Friday, September 27, 2019

Using Fiction to Process Real Life Trauma: How I Survived an Online Troll Attack

This week one of my readers suggested that I put more autobiographical material in my novels. She especially wanted to know more about the time I was stalked and terrorized by a gang of Amazon review trolls and Goodreads bullies.

The truth is, some scenes from So Much For Buckingham take a whole lot of material from my real experiences back in 2012. 

So I decided to post a scene here today.

I think writing this scene helped me process my own trauma and put it in perspective. By adding the cat for comic relief, it also helped me lighten my attitude to my own experience.

When I was under attack, I hadn't committed the cardinal sin Camilla has—responding to an online review. But I had witnessed the bullying of a teenager who had responded negatively to an online review and that meant I got on the full Goodreads bully treatment. (Goodreads later banned the ringleaders of that notorious gang.)

The obscene threats are taken verbatim from threats I saw or received via email, blog comment, and “review.” The bullies did indeed send me a photo of my house along with death threats, to escalate my fear. 

I only figured out later the photo they emailed me was simply taken from Google Maps. At the time I feared these people were right here on my property, photographing me. The Google image had been taken only months earlier and the photographer happened to get my garbage bins in the shot. The night I got the death threat, it was garbage night and the bins were at the curb just as they were in the photo.

The panic Camilla feels is what I felt. I knew I couldn’t get any help from law enforcement, since I had no proof these lunatics planned to carry out the threatsand it turned out they didn't. But I had no way of knowing that. So I was as terrified as if these murderer-wannabes were really outside my door.
photo of my house from Google Maps

I think online bullying has only got worse since then. But I don’t think it’s as prevalent in the online writing community as it was in the wild days of the "Kindle Goldrush."

Like Camilla, I have worked in bookstores, although I've never owned one, as Camilla does. She’s an author, like me, but she writes etiquette books, something I would fail at miserably.

I did not have Buckingham to save the day.
I did once have a tuxedo cat who banged my screen door the way Buckingham does in this scene, but alas, I didn’t have him to save me from the psycho review bullies during my night of terror.

In the following scene, Camilla is alone in her cottage, unable to contact her best friend Plantagenet, who has flown to England (Where he meets the ghost of Richard III, but that's another subplot.) 

Plus her publishers haven't returned her calls for weeks. So she feels alone in the world when she gets the death threat. She has been getting nasty "reviews" and comments from the self-styled "review police" after committing the gaffe of responding to a review, but this is the first time her life is threatened.

Later one of the trolls, "DickonthePig" is found murdered during a historical reenactment in the English Midlands, and Plantagenet is a suspect. But here Camilla doesn't know if these people are truly homicidal, or just obscenity-obsessed online crazies. 

This passage from So Much for Buckingham is from Part III The Kingdom of Perpetual Night

There were a dozen more one-star "reviews" on my Amazon book pages. Especially Good Manners for Bad Times.
These poisonous reviews were even more toxic and threatening than the last batch. Some accused me of criminal behavior and others of sexual deviance. Lots of them threatened me with rape. Some also threatened somebody named Hinckley Lutterworth.
I didn't even know anybody named Hinckley Lutterworth, although the name rang a distant bell.
I felt a burning in my gut as I skimmed the headers. Part of me wanted to click away and pretend it wasn't happening, but I knew I had to face the full catastrophe.
The most recent "review" had come in only a minute before.
"Jezbellzbooks" said "Dr. Manners is a BBA. Sumbudy shud teach HER sum manners. Maybe with a **** up her ***. Or get a gun. Just shoot that old bat. Put her out of our misery."
A gun. They wanted to kill me. Apparently the crime of responding to a ridiculous "review" was a capital offense to these people.
I refreshed the page and another one came up.
"Owain Glendower" said: "These bloody reviewers have completely lost the plot. As William Shakespeare said, 'Hell is empty and all the devils are here'. Looks like the work of You-Know-Who-You-Are-You-Sodding-Prats. The filth on Book Reviews dot Com is even worse. Utterly depraved. What's wrong with you people? Henry Tudor was one of the greatest kings Britain has ever seen."
Except for the weird reference to English history, that was the first "review" that had made any sense. It even gave me five stars.
I Googled Book Reviews dot Com and searched for my books.
What came up turned my stomach. There were many pages of obscene comments. "Author Should be Sodomized Sideways with a Garden Gnome" was repeated at least 50 times by different "reviewers" with monikers like "SmarterThanYouBitch", "Pottymouth" and "F***U2". Some had odd symbols instead of names. But they all called me a "badly behaving author" and threatened me with rape and torture. Hinckley Lutterworth got a number of threats too, although he didn't seem to get the "badly behaving author" accusations.
The only person who defended me was my Amazon friend "Owain Glendower," who appeared to be a civilized, non-psychopathic person. As a result, subsequent reviews attacked him, too.
DickonThePig, who seemed to be everywhere, said he knew where Owain lived and threatened to cut off his private parts with rusty garden shears. The one called "Alfred the Cake" threatened to blow him up with a fertilizer bomb, and "Libra Rising" thought Owain deserved garden gnome rape as well.
Gardening seemed to be a theme here.
There was also excessive verbiage about Richard III and Henry Tudor. What these people thought I had to do with medieval English monarchs I couldn't even guess.
With my publishers AWOL and Plantagenet refusing to return my phone calls, I had no idea what to do about any of this.
I took off to eat some dinner, but when I came back, there were plenty more toxic reviews. On Book Reviews dot Com, Owain Glendower and somebody called Jasper Tudor seemed to have got themselves into a "flame war" with DickonthePig, Libra Rising, and Alfred the Cake. It was horrific, but also pretty laughable. Luckily, they dropped any mention of me early in their Tudor-vs-Plantagenet battle in the comment thread, but they all threatened each other using obscenities that nearly seared my eyeballs.
Why did the Internet bring out such bad behavior in people?  
I started to feel panicky.
I checked my email. Plant would have to reply to my frantic messages sometime. 
Oh, good. I had one new email. From a U.K. address.
I started to feel relief. It had to be either Plant or somebody from the publishing company.
The relief didn’t last long.
"The rape train is coming. Your raped and mutilated corpse will be in tomorrow's Bay News. We will choke you with Hinckley Lutterworth's severed penis. Libra will rise."
There were two attachments, photos. When I enlarged the first I saw a 1930s California bungalow-style stucco cottage. Mine. The second was a picture of my bookstore.
I started to shake. Partly with fear and partly with rage. These rapist, misogynist monsters had been here. In my very own courtyard, taking photos of my house. They could be out there right now.
My first instinct was to call the police. But then I realized it was pointless. People made stupid threats on the Internet all the time these days. You could see them in the comments of every online news article. In fact, I remembered reading that the Supreme Court had recently ruled that making online threats was perfectly legal if the threatener didn't mean to carry them out.
How was I supposed to know if these crazed "book reviewers" really intended to rape and murder me?
And who on earth was Hinckley Lutterworth? And why didn't these people have lives?
The screen door banged.
And banged again.
If this was a prank, it was entirely too close to home. It was time to call the police, no matter what the Supreme Court said.
I reminded myself I needed to breathe. But I had to do it silently. I didn't want whoever was out there to know for sure that I was here.
This wasn't Internet bullying anymore. This was real life. I had rapist psychos banging on my front door.
It occurred to my rational brain that they must be very lightweight rapist psychos. I hadn't heard any footsteps. People always made noise crunching through the gravel in the courtyard.
But I wasn't taking any chances. I dialed 911.
The door banged again.
As the phone rang, I grabbed the empty wine bottle by the neck to use as a weapon.
"What is your emergency?" the operator said.
"Somebody keeps slamming my screen door," I whispered into the phone. "They've sent me a threatening email. I think it's a bunch of lunatics from Amazon. They know where I live. They sent a picture of my house. They want to rape and murder me, apparently. And mutilation will be involved."
"Amazon? The online store? Are you being physically threatened?" The woman's voice was businesslike, but soothing.
"Um…They said news about my corpse would be in tomorrow's Bay News. I guess they don't know it's a weekly." I worked hard to make my voice sound calm. I didn't want to sound like a paranoid crazy person. "They also threatened somebody named Hinckley Lutterworth, and I don't even know anybody by that name. Not that I can remember. They also said something like 'Libra will rise'. I have no idea what that's about. I'm a Scorpio."
"Can you see who is at the door, ma'am?  Do they have weapons?"
I could see nothing from the front window. Not even a shadow thrown by the bright security light that illuminated the path between the store and my cottage.
I drew up my courage, set down the phone, and unlocked the door.
"I have the police on the phone!" I shouted into the courtyard as I yanked on the doorknob.
But I saw no one. The person who had been banging the door had disappeared. Which made no sense. I still hadn't heard any footsteps on the gravel.
I picked up the phone again.
"I don't see anybody," I said. "But they could be hiding."
"Are these people threatening you now, ma'am?"
I let go of the door handle and looked in horror as the screen door moved away from me, seemingly on its own.
Then it banged again.
I looked down. There was my cat Buckingham, with his claws hooked in the screen, pulling back the door.
He unhooked his claw and gave me a look that said, "You can't be this stupid. Open the damn door."
"I, um, maybe it's not…" I felt my face flush. "I'm so sorry. It seems to be a false alarm. Sorry. It's only my cat. Don't bother the police."
"A unit has already been dispatched, ma'am."
I closed my phone and gave Buckingham a stern look.
"I'll let you in on one condition," I said to his smug little white-mustached face. "When the rapist reviewers come for me, you will use those claws on them."

Have you ever been the victim of online trolls? Did they send death threats? Did you call the police? Have you ever processed a trauma by fictionalizing it? 

Until September 30th
"Delicious wit, wonderful eccentric characters, and a beguiling plot. Camilla Randall is a delight!"...Melodie Campbell, Canada's "Queen of Comedy"
It's a comedy-mystery about cyberbullying, the gangs of new media, and the ghost of Richard III. Plus a cat named Buckingham.

"This wonderfully satiric comedy is a joy to read. On the surface, it's a frothy romance cum suspense story about a whacky writer, Camilla, whose life is threatened by trolls and who topples from one hilarious disaster into the next. But underneath, it provides a perceptive insight into the mad world of modern publishing, the sub-culture of Internet lunatics and the mindset of cultists who can - and do - believe ten impossible things before breakfast. The reader is left with the question: how much of the story, perish the thought, might be true? Tremendous fun, wittily satiric and highly recommended."...Nigel J. Robinson

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  1. I apologize to everybody who has tried to comment and been thwarted. Blogger is getting more thwarty all the time. Sigh.

    This is from Claude Forthomme, editor of Impaketer magazine.

    That book has to be one of my favorite books, Anne, and I'm so happy you posted this scene from it, one of the best! And yes, I do believe that fiction can be a GREAT way to process traumatic events in one's life.

    Online bullying is definitely one of the worst, and I can share your fear and pain...not because I lived through such an episode myself but because you write so well about it!

    All this reminded me that, years ago, before the Internet age and Google, some lines of work attracted bullying in the form of "death letters" one received in the mail - I know my father did; he was a diplomat representing his country, Belgium, and when the Congo crisis exploded in the early 1960s, he was at the United Nations and found himself the target of hate messages and threats. And all this just because he was the official representative of an ex-colonial power (that had given independence to the Congo too quickly, without taking the necessary measures to ensure a smooth transition, something he himself had often noted! But to no avail, he was bullied and ostracized all the same.

    So, yes, bullying is an old, very human phenomenon, alas...Now with the Internet, it has found new vigour and is far more terrifying than receiving a letter in the old-fashioned snail mail.

    But in both cases, the bullies had your address...I often think that Google's coverage of every street may not have been such a good idea, it opened up opportunities for direct bullying that otherwise might have been hard(er) to carry out. But of course, a professional bully will always know how to get at you!

    I see you have another book out linked to our Internet age, I'm going to go and buy it straightaway. Can't wait to read it! Cheers, Anne, and thank you for being the wonderful writer you are!

  2. Claude--I apologize for misspelling Impakter magazine in my intro up there. Another annoying thing about Blogger is that you can't edit comments.

    Many thanks for your insightful comment. Your story about your dad is hairraising. Because it was less frequent 60 years ago may have made the threats even more terrifying.

    You're right that bullying has always been with us. In fact, it seems to be instinctive to all animals. Watching chickens bully each other makes me perfectly okay with eating them. I'd like to believe that we could evolve beyond chicken pecking at some time in human future, but given current events, I'm not so sure.

    I hope you enjoy Googling old Boyfriends. It was a whole lot of fun to write. Many thanks for taking the time to email me your comment!

  3. Juat wanted to say the reviews on the book over on Amazon and your blog post here was enough to decide I really wanted to read this book :)

    1. Steve--Thanks for the day brightener! I hope you enjoy Buckingham. This shows that blogs DO sell books, even though blogs are out of favor with the bookselling establishment right now. Thanks!