self portrait

It Happened to Me: How I Became a First-Person Human Trafficker

Photo: Charriau Pierre/Getty Images

This week, the Cut reflects on self-reflection with a series of stories devoted to the art of memoir. 

I have one main gift in life.

If I spend a few minutes talking to you I can tell you exactly What Happened to You.

Undoubtedly, I realize many things have happened to you, but I mean what happened to you that might be worthy of an “It Happened to Me” column on xoJane.

In short: “It Happened to Me: ‘It Happened to Me’ Happened to Me.”

In 2012, I became an editor at xoJane. During my two and a half years working full-time there (I remain an editor-at-large, though I am now freelance) and commissioning stories, I edited and wrote for the infamous “It Happened to Me” column. The column — first-person essays on notable experiences — had been popular when it existed in print as part of Sassy magazine, and on xoJane it quickly became one of the top performers in terms of audience numbers. As Jane Pratt, the site’s founder and editor-in-chief, put it, “IHTM is just one long anecdote, one person’s first-person experience. They are liberating to read, because often you have gone through the same thing but didn’t feel you could admit it.”

I, too, believed in these stories as agents of liberation, and I went to work as if I were at the forefront of a revolution. I would greedily scan my Facebook feed, unflaggingly do searches on BuzzSumo (a tool that highlights the most-shared topics on social media) for “women” and “outrage” and “controversy,” and at any moment, I would remain convinced that a 15-second conversational snippet might lead to a first-person story that would be a traffic game-changer for the next 24 hours, which in the world of online journalism is your only reality.

So if something publicly fucked up happened to you over the last three years and you are “in my network,” there is a very good chance you received a heartfelt message from me. Sifting through my Facebook outbox now, it reads like I am some sort of pathologically fetishistic lifestyle voyeur or perhaps just an overly aggressive life coach, eager to dissect and thin-slice your life onto wet-mount microscope slides, all while waving the flag of self-awareness and empowerment. Was there awareness and self-empowerment at stake? Absolutely. Was this really the main intent of my work? Of course not.

My message would detail at great length how I found your story riveting, and concluded with a plea for you to write it for me as a first-person essay.

This intimate language was cut and pasted from my “canned responses” folder on Gmail.

Hi there. I came across your fascinating story, and I’m reaching out because I would love for you to write a piece for xoJane. The headline I had in mind was …

  • I Am a Tennis Player Who Lost Because of My Period
  • I Was Kicked Out of a Fast-Food Restaurant Because of My Therapy Animal
  • I Am Engaged to Charles Manson

I was good at my job. One day, I followed a link to a Yelp review that my friend Maya K. Francis left for a racist bikini waxer. Before the month was over, “My Bikini Waxer Told Me She Couldn’t Believe I Was ‘Clean’ Because I Was Black” had 2,000 shares.

Scrolling through the feed of Facebook friends I didn’t know very well (all the better to mine life experiences from, my dear) led me to Wendy Hanna’s status update about how it made her sick to see two strangers subtly humiliated for not speaking English. “Why I Decided to Intervene When I Saw Another White Woman Mocking a Spanish-Speaking Couple at My Grocery Store” has garnered more than 77,000 shares since publication.

The constant, restless ticktock of Twitter also served as an unrelenting source of ouroboros and real-time memoir. When Brianna Wu’s Gamergate harassment unfolded online, I asked if she would chronicle the experience for us. As of this writing, “I’ve Been Forced Out of My Home and Am Living in Constant Fear Because of Relentless Death Threats From Gamergate” has more than 247,000 shares.

I believed in all these stories — still do — and I believed in the education I was getting, but I also believe I was warping my brain to a sort of frenetic micro-human-experience kind of hyperfocus that was on all the time. You want to hear my thoughts on world politics? Well, I can’t help you with that, but do you want to hear my thoughts on the woman who’s in a polyamorous relationship but don’t you dare call her a slut?

I found myself speaking (to myself) in “It Happened to Me” headlines. “It Happened to Me: I Went to Work, Got a Salad, and Wished I Had a Burger Instead.” “It Happened to Me: I’m Not Sure I Can Stop by Your Party This Weekend Because It’s in Brooklyn But I’m Definitely Going to Try.” “It Happened to Me: Any Way You Could Spot Me a 20 Until the End of the Week?”

Of course, I tried to form a genuine  human connection with the writers I was commissioning (several have remained dear friends to this day) and I tried to protect them. In the majority of my discussions, if the subject was at all delicate, I would give a short speech. My point was almost always the same: “I care more about you as a person than I do about the story.”

This was not disingenuous or a “move.” This has always been my speech. I ran into Sonja Morgan from Real Housewives at a party the other day, and she reminded me of what I told her before I profiled her in the New York Post. I told her that the headline would likely humiliate her and she would be positioned in a way that was making fun of her, but that it would be terrific, wide-ranging, must-see press. So — was she in?

In other words, I would emphasize to my first-person virgins: Think about the consequences. Because there will be some. I always made sure — my stories would get eyeballs.

At this point, I’m sure you are groaning, because this is obviously the shiny, polished résumé version of my experience (“what is my greatest weakness? Oh, I’d say I’m a bit of a PERFECTIONIST; any other questions?”).

In reality, I felt like — and often was — simply the bad guy.

I still look back with horror on some of my early mistakes when following up on first drafts, asking questions that had the ham-fisted, re-traumatizing grace of a two-by-four.

“Do you have any pictures of when you were anorexic?” I asked one woman who was writing about recovering from an eating disorder. “How skinny did you get, you know, in terms of weight?” The writer tsk-tsk-ed me gently, explaining how she didn’t mind the request but others would get upset.

On another story, I reached out to query a transgender writer: “Can I use a picture of you before you transitioned to include in the piece as well?” She likewise explained in sweeter-than-she-had-to-be terms why this wouldn’t be appropriate.

But even as my sensitivity of approach developed, more and more I found myself interacting with the world less as an empathetic soul and more as a roving predator bent on turning other people’s lives into 1,200-word essays on the human experience.

There were the sisters who were poster girls for the latest most-terrifying drug on the market, something called Krokodil, which appeared to be like heroin but then would rot your flesh straight through. They had spoken to the local news, and I asked if one or both would write a piece for me now that they were going public. They said yes, but getting from yes through to publication was itself a study in addictive behavior (mine and theirs).

First, I got an email from the Facebook account of a relative of theirs that was actually a message from one of them, because she had lost the password to her own account. When we finally spoke on the phone, they informed me that they did not have an email because they had lost the password for that, too. I said that I would create a new one for them and text them with all the information they would need.

Then the sisters went silent. They would pop up from time to time, expressing a desire to help me “do my report” but then would go off the map again. One of them was arrested last year on suspicion of dealing heroin.

Then, there was the more established writer who called me in a panic because, I was told, a book deal was being pulled off the table because of the huge wave of nasty commenters on our site. Couldn’t I do — anything? Please?

I’ve seen more than one writer delete their social presence entirely after writing for me. Because even when you are prepared for an anonymous-commenter backlash, you are never prepared for an anonymous-commenter backlash.

I know this because I was also writing my own first-person pieces during this time, stories like “I Inspired a ‘Bad’ Version of Myself in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom,” ”This Is the First Time I’ve Written About My Rape, and I’m Doing It for You, Todd Akin,” and “The Story About How I Got Sober Once and For All, Which Yes, Includes Two Filthy Sex-Club Stories.” As the confessions spilled, my sister and I stopped talking. My mom would say ominous things like “I read the comments on your stories to Dad and he’s really worried about you,” and I would stay curled up in bed wearing the same jacket for days, smoking cigarettes and occasionally forcing myself to go to an AA meeting in the city so that someone might hug me afterward, and I could remember what genuine human connection felt like.

So I did know what it felt like when I received a text from a writer who said she couldn’t stop crying — because I often couldn’t stop crying myself. It felt as if I had reached some kind of personal caricature pinnacle — almost to the point where I transcended it, entirely. If it’s any consolation for any hate you ever receive, online or off: Chin up. Everyone is sunk by their own invisible weights, constantly.

In all this, I made sure that it was on the writers to decide whether they wanted to publish or not.

It’s easy to best-friend someone, all girlish intimacies and confessions to loosen everyone up, but it’s better not to when the object is to, say, get them into bed — or to get them to write a story about the most intimate details of their personal lives. I have one guiding principle in life, and that is: “Don’t bullshit a bullshitter.”

Still, you can spit that line until you are blue in the face and it can still not be enough. In February 2014, when everyone was wondering who the “Duke Porn Star” was, I found her and asked her if she wanted to reveal her identity on the site. We talked for hours and hours before she ultimately decided that she wanted to go public.

But she was also only 18.

To this day, my dried-twig-filled barren womb of maternal instincts kicks in retrospectively.

The backlash against that young woman still astounds me. Sure, she was the most-read xoJane story of all time (at least until I left; vaginal cat-hair girl may have surpassed her by now, who knows), but the price she paid in cruelty was the likes of which I had never seen. She forwarded on to me some of the emails she received during that time. This is one of the nicer ones telling her how awful she is, with this lovely little caveat:

I don’t want you to think this is just about you and then get sad and commit suicide by cutting yourself to death, etc. That is honestly my main concern considering how unstable you are.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get more hateful, it always did.

I do believe that another media outlet would have eventually discovered her identity and commissioned a piece from her (she says other reporters were sniffing around) — or worse, would have ostracized her without giving her a voice to speak at all, but I still wish I could have protected her from the landslide of backlash that came her way.

Belle and I texted while I was writing this piece, and I asked her if she regretted publishing, but she declined to comment. It’s pretty easy to see why. People on the internet don’t care about “no comment.”

I’m about as far away from an 18-year-old porn star as they come, but as a former first-person human trafficker (let’s hope they use that in the headline; really clicky!), these days I attempt to give myself the same level of compassion that I gave to the writers whose pieces I commissioned.

Happily, what has changed for me since I first lay catatonic three years ago is an acceptance and a coming to grips with the seemingly endless stream of feedback — the outside world’s and my own. And some of that feedback is good. I’ve had at least a dozen people tell me they’ve gotten and remained sober as a result of my writing; I receive about one email a month from people who have gone through a breakup saying my words comforted them; and in my greatest achievement, I somehow managed to jockey a story about reasons not to kill yourself into a good position on Google’s search, and it’s a regular event to get notes from people saying the piece helped them make a better choice.

In the end, it’s even brought me closer to my family — after a very painful (and extended) period of distance.

Obviously, I’m biased, but I think the first-personalization trend of online writing has done far more good than harm.

I would be a little suspicious of anyone who cluck-clucks about it, frankly. I fear this is a person who wants secrets locked and sewn away and who is doing everything possible for times never to change. Here’s a cheat: Notice how the main people who are trying to shame the writers doing the work are those who are using “shameless” as a derogatory term in the first place.

These squirmy, awful, brilliant pieces have encouraged us all to be a lot more honest about the human experience. A lot less afraid to be honest.

I’m willing to bet, in fact, as a reader or a writer or a student of life, it may even have happened to you.

‘It Happened to Me’ Happened to Me