My Backstage Cover Story on John David Washington & Black KkKlansman

I loved talking about acting and craft with John David Washington for Backstage magazine in what I hope will be the first of many cover stories. He’s humble and wise, and I especially appreciate how thoughtful he is regarding process — how important it is to honor yours as an artist. It’s true for actors and true for writers. He’s also excellent as the leading man coming into his own in Black KkKlansman which is one of Spike Lee’s best.

John David Washington has been eyeing the big leagues for years.

First, it was the NFL. At Morehouse College, he received a full athletic scholarship and set records as a running back. Later, he would play for the United Football League and excel as an undrafted free agent for the then–St. Louis Rams. But even after two years of training with the pros, come Sunday game time, he’d still never touched the field. He had the chops, but never managed to move off the practice squad to reach the star-making level of a pro.

To be clear, Washington is not the kind of person who craves undue credit. He’s humble, driven, and, above all, enjoys doing the work. So when an Achilles tendon injury during a New York Giants tryout put an end to his football career—after a number of already ego-crushing rejections from the NFL—Washington decided to take his work ethic elsewhere. Surgery was an option, but the time out of commission had him on the brink of depression, and he had already cleared space in his mind for another industry: Hollywood. After this summer, it seems the switch will have paid off; Washington is on the path to being a bona fide star.


My 2004 interview with Octavia Butler

“I’m black. I’m solitary. I’ve always been an outsider.”

This is how Octavia Butler described herself, the first self-possessed Black woman writer introvert, I had the honor of writing about for publication. Actually interviewing her was one of the great honors of my life, two years before her death in 2006. I wonder what she would have made of this beautiful Google Doodle, which I was delightfully surprised to see this morning before I went to sleep.


I was 26 when I interviewed her and Octavia Butler was the first person of consequence who was meaningful to the culture that I would interview. That year, I would also meet my mentor, and interview other influential Black women writers and scholars who inspired me to keep writing, even if they may not have been aware that’s what they were doing in the moment.

What I found most delightful about Octavia Butler was how unimpressed she was with herself and her habits. She had so many gifts that she shared with us, and so much wisdom. Our elders can see ahead on the path, can keep us from making mistakes we don’t need to.

I’ll always be so grateful for how generously kind she was with me, even though I was so clearly new at interviewing writers. I greatly respected how she wove stories even when she was talking about the most mundane things – we were discussing her first visit to New York, for instance, when she described the stamina you need to do something physical as akin to the writing life: “I think climbing mountains or buildings or whatever has been a really good metaphor for finishing my work. Because no matter how tired you get, no matter how you feel like you can’t possibly do this, somehow you do.”

Even if our culture only values what we can see at this moment, what they offer us is information about coping with the hard things in life – in the past, in what they imagined the future to be – that can tell us much more than any anxiety might be able to.

Here’s the whole interview, as republished by In Motion Magazine from

Interview with Octavia Butler

“… one of the few African American women writing
in the male-dominated science fiction genre”

by Joshunda Sanders
Oakland, California

Octavia Butler is one of the few African American women writing in the male-dominated science fiction genre. The worlds she creates with her pen are groundbreaking, powerful multicultural revisions of history; sometimes frightening and complex visions of the future. The author of twelve books and an award-winning collection of short stories, Butler was also the recipient of an esteemed MacArthur Fellowship grant in 1995 — the only science fiction writer on a list of more than 600 names in the last 20 years. She’s also won the most esteemed awards in the genre: the Hugo and Nebula wards for her books and short stories.

While she has referred to herself simply by saying, “I’m black. I’m solitary. I’ve always been an outsider,” Butler, 56, manages to render the emotional lives of her characters like an insider. It is a talent that she attributes to her life’s journey — she challenges her readers to confront themselves in spite of their circumstances and often, because of them.

The only living child of a shoeshine man and a maid who grew up a bookworm and loner in Pasadena, California has crafted the universe according to Octavia Estelle Butler since she was four; though she didn’t start making a living at it until she was older. Before she embarked on a professional writing career, she took writing classes, did odd jobs — from telemarketing to sorting potato chips — before she sold her first novel, Patternmaster, in 1976. Currently, she is on tour, celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the publication of Kindred — the story of a modern day woman who is transported back to the antebellum South to save her white ancestor. Her most recent works, two short stories entitled “The Book of Martha” and “Amnesty,” are online at

Joshunda Sanders: You grew up in Pasadena, California? What made you want to move to Seattle?

Octavia Butler: I went to Seattle for the first time in 1976. My first novel was published then, and that meant that I could take my first vacation. I got on a Greyhound bus and took a Greyhound Ameripass tour, which means that for a month I could go wherever I wanted to on Greyhound. There were a lot more buses then, so it was nice. Now I’m not sure it would be, because they get into so many places in the middle of the night and they leave in the middle of the night. So, it’s kind of inconvenient. But anyway, I went to Seattle, among other places. I went first to New York, because I’d never been there and I wanted to go.

Joshunda Sanders: What’d you think of New York?

Octavia Butler: I had a great time there. I met this West Indian woman, we were both going to the Statue of Liberty. She was wearing these thick-soled sandals, really uncomfortable shoes. We were both going to go to the top of the Empire State Building. Now, with me, my only excuse is that I’m not in shape, and wasn’t then. And with her, it was her feet. We’d encourage each other back and forth going to the top. And finally made it.

I think climbing mountains or buildings or whatever has been a really good metaphor for finishing my work. Because no matter how tired you get, no matter how you feel like you can’t possibly do this, somehow you do.

I hiked down not quite to the bottom of the Grand Canyon because I only had that one day, it was part of the same trip. I discovered that I didn’t really like going to cities, so I went to National Parks. And I hiked almost to the bottom and I realized that the bus was going to leave me if I didn’t get myself back up. Now it’s easy going down, but coming back up…and I did it c ompletely unprepared. So, I didn’t have any water… this is not sensible and I don’t think anyone should do it. I didn’t have anything except maybe some candies like this [she holds up a peppermint candy] because they tend to live at the bottom of my bag. And I kept thinking, “How embarrassing, and how humiliating it would be if somebody had to come get me.” I mean, it really hurts to walk that much if you’re out of shape and not used to it.

Joshunda Sanders: Why did you think you could do it?

Octavia Butler: It never occurred to me. I didn’t know what I was doing. I mean, it was a totally silly thing to do. And I kept trying and I would push myself. Part way down and part way back the only water was when it began to rain. And then it began to rain sideways and it plastered mud all down the front of my body. But I got back up on my on two feet, which really hurt by the time I got back up. And it’s sort of like writing.

When I went to Peru, I climbed Huayna Picchu, the taller of the two peaks you see when you see Machu Picchu. It’s an easy climb for anyone who is okay, you know. I mean, even if you’re not in very good shape. But I managed to hurt my knee hiking. I kept saying, this is high enough, this is high enough, why don’t I go back down? I got all the way to the top, crawled through the little cave and got to the top of the mountain and came back down. That’s what I mean. It’s a good metaphor for writing, because there will always come a time in writing a novel for instance, a long undertaking like that, when you don’t think you can do it. Or, you think it’s so bad you want to throw it away. I tell the students that there comes a time when you want to either burn it or flush it. But if you keep going, you know, that’s what makes you a writer instead of an “I wish I was a writer.”

I had a dentist when I was down in Pasadena and he knew I wrote and I had given him a couple of my books. And his attitude then was, “Well, writing is so easy even she can do it, so I’ll do some writing.” And he wrote the most appalling piece of…well. Truly bad. And he gave it to me to read. And I should have said, well, for legal reasons I don’t want to read your work, but I did him a favor and read his work. But what I had to say about it, as gently as I could say it, was, “Let this be an exercise, go take a class, here are some of the problems you might want to work on.” Very gently. But I never really wanted to let him at me with a drill again after that. So it cost me a dentist. But that was his attitude, you know, if I was doing it, it must be easy and anybody could do it.

Joshunda Sanders: A lot of people have that attitude about writing, but one of the things that strikes me about your work in particular is that it’s so complex that I don’t understand how people could come to you with that sort of cavalier attitude.

Octavia Butler: I don’t think they see it that way. I think their attitude has more to do with me than with the work. Just me, as a black, as a woman, or as a woman who doesn’t look as though she could do anything terribly complex.

Joshunda Sanders: That doesn’t frustrate you?

Octavia Butler: Oh, I’m doing okay.

Joshunda Sanders: What is it that fascinates you about books?

Octavia Butler: My big problem is my mother gave me this gene — there must be a gene for it, or several perhaps. It’s the pack rat gene, you know, where you just don’t throw things out. I haven’t thrown books out since I was a kid. I gave some books away when I was a little girl. My mother said I could give some to the Salvation Army. I gave some to a friend, and her brothers and sisters tore them bits. That was the last time I gave books away in large amounts. I just keep stuff. I still have books from childhood.

Joshunda Sanders: That’s a blessing.

Octavia Butler: It comforts me. I imagine when I’m dead someone will have a huge yard sale or estate sale and I don’t care! Some of them are worth something. Even my comic books — I have first editions of this and that, the first issue of the Fantastic Four. I used to collect them, not in the way that people collect things now. I didn’t put them in plastic bags and never touch them. I read them and they looked pretty bad, some of them. But they’re still worth something just because they are what they are.

Joshunda Sanders: How has your childhood affected your work?

Octavia Butler: I think writers use absolutely everything that happens to us, and surely if I had had a different sort of childhood and still come out a writer, I’d be a different kind of writer. It’s on a par with, but different from, the fact that I had four brothers who were born and died before I was born. Some of them didn’t come to term, some of them did come to term and then died. But my mother couldn’t carry a child to term, for the most part something went wrong. If they had lived, I would be a very different person. So, anything that happens in your life that is important, if it didn’t happen you would be someone different.

Joshunda Sanders: People attach a lot of titles to you –

Octavia Butler: Please don’t call me the grand dame. Someone said it in Essence and it stuck.

Joshunda Sanders: You’re annoyed by it?

Octavia Butler: Well, it’s another word for grandmother! I’m certainly old enough to be someone’s grandmother, but I’m not.

Joshunda Sanders: What about the science fiction or speculative fiction titles attached to your work?

Octavia Butler: Really, it doesn’t matter. A good story is a good story. If what I’m writing reaches you, then it reaches you no matter what title is stuck on it. The titles are mainly so that you’ll know where to look in the library, or as a marketing title, know where to put it in the bookstore so booksellers know how to sell it. It has very little to do with actual writing.

Joshunda Sanders: Have you found that it intimidates African Americans, in particular?

Octavia Butler: No. I think people have made up their minds that they don’t like science fiction because they’ve made up their minds that they know what science fiction is. And they have a very limited notion of what it is. I used to say science fiction and black people are judged by their worst elements. And it’s sadly enough still true. People think, “Oh, science fiction, Star Wars. I don’t like that.” And they don’t want to read what I’ve written because they don’t like Star Wars. Then again, you get the other kind who do want to read what I’ve written because they like Star Wars and they think that must be what I’m doing. In both cases they’re going to be disappointed. That’s the worst thing about verbal shorthand. All too often, it’s an excuse not to do something, more often than it’s a reason for doing something.

There isn’t any subject you can’t tackle by way of science fiction. And probably there isn’t any subject that somebody hasn’t tackled at one time or another. You don’t have the formulas that you might have for a mystery, or even a romance. It’s completely wide open. If you’re going to write science fiction, that means you’re using science and you’ll need to use it accurately. At least speculate in ways that make sense, you know. If you’re not using science, what you’re probably writing is fantasy, I mean if it’s still odd. Some species of fantasy…people tend to think fantasy, oh Tolkien, but Kindred is fantasy because there’s no science. With fantasy, all you have to do is follow the rules that you’ve created.

Joshunda Sanders: There are so many parts of the Parables, for instance, that seem to echo what’s happening in the world right now.

Octavia Butler: Keep in mind that when I wrote them, Bush wasn’t president. Clinton had yet to be reelected. When I wrote them the time was very different. I was trying not to prophesize. Matter of fact, I was trying to give warning.

One of the kinds of research I did was to read a lot of stuff about World War II. Not the war itself, but I wanted to know in particular how a country goes fascist. So, I have this country, in Parable of the Sower, and especially Parable of the Talents, sliding in that direction. And I really was not trying to prophesize that somehow we would do that but…

Joshunda Sanders: Is it jarring to you, with the new mission to Mars and such?

Octavia Butler: Oh, no, I don’t see any reason to pay attention to that. I don’t think Bush is any more serious about Mars than he was about getting rid of some of our emissions in the atmosphere. It’s just something he said and probably forgot it a moment later. Or will eventually. Because, after all, it’s not something that’s supposed to happen while he’s still in office. It can’t. So I don’t think we need to really pay any attention to that.

Joshunda Sanders: You came of age when there was an actual space race, but my generation is a little removed from that.

Octavia Butler: I think of the space race as a way of having a nuclear war without having one. I mean that literally. We had a competition with the USSR and from that competition came a lot of good technical fallout. We learned a lot of things we hadn’t know before, even things that apply to weapons systems and yet we didn’t wipe each other out. I mean, there were people who thought a nuclear war would be a cool idea. During the early part of the Reagan era, there were people who thought we could win a nuclear war and rid ourselves of the Soviet Empire. I thought they were nuts, but they were there. And Reagan got into office in spite of the fact that he thought a nuclear war was winnable.

Joshunda Sanders: That’s heavy stuff.

Octavia Butler: I got my idea for the Xenogenesis books (Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago) from Ronald Reagan because he was advocating this kind of thing. I thought there must be something basic, something really genetically wrong with us if we’re falling for this stuff. And I came up with these characteristics. The aliens arrive after the war and they tell us that we have these two characteristics that don’t work and play well together. They are intelligent, and they tell us we’re the most intelligent species they’ve come across. But we’re also hierarchical. And I put this after the big war because it’s kind of an example. We’ve one-upped ourselves to death, just our tendency to one-up each other as individuals and groups, large and small.

It has a greater consequence if you combine it with intelligence. If what you have is two elk fighting over who’s going to make the food, I mean, the consequences to them…but if you’re going to have somebody sending people off to war for egotistical or economic reasons, both hierarchal sorts of reasons, you end up with a lot more dead people. When you’re throwing nuclear weapons in the pie, which is what we were doing back then, you end up with more dead people than any war before. It could have been very bad.

Joshunda Sanders: Do some of your ideas disturb you or keep you up at night?

Octavia Butler: A lot of the ones in the Parables, of course, did. Like I said, they weren’t things that I wanted to happen. Kindred was a difficult book to write because of the research I had to do. The slave narratives, the histories in general — I read books written by the wives of plantation owners, at the LA Public Library. Unfortunately, a few years after that, somebody torched it. Some of the books I used to write Wild Seed and Kindred, they would have been one copy in the library and now they’re gone.

Joshunda Sanders: Why do you think Kindred has been one of your more popular works?

Octavia Butler: Because it’s accessible to a number of audience: black studies, oh, I guess I have to modify my vocabulary here — African American studies, women’s studies and science fiction. It sometimes reaches people who might not otherwise read that kind of book, who might not read a history, a historical novel even about that period unless it was a Gone With the Wind type.

[With Kindred] I chose the time I was living in. I thought it was interesting to start at the bicentennial and the country’s 200 years old and the country’s still dealing with racial problems, and here’s my character having to deal with slavery all of a sudden. If I had written the book now, it probably wouldn’t be very different. What I was trying to do is make the time real, I wanted to take them back into it. The idea was always to make that time emotionally real to people. And that’s still what it’s about. The nice thing is that it is read in schools. Every now and then I hear about younger kids reading it and I wonder how they relate to it. All too often, especially young men, will feel, “Oh, if it was me, I would just…” and they have some simple solution that wouldn’t work at all and would probably get them killed. Because they don’t really understand how serious it is when the whole society is literally arrayed against you and arrayed to really keep you in your place. If you get seriously out of line, they will kill you because they fear you.

Kindred was kind of draining and depressing, especially the research for writing it. I now have a talk that begins with the question, “How long does it take to write a novel?” and the answer is, as long as you’ve lived up to the time you sit down to write the novel and then some. I got the idea for it in college. But a lot of my reason for writing it came when I was in preschool, when my mother used to take me to work with her.

I got to see her not hearing insults and going in back doors, and even though I was a little kid, I realized it was humiliating. I knew something was wrong, it was unpleasant, it was bad. I remember saying to her a little later, at seven or eight, “I’ll never do what you do, what you do is terrible.” And she just got this sad look on her face and didn’t say anything. I think it was the look and the memory of the indignities she endured. I just remembered that and wanted to convey that people who underwent all this were not cowards, were not people who were just too pathetic to protect themselves, but were heroes because they were using what they had to help their kids get a little further. She knew what it was to be hungry, she was a young woman during the Depression; she was taken out of school when she was ten. There were times when there was no food, there were times when they were scrambling to put a roof over their heads. I never had to worry about any of that. We never went hungry, we never went homeless. I got to go to college and she didn’t even get to finish elementary school. All that because she was willing to put up with this nonsense and try to help me. I wanted to convey some of that and not have it look as though these people were deficient because they weren’t fighting. They were fighting, they just weren’t fighting with fists, which is sometimes easy and pointless. The quick and dirty solution is often the one that’s most admired until you have to live with the results.

Joshunda Sanders: So I hear you’re working on a book about a vampire?

Octavia Butler: It’s sort of like my Wild Seed for this time in my life. I wrote Wild Seed as my reward for having written Kindred. I wrote the two Parable books and I was trying to write a third, and I wasn’t getting anything worthwhile done. To me, writer’s block doesn’t mean that I can’t write — it just means that what I’m writing is not worth anything and that writing it is difficult and unpleasant. And then, for some reason I got hold of a Vampire story and it was a lot of fun, I really enjoyed it. And after awhile, I found myself writing one. It’s a novel, I’m enjoying it and I hope other people will, too.

Joshunda Sanders: Where do you get your ideas?

Octavia Butler: When I got the idea for Patternmaster, I was twelve, but I had no idea how to write a novel. I tried, but it was quite a few years before I was able to write it. When I got the idea for Mind of My Mind, I was 15. When I got the idea for Survivor, I was 19. Finally, when I got the idea forKindred, I was in college. My ideas generally come from what’s going on around me. But sometimes they come from other novels. For instance, when I wrote Patternmaster, I included these people called the Clay Arks and they were just kind of throwaway people, but I didn’t like them as throwaway people and I wanted to know more about them. So I wrote Clay’s Ark. And learned about them as I went along. Sometimes a book will seem like one book and turn into two or three, which happened with the Xenogenesis books.

Sometimes I hear from people who want to write and [they ask] what should they do? The first thing I want to know from them is, are they writing? Are they writing every day? And a remarkable number of them are not. Do they read omnivorously, because that’s not only a source of ideas, but a way to learn to write, to see what other people have been up to. I recommend that they take classes because it’s a great way to rent an audience and make sure you’re communicating what you think you’re communicating, which is not always the case, and I recommend that they forget a couple of things. Forget about talent. I recommend that they go to the bestselling lists and see who else doesn’t have talent and it hasn’t stopped them, so don’t worry. Forget about inspiration, because it’s more likely to be a reason not to write, as in, “I can’t write today because I’m not inspired.” I tell them I used to live next to my landlady and I told everybody she inspired me. And the most valuable characteristic any would-be writer can possibly have is persistence. Just keep at it, keep learning your craft and keep trying.

Published in In Motion Magazine March 14, 2004

First published in ( February 24, 2004. Africana content © Copyright 1999-2003 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved to media owners. Re-published with permission.

Up to here with trolls? Tips for navigating online drama

The Internet is now an essential part of academic life, but anyone who has ever spent hours arguing with anonymous commenters or days managing positive or negative responses to his or her work knows cultivating a presence in cyberspace isn’t without serious drawbacks. Just like in real life, there’s always more than enough online drama to go around.

For women, though, things can quickly shift into dangerous territory offline. “The Next Civil Rights Issue: Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” journalist Amanda Hess describes rape threats directed at her for simply being a woman with an Internet connection. She notes that 72.5 percent of people who reported being stalked or harassed online between 2000 and 2012 in one study were women. For women of color, the online complexities are even worse.

Two of the most extreme cases involved high profile women of color providing commentary on controversial topics. In February, Rutgers University professor Brittney Cooper received death threats and an onslaught of racist, sexist vitriol in response to a piece she wrote at Salon about a Florida jury’s failure to convict Michael Dunn, a white man who was charged with shooting Jordan Davis, a black teenager. Last summer, Salamishah Tillet was attacked even more viciously after she appeared as a guest on the Melissa Harris-Perry show and talked about the intersection of racism and the anti-abortion movement.

Tillet, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the nonprofit A Long Walk Home, was mentioned in a segment on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” — and then the first wave of attacks started. “I was flooded by letters, emails and phone calls all the way up to the Provost of my University,” Tillet says. “My faculty colleagues and president were all contacted, and then we heard from alumni and television viewers. (Bill O’Reilly’s) viewership, at least the people who contact you, is a machine. It’s really a lot.”

The strangest manifestation of the attacks on Tillet, though, might have been the 80 magazine subscriptions that she had to individually write and cancel, she said. “Because my credit was involved, that was more effective than the harassment. But online, people were calling me a wench, and I had to contact the police and on campus security. At least when people go after you on Twitter, you experience that as a norm,” Tillet says. “But I was unprepared for both. It was really frightening.”

Sometimes the scale at which women of color are attacked is not as visible. In October, biologist and postdoctoral research associate at Oklahoma State University Danielle N. Lee declined an editor’s request to blog at his site for free and was subsequently called an “urban whore.” Lee contributes to Scientific American where her Urban Scientist blog amplifies diverse aspects of the sciences and offers the rare perspective of a black woman conducting research while also drawing on hip hop culture. In the wake of her interaction with the editor, identified only as Ofek, Scientific American deleted her blog post about the interaction, then restored it to the site with a lengthy explanation of why it was removed. Lee also made a YouTube video in response to the incident and posted a response blog on her personal site.

“The whole thing got conflated,” Lee says. As for what academics might learn from her experience, she says, “Sometimes I feel like I’m still figuring that out. What I’ve learned so far is that the crap doesn’t end because you reach some level of success. The crap continues.”

University of Denver law professor Nancy Leong has also noticed that the more visible her work has become, the more of a target she has become for all kinds of online drama. When Leong writes about online harassment leveled at women, as she did in a four-part series of blogs at Feminist Law Professors, she points out that “Internet harassers focus on identity rather than on ideas as a specific strategy for excluding women and people of color from online discourse.” (Leong has also created a Cyberharrassment Bibliography as a resource for others and further discussion.)

Leong teaches constitutional rights, criminal procedure and judicial behavior, among other things. But the fact that she’s photogenic combined with her Native Hawaiian heritage has set off self-identified men on the Internet. This was amplified after she wrote an article published in the Harvard Law Review entitled “Racial Capitalism” but it got even worse when she started to blog about the other things that were happening, including someone creating a fake Twitter account using her name, her cell phone number and address being posted publicly and the address of her parents being posted online.

Instead of garnering her colleagues’ support, Leong said that she experienced a lot of victim blaming, particularly from white men. Her experience was so far beyond anything they experienced, she said, that they weren’t able to empathize. “A lot of my colleagues said stuff to me like, ‘You made this worse by speaking out about it,'” Leong said. “In other words, ‘If you had just gone about your business, then a lot of things that happened on the Internet wouldn’t have happened.’ As academics who work in the world of ideas and presumably care about what we research beyond what academics think about it, I thought it was important to raise awareness about the harassment.”

What else should academics facing online drama do?

Decide how you will manage the situation.

Tillet, who is a sexual assault survivor, said it’s important to understand that for women, the barrage of attacks can be a trigger for re-experiencing other violence – particularly for women of color. “The victim blaming that happens…you start going through that cycle again. On a personal level, it was important for me to shut down communication for two days. I was communicating with people who were helping, but I didn’t take any phone calls.”

Online attacks, excessive trolling or worse can take up huge chunks of time and energy that should be devoted to your work. Christopher Gandin Le, chief executive officer of Emotion Technology, which works with policymakers and web companies to promote mental health online, says it’s important to know how you’re going to handle yourself during and after online drama. “I haven’t found anyone who has created something for after something blows up on the Internet. It just goes away. There’s no learning experience for anyone.” In the absence of online mediators, targets of online harassment or attacks can seek short-term therapy on or off- campus in order to process the event. “Even when you create something really amazing people love, what do you do next, managing expectations and understanding that this stuff happens — basically, living your life is really all we can do.”

Delegate monitoring your professional presence online.

Though every individual case will differ, Leong says it is helpful to have a friend, ally or colleague who is not going through the same thing to help remove some of the emotional and practical burdens that come with being targeted online. That person can set up a Google Alert for your name to give you a heads up when something derogatory or defamatory shows up under your name. “You don’t have to be the person who sees that and putting forth the emotional energy to deal with that every single day,” she adds. Tillet said that she was helped greatly by supportive colleagues and friends. It helped that she gave over email access to the head of campus security to sort through to determine if any physical threats had been sent to her. She also kept a file of emails that were harassing and threatening.

Take screen shots of everything.

Both Lee and Leong documented their experiences extensively because misconduct online and other potentially controversial exchanges can easily be unpublished or deleted. Lee was wise to have screen shots of her exchange with the Biology Online editor; Leong has documented some of the online harassment on her blog. “Sometimes convincing a law enforcement officer requires handing them a stack of papers and saying, ‘It’s in here.’ I file everything in a folder in my computer, buried so that I don’t see it every time I log on to do research,” Leong says.

Remember that sometimes silence is better than a response.

Lee says that the weekend the incident with the Biology Online editor became public she went into radio silence. A number of people emailed her to tell her that by doing so, she taught them how to deal with a situation well, but she says she didn’t do it intentionally. “I was at home unable to eat. I was a mess privately. I don’t know what else I could have done. I was in no position to make a public statement,” Lee says. Instead, because she didn’t publicly react to the fall out from her exchange, she found that she was able to keep herself from saying something rash. “At the end of the day, you still have to live with yourself and live with the aftermath of what happens next. I didn’t want anything out there that I couldn’t manage later. It’s easier to put something out that you can’t come back from.” Tillet also says of the two days when she didn’t engage with the public that “It was important for me to shut out the noise and come up with a strategy for a plan of attack.”

If you’re not experiencing the harassment but know someone who is, try being supportive.

Leong says: “When people say to a woman who has been harassed and decides to speak up about it that she’s making things worse, it’s not a supportive thing to say. A better thing to say is, “It’s unfortunate that the harassment intensified, but it’s an important social issue and it was brave of you to do that.” Tillet said that her colleague Anthea Butler supported her by offering more strategies to decrease her visibility — or “create a more complicated path to me” — like changing her email address. Because online drama can be relentless, Tillet says go into your advocacy or writing on controversial topics “knowing who you’re standing with and with an infrastructure put in place to protect you and keep you safe.”