A nineteenth-century illustration for The Little Match Girl.
The first time I remember lying about why I was crying was in second grade. I’d burst out sobbing in the middle of social studies and, rather than admit I’d been thinking about the plot of “The Little Match Girl,” I claimed vaguely that there was some problem at home, prompting a humiliating private lunch with my teacher and a parent-teacher conference. You’d think that would have cured me.
But being upset about nothing is galling. It’s hard to explain to a stranger on the subway that no, tears are actually rolling down your cheeks because of an episode of The People v. O. J. Simpson, or a piece of music you’re not even listening to.
This time it was a message on Facebook that did it—from some three weeks ago. It said something like, Why does Sadie Stein only write about such pedestrian things?, with my name tagged. I can’t tell you what the exact wording was because I suspended my Facebook account right then and there and haven’t looked at it since.
Now, by any standard—by real-world standards, not just Internet ones—this was a mild message. I’ve received plenty of abuse in my time: anti-Semitic rants, threats of sexual violence, ad hominem attacks well larded with profanity. Those hurt, like punches that knock the wind out of you—and enough punches can of course do internal harm. But in a way, you can dismiss them. You can tell yourself the person on the other end is unwell or angry and understand that it comes with the territory of airing your thoughts and feelings in a public forum.
I didn’t even mention this one to anyone. Not to my husband, not to my family or friends. I knew it was too inconsequential; they’d all tell me not to listen or something, and I’d know they were right and feel even more a fool for letting something like this get under my skin.
And yet it’s eaten at me every day since, and it’s his voice I hear when I sit down to write—dismissive and genuinely curious and not completely wrong. I have conversations with him in my head. I want to say, I like to talk about small things as a way into bigger ones. I want to say, I’d like people to feel that they have a friend. But even in my imagination, that doesn’t sound very convincing.
And here is the thing: I don’t want my loved ones to make that voice go away. Because a part of me likes not getting away with it. It makes me feel less alone in the world. To me, that stranger is the most powerful person in the world; I wouldn’t recognize a world where he was stripped of that power. Because aren’t we all full of such endless potential? That’s worth crying about, I think.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
Last / Next Article