Stumbling Upon a Wasp’s Nest

Last week, a friend and fellow blogger wrote a detailed and superbly constructed post regarding the author Kathleen Hale and her recently published article in The Guardian‘Am I being catfished?’ An author confronts her number one online critic. I’ve scaled back on a lot of social media lately, so reading my friend’s blog post introduced me to this story for the first time. I wrote what I considered a thoughtful comment to her post and then moved on to other things. Little did I know that I had stumbled upon a figurative wasp’s nest.

I really don’t want to rehash what happened between Kathleen Hale and Blythe Harris. Those who don’t already know what happened can read the article and also do a simple Google search to find many counterarguments on the part of book reviewers and bloggers. However, I feel that in order to properly address the issue, I need to spell out how I interpret the incident. I’m going to try to make this as brief as possible.

Kathleen Hale wrote a young adult novel called No One Else Can Have You. A book reviewer and blogger who calls herself Blythe Harris received an ARC of the book. Harris was also a prominent member of Goodreads, and she began sharing her thoughts on the novel there as she read it. In the beginning, she liked it, but when she read about 16% of the book, she started taking issue with it, complaining of the way the author addressed subjects like PTSD and statutory rape. I can’t tell if Harris ever finished the book, but her final review of it in January 2013 consisted of two words: “Fuck this.”

I’ve read again and again that Hale’s account in The Guardian should be taken with a grain of salt, and I’m not arguing with that. We’re hearing only her side of the story. So I’m expressing only what I’ve gathered from reading up on the situation and also from my fellow blogger’s well-researched post. (In case you’re wondering why I’m not linking to that post, it’s because I haven’t asked for her permission to do so.) From what I can tell, a couple of weeks after Harris posted her “Fuck this” review, Hale got into a snarky exchange with a reviewer (not Harris) on Twitter. Harris entered the fray with a tweet proclaiming that it was time to call out Kathleen Hale for her behavior. The book blogger/reviewer community’s wrath was stirred, and Hale took to Twitter to apologize to everyone. (According to my blogger friend’s post, these tweets have since been deleted, but people captured screenshots of them and shared them.) At some point in all this mess, Hale, who has admitted to having obsessive tendencies, saw Harris’s unflattering review of her book and took offense. Then she began, in her own words, to engage in “light stalking,” following Harris’s Twitter and Instagram accounts. Then a book review site called YA Reads contacted Hale and offered her the opportunity to pair up with any blogger she chose for an interview. Hale chose Harris. The personal account of the individual who runs the YA Reads site, where she shares her side of the story about what happened, states that Harris was confused as to why Hale chose her to interview her, since she didn’t like Hale’s book. But she agreed. Hale had asked the individual in charge of YA Reads for Harris’s mailing address, because she claimed she wanted to send Harris a gift for hosting her on her blog after the interview took place. Harris provided this, and it was passed on to Hale. It’s pretty clear that Hale took major umbrage with Harris’s review of her book, and she was eager to find out more about her “number one critic.”

Harris ended up backing out of the interview. Hale expressed her frustration to the person who arranged it, and then Hale’s behavior turned creepy. Since Hale had been following Harris’s social media accounts, she discovered what she felt to be inaccuracies regarding Harris’s identity. (I’m not delving into all that–you can read Hale’s article to learn how her suspicions were roused.) Armed with Harris’s mailing address, she decided to do some online digging, and she discovered that no one by the name of Blythe Harris lived at that address. Harris’s online profiles state that she is a 27-year-old schoolteacher. Her profile picture appears to be that of a woman in her twenties. According to Hale, Harris used pictures of this same young woman on her Instagram account and claimed they were taken during Harris’s recent vacation in Greece. Hale started to suspect that Harris wasn’t who she said she was, so she ordered a background check and discovered the person living at the address Harris had provided to the book reviewer site was actually a 46-year-old woman Hale calls “Judy.” Judy worked in insurance, not as a schoolteacher. Hale ended up renting a car and going to Judy’s house. (Let me state here, in case there is any doubt, that I consider this abhorrent behavior on Hale’s part.) While standing at Judy’s front door, Hale changed her mind about confronting her, and before leaving, she placed a book on how to live a happy life on Judy’s doorstep.

Hale’s obsessive behavior continued when she called Judy at work, not once, but twice. The first time, Hale didn’t reveal who she was, but the second time she revealed her identity. Judy became distraught, claiming she’d never heard of Blythe Harris and didn’t know what a book blog was. She also said that the profile pictures on Blythe Harris’s accounts were of Judy’s friend Carla, and according to Hale, Judy said that the person pretending to be Blythe Harris stole the photos of Carla. After this phone call, the person claiming to be Blythe Harris blocked Hale from all of her social media accounts. And now that Hale has recounted all of this in her article, book bloggers have come out in droves to condemn her behavior.

I’m also going to condemn Hale’s behavior right now. I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know if what she did was technically illegal. But just because something is legal doesn’t make it right (see factory farming). I expressed this opinion in my first comment on my friend’s blog post. I think if a stranger is calling a person at work in regards to anything other than that person’s work, that’s harassment. If Blythe/Judy feels threatened, I hope she reports this to authorities and obtains a restraining order against Hale.

But here’s how I stirred up the wasp’s nest. In case you didn’t know, wasps communicate using pheromones. If you unsuspectingly stumble upon a wasp’s nest, the first wasp to sting you will simultaneously send out a pheromone message to other hive members to attack. I posted my comment condemning Hale’s behavior, but I also stated that I thought it was wrong of Judy/Blythe to steal another person’s photos and pass them off as her own in the creation of her online persona. (In another review on Goodreads, Harris specifically states that she is NOT using a pseudonym and that her profile isn’t meant to be anonymous.) I asked how many of us would be comfortable having a (perhaps overzealous) book reviewer/blogger using our profile picture as her own. I also spoke of the bullying and mob mentality I’ve personally observed on Goodreads. (For the record, I am not an active Goodreads user. I had never heard of Harris before this incident. I am also not affiliated with the site Stop the Goodreads Bullies. I don’t know any of the people who run it.) The blog post author stated that she didn’t think Harris’s using another person’s photos as her own was relevant, and we respectfully agreed to disagree. (Because we’re civil like that.) Many people flocked to the blog to excoriate Hale and rush to Harris’s defense. I didn’t respond to any of these comments, because I believe we’re all entitled to our own opinions. I don’t feel it’s right to attack people for theirs, even if I disagree with them. However, these same folks started taking issue with my original comment. I kept seeing notifications where people were replying to me and calling me out in the comments thread.

At first I tried to respond civilly, though I felt my words were being twisted and taken out of context. I had to endlessly repeat that I do NOT condone Hale’s behavior. Other commenters said I shouldn’t assume that Harris was using a photo that wasn’t hers. They claimed Hale had lied and misrepresented so much in her article, I shouldn’t trust any of her claims. Well, if we’re going to take that route, then all of these Goodreads users/bloggers/reviewers are in an uproar for no reason. If Blythe Harris is indeed Blythe Harris, then Hale didn’t show up at Blythe’s house. She didn’t contact her by phone. She contacted someone named Judy. (Although it’s a big coincidence that after Hale’s contact with Judy, Blythe Harris blocked Hale from all of her social media accounts and is now, according to other bloggers, in hiding.)

Other commenters accused me of attacking people who use pseudonyms. I never said that Judy/Blythe should not have used a pseudonym. I understand the concept of pen names and the need to protect one’s privacy online. I couldn’t care less if Judy/Blythe called herself Jane Smith and claimed to be a zookeeper. I took issue with her stealing another person’s photos and using them as her own on her social media accounts. Is that illegal? Again, I don’t know. But as I said before, just because it’s not illegal doesn’t make it right. (I also issued the caveat that if Judy/Blythe is using these photos with permission, then my concerns do not apply. But that’s not what I gathered from the conversation Hale recounted.) Those rushing to Harris’s defense claim that Hale violated her privacy, which is true. But didn’t Judy/Blythe also violate the privacy of the person whose photos she stole and claimed as her own?

I will admit I spent far too much time responding to comments on my friend’s post. I tried to make my point in a respectful way, but I was baffled that so many people were not only taking issue with my comment but also seemed to be personally affronted, as though as I were attacking them. I thought to myself, Where are these people coming from? Now last week was crazy for me personally, and I guess I was a bit slow on the uptake, but I finally realized that many of these commenters were buddies on Goodreads. I also had a sneaking suspicion that many were also Goodreads friends with Blythe Harris. I’d angered one wasp, and the message got sent out that someone had dared to disagree with the current popular opinion that Harris did nothing wrong. The comments directed at me became more and more aggressive, and I’ll admit that my attempts to remain completely respectful failed at times. I’m not a fan of groupthink. I’m not a fan of people rallying their cronies to attack a person who doesn’t agree with them. I disagreed with a lot of people commenting, but I didn’t round up a posse of my own to back me up. To me, that’s cliquish, high-school behavior, and it’s the same kind I’ve seen on Goodreads. (People also took issue with me criticizing Goodreads and describing the mob mentality I’ve seen there. Goodreads is a huge site, and I’m aware that not all readers and reviewers behave this way. But there is an extremely vocal and cliquish minority who does, and you know what they say about a few bad apples.) I ended up getting called nasty, judgmental, a “vice and virtue vigilante” (which might strike some of you who have read my more controversial works as rather funny), and accused of trying to smear Goodreads users. I was also equated to those who shame rape and domestic assault victims. One commenter ended up turning on the blog author, challenging her neutrality because she was allowing me to express my opinions. So at that point, I decided to bow out of the conversation. I realized that by continuing to comment, I was actually providing some very sad people with enough drama to gorge themselves for a week, and I didn’t want to be part of that.

You might be wondering why I’m posting this. For one thing, I see that people are being referred to my blog based on what I’ve commented on my friend’s post. Because I did invest (too much) time responding to comments and trying to make my point, I wanted to explain myself here, as my words were twisted and taken out of context on the other thread, and continue to be. For another thing, I don’t like it when people are hindered from expressing their opinions for fear of inciting a gang. In my initial comment responding to my friend’s post, I wrote: “… the mob mentality is a real problem, to the point where writers are afraid to speak out about it for fear of retaliation. Isn’t that a form of censorship in itself, when harassment silences people through fear?” I still stand by that statement.

Note: I’m really tempted to close comments on this post. I want my blog to feel like a safe place where people can express their opinions without fear of reprisal. As far as I know, WordPress doesn’t have an option to approve a commenter only once, so I’m being very careful about the comments I’ll allow. People can scream about censorship if they want, but the way I see it, there are seemingly countless blogs out there where those who disagree with me are welcome to express their views to like-minded individuals. I will not permit commenters on this site to be bullied and personally attacked.

Warning: If you are a writer and believe you may ever be in a position where you’re beholden to book bloggers for help in promoting your book, or if you are or may in the future be active on the Goodreads site, I strongly advise you to think carefully before sharing your opinion here unless you want to (respectfully) disagree with me. For those who think blacklisting on Goodreads doesn’t exist, I’d encourage you to check out the listing there for Hale’s next novel, which won’t be released until 2015, but has already been flooded with one-star reviews. As far as I can tell, the reviewers haven’t read an ARC of the book, so they’re not attacking the work–they’re attacking the author because they’re angry about her behavior toward Harris. I don’t blame any writers for choosing to give this wasp’s nest a wide berth.