What It’s Like To Be Cancelled
My life ended on June 21, 2020 and I want to tell you what that’s been like.
I was cancelled. I don’t want to rant about why this is so unfair nor to prove my innocence. No matter your take on what happened, I want to share what that felt like so that you might see why cancelling those who are attempting to grow is such a counterproductive and potentially dangerous trend. If you’re interested, I recorded a podcast at the beginning of this year where I talk about the experience and I think it gives a pretty good overview of what happened to me.
June 21, 2020
I woke up to several people tagging me in a twitter thread for my sleezy behavior at some art events many years ago. I wasn’t that person any more and I wanted to apologize for being an asshole in the past. I had apologized privately for everything, but I hoped it might show my sincerity and commitment to being better to address it publicly. So I wrote up a statement saying I had slept with women at events and sometimes I was a dick. The statement was heavily (and perhaps hastily) worded in an effort to convey my understanding of the gravity of hurting people and my desire to set a good example. The internet, though, misinterpreted some of what I had said and began accusing me of rape. No one has ever accused me of raping them. But twitter latched onto that narrative and couldn’t let it go.
1. The End
Shock, confusion, emptiness. A pit in my stomach that didn’t go away for a long time. After the initial supportive replies to my apology, things took a dark turn. While I was apologizing for hitting on girls and sleeping with them and hurting people’s feelings, the internet misunderstood and assumed I was admitting to rape.
At first I was in disbelief. Maybe it was just a few people. There are always outliers online. But the narrative spread. And once that was out there, I didn’t see any way to correct it. Because if you say “I’m not a rapist” then the response will always be “that’s what a rapist would say.” There is no defense I can make because there are no actual accusations against me of that. Now that people view all of my words & actions through a lens of assumed guilt, it’s a hard climb out of that hole.
I froze. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know what to say. As I saw the thousands of tweets rolling in over those first few days, I didn’t know how to respond. I don’t think anyone really knows how they’ll act in those moments, but it felt like the best and most sensible thing to do to not respond for a while. My well-intentioned words had already dug me a hole and I was terrified to say anything else. My voice had been entirely silenced, taken away and used by others to say something completely different. Maybe I should have been slower writing my apology and it wouldn’t have been misinterpreted. So maybe now I should be slow to say anything more. What if I made things worse?
The dark night of my soul
I think my low point happened when the story was picked up by some bigger online blogs. Not because they made things worse or that I have any delusions about their journalistic integrity (I was never asked for a comment by any media outlet or blog that shared this story). But there was something about seeing it there that made it so real. It took it out of the small social circle that apology was addressed towards and made me a monster to a much larger circle.
I don’t think I can fully describe the heart-wrenching pain of seeing your life & career crumbling around you and feeling utterly powerless to stop it. I thought I was fast approaching my inevitable and permanent end. I don’t cry often, but I cried a lot that night.
The 48 Laws of Power mess
I feel like an idiot about this one.
I’ve read the 48 Laws of Power and I found it an interesting book. I naively saw it only as a way to understand & categorize the crazy power plays historical figures have made. I made some desktop wallpapers to remind myself of those various laws because I have a poor memory and wanted to remind myself of them while I was reading a bunch of history books. I didn’t make this clear and people dug this up later while I was being cancelled. They inferred that these were laws I based my life around and viewed everything I had done (including my apology) through this lens.
I kick myself for this one a lot. I should have realized that it didn’t look like I was sharing a useful resource but instead a handbook on how to be a sociopath. To clarify: I don’t think this is a good book to base your life around. I think it can be used abusively and I see that now and I was too wrapped up in the “more knowledge can’t be a bad thing” to see how likely it would be that people would use it badly.
My career ended. I had worked for about 10 years as an illustrator. I understand why the companies fired me and don’t blame them. Nobody wants to invite a shitstorm.
The only client I was still working for when this happened was Wizards of the Coast (working on Magic: the Gathering) and they put out a statement saying they wouldn’t work with me any more. They recommissioned other artists to repaint a lot of the soon-to-be-published paintings I had done for them.
I’m disappointed by the way some of those working relationships ended, though, and I wish it could have been done a little better. But that’s the way it went.
I haven’t worked for anyone in the last year. I’ve been offered some smaller and private commissions, but I’m taking this time away to work on myself. But going through this gives me an extreme empathy for anyone who’s cancelled and doesn’t have an emergency savings fund.
I stopped making art
Art is my life, my passion, my hobby. I live and breath and think and love art.
And I stopped for quite a long time.
I couldn’t bring myself to pick up a pencil for a couple months. It was the longest I had gone without making art in about 15 years or so. Probably longer.
The idea of drawing was too painful and the combination of trauma and anxiety and depression was too much to overcome for a while. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t face it. What could I possibly paint that would mean anything anymore? What was the point of creating, of expressing, of feeling joy again?
Loss of friends
I lost a lot of friends.
They work in the art world and if they were seen supporting me they would be brought down too. The social media network is a giant standoff, everyone standing with guns drawn and carefully eyeing one another, anxiously waiting for the next wrong move. If you don’t shoot the person everyone else is shooting, then you might be next.
So I don’t blame them. Truly. It’s taken a fair bit of work to get me here but I understand why they need to be where they are and doing what they do. I don’t want to ruin anyone else’s life or career by asking them to support me.
The part that hurts the most, I guess, are the close friends who didn’t even shoot me a message before jumping onto the social media bandwagon. When you form close friendships, there is a vulnerability and trust that, when things get tough, you’ll at least have their generous assumption that there is more to the story. I’d hoped at least for a “hey Noah, what the fuck?” Instead they reacted immediately and disowned me publicly and I haven’t heard from them since. That hurt. It made me look back on many years-long friendships and wonder if they were ever what I thought they were.
The worst pain I experienced in the past year wasn’t because of anything that happened to me. It was the effect this had on my wife.
My wife was a new artist who entered into this social media world over the past few years. Because of my sometimes-controversial online image (mostly due to my let’s-be-arrogant-to-hide-my-insecurity bravado of my younger years that got me into this mess in the first place), a lot of professional artists who she had looked up to had been generally shit to her. She had to deal with a lot early on. I won’t get into that here because that’s not my story to tell. But I’ve always felt bad that my past has hurt the person I care for the most in this life.
My cancellation added whole new layers to the shit she has to deal with.
My womanizing at events predates ever meeting my wife. But people went so far as to call her a rapist, a sex trafficker, or at best a rape apologist. The online world expected her to divorce me and when she didn’t many more people who claimed they would support her, shunned her.
I’m still not sure how to forgive myself for all of the pain I’ve inadvertently directed her way.
But in spite of everything, she has stuck with me and is the reason I’m still alive today.
I didn’t kill myself or try to, but I sure saw the merits of not existing any more. The brink has never looked quite so appealing.
If not for the love of my wife, family, and friends, I dread to think what might have been.
2. The Valley
Healing, changing, learning, and growing
I had changed my behavior long before my apology was written last year. I had figured out why I had done what I had, why it was unhealthy, and how to change. I wasn’t that person any more. So it made it hard to show the internet much “change.” Because in recent years I’ve been doing my best to be a positive presence in my community. I made art, made resources for artists, and tried above all else to help other artists and make people feel good about their journey.
It’s a bit harder to show transformation when that transformation has already happened. It’s like a “before and after” weight-loss post without a before picture. Ain’t quite as impressive.
So my healing had a lot less to do with my distant past and a lot more to do with the trauma I had just endured.
It took a while to acknowledge that being cancelled constituted trauma. Trauma is something that, until recent years, was generally viewed as being a narrow spectrum of experiences and, because of that, I didn’t feel I deserved to use that word to describe what I went through. I don’t enjoy feeling like I’m taking that word away from other people who have endured different trauma.
But recognizing my experience as trauma helped me find the tools to heal from it. I learned that, when you remove the massive scale and severe implications of my specific situation, lots of people could relate to the experience of having their voice taken away, of being shunned from a community that was dear to them over a misunderstanding. I realized that that trauma is much less unique than it felt.
I got harassed a lot in the months following. I received a bunch of insults, hate, death threats, etc.
It never made sense to me that these strangers hated me so viciously, but I also don’t know what they’re going through in life and the pain they’re carrying around. Maybe a little more empathy in the world would be a good thing.
Bitterness & hate
I don’t want to be a bitter, hateful person and I have done everything in my power to try and prevent that from happening. It would be so damn easy to slip into that way of thinking. But it’s not who I want to be. I know that continuing the cycle of hatred will only bring more misery.
I’m not really proud of this but I’ve fantasized about revenge on some of the people who betrayed me. I’ve got plenty of dirt on plenty of people and could get a lot of them cancelled too. Many of the people who loudly criticized me or stood by the wayside watching it happen did so because they are ashamed of and scared by their own less-than-admirable behavior in the past, and it was incredibly tempting to drag those people down with me.
But it’s not the right thing to do and it’s not the person I want to be. But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered it.
I read a lot of books that helped me and I wanted to share them here. I imagine some folks who are going through their own cancellation (or another pain) will see this and I want to share a few of the things that helped me:
- So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
- Radical Acceptance
- Man’s Search for Meaning
- The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connection, and Courage
I’ve always been a pretty bad meditator. I’ve meditated on and off throughout my adult life but never consistently. But I’ve meditated a lot lately. It helps me to understand and face my feelings and return to the present. When I’m spiraling down into feelings of hurt and hopelessness, this practice helps keep me grounded in the present. Meditating isn’t making me some super-powered millennial entrepreneur, but it’s helping me cope with life.
I had some unexpected friendships grow out of this and some others who have stuck with me through this whole ride over the last year. Those people who have messaged me over the last year, even just to say “hang in there” have meant so much to me. I experienced the power of true empathy, and it has in turn made me a better person.
To all of you who have helped support me: thank you. You have no idea how much every single message has meant to me.
I also became friends with some other people who have been cancelled. I’ve been able to encourage them and they’ve been there to encourage me. If you’ve been cancelled and want someone to talk with who won’t shame or judge you, shoot me a message. I’m always here to talk. I know that sometimes a listening ear can make all the difference.
I ran a lot. I don’t like running, but it seemed like good therapy. It gave me time and space to let my brain process all that had happened. And it helped to fill my days when things were hard.
The first time I picked up a pencil again after all of this I fought back tears. Art was tied to all of the pain I went through and I couldn’t draw without thinking about all of the trauma.
But once I started doing art again, I kept it up. And in a way that’s been its own healing journey. I’ve reclaimed art as my own. It’s a hobby again and I think I enjoy it even more now.
3. The Beginning
A brand new life
I’ve got a whole new life now. Not everyone gets a chance to start over again but I have. Everything is out there. Every bad, embarrassing, or awkward thing I’ve ever done has been shared on the internet. All of my friends and family know everything. All of the darts have been thrown. Every shot fired. Everything burned.
But I’m still here.
There’s a weird sense of invincibility that I’ve begun to feel. When most of the doors in life shut on you, it opens all sorts of unexpected opportunities. I know now what I can endure and that’s given me the strength to boldly face whatever comes.
I used my new life as an opportunity to reinvent my art, too.
I considered doing the pseudonym thing after all of this happened. Just change my style a bit, make a new persona online, and carry on. It wouldn’t be that hard. But I decided against it. OR DID I!?!?
Yeah really. I thought it would be better to just be me and see what I could do with my art.
I went back into student-mode and have done a lot of studying art this year. I’ve been working on improving my skills and strengthening my weaknesses in art. It feels good and it’s been fun.
Back to work
I accidentally started a business with my wife a few years ago making reference pictures for artists. It was a lot of fun and surprised us with how successful it was.
I let it sit for a long time after this. I was scared to get back to it. I was scared to work with models again and put stuff out into the world again. Pretty much every move I made online was met with harassment.
But I did it. I started launching new weekly reference packs at the beginning of this year and it’s been great. I love getting back to helping people with what I make. The harassment has died down and now I get to make these useful resources for artists again.
My income is still a fraction of what it was before, but I’m learning to appreciate everything I have even more.
Social media is still shit
Shockingly, I ain’t fond of social media these days. I post on there and it’s pleasant enough. But the effects personally on mental health and collectively on societal health seem pretty bad to me. It can be so damn toxic and I look forward to more distance from it. I think if I totally left now I’d be too tempted to permanently resign myself to obscurity. There’s nothing wrong with obscurity, but I think it would be unhealthy for me to not have an outlet for my art. Art isn’t the same without a viewer.
More real life
I’ve spent a lot more time with friends & family in the last year.
I was a bit of a workaholic before and didn’t devote enough time to those I love. I’m glad to have the time and sense to spend more time with the people who really matter to me. I’ve learned the value of presence and feel less like I have to justify time spent enjoying life. After what happened, I thought I’d struggle to feel joy again, but one of the greatest surprises in all this has been that I’ve actually come to feel it more.
What comes next
I really don’t know.
I plan a lot less these days. I don’t know what the future holds for me. So I guess I just focus on what I can do each day.
I make stuff, I love those I care about, and I try to grow and learn as a human being. I’ve learned that everything else is beyond my control, and that it’s better to work with what we have than mourn what we don’t. I’m grateful for every day I’m given.