‘Where are your bodyguards?’ asked my London landlord, peering hopefully over my shoulder as I picked up the keys. It was an early warning of how great a disappointment I would be to my British friends. UK newspaper reports of American reactions to my book Hystories, published in March last year, had mentioned threats of assassination, and had described me as requiring constant protection. In the book, I argue that several contemporary phenomena – chronic fatigue syndrome, Gulf War syndrome, recovered memory, multiple personality disorder, satanic ritual abuse and alien abduction – are hysterical epidemics, real disorders but caused by psychological conflicts rather than viruses, nerve gas, devil worshippers or extra-terrestrials. The book made a lot of people furious, but was hardly New Jersey’s Salman Rushdie.
True, my one-week cross-country American book tour had been a mite intense. ‘We’re going to rip you to shreds,’ a woman doctor hissed at me in the corridor of a Baltimore television studio. ‘Bullets are too good for you!’ snarled a pony-tailed man in army fatigues at a Washington bookstore. In Denver, bookstores received anonymous threatening faxes: ‘I understand that Ms Showalter will appear today at your store for a book-signing. Are you aware that she has been met with “outraged” patients? On one occasion she had to be quickly “whisked” away from the angry mob. I also understand that it was necessary to have security on hand ... Hopefully you’ll have an interesting afternoon. Good luck!’ Or: ‘Would you have a grand book-signing for the Revisionist Party’s denying the Holocaust ever happened? In essence, that’s what you’re doing here with Elaine Showalter.’
If history repeats itself as farce, then my death threats certainly qualified as farcical. All of them came from people with chronic fatigue syndrome – in Britain it is called ME. A CFIDS (chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome) action site on the Web called ‘Handling Showalter’ provided a long list of instructions for activists wishing to confront me in public, and a regularly updated list of addresses for bookstores where I would be speaking. ‘I phoned CFIDS leaders in every city along Showalter’s book tour for this week,’ wrote Roger Burns, the site co-ordinator, ‘so hopefully she will be challenged wherever she speaks.’ He suggested that patients try to unsettle me with questions about my own mental health, such as ‘Are you psychiatric?’ and ‘How well is Elaine?’
Doctors and patients were energetic and creative in their implementation of the campaign; and, of course, in American bookstores there was always the chance that the curses, shouts and inflammatory language that greeted my appearance (‘Tell Elaine she’d better repent for her crime!’) would alert a lunatic gunman, an off-duty anti-abortion extremist or a gang member needing a quota hit. I got used to having photographers from the local press pools show up at the bookstores, to get the picture in case I got shot; Barnes and Noble in New York had its own in-store security, and a few organisations that invited me to speak hired bodyguards. But most people found the situation comic and oxymoronic: if a tired person had actually summoned up the energy to assassinate me (and I did seem to energise them), we would have been the number-one joke on Leno and Letterman for a week.
Still, I learned a lot from my year of living dangerously. First, I entered the world of TV talk shows. In New York, I appeared on Rolonda, a morning show broadcast on cable in the UK. The producers had warned me that I would be up against the full quota of hysterical epidemics – chronic fatigue patients, alien abductees, a therapist of alien abductees, a Texas radio evangelist who spends his life fighting satanic cults, a young woman with 16 personalities and her therapist; and a specialist in recovered memory of childhood sexual abuse. We began with me on stage with the alien therapist, a stunning brunette in a purple mini-skirt, who gave me sisterly tips on eye make-up off the air. During each of the frequent commercial breaks, another set of zealots would join the line-up, until I was teetering on the edge of the stage at the end of a long row of angry opponents, while a corps of assistant producers dashed out on the set like wrestling coaches, to massage our necks and egg each of us on: ‘You’re doing great! Go get her! Do your thing!’
Posey, one of the alien abductees, was a 400-pound black man who claimed to have been floated out of his apartment window in the Bronx by ETs. ‘I didn’t know there were aliens in the hood!’ Rolonda exclaimed. Bob, the Texas evangelist, got rounds of applause when he called me a ‘godless feminist’, but after the show he invited me for a drink and thought we made a terrific team. My hands-down favourites were pretty blonde Deborah of the multiple personalities, decked out like Heidi in a girlish dirndl, and her therapist Dr Jim, a nerdy guy who hovered protectively over her. Dr Jim answered most of the questions, and fed Deborah her lines, while she watched him adoringly, giggling occasionally as he alluded to their work with her child-alter named Lump-Lump. The main event was to be Lump-Lump’s appearance. ‘Lump-Lump, will you come out now?’ cooed Dr Jim, gazing deep into her eyes. Silence. ‘Lump-Lump, can you tell the people about your little pony?’ Silence. The audience snickered. ‘Lump-Lump is just as sweet as sugar,’ said Dr Jim, ‘but she is very shy today.’ After the show, I saw them buying New York souvenirs at the airport, a Freudian odd couple.
I learned, too, that American book tours involved literary escorts, savvy people in the major book towns (Washington, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle, LA and so on), who meet you at the airport, drive you to interviews, take you shopping and to the hotel, and generally keep you on schedule. The alpha male of literary escorts is Bill Young, who looks like Nick Nolte, deals with eight hundred-plus writers a year, and in Chicago – his beat – is far more of a celebrity than most of the people he takes around. Ordinarily I would have had a second or third-string escort, but my publishers popped for Bill because of the death threats. He is big and tough, and wears a trench-coat; but Chicago was otherwise uneventful and in between interviews Bill gave me the tour of the hippest dives. In Minneapolis, where I had two hours free in the afternoon, Tim took me to the museum for lunch and to the Aveda Spa for a manicure. In Denver, Lisa blasted a TV producer who cancelled my interview at the last minute and insisted that they tape a segment for the evening news. In Seattle, the home of grunge, rapping fishmongers and designer coffee, Nancy believed that UFOs were landing in Tacoma and that the Mob killed Marilyn Monroe. Nancy usually escorts a higher class of writer. She was not too pleased at my schedule, which included an interview at a grubby organic cybercafé with an alternative journalist. Before she allowed me to answer questions, she inquired about the demographics of the paper. ‘Oh,’ said the reporter, ‘it’s for grad students and people with piercings.’ Nancy frowned. ‘I don’t think people with piercings buy books,’ she confided to me. Nancy was also unmoved by my delight in meeting a guy with a baby rabbit in the hotel dining-room, and my alarm when I returned from an interview to find the hotel surrounded by police cars and fire engines. (There had been a bomb threat for somebody else.)
Nancy did, however, come staunchly to my defence during a TV ordeal when I was tricked into appearing on what was billed as a ‘high-level TV debate’, and turned out to be a lions’ den. One of my co-panelists was a patriot who claimed to have caught Gulf War syndrome at a party and given it to her dog, while the audience was packed with enraged veterans waving flags, wild-eyed alien abductees and self-proclaimed victims of satanic ritual abuse. ‘You didn’t have a single ally in there,’ Nancy said to me after the show as we waited for an armed guard to escort us to her car. ‘Lady, you have balls!’
In New York the next morning, I ended the tour with an appearance on Crossfire, a public-affairs programme on which two antagonists duke it out, each with her very own hostile interviewer; as a friend remarked, it’s like being locked in a room with your own rabid dog. I debated Hillary Johnson, whose book Osler’s Web, argues that the Government has tried to cover up the world pandemic of chronic fatigue syndrome. Despite the gibes of my interviewer, Bob Beckel, I did pretty well, but then Hillary had a hard time explaining why, if she was carrying a deadly infectious disease, she was running around doing TV shows.
Back home, I discovered that hate mail has its own literary conventions. Mine came in three categories: stalkers, conspiracy theorists and avengers. The stalkers, all male, were primarily interested in my personal life. Some sent pictures of themselves and requests for my ‘toll-free number’. An Australian man wrote daily to persuade me that I, too, had chronic fatigue syndrome but didn’t know it. He actually showed up at a bookstore in Minneapolis and was amazed to meet me: ‘Never did I suspect that my great white whale would turn out to be a zaftig little Jewish American princess from Princeton.’
Duncan, in Washington, was convinced that we had both been abducted by aliens, and that they had brainwashed me into writing Hystories as a smokescreen. It was when he had been able to remember his own abductions, he confided, that he had understood his mysterious anger at unsupportive humans: ‘I urinated on my girlfriend all the time, and I didn’t even know I was pissed off at her.’ Duncan left 11 long messages on my voicemail, urging me to meet him so that he could ‘help’ me. Sure, Duncan, in the ladies’ room at the FBI. Even a zaftig little jewish American princess gets better offers than that.
The conspiracy theorists were sure that there were dark plots and secrets behind the book. I was being funded by ‘US chemical megacorporations’, or had been hired by my publisher as a ghost-writer for the sinister project, or was the ‘shill’ of a scientific Svengali in England. All the writers were convinced that vast sums of money were involved. They denounced my editors at Columbia University Press as ‘cunt-sucking maggots’ and suggested that we were all ‘child-abusers as well as anti-feminists in denial’.
The avengers wanted to punish me by having everyone write letters denouncing me to Princeton University officials, boycotting my books and threatening various forms of legal and physical retaliation. All of them wrote to me on e-mail and, although experts on the manners of the Internet like Jon Katz in Media Rants (1997) report that ‘hostile posts invariably come from young, white, educated and technologically literate (thus probably affluent) men,’ the verbally violent punks of cyberspace, almost all of my flamers were female. More than a year after the publication of the book, I’m still getting regular e-mail messages from women, of which ‘I hate you, you fucking anti-feminist bitch’ is about the most printable. Angry young men may have been the first Netizens, but the medium obviously offers women a safe and irresistible outlet for verbal violence.
These days, I’m also getting hate mail from radical graduate students who don’t like what I write, as this year’s president, in my quarterly column in the MLA Newsletter and who have started an ‘Elaine Watch’ on the Internet; and from feminists at Cornell who were outraged by an article I wrote for Vogue about my love of shopping. Maybe the millennium will see a weird reversal of Andy Warhol’s maxim and we’ll all get hate mail for 15 minutes. If so, my time is up.
In Britain the worst I had to face was a nasty grilling from Melvyn Bragg on Start the Week. (Only a few days before the programme I discovered that Bragg is an officer of the British ME Association.) And even he relented enough to give me a piece of Eric Hobsbawm’s 80th-birthday cake.