The Internet prizes the harrowing personal essay. But sometimes telling your story comes with a price.
A few months ago, Natasha Chenier submitted a piece to Jezebel about her sexual relationship with her dad. She described meeting her biological father for the first time at age 19 and being gradually overtaken by lust for him. She recalled being so wracked by disgust and shame after the second time they had oral sex that she dry-heaved over the toilet in his bathroom. “He lay on his bed looking aloof during those episodes,” she wrote, “spouting empty assurances like, ‘You’ll be fine.’ ”
Writing that essay, she recalls now, was “terrifying.” But in a way, it felt inevitable, too. Chenier, now 27, had always kept a diligent journal and had been reading Jezebel for years. “I had this story I’d always wanted to tell,” she says, “and suddenly I felt like the world was ready.”
Jia Tolentino, Jezebel’s features editor, contemplated the draft. It was sure to be a blockbuster. It had graphic and devastating details, yet a matter-of-fact narrative voice. It would feed the Internet’s bottomless appetite for harrowing personal essays. But she tried to explain to Chenier just what airing this story could mean for her life: “Since she was new to writing, I just wanted to confirm—was she ready for this to be on her Google results forever?” Tolentino gave her the option of publishing under a pseudonym. But Chenier seemed confident that she knew what she was getting into. “She was sure she wanted to build her writing career around this,” Tolentino says. When Jezebel published the piece, titled “On Falling In and Out of Love With My Dad,” it ran with a bright red illustration of a bed between the words “I” and “Dad.” Of course, the essay went viral.