Sarah Darer Littman is no stranger to cyberbullies. Through her work as a political columnist, she has been the target of foul-mouthed Twitter trolls, and the 52-year-old mother of two has seen her own children struggle with anonymous bullies online. In her latest YA novel, Backlash, an online crush who isn’t what he seems pushes 15-year-old Lara to the brink of self-destruction, and her former best friend Bree documents her collapse on Facebook with a photo that spurs a string of horrifying taunts from her peers. But as the police investigate Lara’s suicide attempt, Lara’s tormentors become targets as their small town becomes embroiled in the controversy. Littman, who previously explored technology’s pitfalls with Want to Go Private?, spoke with PW about working with the FBI, parenting in the age of the Internet, and her own childhood traumas.
Today’s YA readers don’t remember a time before the Internet. What first spurred you to write about the dangers of technology in the hands of teens?
With Want to Go Private?, when my son, who is now a junior in college, was still in high school the supervisory special agent from the New Haven FBI came and spoke to his school about Internet safety. After the parents’ session, he told me about a true case in Connecticut where the girl left with the predator, they were almost to the Canadian border by the time they were able to pick them up. I would have thought she’d be like “Oh, thank God you found us!” but her reaction was “Don’t hurt him.” and as soon as [the agent] said that I thought “Wow, that’s a book.”
And what brought you back to the topic for your new release, Backlash?
I was talking about the Megan Meier cyberbullying case and I’m a very strong believer that we as parents have to model the behavior we want to see from our kids. Our kids are watching what we say, what we do, as much if not more than what we say. That case was astonishing to me because the mother was the one who set up the profile and was really generating this whole thing. Once I got started on this whole cyberbullying idea, there were other cases like the Steubenville, Ohio rape case. The whole thing came to light because of social media. To me, parenting is a lot about conversations about consent and how never to behave to another human being. If you see a girl who’s drunk, you make sure she gets home safely, you do not do the things they did and take pictures. All of us have the potential to make good decisions and bad decisions. I know I have made... a lot of bad decisions, particularly as a teenager. And I’m particularly grateful that I was allowed to make my mistakes that they’re just sort of fond and hazy memories that I can share with a select group of people. I almost feel sorry for the generation today that they have to make these mistakes in such a public way and they’re not allowed that privacy. But also that they feel the pressure to share.
Did you have any other real-world inspiration for Lara and Bree?
There was a case in Torrington, Conn., where two underage girls snuck out of the house at night and they were assaulted, again by football players and either alcohol or drugs involved. And the community got very protective of the football players and started slut-shaming the girls. It was horrible and vile what was done to those poor girls. And that was something that I thought about, too.
I’ve also had things happen to me personally. I’m a political columnist, and someone I follow posted a joke about trolls last November and I wrote back “but you didn’t get any rape and murder threats so it’s a good week.” That kind of escalated. Another account responded and he was making increasingly more threatening remarks. Four days after the first anniversary of when my dad passed away, this guy takes this picture from my Twitter feed to create a new account called Sarah Whore Cunt. I managed to get that account blocked and he launched another one claiming to have listed my home address on the local rape fetish site. The police were like there’s not a whole lot we can do and that point. I was really freaked out. I knew in my mind that it was probably some misogynist jerk. After that third account got blocked he gave up but it makes you look over your shoulder.
After Want to Go Private?, someone started sending me anonymous emails asking why I had a problem with pedophiles. Those were traced back to a school system and it turned out to be a freshman girl. She ended up getting suspended and I was actually not pleased that that happened. People have lost the ability to understand that there’s a real living person on the other side of the screen and I would have loved for her to write an apology and have to put herself in my head and try to empathize.
Is that why you often write in first-person narrative?
I’ve had kids say to me, “I read the book and I’ve never thought about it that way. I’m really worried about my friend, I’m going to give this book to her.” Particularly in middle school, nothing gets me more excited than knowing the kids are talking about the books among themselves. They’re at an age when they’re really starting to listen to each other.
I think as parents we can’t underestimate that. Sometimes I think, when did I become the Charlie Brown parent? You know [imitates sound] which I’m pretty sure is how I sounded to them. But some of it is sinking in. My daughter would be here talking to her friends... and I would hear my daughter saying things and they were things I had said, and I’d think, “Maybe they are listening after all.”
I’m also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I only started talking about that publicly a few years ago. I went through so much of my life feeling like I was defective and I could never be the me I wanted to be. I suffered from depression and I was bulimic. I realized that denial is the enemy and if I don’t start talking about it then other people will be able to carry on being in denial, and it’s so important for people to realize that this happens. One of my earlier novels, Purge, is about a girl recovering from bulimia. I also had a breakdown as an adult and that was loosely based on my own experiences. In fact, it’s dedicated to my therapist.
In Backlash, what do you see of yourself in these two girls?
With Lara I think I see myself in the sort of insecurity, not feeling good about herself. And with Bree it’s the way she’s stifling her feelings with her mother, doing what others expect her to do rather than what she really wants to do.
This book is much a cautionary tale for both girls. It really drives home the need to be kind to ourselves and others. What other messages do you hope readers take away from this story?
Well I think part of it is that everyone has a story. We have this news-bite culture and even more now with the click-bait culture, where everything is reduced to black and white. And the world doesn’t work like that. In reality people are complex and situations are complex and teenagers are very complex and so we can’t reduce these situations to black and white, and we can’t ignore them either. But I think the most important thing, and the reason I hope parents will read this, I really feel like parents have to be there modeling the behavior for their kids and setting the expectations. There was a situation where one of my kids was cyberbullied in fifth grade and someone set up an “I hate [child’s name]” website and other kids started getting involved. Instead of coming to me, my kid started responding in ways that were clearly not how I brought up my child to behave. I took away their laptop and while I expected the child to kick and fuss, they handed it to me meekly and almost gratefully. I really think it had been very stressful and deep down my kid did not like behaving that way so by me being a parent and actually showing that, I was being consistent and loving. I give my kids a lot of rope, but when they get to the end I am consistent about letting them know it.
Sometimes adults fret that writing about these very serious topics will give kids ideas. How do you respond to that?
It leads back to denial. Is it better to pretend these things don’t happen? To pretend that childhood is Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and none of these experiences ever happened? I know there are adults who would prefer I write about rainbows and unicorns and puppies. But the fact is, I know from personal experience that these things do happen. I wish there had been books about someone who had experienced what I experienced because then I would know I wasn’t alone and I wasn’t defective and it wasn’t my fault and I could have processed this in a safe space and other kids could maybe empathize.
I had one woman write probably the craziest letter saying “How dare you bring this filth into my daughter’s room.” Excuse me, ma’am, I did not bring the book into your daughter’s room. It’s your job to look at what your daughter is reading. And if you share a book with your child, it creates the ability to have conversations about more than just the book.
As a mother with two children, does your research and the process of writing these books ever hit too close to home?
Oh, definitely. With Want to Go Private?, the FBI showed me some things from the Christina Long case in Connecticut [a teen strangled inside a car in a McDonald’s parking lot after allegedly having sex with a man nearly twice her age whom she had met online]. My daughter was close to the same age at the time. And I have to tell you, I had a lot of sleepless nights because of that FBI research. I admire them a lot for being able to do that work.
Does it make you paranoid about the dangers your kids face, making you want to lock up their phones and shut off the wi-fi?
During some of the research I did with the FBI, I saw things that definitely made me feel that way – but of course that’s completely unrealistic. I did have monitoring software on my kids’ laptops when they were younger – with their knowledge – because I wanted to be sure if I was going to be putting these really powerful tools in their hands that let complete strangers into their lives and our home before they were emotionally mature, it needed to be done under supervision. There were definitely times it allowed me to catch potentially troublesome situations and have the necessary conversations with my kids before anything bad happened – so by the time they flew solo I felt confident they’d learned what they needed to about navigating the online world safely with appropriate netiquette.
You’ve written so convincingly about a teenaged victim of an online predator and a girl with severe behavioral and mental health issues, that it leaves some of your readers wondering (via the FAQ on your website) if you experienced some of these traumas yourself. How do you get into the head space of these characters? And how do you respond to fans who ask such prying personal questions?
I have suffered from depression and body image issues since I was a teenager, and I was actively bulimic in my 30s. I was also hospitalized for a breakdown in my late 30s. It was the worst time in my life, but in many ways it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I’ve chosen to be open about this because I truly feel that denial is the biggest enemy we face in fighting childhood sexual abuse, eating disorders, and the stigma around mental health issues – not to mention the unequal way mental health is treated by insurers which affects how people are able (or not) to obtain adequate treatment.
When fans email me, I’m happy to share what has helped me if they ask, but also to emphasize that I am not a therapist and it is very important to seek professional help. I would not be the successful, happy person I am today without the help of a great team of mental health professionals.
Backlash shares some common themes with Want to Go Private?, since they both tackle the pitfalls of online anonymity. With technology constantly updating, are there other topics in this vein that you would like to explore?
Definitely! Technology is a part of our daily lives; especially for teens growing up with it that have never known the world without it, and it’s fascinating to explore its effects on our everyday world. As changes in technology come at an accelerating pace, this provides a rich source of material. Each new technology creates consequences in human behavior – and wherever there are changes in human behavior there are going to be grey areas to explore. It’s the gray areas that fascinate me – what drives people to make the choices they do.
What advice would you give to writers who are looking to give their work a contemporary edge?
Follow a lot of news sources on your Twitter feed. “Political Sarah” follows news organizations from all around the world and business and tech sources, so I’m constantly finding interesting stories to favorite and maybe come back to.
Another tip I would give writers of “a certain age” like me is to stay au courant by teaching. I am an instructor with Writopia Lab and I’ve also been teaching a summer writing camp at the CH Booth Library in Newtown, Conn., for the last six years. I love teaching and especially now that my own kids are in college, it helps to keep me in touch with what is going on with kids who are the age that read my books.
Backlash by Sarah Darer Littman. Scholastic Press, $17.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-545-65126-4