June 04, 2019

Kathleen Hale

Your 20s are only a phase if you survive them
Interview by
Kathleen Hale discusses mental health, the “toxic hellscape” of the internet and how to keep writing when your every word is being scrutinized.
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Kathleen Hale isn’t hiding from the controversy that inspired the title of her new essay collection, Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy Stalker. When she published her essay “Catfish” in The Guardian in 2014—about stalking a Goodreads reviewer who gave her book a one-star review and exposing the reviewer as someone using a false identity online—it inspired a wave of online criticism that led Hale to quit the internet for good. Now, with the release of her first book since those events, we asked her some questions about mental health, the “toxic hellscape” of the internet and how to keep writing when your every word is being scrutinized.


I noticed that the version of “Catfish” that appears in this book has a different ending than the version that originally appeared in The Guardian. This ending is more vulnerable; it gives more details about your stay in the psychiatric hospital following the essays blowback and delves into the ramifications for your mental health. Do you hope the new ending will give people a fuller view of the story? How do you hope they will respond?
The new ending is the linchpin to my essay’s original thesis, which is that the internet and in particular social media breed psychosis. I might have been an extreme case. But I feel like my case is on a continuum with what non-mentally ill people experience.

Four years removed from the essays original publication, how do you feel about it now? Has that changed at all over the years? 
It’s more obvious now than it was in 2014 that the internet is a toxic hellscape. Since then we have literally elected an internet troll as our president, which says a lot about the power trolls wield on Twitter, and social media has ruined lots of lives. People born in the 2000s seem to have a healthy distrust of things like Facebook. I realize looking back at myself how unsophisticated and naive I was. I got sucked into the internet, and it made me go crazy.

Has this experience—and the critique that is resurfacing now, with this books publication—affected how you interact with social media and the internet as a whole?
Very much so. I’m no longer on social media. I don’t write for free. And I don’t read what other people write about me, which has made me saner and a lot more productive.

Has this experience affected your view of “cancel culture”? How so?
I was at a party the other day and someone asked, “Has anyone read XYZ?”—some article online that was apparently controversial. And the first thing people asked was, “No, what are people saying about it?” I find that fascinating: that the first question is not about the work itself but about its reception. That is a very post-Zuckerberg phenomenon.

Though “Catfish” is already generating a lot of attention, its not the only essay in which you're vulnerable. What motivates you to continue to reveal yourself in this way?
During the recession in the early 2000s, women’s personal essays were referred to as “confessional essays” and were some of the only things I could get paid to write. During that time I published a ton of essays that really embarrass me now, because they’re revealing to no end. But under more ideal circumstances, I try very hard to differentiate between “secrets” and “story,” and to only pick those “confessions” that drive the story forward.

My hope is that the six essays in this collection productively harness revelatory details. They have been revised since their original publications to knit together a story of insanity in my 20s, which is only a phase if you survive it, and my desire to seek out the external danger that mirrored my internal experience.

But the collection is also a swan song to my 20s, and to memoir writing in general, in the sense that I don’t think I’ll ever write about myself again, at least not like this. Six good essays over eight years simply isn’t good math. And ironically, it turns out that I’m a pretty private person. It’s a Catch-22: part of the creative process naturally involves sharing one’s work with other people. But I’m shy, so there’s also desire to hide, or remain pseudonymous, which is a right that is still enjoyed by trolls but no longer afforded to artists.

Do you have a response for those who question why someone who harassed a book reviewer should have the opportunity to continue publishing?
I think the essay shocked people in part because we like to think that what we do and say online has no repercussions for us whatsoever. But what if the owner of that restaurant we smeared on Yelp, under multiple user names, lowering its overall rating to, say, 2 out of 5, all because the hostess had a “bitchy” demeanor, showed up at our front door? Nobody wants that. That’s scary. But is it fear we feel when the restaurant owner rings our bell, or an unwelcome sense of responsibility for our online conduct? Maybe it’s a little of both.

What do you hope readers, skeptics or otherwise, take from this collection?
After dealing with some very dedicated internet trolls, who’ve been with me now for nearly five years (happy anniversary), I began to realize that I couldn’t effectively sit down and try to tell a story while simultaneously trying to gauge or mitigate potential backlash to it. This collection contains honest essays about my life, which obviously opens me up to scathing analysis about how I lead my life. But allowing myself to hope that “readers, skeptics or otherwise” take it the right way spins me out of sorts and hurts my productivity. The way I’ve survived since getting offline is by thinking, “My job is just to write,” and now that the collection has been published, I must move on to the next thing.

Sometimes you juxtapose one subject with another, as in “Cricket,” in which you write about the Miss America pageant and a woman who overdoses in a bathroom. What does your writing process look like, and how does it allow these seemingly disparate concepts to come together in your mind?
Disparate concepts are always coming together in my mind because I have mental illness. As a writer, I try to weed out the random thoughts from the relevant ones and string the latter batch together into a narrative that isn’t boring.

You seem to be drawn to unusual or difficult subjects in general, such as the community of environmentally ill people in Snowflake, Arizona. What prompts this curiosity?
I can’t take credit for coming up with the idea for the Snowflake essay—that one belongs to Mae Ryan, an amazingly talented filmmaker who had pitched the story to The Guardian and was originally going to report it with Jon Ronson, but he couldn’t make it, so they called me. It was one of my first real gigs after getting out of the psych hospital, and I found the experience so refreshing, because it allowed me to write about a community of people suffering in ways I could relate to, while also taking a break from being a main character in my own stories. Susie and Deb were fascinating people and generous hosts. I can’t thank Mae enough for finding them and letting me tag along. The whole experience really seeded my current interest in writing exclusively about other people.

Though you’ve published a number of essays, this collection is a genre shift as far as your books go. Do you anticipate continuing in young adult fiction?
No, my career in young adult fiction is over. No YA publisher will work with me out of fear of offending my anonymous online critics/trolls. I still get to write professionally about teenagers, but it’s always for television and film, where I can remain anonymous. I love it.

You address mental health several times throughout this collection, including mention of a psychiatric hospital visit that followed the incident from which the book takes its title. How has your own mental health journey continued since that time?
Perhaps in another five years, when a decade has passed since I published something “inappropriate” online and caused a minor uproar on Twitter, I’ll finally be known for something other than an essay that landed me in a mental hospital. That said, it’s a pretty good story, and the title of my collection, Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy Stalker, is clearly in part a callout to that story. But the title also refers to the theme of predation that unites all six essays and to the gaslighting that women endure in a sexist society that recapitulates female aggression as insanity. In my case, however, the word “crazy” is absolutely true, and I own it completely! I am crazy. The internet drove me crazy.

How are you caring for yourself surrounding this book release, as people critique your publisher’s decision to publish it and you personally?
I stay offline and sit down at my desk in the real world and work on my next thing.

What are you working on now?
In my 20s I was interested in myself. But now that I’m in my 30s, I realize that other people are much more interesting than I am. My next book is a work of nonfiction about an unusual community where something tragic happened. Most people have heard of it. But they don’t know the whole story.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy Stalker.

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