I was recently made aware that Sara Mayhew has continued her relentless obsession with me by posting a message she received from a woman who supposedly had a horrible experience with me at a conference:
I am a 45 year old woman with two daughters, age 19 and 22. I just want to say thank you for being a role model and voice of reason. Many years back we attended TAM (the year of the surprise wedding) and my girls were excited to meet Rebecca. She and all the other Skepchicks totally blew my girls off. They felt like there was a huge click [sic] just like in high school. I told Rebecca later via email and was told it was our fault. Fortunately Harriet Hall talked with them as well as Barbra Drescher and they have continued to admire and friend them. We then heard you speak at a later TAM. THANK YOU! A young woman with such grace and presence. I just want to let you know that even though you may not even know, you are having a huge impact on young women and the voice of reason in skepticism.
I saw her post thanks to her Tweeting it at me, despite the fact that I have her blocked, because of others replying to us both:
— A Green (@borngeek) September 15, 2013
— RebeccaWatson (@rebeccawatson) September 15, 2013
I’m a bit torn, because I do worry that giving Mayhew attention will only encourage her obsession with me until we reach a Single White Female-situation where she dyes her hair red, buys a pair of Warby Parkers, and develops a cutting sense of humor in an attempt to kill and replace me (she already bought 26,000 Twitter followers, so she’s got that bit covered). By now I know that most sensible people in our community realize how awful she is, but at the same time I see people like Sharon Hill retweeting her post to all their credulous followers, and so this is bound to be thrown in my face at some point in the future. With that in mind, allow me to respond.
Because a few people were joking about Mayhew using an anonymous source for her post, she tweeted a photo showing the woman’s name in a Facebook message. (I don’t know if she got permission, so I won’t link to that.) It took me just a few seconds to put her name in my GMail search and find our correspondence, which dated May 9, 2011 and which also went to all the Skepchick contributors at the time. It reads as follows:
Message: I am thrilled that you are working so hard to include women.
We attended our first TAM two years ago and brought our 15 year old
daughter and last year brought our then 16 and 19 year old daughters.
They have always looked up to the Skepchicks. It would have been
wonderful if even one of them would have taken the time to come and
say hi seeing that a teenage girl was there and perhaps would be shy
to approach them. Thanks to Barbra Drescher and Harriet Hall for
doing so! Just a thought as you strive to bring more girls into
skepticism. It would have meant a lot to them.
My response was sent about five minutes later:
Thanks for the email! With 1,300 people in attendance and the constant flurry of workshops, panels, interviews, and events, I guess we weren’t able to see everyone. But we did have a table and plan to once again this year, and we always talk to everyone who comes over, so I hope that you and your daughters stop by if you have time! In fact, that’s how I hired a Teen Skepchick two years ago . . . she and her father came up to me at the table to say hi. :) We’ll also continue trying to reach out to the shyer contingent!
I’m glad that you were able to talk to some of the other women in attendance. Last year was a great one in terms of women in attendance, and we’re planning to improve that even more this year!
It’s fascinating how in two years’ time, the situation morphed from the girls being too shy to approach me into me actively blowing them off, and somehow me thanking her for the email, explaining what probably happened, asking her to say hello at the next con, vowing to try to reach out to shy people in the future, and expressing joy that some other women were able to interact with them has morphed into me blaming her.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been accused of abhorrent behavior that never actually happened. While there are certainly times that I’m very stressed out, tired, or even in a lot of pain (I have pretty severe back problems) at conferences, I always try my hardest to be kind and considerate to everyone I interact with. A large number of Skepchick contributors over the years have been people I randomly met at conferences and events, like the Teen Skepchick I mentioned in my response to the woman (shoutout to Cassie!), or the fabulous Anne Sauer over at Mad Art Lab, who Surly Amy and I met at a conference we were tabling in Oakland. She came up to our table to introduce herself and happened to mention that she was at the conference alone, so we pulled up a chair and hung out with her all weekend.
Is that how I treat every person I see at a conference? Um, no. Most people have no idea who I am and/or no interest in talking to me. I respect that by not approaching people and expecting them to bask in my reflected awesomeness. Some people do want to talk to me but are too shy. Surprisingly often, I get parents, partners, and friends of shy people coming up to me to ask if I’ll go over and say hello. I have never said no. I’ve also had people ask me to call and say hi to their friends who couldn’t attend the conference. I absolutely hate talking on the phone, but I’ve never said no to that request, either. And even though for the past year or so I’ve been getting increasingly more introverted and anxious, I’ve made it a point to socialize with strangers and talk at length with anyone who wants my time at events.
Don’t get me wrong, though: I’m no angel. I remember nearly every time I’ve been rude to someone at an event in the past few years, because I feel guilty about it even when I think it was justified. I was polite but abrupt with someone at a con recently even though he seemed nice, because I knew he produced a work online that I found very sexist and I didn’t want to talk to him. In line at a buffet at a con last year a fellow speaker told me that he wanted to ask me back to his place for “coffee” but it was okay because his wife was into it. I was rude when I loudly asked him if that sounded funnier in his head. Also last year, I gave a talk and then went to a restaurant where attendees were gathering. I was jet-lagged, exhausted, and filled with anxiety, but I knew people expected me to be there so I went. After about two hours in the very noisy bar, I put on my jacket and tried to make an escape but (mostly very nice) people kept approaching me to talk. After about 30 minutes more, I was very abrupt and told everyone that I really had to go and then I just ran away. I have no idea if I came across as rude as I felt but I felt absolutely terrible. Those people were very nice and didn’t deserve to see me at my worst.
It’s so incredibly flattering when people want to talk to me and tell me nice things or just have an interesting conversation, and I feel an intense need to repay that kindness by being as accessible as possible to fans. I’m not a celebrity, so I don’t have to expend that kind of effort 24/7 – only when I’m at conferences or when I’m giving solo talks. That makes me feel as though it’s worth it to spend as much energy as possible interacting with fans the few times I see them. But it does occasionally reach a point where my partner worries that I’m getting burned out, because generally, if someone wants to talk to me, I’ll talk to them, regardless of how tired I am or if I have other things I need to be doing.
That’s what makes it particularly galling to see blog posts like Sara Mayhew’s. Accuse me of being too sarcastic. Accuse me of being too opinionated. Accuse me of being too flippant, or not funny enough, or not scientifically rigorous enough, or ugly, or untalented. But don’t accuse me of not being as kind and as welcoming as possible to the people who actually want to meet me.
I’ll end on a lighter note. This was my favorite line in Mayhew’s post:
This is why I treasure skeptics like Barbara Descher [sic], Sharon Hill, Dr. Hall, Eugenie Scott, Carol Travris [sic], Eve Seibert, and many other talented contributors to the skeptic movement, who rarely focus on talking about women issues [sic].
Considering that Dr. Hall’s book is called Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly : The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and Dr. Tavris is a psychologist who focuses on gender and whose most popular book is The Mismeasure of Woman, I’m afraid Mayhew may need to find some new role models.