Feminist Killjoy. Badly Behaving Bookliker. Writer and reader of all things speculative.
I hate telling this story. Just the thought of doing so, of exposing my past to even a handful of other people, makes me feel sick to my stomach. But with Goodreads' change in policy occurring and the word "bullying" being slung around so casually, I think it's time.
What I'm about to tell you might be hard to believe. Or maybe you'll believe it, and maybe it'll upset you. I won't lie; what I went through is likely to trigger some people. If you believe me. I'm always terrified people won't believe me. After all, I was gaslighted so hard, for years even I didn't know whether I believed me.
The thing to understand about me is that I'm autistic. What that means, on a very basic level, is that I have a good deal of difficulty both understanding, and presenting, non-verbal language such as tone of voice, facial expression, and body language. When I entered middle school at the age of eleven, I didn't know about this. Even if I had known, I don't think I could have grasped what it would mean for me.
I'd already begun experiencing difficulties with bullying and ostracization in elementary school, but what began as a small struggle turned into full blown hell when I entered middle school.
It started out okay, the first few days. The prettiest, most popular girl in my year asked me to vote for her for homeroom class president, and I gladly did. I tried to be nice, even though it was a little difficult at times. I didn't connect with these kids. My father had committed suicide a couple years before, forcing me to grow up fast in a lot of ways, and I couldn't relate to the problems and joys of the average eleven-year-old. I found a lot of it shallow and perplexing. But I tried to hide my feelings, because that's no good way to go about getting along with people, and I genuinely wanted to.
I suspect that perhaps my inability to control my non-verbal language is what gave me away. That perhaps what I really thought and felt showed without my knowing it. I don't know. Certainly it didn't help that I was overweight, that I wore cheap, worn clothes and the ugliest plastic glasses Medicare would pay for. It didn't help that I read constantly (and I know we get a bit tired of that trope in YA, but I was genuinely, literally the only person I knew who read). It didn't help that I was going through a period of poor hygiene common among autistics (and numbingly humiliating to talk about now). There were a lot of things that didn't help, but the sheer intensity of their hatred--that's why I expect the autism played a part in some way.
If only name-calling were the worst of it. They cornered me at all different times to harass me: At my desk in the morning when I was trying to read, at the bus stop, in the locker room while I was trying to change. I had rocks thrown at me when I was walking home from the bus stop. People I didn't know, who weren't even in my class, called me names in the hallways. The girls from my class had lockers surrounding mine, and would stand blocking mine until I was at risk of being late for class.
Very early on, I was under the naive assumption that someone would do something about this. No one did. Even when my mom butted in, the changes that occurred, the "arrangements" made to "protect" me--it took me ages to realize they were far more punishments than protections.
One of the things I had to do was something called "dailies." These were slips of paper that had to be signed by all my teachers in a day, then by my mother, and turned in to my guidance counselor the next day. This conflicted with another "arrangement": I had permission to leave classes a few minutes early to avoid the crowds, but I often couldn't because my teachers wouldn't get around to signing the stupid dailies until class was over. And my mother--oh, so proud she was of her job "protecting" me, but in truth she was a neglectful drug addict and often wasn't around to sign my dailies, so I got in trouble for not having them signed.
It took me some years to understand just how absurd it was. Dailies were meant for students who skipped class or didn't turn in their homework; I was not one of those students. There was no reason for me to be doing them. It took me years to see that many of these "arrangements" weren't about protecting me at all. Allowing me to leave class early? Getting me out of the way. Eventually getting me a doctor's note so I wouldn't have to go to gym class? Getting me out of the way. Eventually removing me from school altogether and giving me a tutor? Getting me out of the way. Everything was about taking me out of the equation, rather than punishing the people who were hurting me.
I didn't understand it. I came home crying and hyperventilating almost every day, yet the people who put me in that state never got in trouble for it. The only things I understood were: 1) There was no point standing up for myself, because any time I did, I got in trouble and 2) there was no point in telling anyone what was going on.
I'd become the perfect victim. I didn't tell about any of the things that were said or done to me. When a girl came up behind me in the locker room and punched me in the back, I said nothing. When that same girl approached me in the locker room a second time and shoved me to the floor, I told no one. I went to the nurse because my leg hurt from the hard floor and I cried, but I told no one why my leg hurt.
I remember very vividly an incident from seventh grade, yet another that I never reported to anyone. I was sitting in one of the basement classrooms, waiting for the teacher to arrive and doing what I usually did: Reading and ignoring my classmates. (Let this be a lesson to you: "Just ignore them, they'll stop" is the biggest pile of bullshit anyone will ever tell you.) I kept ignoring them. I ignored them when they surrounded me to tell me there was a dead fly in my hair (by this time my hygiene problems had changed, but their attacks had not). I ignored them right up until I couldn't anymore: When they sat around me, gleeful as hyenas with the corpse of a wildebeest, staring as the teacher tried to remove the dead fly they'd put in my hair. I remember my mortification as if it was yesterday. But I told no one.
Of course, this was seventh grade and by then, I knew why no one believed me: My bullies had managed to convince them that I was the bully.
I'd learned it in sixth grade, after yet another incident that landed me in more hot water than the person who instigated it. One of my bullies had broken a pencil into bits and kept throwing the bits at me. It was one of the rare occasions where I got fed up, so I grabbed one of the pieces and threw it back at him. He immediately turned and told the teacher that I'd been throwing things at him. The teacher separated us and turned to hiss at me, telling me nastily that she'd be keeping an eye on me. I was utterly bewildered, since I thought it was common knowledge that these kids bullied me, even though they were never punished for it.
Later, both of us were sent to the guidance counselor. I listened, confounded, as he described all the names I supposedly called him and his friends, all the swears I threw at them (never mind that, though I swear like I sailor now, I never uttered so much as a "damn" back then; I was perhaps alarmingly naive and innocent for my age). At one point, shocked, I opened my mouth to protest; the guidance counselor turned and viciously shushed me. I never had a chance to defend myself. In truth, I've never once had that chance. This was the first time I'd heard about any of this, because not a single soul had bothered to ask me if any of this had really happened; they just assumed it was all true.
Not that defending myself would have done any good. Even if I hadn't already absorbed the lesson of keeping my mouth shut, being autistic left me at a severe disadvantage. I struggle to look people in the eyes when I don't like or trust them, and you can bet I didn't trust a single one of the adults around me. I stood no chance.
Things should have started making sense then. That time the leaders of the bully pack came up to me to demand why I was spreading rumors about them being prostitutes, and I stared blankly back at them and said "What's a prostitute?"--times like those should have made sense. They'd been lying about me all along. But instead, I spiraled into a very dark time in my life.
I have a sharper memory than almost anyone you'll meet. It can be useful, but it's also a bit of a curse sometimes; trust me, there are things I'd love to forget. But back then, I'd already been punished so much for things I hadn't done. Instead of believing in my own innocence, I felt like my mind was breaking apart. I scrabbled desperately, for years, to retrieve the memories I'd clearly lost, to remember doing and saying the things I was accused of. I owned up to the small handful of times I started shit and the even smaller handful of times I stood up for myself, but I could not for the life of me remember being the bully. It didn't help that my sister and her friends bullied me at home, and that my incredible disappearing mom loved to tell me all the time that "that was just [my] perception of what happened, not what actually happened" about all of her neglect.
These days, I know logically that I didn't do what I was accused of, but sometimes my mind starts skidding down a slippery slope to what feels very much like madness. I find myself grasping once more for memories that simply don't exist because they're of events that never happened.
That's why I hate telling this story. Sure, it hurts to bring up those days, to relive moments that traumatized me so badly, I can't walk into a school building without having a panic attack. But it's all those years when I couldn't even believe myself that scare me. I'm terrified that people will think I'm a liar, that of course I was the bully because it was all those kids' word against mine. That children can't possibly be that awful, that they wouldn't think to team up and tell the same lies about a person. Children damn well can be that awful, especially when they're never taught better, when they always get away with it. And there will always be a part of my mind that is so fragile because of it.
This nonsense with Goodreads has made me think about those days. I may not always agree with everything my fellow Goodreaders do, but I have never, never had an ounce of patience for Stop the Goodreads Bullies. Their tactics remind me of my tormentors: lying, twisting truths, roping in people for whom it's convenient or desirable to believe what they say. I've been on GR since before STGRB showed up, I was around when the instigating drama happened. I largely stay out of these conflicts, but I watch them all go down.
STGRB isn't a band of innocent vigilantes out to protect poor beleaguered authors from the depredations of trolls and bullies. They are the trolls. They are the bullies. I was there for the doxxing and the stalking. I've been there every time one of their asshole followers has waltzed onto someone's review to throw a shitfit. I was there every time one of them and their 12+ sockpuppets got deleted from GR. I've been around, watching, seeing every lie, every threat. Their nonsense about this not being about reviews? Feh. It's always been about reviews, ever since Melissa Douthit thought she could storm around, self-righteously telling everyone how to behave, and didn't get her way. That whole mess started because of a review that she walked into, and it wasn't even her book that was being reviewed. It didn't start with GR users, it started with her. Just like it generally does.
And you want to talk abuse? Look at the comments on your average post on STGRB and you'll see it in spades. Ageism, ableism, classicism and misogyny so vile, it will make your stomach turn. Please, someone explain to me how "bba" or "stgrb-supporter" is so much worse than "she's clearly mentally ill" or "she's pretty young for being such a little bitch" or "Tranny Manface Creature" or "rancid psycho-bitch" or "three-hundred pounds with greasy unwashed hair" or any of a number of other truly disgusting things you can see being said about Goodreaders on STRGB.
Goodreads have become my teachers and guidance counselors, bowing to the bullies and letting them get away with whatever they want. Why? Maybe because they think it's easier. Maybe they're trying to sell something. Maybe they drank the STRGB koolaid. It doesn't matter why. What matters is that GR is censoring its most valuable users. What matters it that GR, once home of readers and reviewers, have decided it's more important to protect author egos than the people who made them what they are today. You're Goodreads, not Goodwrites, GR. You're reader space, not writer space. Why don't you care about that anymore?
As a writer, I believe very strongly in reader space. One day, even though I love talking to other readers, I'll likely do so much less, because I believe that published authors should have a care how much time they spend in reader space. It's valuable to them. If the people at STGRB had any sense, they'd realize reader space is valuable to writers, too. A reader's ability to talk freely about book is important to the industry as a whole.
As a victim of bullying, I think Goodreads is wrong and they need to undo this harmful change. As a victim of bullying, I doubt they'll bother to listen.