When I was 14, I wrote a letter.
It started off as an offhand joke. A friend and I conceived the notion of an unknown stalker who would write elaborately abusive messages to another (mutual) friend.
I wrote a few sentences which my friend read with glee. And a project was born. During breaktimes, the letter would be extended, embellished. The insults and profanities honed to become ever more baroque. At some stage, the project broadened to include other friends — amongst them, the target of the letter himself, who seemed (seemed) to share our amusement and even contributed suggestions himself.
By the end, it perhaps ran to a couple of thousand words, which I delighted in typing up on whatever rudimentary computer I had access to in those days, and shrinking to a tiny font size — the more effectively to emphasise the deluded instability of the fictional author — before printing and distributing a few copies amongst my group of friends.
I thought it was hilarious.
By the standard of early adolescent creative writing, I believe it was well written. The bar is not set high, after all. My voracious reading habits had given me an arsenal of words and phrases I was only too eager to parade. And it was extraordinarily abusive as well as graphically and explicitly threatening, including specific personal references to the target friend.
I know I did not consciously intend it as a vehicle of bullying. I thought my aim was comradely banter, I suppose. But I know I gave vanishingly little consideration at the time to the power dynamics of the situation or to the emotions of the target — reassured as I was by the fact that he was ‘in on the joke’. This fictional stalker I’d created could have targeted any of us, after all.
Which brings me to #winebitch.
Many of you reading this blog are, like me, not wine industry insiders, so you’ll probably have no idea what #winebitch is. I had no idea either, until I stumbled upon it on Twitter the other night.
Essentially, a series of notes/essays/screeds penned under the pseudonym ‘Wine Bitch’ were circulated (via message rather than being published in the public domain) which attacked or savagely mocked both broad aspects and characteristics of the wine industry and specific individuals within said industry. When the actual author was identified, it turned out that some of those individuals targeted were people who considered him a friend, colleague or mentor.
I have not read the complete works, only extracts, but the tone and content reminded me immediately of my adolescent twattery.
There is a good account on Tim Atkin’s website written by Anne Burchett:
The author had to be a man (an excess of wanking references), an insider, with an acute sense of observation doubled with a jealous nature and a massive ego. I expected it to be a bitter has-been… [On] the contrary, it turned out to be one of the few celebrities of the wine world, a man with a large following who should have known better and who should lead by example.Anne Burchett, via timatkin.com
The linked piece does a good job of exploring with nuance the misogynistic angle to the affair. I’m not going to write specifically about misogyny here, but this is a subject (whether within wine or elsewhere) about which pretty much all of us with a Y chromosome should wise up. And I don’t think my opinion as yet another straight white man should be top of anyone’s reading list. Instead, I’d urge you to read Women, Wine and the Uncomfortable Conversation We Need To Have by Vinka Danitza.
I should add that the sequel to Vinka’s post was taken down due to its having named the author of #winebitch — a great shame, given it contained plenty of other worthwhile and illuminating writing beyond that which focused on this specific issue. I hope she is able to repost at least those parts.
Now, I’m about as peripheral to the wine industry these days as common sense and decency is to British governmental policy. I’ve never worked in wine, and even in this blog’s long-past heyday it was but a pimple on the arse of wine discourse. But I do have a tenuous connection to the individual reported to have been behind Wine Bitch, having been part of a panel discussion alongside him earlier this year, after which I followed him on Twitter and read/watched a fair amount of his work (which I found entertaining, erudite and charismatic). I shan’t name him, because those who have done so have received ‘cease and desist’ threats, but I’m sure you can find out if you want to.
So, as my opening perhaps gave away, the act of my adolescent self gives me a misted glimpse at how this might have come about. That is in NO way to excuse it. I think it’s vile, in the same way I think my adolescent letter was vile. Plenty of others (though perhaps not enough) have rightly condemned Wine Bitch’s output and I join them.
But beyond condemnation of that output, my focus here is more in the recognition that this is not some freak incident. And I shared my opening anecdote (an experience of which I am now ashamed) in that light. It is easy to condemn Wine Bitch from an appalled distance. But — hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère! — it’s perhaps harder to relate it to ourselves.
Robert Joseph has shared his view of #winebitch via Twitter, part of which I quote:
I believe that the #Winebitch posts are appallingly hurtful and not very funny. I also think they involved ‘punching down’ in the case of many of the victims, which is hard to forgive. [The author] acknowledges this in his [private] apology to me and makes no excuse for what he did. But he does say that he was in a bad place mentally during lockdown, and I find that very easy to believe, reading the #winebitch pieces. Those are the words of a very angry mindRobert Joseph (@winethinker)
Poor mental health as a defence for this shit is not good enough (not that RJ suggests it is) and I think belittles the challenges many people face.
But I wonder if #winebitch betrays a malaise on the part of its author, nonetheless (though not one I’d be inclined to proffer as a defence).
My first observation: to be as effective a communicator as this individual has been, one cannot be bereft of empathy and emotional intelligence unless one be a psychopath. Teenage boys are known to be empathy-deficient, but that excuse doesn’t hold for middle-aged men.
On the contrary, the ability to communicate brilliantly and wittily (which I think this individual has) is inextricably linked with a strong understanding of human emotional responses. The verbally virtuosic quality of the #winebitch writings echoes my own adolescent hunger to impress my peers, to manipulate them through my words to laugh louder and longer and ever more uncontrollably; pushing the ‘humour’ further and further.
My second observation: I don’t think that hunger to impress comes from low self-esteem or similar, from a place of weakness. If I think back to my letter-writing, there was a thrill of power to it that I barely understood but undoubtedly felt. That sensation of at last unleashing one’s destructive verbal powers and seeing what they could do when freed of the restraints of the socially acceptable; when anonymised. The same impulse that might cause a child to turn his magnifying glass against an ant or a man to pull the trigger on his gun, once he has achieved a state of mind in which the weapon, the action and the consequences become abstract and detached from the self.
I am not excusing or glamorising that impulse at all. I am arguing that it is far from abnormal. Particularly in men, I think. Writing something like #winebitch or my teenage letter is tied up with a power fantasy, and this kind of impulse (I’m not sure I would use the word motive) is behind many physically or conceptually violent actions. I have no idea how representative my own experience is of humanity at large, but I can see the seeds from which such behaviour could still grow in myself, just as they did aged 14. What’s even more problematic is that those seeds (I think) are actually the same as the seeds from which much genuinely entertaining creative expression grows. If you’ll indulge the metaphor, they’re the seeds of a beautiful but potentially invasive plant which must be carefully, constantly pruned lest it otherwise strangle its neighbours and overrun the garden.
#Winebitch is not at root from some fundamentally different place, I suppose I’m saying, than much of the rich, exciting, stimulating, provocative content that’s written and spoken. If I look to some of my favourite entertainers and comedians (think of Stewart Lee) there’s a darkness at the edge of their creations that one knows could tip into cruelty and excess. And I’d argue that this awareness is often part of what makes their work compelling. But there is a delicate balance in such creations whereby the potential cruelty is tempered and held in check by compassion. #Winebitch happens when the restraint of compassion is removed, when all the author’s emotional energies are directed entirely towards his laughing audience and his own power in controlling the laughter, not at all towards consideration of his victims.
For a teenage boy’s compassion to be underdeveloped is not remarkable. For an intelligent, successful middle-aged white man to be unkind is to be pitied, which is emphatically not to say it is to be tolerated, indulged or excused. It is also, I’m afraid it seems to me, becoming more common, as the internet allows us to hide ourselves from the emotional impact of our words upon others.
Our sympathies and the weight of our support should be overwhelmingly behind those who have been hurt (in some cases deeply) by #winebitch. However, I hope the man behind #winebitch rediscovers and (if it doesn’t sound too cheesy to say so) nurtures his own kindness and compassion.
On a more practical note, I hope he rethinks the heavy-handed ‘cease and desist’ approach (bullying upon bullying?) because when you’ve fucked up, you should damn well own it.
Oh, and that letter I wrote aged 14?
Three years after its composition, long after my interest in it had fizzled and transferred to some other doubtless equally immature pursuit, I was asked to visit the Deputy Headmaster’s office.
What followed was a deeply humiliating experience, as Mr B—, his voice filled with disbelief and disgust, read me extracts from my nasty opus, a copy of which had somehow fallen into his hands.
You know what I’m glad about? I’m glad that I didn’t get the chance to hide away from that humiliation.