“In a war zone, it is not safe to be unknown. Unknown travelers are shot on sight,” says Isabel Fall. “The fact that Isabel Fall was an unknown led to her death.”
Isabel Fall isn’t dead. There is a person who wrote under that name alive on the planet right now, someone who published a critically acclaimed, award-nominated short story. If she wanted to publish again, she surely could.
Isabel Fall is a ghost nonetheless.
In January 2020, not long after her short story “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” was published in the online science fiction magazine Clarkesworld, Fall asked her editor to take the story down, and then checked into a psychiatric ward for thoughts of self-harm and suicide.
The story — and especially its title, which co-opts a transphobic meme — had provoked days of contentious debate online within the science fiction community, the trans community, and the community of people who worry that cancel culture has run amok. Because there was little biographical information available about its author, the debate hinged on one question: Who was Isabel Fall? And that question ate her alive. When she emerged from the hospital a few weeks later, the world had moved on, but she was still scarred by what had happened. She decided on something drastic: She would no longer be Isabel Fall.
As a trans woman early in transition, Fall had the option of retreating to the relative safety of her legal, masculine identity. That’s what she did, staying out of the limelight and growing ever more frustrated by what had happened to her. She bristles when I ask her in an email if she’s stopped transitioning, but it’s the only phrase I can think of to describe how the situation appears.
Isabel Fall was on a path to becoming herself, and then she wasn’t — and all because she published a short story. And then her life fell apart.
In the 18 months since, what happened to her has become a case study for various people who want to talk about the Way We Live Today. It has been held up as an example of progressives eating their own, of the dangers of online anonymity, of the need for sensitivity readers or content warnings. But what this story really symbolizes is the fact that as we’ve grown more adept at using the internet, we’ve also grown more adept at destroying people’s lives, but from a distance, in an abstracted way.
Sometimes, the path to your personal hell is paved with other people’s best intentions.
Like most internet outrage cycles, the fracas over “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” was enormous news within the bubble of people who cared about it and made barely a blip outside of that bubble. The full tale is amorphous and weird, and recounting its ins and outs is nearly impossible to do here. Just trying to explain the motivations of all involved is a task in and of itself, and at any rate, that story has been told many times, quoting others extensively. Fall has never spoken publicly about the situation until now.
Clarkesworld published Fall’s story on January 1, 2020. For a while, people seemed to like it.
“I was in awe of it on a sentence level. I thought it was beautiful and devastating and incredibly subversive and surprising. It did all this work in a very short amount of space, which I found completely breathtaking. It had been a long time since I had read a short story that I had enjoyed and that also had rewired my brain a little bit,” said author Carmen Maria Machado, who read the story before controversy had broken out.
In the first 10 days after “Attack Helicopter” was published, what muted criticism existed was largely confined to the story’s comments section on Clarkesworld. The tweets that still exist from that period were largely positive responses to the story, often from trans people.
But first in Clarkesworld’s comments and then on Twitter, the combination of the story’s title and the relative lack of information about Fall began to fuel a growing paranoia around the story and its author. The presence of trolls who seemed to take the story’s title at face value only added to that paranoia. And when read through the lens of “Isabel Fall is trolling everybody,” “Attack Helicopter” started to seem menacing to plenty of readers.
“Attack Helicopter” was a slippery, knotty piece of fiction that captured a particular trans feminine uncertainty better than almost anything I have ever read. Set in a nightmarish future in which the US military has co-opted gender to the degree that it turns recruits into literal weapons, it told the story of Barb, a pilot whose gender is “helicopter.” Together with Axis — Barb’s gunner, who was also assigned helicopter — Barb carried out various missions against assorted opposition forces who live within what is at present the United States.
Then, because its title was also a transphobic meme and because “Isabel Fall” had absolutely no online presence beyond the Clarkesworld story, many people began to worry that Fall was somehow a front for right-wing, anti-trans reactionaries. They expressed those fears in the comments of the story, in various science fiction discussion groups, and all over Twitter. Fans of the story pushed back, saying it was a bold and striking piece of writing from an exciting new voice. While the debate was initially among trans people for the most part, it eventually spilled over to cis sci-fi fans who boosted the concerns of trans people who were worried about the story.
Neil Clarke, Clarkesworld’s editor, pulled the story on Fall’s behalf on January 15, replacing it with an editorial note that read, in part, “The recent barrage of attacks on Isabel have taken a toll and I ask that even if you disagree with the decision, that you respect it. This is not censorship. She needed this to be done for her own personal safety and health.”
Fall, reeling, checked into the hospital. She has since retitled her story “Helicopter Story,” and under that title, it was nominated for a 2021 Hugo Award, one of the most prestigious honors in science fiction.
“How do I feel about the nomination? I don’t know,” Fall says by email. “It’s a nice validation to know that some people liked the story enough to nominate it. But it’s also dreadful to know that this will just mean reopening the conversation, which will lead to a lot of people being hurt.”
I started emailing with Fall in February, just over a year after “Attack Helicopter” blew up. I had been working on a completely different piece about the short story and wanted to invite her to share her version of events, which thus far have been defined by voices that are not her own. Clarke put me in touch with Fall, and she agreed to speak with me on the condition that we only correspond over email. I am the first journalist she has talked to about what happened. I do not know her legal identity, but I have confirmed that she is the person who wrote “Attack Helicopter” from looking at earlier drafts of the story that Fall shared with me.
When Fall published “Attack Helicopter,” she was not yet ready to be publicly out as a trans woman, but hoped that writing it for a niche publication in a community that is frequently friendly to queer writers would be a good way to get her feet wet.
She had at least some reason to expect that the complete vacuum of personal information about her — the short author bio attached to the story said only that she was born in 1988 — wouldn’t be questioned. Trans spaces, both online and in real life, have a long history of allowing an anonymity that paradoxically hides within one’s true identity.
If you want to attend a support group meeting and say your name is Isabel and you use she/her pronouns, you will be treated as such, no matter how you look or what name is on your driver’s license. Gatekeeping in a trans space usually involves loosely enforced rules that focus on giving those who exist within them a safe place to explore their identity. Those rules almost never attempt to determine that someone is “trans enough.”
But anonymity isn’t always welcome on the internet, where an anonymous identity can be weaponized for the worst. That gap — between the good-faith anonymity assumed in trans spaces and the bad-faith anonymity increasingly assumed online — was the one Fall wandered into.
“I sexually identify as an attack helicopter” is a “copypasta” (a snippet of text that is copied and pasted across the internet, sometimes with alterations, sometimes word-for-word) that dates to 2014. It most likely originated on the forums for the game Team Fortress 2 before making its way to Reddit and 4chan, where it became a meme used to mock and demean trans people who spoke earnestly about their experiences and identities. The meme is transphobic on its face, because it suggests that one’s gender can be decided on a whim.
Fall’s story tries to take the meme seriously. What would it be like if your gender was actually “helicopter”?
As a story, “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” explores three separate but interconnected ideas: gender as an innate part of the self, gender as a performance for society, and gender as a (literal) weapon of the state. The story’s complicated exploration of gender identity doesn’t work for everyone, but it hits others with almost laser-targeted precision.
At its core, “Attack Helicopter” is about the intersection of gender and American hegemony. On that level, it has plenty to say even to cisgender people. After all, if all gender is on some level a performance (and it is), then it can be co-opted and perverted by the state. But if it’s also innate on some level (and it is), then we are powerless against whatever it is that enough people decide gender performance should look like. We are constantly trapped by gender, even when we know we are trapped by it. You can’t truly escape something so all-pervasive; you can only negotiate your own terms with it, and everybody’s terms are different.
The conversation around gender “is dominated by those who can tolerate and thrive in it. It is conducted by the voices of those who are able to survive speech and its consequences,” Fall says. “But it is a conversation that is, by necessity, reductive. We need teams and groups and identities, not just to belong to, but as mental objects to manipulate and wield. If we tried to hold 10 million unique experiences of gender in our mind they would sift through our fingers and roll away.”
Such a conversation around gender is not particularly conducive to those who are figuring out their gender in public, as all trans people must do eventually. It’s especially not conducive to artists who are exploring their gender in their art, under even greater degrees of public scrutiny. Which is to say: That conversation is not conducive to people like Fall.
“We make boxes that seem to enclose a satisfying number of human experiences, and then we put labels on those and argue about them instead,” she says. “The boxes change over time, according to a process which is governed by, as far as I can tell, cycles of human suffering: We realize that forcing people into the last set of boxes was painful and wrong, we wring our hands, we fold up some new boxes and assure ourselves that this time we got it right, or at least right enough for now. Because we need the boxes to argue over. I do not want to be in a box. I want to sift through your fingers, to vanish, to be unseen.”
The question many people asked when “Attack Helicopter” was published was: What were Fall’s intentions in borrowing a transphobic meme for her title?
When I came out in 2018, the “attack helicopter” meme had already mostly been ironically reclaimed by trans people, who had undercut its sting by, in essence, shouting, “Get better material!” at transphobes. (To wit.)
Fall was channeling that ironic reclamation, but readers were quick to jump to their own conclusions. Many only read as far as the title before assuming Fall was either transphobic herself or a trans person intentionally using the meme to make a point.
All they had to go on was one biographical detail: “Isabel Fall was born in 1988.” There was no Isabel Fall Twitter profile. She had never published fiction before. She was a blank space, upon which anyone could project their worst fears or biggest hopes.
“When the story was first published, we knew nothing about Isabel Fall’s identity, and there was a smattering of strange behavior around the comments and who was linking to it that led people to suspect right-wing trolls were involved in this,” says science fiction author Neon Yang. They were publicly critical of the story on Twitter. “In hindsight, they were probably just drawn by the provocative title and possibly did not even read the story. And yes, it seems like an overreaction on the part of the trans people who responded this way, but being trans in this world is having to constantly justify your right to existence at all, and when you’re forced to be on the defensive all the time, everything starts to look like an attack.”
But a lot of trans women adopt an online pseudonym before coming out publicly, including me. To come out as a trans woman in a transphobic patriarchal society that views our existence as a curiosity at best is rarely something done all at once. It requires baby steps, like becoming used to a new name that starts to feel like home.
Absent any context, “This writer is a secret troll” seems like a huge, unjustified leap to make. Within the science fiction community specifically, it’s still a huge leap, but not necessarily an unjustified one. In recent years, a neoreactionary movement known as the “Sad Puppies” has advocated for politically and artistically conservative science fiction and gamed the Hugo Award nominations, drawing ire from genre writers old and new. The Sad Puppies’ position is, more or less, that great sci-fi is traditional, usually focused on straight white guys in militaristic settings, with straightforward prose. It’s a pushback against the diversification of science fiction and fantasy writing, and though the Puppies’ influence has waned, the lasting effects of their efforts have only stirred up fear and uncertainty within the community. Thus, paranoia was the prevailing mood under which many first read “Attack Helicopter.”
A few people insisted to me that the controversy began with honest but negative readings of the story by people who felt Fall had missed the mark, before mutating into something worse. One unstated assumption made here is that only trans people should write about trans experiences, and therefore, Fall should have identified herself as a trans woman directly in the bio attached to the story. This notion is admirable on the surface but fails to account for the many ways in which trans artists explore and experience their gender in what they create. Sometimes you can only figure out you’re trans by writing about being trans.
“[In criticism], you can say, ‘This struck me as somewhat clumsy and born from inexperience.’ That’s a fair thing to say about art,” says Gretchen Felker-Martin, an author and critic who says she loved “Attack Helicopter.” “What isn’t fair to say is, ‘The person who wrote this is definitely straight, and they’ve never met a trans person.’ There’s some room for error there, when it comes to whether the person whose work you’re critiquing is some sort of famous cultural icon or something. But Isabel was not that. She’s a woman writing under a pseudonym.”
Fall remembers the sequence of events differently, and so far as I have been able to figure out, her sequence of events is the correct one: Suspicion of her motives in writing “Attack Helicopter” spurred an almost immediate attempt to figure out her real identity, which fueled suspicion that she was trying to hide something. She was accused of being an alt-right troll or a Nazi. Only when things had gone too far did the good-faith criticism start to roll in. Fall says she found some of that criticism useful, particularly with regard to the story’s treatment of Barb’s race. (Barb is Korean.) But in her telling, the good-faith criticism came after the attempts to prove she was a bad actor. By then, the damage was done.
“Framing matters. After the frame around the story was in place, it could not be shaken, and everything that happened afterwards was influenced by it,” Fall says. “I have also heard people say, ‘We deserve to know if Isabel Fall is someone with a history of writing things that divide queer communities.’ Is it now a crime to divide a queer community? Why shouldn’t queer people be divided on one issue or another?”
The mess very quickly turned nasty and personal, and it was happening where Fall could see all of it.
“I sought out and read everything written about the story. I couldn’t stop,” Fall says. “It was like that old nightmare-fantasy. What if someone gave you a ledger of everything anyone’s ever said about you, anywhere? Who wouldn’t read it? I would read it; I would go straight to the worst things.”
One criticism above all got to her: that Fall must be a cis man, because no woman would ever write in the way she did. And because this criticism was so often leveled by cis women, Fall felt her gender dysphoria (the gap between her gender and her gender assigned at birth) increasing. In Fall’s story, Barb and Axis destroy the lives of people they cannot even see. Now, in a bitterly ironic twist, the same was happening to her.
“In this story I think that the helicopter is a closet. ... Where do you feel dysphoria the hardest? In the closet. Or so I have to hope; I have not been anywhere outside it, except for [in publishing ‘Attack Helicopter’], which convinced me it was safer inside,” Fall says. “Most of all, I wanted people to say, ‘This story was written by a woman who understands being a woman.’ I obviously failed horribly.”
That was when she asked Clarke to take down the story. That was when she checked herself into a psych ward, so she wouldn’t kill herself in the midst of her dysphoric spiral.
“It ended the way it did because I thought I would die,” she says.
Twitter is really good at making otherwise unimportant things seem like important news.
It’s incredibly hard to imagine “Attack Helicopter” receiving the degree of blowback it did in a world where Twitter didn’t exist. There were discussions of the story on forums and in comment threads all over the internet, but it is the nature of Twitter that all but ensured this particular argument would rage out of control. Isabel Fall’s story has been held up as an example of “cancel culture run amok,” but like almost all examples of cancel culture run amok, it’s mostly an example of Twitter run amok.
“It’s very easy to do a paranoid reading on Twitter,” says Lee Mandelo, a PhD candidate at the University of Kentucky and an author and critic who writes for Tor.com. They were among the earliest advocates of “Attack Helicopter,” and they wrote a lengthy Twitter thread (collected as a blog post here) about paranoid versus reparative readings of art, in response to Clarkesworld pulling the story.
The delineation between paranoid and reparative readings originated in 1995, with influential critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. A paranoid reading focuses on what’s wrong or problematic about a work of art. A reparative reading seeks out what might be nourishing or healing in a work of art, even if the work is flawed. Importantly, a reparative reading also tends to consider what might be nourishing or healing in a work of art for someone who isn’t the reader.
This kind of nuance gets completely worn away on Twitter, home of paranoid readings.
“[You might tweet], ‘Well, they didn’t discuss X, Y, or Z, so that’s bad!’ Or, ‘They didn’t’ — in this case — ‘discuss transness in a way that felt like what I feel about transness, therefore it is bad.’ That flattens everything into this very individual, very hostile way of reading,” Mandelo says. “Part of reparative reading is trying to think about how a story cannot do everything. Nothing can do everything. If you’re reading every text, fiction, or criticism looking for it to tick a bunch of boxes — like if it represents X, Y, and Z appropriately to my definitions of appropriate, and if it’s missing any of those things, it’s not good — you’re not really seeing the close focus that it has on something else.”
Kat Lo, a researcher whose work tracks how information and misinformation spread across social networks, explained to me that Twitter itself is as big a part of Isabel Fall’s story as a faceless mob of the site’s users. The sheer assault of information on Twitter makes it difficult to parse, and unlike other social networks, it doesn’t really have elements that preserve any semblance of context (whereas an individual subreddit is built around a particular subject, and a Facebook feed or group is limited to posts by one’s friends or organized around one topic, at least in theory). Twitter ends up organized around what Lo calls “influencer hubs.”
For instance, if you’re a science fiction fan, you might follow a big-name author or critic in the field, and since they’re likely a bigger expert on the topic than you are, you’ll probably regard them as such. But Twitter is a platform that rewards divisive opinions, which are more likely to drive engagement (hearts, retweets, and the like). So, many influencers with the biggest reach on Twitter are also people whose core identity is expressing divisive opinions.
Where this becomes an issue is when influencers from different worlds start to cross-pollinate, which is precisely what happened with “Attack Helicopter.” Though much of the early discussion of the story was among trans sci-fi fans, and though much of that discussion was pretty evenly split between paranoid and reparative readings, the takes that were amplified by bigger and bigger names in the sci-fi world were almost always the paranoid ones, because those were the most divisive and most clickable. And the people elevating those paranoid takes were almost all cis.
“Attack Helicopter” ended up stuck in a feedback loop, as cis people circulated takes skewed toward bad-faith readings of Fall’s story, in the name of supporting trans people. “Attack Helicopter” went from a story that people were debating, to a story that was perceived as one trans people had a few qualms with, to one that was perceived as actively harming trans people, almost entirely because of how Twitter functions.
Once a Twitter conversation takes off like this, it becomes very difficult to stop, which leads to stranger and stranger levels of binary thinking and gatekeeping. I found two tweets posted within hours of each other where one insisted Fall must be a cis man and the other insisted she must be a cis woman. Both were sure she was mocking trans people.
Once a Twitter controversy has reached that critical mass is usually when you might start reading about it in the media.
“What’s on Twitter extends far beyond Twitter, because people make Twitter relevant to the rest of the world. So in a sense, they’re reproducing the chaos and social structures of Twitter, by bringing them into the rest of the world,” Lo says. “It ends up having outsize influence, because the people who are on Twitter perceive Twitter as being bigger and more representative [of the world] than it really is.”
By the time it was pulled, “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” had been read by tens of thousands of people, according to Clarke, though its ultimate audience is impossible to total because archived versions of the story and pirated PDFs reached countless others. (Fall also issued a limited-edition ebook of the story under the title “Helicopter Story” last fall, to qualify for an award — not the Hugo. The ebook was not nominated.)
In the two weeks that the story was online, discussion around it attracted interest, and the story amassed a wide number of fans beyond the normal sphere of science fiction short-story aficionados. Many people who read it did so because it was controversial, but it only became controversial because it was so widely read.
Even more people came to know “Attack Helicopter” as an exemplar of the left eating its own. Most of the people I talked to for this story, regardless of whether they initially criticized or praised “Attack Helicopter,” cited articles by established pundits, including one in the Atlantic, as supercharging the discussion. Those articles launched the discourse beyond the twin niches of online trans communities and online SFF communities and sent it swirling out into the larger internet of people vaguely interested in free speech absolutism. With every new article, a new audience of people outside of the science fiction community learned about Isabel Fall, and a new wave of anger fell on everybody involved, regardless of their position, including Fall.
“There were several reporters that reached out to me right after the story came down. I remember having a conversation with one of them and saying, ‘Is [writing about] this really what you want to do? I’m not going to participate. I think that this is just going to make it worse,’” Clarke says. “And they ran with it. It brought in the whole cancel culture thing. Isabel needed that story down for her, not for them, and not for anybody else. But for her. And that’s why it came down. I tried to make that clear [in the editor’s note on the story’s removal]. But people still wanted that cancel narrative.”
“Attack Helicopter” was nominated for a Hugo Award (a prize for science fiction and fantasy works that is voted on by SFF fans) in April, under the title “Helicopter Story.” The nomination prompted a new round of criticism, this time mostly centered on Clarke and how he didn’t do enough to preemptively shield Fall before the story was published. Clarke says he’s happy to take the responsibility, but both he and Fall insist he did everything right. Clarkesworld hired a sensitivity reader. The story spent far longer in the editing process than most other stories published in the magazine. And so on.
What happened in the wake of “Attack Helicopter” being pulled is that Isabel Fall stopped being someone who acts and became someone who is acted upon. The prevailing narratives about the story erased her agency almost entirely. Fall wanted the story to be titled “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter,” and when she eventually retitled it “Helicopter Story” as a vague gesture of goodwill, many people assumed she had been pressured into doing so. Fall wanted the story taken off the internet, and when it was, many assumed she had been “canceled.” Both narratives framed Fall as an unwitting puppet of forces beyond her control.
So what does Isabel Fall think? She takes great issue with the way cancel culture has been positioned within the larger culture, while also allowing that certain elements of what happened to her seem to fit within that framework.
“The powerful want to say that we are entering a dangerous new era where ‘people disliking things en masse’ has coalesced into some kind of crowdsourced [weapon], firing on arbitrary targets from orbit and vaporizing their reputations,” she wrote to me in an email. “The use of mass social sanction gives the less powerful a weapon against the more powerful, so long as they can mobilize loudly and persistently. This is not new. Shame and laughter are vital tools for freedom.”
She cautions, however, that “like all weapons, it will do the most damage when aimed at the least defended, the isolated, those with no one to stand up for them, publicly or privately. And we must be careful with the temptation to use it inside our own houses to destroy shapes we think are intruders.”
If anybody canceled Isabel Fall, it was Isabel Fall. She remains the subject of her own sentences.
“The story was withdrawn to avoid my death,” she says. “It was not withdrawn as a concession that it was transphobic or secretly fascist or too problematic for publication. When people approve of its withdrawal they are approving, even if unwittingly, of the use of gender dysphoria to silence writers.”
If Twitter makes it very easy for unimportant things to seem like important news, it also creates an environment where one of our deepest, most human impulses becomes almost calcified. When we hurt someone, we want, so badly, for everyone to see our good intentions and not our actions. It’s a natural human impulse. I do it. You do it. Everybody involved in this story did it, too, including Isabel Fall.
But the structure of Twitter and the way it rewards a constant escalation of emotion makes it exceedingly difficult to just back down, to say, “I thought I was doing the right thing, but I hurt somebody very badly in the process.”
Many of those who criticized “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” on the grounds that it was harmful operated with the absolute best of intentions. I have talked to many of them at great length. I believe them when they say that they earnestly thought the story was a false front for bad actors, because being trans on the internet turns your alarm sensors all the way up. (It’s not like the internet isn’t teeming with awful people hiding in plain sight. Why give anyone the benefit of the doubt?)
I believe the story’s detractors were hurt by the title or some of the content or the very idea of the story. I believe they truly feel that trans stories should only be written by trans people and that Fall should have had to out herself before publishing. I believe they believe — still — that they did the right thing.
They still destroyed a woman’s life.
After she checked out of the hospital, Isabel Fall ceased to be Isabel Fall. “I had a few other stories in the works on similar themes, and I withdrew them; that is the most concrete thing I can say that I stopped doing,” Fall says. “More abstractly, more emotionally, I have stopped trying to believe I am a woman or to work towards womanness. If other people want to put markings on my gender-sphere and decide what I am, fine, let them. It’s not worth fighting.”
Isabel Fall was on a path to living as an out trans woman with a career writing science fiction, and now, she says, there will be no more Isabel Fall stories. She is done writing under that name, and she now considers “Isabel Fall” an impossible goal to achieve, a person she will never be.
“I don’t know what I meant to do as Isabel,” she says. “I know [that publishing “Attack Helicopter”] was an important test for myself, sort of a peer review of my own womannness. I think I tried to open a door and it was closed from the other side because I did not look the right shape to pass through it.”
Trans people — trans women, especially — can find their first few steps as themselves in public particularly stressful. That stress is why it’s so often important for us to have safe ways to explore who we are, under whatever veil of anonymity we can concoct for ourselves. When we’re behind that veil, we can divorce ourselves from the identities we were assigned at birth, at least a little bit. To have that veil punctured is a great violence, and Isabel Fall had her veil punctured.
Every day, the person who might have been Isabel Fall sees friends who tore down her story and speculated on her true motivations and identity go on with their lives. They are not stuck in the events of January 2020, like she is. These friends don’t know who she is. Probably. She doesn’t know how to talk to them about it, and to confront anyone about their role in the chaos would require outing herself. She says only one person has reached out to apologize, via Clarke.
“It ends up with groups of people I thought of as friends all assuring each other they did nothing wrong ... and I do not even know if they know it was me,” Fall says. “Or they make vague statements about how they are thinking of everyone harmed by the mess around the story, including the author, as if that mess were an inevitable result of publishing a flawed and problematic story: as if the solution was simply to employ even more sensitivity readers, sensitivity readers who agreed with them and could change the story into something they wanted to read.”
So what’s the worst that might have happened if, somehow, the “Attack Helicopter” detractors were right and the story was a secret reactionary text?
As far as I can tell, the worst that would have happened is that another piece of transphobic literature would have existed. To be clear, transphobic literature is worth protesting. I would rather have less of it. But there’s a large gap between speaking out against a work of art you find objectionable and trying desperately to sniff out an author’s true identity, with ever more horrific accusations.
It is easy for me to say this with hindsight, of course. I know Isabel Fall just wanted to write a good story. I’ve seen earlier drafts of that story. I know how hard she worked to make it exactly what she wanted it to be. I suppose that simply by talking with Fall as much as I have, I have subtly put myself on “her side.” Maybe you shouldn’t trust my good intentions either.
But in any internet maelstrom that gets held up as a microcosm of the Way We Live Today, one simple factor often gets washed away: These things happened to someone. And the asymmetrical nature of the harm done to that person is hard to grasp until you’ve been that person. A single critical tweet about the matter was not experienced by Isabel Fall as just one tweet. She experienced it as part of a tsunami that nearly took her life. And that tsunami might have been abated if people had simply asked themselves, “What’s the worst that could happen if I’m right? And what’s the worst that could happen if I’m wrong?”
Everybody I talked to in the course of reporting this story said some variation on “I hope Isabel is okay.” And she is. Sort of. In the months I’ve spent emailing Isabel Fall, she’s revealed herself to be witty and thoughtful and sardonic and wounded and angry and maybe a little paranoid. But who wouldn’t be all of those things? Yet I’m emailing with a ghost who exists only in this one email chain. The person who might have been Isabel has given up on actually building a life and career as Isabel Fall. And that is a kind of death.
“Isabel was somebody I often wanted to be, but not someone I succeeded at being,” she says. “I think the reaction to the story proves that I can’t be her, or shouldn’t be her, or at least won’t ever be her. Everyone knew I was a fraud, right away.”
Emily VanDerWerff is Vox’s critic at large. Read other essays by the author here and here.