Photograph by Kristan Lawson

How It Feels to Be Hated

Loathsomeness Has Power

I just came home from a press trip on which eight writers from around the world — strangers, at first — spent seven days together in a very ancient place.

On the first day of this trip, one of my fellow writers began to hate me. “No, she couldn’t have,” you might say, echoing my former Girl Scout leader, Mrs. Reynolds. “You merely imagined that! Don’t be a silly billy,” Mrs. Reynolds would have said, a thousand years ago. But then again, you might say — as my mother would have, nodding sagely — “Someone hated you? Of course she did, that effing bitch. But you must have done something to deserve it.”

Ellen (which of course is not her real name) wore a choker strung with large carved wooden hearts. Asked where she lived, she raised her chin and said in a eureka sort of voice: “The West Side.” Not even saying which town. After our first lunch in the hotel café, about which more later, Ellen showed her loathing for me by no longer speaking to me. Not just randomly not speaking to me, not just inadvertently speaking to everyone she saw but me — but avidly, demonstrably, day after day triumphantly not speaking to me. Zestily.

She talked to all six other writers plus our tour guides, drivers, servers, cashiers, locals herding goats and picking grapes. She spoke more loudly to them than you would in normal conversation, as one addresses the deaf, to make certain I heard.

How did this start? I’ve asked myself too many times, re-screening in my mind that doomed first lunch with its velvety, piquant entrées befitting that foreign land. It was a meet-and-greet. Each of us announced what we liked to write about.

Ellen said she liked writing about archeology. Pointing at ruins basking biscuit-golden in the sun outside the door, I smiled (because, although I am not sociable by nature, I was raised to be polite) and said: “You’ve come to the right place!”

A look came into Ellen’s concrete-colored eyes, a certain narrowing. That was the moment. But why? Had she read me as a rube?

I made no move to alter this. I did not adjust my glasses and drone I am a UC Berkeley graduate. At one point, I could speak Chinese. The nine books I have authored, all for major publishers, are critically acclaimed. I did not say this, because who would? What was this, some sort of qualifying round? And so what if Ellen imagined me wearing a rakish tattered hat, smoking a corncob pipe? What did that really signify?

But it began.

An hour later, standing near her in a ruined temple, I asked Ellen what time it was. She did not respond. Like an innocent child who thinks the grownups simply cannot hear, I asked again, more loudly. Turning toward one of our fellow writers, Ellen opened her eyes wide and said: “Wilhelm, do you have any dogs?”

Henceforth, at every opportunity, Ellen behaved as if I wasn’t there. She sat, stood or strode close to others, stroking their sleeves and pressing her pink face close to theirs while asking what their hobbies were, their spouses’ names, which wines they liked. I kept wondering What did I do wrong, why is this happening because that’s what my mother would have asked me and because I had not been loathed openly by anyone but me since seventh grade, when Ruth Fritz — who had nine brothers, and whom the other girls called Rooty — mocked my barely noticeable limp, reviled my (usually withheld) desire to speak in metered rhyme and said my ancestors killed Jesus Christ. Did these things upset Ellen too?

One day near the alleged birthplace of a goddess, Ellen and I were the first of our group to arrive at breakfast. “Hello,” I said. (Raised to be polite.) She served herself with brass tongs silently, as if I wasn’t there. “Hello,” I said again because I was raised to be polite and to ascertain that I was not imagining all this — because I have, admittedly, at other times imagined I was being shunned by people who turned out to be crying or carsick. Ellen placed a boiled egg on her plate. Another writer was approaching us.

“Fiona!” Ellen roared. “Sleep well?”

Later that day, the only chair still vacant when Ellen arrived at lunch was next to mine. She took it, sipped water, then said the sun was in her eyes and asked Kriangsak to switch seats. That was how I learned about the Bangkok Insectarium.

Ellen no doubt thought she was giving me a new experience, a horrible surprise. But ha ha: I already knew how it feels to be hated. I knew how it feels to be branded, blasted, silenced, denied. I knew because for many years, I was someone’s arch-enemy: my own.

One day, Ellen strode past me to fall into step between Naomi and Fiona and said: “Let’s all of us ladies have a little chat.”

For most of my life, such things would have savaged me. I would have lain awake each night in those hotels with their walls white as after-dinner mints, wondering why. But lately I have come to see self-loathing — not just mine but nearly everyone’s — not as reality but rather as a wicked spell sung into the ears of we the unfortunate, its words seared into our skin long ago by those we loved and/or feared, thus believed. Ninety-eight percent of self-loathing is not justified. It is a wicked spell. We the unfortunate have hated ourselves so much that when someone hates us now, we flicker like will-o’-the-wisps with mostly futile rage and memory and could justly proclaim No no, I have already been loathed enough for ten lifetimes. I have saturated my own cells with so much hate that they transformed into another substance entirely. Thus like someone who has lived through cholera, I have survived loathing and am immune to yours.

So it became a game to me. A game and an experiment. I wanted to watch Ellen hating me, wanted to watch her hatred sailing past my eyes like cherry-blossom petals past a meditating monk. I wanted to examine it dispassionately, to palpate her hate.

I stood near Ellen sometimes as if we were friends. I spoke to her, knowing she would never respond. I sat beside her on the bus. I cornered her. Sometimes I stared. When she engaged others in conversation, fluttering her hands and skirling Don’t you love limestone? I watched her as a basilisk would, or a sociologist, or a dog that knows who at the park fears it most. Full disclosure: I neither want nor expect everyone to like me. I realize that the chemistry between human beings is ethereal and could go either way. Disliking someone in this crowded world is one thing. Loathing someone, flaunting it, is something else. It’s almost biblical.

I kept telling myself that this was funny, that it was not damaging me at all. Mostly I believed it, sometimes not.

“She was just jealous of you,” my ex-Girl Scout leader Mrs. Reynolds would have said a thousand years ago, but no. You can discern when someone envies you — I mean, the kind of person others envy can discern it, but this was not that. To Ellen I was clearly gross.

When traveling, you want to savor the experience: Climb the bluff breathlessly, notice the crimson poppies bobbing in the ancient battlefield. But here was this distraction, dimmed sometimes by sleep and the sheer majesty of temples and the sea but then Ellen would talk over my head to someone else and it was back, dogging me like an awful diagnosis. She was avid, asking our six fellow travelers in turn to name their favorite foods and favorite films, then stopping when she came to me. (Happy Gilmore, beeyotch.) She leaned into Miyuki and Esteban like a sand dune, soughing You’re a smart one, aren’t you? But when they looked away from Ellen at something else, she slumped slack like a beanbag toy, inert. Whenever this occurred, I made a special point of staring at her, open-eyed, because I could. She had asked for it, anyway. All bets were off.

One night as we all left a restaurant, Ellen — to avoid being beside me on the narrow sidewalk — sprinted down a cobblestoned street, wearing high-heeled shoes and a silk sheath.

“Ellen?” Naomi yelled. “What’s wrong?”

Watching her silhouette clatter away past ancient archways as if propelled by some monstrous bellows, realizing not for the first time that my hatability has its own power, I asked Ellen silently: How can you hate me when despite my own dislike of social life I always aim to please? How can you hate me when I try so hard? How can you hate me when others are jerks and incurious narcissists and I am not? You have no right! But sure she did. Everyone does.

On our last morning in the ancient land, before we all went our separate ways at the airport, I could have just turned away without a wave.

But no. I looked into her eyes, smiled and said It was nice to meet you.

Which was not true. But it was polite. It was a game to me, and with those words I thought: I win.