Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, Aug 7, 2007
I thought they were my friends, but they’ve been laughing at me all this time!
About a year ago I found out that five of the people on my campus, including my freshman roommate and a bunch of people I thought were my friends, had been laughing at me behind my back on Facebook — which I’d never used — for months. I found this out when I broke up with my first boyfriend. (He told me under pressure.) Shortly thereafter, I realized that everyone else I’d been friends with at school were his friends, and they stayed his friends. I graduated early, thank God, but it did nothing for me in the end. Some latent psychological issues surfaced right then, and I became every bit that awkward, narrow-minded, ugly and damaged beast they had all seen from the beginning.
Now I am in graduate school. I work a day job so menial that it’s difficult to talk to some people in the academic community. I’m a recently outed gay woman with social skills in the negatives and a face that I can’t make excuses for. To top it all off, I’m 21 and still every bit a sheltered and naive country girl. Everything that was true when it was on Facebook is still true now.
I understand that this is the way things are. I would have experienced a lot of this eventually, bullies or no bullies. I see a therapist, took medicine for a while. But I still feel compelled to isolate myself. I just couldn’t take another incident like this.
But what I really want to know is why, one year later, I’m still thinking about it. Nobody has been able to explain why this one thing haunts me so badly. The best explanation I can think of is that what those friends and acquaintances posted was really close to the truth that I knew and didn’t want to see. But I’ve accepted the truth and I’ve made changes where I could. Is this not enough? What more can I do? Even a jerk ought to be able to shrug off a few Facebook comments after 12 months. Right?
Dear Baker Street,
While I’m not a social scientist, I do think about stuff like this, and it seems to me there is a good reason why an experience of betrayal by the group would continue to appear painfully in your thoughts long after its occurrence. I think it is about banishment and exile, about being shunned. It’s not so much about the hurtful words that were said. Nor, I suspect, is it about the truth of what was said. Rather, it is the recognition of banishment. Psychologically, emotionally and indeed organically we depend on the group for survival.
When you leave your family for the first time to live on a college campus, you transfer your dependence and your allegiance from family to social group. So it would seem reasonable to assume that the social group would then be as vital to you, psychologically, as the family was. Your animal nature would perceive the group as the source of shelter and food and protection, just as your family played that role.
So when you find that they have betrayed you, it sets off alarm bells deep in your primitive, survival-oriented self. It’s not that you’ll have nothing to eat, necessarily (although in the dining hall you may find yourself eating alone, guarding your tray like a prisoner does). It is that you have been kicked out, forced to wander. Imagine what it would be like to be literally shunned by all communities, if you had to wander from village to village. Imagine that you had been branded an outcast, and every village you came to, hungry, thirsty and lonely, the villagers would see this ugly brand and turn you away.
Now here is the thing about cosmopolitan society and the modern world. We don’t live in no fucking village. We are free to wander. You can go to California and call yourself Dolly or Nikita. You can be the stranger about whom all one knows is what you tell them. You can go somewhere where nobody sees the mark, or if they see it they do not realize that it is a brand of banishment. They don’t know what it is. It’s just a mark. You can say it’s a birthmark.
That is what we do, those of us who are different. That is what is so merciful about modern technological and postindustrial society: We are free to come and go and define who we are.
Except — and this is the weird thing: Social networking on the Internet seems to be taking us back to the primitive village where everybody knows our business and everybody can see the mark.
So you may have to disappear from the Internet, just as, in former times, you might have found it necessary to disappear from a village in which you had found yourself unjustly shunned and betrayed.
(Isn’t that interesting: While modern cities have long offered the iconoclast a geographic anonymity, the collapse of physical distance brought about by the Internet has put us all in a tiny village with no curtains — a village, incidentally, full of nosy parkers and busybodies! It’s a very annoying place at times, now that our faces are on it!)
That’s the interesting thing to me, anyway: that the technology of social networking seems to be dragging us away from the anonymous cosmopolitan and toward the tribal. I’m not sure I’m so crazy about that. I sort of like the unlimited opportunities of the modern urban situation, where you can come into town and reinvent yourself, as so many of us did in the pre-Internet San Francisco and pre-Internet New York.
So my advice to you: Get off the Net and travel, physically, to an urban setting that loves gay people and is hospitable to outsiders, where you can reinvent yourself on your own terms. And accept the fact that this was a deep and shattering betrayal and it will probably come up in your thoughts from time to time. That’s just the way we work.