The Tragedy of Caroline Flack

Caroline Flack was a bright and bubbly presence on the British television scene. Her North London loquacity landed her into a prominent position as a presenter on such reality shows as Strictly Come Dancing and The Xtra Factor. Then came Love Island, which secured her status as a household name. In 2018, Love Island won a BAFTA award. But Flack, like many figures who entered the dark covenant of a well-paid celebrity resonating with a large audience, was someone who became a target for the tabloid newspapers — most prominently, The Sun, one of Rupert Murdoch’s rags. (After the tragedy that was to come, The Sun was deleting its most savage articles and, with high hypocritical gloss, pretending as if it had always been a Flack booster and that this vulgar meatgrinding outlet actually cared about the mental health and wellbeing of its targets.)

Despite all this, all seemed to be going well for Flack. At least on the surface. Until the police were called during the early morning hours of December 12, 2019. Neighbors had heard shouting and scuffling. And Flack’s boyfriend, a very tall 27-year-old tennis player named Lewis Burton, was believed to be the victim of assault by Flack. The media disseminated images of a bloody bed. Various reports speculated that the dried pools of blood had come from Flack smashing a glass, receiving a deep cut from a major vein. Both Flack and Burton were sent to the hospital to receive treatment.

It’s difficult to know precisely what happened or who was in the wrong, but we do have enough details to draw some conclusions. Burton reportedly shouted, “Bruv, I was normal until I met her,” to the police as he was being escorted to a waiting car. Neighbors reported six police cars and a police van showing up to Flack’s home in Islington. If the 999 tapes are ever released by the Crown, we will have a better idea of the tone. What we do know is that Burton told the emergency dispatcher that Flack was trying to kill him, that he had received a significant blow to the head from a lamp. “She is going mad,” said Burton. “Breaking stuff. I’ve just woken up. She’s cracked my head open.” Flack believed that Burton had been cheating on her. She could be heard screaming, “It’s all your fault! You’ve ruined my life!” Burton told the operator, “She tried to kill me, mate.” We also know that one of Flack’s ex-boyfriends, Andrew Brady, posted an NDA — dated March 14, 2018 — that he had been required to sign, with the hashtag #abusehasnogender. (Brady’s NDA posts have since been scrubbed from Instagram.) We also know that Brady had also called 999 when he grew concerned about Flack threatening to kill herself.

It’s clear that Flack, at the very least, suffered from significant mental health issues and suicidal ideation. In an October 14, 2019 Instagram post, Flack described how she kept many emotions to herself. “When I actually reached out to someone,” wrote Flack, “they said it was draining.” Flack, like many people who suffer from depression, said that “being a burden is my biggest fear.” It’s also clear that the television producers who profited from Flack wanted to keep these treatable problems under wraps, lest their big star be revealed as less than pristine. After all, the quest for money always takes precedence over a troubled person’s wellbeing.

But the alleged assault was enough for Flack to be dumped from Love Island, replaced by Laura Whitmore. Burton, for his part, publicly stated that he did not support prosecuting against Flack, who plead not guilty. The two had only been dating for less than a year, but we also know, from a September 3, 2019 interview with Heat Magazine, that Flack was pining for marriage and kids. The relationship with Burton may have been driven by certain manic qualities from Flack. In the Heat interview, a third party reported that Flack was “moving at 100 miles a minute” and the two were described as having “insane chemistry.”

The press — particularly The Sun — kept ridiculing Flack with impunity as she faced the burden of losing her primary gig and the indomitable attentions of the Crown Prosecution Service, who was set to begin trial on March 4th. It remains unknown if the CPS was motivated by significant evidence that they planned to introduce into court to prosecute against Flack or that the so-called “show trial” represented the bounty of landing a big fish. We do not know if Burton, like Brady before him, was coerced into silence by Flack’s handlers. But the only conclusion that any remotely empathetic person can draw here is that Flack needed significant help and that the intense scrutiny was too much for her to bear, as she posted on Instagram on December 24, 2019, and that this needed to stop — for the sake of Flack herself and all who loved her. Burton and Flack wanted to be together, but Flack was banned from having any contact with her. Burton defied this ban on Valentine’s Day, posting a message on Instagram reading “I love you.”

Two days later, Flack was dead. It was a suicide. She was only 40 years old.

Many celebrities have blamed the British media for contributing to Flack’s incredibly sad decline. I would respectfully suggest that these well-meaning people are thinking too small. This is the third suicide that Love Island is responsible for. Two previous contestants — Sophie Gradon in 2018 and Mike Thalassitis in 2019 — also took their own lives after bloodthirsty attention from the media. It is estimated that at least 38 people have died because of reality television. It’s clear that creator and executive producer Richard Cowles and producer Ellie Brunton showed no compunction as they lined their opportunistic pockets and are also partly to blame for these three deaths. They willingly preyed on the hopes and dreams of presenters and contestants, meticulously designing a television show that would be received by the Fleet Street scavengers with a sociopathic motivation for maximum ridicule. In other words, Cowles and Brunton engineered a show acutely harmful to human life. Love Island should be canceled immediately.

It is also clear that there is something significantly warped and cruel about the Crown Prosecution Service’s process. When you ban two people from having any contact with each other right before the holidays, and one of those people suffers from significant mental health issues and is already under intense scrutiny by News Group jackals, then this is callousness writ large. Even if the CPS had significant evidence to prove that Flack had willfully assaulted Burton, then it certainly had an obligation to ensure that Flack was safe and provided with care and not harmful to herself or others before carrying on with their trial.

One must also ask about the people who Flack surrounded herself with. Flack clearly had a history of erratic behavior. Did they do anything to get her treatment? Did they adjust her schedule so that she could get well? Or were they, like Cowles and Brunton, more driven by the sizable paychecks rather than the common decency of helping a troubled person to get well? Flack was tearing apart her home on December 12th. Was this the most violent she had ever been? How much of this violence could have been stopped if the television industrial complex had considered the greater good of getting a star presenter the treatment she needed?

I am not arguing that Flack’s alleged assault should never have been investigated. But, goddammit, nobody needed to die over this. Our moral obligation for mentally troubled people is to offer compassion and the opportunity to seek treatment so that they can live long, happy, and fruitful lives. But today’s cancel culture advocates are swift and casual in their gleeful zest for vituperation, refusing to comprehend that their targets are flawed human beings capable of contrition and self-examination. The people who have done wrong in the collective eye are truly doing their best to conquer their demons and curb their harmful behavioral patterns. But the media — The Sun and the unchecked harassment, the calls for permanent debasement, and the death threats that profit-motivated sociopaths like Jack Dorsey heartlessly refuse to curb on Twitter — is contributing to a culture where help and forgiveness are increasingly being eroded. How many people have to die before we address the problem? How many lives have to be destroyed before we acknowledge that giving people treatment and a second chance is also an essential and ineluctable part of social justice?

Andrew Yang: A Presidential Candidate Who Brought Empathy and Understanding Into the Race

On Tuesday, Andrew Yang dropped out of the 2020 presidential race. He was only able to crack 2.8% of the vote during the New Hampshire primary and a mere 1% of the Iowa Caucus votes. But Yang’s presence represented an outlier sincerity that was sui generis, a welcome reminder that the Democratic frontrunner this year can possess a genuine empathy for the American people that can be worn on one’s sleeve without apology. Yang filled the void left by Beto O’Rourke’s exit with his off-kilter sincerity. He was an inspiring force for the “Yang Gang,” a group of supporters who were just as passionate as “Bernie bros” and justifiably excited to see an Asian American represented in a vital election race. He was the lone non-white regular on the debate stage after Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, and Cory Booker dropped out of the race. And after Bong Joon-ho swept the Oscars on Sunday with Parasite, it seems a great letdown to take in the dawning reality that Yang won’t be participating in future debates. In an age in which Jack Dorsey and his crew of idiots upholds racism and hateful xenophobia on Twitter through ineffectual algorithms incapable of parsing nuance and intent, we truly needed more voices like Andrew Yang to set the record straight on a very real disease that ails us.

Yes, Yang, with his lack of necktie and his MATH pin always clipped to his lapel, was socially awkward at times. During the third democratic debate, when Yang introduced a raffle where ten families would receive a “freedom dividend” of $1,000 each month for a year (he later expanded this to thirteen families), he was received with bafflement and modest ridicule. But this seems to me unfair. Unlike other millionaires who entered the race for ignoble and narcissistic reasons (**clearing throat** Bloomberg **spastic and theatrical coughing**), Yang really wanted to solve our national ills with wildly original ideas. He believed that he could cure systemic racism with his universal basic income concept, providing purchasing power to minorities. While this was a batty idea and while his tax policy was more concerned with implementing a value-added tax rather than addressing income inequality, there was nevertheless something appealingly immediate about his position. Was it really any less crazy than finding the essential money for Medicare for All or Elizabeth Warren’s plan to forgive $1.6 trillion of student debt? Yang smartly recognized that one of our long-standing national ills requires a swift remedy and that mere lip service — the empty and cluelessly myopic white privilege that one sees prominently with Pete Buttigieg — won’t cut it.

Yang also had a refreshing sense of humor about his campaign. He sang “Don’t You Forget About Me” at a campaign rally. He crowd surfed at another rally. He even skateboarded before an appearance. Andrew Yang brought an instinctive sense of fun that seemed beyond most of the other candidates, but his heart seemed to be in the right place. He never came across as wingnut as Marianne Williamson or as stiff as Tom Steyer or as cavalierly hostile to voters on the fence as Joe Biden. Even if you couldn’t see him as President, it was almost impossible not to like the guy.

Yang’s willingness to commit to positions of empathy and understanding in provocatively inclusive ways was one of his great strengths. Last September, when comedian Shane Gillis was hired by Saturday Night Live as a regular and fired after repugnantly racist remarks about Chinese Americans were discovered on YouTube, it was Yang who called for a dialogue and a second chance for Gillis. Yang remarked, “I thought that if I could set an example that we could forgive people, particularly in an instance where, in my mind, it was in comedic context or gray area, that I thought it would be positive.”

Yang didn’t really have the opportunity to display the full range of these subtleties. But we did get one moment during his final debate when he calmly responded to Buttigieg shallowly grandstanding about the collective exhaustion of people outside Washington: “Pete, fundamentally, you are missing the question of Donald Trump’s victory. Donald Trump is not the cause of all of our problems. And we’re making a mistake when we act like he is. He is the symptom of a disease that has been building up in our communities for years and decades. And it is our job to get to the harder work of curing the disease. Most Americans feel like the political parties have been playing ‘You lose, I lose, You lose, I lose’ for years. And do you know who’s been losing this entire time? We have. Our communities have. Our communities’ way of life has been disintegrating beneath our feet.”

While there’s certainly a very strong argument that present frontrunner Bernie Sanders has united variegated people by highlighting their stories, Yang had a way, unlike the other candidates, of going directly to the underlying heart of aggravated Americans in the heartland who altered their votes in the 2016 election after being fed up after years of condescending vacuity. It is them who the Democratic candidate must speak to. Yang’s inclusive approach to empathy seems well beyond Buttigieg’s platitudes, but it appears to be increasingly adopted by Amy Klobuchar (which partially accounts for her third place win in New Hampshire).

Andrew Yang opened up a promising road for people of color to speak to voters who are still knowingly or unknowingly practicing systemic racism. And for this not insignificant contribution, he’ll have a place in my heart. America may not have been ready in 2020 for Yang’s approach to empathy, forgiveness, understanding, and inclusiveness. But this nation will almost certainly be prepared for this in future presidential elections. It will take some time, but I think history will see that Yang was ahead of the curve.

On the Problems with Selective Empathy and the Promise of Reintegration

There are people who have seriously wronged me and I have said nothing. I don’t give them a whit of my thoughts and I do everything in my power to avoid running into them, even as I leave the door open for reconciliation if they want to approach me and seek amends. That is the least we can do as human beings. It is a focus that took me five years to figure out. And I’m a lot happier and more creative as a result.

But every now and then, you find out about someone who is still unhealthily fixated on you. There is someone online who has been obsessed with me now for a good nine years. Nine years. It’s almost as if she thinks we were married or something, but I’ve never met her and I’ve had a grand total of two interactions with her.

Even so, I would rather be honest about my inadequacies rather than bask in the sham panacea of feeling better about myself. The truth of the matter is that, while I have made great strides in finding more compassion for people, I am clearly not extending enough unconditional empathy in my life. Rather than holding grudges, I simply erase people who have hurt me from my existence. I do this because to dwell on them further is to invite more anger I don’t need into my life. I view this as a great moral failure and I am hoping to make greater strides in being more understanding towards other perspectives. Some may argue that there is nothing wrong with avoiding toxic people and there is certainly some truth to this. You don’t want to surround yourself with people who belittle you. On the other hand, the definition of “toxic” has become highly malleable in recent years. We are more content to write someone off over a minor disagreement in opinion rather than an assiduous assessment of what our actual relationship is and could be with another person.

The person who is obsessed with me doesn’t seem to be happy. I keep waiting for her to stop being obsessed with me. For goodness sake, when do you let something go? It’s clear from an objective analysis that she hasn’t done much with her life and that she has creative aspirations that she hasn’t tried to pursue (or, if she has, it didn’t go as planned; Ed, you’ve been there; so what’s with the paralysis?). So I suspect that’s one of the reasons she’s projecting her wanton fury onto me. She keeps publicly comparing me to the likes of Bill Cosby, Alan Dershowitz, and other terrible people with whom I clearly share no qualities. My response has been to stay resolutely silent and keep her blocked on all social media. I suppose she’s the Annie Wilkes to my Paul Sheldon. I suppose that I should count myself fortunate that I haven’t been in a car accident in her neighborhood.

I really don’t comprehend this kind of obsessive jealousy. But if you’re actively busting your hump on the creative front and being transparent about your process to provide help and inspiration to others, it is an inevitable and unfortunate reality. Hate and jealousy tends to bubble up from people who aren’t doing anything with their lives. We rarely talk of thwarted ambitions and the way in which people project their own failures onto others rather than taking the time to see how they can make their lives happen. The jealous grudgeholder looks at some figure who is actively seizing the reins with originality, good will, and a solid work ethic and perceives weird opportunities to resent the target and tear him down. This is to be distinguished from reasonable criticism, which allows an audience to thoughtfully comprehend another person’s work and is often quite useful, but should never be taken personally.

I suppose I’m thinking about this person because there is a part of me who wants to empathize with her crazed zeal and redress this weird grievance she has with me, even as I simultaneously recognize that doing so may not be good for my wellbeing and will probably not result in anything more than further grief on my end and renewed obsession from her. There’s also the question of whether I have the emotional energy to fully empathize with her position and provide the appropriate closure for both of us. Dylan Morran has a podcast called Conversations with People Who Hate Me in which he talks with people who have made him the object of their anger. Even though I greatly commend his efforts to reach out to his enemies, I still think that Morran isn’t being entirely transparent about the selective manner in which he practices his professed empathy. Because that’s the thing. Empathy isn’t just about listening to your enemy. It’s about finding the visceral space inside you to truly feel and understand your enemy’s perspective. You can’t extend an olive branch through a pro forma gesture. You really have to demonstrate that you genuinely care.

The excellent British TV series, Back to Life, written by Daisy Haggard and Laura Solon, is one of the few recent offerings that deals with the double-edged sword of trying to empathize with someone who has committed a monstrous act. Miri Matteson (played by Haggard) has served an eighteen year prison sentence for murdering one of her best friends and returns to her small town in Kent to rebuild her life and find a second chance. The show is brilliant in the way that it doesn’t dwell specifically on Miri’s crime, but rather Miri’s life as it is now. The town vandalizes her parents’ home, where she is staying. She manages to land a job at a fish and chips place gentrifying the neighborhood (a beautifully subtle metaphor for the need to accept change), but a brick is thrown through the window during one of her shifts.

All this leaves the audience contending with a vital moral question. Does anyone deserve such treatment? If a transgressor has done her time and is peacefully trying to forge a stable life, shouldn’t we grant the transgressor that opportunity? The show counterbalances Miri’s struggles to readjust with benevolent gestures from a neighbor who is unfamiliar with Miri’s past, but who accepts Miri on her own terms, even going to the trouble of fixing her childhood swing in the dead of night and extending decency. The show suggests, through humor and a nimble attentiveness to behavior, that there is a certain human strength that emerges from simply accepting someone on their own present terms. Moreover, as the truth of Miri’s past becomes more dominantly recognized in the present, we are forced to consider the question of how prohibiting a transgressor from having a second chance may cause the transgressor to repeat the old patterns. Sure, nobody owes anyone a second chance. But what great possibilities and connections are we denying by insisting that someone’s transgressive nature is permanent? The idea of not giving a transgressor a second chance used to be a conservative staple, but now it has become increasingly practiced by ostensible liberals.

The criminologist John Braithwaite has written a number of very useful volumes on restorative justice — particularly, Crime, Shame, and Reintegration, in which he points to many statistics where disintegrative shaming — meaning the permanent stigmatization of someone who has transgressed — often leads to recidivism. Whereas reintegrative shaming, meaning a period of shaming followed by forgiveness and a slow acceptance of the transgressor back into a community (rather than making him an outcast), usually results in greater peace. Among Braithwaite’s many examples is the fact that American offenders are more than twenty times as likely to be incarcerated as Japanese offenders. The difference is that Japan takes on the shame as a collective community rather than passing the shame onto the individual.

So if reintegration works better than shaming, why then can I not find it within me to settle the dispute with the person who is obsessed with me? Obviously, Braithwaite, writing in 1989, could not anticipate the rise of social media weaponized to destroy lives and careers. He could not anticipate how instant spurts of 280 character tweets result in people forming cartoonish impressions about people, such as Sady Doyle falsely accusing opinion writer Liz Bruenig last week of threats without producing a shred of evidence. What rational person can blame Bruenig for her response? Most people, faced with the mania of impressions and accusations, just want to be left alone. (The above screenshot is from a tweet that Bruenig deleted. To offer full disclosure, Doyle has also lied about and libeled me, as well as some of my friends. But I also understand from people who know her that she is suffering from mental health problems. My hope for her, despite the hurt she caused me and the translucent relish she took in meting it out, is that people close to her can get her the help and the treatment she clearly needs so that she doesn’t have to behave like this again.)

Even when we talk about the need for more empathy, you can’t escape the fact that it will always be selectively and individually applied. I’m willing to own up to my own flaws on this front. But the people who have advanced careers through this philosophical position don’t seem to have the same ability. After all, they have books to sell rather than hearts to extend. Five years ago, Jon Ronson wrote a book called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed?. While Ronson’s volume was certainly progressive in the way that it asked us to consider the lives of people who had been hounded by the hordes, the problem with Ronson is that he can only perceive disproportionate punishment with “people who did virtually nothing wrong.” I’ve read and listened to a lot of Ronson interviews and I’ve yet to find a case where he has shown willingness to extend true empathy to people who have done something wrong and who want to make their lives better. The whole point of justice is to allow for rehabilitation and reintegration. While Ronson demonstrated how perceived transgressors suffered undue hardship, you can’t even begin to have a conversation like this until you consider how people who have been “canceled” live out their lives. Nobody’s life ends just because you decided to wipe him away from your windshield.

Perhaps we do have some collective obligation to reach out when it’s difficult. I recently settled a dispute with someone who had falsely and belligerently accused me of behavior that I never committed in a support group. Instead of getting angry with him, I took a deep breath and wrote a very careful message with him pointing out that I understood his feelings and that I had been carefully listening to him the entire time while also declaring that I genuinely cared for him and refused to feel angry towards him. He then sent a message to me apologizing for his previous message and declaring me a “good guy.” We were able to patch it up, but that’s only because we had actually met face to face and had taken a little bit of time to know each other.

Social media, despite its professed “social” qualities, doesn’t allow us that pivotal face-to-face contact. It doesn’t allow us to better understand another person’s motivations and perspective and find common points of empathy. It is a common truth that most disputes can be settled easily in person. But we have increasingly shifted to an age in which people pine for the easier method of erasing someone from existence. It is far easier to stigmatize someone if we have never gone to the trouble to know them. But it also reduces complex human beings into little more than one-dimensional transactional vessels. One can look no further than the rise of ghosting and people writing others off on flimsy pretext if you have the misfortune of being single in the metropolitan New York area.

The question we now face is whether reintegration as a virtue for a better and happier world that allows more people opportunities to live positive lives overshadowing their worst mistakes is something that we can implement in an age driven by castigatory social media. It’s certainly a tough sell. But I also recognize that, as more data about individuals becomes increasingly public and more past episodes are dredged into the bright xenon lights of public opinion, we’re going to need to find more ways of embracing this necessary difficulty. It isn’t feasible to ask anyone to live up to an impossible virtue. But there is always something very beautiful in learning how to empathize with someone once we have come to understand why they committed their worst mistakes and once we see that they, like us, are willing to change.

The Black Dog Barks During the Holidays

It was five years ago when I got the news. Weeks after I lost my mind and I became unhinged and I hurt people with words that I remain deeply ashamed of and I attempted to throw myself off the Manhattan Bridge to end my life and I issued numerous heartfelt apologies and I was spending my subsequent time trying to dig my way out of sadness by extending empathy to people who were more damaged than me in a Bellevue psych ward.

Then it happened.

That’s when the psychiatrist took me into a room and gently said the words that startled me: “Ed, you have bipolar disorder.”

I’ve never confessed this to anyone outside of a few of my closest friends. But I’m saying it now. Publicly. Because I want to own who I am.

I have a disability. And I no longer want to feel any shame about my condition.

I know that I can still live a healthy and positive life. I know that I’m usually a great pleasure to be around and that plenty of people who have taken the time to know me are incredibly understanding and see the great good in me. I held down a job for four years before resigning to pursue other opportunities. I put together an audio drama out of my apartment from nothing, one featuring dozens of tremendously talented actors who are all dear to my heart. I went from being homeless and broke to having my own place in Brooklyn within nine months — a far from easy trajectory. I have devoted every day of the last five years to performing a secret good deed to pay back the universe for any hurt that I have caused people. I know that I have changed — and even saved — numerous lives for the better, but I still believe it’s incredibly self-serving to discuss all the good that I have done. So I usually stay silent about all this.

I have learned that I have to let people make the choice to have me in their lives and to see me for who I truly am. You can’t stack the deck when it comes to social bonds. This has made me, on the whole, a lot happier.

Still, I am very sad and hopeless when the holidays come around. Because this is the time of year that represents an anniversary that often stops me in my tracks and leaves me paralyzed in bed for hours, unable to read or write or watch movies or edit audio or even respond in a timely manner to the texts of friends. And the shame is so deep that, as of right now, I somehow cannot even find it within me to accept a friend’s incredibly generous invite to join her family for Christmas dinner. Because the idea of not having a family, and the crazed associative seduction that comes from believing a narrative in which nobody loves or cares for me, is all part of the black dog’s insidious plan to take over my life.

I know that I have to be on heightened alert before December 26th. When that glorious day comes around, I am usually the happiest. Because I am finally at peace. Until the next year rolls around. You see, the black dog likes to come out and bark during the holidays — as it did recently when a man told me that he would beat me to an inch of my life on the subway because he thought that I was looking at him when I wasn’t. And I was so hopped up, so fully prepared to get into a fistfight with the bastard and show him who was boss. Thankfully a kind soul interceded and there was no violence. The black dog kept growling. He was thrilled by the promise of shaking himself loose from the leash and the cage. I challenged a film critic a little too hard on Twitter over the most trifling subject imaginable and I allowed a writer who I had once admired to debase and belittle and disrespect me and I responded to him — stupidly and privately — with four emails (three vituperative, the last an apology for the previous trio but a firm effort to stick up for myself) expressing how much he had hurt me for cavalierly writing me off and dismissing me after all that I had done for him over the years and all that he did not know about me or my life. It was disgraceful. I want to be clear that I’m not proud of any of this. I was so beaten down from all this that I posted a series of gloomy tweets (since deleted), including a poll asking users if the universe was better off without me. Friends became concerned. God damn that black dog. What a selfish asshole. Causing people worry. Upsetting people dear to me. Wanting to strike lexical terror against people who didn’t deserve it. But I’m grateful to my friends beyond words. I am also deeply ashamed of how I fell victim to the black dog. I received texts. Direct messages. Phone calls. One of America’s most trusted newsmen even tracked down my number and called me to make sure that I was okay, gently telling me that I was irreplaceable and listening to me gab for a ridiculously long time, understanding all the while that this was my way of finding humor in a terrible predicament. It was one of the sweetest things anybody could do. I would defend that man with my life.

What all these incredible people were trying to tell me is something I never got to hear five years ago: “Ed, you have bipolar disorder, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t live a life and it doesn’t mean that we don’t see how you’ve turned your life around and it doesn’t mean that we don’t see the love you give out into the universe. You, in turn, are loved by us.”

That’s it. That’s all I needed to hear. It’s simple really. Love. It chases the black dog out of the room. It’s kryptonite against bad feelings. You’d think that people would recognize that love is the very quality that people would cleave to when others are feeling troubled. But in an age of cancel culture, in an epoch in which making sweeping judgments about who a person is based on a few social media snapshots is now the norm, we’re living in a world in which love is either disposable or at a premium.

This is one of the reasons why it’s taken me five years to own up and be up front about my disability. When people you love betray you and belittle you when you’re down and out, it represents a crippling pain that takes many years to reckon with. When people intuitively detect a moment to attack you as you’re doing your damnedest to be your best and truest self — and there’s no room or space for even the smallest screw-up — that’s when the shame sweeps over you. That’s when the charlatan humanists come out of the woodwork and say, “Hey, be a better person, you son of a bitch!” And the level of rage you feel because some mean-spirited and unthinking dope has summarily dismissed all that you’ve done to be better invites the black dog to dart out of the sagebrush with impunity. I don’t know if anybody can understand or sympathize with that. Looking at how my anger was expressed from a more objective perspective, I’m hard-pressed to empathize with the guy who was motivated by the black dog. But empathize I must. Because to not do so is to give into shame that deracinates personal growth.

The shame was planted not long after I was released from Bellevue. By a vicious podcaster who feigned friendship and who kept badgering me for an interview by phone and text and who I begged to leave me alone. I was trying to recover while living in less than ideal conditions: a crowded room in a homeless shelter in which violence was a regular occurrence and one had to be very careful. I finally agreed to talk with him so that his phone calls and his messages would stop. The podcaster kept saying, “People will understand you after this. Trust me.” Did he not know that I was still trying to comprehend myself? The podcaster proceeded to paint me as the greatest scoundrel who ever lived: a villain unwilling of forgiveness or understanding who had planned this strategy for attention-seeking all along. With casual cruelty, the podcaster negated the terrible truth that I was trying to grapple with: that I was deeply unwell and that I needed to adjust the way in which I lived so that I could be a functioning member of society. The look of selfish relish and rampant opportunism on his face. The way he sipped greedily from one cup of coffee and didn’t even offer to buy me one when I had a grand total of thirty-seven cents to my name. The methodical way that he gleefully punched down as I traced the spot on the bridge where I had tried to off myself. It was all shocking conduct. Behavior that I would never, not even in my darkest hour, offer to my worst enemy. And I was powerless. Desperate. Living with pain. All because I wanted to oblige and be understood after a significant share of people had permanently and justifiably departed from my life.

The shame was furthered by my toxic family. They refused to help me, not even offering me a place where I could simply sit for a few weeks and reckon with the pain of losing everything. They actively and enthusiastically left me for dead. I was forced to sever ties for my own emotional and mental health. The shame got hammered further by my ex-partner, who I had pledged in good faith and as I was feeling debilitating despair to leave alone and not bother again. She used the bipolar diagnosis as a weapon, an occasion to seek needless revenge. She sent me a legal letter in which the attorney declared that I was “retarded,” among other misleading legalese that dehumanized me and reduced me to a sobbing ball of nothingness before I could even come to terms with the truth of my revealed life. But I understand why she did this. I hurt her terribly with my crack-up and bear her no ill will. I was forced to show up in court with a court-appointed attorney on the morning after I had been abruptly moved without warning at two in the morning to another homeless shelter in East New York. I was penniless. I begged the staff to borrow a MetroCard and a razor. I somehow managed to arrive at the court fifteen minutes late dressed in the only sportscoat and tie that I had. That dreadful morning, my identity was attacked with relish. Friends were shocked by her behavior. They were shocked by my family. But I still had love from this small but growing cluster who realized the true score.

It’s bad enough being publicly shamed for words and actions that you never actually committed — such as the time last year in which the audio drama “community” bullied me days before Christmas and invented a series of vicious lies and uncorroborated falsehoods about me — ranging from me being a pedophile to living alone with chickens to harassing people who I had sent nothing but benign messages to — after my audio drama, The Gray Area, won a coveted Parsec Award. The holidays are bad enough for me, what with a family that has disowned me and the way in which so many people who need our love are left in the dust due to the selective application of what constitutes “holiday cheer.” But last year’s attacks sent me into a tail spin of heavy drinking and suicidal ideation in which I didn’t know if I was going to make audio drama again. Thank heavens I had the generous support of friends who patiently stayed on the phone with me and selflessly gave their time when they were very busy. Thank heavens I had an incredibly talented and kind cast who saw that I treated them well and who knew I kept things fun and relaxed and who still wanted to work with me. Months later, I was writing and recording again.

If you’re bipolar, you do have to reckon with and be honest about the behavior that you have actually committed. That’s already a hell of a handful. You look back at the past and you don’t recognize yourself. But if you’re bipolar and you’re something of a public figure, then you also have to deal with a set of false narratives on top of the unruly true one that you’re already trying to nail down.

I want to be clear that I’m not asking for your empathy or your pity. Whether you think I deserve it or not is not my business. And it shouldn’t be. Nor do I want to suggest that I’m using my bipolar disorder as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. I’m simply telling you how it is. If you think I enjoy occasionally lashing out when the black dog is tearing into my leg with his vicious teeth, believe me I don’t. I don’t enjoy it anymore than the depressed person enjoys feeling sad but who is told by others who do not understand mental illness, “Say, why don’t you cheer up?” As if we people afflicted by black dogs haven’t considered these obvious solutions. If it were possible to instantly wake up one day and be permanently rid of the black dog, I’d do it in a heartbeat. The good news is that I’ve made adjustments and this isn’t occurring nearly as often as it used to. Thanks to therapy, I am quicker on the draw when it comes to shutting the black dog down or instantly apologizing on the rare occasions when he does growl and he makes people very afraid. I am tremendously blessed to have people in my life who are understanding of this. Perhaps one day, if I’m lucky, the black dog will permanently disappear. But one never knows with bipolar. It can either last a few years or stay with you over the course of a lifetime. There is no cure for this. But great men, such as Lincoln and as documented in Joshua Wolf Shrenk’s excellent book Lincoln’s Melancholy, did find strength from their despair.

For now, I know the black dog is there. And December seems to be the time when he takes his destructive constitutional.

What I would like to ask of you — as we approach a new year and a new decade and I’ll make the promise as well — is to consider the very real possibility that the person you’re gleefully maligning isn’t the big bad wolf you’ve made him out to be. That he may be actively working on his problems. That he may even be reachable. That responding with hatred may very well perpetuate a vicious cycle that might prevent the person from growing or excelling and that the tragedy of this stifled possibility greatly outweighs your umbrage. That the person is probably more likely to understand his bad conduct if you give him the time and the space. If you show him love.

You can stop an apparent bad apple instantly in his tracks with kindness or a joke. I’ve done it myself many times. Months ago — and this is a story I’ve never told anyone, not even my friends, until now — a man pulled a knife on the 2 line and threatened to cut himself and others. And maybe this was stupid and reckless of me, but I felt overwhelming empathy for him. I started talking with him. And I asked him who he was and what his life was like. And I kept at it. I had somehow entered a zone. A zone of feeling something bigger than myself. A zone of needing to help this man find peace. Because while I have never threatened anyone with a knife, I saw the pain in his eyes and heard the tremble in his voice. And I told the other passengers that I had this, even though I was flying by the seat of my pants and I wasn’t sure how it would turn out. But I kept at it. And I got him to laugh at my jokes.

That’s all the man needed. Love. Laughter. A sense that he belonged.

And do you know what he did? He put down his knife on a spare subway seat. He apologized. I gave him a hug. I slyly confiscated the knife and kept him distracted and made sure he got off on his stop — still talking with him, still hugging him, still doing everything I could to keep reaching him. And he forgot about the knife. I threw the knife in a trash can on my way home.

I have no idea what happened to this man. I certainly hope he is okay. But I knew he had a black dog like me. I knew it was my moral responsibility to help him understand that he was beautiful. Away from the knife. Away from the tough talk. Away from all the terrible pain he was in.

I have long not been a fan of Christmas because love and empathy is selectively applied. Friends have suggested that I can figure out a way to take back the holiday. So I’m doing that right now.

My name is Edward Champion. I write and make audio drama. Despite my flaws, I’m a pretty fun and good guy, but I also suffer from bipolar disorder. It’s bitten me in the ass a number of times. I hope that you can find it within your hearts to forgive me for my black dog, but I fully understand if you can’t. I also hope that, as you approach the holiday season, you can also understand that three million Americans — and that number merely represents the ones who have been diagnosed, not the untold number of people who are suffering right now and who may not be in the position of being able to afford treatment and who are feeling shame about their mental health — are in the same boat as I am. I hope that you can extend empathy and understanding to this considerable cluster of Americans. They are all doing the best that they can. They really don’t want to give into the black dog. But they do need your love. They do need your understanding. They do need your patience. And they need this not just during Christmas, but throughout the entire year.

For my own part, I’m going to resolve to muzzle the black dog faster. I’ve made steady progress, but I still have a long way to go. To anyone who I have ever hurt, my door is open if you need to make amends. If you don’t, that’s fine too. But if you do, please know that I will sincerely extend any and all time to listen with every ounce of earnest patience it takes and to help the two of us reckon with something that never needed to happen. This seems the least I can do.

I wish all of my readers and listeners very happy holidays.

(My considerable gratitude to Rain DeGrey, who said some very kind and necessary words to me which inspired me to own up and find the courage to write this essay. I really needed to write all this years ago. But, hey, better late than never. Peace to everyone.)

You’re Not Very Interesting

So tell me about you. I mean, I’ve been talking a lot about myself.

I don’t mind. I like to listen.

Yes, but you’ve spent the last hour listening. And I don’t know if that’s entirely fair. What do you like to do?

I walk.

Yes.

Long distances. Quite a few Great Saunters under my belt.

What’s a Great Saunter?

You walk around the perimeter of Manhattan starting at 6 AM. 32 miles. I stopped doing it when I got food poisoning after eating a burrito in the Bronx. That was halfway through the last Saunter I did.

Mmmm. What else?

I cook and I bake. I invite people over for three-course dinners.

What do you make?

Everything. A professional food writer even gave me the thumbs up, which was a nice surprise. Or maybe she was being polite. Anyway, I always try something new. I once made sancocho from scratch. It took five hours. It made many people very happy. My dishes are often hits at potlucks.

What else do you do?

I volunteer.

Who do you volunteer with?

A few places. Meals on Wheels. Various organizations.

And you write and make audio drama?

Yes. It’s very fun. And it’s nice to have actors come by. They’re all very kind.

And you sing?

Yes. I have also written a few dozen songs since picking up the guitar again in August. People seem to like them. I’m going to start performing them.

You perform?

I act sometimes. I sometimes do all this under different names. Just to see if I’ve still got it.

Why?

Long story for another time. But I do most of what I do under my own name.

What else do you do?

I do a secret good deed every day.

Such as?

Well, it wouldn’t be a secret good deed if I told you. But kindnesses here and there. A gesture, a donation, a favor, a lengthy email of encouragement. Anything ranging from five minutes to three hours.

Why do you do that?

Because you have to give back. Or just plain give. It often isn’t enough.

Can I confess something?

Sure.

You don’t sound very interesting.

I once saved a magazine’s archives from permanent digital deletion. I have talked quite a few people out of suicide over the phone. I gave money to a woman to help her escape her abusive partner and now she’s thriving. I drove 400 miles to bail out a friend on short notice. Not too long ago, a homeless woman asked me for a cigarette on a cold night and she looked so lost and sad that I bought her a meal and a Metrocard. I said that she could use my shower, gave her a new toothbrush and a few T-shirts, had her sleep in my bed while I crashed on the couch.

That sounds dangerous.

Everything turned out fine. I give pep talks. For some reason, people open up to me.

You don’t have to be defensive.

You’re right. I’m working on that. Well, if I’m not interesting, why are you here?

I don’t know. There’s something about you that intrigues me.

But you just said that I’m not interesting.

You’re not. But you intrigue me.

Can you be intrigued by someone who you don’t find interesting?

Maybe.

Maybe you’re just passing the time. Can I tell you a story?

Sure.

So I was a little effusive on New Year’s.

Texting?

Yeah. I just wanted to wish everyone a happy new year. Because I was feeling good and really positive at a karaoke bar. They gave me the mic and I sang U2’s “New Year’s Day” just after midnight. And I accidentally texted someone I dated two years ago.

What happened?

Well, she opened up to me a bit about how we had connected. And I told her she was kind and peaceful.

Yeah?

Yeah. And we were being real with each other. And then she said something about a guy named Isaac. And I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. And that’s when she realized that it was another guy named Ed that she had dated around the same time.

What happened?

She invalidated the text chain that we had shared before and told me she wasn’t interested in texting further. So I peacefully obliged. But here’s the thing. If you share an experience with someone, and that person is not who you think they are, does that cancel out the experience? It was a harmless mistake. Could have happened to anyone. But it made me wonder if we’re all far more willing to fall into scripts and assumptions rather than actually connect and empathize with each other and understand that there’s another human being on the other side. That there’s a beauty in recognizing another person’s totality. I don’t think anyone wants to acknowledge the commonality of our fuckups. We would rather be the heroes of our own stories. And that’s not very interesting.

Maybe you’re just not very interesting.

Maybe you’re right.

The Moral Obligation to Stop and Convert Petty Tyrants

It is nearly impossible to traipse through life without encountering the petty tyrant, that highly annoying passive-aggressive type who carries on through life at such a childish level of emotional maturity that you often have to do everything you can to deny him the power and the attention he so desperately craves. There may be a part of you that very much wants to throttle the petty tyrant, but this is a negative feeling you rightly come to resent because spite and violent fantasies are usually not effective ways to get along with other people. It is a tribute to the petty tyrant’s toxic hold on our culture and his remarkable inflexibility to change that we come to detest tyrants as much as we do. But it really shouldn’t be this way.

We know very well who they are. Petty tyrants often elbow their way into positions of extremely minor authority — such as organizing a group picnic or collecting donations for a beloved peer’s cancer treatment or otherwise setting the tone for how a particular purlieu is perceived — but they can sometimes be so successful and unchecked in their pettiness that they rise to unfathomable power (see Donald Trump, who is now using petty tyranny to bring us closer to the brink of nuclear war). Rather than using their positions to gracefully include everyone, petty tyrants proceed to snub and undermine and exclude within an environment that is often so small that the hurt is somehow both sizeably felt and inconsequential.

Because one often has to endure a petty tyrant’s needlessly exiguous sullies over the course of a sustained period, the petty tyrant’s sting burrows into one’s soul far deeper than it needs to. The petty tyrant’s concatenation of minor slights is not unlike Chinese water torture, matched only by the relentless pings of push notifications purring from one’s phone and the incessant calls to be constantly connected. Small wonder then that the Internet has increasingly become the petty tyrant’s medium of choice. After enduring a petty tyrant’s latest jab, one often has to look in the mirror, take a few deep breaths, remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s cogent maxim, “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent,” summon whatever mindfulness there is in the tank, and attempt to assert one’s naturally benign existence as much as possible. Unfortunately, because people tend to believe the word of other people who hold positions of power and we now live in a world in which an altogether different froth rises to the top, the petty tyrant’s influence and sensibilities can swiftly infiltrate a group dynamic, often stubbing out views and opinions that very much need to be considered. (As Margaret Jacobsen observed in Bitch shortly after Trump’s election, “Too often in our society, white women have value while women of color do not.” Let us not forget that white guilt is very much a petty tyranny of its own.)

Petty tyrants are often anti-intellectual. They are almost always convinced that they are infallible and can never be persuaded to change their minds, which is often saturated with a repugnant sense of vague knowingness often misconstrued as expertise. They really believe that their opinion is the only one that matters and are often insufferably absurd figures like the people who host NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, petty tyrants in the midcult mode who truly believe that culture should be made exclusively and only for them. (“I am, by any reasonable measure, a cynical jerk and my taste in pop culture tends to follow that,” revealed Glen Weldon in a recent episode. “But this year, something has changed within me. Something is not the same.” Anyone who has endured Weldon’s narcissistic flippancy for years knows that this is not true. This is a prime example of the petty tyrant who feigns honesty while ultimately practicing an absolutist sensibility that transmutes quite easily into tyranny, a quality not altogether different from a President who will tweet any outlandish and threatening bullshit under the rubric of “blunt honesty” to get people riled up.)

They are usually intolerant of other people for incredibly insignificant reasons and are remarkably petty about it (see, for example, Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s disemvoweling practice from 2008, which has rightly been styled as geek vengeance by Will Shetterly). They can be found on any part of the political spectrum, ranging from the intolerant MAGA booster who will never listen to facts, much less what a progressive has actually said, or the vituperative social justice warrior who would prefer to destroy the life and livelihood of an opponent rather than consider that there may be a peaceful possibility for someone to understand and change. They often have an inflated sense of their own importance, often bolstered through social media, a digital flesh-eating virus that cowardly and unprincipled Quislings like Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone lack the know-how or the gumption to cure. Twitter alone has been responsible for such a colossal wave of petty tyrants that, if one is fortunate enough to not be assailed for one’s vaguely controversial views by a crazed army of trolls, one often has to uninstall Twitter from one’s phone in order to be reminded that face-to-face conversation is not usually like this.

What makes petty tyrants so detestable is the way in which they discourage kindness, peace, understanding, compassion, and forgiveness — in short, the possibility for many different types of people to come together. As Rebecca Solnit smartly observed months before Harvey Weinstein’s exposure ushered in the beginnings of a much needed reckoning, petty tyrants live “in a world without honest mirrors, without others, without gravity…buffered from the consequences of their failures.” Thus, the petty tyrant increasingly operates in a filter bubble of his own making, often clueless about the cruelty and abuse he casually metes out. (Witness Robert Scoble’s remarkably obtuse blog post from last October after he was hit with allegations of sexual harassment. He not only refused to acknowledge his potential complicity, but willfully outed the private details of his victims)

There’s really no easy way that you can win against a petty tyrant. You can be obsequious and you will still be subjected to belittlement. You can politely inform the petty tyrant precisely how you feel about her conduct, but your feelings may never be respected or honored. If you’re a passionate (albeit cautious) idealist with a distinct voice who wants to believe in people like me, the petty tyrant can be the biggest pain in the ass imaginable, an affront against amity and communal possibility causing you to give into the worst aspects of your ego as you take understandable offense and sometimes stop believing in people for a while. Because the tyrant’s offense isn’t just leveled at you, but often a whole category of people who live a particular way or practice relatively benign behavior that the petty tyrant takes inexplicable umbrage against, often because the tyrant subconsciously perceives some of these qualities within herself and doesn’t want to be honest about confronting the pain of recognizing something familiar. And that’s one of the tragedies of petty tyrants. If they weren’t so caught up in tyrannizing other people, they could actually find common ground and evolve and invite more people into their lives. That’s why it’s so important to be as understanding as you can, lest you become a petty tyrant yourself (and I regret to report that I have been a petty tyrant in the past and I am still trying to sort out the differences between emotional sensitivity and unknowing tyranny, both twisted together in a taut double helix that one cannot easily unravel; the hope is that more people can call me on my shit).

But the petty tyrant isn’t all bad. The petty tyrant’s gift is to present you with a perspective about how you are detested, thus giving you a view of flaws you can work on and qualities you may be able to repair so that you may be able to communicate better. Petty tyrants challenge you to love and carry on with your lives, even as it seems the world is burning or it feels as if nobody really cares about the heart or the work that you put out into the universe. If your love tendered towards a petty tyrant can never be reciprocated, there may not be a very compelling reason to invite the petty tyrant into your life. Relationships of any sort must be predicated upon mutual respect, humility, and the ability to listen. There must be true wonder for another that supersedes all egocentric concerns. On the other hand, if you can be in the same room with the petty tyrant and not take offense, perhaps there’s a chance to nullify the tyranny in question.

Still, this is not always possible and it often takes time. You may have to wait many years for the petty tyrant to drop in stature, to be humbled enough through failure and setbacks so that the tyranny becomes thoroughly vanquished from her system. That may very well be the moment when you can offer love and forgiveness. But it’s frustrating. Because what empathetic person doesn’t feel the need for the petty tyrant to change now and become a more wondrous and beautiful person? The greatest problem with tyranny is that it is such a seductive quality, something that can settle and stick inside one’s personality to the point where it becomes almost impossible to disinter it.

Groupthink and the allure of collective humiliation are two qualities that have allowed fascism (and thus petty tyrants) to flourish throughout human history. During the rise of Mussolini, Blackshirts would force enemies to imbibe castor oil, sending them home dripping in their own shit, when not forcing them to defecate upon anything (such as speeches and manifestos) that memorialized their beliefs. The victims were stripped naked, pummeled, and handcuffed to public posts so that all would know how to think. We are not there yet, but we are getting distressingly closer. The recent clamor against vlogger Logan Paul’s insensitivity towards a suicide suggests that we have not yet grown heartless and that the righteous horror that accompanied Lynndie England’s callous photographs from Abu Ghraib has not yet been deracinated from our national conscience.

As such, it is vital for us to remember that petty tyrants in all forms have almost always begetted more sinister tyrants (including Nazis), shimmering quite dangerously into public life. Our unity, which is pivotal if we hope to restore sanity and stability to this country, has become increasingly fractured, its prospects countered by the latest cartoonish developments. Our possibilities as a nation of amazing individuals is being squandered by our insistence that petty tyrants, wherever they may be found, are not that big of a deal. The time has come for us to start becoming more pro-active about stopping petty tyrants, to rightly recognize their behavior as something that is destroying this country. Or maybe we can do better. Why can’t we start making collective attempts to recognize tyrants within our own folds and help those who tyrannize become more aware of how they harm lives, turning their actions into benevolent gestures in which their identities are still respected but the results are more peacefully inclusive? That’s going to require a great deal of patience and strength and commitment from everyone. But what’s the alternative? Letting our nation be subjected to tyranny? Believing the worst in people? Democratic principles have kept America alive, for better or worse, for more than two centuries. It is both a betrayal of our history and our enduring national character to surrender what remains of our unity. Let us believe in and understand and, above all, listen to each other, especially the voices that make us wary. Hope should not merely be a buzz word manufactured by politicians who wish to win elections. It must become a more practiced and truer quality that is more natural to our lives than the easy immolation that comes with accepting and practicing petty tyranny.

Maybe It’s Not The End

Sometime on Monday afternoon, after having a lavish Indian lunch to take care of myself, I started cultivating a “you can’t stop me” attitude. Maybe it was the spice in the chicken tandoori, but some inkling of the resilient man I sometimes am kicked in as I resolutely refused to be distracted by the headlines or any superficial social media dust-up.

A few hours later, I was getting off the subway and some loutish man pushed me. I recalled how a fireman had pushed me not long after the November election as I was minding my own business walking down a sidewalk and how I had then said nothing. I felt a wave of adrenaline.

I turned around. He was a medium-built man, roughly my age, with a dark blue sweater that was preposterously at odds with the New York look he was trying to will into his eyes.

“Excuse me,” I said, “You can’t do that.”

“Why?” he replied.

“Because it’s rude,” I said, “and nobody here made you king.”

“Do you want to start something?”

“If you want to step outside and we both agree not to press assault charges on each other, then, yeah, we could go a few rounds. I personally guarantee that I’ll clean your clock. But I really don’t want to do that. I just want you to understand that, as a human being, you can’t go around pushing people.”

“I can push anyone I want.”

“How was your day?”

“What?”

“I said, how was your day? Shitty? Is that why you’re pushing people?”

“Dude, you don’t want to fuck with me.”

“And you don’t want to fuck with me. So let’s not fuck with each other. Seriously, are you having a shitty one? Mine hasn’t exactly been the greatest.”

And that’s when I saw the sadness in his eyes. Then he started telling me a story about how he snooped through his girlfriend’s texts and learned she was cheating on him and had not yet talked with her about it and how his boss was chewing his ass out. But I somehow summoned my wit and made him laugh a few times. I told the man that I had to go, but that I was really glad he opened up to me. He told me that he would stop pushing people. I wished him well and we gave each other a fist pump. This all went down in about five minutes.

And that exchange, which could have easily exploded into violence, somehow didn’t. And it has caused me to reconsider a rather dramatic decision that I made in the last few days. I still need some time to sort out how I feel and what I’ll do. I’ve enjoyed being disconnected from social media and being reminded that in the real world, which is the only one that counts, the beefs that people start with each other are more easily settled. Because it really makes a difference when we’re looking at each other. We’re more willing to feel something and see an unruly person as human.

(Image: Mo Riza)