing in between. “Well, it’s a weird book,” I reminded myself. “It’s about a girl with PTSD teaming up with a veteran to fight crime.” Mostly I was relieved they weren’t all one-star reviews.
One day, while deleting and rewriting the same tweet over and over (my editors had urged me to build a “web presence”), a tiny avatar popped up on my screen. She was young, tanned and attractive, with dark hair and a bright smile. Her Twitter profile said she was a book blogger who tweeted nonstop between 6pm and midnight, usually about the TV show Gossip Girl. According to her blogger profile, she was a 10th-grade teacher, wife and mother of two. Her name was Blythe Harris. She had tweeted me saying she had some ideas for my next book.
“Cool, Blythe, thanks!” I replied. In an attempt to connect with readers, I’d been asking Twitter for ideas – “The weirdest thing you can think of!” – promising to try to incorporate them in the sequel.
Curious to see if Blythe had read my book, I clicked from her Twitter through her blog and her Goodreads page. She had given it one star. “Meh,” I thought. I scrolled down her review.
“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.”
“But there isn’t rape in my book,” I thought. I racked my brain, trying to see where I had gone wrong. I wished I could magically transform all the copies being printed with a quick swish of my little red pen. (“Not to make fun of PTSD, or anything,” I might add to one character’s comment. “Because that would be wrong.”)
At the bottom of the page, Goodreads had issued the following directive (if you are signed in as an author, it appears after every bad review of a book you’ve written): “We really, really (really!) don’t think you should comment on this review, even to thank the reviewer. If you think this review is against our Review Guidelines, please flag it to bring it to our attention. Keep in mind that if this is a review of the book, even one including factual errors, we generally will not remove it.
“If you still feel you must leave a comment, click ‘Accept and Continue’ below to proceed (but again, we don’t recommend it).”
I would soon learn why.
After listening to me yammer on about the Goodreads review, my mother sent me a link to a website called stopthegrbullies.com, or STGRB. Blythe appeared on a page called Badly Behaving Goodreaders, an allusion to Badly Behaving Authors. BBAs, Athena Parker, a co-founder of STGRB, told me, are “usually authors who [have] unknowingly broken some ‘rule’”. Once an author is labelled a BBA, his or her book is unofficially blacklisted by the book-blogging community.
In my case, I became a BBA by writing about issues such as PTSD, sex and deer hunting without moralising on these topics. (Other authors have become BBAs for: doing nothing, tweeting their dislike of snarky reviews, supporting other BBAs.)
“Blythe was involved in an [online] attack on a 14-year-old girl back in May 2012,” Parker said. The teenager had written a glowing review of a book Blythe hated, obliquely referencing Blythe’s hatred for it: “Dear Haters,” the review read. “Everyone has his or her own personal opinion, but expressing that through profanity is not the answer. Supposedly, this person is an English teacher at a middle school near where I lived… People can get hurt,” the review concluded.
In response, Blythe rallied her followers. Adults began flooding the girl’s thread, saying, among other things, “Fuck you.”
It turned out that Parker and her co-founders were not the only ones to have run into trouble with Blythe. An editor friend encouraged me to get in touch with other authors she knew who had been negatively reviewed by her. Only one agreed to talk, under condition of anonymity.
I’ll call her Patricia Winston.
“You know her, too?” I Gchatted Patricia.
She responded – “Omg” – and immediately took our conversation off the record.
“DO NOT ENGAGE,” she implored me. “You’ll make yourself look bad, and she’ll ruin you.”
Writing for a living means working in an industry where one’s success or failure hinges on the subjective reactions of an audience. But, as Patricia implied, caring too much looks narcissistic. A standup comic can deal with a heckler in a crowded theatre, but online etiquette prohibits writers from responding to negativity in any way.
In the following weeks, Blythe’s vitriol continued to create a ripple effect: every time someone admitted to having liked my book on Goodreads, they included a caveat that referenced her review. The ones who truly loathed it tweeted reviews at me. It got to the point where my mild-mannered mother (also checking on my book’s status) wanted to run a background check on Blythe. “Who are these people?” she asked. She had accidentally followed one of my detractors on Twitter – “I didn’t know the button!” she yelled down the phone – and was now having to deal with cyberbullying of her own. (“Fine, I’ll get off the Twitter,” she said. “But I really don’t like these people.”)
That same day, Blythe began tweeting in tandem with me, ridiculing everything I said. Confronting her would mean publicly acknowledging that I searched my name on Twitter, which is about as socially attractive as setting up a Google alert for your name (which I also did). So instead I ate a lot of candy and engaged in light stalking: I prowled Blythe’s Instagram and Twitter, I read her reviews, considered photos of her baked goods and watched from a distance as she got on her soapbox – at one point bragging she was the only person she knew who used her real name and profession online. As my fascination mounted, and my self-loathing deepened, I reminded myself that there are worse things than rabid bloggers (cancer, for instance) and that people suffer greater degradations than becoming writers. But still, I wanted to respond.
Patricia warned me that this was exactly what Blythe was waiting for – and Athena Parker agreed: “[GR Bullies] actually bait authors online to get them to say something, anything, that can be taken out of context.” The next step, she said, was for them to begin the “career-destroying” phase.
“Is this even real?” I Gchatted Patricia.
“YES THERE IS A CAREER-DESTROYING PHASE IT’S AWFUL. DO. NOT. ENGAGE. Omg did you put our convo back on the record?”
She went invisible.
Why do hecklers heckle? Recent studies have had dark things to say about abusive internet commenters – a University of Manitoba report suggested they share traits with child molesters and serial killers. The more I wondered about Blythe, the more I was reminded of something Sarah Silverman said in an article for Entertainment Weekly: “A guy once just yelled, ‘Me!’ in the middle of my set. It was amazing. This guy’s heckle directly equalled its heartbreaking subtext – ‘Me!’” Silverman, an avid fan of Howard Stern, went on to describe a poignant moment she remembers from listening to his radio show: one of the many callers who turns out to be an asshole is about to be hung up on when, just before the line goes dead, he blurts out, in a crazed, stuttering voice, “I exist!”
I had a feeling the motivation behind heckling, or trolling, was similar to why most people do anything – why I write, or why I was starting to treat typing my name into search boxes like it was a job. It occurred to me Blythe and I had this much in common: we were obsessed with being heard.
But empathy didn’t untangle the knots in my stomach. I still wanted to talk to her, and my self-control was dwindling. One afternoon, good-naturedly drunk on bourbon and after watching Blythe tweet about her in-progress manuscript, I sub-tweeted that, while weird, derivative reviews could be irritating, it was a relief to remember that all bloggers were also aspiring authors.
My notifications feed exploded. Bloggers who’d been nice to me were hurt. Those who hated me now had an excuse to write long posts about what a bitch I was, making it clear that:
1) Reviews are for readers, not authors.
2) When authors engage with reviewers, it’s abusive behaviour.
3) Mean-spirited or even inaccurate reviews are fair game so long as they focus on the book.
“Sorry,” I pleaded on Twitter. “Didn’t mean all bloggers, just the ones who talk shit then tweet about their in-progress manuscripts.” I responded a few more times, digging myself deeper. For the rest of the afternoon, I fielded venom from teenagers and grown women, with a smattering of supportive private messages from bloggers who apologised for being too scared to show support publicly. I emailed an apology to a blogger who still liked me. After she posted it, people quieted down on Twitter, and my inbox quit sagging with unread mail. But the one-star reviews continued, and this time they all called me a BBA. My book had not even been published yet and already it felt like everybody hated it, and me.
'Part of me still longed to hear Judy say, ‘I am Blythe’ and to explain, and then to laugh about it with me so we could become friends through admittedly weird circumstances.’ Illustration: Anna Parini for the Guardian
A few nights later I called my friend Sarah, to talk while I got drunk and sort of watched TV. Opening a new internet window, I absent-mindedly returned to stalking Blythe Harris. Somehow, I had never Googled her before and now, when I did, there was nothing to be found – which was weird, considering she was a high school staff member. “Wait a sec,” I mumbled, reaching for my bourbon.
“And then, I don’t know, I sort of lost it,” Sarah was saying. “I just sort of – poof – exploded…”
“Lost what?” I asked, distracted, thinking back through what I knew of Blythe – her endless photos and reviews complete with Gifs and links, which I now realised must have taken hours to write. The only non-generic photo on her Instagram was of a Pomeranian. It occurred to me that a wife and mother with papers to grade might not have a lot of time to tweet between 6pm and midnight. That said, I had a fiance, friends and a social life (if you can believe it), a lot of writing projects, and I still managed total recall of much of what Blythe had said online. I noticed that two of her profiles contradicted each other – one said 8th grade teacher, one said 10th grade – and that most of her former avatar photos had been of the Pomeranian.
“No, lost it,” Sarah said, “like, I went a little nuts and yelled at this stranger who was hitting on me. I can’t remember the last time I yelled at anyone.” In the ensuing silence, she waited as I rummaged in the kitchen for snacks. “Are you OK?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” I lied, trying to open a bag of pretzels with my teeth. But my eyes felt funny, and the bourbon burbled like magma in my stomach.
Was Blythe Harris even real?
Over the next few months, my book came out, I got distracted by life and managed to stay off Goodreads. Then a book club wanted an interview, and suggested I pick a blogger to do it.
“Blythe Harris,” I wrote back. I knew tons of nice bloggers, but I still longed to engage with Blythe directly.
The book club explained that it was common for authors to do “giveaways” in conjunction with the interview, and asked if I could sign some books. I agreed, and they forwarded me Blythe’s address.
The exterior of the house that showed up on Google maps looked thousands of square feet too small for the interiors Blythe had posted on Instagram. According to the telephone directory and recent census reports, nobody named Blythe Harris lived there. The address belonged to someone I’ll call Judy Donofrio who, according to an internet background check ($19), was 46 – not 27, as Blythe was – and worked as vice-president of a company that authorises disability claims.
It looked as if I had been taken in by someone using a fake identity. I Gchatted Patricia: “I think we’ve been catfished?”
Patricia asked how I could be sure Judy D wasn’t merely renting to Blythe H? I had to admit it seemed unlikely that I might be right: why would someone who sells disability insurance pose as a teacher online?
“Well, there’s only one way to find out,” Sarah said, sending me a car rental link. “Go talk to her.”
“DO NOT DO THIS,” Patricia cautioned me.
“You don’t want to talk to her?” I responded.
“NO STOP IT HOW DO YOU EVEN KNOW YOU’RE RIGHT?”
“I don’t.” I opened a new tab to book a car.
I planned my car rental for a few months down the line. I was procrastinating, hoping to untangle the mystery without face-to-face confrontation. I sent a message to Blythe through the book club, asking if we could do the interview via video chat. She vanished for a month, then told the club she’d been dealing with family issues and didn’t see herself having the time to do a video chat.
I suggested we speak on the phone and Blythe countered by pulling out of the interview – she was about to go to Europe, she said, but told the book club she hoped I’d still address “the drama”, a reference to my drunken tweets.
“Europe” seemed a vague destination for an adult planning a vacation. But a few nights later, lit only by the glow of my screen, I watched in real time as Blythe uploaded photos of Greece to Instagram. The Acropolis at night. An ocean view. A box of macaroons in an anonymous hand.
The images looked generic to me, the kind you can easily find on Google Images, but then Blythe posted a picture of herself sitting in a helicopter. The face matched the tanned Twitter photograph.
“Fuck,” I said. What if she was real and had simply given the book club the wrong address?
Then Judy updated her Facebook profile with photographs of a vacation in Oyster Bay, New York. I clicked through and saw the holiday had started on the same day as Blythe Harris’s.
As my car rental date approached, I thought it might be helpful to get some expert advice about meeting a catfish in person. So I telephoned Nev Schulman, subject of the 2010 hit Catfish, the documentary that coined the term. He now hosts and produces the MTV programme Catfish, in which he helps people confront their long-distance internet boyfriends, girlfriends and enemies – almost 100% of whom end up being fakes. Maybe, I thought, he could help me, too.
“Of all the catfish I’ve confronted, there was only one I didn’t tell I was coming,” Schulman said cagily, apparently shocked by my plan to go unannounced. Nonetheless, he had some tips: “This is a woman who is used to sitting behind her computer and saying whatever she wants with very little accountability. Even if she hears from people she criticises, she doesn’t have to look them in the face. She doesn’t know she hurt your feelings, and she doesn’t really care.”
“How did you know that she hurt my feelings?”
“Because you’re going to her house.”
He urged me to listen to whoever answered the door, and not to make our impromptu meeting about my “issues”.
Schulman used the word “issues” so many times that I decided to get in touch with another kind of expert: a doctor. Former film-maker Michael Rich splits his time between teaching pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, and lecturing on “Society, Human Development and Health” at Harvard’s School of Public Health. He is also the director of the Centre on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s hospital, and runs a webpage called Ask the Mediatrician, where parents write in about concerns ranging from cyberbullying to catfishing. Given the adolescent nature of my problem, he proved an excellent source.
“The internet doesn’t make you crazy,” he said. “But you can make yourself crazy on the internet.” The idea that I hadn’t transformed was reassuring. Whatever we become online is an extension of our usual behaviour: I was still myself, just amplified unattractively.
I asked Rich about his catfished patients: how did they react in the months that followed their discovery? “Depression, anxiety. They tend to spend more time online rather than less.” I self-consciously x’d out of my browser window, open to three Blythe Harris platforms. “They’re hyper-vigilant, always checking their phone. Certainly substance abuse.” I reconsidered the cocktails I’d planned for that evening. “The response is going to vary,” he concluded, “but it will have a commonality of self-loathing and self-harm.”
“Great,” I said, double-checking Blythe’s address.
I parked down the street from Judy’s house. It looked like something from a storybook, complete with dormer windows and lush, colourful garden. It was only now occurring to me that I didn’t really know what to say, and should probably have brought a present. I needed a white flag.
I searched my bag but all it contained besides notebooks and tampons was a tiny book I’d been given: Anna Quindlen’s A Short Guide To A Happy Life. This seemed a little passive-aggressive, but I figured it was better than nothing.
Before I could change my mind, I walked briskly down the street toward the Mazda parked in Judy’s driveway. A hooded sweatshirt with glittery pink lips across the chest lay on the passenger seat; in the back was a large folder full of what looked like insurance claims. I heard tyres on gravel and spun round to see a police van. For a second I thought I was going to be arrested, but it was passing by – just a drive through a quiet neighbourhood where the only thing suspicious was me.
I strolled to the front door. A dog barked and I thought of Blythe’s Instagram Pomeranian. Was it the same one? The doorbell had been torn off, and up close the garden was overgrown. I started to feel hot and claustrophobic. The stupid happiness book grew sweaty in my hands. I couldn’t decide whether to knock.
The curtains were drawn, but I could see a figure silhouetted in one window, looking at me.
The barking stopped.
I dropped the book on the step and walked away.
Over the course of an admittedly privileged life, I consider my visit to Judy’s as a sort of personal rock bottom. In the weeks that followed, I felt certain the conclusion to the Blythe Harris mystery was simply “Kathleen Hale is crazy” – and to be fair, that is one deduction. But I soon found out that it was not the only one.
While pondering that version of this story, I continued to scroll through both Blythe and Judy’s social media pages. And I saw something I had missed: Blythe had posted identical photos of Judy’s dogs, even using their names – Bentley and Bailey – but saying they were hers.
I sent screenshots to Patricia. “It’s the end of an era,” she Gchatted me. Between the emoticons and the lower-case font, she was the calmest version of herself she’d been all year.
Instead of returning to Judy’s house, which still felt like the biggest breach of decency I’d ever pulled, I decided to call her at work. Sarah and I rehearsed the conversation.
“What do I even say?” I kept asking.
“Just pretend to be a factchecker,” she said.
“So now I’m catfishing her.”
I called the number, expecting to get sent to an operator. But a human answered and when I asked for Judy, she put me through.
“This is Judy Donofrio,” she said.
I spat out the line about needing to factcheck a piece. She seemed uncertain but agreed to answer some questions.
“Is this how to spell your name?” I asked, and spelled it.
“Next question,” she snapped without answering.
“Do you live in Nassau County?”
“No.” Her Facebook page and LinkedIn account said otherwise, and that’s where her house was. She was lying, in other words, but I didn’t push it.
I asked if she was vice-president of the company.
“I can’t help you,” she said. “Buh-bye…”
“DO YOU USE THE NAME BLYTHE HARRIS TO BOOK BLOG ONLINE?” I felt like the guy on the Howard Stern show, screaming, “I exist!”
She paused. “No,” she said quietly.
She paused again, then asked, “Who’s Blythe Harris?” Her tone had changed, as if suddenly she could talk for ever.
“She’s a book blogger,” I said, “and she’s given your address.”
“A book blog… Yeah, I don’t know what that is.”
We both mumbled about how weird it all was.
“She uses photos of your dogs,” I said, feeling like the biggest creep in the world, but also that I might be talking to a slightly bigger creep. “I have it here,” I said, pretending to consult notes, even though she couldn’t see me, “that you have a Pomeranian, and another dog, and she uses photos that you posted.”
She gasped. “I do have a Pomeranian.”
“She uses your address,” I repeated. “Do you have children who might be using a different name online?” I already knew she had two teenagers.
“Nope – I do, but they’re not… They don’t live there any more,” she stammered.
“You know what?” she added. “I am Judy, but I don’t know who this Blythe Harris is and why she’s using my pictures or information.” I could hear her lips smacking; unruffled, she had started eating. “Can you report her or something?”
“Unfortunately it’s not a crime,” I said. “It’s called catfishing.”
She didn’t know what that meant, so I found myself defining catfishing for someone who was, presumably, catfishing me. (And who I was cross-catfishing.) “It happens a lot.”
“A long time ago I used to get books,” she said, her mouth full. “I just put ‘Return to Sender’.”
I told her that publishing houses were sending the books. I told her she might want to check out Blythe Harris’s Instagram, as there were photos on it she would recognise. She didn’t seem to care.
I asked how long it had been since she’d received books. “Like years ago,” she said.
An hour after I got off the phone to Judy, Blythe Harris deleted her Twitter and set her Instagram to private. A contact at a publishing house confirmed that they’d been sending books to Judy’s address all year, and as recently as two weeks ago.
“So,” I asked Nev Schulman, after giving him my evidence. “Am I a good catfisherwoman?”
“Do you really need me to tell you that?” he asked. “What’s interesting are the unanswered questions – like, why would she do this? That’s something our show does. It gives people closure.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. On the one hand, I was satisfied that Blythe Harris was a catfish. But part of me still longed to hear Judy say, “I am Blythe” and to explain, and then to laugh about it with me so we could become friends through admittedly weird circumstances. The mystery didn’t feel 100% solved.
“I’m tempted to tell you to call her back and tell her it’s you, and that you lied to her,” Schulman said. “Because, look, I’m curious to know about this chick, too – these people are really interesting, and the lives they lead and the characters they create, it takes a lot of brain power.”
So I called Judy again and this time I told her who I was, and that I knew she was Blythe Harris.
She started yelling. She said she wasn’t Blythe Harris and that she was going to call the police about “this Blythe Harris person”.
I paused. “OK.” I hadn’t anticipated the shouting.
“The profile picture is not me,” Judy cried, referring to Blythe’s Twitter profile. “It’s my friend Carla.”
I gasped. “You know that person?”
“She stole [pictures of Carla] off my website from making my Facebook.”
The way she spoke about the internet – “making my Facebook” – made doubt grow in my chest. Blythe’s blog was nothing fancy, but it had obviously been generated by someone who knew her way around a basic html template.
“The Pomeranian is me,” Judy said. “That picture isn’t me.”
She wouldn’t give me Carla’s last name, but I later found her through Judy’s Facebook. Sure enough, Blythe Harris had dragged her Twitter profile picture from Carla’s. And according to Judy, the only picture on Blythe’s Instagram page that featured an actual person – the one of the woman in the helicopter – had also been repurposed from a Facebook album chronicling Carla’s recent trip to Greece.
I asked Judy if she had told Carla about Blythe Harris. She hadn’t: “I don’t want to alarm her.” Then she started yelling again.
“I’m not yelling at you,” she yelled, and started to cry.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I feel like this is my fault,” Judy sobbed.
“How is it your fault?” I wanted to know.
“Whatever,” she whispered darkly. Her tone had shifted. “People are stupid,” she added, her voice flat. “If you track their IP address, you can find them easily.”
This seemed at odds with her earlier Facebook naivety, but I felt too suffocated to parse it all out. “OK,” I said. “Feel better.” When I gave her my name and number, there was no obvious reaction to my identity. “If you discover anything,” I said, “or if there’s anything you feel like you forgot to say, please let me know.” Sweat trickled down my back. I knew, on some level, that I was speaking to Blythe Harris. But after all this time, and all this digging, I still couldn’t prove it. Part of me wondered whether it even mattered any more.
“Sure,” she said. “I’ll Facebook message you.”
After we hung up, she blocked me on Facebook. Then Blythe Harris reconnected her Twitter account and set it to private. But she was still following me, which meant I could send her a direct message. I wrote to her that I knew she was using other women’s photos. I filled up three of the 140-character word limits, imploring her to contact me.
“I’m not trying to embarrass you,” I wrote. Channelling Schulman, I emphasised that I just wanted to know more about her experience – to listen, and hear how she felt about all this. Blythe responded by unfollowing me; there could be no more direct messages.
I’m told Blythe still blogs and posts on Goodreads; Patricia tells me she still live tweets Gossip Girl. In some ways I’m grateful to Judy, or whoever is posing as Blythe, for making her Twitter and Instagram private, because it has helped me drop that obsessive part of my daily routine. Although, like anyone with a tendency for low-grade insanity, I occasionally grow nostalgic for the thing that makes me nuts.
Unlike iPhone messages or Facebook, Twitter doesn’t confirm receipt of direct messages. Even so, I return now and then to our one-way conversation, wanting so badly for the time stamp at the bottom of my message to read “Seen”.
Some names have been changed.