When my teenage daughter Katie and her first boyfriend broke up, I wrote a personal essay for Salon.com that explored my overreaction to the split. I also questioned why Katie's romance had me feeling so nostalgic for my own youth.
Katie handled herself with grace, but I wanted to dive headfirst into a pint of Ben & Jerry's.
The essay essentially asked: How did a meshugana mother like me wind up with such a levelheaded kid?
When the piece was published, I received a lot of great feedback. Mothers said they had similar feelings about being overly involved with their kids' lives. A few whispered that they couldn't believe I admitted what they privately felt.
Unfortunately, the essay also sparked a blogospheric feeding frenzy that left me wondering where we are in terms of civil discourse.
Let me be clear: I was not upset that some people were critical of my essay - and of me. If someone read the article and felt it was poorly written, that's fine. If a reader felt I overstepped boundaries, no problem. If my humor didn't resonate with you, fair enough. Some people labeled my reaction to Katie's break-up "pathetic," which was also okay given the fact that I'd use that term in my piece.
But others were downright vicious. One guy commenting on a Gawker post about my essay wrote that he could tell I was a "huge cunt" just from my picture. A few people suggested I have Borderline Personality Disorder. One called me a bunny boiler; another dubbed me Mommie Dearest. Two people suggested matricide was in order. A bit unsettling, to say the least.
In nearly twenty years of writing for newspapers and magazines, I have taken strong positions on reproductive rights, marriage equality, affirmative action and other highly divisive issues. Never have I received as much hate mail as when I admitted that, as a mother, I am flawed. And yes, sometimes neurotic.
Was it because people cared so deeply about the well-being of my child? Or was it just really fun to join the flogging?
There were moments I felt a bit rattled by the negativity, but now recognize the experience as an opportunity to strengthen my emotional filter. I had the chance to sift through messages and determine which were valuable and which were just mean. The bottom line: Listen to the insightful comments, but also realize that anyone whose Internet identity is TurdBlossom probably doesn't have much to add.
I was also disappointed that so many people made the assumption that Katie had no prior knowledge of the essay. My daughter agreed to my writing the piece before I drafted a single word. She reviewed it and had full editing and veto power.
In retrospect, I should have included this information in my essay because even the savviest of journalists like Lisa Belkin hadn't realized I included Katie in the process. When I shared this with her, she generously extended an invitation to contribute a story about my week as the helicopter cupid.
Some people were only interested in name-calling and dire forecasts. One predicted Katie would despise me once she discovered I'd written about her private life. Another suggested a restraining order.
Immediately after the flood of comments started coming in, Katie begged to read them aloud. For fun, we began reciting the vitriolic ones in voices that were at comic odds with the text. We laughed ourselves silly reading scathing comments in the voice of a sweet little old lady. The Elmer Fudd and Count Dracula imitations were pretty good too.
Critics wondered how Katie's high school friends would react when they learned about the article. Had these folks been to a high school lately? This story would score a big zero on the high school drama-meter. Katie handled a break-up maturely, but her mom did not. Yawn.
A few people snapped that I was self-absorbed to make the essay all about me. But it was about me. It was my reaction to a situation. It was a personal essay.
My friend Marketa spent the first half of her life in Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia. She participated in the Velvet Revolution, the 10-day peaceful uprising in 1989, in which the Czech people won their freedom. Today Marketa lives in San Diego and is enamored with the freedom we have in this country. I am always amazed when I read her Facebook posts. She rejoices in the most basic freedoms like reading a book of her choosing. Marketa says that when she was growing up, she remembers her father losing his teaching job and being sent to dig ditches as punishment for writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper.
If the freedom to express myself goes hand-in-hand with other people's right to express themselves harshly, so be it.
But I'd hoped for more. I'd hoped we could be critical of each other's work, challenge each other's positions and even get a little snarky, without being malicious. The internet provides an amazing way for the world to exchange ideas, but it is also a place where people can hide behind user names and post things they wouldn't dream of saying in person.
Though I was surprised by the reaction to my article, I don't regret writing it. For every harsh comment, there were more from people saying they had connected with the piece. There were criticisms that were valid and I took to heart.
I'm not even sorry about how the week unfolded. It gave me the chance to take an emotional hit and handle it a little better than I did Katie's break-up. This time, I didn't reach for the Chunky Monkey. I reached for something within myself and found that it was far more satisfying than ice cream.