first person

Replaying My Shame

Thirteen years later, what happened at Gawker isn’t going away.

Danielle Orchard. Red Sketchbook, 2019. Oil on canvas. 40 x 30 inches. Photo: Courtesy the artist and V1 Gallery, Copenhagen
Danielle Orchard. Red Sketchbook, 2019. Oil on canvas. 40 x 30 inches. Photo: Courtesy the artist and V1 Gallery, Copenhagen

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At the beginning of my writing career, I developed a theory, or a coping mechanism, or a political position, about shame. Because I understood that shame was used to control women, I decided that I would choose not to feel it. As long as I didn’t feel it, it couldn’t be wielded to control me. Unfortunately, you can’t decide in advance how to feel.

I took this stance as a result of being shamed — in one extremely public incident, then a series of ensuing, related public and private ones, most of which I’ve already written about in various ways over the past 13 years. Each time I wrote about it, I felt certain, was the last time. I had told the story, so the story was over.

My first writing job was at now-defunct website Gawker, which was then run out of a storefront office on Crosby Street in Soho. It had been founded five years earlier, in 2002, by a British journalist named Nick Denton. Denton had acquired millions during the first dot-com boom and, craving mischief and notoriety, used the money to start a gossip blog. Compared to the book-publishing job I’d just left, where I’d had an office, health insurance, and a 401(k), this was a step down: Gawker had no designated desks, and we were encouraged to work from home because the space couldn’t physically accommodate all of the company’s employees at once.

What the job did have, and what made me blind to everything it didn’t, was exposure. Every person who read the site knew my name, and in 2007, that was a lot of people. They emailed me and chatted with me and commented at me. Overnight, I had thousands of new friends and enemies, and at first that felt exhilarating, like being at a party all the time.

No one was on Twitter yet, and Facebook was just becoming a thing outside college campuses, so people wasting time at desk jobs in New York were basically forced to read Gawker. They came to the site for what was then known as “media gossip,” an expansive category that grew steadily more expansive until it came to encompass just about everything. Our bread-and-butter posts were regular compilations of the best and worst and funniest and most relevant things to read in newspapers and magazines, which we cherry-picked for content while simultaneously mocking the reporters and editors who worked at those newspapers and magazines for being slow, stodgy, and humorless.

It was part of my job to make fun of anyone who seemed to aspire to public recognition on any scale. Years before most people began to routinely broadcast their own personal details via social media, we told their stories for them, often in the least flattering way possible. I, of course, wanted to be recognized, too — recognized for the skillful, perceptive, and clever way that I made fun of these people. I wanted to be appreciated as a smart, funny writer. We all wanted the same thing, which was to feel known and admired. We were all going about it wrong, but in 2007, it wasn’t clear how consequential Americans’ deep ambivalence about fame and its shadow twin shame would soon become.

Gawker would become many things over the years that followed — a news organization to be reckoned with, an employer with a dedicated human-resources department. But when I worked at Gawker in 2007, it was a blog, with all that entails. It was sometimes great and sometimes terrible, and it did not have even the most rudimentary of protections in place for its employees when they got themselves into trouble. Instead, it had, by design or by accident, a system set up to make the trouble worse, because the site fed off controversy. “By design” is probably giving everyone involved too much credit, but in a way, it makes me feel better to imagine that someone was in control.

Occasionally we’d get a request for someone from the site to go on TV to talk about one of our stories. At 25, I still had an outsize optimism about my own capabilities. Who knew what I might be capable of? Maybe in a pinch I’d be able to fly a plane, or sing an aria, or field pointed questions on live television — that’s the kind of sitcom logic I still believed in back then. I should have, at the bare minimum, asked to receive media training. But I thought I would be a refreshing breath of fresh air in a context where everyone else was so phony and calcified in the same way that Gawker itself was a breath of fresh air compared with the stodgy New York Times. I was like, I’ll just be myself! 

For some TV appearances, this approach worked fine, like being on MSNBC for a split second to talk about what was new with Britney Spears (in 2007, nothing good). In retrospect, though, the request to go on Larry King Live, guest-hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, should have raised some red flags. Prime-time CNN was much more high profile than anything else I’d done. I was not remotely ready.

The booker who’d interacted with my Gawker bosses a few days before the show had told them — anyway, they’d told me — that I was going on to talk about “celebrity news,” or something equally vague. I did nothing to prepare — I had no talking points. I didn’t even search our site to see whether we’d written anything about Jimmy Kimmel recently. If I had, I would have seen that the site’s “Stalker Map” had featured a few unflattering sightings of the comedian allegedly “drunk” in various NYC locations. For Gawker’s bloggers, the map was not our central concern: Readers sent tips to an in-box, someone made a split-second decision; interns made the updates. (Even though we didn’t have a proper office, we had interns.) I hadn’t ever watched Larry King Live before.

The day of the show, I had an appointment in Park Slope with an avuncular tax preparer named Joe. My taxes that year were complicated. Because I was being paid as an independent contractor, I owed the IRS a lot more than I’d anticipated. “If you were my daughter, I’d be very angry at you!” Joe said. He asked me what I was up to later, just to make conversation, and I told him to watch the Larry King show that night because I was going to be on TV, but I couldn’t tell whether he believed me.

Then I went back to Greenpoint, to my apartment across the street from a chicken slaughterhouse. I stood in front of my closet, trying to figure out what to wear on TV. Something I’d never worn before caught my eye: a vintage blazer that I’d bought on a recent trip to Florida, where the thrift stores are full of designer castoffs from downsizing or deceased retirees. It was a lipstick-pink color that I’d never have chosen, but it was Chanel and it was $5 — a great find.

I put it on and looked in the mirror and decided it was perfect. Even though it was a little bit too small for me, it had once been expensive, and that connoted seriousness. I looked like an adult. I smoothed the fabric, slid my hands into the pockets, plucked at the satiny lining. I was ready; I was in control.

They sent a car to pick me up. In the makeup chair, someone tended to my face with a soft brush. Other women who were more used to being on TV were in the makeup room, too, loudly cracking jokes as stylists tugged at their hair and painted their eyelids. When my turn came, someone led me down a hallway into a small room and fixed a microphone to the lapel of the pink jacket, put a taupe-colored bud in my ear. I sat uncomfortably perched on a high stool, legs dangling like a child’s. There was no monitor showing me the faces of the people whose voices came through that headset. This was why it took me so long to figure out what was happening, but by the time I did, it was too late.

Kimmel, it turned out, had invited me on the show because he was enraged about the “Stalker Map” sightings. In his California studio, unseen by me, sat a panel of experts — four middle-aged white men whose names I still don’t know. Kimmel introduced me by saying I was “changing this game dramatically.”

“You look like a very pleasant woman,” he began, and I immediately interrupted him — “I am a very pleasant woman!” And then, at his prompting, I haltingly tried to explain how the “Stalker Map” worked. Kimmel tried to cut me off. After Kimmel posed a hypothetical about a “psychopath” using the map to go after Gwyneth Paltrow, I was unable to conceal my contempt. “It’s not actually stalking,” I said, rolling my eyes like a teenager.

Because I couldn’t see Kimmel, or anyone else who was talking, I didn’t realize at first that he wasn’t joking around — he was best known, then, as a comedian. “Aren’t [celebrities] protected by giant piles of money?” I said in an appeasing, flirtatious tone. No one laughed.

When I watch the clip — me and Jimmy Kimmel, in split screen — it’s possible to see the exact moment when I realize what’s going on, that what I’d thought was a joke is in fact serious. It’s when one of the experts tells me that it’s only a matter of time before the map gets a celebrity murdered, and I’m shaking my head in disbelief, causing my stylist-fluffed barrel curls to wag from side to side. Something flips then, and you can see in my widened eyes that I know I’m completely fucked; I’ve been talking about media and they are talking about murder, seemingly meaning it. Objectively, this is the moment to laugh at me. It is funny to watch someone be humiliated. We all think, Wow, thank God it’s not me. The segment lasts about five minutes and ends with Kimmel sternly telling me that I am going to hell.

Someone must have come in and taken off my microphone; someone must have said something empty and cheerful as I exited the studio; someone must have led me to the Town Car waiting downstairs. I must have slept that night. I know that I threw the Chanel jacket in the trash when I got home.

The following week in the office was weird. I was worried at first that I was in trouble. I posted a transcript of the clip myself — I wanted the feeling of control I could get if I wrote the caption under it, and I thought it would be good to “own” any traffic it generated. I titled the post “How the Gawker Stalker Map Works: A Guide for Dummies, Outraged Famous People and Old Folk,” and it continued in that condescending tone. I also wrote a New York Times op-ed about how the “Stalker Map” represented a democratization of discourse and a threat to old-media systems for disseminating publicity. “Celebrities like Mr. Kimmel who pretend that this new generation of gossip is hurting their feelings are covering up their real concern — that it’s hurting their bottom lines,” I pontificated. It now reads to me like a pathetic attempt to be a good company man; it presents the talking points I should have made on air.

That jujitsu move of posting about the humiliating clip so I could reap the benefits of the pile-on in the comments section then became something I did, to varying degrees, with most of my posts. At first I had assumed, as many beginning writers do, that the audience was on my side. I had written to them as though we were friends. Now, my tone changed, anticipating mockery and trying to get out in front of it. Being hated quickly became something that I took for granted as the price of doing business, and I leaned in to it; I would humiliate myself willingly, as if to show that I was in on the joke or just that I could hurt myself much more than anyone else could hurt me.

Soon after, I broke up with the longtime boyfriend I’d been living with, but not before cheating on him with a Gawker co-worker. That “affair” was tacky, and totally obvious; can you imagine anything being otherwise in a one-room office, especially one where people blog about their lives when they can’t come up with any jokes or gossip? One day, I came to work exhausted, wearing a dress I’d bought on the way there because I hadn’t been home to change. I took a break from blogging and lay down on the unclean office couch and passed out for a few minutes, during which time someone, possibly Nick (though he says he does not recall this), took a photo of me and posted it on the site with some jokey caption that probably made no sense to anyone outside our office. It was later taken down, and I have no way of proving that this happened, except that I remember it. When I saw the photo online, I remember feeling a moment of queasy shock that I quickly forced myself to ignore, then forget. There were pictures of me on the site all the time, so what was one more?

It was a foretaste of what was to come after I quit Gawker a few months later, less than a year into my tenure, with a dramatic post about how I’d realized the whole enterprise was bad for me and probably the world. After that, Nick really let himself go nuts. The site’s foundational dynamic had always been Nick in the background and a series of 20-something women in the foreground; we were the ones who created the site’s take-no-prisoners writing persona and took the flak. For most of the time I worked at Gawker Media, Nick had been preoccupied with his company’s other blogs, writing for the Silicon Valley vertical, Valleywag, and overseeing the launch of new sites like Jezebel. My quitting coincided with his turning his attention back to Gawker, even writing there under his own byline, and soon he had made me one of its recurring characters. He posted about my “bed-hopping” in the guise of making some kind of point about literary culture. I was, while this was happening, unemployed, not protected by any kind of institutional power.

One day, I saw a post on Gawker of myself drunkenly fellating a plastic tube. The video had been taken by the staff videographer while I still worked for Gawker; we were on the sidewalk after a party in Soho for a rival site. I think the tube might have been a sex toy sent to Gawker’s porn site, Fleshbot, for review, and we were all passing it around and goofing off. Nick had somehow found the video, sent it to an employee with instructions to post it, and then the staffer did, probably because Nick was his boss (it’s since been taken down, and Denton denies that he directed the staffer to post the video). In 2008, I didn’t know how to contextualize what I was experiencing. Now, we have a term for this: “revenge porn.”

When the Kimmel video occasionally makes its way to the front page of Reddit, as it does every few years, people feel the need to reach out and tell me how they feel about it; that’s how I know it’s gone viral again. I have no idea what prompts it. The gist of what they tell me is that I am a stupid cunt and should die.

I am never allowed to forget that this moment existed for long. It seems that whenever I’m about to, it pops back up: A new acquaintance — a nurse about to draw blood, or a fellow parent at the playground — will narrate it to me from memory as they piece together why it is I look familiar. An interviewer will use it to introduce me to an audience as I sit there waiting for them to mention that I’ve written books. It’s hard to quantify how many people have watched the clip, pageviews being the fudgable metric they are, but one version on YouTube has 3 million views and counting. Just based on initial viewership of the live show, it’s the largest audience I have ever reached simultaneously in my entire career, and in all likelihood it will remain so.

In the years that followed my departure from Gawker, the experience of internet-based public disgrace became a familiar one — there was even a book about it, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson. In 2015, when the book came out, Ronson invited me to join him onstage at a comedy show, where he interviewed me and played the Jimmy Kimmel clip. Though I went along with it gamely because I still believed that, if I willed myself to, I could own the shame’s upside, I was thrown by how sad and angry I was afterward. I sat and listened to a live audience laugh at the clip and tried to act like I was over it, in on the joke. It felt like a personal failing that I still couldn’t get there.

In 2016, when I still thought of Trump as a reality-show personality, my husband and one of his friends and I watched the presidential debate. We watched Trump roving around the debate stage, making Clinton’s attempts to seriously debate seem inherently ridiculous by interrupting her and making faces. Secure in the approval of his audience, he seemed to be making clear he could do whatever he wanted.

And then he came up right behind her and the men in my living room both laughed. It was a ridiculous moment, but they weren’t giggling out of mirth. It was more a shocked laugh of incredulity, the kind you hear when an audience can’t quite believe what’s happening in front of them. There’s some animal instinct that makes people laugh this way. I’m sure it’s the way people used to laugh at public executions. You can hear the relief in it, relief that someone else is the one who’s in danger.

I keep typing and then deleting the phrase “I don’t remember.” It’s bad storytelling to admit you don’t remember details; the goal is to get the reader to focus on whichever details you choose to include. But maybe it means something that I don’t remember what happened next, or a lot of what happens around these incidents of humiliation, mine and others’. My mind goes blank, or forces itself to be blank for a time. I don’t want to remember because I feel culpable. I sat there and watched, too. Did I laugh, too? I don’t remember.

I didn’t consciously think “I relate to what I imagine Hillary Clinton is experiencing” as her trained, professional smile hardened. I might have thought, about my husband and his friend, that I understood something they didn’t about what we were all watching. The rules of the game she’d thought she was playing changed in real time, and we were all witnesses to the moment when she realized what was happening. That’s what made her humiliation so scary, and so total. She lost the election in that moment, I think. Who knows? Something was lost, in that moment, for me at least.

The next day, I woke up feeling a full-body dread that made it hard to get out of bed. I was also in pain. The pain was everywhere and nowhere, but also it was sometimes very specifically in my lower abdomen, as though the events of the night before, which had nothing to do with me, had taken up residence in my pelvis, right where I kept my uterus and ovaries and vagina and entrails, the place where my firstborn child had lived for the better part of the previous year.

I went to a physical therapist, who put her fingers inside my vagina and poked around skillfully while making small talk to put me at ease. She told me that my pelvic floor was out of whack, both too tight and too weak, and that jogging was making it worse. With some trepidation — this therapist was a no-nonsense kind of medical professional, not someone who dealt in vibes or feelings — I told her that I’d woken up with this pain the morning after watching the debate. She paused what she was doing, resting her gloved hand on my stomach the way you’d calm a skittish animal. “Yeah, I’m seeing a lot of this lately,” she said. “Women who haven’t had problems in years coming back in. People have all kinds of different reactions to trauma.” It was the first time I’d let myself think about what happened to me at Gawker as “trauma.” It seemed ridiculous; many more overtly “traumatic” things had happened to my brain and body, and yet “Hillary Clinton getting steamrolled by Donald Trump on live television” was the one that I had an uncontrollable physical reaction to? But arguing with the injustice of the situation did not obtain results.

The idea that I could have a somatic response that my conscious mind couldn’t control was as frustrating as it was liberating. Whether what had happened to me in 2007 was, by some imaginary objective standard, “a big deal,” it was a big deal to my body, which understood what had happened in a way that my intellect could not. I could work to repair the damage, but only if I let myself acknowledge that I had been harmed.

It was also around this time that the Access Hollywood tape surfaced, and people, myself included, thought that Trump would be so humiliated by his on-camera admission that he had sexually harassed women that he might — this seems so crazy now! — disappear? Drop out of the race? I didn’t understand yet that amoral people are not silenced by shame. Quite the opposite: The shame often rebounds off them and back onto the people whom they have victimized.

I once believed that the truth would set us free — specifically, that women’s first-person writing would “create more truth” around itself. This is what I believed when I published my first book, a memoir. And I must have still believed it when I began publishing other women’s books, too. I believed that I would become free from shame by normalizing what happened to me, by naming it and encouraging others to name it too. How, then, to explain why, at the exact same moment when first-person art by women is more culturally ascendant and embraced than it has ever been in my lifetime, the most rapacious, damaging forms of structural sexism are also on the rise? I have tried to come up with various explanations for this paradox, but none of them are satisfying. If this is the patriarchy’s last gasp, it’s a long one that shows no sign of ending.

I have lost hope that hearing women’s stories will ever make even one man realize that what seemed like an ordinary night of his life was a life-changing horror story from the perspective of the woman involved. And I no longer think there’s value in the mere fact of getting people to pay attention to what I have to say, especially when the attention is temporary, incredulous, or overwhelmingly negative.

I still do this kind of writing, I am doing it now, but I no longer hope for any outcome other than my own relief. This is because I have lost faith in the idea that there might be anything any individual can say or write that will change the minds of people who, consciously or subconsciously, believe that women matter less than men.

While I’ve been working on this essay, I’ve made myself watch the clip of “Kimmel Takes on Gawker Stalker” several times. It feels bad, and also bruise-pressingly bad-good once I’ve forced myself to press play. I get the same feeling by walking down Crosby Street in Soho, where the feel of cobblestones under my heels can still give me sense-memory flashbacks to the year I spent working in that storefront office, when I was young and everything that was happening, bad and good, was at least happening to me for the first time.

Every time I watch the clip I feel a little bit more distant from the person in it, who is both me and not exactly me. Reflexively, as old-me speaks, my brain reiterates the counterarguments I should have made, the ways I should have defended myself, even though it wouldn’t have mattered back then and definitely doesn’t matter now.

When it ends, I try to make myself stay in the moment, rather than rushing immediately to try to find the meaning. It might be that there is no sense to be made of this for me. There’s just the blunt, stupid feeling of humiliation, a strange and specific kind of loss. Who might I have become if this hadn’t been how I’d begun?