“Do you ever shut up?” “You’re a born loser.” “Well, you’re not invited.” “Definitely not the artist in the family.” Accidental or barbed, a mean comment can catch like a hook in your soft throat and leave you hanging for years, unable to wriggle free of the memory.
Social media only exaggerates the power of a mean remark, spreading it far and wide, memorializing it forever. Which is why Mich Hancock, who built a company on her adroit use of social, is now pushing to “make the internet a kinder place.” She admits her plan sounds “a little fluffy”—but when she tells me what drove her, it is clear just how much weight has landed behind simple kindness.
Early in their marriage, Hancock and her (now ex-) husband adopted a four-year-old boy, eager to give a child a loving home. He was withdrawn from the start, she says, always off to one side, not seeming to want to belong. She would hear him alone in his room, repeating a word of his own making like a mantra. Her expressions of love and caring backfired, causing him to act out. But novelty intrigued him, so every time they tried some new tack, it worked for a week or so, offering a glimpse of normalcy before his behavior fell apart again. Was he somehow unable to learn from experience? No, she realized over time, he did not care to bother. Something about him felt off, almost sinister. “I’d wake up,” she says, “and he’d be standing over me.”
Life went on like this for eleven years. There was a long string of diagnoses—ADHD, developing bipolar disorder, PTSD, OCD. None really fit until “reactive attachment disorder,” an inability to form a secure, healthy bond with the primary caretaker. Stressed to the breaking point, Hancock—a bubbly sort who smiles often, likes people, and was used to being liked in return—stopped sleeping, lost all her hair, and walked around in an exhausted daze, her bald head wrapped in a silk scarf, unable to “muster the old Mich.”
Friends and family told her she was overreacting. Her own mother urged her to be more loving, more forgiving. Her husband at the time, who traveled a lot and saw little of what she witnessed, was afraid she was “losing it.” Teachers praised the boy, who was charming in public.
At home, he killed their cat, killed small birds, and beat the dog bloody. “He just shrugged and said he was angry,” Hancock recalls. When she asked how he felt about his little sister, he admitted wanting to kill her—“and probably you, too.”
Hancock knew she had to get him out of their house. She went to endless meetings with caseworkers. At the start of one, she saw a sentence jotted at the top of a consultant’s notebook: “Mother = Munchausen.” Confronted, the consultant stammered that she was told that in a briefing. The solution offered to Hancock was for her to take parenting classes. Oh, and hug the boy ten times a day.
When she did, he started feeling her up.
Finally she was able to arrange a stay in a residential treatment program. He was evaluated as having “sociopathic tendencies.” A therapist said, “Mrs. Hancock, I’m looking at an exhaustive list of things you have done for this child. Give yourself a break. We do not know how to deal with someone who doesn’t have a conscience. We don’t know how to get one in there.”
She was just beginning to breathe again when she was told it was time to bring him back home—or risk child abandonment charges.
“But you’ve just essentially told me there’s no way to treat this,” she protested. “It’s not safe for my daughter if we bring him home.” She persuaded Children’s Services to take her adopted son into foster care. When she realized that no one had told the new foster parents anything about the boy’s psychological history, she gave them a rundown. The social workers were furious with her, saying it was not her place to do so.
“You’re right, it’s not my place,” she agreed, sounding like her old, spirited self again. “It was actually your place, and you didn’t do it.”
After setting a fire and running away, the boy was moved to another foster home. Hancock was warned to have no contact with these foster parents. The placement ended when he molested their six-year-old granddaughter, she says; he is now in prison.
Hancock, meanwhile, set out to reclaim her life. She had energy again, and she was determined not to stay mired in the previous eleven years. She cofounded TEDxStLouis to keep people’s eyes on hopeful solutions rather than civic grumbling. She started her own company, 100th Monkey, using social media to help nonprofits raise their presence.
Then she set to work forgiving people. “Hiding evil in a child—we have a hard time with that,” she observes, her voice calm. The frustration of not being believed has drained away, replaced by more understanding than I would have. Our first instinct is to assume innocence in the child and therefore some lack or flaw in the mother. I can feel it in myself, that reflexive need to protect a child from judgment, look out for their welfare, assume the worst of their parents. There is a deceptive sense of rightness in such a stance, a worldview that lets us continue to see human nature as good at the core, good from the outset. Reassured about the species, we can then blame parents and society for anything that goes awry. Which is convenient, because it lets us work out our own past hurts at the same time.
Three female friends had said things that felt especially mean when Hancock was struggling to figure out what to do with her son. Only now did it hit her: All three had been abandoned by parents.
When someone is mean, she has learned to ask, “Where’s the hurt? Where’s the trauma?” And the same is true online: “If you’re acting out, you have to look within. If you feel compelled to be mean on the internet, there’s some hurt you need to get figured out.”
She is wary of political meanness, too, and critiques meant only to cut someone down, and celebrity schadenfreude: “Engaging just helps it get more power. Ask yourself, ‘Is it worth my time? Is it respectful of the other person?’ Anna Nicole Smith was a hot mess, clearly in need of a lot of help, and instead we turned her into entertainment.”
Hancock is issuing a challenge: “Let’s clean up that feed. Unfollow anyone who is meanspirited. Engage with kindness. Do that for thirty days, and then tell me what your feed looks like. You have to teach Facebook what to send you.”
If only we could teach ourselves as easily.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.