Does Barbara Ehrenreich get rape threats??
January 31, 2014 1:41 PM   Subscribe

Um, hi guys. I know there are some other writers on MeFi (help me PhoBWanKenobi...) and I've seen a few previous questions here about writing fiction and non-fiction, but I think my Ask is specific enough to have merit:

OK. I'm writing a 100% non-fiction memoir of my working life in the US (a la Mrs. Ehrenreich), and I want to self-publish it on a website that my kids can read when they grow up. I'm not expecting it to turn into a real book - but I am interested in media attention, and if this thing gets legs I'm kind of worried about former co-workers.

1. Do I need to worry about accusations of libel by people I've depicted negatively? (Of course the names have been changed.)
2. There's also one (American) company that I mention by name -- because I have nice things to say -- is that OK? I mention MeFi by name too!

I'm not worried about people finding out who I am, necessarily - but the most I'm hoping for here is a gawker write up and maybe I'll get some paid writing gigs out of it. Maybe I'll see my work on the blue (it also includes art). That's as much attention as I WANT, but I could end up with *crickets* or it could be... well, constant rape threats and "who do you think you are" racist email rants. (Oh, hi, I'm black and I live in Louisiana.) Also not trying to get sued. It is intended as a missive to my children, but also a time capsule, which is why I want it to be "out there in the world." I know these stories will resonate with other people. I don't know if I can handle the backlash, though - I'm sensitive anyway and now I'm pregnant.

3. Should I try to remain anonymous?? I could easily be found out anyway, right?

Hmm. The specific questions seem so lame, but really I'm worried about opening up my life to scrutiny. On the internet. Like, these stories are mostly about the economy, but I called Atlanta a "cesspool". Is that enough to make someone come after me? (Yikes.) I have a six year old step-daughter. I certainly don't want anyone digging up dirt on my husband, or my mom (both mentioned.)

I have a very short-time frame for publishing. I'm itching to start posting stories right now, but I feel like I should either keep it private (not what I want) or use a pseudonym (what say you?)
posted by polly_dactyl to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Damn - not just coworkers but also CELEBRITIES are referenced. (Only two so far.)
posted by polly_dactyl at 1:45 PM on January 31, 2014

TO answer your question seriously, yes, Barbara Ehrenreich most likely does get threats. Professional writers do receive a fair amount of weird communications. The more prominent their name/work, the more likely they will run across someone with some obsession that needs to be unburdened. This is why it's so hard to get personal contact information for writers once they achieve renown, and you end up going through their publishers/agents. I've written a little but my experience is based more on being the child of a professional writer (who has gotten various kinds of threats/scary communications over the years) and knowing a few others.

As far as libel, you can find a lot of resources for rights on libel and defamation (that is often a more productive search term). Google away. The main things you should be sensitive to are that private individuals are seen to have a right not to be defamed. It is fairly impossible for someone you named in your work to be successful with a libel suit as long as what you say is true. However, in a suit, that"truth" then becomes something that must be proven. But also be aware that you probably don't even want to come close to going through a suit - just the threat of a suit is a massive hassle, and someone with deeper pockets who wants to push the issue can clean you out with one. Also, can you really prove what you say is true? If you plan, for instance, to accuse a former coworker of sexual harassment, or talk about other illegal activity of theirs like drug use, say, you may be inviting a problem. One way around this is to disguise their identity, and you need to do it in such a way that it is actually not possible for anyone to identify them in real life based on the information given. So don't just change Bill Smith to Will Frith and leave all other details the same.

Given the content you want to post, I think pseudonymity might be for you.
posted by Miko at 1:50 PM on January 31, 2014 [6 favorites]

You know what--after writing a journalism book that led to at least one bogus libel lawsuit threat, as well as communications from a disturbed people, in retrospect I wish I'd done the whole thing with pseudonyms just for the sake of having options. Also having a pseudonym is just cool.
posted by steinsaltz at 1:51 PM on January 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

Celebrities are a lot less of a concern. They are seen as "public figures" under libel law in the US and there are more legal protections for people commenting on public figures. The idea is that Americans should be free to lodge critiques of leaders and the culture and not be suppressed. At the same time, best to err on the side of not publishing anything untrue.
posted by Miko at 1:51 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

You need to clarify what your priorities are, here.

If you want to make a document for your children/family to enjoy after you're gone, don't make a website. Websites are public. Websites aren't forever. If you die and nobody renews the domain, or Blogger goes the way of Geocities, or whatever situation arises, your work is gone.

If you want to make something for public consumption and potential media coverage, you have to accept that the public will do with it what they will, and some people in the public aren't very nice.


On your specific "rape threats" question, I don't know. I mean, I've been doing public oversharey internet things pretty much since that existed, and I've never received a rape threat. But it's something that appears to happen, happen frequently, and happen to people you wouldn't necessarily expect. So could it happen? Yes. Is it sure to happen? No.



You will not be anonymous, and what you want to do is basically impossible to do in an "anonymous" fashion. You especially cannot name other people or companies you've worked for, or talk specifically about any actual experiences you've had, and expect to remain anonymous. Times a million if you actually receive any media attention.

Don't libel people.

Frankly, if you plan to publish anything negative that's a matter of "he said she said" or in any way not entirely uncontroversial, I would, again, just not do this thing. Even if you don't think it's libel, yes, of course you can be sued for it, if what your saying could constitute libel and you have no way of proving the truth of your statements.


Another thing. You know that nobody gets "anonymous" Gawker writeups, right? You send them a press release. There's really no way to do that anonymously such that you stay anonymous.

It's also impossible to turn something like this into paid work if you intend to be anonymous. Who would people be contacting in order to solicit said work? How would they pay you?
posted by Sara C. at 1:54 PM on January 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

You will get flamed if you call Atlanta a cesspool. Probably just in comments, though.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 1:56 PM on January 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Excellent, Miko. To clarify, I am talking about stories like this:

I worked for a sporting goods company (unnamed). The owner (unnamed in the story) told my boss to hire pretty girls for the front of the store, which was openly talked about among employees. It's about sexism, but it's literally two sentences. If someone searched my *resume* they would be able to identify that company and it's owner. I might be able to get another former employee to swear an affidavit, but I don't want to get anywhere near that.

Specifically, Sara C., I'm thinking of the awesome poverty thoughts article that "KillerMartinis" wrote on kinja. It blew up, the whole internet was talking about her, but then people went through her entire life and called her a liar. I'm not up for that. But I do want to write publicly, if that makes sense.
posted by polly_dactyl at 2:02 PM on January 31, 2014

I worked for a sporting goods company (unnamed). The owner (unnamed in the story) told my boss to hire pretty girls for the front of the store, which was openly talked about among employees. It's about sexism, but it's literally two sentences. If someone searched my *resume* they would be able to identify that company and it's owner. I might be able to get another former employee to swear an affidavit, but I don't want to get anywhere near that.

Yes, that'd be legally arguable as identifiable (because it's trivial for someone to identify those people) and put you at libel lawsuit risk. Mind you, such suits are rare because expensive. But business owners are precisely the kinds of people who care most about things of this nature, and since there were never any charges lodged, you'd have a hell of a time proving this retroactively.

It blew up, the whole internet was talking about her, but then people went through her entire life and called her a liar. I'm not up for that. But I do want to write publicly.

There's no way to guarantee that such a thing will blow up. I found it odd that her post blew up, actually. It was just one of this things that hit the right outlets at the right moments. You can't engineer that. Writers get well-known by writing a lot, writing in a professional way -- thinking about what they have to say, what audience they want it to reach, and how to place it before that audience by working with editors, editor/blogowners, and other outlets. Sometimes they get where they're going by blogging for a while to build a trove of good stuff that others can share and see, and often on the big websites that's how new writers come to the attention of the editors (through their blogs). Also, the bigger/more famous the online outlet, the more likely you have to use some pretty classic channels to get published there - submit a query, provide some samples of your work, have a writing resume, show you can meet deadlines, etc.

Also, if what you say pisses people off, then the loonier/angrier ones among them are more likely to doxx you to discredit you, yeah. And it's not that hard to do, so do think about whether you want people going through your resume.
posted by Miko at 2:10 PM on January 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you're not up for that, make a nice Microsoft Word document, print it out, and hand it to the specific individuals you'd like to share it with.

Nobody on the internet is protected from doxxing, no matter how anonymous you think you are.

And, again, if you're hoping this leads to paid work, you really can't be anonymous.
posted by Sara C. at 2:11 PM on January 31, 2014

Sara C., I sent you a memail.
posted by polly_dactyl at 2:16 PM on January 31, 2014

Last time I'm going to clarify (I think I have a better example.) Let's just say that Allie Brosh put up a new post on Hyperbole and a Half that is about jobs. In that post she mentions working at a video store one time, and how her boss called Rush Limbaugh a God among men and it made her cry. She does not mention him or the place by name, and then she talks about other things. That is what I am talking about. Is that libel? How the heck does anyone write nonfiction, then?

As far as "anonymous", I mean "a fake name" like a lot of writers use. Which is easy to have traced back to you if you don't have a publishing house at your back (again, thanks Miko.)

Maybe I oversold my concept, guys? I'm sorry -- I'm just talking about a blog full of true stories that are pretty tame but depressing (in re the economy.)
posted by polly_dactyl at 2:28 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you want to write something for your kids, but that is also a career-building exercise for you, I would recommend:

a) Establish a pseudonym for yourself. This might include setting up a separate email address and Twitter feed for yourself. Don't use a family nickname or anything else that someone might be able to tie to your life. Publish everything under the pseud.

b) Establish pseuds for all the non-famous, non-public-figures you talk about in the stories. Establish pseuds for the companies, as well, if you are talking about things like institutionalized sexual harrassment.

c) Protect yourself from defamation claims. Defamation (libel or slander) is: a false statement of fact which is published about a person whose identity can be discerned, and which tarnishes their reputation.

So opinions are protected ("I think Rick Santorum is a lousy human being" is opinion, "Rick Santorum smears poop on bathroom walls" is a false assertion of fact). Statements or opinions about people who cannot be identified are okay, so long as they really cannot be identified. And statements about people which do not tarnish their reputations--basically nice things, or neutral things, are okay.

You're still not guaranteed not to get harrassed, but if you make a reasonable effort to protect yourself, you're not likely to get into trouble. That said, even the most careful writer can run afoul of someone who is out to get you, and if they have the skills or the support, they can make trouble.

Good luck!
posted by suelac at 2:29 PM on January 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

Does Barbara Ehrenreich get rape threats??

If you are a woman, and you write or say anything that makes anyone else angry or offended, and they have the opportunity to communicate with you anonymously, it is pretty likely in my opinion that you will get threats of one kind or another.

I think anonymity is the best idea. There are ways that you can cover your tracks. I always thought that if I did something like you are planning to do, I would do it under my brother's name, if he agreed - people feel less free to threaten a huge, jacked-up looking male, and it would jar him way less than it would jar me.
posted by cairdeas at 2:33 PM on January 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Suelac's notes are spot on.

The only difference to note between the Allie Brosh example and your example is that the boss in the sporting-goods story did things that can be seen as employment discrimination. Which is illegal. With concern for libel, the stakes go up when you're telling a story as a factual statement (even if true in your estimation) that doesn't just put someone in a bad light (listens to Rush Limbaugh) but actually hints that they broke the law. Which is a problem if you have rendered them identifiable (through their association with you and your resume), assuming you haven't changed enough details to smokescreen their identity. Suggesting something that was illegal or morally outrageous to average people makes someone with a claim of defamation more likely to act, and if they did act, you'd be more likely to have to defend claim that with some proof to get off the hook. The stakes are raised when you are hinting that someone committed a crime. Just something to be mindful of.

Again, actual libel suits are fairly rare, but threats of suits aren't that rare.
posted by Miko at 2:41 PM on January 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

is that the boss in the sporting-goods story did things that can be seen as employment discrimination.

Miko for president! This is the kind of help I need, thank you. So perhaps I need to go through my stories point by point and make sure I am not suggesting they did anything illegal.? Maybe run it by a lawyer? Thus confirms my suspicion that I should wait awhile before I fire up blogger. Thank you.

To further use Allie as an example - she was anonymous when her blog started, she just made a blogger account and started posting cute stories. Now she is famous because of MeFi and gawker and reddit and stuff. (I don't want a book deal, really, I should have just left all that out.)

Let's just say she was estranged from her parents and they tried to sue her for her portrayals of them. Would they have any standing?

Now that I think of it, Barbara Ehrenreich might have had problems with Wal-Mart even though she didn't identify her managers by name.

This more complicated than I thought, but it sounds like it can be done. If any one has further info, I'll be back to check later. Thanks!
posted by polly_dactyl at 2:59 PM on January 31, 2014

Would they have any standing?

Yes, if she alleged anything that could be proved to be factually untrue and which had an actual negative impact on their reputation.

Illegal stuff is really big -- and also cut and dry -- but if, for example, our hypothetical blogger said her father's business was a scam, her mom slept with every man in town, and her brother was a mean drunk who beat his kids, yeah, they could absolutely sue for libel if they could prove that she'd lied about it and that it had hurt their reputations.

The thing about Barbara Ehrenreich and WalMart is that she (AFAIK from reading the book in question) said things about the company that are true and which aren't necessarily reputation destroyers for them.

Libel isn't when you say something negative about someone and they don't like it.

Libel is when you say "Polly Dactyl goes to work drunk", knowing that Polly does not go to work drunk, and that saying that about her is going to get her in trouble. If Polly does often show up drunk at work, or if Polly is a bartender and nobody much cares about that sort of thing, then it's not libel.

Note that you can be sued for libel even if you said something that you believed to be true, or something you didn't know would affect someone's reputation. You'll win if the plaintiff ultimately can't prove their claim, but it's still annoying.
posted by Sara C. at 3:10 PM on January 31, 2014

I did something like this (though not about my work life). I did it for about three years. I am currently dismantling it, recycling some posts for other projects and saving others to draft (with dates listed) so I can have a copy of what I wrote. For me, it was a good experience but one of my reasons for dismantling it is that it contains some things I would rather not leave out there, live. So far, my sites have gotten rather piddling traffic. That is in the process of changing. So any really crazy-assed stuff I said got seen by a relatively small number of people. I kind of want to keep it that way.

I have had one foot in the anonymous camp and one foot in the real name camp for many years. Michele is my actual legal middle name. I began using it online in part because it is far more common (thus anonymous) than my distinctive first name, maiden name, and married surname. Using my first name and last name combo would be pretty highly identifiable as me.

For me, my concern has been having control over the timing and manner of my doxxing. In part because I have been quoted under my full name in a published book, I have long assumed that my relative internet anonymity and my "actual identity" would collide some day. This worried me most when I was working for a large company. It worries me less these days.

I have an extremely long history of being very controversial and I have been attacked a whole lot and had other serious challenges that I don't care to list here. I have been thrown off a number of lists/forums and left others due to the high degree of controversy and bs that has tended to swirl around me.

Some thoughts on what has worked for me:

a) Tell the truth and do not say anything you will not stand by as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Do so in a manner that is not ugly to other people, especially unnecessarily so.

So if I were you, I would ask myself what the point is of telling the story about the person who said 'hire attractive girls'. Is it just to be gossipy? Is it to cast light on sexism in the workplace? Is this so important that you NEED to say it at all? Can you make the point in a manner which does not point fingers?

b) Be nonchalant.

I have heard that where the English bible says "the meek shall inherit the earth", the French version says "the nonchalant shall inherit the earth." I try hard to be nonchalant -- to not be confrontational and fighty.

I have written about this at times (no, I will not post the link because I am taking that site down, thanks): historically, the first black man to be hired by white major league baseball was hired on the condition that he not fight with people when the inevitable attacks came. He was hired on the condition that he turn the other cheek. There is a lot to learn from that historical example. Focusing overly much on the attacks tends to grow the problem and make it entrenched. Ignoring them and being polite in the face of it tends to do a better job of making you look good and the attackers look bad.

Real life online example of the principle: I recently made the front page of Hacker News (first time ever for me). It got me more attention than my writing usually gets (about 15000 page views when I usually get like a few dozen a day?). Yes, a few people said ugly things about me in the discussion on HN. I did not reply to any of them. I only replied to criticisms that the website was unreadable (I fixed the formatting issue) and to clarify that, yes, the piece was really 3 years old but recently republished on a new site. With ignoring the attacks, I found that other people rebutted those attacks. That was dramatically more effective than "standing up for myself" ever has been.

In closing, I will leave you with this: link to quotes about truth. I recall hearing somewhere a statement to the effect that "people who love the brutal truth love brutality more than truth". I have a long history of being "too truthful to be good" and it has kept me in social hot water quite often. For me, the truth has been freeing. For many others, who have guilt, the truth hurts. But with many years of openly writing about hard subjects, like the sexual abuse I endured, I have learned to write honestly but compassionately. I feel I am on the right track.

I hope your writing etiquette challenges are less extreme than mine have been and I hope you see great success. Writing very openly has been a very worthwhile experience for me. I am very glad for my experiences in that regard.

posted by Michele in California at 3:14 PM on January 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

[One comment deleted; if you have a problem please use the contact form to bring it to the moderators directly. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 3:20 PM on January 31, 2014

"people who love the brutal truth love brutality more than truth". I have a long history of being "too truthful to be good" and it has kept me in social hot water quite often.

EXCELLENT, Michele. My meter for this is broken sometimes, which is why I asked the question in the first place. There are only very few "and then the other teacher said a racist thing!" stories in the 10 posts I have written so far, but I might be willing to just leave that out, honestly. or rewrite it and make it more vague, or more fictional. This is what I needed, many thanks.
posted by polly_dactyl at 3:24 PM on January 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

EFF: Online Defamation Law
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:59 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

If your main concern is whether you are open to a libel charge, this comes down to something pretty simple.

Typically, the elements of a cause of action for defamation include:
  • A false and defamatory statement concerning another;
  • The unprivileged publication of the statement to a third party (that is, somebody other than the person defamed by the statement);
  • If the defamatory matter is of public concern, fault amounting at least to negligence on the part of the publisher; and
  • Damage to the plaintiff.

    Most jurisdictions also recognize "per se" defamation, where the allegations are presumed to cause damage to the plaintiff. Typically, the following may consititute defamation per se:

  • Attacks on a person's professional character or standing;
  • Allegations that an unmarried person is unchaste;
  • Allegations that a person is infected with a sexually transmitted disease;
  • Allegations that the person has committed a crime of moral turpitude;

  • So, when you ask "is this libel? Would that be libel?" all we can say is "well, it looks like it might meet the conditions." The person who decides whether it is or isn't is a judge and/or a jury.

    If your only purpose in writing is to assassinate someone's character, you do have to be extra careful about libel.

    If you're interested in telling the story of your personal challenges, conflicts, and struggles, you should make abundant use of disclaimers ("these are the events as I remember them") and avoid anything that can be read as an accusation of illegal activity or morally outrageous content. If you absolutely need to tell those stories, disguise the people's names and occupations so thoroughly that no amount of doxxing will help any reader identify the individuals you are talking about. If you are working journalistically, as Ehrenreich was, you can indeed name companies and people; but in that case, your content has to be 100% factually verifiable and as heavily backed up with evidence as you can possibly manage - in Ehrenreich's case, I am sure that her daily notes from the time of her project are the main source of backup, but also that she kept track of other employees who could be tracked down to testify if need be, that she noted times and names and dates and locations and verbiage, made copies of things like schedules and training documents, and in general did everything an investigative journalist would normally do to create a clear set of documents supporting her assertions.
    posted by Miko at 5:03 PM on January 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

    Thanks for sticking around, Miko. I think I understand better now:

    There are two stories about health insurance, for example - one, I worked for a huge corporation that I give very few details about. Boss did something illegal re: my health insurance, and I'm sure that their records could be audited to show my employment record. (It's not something that I could have documented, in this instance.) But -- something similar happened at a different, smaller company, and I can't prove what they did. I could write "this part is wild speculation but I think they..." but I cannot assert "this is what they did to me, for these reasons." (Again, a situation that didn't have documentation or evidence available even if I wanted it.) Or I could move the whole thing to a fake city change the kind of company it was and all of that. Hmmm.

    I'm not trying to assassinate anybody's character, here. When I was young I used to ask my grandma about the civil rights movement and different stuff she was involved in. I remember always saying, "But what was it liiiiiike???" and really wanting a first hand account, but she couldn't ever remember. So, when my kids ask about this time (in history) -- I think the 2008 recession will be in their history books, along with Katrina, 2008 election, etc. -- these are the stories I have to tell. I'm writing them down before I forget the details. I traveled across the country and worked a bunch of low-wage jobs, and I saw some crazy shit. Most of the stories are just about my life, with no one being libeled or anything. I kind of hate the way I wrote this question now, but whatever. There's a few "this sexist thing happened when I worked in Atlanta" stories, that's all.

    I want it on the internet because that's where people are putting a lot of first hand accounts these days, especially about the economy. If people see it, great. I can't control what happens once they do, and that's what I'm afraid of - I mean, I can get hundreds of readers just among my friends -- I need to write as if these people would possibly come across it, that's all. Michele has it - there are certainly some parts I need to think about leaving out.

    Lots to think about. You guys rock.
    posted by polly_dactyl at 5:48 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

    Well, it sounds interesting, seriously. I am sure you do have a great personal story to tell. And you can do it if you are circumspect. Make up names for people and businesses.

    I agree with Sara C. that it seems like this is more a desire to bear witness to a wide audience (that you want other readers to hear your story) than a record for your kids. Your kids will love having a printout of this, but a record written only for your kids could be a private document, and you could say whatever you wanted.

    But you want to be read by an audience outside of that. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as your expectations are not unrealistic and you are ready to put in the work it takes to get your writing noticed by a lot of people, if that's what you want. But if you're putting it on the web you should always write as if every single person you mention will eventually find what you have written.

    Because they do! (People do Google their own names, and all sorts of things about themselves, all the time).

    I think something wasn't clear about "documentation" - even your own notes can be documentation, if they are detailed and specific and written down at the time of the event. If you don't have even that much documentation, you really are safest noting that these are your subjective experiences, as you remember them. If your boss did something illegal, and you didn't file charges or take other action at the time, then it is tricky to bring it up now in a place where he can't come to his own defense. That's why people bring suit for libel - they have the right to adjudicate such claims against their reputations, and get them into the legal process. If you have cause to accuse someone of something illegal, you can do that using the legal process if the statute of limitations isn't up. But, for good reasons, the law sees fit to restrict such accusations made outside that process, because they can damage someone's life without them ever having the chance to defend themselves.

    It strikes me that your content seems to be a lot about the various experiences of being disempowered in a crappy economy and in a racial/gender/class structure that stacks the deck, and wanting to present your own side of the story. Which is awesome. And I think you can totally do it while staying out of trouble. These are just a few frameworks to observe so that you don't open yourself to challenge. I would say that if you want to be widely read, and you seem to, and yet you aren't prepared to back up any charges of illegal activity with good documentation, you should change names and locations so as to make your characters un-identifiable. That should protect you while allowing you to tell the truth as you lived it.
    posted by Miko at 6:08 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

    (OK I'm posting this for anyone who might click on this next year and wonder, but also to hold myself accountable for finishing this project:)

    Hot damn! This was extremely helpful, MetaFilter. I decided to rethink my approach and treat this like a research project, and less like a diary. Instead of telling a story about "shitty companies I've worked for," I want to talk about casual "-isms" and how hard it is to speak up against injustice when it might cost you your job -- especially as that pertains to the past five years. Culture shock doesn't even begin to describe what happened to me when I moved to Georgia, and I think it's hilarious that all my friends warned me and I still flipped my shit living there.

    I really want to write non-fiction. I'm hung up on portraying my journey honestly, but all I'm really trying to do is paint a picture of just how unstable the economy and associated parts of American culture are feeling right now -- something my kids may or may not experience at all 10 - 15 years from now. They will probably still be able to go online and read gawker's unemployment stories, and pieces from the nyt about poverty. Why not mine?

    When self-checkouts are ubiquitous and corporations have worked out their moral issues about replacing 100 employees with a robot and three immigrants to push buttons, will my kids understand that that technology helped to land a lot of young black women back in poverty? Well - they will, if they read this one story I wrote, about how every damn grocery store in the south seems to be staffed by a white manager and 30+ interchangeable-looking black girls. Forty years after the civil rights movement. Like, the white kids go to college, the black kids stay in town and get jobs. It's totally a class issue, and it sucks. You may think, "this is better left in the present, don't put it on the internet," but I'm thinking: if I could go to a blog right now and read a personal story that was written by my mother or aunt about how it was impossible to get a credit card without a husband's permission, I would be fascinated. It is crazy that that was a thing until 1970. If my mother handed me a diary when I turned 18, that would certainly be special. On the other hand -- the story still has value to me even if it happened to someone other than my mother, which is why I want to be in google search results. Out there.

    I loved john scalzi's essay on growing up poor - and then I scrolled through six hundred comments that told a heart-breaking story of poverty. Hopefully that article will still be archived somewhere in 10 years, when his kids are old enough to make sense of it. Sure -- if they ever ask, "what was it like growing up poor, daddy?" he can print them out a copy. But the published account that interacted with the world and comforted hundreds of people across globe is a completely different thing. Even his mom and sister showed up in that comments section and expressed their thoughts - and his kids can't get that from a Word document. (FYI it was written 9 years ago and his website has not "gone the way of geocities.")

    I'm not really trying to publish a full-length journalistic investigation in book form. And there are many many libelous things (mostly speech) that I want to say but cannot back up, even though I assert 100% to you that they happened. But -- I think that I can interweave "the economy sucked balls" with fictional pieces about racism, sexism, and really bad bosses. I can do this without defaming anybody. I can ALSO make this into a time capsule project by putting it on the internet and allowing anonymous (non-defamatory!) testimonials from others. In that sense, this might have a lot of value for my children's generation. 20 years from now, will we still be trying to force every kid into higher ed? Will we still have a 40-hour standard work week, health insurance tied to our jobs? I feel like things are changing fast.

    I dunno, but... I want my kids to understand that I chose to be a teacher even though I knew I'd be broke -- and then the bottom fell out of the economy. 20 years ago, an uncredentialed teacher could make a living subbing, working in a private school, or working in informal education programs (after school tutoring, museums, stuff like that.) In 2008, I tried my hand at it and ended up living in poverty. If I was wealthy, I could just "hide out in grad school" like my friends, and then emerge with the M.Ed and hope for $40 - $60K. But the point is that my generation was told to get a bachelor's and you'd be set for MOST jobs, and now only ten years on from my college graduation, we are seeing that the Masters is the new Bachelor's. You need a BA to be a receptionist now, and an MA/MS or higher if you actually expect to be in charge of anything. If this had happened in 1985, my mother would have remained in poverty (no degree.) Read Bait and Switch - I'm srsly in love with Barbara Ehrenreich.

    Picture it this way: a lot of people have a grandparent who lived through the Depression, and there's a syndrome of behavior we associate with that. Washing out tuna cans, refusing to throw out newspaper - because they were so desperately poor back then. We've all heard those stories, they're scary and fascinating. I think in 10 - 20 years the children of today are going to be sharing stories about how they lost their house when they were 9, how their dad stopped working when they were 14 and never had a job again. Or how they were homeless for three years after a medical bankruptcy. When my kids read some half-assed revisionist paragraph about the "global economic collapse" in their 8th grade history text-tablet, I want them to understand that it's bullshit and that people were really hurting. Like, even people who followed the script and started college at 14 (me.) Given the complexities of life, I can't guarantee that I will be able to tell them these stories as they grow up, so I want them in a place where they are accessible. I don't have to worry about the internet burning to the ground in a house fire or getting fried in a power outage. (The internet may be totally different too, I can't predict everything.)

    So. Personal blogs have been the new "journal" for like a decade - I'm not reinventing the wheel. I think I asked this question in a weird, confrontational way because I hadn't quite figured out my point. I have a much clearer picture now, and it's a lot less "this is where I worked" and a lot more "I want you to understand the inequalities you may face."

    Whew. Obviously I'm a wordy mofo.

    Thank you my loves.
    posted by polly_dactyl at 12:05 PM on February 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

    I'm hung up on portraying my journey honestly, but all I'm really trying to do is paint a picture of just how unstable the economy and associated parts of American culture are feeling right now...

    When self-checkouts are ubiquitous and corporations have worked out their moral issues about replacing 100 employees with a robot and three immigrants to push buttons, will my kids understand that that technology helped to land a lot of young black women back in poverty?
    Okay, based on your update, another word of advice:

    It is fine to say "It sucks to be the young black woman who got screwed by this situation." There is absolutely nothing wrong with telling how those things impacted you. But most people tend to not frame it that way. Most people were raised with either a shame or a guilt model of parenting and, when things go wrong, they look for someone to blame. So they tend to frame it as if "The privileged white mofos intentionally screwed me because they are both misogynists and racists! How evil of them!" The reality is almost never like that.

    A historical example that comes to mind: The Irish Potato Famine. There were global food shortages at that time and, unlike most countries, Ireland was still trying to make a buck by exporting food. In contrast, other countries chose to hoard food to try to feed their people. It was bad all over and some decisions from on high worked better than others. Ireland just made some unfortunate choices under unforgiving circumstances. The government was not trying to screw anyone. Neither were the upper classes. Initially, the upper classes let people remain in their homes rent free when things went to hell. But when things got worse and the government could not pay its own bills, the government tried to put the thumbs screws to the landed wealthy folks and insisted they pay the taxes on those rental units even though they were making no money. At that point, they had no choice but to evict people. They could not afford to pay those taxes while also not collecting rent. And then things got really ugly as people started getting thrown out into the street.

    So while you can say that things got really ugly in Ireland -- so ugly that within my lifetime there has been a band with a name inspired by the potato famine, more than 100 years after the fact (Black 47, iirc, which refers to the worst year of the potato famine, in spite of the fact that this was 1847, not 1947) -- it wouldn't be fair or accurate to say "the rich people were intentionally trying to starve the poor people because they hated them" or anything along those lines. And when racism and sexism gets talked about in the U.S., the rhetoric is frequently very finger-pointing in that way.

    So I would encourage you to take a step back and look at the broader picture. Was it "sexism" for the place you worked to have a policy to hire "pretty girls" for certain positions? Perhaps it was. But models have to be pretty and most actresses have to be pretty. So having a certain look is not necessarily an unreasonable job requirement. If "pretty girls" were simply more effective in performing certain tasks because they were interacting with the public and the public responded better to pretty girls, perhaps that was just something that worked well for that business during a tough time, even though it might not have stood up in a court of law as a defensible hiring practice.

    When times are tough all over, it helps to remember that the people in positions of power are still human and still vulnerable themselves and probably were not intentionally trying to screw anyone. There is a saying: "Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity." During very tough times, the people at the top may not know a good answer. They muddle through as best they can and when they don't muddle very well, lots of people get hurt, not just themselves. That doesn't mean they were trying to hurt other people.

    So I think you can testify to how these things impacted you and also refrain from libeling anyone. It takes work but it can be a valuable growth experience as well. If it done well, it can be a contribution to finding better answers that screw over fewer people and I am sure most people would welcome that.

    Best of luck.
    posted by Michele in California at 2:33 PM on February 1, 2014

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