The Power of Bullying: How I, Joe Biel, Have Been Bullied for My Autistic Behaviors for Nearly Two Decades
Years before I was diagnosed with autism in 2009, I was married from 2002–2004. We had an ugly breakup but she refused to get divorced until 2007. I came to see the patterns of my behavior and understand that intentions were not what mattered as much as impact, chiefly that I did not recognize nuance or nonverbally expressed boundaries and bulldozed through them as a result. If you’re unfamiliar here’s a story on Invisibilia about an autistic doctor who had seven medical assistants quit in one year due to, as she puts it, “over and over again the world didn’t respond the way she expected.” Similarly, I hurt my ex and several others in serious ways which I am responsible for.
My ex began a campaign of bullying me publicly and characterizing these aspects of my developmental disability as “emotionally abusive” before we were even divorced. Suicidal and single, I took a leave of absence from work for 18 months to get my feet under me and understand my own motivations and trauma history. I eventually learned how to understand or respond appropriately to emotions and nonverbal communication and recognizing other people’s expressions of their personal boundaries. I did everything that was asked of me by my ex for many years and have been in a happy relationship for nearly a decade now, partially by learning from these prescriptive criticisms of my past.
In cases where I point out that the negative characterizations of me are textbooks symptoms of autism, people throw up their hands and say they don’t know who the victim is. But Dr Christine Cocchiola puts it rather simply “That’s how we can tell the difference between an abuser and a victim…who wants revenge? Who will do anything to harm the other person because the other person has left or disengaged? That shame is something, as an abuser, that [they] cannot live with so [they] have to retaliate.”
The problem is that nineteen years later I am still bullied and harassed on a weekly basis from people that have no connection to my own past. People that I work with professionally are afraid that my ex’s campaign will extend to them by extension or they simply don’t want to deal with the grief from their association with me. For fourteen years I’ve been trying to put my past where it belongs but my ex seems strangely invested in my present.
About a year after we’d separated and she had been dating someone else for about a year, I began casually dating. We worked together at the time and my ex began to make fun of me in front of customers, belittle my choices to the staff, and repeatedly insult me until I internalized her harmful words. She began a public campaign to vilify me, informing people that they had to take sides. If people failed to choose a side, she chose for them.
Soon, strangers began to use me as a meme when they think about abuse they’ve suffered themselves.
For all that I know, this person doesn’t know me, has never met me, and yet believes that bullying a stranger is a valid way to express their feelings.
Starting about five years after I was divorced, strangers took to attacking me. Even twelve years later I am bullied and belittled online on a near-daily basis.
I am autistic. So rules are important to me. If you used the rules of journalism and fact-checking, you would have a very hard time finding specific details about what I actually did that was abusive. The executive summary would read more like “Prior to his autism diagnosis, Joe Biel was insensitive and neglectful to people’s feelings and oblivious to their stated boundaries.”
Yet in The Callout episode of Invisibilia, the reporters offered a powerful account of how this policing plays out time and time again in reality:
“In call-out culture, once you’re a known abuser the community is kind of done with you…it’s no one’s job to release a known abuser. Mostly they just forget about you…Everyone can be the victim. Everyone can be the executioner…People are afraid to be in a group picture with me. It’s just psychologically fucked me up for so long…[and the rationale is] ‘[someone] has caused me pain. So in return I have free license to cause as much pain as I want.’ If you really think about it, isn’t that inching towards its own form of abuse?”
I was a frog in slowly heating water, letting the supposedly justified bullying intensify gradually each year.
Imagine an autistic person trying to dance with a neurotypical for a few years. Imagine how mutually painful that is; how hard it is to communicate basic needs and feelings to each other.
Before I understood the emotional needs of others, I was repeatedly insensitive and callous towards their feelings, hurting people that felt close to me in deep, fundamental ways. I took no pleasure in this. I was confused each time that it happened and ultimately it hurt me too; I cared about these people and wanted emotional proximity with them but had no understanding of how to achieve that. Still, my actions that hurt them. I emotionally abused people that I care about. Taking responsibility for the impact of my actions was the first step towards moving on. I’m truly sorry and I focused on learning how to prevent it from continuing.
I do believe that her pain is real and that these efforts are trying to heal the pain. I’ve had twelve to years to read about neuroscience and discovered that the brain holds onto feelings instead of details. These form our experiences which form our reality. Feelings aren’t healed by following a series of semantic demands. Following directions, even for years, can never alone resolve the hurt that has now been shared one-thousand fold.
It’s hard to help someone who in pain. So instead I’ve watched person after person manifest that empathy by trying to harm someone. I’ve seen this pattern play out on both sides of many situations. But we don’t look at the longterm consequences of these actions and that mentality isn’t doing anyone any favors.
The reporter Laurie Penny, who has also been thoroughly bullied online wrote an in-depth analysis on the line between justice and bullying.
“It took me many years to learn the most important distinguishing factor when trying to decide what criticism to take on board, once you’ve filtered and blocked for bots and fascists. It’s not about tone, and it’s not, for fuck’s sake, about Twitter. It’s about pleasure. Is somebody actively enjoying making you feel like shit? Is driving conscientious people to mental breakdown a really good time for them? Are they getting off on your pain? There’s a word for that, and it’s not “ally.” I understand that bullying can feel pretty damn good, especially if you don’t call it that. I understand that playing the game of trashing feels comfortable and comprehensible, even righteous, when so little else does. But I’ve read all the theory and staggered through all the flame wars and I’ve come to the conclusion that when you get down to it, people who enjoy hurting other people are not worth your time or mine. They can take that kink to a club where it belongs.
When I finally got out of that relationship, I was so embarrassed about the way that I had allowed myself to be treated (and later when I realized how my actions felt and were interpreted) that I sought refuge. I felt terrorized and was losing my mind. I was too ashamed to face many of the people who had been so loyal to me for so many years. So I went into my shell, moved across the county, and allowed my ex to dominate my narrative, just as I had allowed her to dictate the terms of our divorce. And soon she was literally pushing through my boundaries and dictating my motives, denying my perspective, and telling me what I believe. And gradually, she overwrote my perspective. For years, I adopted her perspective on my life without questioning.
From the first time my actions were referred to as “abusive,” every action and statement has been filtered through a critical lens of scrutiny. My words and actions were twisted and manipulated, no matter how seemingly innocuous or trying to protect myself, into some form of abusive behavior. When I tried to defend myself, that was interpreted as denying the other party’s feelings. When I apologize, it’s interpreted as insincere and trying to manipulate the situation and regain control. If I wasn’t so utterly terrified to go on the offensive, that would obviously be interpreted as proving and perpetuating my abusive behaviors. It’s like quicksand, and every time that I do what is asked of me, the rules change and I am met with more and more demands. If I tell my story, I am rationalizing and minimizing my actions, while simultaneously avoiding responsibility or accountability for being abusive. Finally, after experiencing twelve years of financial, personal, emotional, and mental damage, that eventually caused physical manifestations in my body, we’ve reached a point where I have nothing left to lose by telling my story.
My ex-wife, who goes by the psueodynm Alex Wrekk, and I have no contact but she uses vague allegations to demand that people stop supporting my work or even being my friend. My ex and other people began to dictate what I was thinking, feeling, and the corresponding morality of that. When people ask for more information or specifics, she insists that they are “enabling abuse.”
This statement was issued:
And believing that it might not be sufficiently clear, the implication was removed the following year:
Oddly, even Microcosm Publishing did come up with multiple collective statements confronting the situation, I sought out and cooperated with an accountability process, and I legally removed myself from the collective, we were not given an option. A person can claim that they have no voice but that doesn’t make it true. The bullying and demands only intensified and people’s livelihoods were put in jeopardy.
This has resulted in many people strangers resounding these statements:
And Wrekk’s resulting glee:
After four years, Wrekk eventually bullied one of our more prominent authors, Cindy Crabb, into taking a stand against us. It was a hard place for Crabb, sandwiched between being called a hypocrite and a publishing contract that she described as being better than she could find elsewhere. She also admitted that she hadn’t had the problems with us that Wrekk accused us of, though naturally ignoring nuance and becoming demanding and difficult made the situation worse instead of better:
Again, Microcosm did everything that was asked of us on the requested schedule but Crabb somehow still decided that it was “too little, too late.” Her comments came to be seen as a bellwether of the community.
A boycott requires an “ask.” Like, “We need you to do this or we are withdrawing support.” I cooperated with 20 demands that Wrekk sent to me in a letter. I cooperated with a mediation group (who promptly disappeared without meeting with me once). I cooperated with an accountability process who sent me busy work and then told me that they were too busy, closing with “It ended because it was too much to deal with over the internet, not because it had been completed.” And despite my cooperation, it was written that the lack of resolution was solely my fault. The resulting weight of this unresolvable situation caused at least ten different co-workers to quit, including me.
And then hyperbole just ran wild:
Stores began to withdraw support for my work:
When I did a Redditt AMA, Alex Wrekk suggested publicly and privately to dozens of people to go there and make fun of my allergies and disability and ask about things that I’ve never claimed. And after stirring the pot, claimed that she had paid no attention to the proceedings.
As well as to suggest to people to contact event organizers and have me removed:
I was summarily uninvited from dozens of events across the world.
She frames the events of my life in relation to her and accuses me of things that I’ve never done, like going by her house, throwing a steak on her porch, or leaving things at her business:
People began telling me to kill myself and claiming that I was a rapist, which I had never been accused of. The people attacking me were emotionally abusive in the name of…ending emotional abuse:
Since there were no specific depictions of my misdeeds or accusations, people repeated the hyperbole without fact checking as bold claims:
Online bullying isn’t about resolution. It’s about the power to destroy things. Even the person who tells people to “End” me is celebrated and cheered on by their peers:
And when I wrote a book about growing up autistic and learning from it, my ex-wife took it as…being about her:
When I join a neutral discussion group, she pushed strangers to demean me and demand that I be kicked out, this time using her boyfriend as a proxy:
While researching a new edition of one of my books, a strange Facebook account appeared that used a picture I was in and a variation on my name. It began bullying me and the people that I love, calling them enablers and accusing me of terrible things, telling me what I believed, and insisting on what I had and hadn’t done. Funny thing though, the person imitating me didn’t even know what I look like. While they used a photo containing me, they cropped it around the face of my friend Sheldon, a kid who grew up in South Africa, has been through no shortage of shit, and looks nothing like me. Obviously, such a bully does not respond to logic, does not care what happens to me, and operates on some kind of moral high ground because of their apparent didactic politics.
And sent this message to my girlfriend of eight years:
Wrekk pretended to file a restraining order against me and hired a courier to deliver it in 2008. It lacked a judge’s signature because there was nothing to suggest that I’d ever stalked or harassed her. Still, it entered the cannon that she had taken “legal action” against me.
When my former business partners left and started their own business in 2012, she took a stand against them made and made vague demands:
But when my former business partners relented and issued a statement in support of her, Wrekk relented as well and began supporting them:
Then, in 2016, after we’d had no contact in over a decade, she shows up to attend my book reading event and leaves this note for me to find:
She claims that *I* have a strange need to control the narrative about my life that she hasn’t been involved in for over ten years. She abused me in our relationship, leaving me homeless and suicidal. She suggested that people I have working relationships with, friends, and business partners turn against me or there would be consequences. My last girlfriend told her in no uncertain terms, “leave me out of your smear campaign,” but Wrekk continued to quote her when framing arguments about me.
The strangest thing is that, at some point, I became the touch stone whenever someone in a certain sphere wanted to reference abuse:
Many people have asked how this could spiral so badly out of control, resulting in a lawsuit by 2013. Sarah Schulman does a great job explaining this kind of behavior in her book Conflict is Not Abuse, saying: “Once a person perceives themselves as a victim of abuse, rather than a human being dealing with an uncomfortable and complex situation, they have overreacted and thus have escalated the situation. Now that the situation is escalated, the “victim” then uses their self-subordinated position to justify cruel actions.”
Update: And then just today I receive an email very similar to one I have received dozens of times:
TLDR: “We are removing you from our website because people complained that we were supporting you. We didn’t bother to ask for information or even your side of the story. It’s easier to just do what the bullies want.” Can you blame him?
A person trolling me has contacted my work about this post. That makes FOUR workplaces that were told to terminate me:
I’ve spent a dozen years going out of my way to try and create healing and closure and it really seems like that’s not wanted. It really messed with my head and it’s still exhausting.
Since I’m autistic, after spending years of my life learning normative behaviors of neurotypicals, it’s even more perplexing that bullying behavior is considered acceptable and even encouraged. Strangers and even magazine editors failed to do basic diligence, fact checking, and looking at both sides and began to increasingly mock me and my disability in a seeming effort to prove that they believe that taking a stand against me is important. The more that I engaged, the more consequences there were. The situation began to feel like the the bullying that I experienced in my early teenage years, something that is very common for autistic people.
A recent review that is largely sympathetic to my story and nuanced in the writer’s views of the situation still manage to conflate autism with sociopathy, a particularly common misunderstanding:
He shares the tools that he has learned in therapy that help him to (hopefully) be a better friend and partner…Gave me a sense of how difficult it might be to trust this guy with my feelings…If you know that someone’s doctor gave them a ‘How to be Caring’ checklist, then how can you ever be sure that they aren’t just checking boxes when they do something nice?
Just a few weeks ago when a friend wrote about how words like gaslighting were overused inappropriately beyond their actual meaning, a stranger claimed to have seen me stalking my ex-wife, a clearly defined crime. And something that I have never done. The irony, of course, is that Wrekk’s actions do qualify as online stalking, also a crime in Oregon.
The more that I’ve cooperated and done what was asked of me, the more that it becomes apparent that resolution isn’t the goal. Still, I think the best solution is resolution; making peace. A lawsuit is never an ideal solution until the point when someone refuses to negotiate a peaceful solution and resolution. Throwing around more bullying isn’t helping anything. I’ve tried to take the high road all along. If there’s one thing to learn here it’s that if we want to create healing, practice empathy.