Nasty online response to family’s tale shows Internet’s ugly underside

Robert McCartney
Columnist January 14, 2012

I know the Internet represents the greatest technical advance since Gutenberg’s printing press for the sacred cause of freedom of speech. So it’s too bad that so much of the torrent of commentary that now flows before our eyes is sewage.

The public reaction to the cover story in last Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine offered an especially stark example of the media revolution’s fetid underside.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

The article centered on a St. Louis woman, Page Melton Ivie, whose first husband’s brain was severely impaired by a stroke that drastically reduced his cognitive abilities. She eventually divorced him and remarried, but only after going to great lengths to be sure that she would be able to continue to care for him.

The story, exquisitely told by Washington writer Susan Baer, provided a rare, intimate portrait of the extreme challenges and complex emotions that confront a spouse and family dealing with a loved one’s severe illness.

To my mind, and those of many others, Ivie showed considerable personal courage in cooperating with Baer when the author asked to write the story.

Although the article only hinted at Ivie’s reasons for doing so, she and others said her principal motive was to help raise public awareness of the challenges that brain injuries pose to families. That’s entirely in line with Ivie’s extensive volunteer work over many years on behalf of brain-injury survivors and caregivers.

So imagine how hurtful it was when much of the initial response, in anonymous comments posted on The Post’s Web site, consisted of outrageous personal insults. Writers didn’t stop at condemning Ivie for divorcing her first husband, an act that they said violated her marriage vows. They went on (and on), in one sanctimonious posting after another, to paint her as a selfish, promiscuous publicity hound.

“Talk about immoral and sleazy. This woman covers all the bases,” one posting said.

“Nothing like a disability to get in the way of your dating,” another said.

Or how about my personal favorite: “This woman has absolutely no right to any happiness whatsoever.”

These writers have every right to voice their disapproval of Ivie’s actions on the grounds that their view of the marriage covenant is different from hers – and, given the national divorce rate, different from that of most Americans.

But if they’re too cowardly to write under their own names and accept some accountability, then they ought to try to be constructive rather than just cruel. The Post and other media companies open these forums to all comers with little censorship, but that doesn’t relieve the writers of the obligation to exercise some self-restraint.

“It makes me sad that there are people that get some kind of jolt from nastygrams, both online and on TV. It’s like we’ve lost our compassion and our respect for each other,” said Anne McDonnell, executive director of the Brain Injury Association of Virginia.

Ivie, as a volunteer, helped McDonnell when Ivie lived in Richmond, before the move to a St. Louis suburb. (Ivie’s first husband, Robert Melton, is a former Post journalist whom I knew casually when he worked at the newspaper.)

The article explained in detail the process Ivie went through in deciding to divorce and remarry. It addressed how she reconciled her choices with her marital commitment and her religious faith.

The critics ignored all that in their rush to vent their self-righteous anger.

Ivie was shaken and distressed when she first saw the negative comments online, according to people who spoke to her. She was stoical about it by the time I interviewed her Thursday.

“I can see how people would look at it and make a snap judgment that choices I’d made were the wrong ones,” Ivie said. “A lot of the really ugly things that people said just reflected the fact that the [writers] didn’t understand what exactly a brain injury entailed and what a tough injury it is. So I felt that means we clearly have more work to do educating folks, so maybe we can keep this conversation going.”

The happy ending in all this is that a good chunk of the anonymous comments were positive, as well as virtually all of the e-mails and letters sent directly to Ivie and Baer. People who were willing to identify themselves were supportive and appreciative.

“People who talk [or write] to me personally, I haven’t gotten one negative word,” Ivie said. “A lot of folks wrote me and said, ‘I went home and talked to my spouse and asked: ‘What would you want me to do if this happens?’ We don’t talk about that enough. Those are good conversations to have, and let’s have them.”

Overall, then, Ivie accomplished her goal of raising public awareness.

As for the mean-spirited critics, do society a favor: Contribute something useful, or at least have the guts to sign your name. Right now, you’re just fouling a common watering hole.

For Robert McCartney’s previous columns, go to postlocal.com.

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