A friend of mine, a woman who lives here on the Cape, is currently being cyber-stalked, and there’s the possibility that it might develop into something far more immediate.
I have something of a frisson of fear as I write that. I expect that many of you, especially women, will have that same frisson as you read it. We feel it because we recognize it. At some point we’ve all been the unwilling recipients of unwanted attention, whether from the casual conversation that takes a sudden uncomfortable turn or all the way to the need, finally, for a restraining order.
One year ago in this column I wrote a piece about domestic violence, relating to one specific local situation but also enlarging the frame to acknowledge that it’s here, with us, going on every day (and every night) behind the façades of some of Provincetown’s prettiest houses, and played out by sometimes the most unexpected of people.
As a novelist who often writes about darkness—violence and murder—I’m well aware of the banality of evil. We all expect it to come in the guise of a monster, something immediately recognizable as terrible and dangerous. But the truth is that the boogeyman of our childhoods doesn’t exist. Evil looks like everybody else. And that’s where its power resides.
The same person who is able to intentionally hurt another person looks like your next-door neighbor, your co-worker, the person who sold you coffee this morning. They clean up well in court. They have loving families. They pay their taxes and are often the most charming of people. When I was involved with someone who hit me, others complimented me on my relationship, remarking on my luck, pointing out how sweet and thoughtful he was. When I was finally able to leave him, everyone blamed me for being the bitch who made up wicked stories to hurt their poor friend. He was such a nice guy, you see. And the real horror of it is—he was. He volunteered at a homeless shelter. He stopped on the highway to help people change their flat tires. There were reasons I’d gotten involved with him in the first place. Unless you’ve got your own serious psych problems, you don’t deliberately enter into a relationship with a monster.
But you don’t need to have an abusive partner to experience fear for your safety, or to see the banality of evil. I think we’ve all experienced the mildest form of intrusion—the Facebook invitations from persons with whom we have no possible connection and that begin, “I love your photo.” We delete them and go about our lives; but at some level that’s still unsettling, isn’t it?
I’ve written before about cyber-stalking and the newly named “doxxing” (researching and publishing personal information about someone, including their home address) in the context of women in sportscasting, when internet trolls (and worse) are triggered by the very presence of a woman in a male-dominated niche to spew hatred and incite violence. I have no doubt that many of the men who do that present to their friends and communities as nice guys, too. The banality of evil.
Which brings me back to my friend. She wrote a powerful book about a murder that happened decades ago and resulted in a wrongful conviction. She presented facts about the investigation and the trial. She was very careful to keep her own opinion out of the narrative. And she waited some years before even writing it. I’m so very pleased to say that it’s had some effect; the case may even be reopened as a result.
And one of the players in the drama responded very personally to the book. He has infiltrated all her online activity: her publisher’s website, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter… She blocks him, but he creates new identities to come back and attack again.
I don’t have to tell you how scary that feels, especially considering the context. Yes: she could stop. She could retire from using social media for the rest of her life. She could stop promoting her book, giving talks, answering questions. She could move away, go into hiding. She won’t. So she checks the locks on her doors and windows before going to bed at night, and worries at every sound she hears.
Why am I telling you this story? Last week I wrote about the vulnerability of everyone in our community to the ravages of nature. But it’s not just nature that we have to fear: everyone is vulnerable to violence, too. A few years ago I joked that Provincetown’s only real crime wave was bicycle theft; and the truth is that we’d all like to believe that’s the community we live in. And for sure we don’t have rival gangs shooting each other on Commercial Street, as some communities must endure. But as long as there are people like my friend who live in fear, we have a responsibility to them.
When you see trolls on the Internet, call them out for what they are—even if they’re on Provincetown Community Space. If someone’s being bullied, say something. If a friend shows up with a bruise, ask the question. If one of your friends is a “nice guy” that you know isn’t at nice at home, confront them. And, especially, if someone you know is being harassed, or stalked, or frightened, don’t blame them. It’s not about them or anything that they did.
I hate the thought of my friend listening for footsteps in the darkness. Let’s do what we can for people who we know might be doing just that…tonight.