Bully or the Bullied? Kathleen Hale Is Both
KATHLEEN HALE IS A CRAZY STALKER
By Kathleen Hale
Authors hold a strange place in our cultural imagination. Even if readers revere them, the scope and economics of publishing mean very few of today’s authors become superstars. Most are just ordinary people, many of whom have debts and day jobs and little experience dealing with their public — fans or otherwise. Some also have plenty of time to mess around on the internet, and for those authors Goodreads is kryptonite. For every well-considered review on the book recommendation site, positive or negative, there’s a Goodreads user who posts factually inaccurate opinions about books, or who lazily resorts to snark, to one-word reviews that tell readers nothing but “meh.”
When Kathleen Hale published her last young adult novel, in 2014, she made what turned out to be an egregious mistake, though it seemed somewhat understandable at the time given the regular online abuse that many authors experience: She tried to confront a blogger who’d panned her book on Goodreads. In an essay in The Guardian, Hale was the first to admit that her actions were illadvised, even creepy. “Over the course of an admittedly privileged life,” she writes, her visit to the user’s home was “a sort of personal rock bottom.” The clapback was (rightfully) fast and fierce, but controversies blow over. There was nothing to stop Hale from making a triumphant return to the book world — except herself.
A self-proclaimed self-sabotager, Hale doubles down on her bad behavior in “Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy Stalker,” poking at the wound by opening her essay collection with the very same Guardian piece whose backlash she says is the reason she “lost my mind.” This version of the essay, “Catfish,” contains an ominous look-what-you-made-me-do coda for her critics, set in the psychiatric hospital to which she was admitted after the internet turned on her. It would be a piercing indictment of online cancel culture, if calling oneself a “crazy stalker” counted as a feminist act of “owning it.” It doesn’t.
As a newly minted provocateur, Hale implicates herself in these six essays, all previously published (in Elle magazine and Vice, among other publications). The book’s organizing principle is Hale’s obsession with animals, and she leans into her roles as both victim and predator. In the most affecting essay in the collection, she details her sexual assault as a freshman in college, overcoming her impulse to play dead in order to testify at her rapist’s trial. For the majority of the book, however, she sees herself more as a predator, from literally hunting feral hogs to when she “showed my teeth” with her fellow audience members deriding a Miss America contestant they deemed less attractive. It’s a helpful lens through which to contemplate the foibles of humanity, but one that easily devolves into cliché: “I had the realization that humans are the most dangerous creatures” is not quite the revelation it wants to be.
And so Hale makes quick work to reveal her ugliness in contrast to prose that’s casual and cool and often funny. She’s a calculating oversharer: Regarding her sexual assault, “at the time, peers saw my decision to spill the beans over cafeteria brunch as manipulative and possibly unhinged, and they weren’t wrong.” She’s a reporter who both identifies with and judges her subjects, who suffer from “environmental illness”: “They worried I might make fun of them. I told them that wasn’t my intention, but that I tended to tell the truth.” She’s a feminist who gets caught up in the easy misogyny of beauty contests.
It’s gutsy to portray oneself as messy and mean, but to what end? Radical honesty and self-deprecation don’t make up for a startling lack of empathy. “Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to,” writes Leslie Jamison in her 2014 collection, “The Empathy Exams.” “Empathy requires knowing you know nothing.” Hale is too clever by far to be an empath; her essays don’t contain an openness to understanding so much as a belief that we should all be allowed to be as mean as we want to be. Such a message feels hollow, almost as pointless as the damning Goodreads review, “Meh.”