Before rushing off to London to meet a friend and give out Christmas presents, I had to look at Twitter, which has become an increasing part of my day. There it was: Do you reckon your mum cried when she gave you up, Jane?
I stared at it, shocked, and my mind raced; someone I don’t know had researched my life, discovered that I was adopted, then from her imagination dug out that scene of original separation from my mother, which I have never written about, discussed and try not to think about.
As a child my adoptive parents described the scene when I was handed over and I was upset. I’ve felt guilt about it ever since. When I met my natural mother as an adult, she said she was vague about the moment but said that six months later, the day after the adoption became legal, she collapsed on a bus, realising what she’d done. We were alike and perhaps genetically predisposed to distress on buses. Going up to London last week, I wept. There could be no adequate come-back and who would want to make one. I decided to close my Twitter account. It wasn’t worth wounds like that.
Everyone knows about the on-line attacks on Sarah Payne whose daughter was murdered, and on Kate and Gerry McCann who accused Twitter of encouraging ‘the worst in human nature.’ Grief and loss certainly bring out life’s losers on line, but for the last two years I’ve enjoyed tweeting; directing my opinion straight at monoliths such as the BBC and Network Rail. I’ve joined campaigns about palm oil and live animal transports, signed petitions, promoted charities. I did get some scary troll action; cyclists propelled by righteous anger threatened to find my address and run me over. One of them contacted all my previous employers trying to find someone to sack me. A transgendered man got my Twitter account suspended for saying he still looked manly.
Until this week didn’t understand how some, mostly women, have been driven away from social media. In 2017, SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh, said she’d received emotional damage from trolls who had ‘hurt her a lot.’ I wondered how hard-faced women like Emily Thornberry, Jess Phillips and Anna Soubry could be bothered by psychos on line. Now I know. I complained to Twitter but they said, unlike my words to the transgendered man, the deeply personal remark to me didn’t break any of their rules.
Presumably unforeseen by the four young men who invented it in 2006, a Twitter account now feels like belonging to an agreeable club which is stalked by a terrifying, sinister bully. It’s the irony of our time that while social media brings the whole world to our door, because of it we must now live, at best, in something like a small, claustrophobic village, where aggrieved curtain twitchers spend their time writing detailed poison pen letters.
There is still a chance that we can row back from this mire, by reaching for the manners we once had. Our grandparents knew zero about social media but quite a lot about man as a social animal and how he/she would behave if the normal constraints of discourse were discarded. In 2013 Classicist Mary Beard received abuse after appearing on BBC Question Time. She responded to what she termed, ‘Vile playground bullying’ by naming and shaming her attacker, but later she made friends with him, he apologised, presumably realising how crazy he’d been, and she gave him a job reference. I’ve contacted the woman who sent me the wounding message, asking about her life. I’ve had no reply but discovered that she’d been an infant prodigy who’d had family problems herself.
I’m not suggesting that Twitter should be turned into a therapeutic community, or we should stop banter, satire and sarcasm, as feminists demand, but that we need to make slow, reasoned contact again, rather than issuing lightening responses. It’s hard to live in a village, especially on which seems to be part lunatic asylum, and the only way to survive undamaged and undamaging, is like Professor Beard, to put respect and kindness in place of the now familiar instant hate.