I have an email folder devoted to hate mail. It is called, predictably enough, “Hate Mail,” and every once in a while I receive a new email and think, “This is hate mail. I have a folder for that!” Receiving hate mail is an unfortunate byproduct of writing for a living, especially if you happen to write about things that people feel strongly about (race, sexuality, marriage, or Notre Dame football, to name a few.)
Hate mail can be disheartening, particularly when people haven’t read the article they’re hating on, but it provides a good opportunity to practice WWBD, or What Would Buddha Do? The key to responding to hate mail is to meditate before you do anything. If you’re too annoyed to meditate, try reading a few pages from Marianne Williamson’s book, A Return to Love. Because the last thing you want to do is respond to hate mail with more hate mail. (Hate isn’t a real emotion, anyway. It’s fear masquerading as something else. And fear isn’t real, either, as Marianne reminds us. Only love is real. But don’t bother explaining all of that in your email.)
My typical response to hate mail (if I’ve meditated and read a few pages of A Return to Love) is this: “Thank you very much for taking the time to write. With best wishes, Benoit.” When I deviate from that script, I tend to make a mess of things, like the time I wrote, “Thank you very much for taking the time to write. I hope we can agree to disagree.” This prompted the emailer to respond, “NO, I will NOT agree to to disagree. I will agree only to the fact that you’re an IDIOT.”
Fortunately, my “Nice Mail” folder is significantly longer than my “Hate Mail” folder. But, for reasons that aren’t exactly clear to me, I feel inclined to highlight some of the best hate mail I’ve received during the last decade. (I have cut some for space reasons, but I’ve left in the spelling and grammatical errors. Most haters could use a good copy editor.) Here we go…
Arguably my favorite piece of hate mail came in response to my New York Times Magazine cover story about the movement to ban alcohol in fraternities. The emailer makes many assumptions about me, most of them incorrect, but he does pen arguably the best first line—and most absurd last line—in the history of hate mails:
Hey buddy I’m a 20 year old college student who thinks you’re an asshole. I’ve known pleaty of good girls who were RAPED by daddy-buy, trust fund elites like you while in fraterity and ALCHOHOL was almost always involved. I’m sorry some resposible adults have finally smacked some sense into you babies, but YOU”VE DONE ENOUGH DAMAGE TO SOCEITY ALREADY. If you wanna have a kegger, go borrow your daddy’s yacht. Don’t bitch about how you can’t do it iin plain view of respectable educational instiutions anymore. A defender of rapists is guilty of rape himself. If your article influences the dicision making of one college official and allows more alcholol onto campuses, you sir should be at fault. Perhaps for your next article you look back achingly upon the benifits of Hitler’s “final solution”???
My Slate piece, “Can you you be white and “on the down low?”, which ran with the above cartoon, hit a sore spot with some readers. This first email isn’t really hate mail, but it’s funny and worthy of inclusion:
Hey, that’s great that you had sex with an attractive
guy from Long Island and got to write about it!
But what’s more indicative of white male privilege,
closeted white gay men referring to themselves as on
the Down Low, or you posing as cultural and racial
arbiter of that term?
Here’s another email about that article:
Having read your recent article posted to Slate.com on the subject of – as you put it with an amazing lack of eloquence – “white guys” on the DL, I must say that I think you are a reverse racist. What I mean is that you refer to white men (European-American?) as white guys throughout, in a manner I read as condescenion. Perhaps I am wrong. However, you continually refer to blacks as the much more formal and classy “black men.” Curiousity strikes me as you seem to have made such an obvious choice to refer to the two races in such a contrasting way, without even bringing up the plainly derisive “white boy.” You perpetuate the double standards that exist with such rubbish. Stop thinking like bigoted caveman. Thank you. P.S. I realize you are a white boy
The above New York Times Magazine cover piece about young gay married couples in Massachusetts upset a whole lot of people, many of them gay. (Surprisingly, straight allies liked the piece more than some gay people did. So did one religious conservative.) The email below was actually the first one I received about the piece, and it foreshadowed much of the ensuing criticism, which tended to focus on the photographs and the fact that all of the couples I profiled were white and college educated. Still, the first rule of writing a critical email about an article should be to read the article, which this emailer—and some of the loudest critics of the piece—didn’t actually do. Notice his last sentence, where he wonders if I’m gay, a question that is answered early and often in the piece.
Howdy, your NYT Magazine article “Young Gay Rites” has been a hot topic this morning among many of my gay friends, and all of us (17 at last count) are fairly horrified at the overall tone and depiction of the couples – they’re all such cartoons, all so obviously playing dress-up and all so cliched that it’s safe to say many of us found it rather debasing. The word “bigoted” has also been tossed around. Nobody I’ve been talking with feels a sense of kinship or familiarity with the couples you chose to write about, and I’m talking with a fairly diverse gay male demographic covering a pretty broad spectrum of age and background. If you’re a gay man, I find it truly surprising that you’d paint such a caricatured portrait of young gay couples – and if you’re not a gay man, then shame on you.
Here’s another emailer who dislikes the piece, and the rest of my work:
I read your article in the NY Times, and this is the second time that you have chosen to write about a part of the gay culture and yet still get it all wrong. First you write about being on the “DL” in the black community, and now you profile gay marriage and only use caucasians as your subjects, as if to say there are no blacks that want to get married. So my only question to you is, What kind of boring, tired , pathetic gay writer are you..? Answer : A worthless one. I wish the NY Times will devote its space and money to a more educated insightful one, whit something really good to say. Signed, One that despises your work to the core.
My most recent New York Times Magazine cover piece, about kids coming out in middle school, was, to my surprise, the most universally well liked of any story I’ve ever written. Most gay people loved it, as did straight allies. I was prepared for an avalanche of hate mail from social conservatives, but I only received one, from a man who wrote this:
I’m so glad I never had kids. When does the “lowering the age of consent” or defense of Mitterand articles come out? The gay movement is becoming so predictable.
I have yet to respond to his email. Any suggestions on how to respond—with love?
I’m heading up to Vermont for the week to eat turkey and hang out with goats. Nick’s wonderful family owns Fat Toad Farm, a goat dairy specializing in making delicious things like goat cheese (many flavors) and caramel (original, coffee bean, vanilla bean, and cinnamon). Nick’s dad, pictured above, might very well be the best dad in America not named Dennis Lewis, and there are few places I would rather spend Thanksgiving than with Nick and his family.
And since we’re on the topic of goats, here are my three favorite quotes about goats:
“All goats are mischievous thieves, gate-crashers, and trespassers. Also they possess individual character, intelligence, and capacity for affection which can only be matched by the dog. Having once become acquainted with them I would as soon farm without a dog as without a goat.”—David Mackenzie, Farmer in the Western Isles (1954).
“Don’t approach a goat from the front, a horse from the back, or a fool from any side.”–Yiddish proverb.
“You Liberals think that goats are just sheep from broken homes.”—Malcolm Bradbury.
As I predicted last week on this very blog, my team, The Perps, won the SuperFabulous Bowl on Saturday! The humility-challenged favorites, Freshly Squeezed, clearly didn’t practice enough and were upset in their first playoff game by Megan’s Subaru Foresters. We had to win four straight playoff games for the championship, and that’s we did, beating the quarterback-challenged Black Eyed P’s & Q’s, the wildly inconsistent Goldie We So Hawney, the dangerous Teal Patrick Harris’s, and the hard-drinking youngsters from Baby Blue University. None of the games were particularly close, although we trailed 12-0 against Goldie We So Hawney before making a brilliant halftime adjustment, switching to a mostly man-to-man defense and shutting them out the rest of the way en route to a 25-12 victory.
How did we win it all? Our league-high seven rookies (including Kevin Duke, Michael Xavier, and our secret offensive weapon, Scott “I ran track in high school” Williams) improved each week and delighted in their roles. Our receivers, paced by Matt McDonald (the best in the league, for my money), Greg Pakhladzhyan (our lone heterosexual), and Nicholas Reid (my boyfriend) rarely dropped a pass. Our blockers, including Ryan Andaluz, gave us plenty of time to run and pass and even scout opposing players, while our pass rushers (Rufaro Gomwe and Mario Nimock) were simply unstoppable. Our defensive backs (including Michael Gilmor, Sean “I’m needed in the OR” O’Reilly, and Manny “Sticky Hands” Rivera) disrupted offenses and picked off passes. And our beloved center and coach, Phil Clawson, has the best playbook in the league.
Above all, we had a boatload of fun playing together in one of the country’s best gay sports leagues. So did my dog, Casey, who is also pictured above with the team before we headed to Fritz to celebrate a job well done. Who knew the gays were so good at football?
It’s Friday, and I’m feeling lazy and still a bit under the weather, so instead of an original blog post for today, I thought I would point you, dear reader, to a story I wrote six years ago about the 1920 secret purge of homosexual students at Harvard University. News of the purge, which Harvard had kept secret until The Harvard Crimson broke the story in 2002, prompted then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers to say:
“These reports of events long ago are extremely disturbing. They are part of a past that we have rightly left behind. I want to express our deep regret for the way this situation was handled, as well as the anguish the students and their families must have experienced eight decades ago. Whatever attitudes may have been prevalent then, persecuting individuals on the basis of sexual orientation is abhorrent and an affront to the values of our university. We are a better and more just community today because those attitudes have changed as much as they have.”
Be sure to check out Michael Van Devere’s film, PERKINS 28: Testimony from the Secret Court Files of 1920.
Of all the magazine stories I’ve worked on, my recent New York Times Magazine cover piece, “Coming Out in Middle School,” continues to receive the most interest—and positive feedback—from readers across the country. I don’t normally share emails that are sent to me, but I’m going to make an exception today. People often ask me why I’m a writer, why I write about the things I do. This email is why:
I don’t normally write the authors of the articles I read, but I had
to write and thank you for your article “Coming Out in Middle School”.
I have an 11 year old son, and as I was coming out of the shower this
morning, he was 4 feet in front of me pale, looking at me. I asked
what was up, and he said he had something very important to talk to me
about. I asked if he was ok, and he blurted out “I think I’m
bisexual!” and burst into tears, fleeing from the room. Frankly, I
suspected off and on for years, but lived in denial, assuring myself
it would just go away. I also convinced myself that it wouldn’t happen
(his coming out) until he was in his late teens at the earliest if it
happened at all. Wrong on both counts.
Your article was the first thing I read in hours of scouring the
internet for “what the hell do I do now” direction that reassured me,
especially considering his age, to just calm down and listen to the
kid, and not dismiss it with my first instinct, which was “What could
you possibly know at 11?”.
Out of everything I read today, it was the thing that was most on
point for our situation today, at this very moment, and I wanted to
personally thank you very, very much for writing it. It really helped
me – and no doubt my son, who will remember my reaction and what I do
now, no doubt, for a very long time.
There is no greater forum for truly affecting people as a journalist (and for beginning a national conversation on a topic) than the cover of The New York Times Magazine. I am incredibly grateful to my editors there for continuing to give me that opportunity.
The last month has not been good. First, I got the swine flu. That lasted eight days, during which I mostly laid around feeling terrible and losing weight I don’t have to lose and apologizing profusely to my dog, Casey, who was not pleased with the disruption in his walk schedule. Then, just as I was feeling better and planning a robust return to the gym, I flew to Las Vegas to give a talk. It went well, and after it I had a few hours to kill before my red-eye back to Boston.
As I walked through the Mandalay Bay on my way back to The Hotel, a boutique non-gaming hotel that is actually pretty awesome (though it calls its spa “The Bathhouse,” which I find suspicious and weird), I made a grievous error in judgment. I stopped to have sushi. I have a long-standing rule against eating sushi in Las Vegas, a city that is not near an ocean and where bad things routinely happen to me, but I was craving some edamame and miso soup. So I decided to live a little. I ordered sushi in Las Vegas.
Things were fine for a while. I walked back to The Hotel, where I was tempted to check out “The Bathhouse” but then remembered I’m not supposed to do that. I went back to my hotel suite, where I cracked open Malcolm Gladwell’s collection What the Dog Saw and waited for my ride to the airport. The Jet Blue flight went fine, although the man in the seat next to me kept resting his elbow on my arm rest remote control for Direct TV, and each time I pointed this out he seemed surprised and annoyed. He also didn’t say a word to his wife during the five-hour trip. I judged him to be a bad man.
The real problems started when I got home. I spent the day in bed and in the bathroom, and when I began feeling close to death, I called the boyfriend, Nicholas, and pleaded for a ride to the emergency room. The timing wasn’t great. Lately, Nicholas has been lamenting that dating me—while certainly the greatest thing that has ever happened to him, to be sure—can be a wee bit boring. I’m not much of a partier anymore, and the last few times he’s asked me to do something fun after 9 p.m., I’ve declined in the name of swine flu, a good book, or a Northwestern basketball game.
So Nicholas decided to have fun without me. Last night, he made plans to go to a concert with some friends. He had just begun “pregaming” at a bar when he received my cry for help. So much for his fun night out. He took a taxi to my place and drove me to the ER, where he spent six hours with me and heard a doctor try to be funny by telling me, “Man, don’t you know that what happens in Vegas is supposed to stay in Vegas?”
Today, I’m still feeling terrible, but at least I’m not throwing up. Here’s what I’m planning to do with the rest of my day:
1) Read Tom Vanderbilt’s piece in Slate about the psychology of subway interactions.
2) Watch Stephen Colbert skateboard with members of Congress.
3) Try not to hate Times writer Jodi Kantor for her seven-figure book deal.
4) Read contrasting articles about porn by two friends of mine–Wendy Maltz, and Joe Kort.
5) Watch last night’s episode of So You Think You Can Dance, a show that I loved to ridicule until I watched it and promptly became addicted.
6) Eat something.
The process of deciding on a cover design is about as fun as sitting next to a celebrity in a 12-step meeting and then not being able to tell anyone that you saw them there, lest the Gods of anonymity—or a cranky old-timer—strike you dead. (Speaking of addiction, I spent two hours of my Jet Blue flight last night watching “Sex Rehab” with Dr. Drew on VH1, and, having spent some quality time in sex-addiction treatment myself, I have some thoughts about the whole thing. Stay tuned for a lengthy review later this week, but let me just say this in the meantime: Beauty queen Kari Ann Peniche, one of the sex addicts on the show, is quite possibly the most insufferable person alive, although she has some competition from skateboarder Bam Margera, who I had the misfortune of watching on Cribs last night.)
But back to book covers. Above, you can see the hardcover of America Anonymous (on the left) and the paperback version (on the right). The funny thing about book covers is that people feel very strongly about them, and they tend to assume that everyone feels the same way. So, you might be saying, “Man, the first cover is clearly better–it’s crisp and striking,” when another person, also seemingly intelligent, might respond, “You’re on crack. The paperback version draws you in and feels more personal.” Still others likely hate both covers. These people also likely hate themselves.
In the end, publishers usually make final decisions about these things, although they often humor us writers by asking for our thoughts. When asked for my thoughts, I struggle with this question: How important is it that the cover actually conveys what’s in the book? The hardcover version, which I fought for when my publisher was wavering on it, struck me as a terrific cover, but the paperback version seems to better represent what the book is actually about—a narrative about three years in the lives of addicts. Sure, the book also has science, sociology, and history, but at its heart it’s a narrative book about people. The hardcover version says science and sociology first.
In the age of Kindle, how much do covers actually matter? Check out Jacob Silverman’s piece in The Virginia Quarterly Review, which actually uses the hardcover of America Anonymous to make a point about the trend of nonfiction books that try to cleverly use a map of the Unites States.
Happy Monday from Vegas. I need to go give my talk now at the 10th Annual NCRG Conference on Gambling and Addiction.
As I write this, it is Sunday, Nov. 15th, and I’m about to fly to Las Vegas to give a talk about addiction. The good news here is that people sometimes pay me to talk to them. The bad news is that I have to spend a day and night in Vegas. (Las Vegas is my least favorite city in America. I dislike Las Vegas about as much as I dislike church sermons that try to connect the irrational fear of swine flu with the irrational fear of terrorism, which is what I heard today at my local Unitarian Universalist church, where everyone was coughing and sneezing and shaking hands and happily spreading disease in the name of liberal contrarianism. God help us.)
I will be flying Jet Blue, which I am excited about, what with all the movies and leg room. I will have plenty of reading material, too. I’m almost finished with my friend Suzanne Kingsbury’s excellent novel, The Gospel According to Gracey, and am eager to begin Dave Eggers’s nonfiction book, Zeitoun, about one family during Katrina.
I’m also bringing two magazines–The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair–along for the ride. Margaret Talbot’s piece about learning to rewrite bad dreams seems like it could be interesting, and I’ll be sure to read Ariel Levy’s essay about feminism and Elizabeth Colbert’s review of SuperFreakonomics. Vanity Fair gets the award this month for best cover lines: 1) How Grandmas and 12-Year-Old Girls are Corrupting American Culture. 2) Is Living Nude the Best Revenge? There’s also that old standby, Hunting an Internet Sex Predator, which is actually a good story by Mark Bowden. It almost makes up for Vanity Fair’s unsatisfying piece a couple of months ago about the Craigslist Killer. That story somehow included this sentence: “In this new kind of murder, the Internet was front and center at every turn.”
Finally, on the plane I’ll be thinking about the weekend that was in sports. My flag football team, The Perps, lost in the last seconds to The Teal Patrick Harris’s, in a rain-soaked game that meant nothing, since the seedings for next weekend’s playoff games were already set. We finished the regular season a stellar 12-5, and Vegas has us as favorites to upset 14-1 Freshly Squeezed in the SuperFabulous Bowl. First, though, we have to get by the underachieving Black Eyed P’s & Q’s in round one and then the winner of Goldie We So Hawney vs. Siler-Ware You Out in the quarterfinals. I play quarterback on offense and safety on defense, where I’m known to give up the occasional big play.
In other sports news, my beloved Northwestern Wildcats moved to 7-4 on the season with a victory over Illinois, which inexplicably still has Ron Zook as its head coach. And speaking of acid trips, my friend Jonah Lehrer pointed me toward this wonderful video animation recalling former Pittsburg Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis, who threw a no-hitter while tripping on LSD.
(I tried acid once, in college, but freaked out because I thought that my friends, who were playing chess, were conspiring against me with every move.)
Oh, relax. This site just went up yesterday. I’ll be boring you here before you know it.
© 2009 Benoit Denizet-Lewis
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