Photo by Moyan Brenn/Flickr CC

A Red-Blooded American Introduction to Journalism

A true story about mentorship and manipulation

He was the reason I came to New York City in the first place and my introduction to journalism: Tom Random*, a man I once referred to as my mentor. Some might consider him something of a monster, but I’ll always just think of him as T.

When I sent that first innocent email, he was over twice my age and at the height of his career at the publication where I aspired to work when I grew up. Our online paths crossed by way of a mutual acquaintance who thought my journalistic aspirations could benefit from knowing him, so I wrote to him and told him I was a fan of his work—that I was going to be a journalist too someday, and might he like to get coffee when I inevitably made it to New York? I expected him to discard it. Instead, he wrote me back almost instantly, flattered. He said he’d love to have coffee with me, but unfortunately he was leaving for Iraq in three days, and did I use AIM?

I was elated! I couldn’t believe an important war correspondent was willing to talk with me, an awkward teenager who had barely published a dozen articles in her student newspaper. Reflecting on the situation at 27—now inside of the industry I once stared at from across the moat—I know why he took me under his wing.

“Baghdad, Baghdad… It's so rough on red-blooded American boys,” he once said. “Nothing is happy here, really. Nothing happens the way it's supposed to.”

I would IM him after dinner from my college dorm room and ask him questions about journalism while he slipped into an Ambien haze, trying to keep the bodies on the streets and the explosions from being burned into his mind. He would send me pictures of the Bureau cat and tell me about his day, sparing me most of the bloody details. But when it came to his personal life, he spared none. He told me about his loveless marriage, his discontent girlfriend, and about his thoughts of me.

The first time the conversation turned sexual, I abruptly signed offline. I had always made so sure to never say anything that could be perceived as the least bit flirtatious. I may have been 19, but I wasn’t stupid. Even though I knew he was married, the thought persisted in the back of my mind that T’s intentions in carrying on with me went beyond the pure-hearted desire to impart knowledge on a thirsty young pupil. I re-read our chat logs trying to figure out where I fucked up, where I said anything that could have been interpreted as sexual. But I didn’t.

But it didn’t matter. When he laid out his fantasies so boldly in that chat box, my new-found world of opportunity regarding a career in journalism was reduced down to two choices: shut it down and risk losing his companionship, or “grow up, sweetheart,” as he put it. All of the opportunities he could have given me had exploded in an instant like one of the roadside bombs he drove past on his morning commute.

I told him I wanted to keep things professional, hoping it was a fluke and that we could just forget it ever happened. But the can of worms was open and T wouldn’t let me forget that he wanted me as more than a mentee. A conversation that started about beheadings and murdered stringers would end with thoughts of some Midwestern college student in a bikini giving him a massage. Everything was layered with hypotheticals and innuendos that made conversing with him a complex and intriguing game of reading between the lines. I could only play dumb for so long.

Me: How old do you think I am?
T: I would be pretty shocked if you were, say, 29 or 30... Because you're still really a girl. Which is a lovely thing, but also complicated.
Me: True enough. I'd be shocked if you said you were 25, which is how old I feel like you are when I talk to you. But I know better than that.
T: Be careful with my heart, baby.
Me: Pacemaker?
T: Oh thanks.
Me: I’m just kidding.
T: You are such a kid.
Me: I am not.
T: R 2. It’s kind of painful that we can't get really fucking drunk right now. Or drive 500 miles to Canada for fun.
Me: Hey, yeah! I can legally drink there.
T: I don't know why, it just seems like we need to get wasted on whatever is available.
Me: Wouldn't your wife care that you were out drinking with your mentee?
T: You’re too cute. Yes, my girlfriend would too. And I feel guilty about all of that, but we haven't done anything but chat, okay?
Me: Thanks for the reminder, I am well aware. We're strictly professional. All the time. Right?
T: Um, right. I think it's possible to worry too much about such things.
Me: Is there something to worry about?
T: Forget about it, just don't.
Me: Don't what?
T: I'm saying I wouldn't worry about what exactly our deal is yet. We don't know what it is. So why worry?
Me: Ok.
T: You make me hot though. I kind of have to tell you that in case you are shocked.
Me: I'm not that naïve. I was feigning it for your benefit, but I guess that backfired.
T: This is a no feign zone. You're fun and I like you. But the last time I said that...
Me: Shit happens! I had to go.
T: It makes me worry about letting you see my bad boy side.
Me: My hopes of ever having an educational journalism experience in NYC worry about your bad boy side too. The fun is guaranteed, I’m sure.
T: Ok ok. Look, I can mentor and love it, and I can take your clothes off one article at a time while drinking scotch and talk reporting, too. You don't have anything to worry about.
Me: Don't I?
T: Not yet. I don't want to feel bad about liking you.
Me: You can't even say that you do though, you've never met me
T: I like you. And I’d like to meet you.

This weird pseudo-affair was weighing on my conscience in ways I’d never experienced. I had a serious boyfriend at the time whom I adored, and he knew about my “mentor.” Even in the beginning when I gave T the benefit of doubt, my boyfriend didn’t. One night when we were watching a documentary in bed together, T emerged on the screen with his expert opinion on the subject, disrupting our peace like a wrecking ball. My boyfriend got mad and stormed out.

I told him that nothing was going on, but the lack of trust splintered our happy college romance and we broke up soon after. It was messy, and violent. I was 20 at this point, and more lost and insecure than ever. So when T called me on the phone one cold winter night, and told me he was separating from his wife and invited me to fly out to New York on his dime, I decided it was time to step into his world. Somehow, something about him felt safer than anything else in my life at the time—which wasn’t saying much. Looking back, it was about as safe as Lolita’s road trip with Humbert Humbert.

I wanted to be an adult though. I wanted to prove to him—and myself—that I could exist in his world. And more than anything else, I wanted to be in New York—not as a tourist, but as a guest. I told him not to expect anything, even though I knew he would. I swore to myself I wouldn’t do anything I didn’t want to do, even though I could barely draw boundaries with the boys I’d messed around with, let alone a full-on man.

“Do you like bohemian or luxury?” he asked me when the topic of hotels came up. I didn’t know what “bohemian” meant, but like the good standardized test taker I was, I picked it because it was probably the less expensive option. I wanted to minimize the chances he would develop a sense of sexual entitlement, which money seemed to exacerbate even in exchanges as trivial as buying a movie ticket.

He told me to book a suite at the Chelsea Hotel and gave me his credit card information. When I spoke with the man at the reservations desk, I used my most casual and professional phone voice and placed the reservation under Mr. Thomas Random as if it was the 100th time.

“Will that be all, Mrs. Random?” he asked, catching me off-guard and filling me with guilt on behalf of the real Mrs. Random. I awkwardly affirmed and hung up the phone. No backing down now.

The night before my flight, T called me, berating his stupidity for thinking that I actually wanted to see him. He told me to just take the flight and the hotel and enjoy the trip. I was offended by the implication in all its absurdity given the power dynamic. But I figured he was scared: scared of crossing the threshold between fantasy and reality, scared of losing the young, fuckable college student he could do whatever he wanted to in his mind, and scared that the real version of me might tell him to stop. I interrupted his hysterics and told him to shut up. “Just be there.”

The first time I saw the lights of Times Square at night was from the back of a limo with T. That night we went out to eat at his favorite Italian restaurant where I was acutely aware I was being used as a type of trophy, as he clearly had a familiarity with the wait staff. He sat next to me instead of across from me and was too grabby. At one point he tried to feed me. I didn’t try to hide how much it bothered me. I told him that I wasn’t some plaything, and that I would leave and find my own way in the city if he couldn’t deal with it. But he apologized. We went back to the hotel and he told me I could kick him out whenever I wanted to, but I never did.

That night, we got drunk. He’d brought me a handle of Tanqueray and some Scotch for himself in the backpack he packed when he said goodbye to his wife and left for the weekend. He played a playlist of music he’d somehow found that I’d uploaded to my school’s server, and showed me naked photos of his ex girlfriend. We stayed up late bantering about war and journalism and topics far too sophisticated for the boys back in Michigan. It was validating to be part of T’s world, and to know that I could hold my own in conversation because we were two adults. It never felt exhausting; I wanted more stories, more analysis, more explanations of the way the world really worked.

We passed out drunk in bed together that night but he let me sleep in peace. In the morning, before he woke up, I crawled out the window onto the ledge above the Chelsea Hotel sign and smoked a cigarette overlooking the city I knew I would one day call home.

That weekend I tried so hard to prove to him that even though there was this snowballing secret tainting our mentorship, he didn’t have to worry that helping me get a job might jeopardize his own. He used to joke that there was an empty desk between him and my favorite columnist in that skyscraper filled with so much prestige, and I would fantasize about walking over from my post as science intern to say hi and work next to him for a while. This was the height of my naïveté—thinking that he had ever intended to help me at all.

But I did learn a few things from my dear mentor that week. I learned that he was a broken man, something he hid so well on the Internet. He’d spent the past decade of his life crawling through the scariest places on Earth to report on the ugliest side of humanity, and then he went home to a wife who was as jaded as him. I knew even before I met him that I was an escape from the horrors of war, but in the flesh, I was a total reprieve from everything. He didn’t need sex from me; just being around me was like a dissociative drug for him. He consumed my life force, and I let him. I had enough of it to spare back then, and he was clearly drained.

He took me to do touristy New York things and allowed himself to disconnect from everything in his regular life while I was there—everything external. Over brunch I told him I liked parrots. He told me about one in a hotel he was in while it was being bombed.

We went to see an off-Broadway show and he held my hand all through the subway on the way home, as if it was some dangerous place and that gesture was the only thing keeping me safe. Standing there on the platform, he told me about the girl he fell in love with when he was my age who hurt him so bad he put a shotgun in his mouth and contemplated blowing his brains out.

When we got back to the hotel, I was so overwhelmed with pity for T that I decided my resolve to not get physical was really kind of pointless. I pulled the neck of my dress down and reached out to feel his lust for me. I stared down at him intently, pinning him to the bed with my gaze so he was unable to move or do anything to disrupt this one very deliberate and undeniable act of my consent. He stared back at me with the wide-eyed caution one has when they wish to not to scare away a wild bunny that’s wandered near. I observed his every reaction and explored my new-found power, reading him like a newspaper.

Suddenly he jolted upright and all the color drained from his face. I jumped back, startled. I asked him if he was OK but he couldn’t respond. For what felt like an eternity (but was probably actually about five minutes), he sat there in a wild-eyed trance, gasping for air. Oh fuck. I killed him, I thought to myself with horror. I had never witnessed someone having a stroke before, but that was the only way I could explain what was happening. In my mind I saw the next day’s headline sprawled out across the front page of his precious publication: Michigan Girl Kills Iraq Correspondent With Hand Job. I went into full crisis mode and started shouting questions at him. “Are you OK? Do you want me to call an ambulance? Do you need anything?”

“Drink,” he croaked out in between gasps. I ran to the bathroom and filled up a glass of water and brought it to him. “No,” he said, gasping some more, “Scotch.” I handed him the bottle and he swigged it right out of there. A minute later, the color began to return to his face and he began laughing hysterically.

It was in those five minutes of his uncertain mortality that the situation finally snapped into focus for me. I became cognizant of the reality T and I had constructed from our loneliness and traumas, and the reality that anyone on the outside looking in would raise an eyebrow at, if not contact some sort of authority about. I had only been an adult for a month, legally, but he had been an adult longer than I had been alive. He fed on my belief that he could help me when all he really wanted to do was help himself. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but he knew exactly what he was doing by dragging me into his fucked up fantasy world.

The next day, T left me in our suite with the rest of the gin and returned back to his life. I went back to Michigan and finished college. Later that year, he told me he wanted to run away with me, that he would divorce his wife and quit his job and we would start over in Tahiti, or wherever I wanted. But I didn’t want anything from him anymore. I wanted to live out my youth and figure out journalism on my own. I brought the internship up once just to see what he would say, and he accused me of using him.

I guess I did use him in a way. I got what I wanted most after all—not an internship, but an expedited adulthood. There was nothing in me that was a child after that, and I have carried the experience with me everywhere since. Maybe he destroyed that child, or maybe a child just can’t be a child anymore when she finds herself having to be the mature one in situations with real, societally-acknowledged adults. At 21, I accepted my responsibility to behave as an adult in my interactions with other human beings—especially with the ones younger and weaker than me, but also with the overgrown man-children society allows to remain frozen in a state of perpetual teen lust and angst.

One day when T sent me a message and told me I caused him to jeopardize his marriage, I finally did what I should have done two years before and cut him out of my life. It was a slow process though. He persisted in messaging me throughout the years, desperately at first, but more sporadically as time passed. I’ve learned along the way that there were others, some major media starlets I now call colleagues, some teen nobodies even younger than I was when I first sent that innocent, treacherous email. I hope they are coping with their loss of innocence as productively as me.

I wish I’d known then what I know now, and that I’d had enough confidence in my abilities such that I didn’t need anyone to tell me that I was interesting enough or smart enough or good enough for the New York media world—or that I’d had someone like the amazing mentors I have now, who actually do want to help me succeed. In retrospect, I’m glad T never helped me get a foot in the door. It wouldn’t have meant as much as it did when I finally walked up to that door myself and simply knocked.

*Names have been changed. Image bears no relation to the subject.

Next Story — LadyBits’ First and Last Year on Medium
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LadyBits’ First and Last Year on Medium

So long, folks. It’s been real.

In May of 2013, I signed on as a Collection Editor with Medium to launch LadyBits on Medium. It has been a thrilling experiment in new media publishing, business management, brand development, and technological creativity. Now, a little over a year later, Medium and I have mutually decided to bring our collaboration to a close. This will be the last LadyBits post on Medium.

Seeding the Partnership

When Evan Hansen, my former editor at Wired, first approached me about the prospect of being a Collection Editor on Medium, LadyBits had been brewing as an idea for about a year and was nearing its boiling point. I knew that if I didn’t start LadyBits, it wouldn’t exist.

“Think of it as your own personal magazine,” Evan wrote in an email detailing the original vision for collections. Initially I was asked to just start it and see if it caught on; the money talks would come later. I wasn’t in a position, financially or morally, to work for free, so I reminded Evan that he already knew the quality of my work and my abilities from our previous years working together at Wired. So he offered me what he described as “the standard Collection Editor rate.” Once the money was on the table, it was easy to say yes.

So we launched! And suddenly LadyBits was a thing that I was doing. It was the thing I was doing. Everyone who had supported the idea over the past year, the writers, editors, business-minded folks and creatives, began to solidify into a network more vibrant than I ever could have imagined. We collaborated on a list serve, shared drafts in Google Docs, and devised a distributed editing system where people could participate in the publishing process in every way.

Going into the arrangement, I was told that Medium was an experiment. This was a tech startup, after all. I knew that by taking on this role I would essentially be a super user helping to test the product that Twitter founder Ev Williams and his team at the Obvious Corporation were building. As a former engineer-turned journalist, I was into this idea, and I was under no illusions that the system wouldn’t have its bugs and early-stage issues.

So I didn’t put all my eggs in Medium’s basket. Within two months of launching on Medium, I accepted partnership offers from Refinery29 and Popular Science to produce LadyBits content via their platforms as well. I too wanted to experiment with platforms, and I needed to grow LadyBits as a brand. I knew those other outlets could help form LadyBits’ identity in the science and technology realms, while Medium’s identity was still a big question mark. Nobody knew what it was.

But I wanted to support a company that was exploring new methods of online publishing, and a new monetization practice for an industry that is desperately struggling to wrap its advertorially-brainwashed mind around the internet. Given the failings of old-school journalistic institutions to include and support women with anything resembling fairness and equality, I have always viewed the internet as the only hope for creating the diverse media that is actually representative of the population it exists to serve.

By including LadyBits in the first group of beta testers, Medium set a precedent for the site that would ripple outwards to all users for generations to come. As Kate Lee, a staff editor of Medium told me over coffee a few weeks ago, LadyBits helped brand Medium as a place where women were welcome to publish; a place that wasn’t just for tech bros.

Hatching LadyBits on Medium

I signed a contract with The Obvious Corporation as a Collection Editor to be compensated at a rate of 5 cents per view for anything published in the LadyBits collection (with the rate decaying after certain traffic thresholds). Nobody knew where the money was coming from to pay writers, but several Collection Editors speculated that the operation was financed by Ev and his mystery Twitter fortune.

At this point, Medium was still in closed Beta where only those with an invitation could post articles and start collections. I was one of a group of about 10 paid Collection Editors handpicked by Evan. I was in good company among fellow freelancers like David Axe, Frank Swain, and Tim Maly.

I was initially skeptical of the payment model. Analytics weren’t yet available on any kind of functional level, and no one but Medium overlords and the illusive “product team” could see traffic data beyond their own individual posts. I didn’t understand why the best model of compensation a publishing platform that didn’t have (or intend to have) ads could come up with to compensate its talent was a pay-per-view model.

How were we to know how much compensation to offer writers if we didn’t know how much traffic their articles were getting? The pillar of the LadyBits brand is quality, and if I wanted quality writing, I knew I would have to offer competitive pay. The best method I came up with, that would compensate writers and protect LadyBitsLLC from going into debt, was to offer to pay writers 50% of the income their posts generated from Medium (2.5 cents per view), and put the other 50% into the LLC to pay editors, the increasingly necessary staff to manage workflow and financials, and myself. I tried a variety of other techniques to estimate flat rates but as the pitches poured in and the workload grew, asking us to predict traffic performance across a month’s worth of content and base a budget off of it became a job in and of itself.

But we had editorial freedom, we were building a sustainable business, and we were financially OK for a while. It was a best case scenario for our startup publication.

Fledglings in a Shaky Nest

The turnover rate of Collection Editors was rather remarkable; at any given time there were no more than 15 collections on the monthly traffic spreadsheet, and they were always changing. I saw dozens of collection editors come and go over the past year, but only a handful remained consistent. Most of the editors, who were freelancers, couldn’t justify the investment of their time on the off-chance that one of their posts would go viral.

It would be comforting to believe that we live in a world where quality content chosen by experienced editors and authored by talented people will get more clicks than celebrity gossip, fear-mongering headlines, and snake oil salesmen peddling the next generation of tech bubble pyramid schemes. But that’s almost never the case.

I watched the collection traffic tallies come in after the month was over, varying wildly and skewed drastically by single posts that garnered millions of views. The one exception was David Axe’s collection, which has remained consistently at the top of the traffic reports. Apparently war is never boring.

LadyBits started off strong in the top five highest-trafficked collections. But things started to change—not our production quality,that stayed constant. But the product team began making bizarre changes to the CMS. One day I woke up with dozens of emails from Medium in my inbox informing me that people were submitting posts to LadyBits. Before the system was set up with “open” and “closed” collections to give contributors a clue about what was being curated by a human and what was more of a category bucket. Now all content came in “by submission.”

We soon got the follow-up email telling us they’d upgraded the system. Sweet upgrade, thanks. The emails didn’t stop pouring in, hundreds of them. The majority of them were spam, advertisers trying to sneak their product reviews onto the platform to boost their SEO, or disjointed thoughts spewed on the page. I’m sure there were a lot of quality ones submitted that we just missed as well (sorry). It bottlenecked our system, and we were left having to restructure our whole editorial workflow at a moment’s notice. This was the first of three major changes that made things subsequently worse for us.

At the same time, Medium stopped curating a universal homepage where people browsing would be exposed to the best writing on the site. That meant that the people who were coming across LadyBits content because it was good, who wouldn’t normally have been exposed because they weren’t searching for feminist tech perspectives, weren’t finding us. Our traffic fell by about 50%, as did our income.

Brood Parasitic Chocolate Factory

With every technological “upgrade” that shifted more curatorial burden to the collection editors, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Cowbird, a brood parasitic cuckoo that lays its eggs in the nests of other birds when they are away. The host mother bird unknowingly nests the foreign eggs and, when they hatch, the cowbird chicks consume an inordinate amount of resources, diverting them away from the native chicks.

Image via “The larger, redder gape belongs to the older parasitic brown-headed cowbird chick, while the smaller, paler gapes are the phoebe’s own young.”

We were reminded that this was all an experiment, and if we would just put in more work something would probably go viral to make up for the stuff that didn’t. But if I wanted to produce things that were likely to go viral, I would have applied for a job at BuzzFeed. I started to consider the incompatibilities between the publishing company I was building at LadyBits, and the runaway platform Medium was evolving into.

I voiced my concerns, as did other Collection Editors, but they were dismissed, though sympathetically so. We couldn’t be given notice of technological changes in advance, we just had to roll with the punches. This was a startup, after all. We were all still flying blind with analytics, but this did not make it onto the priority list for a full year. The analytics they did provide were a mess: daily spreadsheets full of either tiny puzzle pieces of meaningless data, or one, site-wide dump filled with overly-specific values about every single piece of content that had been published the previous month.

The wage disparity turned outrageous. I watched several artfully curated collections dwindle in traffic and drop out while a few black swan posts went viral and the collection editors were contractually bound to receive insane payouts from Medium.

I began to think of Ev Williams like Willy Wonka, and the Collection Editors as the golden ticket “winners” in his chocolate factory. We couldn’t anticipate what was coming next. We just had to make it through one obstacle after the other and stay alive.

Leaving the Nest

The technological development process at Medium this past year may have been rocky, but it was still fun, productive, and I’m glad I was a part of it. Whatever Medium becomes, I’m sure it will be awesome and that tons of people will benefit from the existence of this platform. As frustrating as it was at times being subjected to the technological process at Medium, what they are developing is still, sadly, leagues beyond almost every other online publication. At least they’re doing something. At least they’re trying, and I hope I helped. I hope this post helps the tech team better understand some of their users, and for contributors to understand what’s at work here.

Overall, this past year at Medium was an invaluable experience for LadyBits as a company and for me as a person participating in the publishing industry. The LadyBits team produced hundreds of bold, brilliant works here. We defined our identity a hell of a lot more, and solidified our value system, which prioritizes quality and editing. And the silver lining of working with a tech startup publication is that, as a team, we learned to be lightweight and adaptive, however painful it was at times.

Medium nurtured LadyBits in its infancy. It provided us with resources, support, and an ad-free platform. We’ve grown up strong and can fend for ourselves now. So with one last expression of gratitude, it is time for us to fly away.

Everyone at LadyBits is grateful to Medium for inviting us to be a part of this crazy experiment. Personally, I’m forever grateful to Evan Hansen, the Medium product team, Ev Williams, and to the tech community for understanding the value of LadyBits and for facilitating what we wanted to do. I hope that it continues to grow to support independent writers and provide a nurturing environment for innovative publishing projects. There are so many good ideas out there just waiting to exist.

Thanks, Medium.

Next Story — Gaslighting: Explained using GIFs from Clueless
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Gaslighting: Explained using GIFs from Clueless

Tonight I re-read one of the most important articles ever written in the history of the internet (according to me), Why Women Aren’t Crazy, by Yashar Ali. It explains a situation that we ladies (and some gents) have likely all found ourselves in at some point or another. A situation that sucks so badly because it has the ability to derail logical circuits and send thoughts spinning off in all kinds of wacky directions. It trashes your self esteem and makes you question your sanity and your intelligence all at once. It is the phenomenon of GASLIGHTING, and you must learn to recognize it and eject it from your life.

Gaslighting is emotional manipulation that confuses people into thinking they are crazy for reacting to inconsiderate behavior. It’s not always intentional, but it is always hurtful. This manipulation is often carried out by men on female partners, but sometimes it happens the other way around and other times the term can be applied to parent-child or boss-employee relationships. For the sake of this blog post, I’m going to arbitrarily assume we’re dealing with a gaslighting guy and his innocent, unsuspecting lady friend. From Ali:

The term comes from the 1944 MGM film, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman. Bergman’s husband in the film, played by Charles Boyer, wants to get his hands on her jewelry. He realizes he can accomplish this by having her certified as insane and hauled off to a mental institution. To pull of this task, he intentionally sets the gaslights in their home to flicker off and on, and every time Bergman’s character reacts to it, he tells her she’s just seeing things. In this setting, a gaslighter is someone who presents false information to alter the victim’s perception of him or herself.

Before I read this article, I had no idea there was a word to describe what so many guys have done or attempted to do to me throughout my dating career. But once I learned that this power trick is as old as time itself, or at least as old as black and white movies, I felt better (but then worse when I didn’t even see it coming when it happened again).

Here’s an example of how it happens as explained by the cast of Clueless, as this term needs a new, Technicolor narrative:

It starts when a guy you’re into looks at you with those eyes and makes your heart flutter a little bit.

There’s probably some kind of physical exchange, as is only logical when two people are into each other.

If you are an emotionally rational human, you will probably carry on as such, trying to move your relationship forward in a satisfying way, impressing him with your moves. But much to your dismay, you may find that he begins to act distant and becomes impenetrable to your charm. Maybe he says something mean, stands you up, or is just generally inconsiderate of your feelings.

Because his new-found disinterest or agitation seemingly appears out of nowhere, you begin to question what you did, or what it is about yourself that caused this response and the break in the logical progression.

When you try to initiate communication to point out the discrepency between what you think you experienced and what your interactions have become for no apparent reason, the gaslighter will try to dodge the questions and retreat into a further state of aloofness.

Pressing him further will likely result in anger and accusations that you are the one causing the problem in that very moment.

He will disregard your confusion and make you question your assessment of the situation, eventually making you believe that your sense of perception is off-kilter and that you are being paranoid, clingy, or crazy. He may even go so far as to blame the entire problem on your craziness and demand that you stop this behavior immediately, leaving you in a tailspin of internal confusion and emotional haze, powerless to do or say anything because you don’t understand what you did to cause this negative response in the first place. You never even saw it coming.

You may do a number of things to try to remedy the situation such as acting like nothing is wrong or apologizing for overreacting and being crazy. All the while, you know in your gut that it’s not actually your fault. The more introspective you are, and the more you attribute events to an internal locus of control, the more this knowledge will slowly erode your self-image and sense of reality.

Thankfully, this is what friends are for (or therapists, doormen, random people on twitter, etc.). When you objectively explain the situation, your friends may not be able to explain why the emotional interaction is occurring, but they will be able to recognize that something is off and it’s not your fault.

At this point, the person being gaslighted may chose to end the interaction. Sadly, far too many people in the world allow the behavior to continue, constantly apologizing without knowing why and living in a state of confusion for eternity. But if, like myself, your unrelenting pursuit for knowledge and possibly concern for the person outweighs your emotional thresholds and your sense of self-respect, you won’t simply apologize and move on. You will figure out what the reality of the situation is.

Once the true motivation for the gaslighting behavior surfaces (such as guilt, emotional illiteracy and subsequent shame and avoidance, feelings of inadequacy, mental preoccupation, sadism, and in the case of poor Ingrid Bergman flat out criminal deception) the gaslighting psychosis will lift.

Once you posses the missing information, your mental circuits realign and you can once again see yourself as the awesome person who attracted your cowardly gaslighter in the first place, even if he wasn’t man enough for you in the end.

Hopefully the truth is something minor or something that can be stopped in the future. Or if it’s something major, at least now you know and you can end things and move on. And if you’ve found yourself in this situation, don’t fret—it doesn’t mean you’re some kind of weakling. According to Ali:

The act of gaslighting does not simply affect women who are not quite sure of themselves. Even vocal, confident, assertive women are vulnerable to gaslighting.
Because women bare the brunt of our neurosis. It is much easier for us to place our emotional burdens on the shoulders of our wives, our female friends, our girlfriends, our female employees, our female colleagues, than for us to impose them on the shoulders of men.
It’s a whole lot easier to emotionally manipulate someone who has been conditioned by our society to accept it. We continue to burden women because they don’t refuse our burdens as easily. It’s the ultimate cowardice.

The solution to preventing and approaching ongoing gaslighting is easier said than done, but something worth working for. This may sound cheesy, but be open and honest with your partners and accepting of their emotions. After all, if the thing causing the gaslighting is really a deal breaker, it’s better to be honest and find out your relationship is doomed sooner rather than being miserable and emotionally mute for an extended period of time.

So get put your gaslighter on the spot, get out of that situation. Then get back to living life and interacting with genuine people who will tell you straight-up when something is amiss and keep you being your fabulous self.

This post was adapted and republished with permission from The Millikan Daily.

Next Story — Five Atypical Maternal Decisions
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Five Atypical Maternal Decisions

The unconventional ways in which my mom made me strong

My mom is not a typical mom. She spent the majority of her twenties and thirties traveling the world, conceived me at age forty in the midst of a violent revolution, and raised me all by herself. She was a “tough love” kind of mom, which was difficult to distinguish from being a “no love” kind of mom at times during my youth. Our conflicts run deep, and we haven’t spoken for almost two full years. It’s better for both of us this way, at least for now. But as I grow older, I sometimes reflect on a few key decisions in her unconventional parenting process that directly produced some of the best traits in the 27-year old adult I am today.

1) She let me pick out my own clothes

When I was little, I had some interesting fashion impulses. I would often be seen at preschool wearing two different socks, or even two different shoes. I loved bright colors, and in my little 4-year old mind, if I had two feet, why would I waste the opportunity to display more colors by wearing the same color on each foot? Bo-ring.

My teachers attempted to intervene about my wardrobe decisions at some point or another, probably just to see if my mom was being negligent in her expected parental duty of dressing me for school in the morning, and she would explain her reasoning as follows: Her decision to let me choose my own clothing was a deliberate one, and she restrained herself from picking out my clothing even if I wasn’t dressing according to any conventional standards. She predicted that if she intervened, I would come to view my fashion decisions as “wrong” and doubt my ability to dress myself; it could create anxiety that might thwart my natural sense of self-expression and leave me following societally-prescribed dress codes created by fashion magazines, mall mannikins, and celebrities.

In high school, to her dismay, I went through a name brand phase where I wanted to be like the other kids and wear Abercrombie and Tommy Hilfiger shirts boasting their logos. “Why would you want to pay $30 for a $3 shirt?” she’d ask. “Whatever, you don’t understand anything about fashion,” I would retort. Today, she would be happy to know, I wouldn’t wear those brands if they paid me, and I truly do understand the concept of value when it comes to textile goods.

2) She allowed me to abandon organized religion

Every other weekend when I was in elementary school, my mom would drive us from Ann Arbor to the rural little town of Chesaning, Michigan, to visit my grandpa. On Sundays, she would drive me to Sunday School at the Methodist church. One day while we were learning about the Twelve Disciples (Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James, Simon, Jude Thaddaeus, and Judas Iscariot), I raised my hand and asked the teacher why we never learned about girls.

“Because they weren’t important back then,” she said.

This claim sent six-year-old me into an existential tailspin, and I went home and told my mom that I never wanted to go back there. She supported my decision. Twenty years later, I am grateful to not have been raised with the influence of any organized religion that may have tampered with my sense of reality, science, and justice.

3) She had my back the first time I questioned authority

In fourth grade, I had a teacher named Ms. Reichart, who in retrospect was a pretty basic bitch. One day, as part of a unit that was supposed to inform us about the governmental and legislative history of the state of Michigan, we were given a color-by-numbers print-out of the state seal. In this moment, something came over me that was indicative of the stands I would take for years to come, and I raised my hand.

“What’s the point of this?” I asked. Ms. Reichart was flabbergasted.

“The point of this, Arikia, is to learn about the state seal.”

“Well, aren’t there other ways to learn about it? I think we’re a little old for coloring by numbers.”

Ms. Reichart kicked my eight-year-old self out into the hallway with some crayons and the stupid assignment where I waited until she came out and berated me for questioning her. To try to illustrate her point, she quizzed me about the meaning of the Latin words on the seal, such as E Pluribus Unum. “Out of many, one,” I replied. When she asked me how I knew that, I told her I read the explanation at the top of the paper. “See, you are learning something from this assignment,” she said. “No, the assignment was to color by numbers, and I didn’t do that. I learned from reading.”

She’d had enough of my logic and sent me to the principle’s office where they scheduled a parent-teacher conference with my mom. I had never been in trouble at school before and was scared about what would happen, but when I got home and my mom asked me what happened, she burst out laughing when I told her. When she spoke with Ms. Reichart in the requested conference, my mom demanded to know why she was wasting our class time making us do “busy work,” and told her to step up her teaching game. To this day, I will take the first step to call out bullshit when others lack the courage.

4) She seeded my journalistic abilities

Just a few days ago, I was talking with a LadyBits contributor who asked me where I got the ability to walk up to anyone and strike up a conversation. I haven’t thought about this in years, but I realized that it all comes back to one moment when I was about nine years old.

Always the social butterfly, I used to host Friday night pizza parties for my friends where we would eat Little Caesar’s pizza, drink root beer floats, and play our next-level version of hopscotch and video games. One day when it came time to prepare, I handed my mom the phone and asked her if she could order the pizza. She didn’t take the phone.

“Why don’t you do it this time?”

I was horrified. “What? I can’t call them.”

“Why not? You know your address. You know what kind of pizza you want. You know how to look up a phone number in the phone book. Do it yourself.”

I proceeded to whine, and then she laid it out for me: “I’m not going to call them. So either you can call them, or you won’t get your pizza.”

Grudgingly, I picked up the phone and dialed. And it was EASY.

In my journalism career, I’ve interviewed a lot of people who made me nervous, and I’ve conducted a lot of cool interviews that I wouldn’t have if I’d let fear rule me. It’s OK to be nervous; it’s not OK to not do something that needs to be done. Now I have learned to hone that sense of fear to my advantage—if the thought of doing something is making me nervous, that’s usually reason enough TO do it.

5) She let me go

Motherhood is one of the biggest conundrums of life: The mother uses all of her physical, biological, and emotional resources to give birth to a child that is totally dependent in every way. Throughout the child’s development, the mother must sacrifice her own independence and provide love, knowing that eventually the child will grow up and leave. When it comes to any other kind of relationship, this doesn’t sound fair: We give love so that we get it back, and bring people closer to us. So many mothers in this world never manage to properly disconnect, and their poor kids can’t stand on their own two feet well into adulthood. But my mom knew that my independence was the greatest gift she could give me.

Her process of instilling this in me was long, painful, and largely flawed, but the result was what she intended: I am independent, self-sufficient, and I know how to get everything I need in life for myself. For that I will always be grateful.

Happy mother’s day, mom. You did the best you could, and I turned out pretty alright.

Me and my mom, 1988.
Next Story — Casual Predation
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image adapted from reddit

Casual Predation

To know a predator, you must know what it is to be prey

The other day while riding a Paris train, a man boarded my car and, out of all the empty places to sit, chose the seat directly facing me. He casually sprawled his legs open so that his lower thighs were sandwiching my rigidly-shut knees. My field of vision was filled with the bulge in his pants and gray chest hair draped in gold chains overflowing out of his way-too-unbuttoned shirt. And he just stared at me. When my eyes locked with his, I saw an expression so familiar that the hair on my arms stood up. It was a look that most men wouldn’t recognize, as they haven’t ever seen it and probably never will—the expression of someone looking at you as prey.

When a man picks you as prey, his eyes, which were dully scanning their surroundings, abruptly land on you and light up with intent. They linger abnormally long and intensify, beyond what would be normal if there was something unusual about your outfit or if he found you attractive. Sometimes the face relaxes, the eyebrows twitch or the corner of the mouth pulls upward into a smirk while the eyes remain hard, betraying the internal thought processes.

These thoughts are of pure consumption. They are based on the desire to possess — not your belongings, but one’s physical being. It is a drive to gain control over a person and render her powerless, thereby establishing the predator’s dominance and control in a world where he probably has very little. Women are persistently reminded of their physical vulnerability by male displays of sexual power—from gestures so discreet they make you question your own perception, to the ultimate act of consumption: physical violence. To avoid the latter, you must learn to recognize the former, and understand the intent of someone who is looking at you like that.

I am forced to acknowledge my vulnerability by strangers almost every single day while walking down the street in big cities. Most of the men who look at me like they want to eat me alive can’t do so because of practical considerations: witnesses, physical factors (I’m 5'10 and pack a significant bit of muscle), and the fear of repercussions. So instead, they just stare, gazing at me the way a wolf would eye a squirming bunny in a cage — so utterly tempting, but off-limits for now.

When you catch that gaze, you have some choices about what to do to ensure that you do not, in fact, become prey. They’re choices you shouldn’t have to be burdened with making, but that, in this world, they are impossible to avoid. You can alter your path, like I did when I got up and moved to the next train car. I had to go out of my way, but it took thirty seconds and then it was over. You can avert your eyes and look at the ground, both acknowledging your discomfort while at the same time refusing to participate in it further. But sometimes, this is where the game begins.

He might hold his gaze so intently that when you peek back up to see if he’s still watching you (and shit! he is, look away look away), a thrill shoots up his spine because he caught you checking. Now he knows that your inability to look up and examine your surroundings—your cowering stance—is because of him. He is controlling you, and you just got a bit leveled by a complete stranger. It interrupted your thought process, probably ruined your mood, and wasted your time. You didn’t authorize this; it was a violation, and the feelings these little violations instill in us—fear, frustration, anger, helplessness—accumulate over time to shape the way we live our lives.

If you’ve never experienced what it feels like to be someone’s prey, believe you me, it is fucking exhausting.

If you attempt to ignore the mind games of a predator, this is usually when the comments set in—an attempt to win the game by manipulating the air waves going into your ears. It follows this predictable format:

  1. A greeting: “Hey/hello/yo/hola/bonsoir baby/beautiful/gorgeous/sexy/mami/chica/mademoiselle/sugar tits/sweet lips.”
  2. A “compliment”: Some comment about your overall physical appearance that usually has nothing to do with the effort you put into your presentation. “You’d make great babies” is my recent fave.
  3. A call to action. Some request of what your predator would like you to do. One that scored major points for originality: “Get out of my head and into my van,” yelled out the window with a toot of the horn.
  4. An expression of desire. “I’d like to ___ you all over.”

The catcall that baffles me most is “God bless you” — uttered not the way a nun would say it or how one does after a sneeze, but while giving me the elevator and licking his lips. Once, after a guy told me I was looking sexy and I ignored him, he yelled after me that I was supposed to say “thank you.” I turned around and glared at him in disbelief, and he told me I was a bitch. That compliment I could accept from him. “Thank you,” I finally replied.

Sometimes I don’t have the will to engage in this mental combat while walking to the corner store on a Sunday afternoon, so I muster a fake, tight-lipped smile and nod my head with wide eyes, throwing them acknowledgement like I’d throw a dog a chicken bone if I didn’t want it to follow me. But sometimes a smile is just as risky as a middle finger, as it can be an unintentional invitation to the next level of interaction. It’s a lose-lose scenario.

When you complain about casual predation to guys, they usually laugh. They tell you not to let it get to you, and suggest ignoring the comments if you can’t handle a compliment. But the thing is, you can’t ignore it any more than you could ignore a bear approaching your campsite. You are evolutionarily programmed to pay attention to potential predators because sometimes they don’t stop at mind games and catcalls, as far too many of us know.

In my twenty-seven years on this planet, I’ve been stalked, followed home, threatened, attacked, hit, kicked, and groped by complete strangers. Two people have tried to abduct me, once by attempting to drag me into a dark alley and once by picking me up in a fake car-service car. A high school classmate tried to rape me, a UN peacekeeper tried to buy me, and at my own LadyBits launch party an old man put his hand on my knee, looked at me with that look, and said he might want to invest in me.

In all of those situations, I paid attention to the threats I perceived and I did what I had to do to get away, from screaming to pretending to be limp-noodle drunk, to jumping out of a moving vehicle, to engaging in physical combat. And you know what? I am fine. In fact, I’m better than fine—I am fucking lucky! I have my life, I’ve learned to love this thick skin I wear now, and I’ve learned how to protect it. And yeah, I have sought vengeance here and there.

Come at me, bro.

So many women aren’t as lucky as me. What tends to happen to a person when she is shown she is vulnerable day after day is she begins to accept it, and this mentality follows her everywhere. When you’re prey, sometimes you stop being able to tell the difference between the life you choose because you want it, and the life that you settle for because the alternatives are too scary.

Personally, I refuse to compromise the way I live my life out of fear. Despite everything that’s happened to me (and almost happened, which I shudder to think about), I regularly walk alone at night. I have been traveling the world alone for the past six months, and I will continue to do so for six more. I’m single, and not really looking unless it really fits with my life. I walk down the street with my head held high and I look people in the eye when I pass them. And whenever I catch that predator eye, I send it back. I know it’s the lack of control in their lives that makes them act out in such desperation, and I refuse to give away an ounce of mine without good reason. Maybe this will get me in trouble some day, but until that day, I will be living my life.

And I’m not afraid.

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