Columnist Lindy West Sees 'Straight Line' From Trolls Who Targeted Her To Trump

Nov 1, 2017
Originally published on November 2, 2017 2:37 pm

New York Times columnist Lindy West knows what it's like to encounter a barrage of Internet hate. West, who often writes about feminist issues and body positivity, was "doxxed" by Internet trolls — her home address and cell phone number were posted online.

But West hasn't been silenced; she continues to speak out against harassment and misogyny. In her book Shrill, she writes about learning to like her body and to insist on a place for herself in public life.

"It's already pretty audacious to be a woman who presumes to have an opinion," West says. "To be a fat woman who isn't even fulfilling, like, the duties of a woman, to then also presume to be a voice of authority on something, I mean, people cannot abide."

Above all, she says, "What I want is for the world to be better. ... What I want is for people to be able to thrive and be safe and be happy and productive, you know? It's not a game to me. ... It's life. It's people's lives."


Interview Highlights

On what it was like to be doxxed and threatened on the Internet

I was fully "doxxed" ... and that comes in while I'm also getting really frightening messages about my death and ... violent photographs of dead bodies.

And so each one of those tweets individually you could look at and be like, "Oh, that's just some idiot trying to scare you." But taken cumulatively — and even in combination with more innocuous tweets, just people insulting you or trying to hurt your feelings or trying to waste your time — cumulatively, it's very, very, very emotionally draining. ...

I guess the worst incident ... was a man [who] made a Twitter profile pretending to be my father who had recently passed away. And he had his picture and was sending me really abusive messages and his bio said, "Embarrassed father of an idiot." I later had copycats of that guy. So I had more accounts pretending to be my dad, telling me he was ashamed that I had written about having an abortion. Stuff like that. It's just relentless.

On her decision to leave Twitter

The turning point for me was when Donald Trump started to taunt North Korea about their nuclear program. I just thought, "There is absolutely no reason why this man should still be allowed to have an account on this platform, and I don't want to be a part of it." ...

My presence on Twitter felt like an endorsement of Twitter — and I do not endorse Twitter. I think Twitter has done nothing to protect this country against this catastrophe that's befallen us, and I just couldn't be a part of it.

On the connection she sees between the trolls who targeted her and the Trump campaign

The trolls who targeted me grew into — directly into — the Trump campaign. Like, I see a straight line from those people to the current president. ...

When I first started getting aggressively trolled online it was because I wrote about stand-up comedians making rape jokes. And I was just deluged with hate — with really violent, reactionary hate — supposedly from just comedy fans trying to have a good time, and I was ruining their good time.

And the rhetoric that they were throwing at me was all about political correctness and free speech and silencing — men being silenced — and women being too sensitive, and people of color being too sensitive and social justice warriors. [It's] all of the same identical things that then, four or five years later, I hear Donald Trump say in a debate. ...

It's this idea of protecting the same status quo that's always protected Harvey Weinstein and has protected Donald Trump, and has allowed white men to maintain this death grip on power and influence and keep the rest of us subordinated. To me, I really feel like feminists — and especially black women on Twitter and other marginalized people — were really used as a training ground for what eventually became kind of the youth wing of the Trump campaign. They tested these tactics on us — the constant barrage of misinformation.

On her recent New York Times column criticizing conservative women who speak out against sexual harassment and also distance themselves from the feminist movement

I thought it was really interesting to watch conservative women come forward and tell these really harrowing stories of rape and assault and talk really candidly about not being believed and being afraid of losing social status or jobs or relationships, because those are the issues that the feminist movement has been hammering away at for generations — and at great cost. We've really been punished for being squeaky wheels on issues of male violence.

So it was sort of encouraging to me to see conservative women come forward and say and acknowledge that we all live in this paradigm and suffer under this power structure. But to still feel obligated to distance themselves and say, "But I'm not that kind of feminist."

Well, it's feminists who made it relatively safe to tell these stories. It's feminists who are here to catch you and support you no matter your political leanings, and I ... hope [it's a] gateway maybe to a little more honesty about what the feminist movement is and isn't. I have no interest in destroying every man's life — just the ones that are sexual predators.

On how learning to accept her body changed her approach to life

I was probably 26 or 27, and I just started to get so frustrated because I was waiting — I was waiting for my life to start. I felt like [being fat] was a thing I had to fix before I could have a real life and have a real career and have a real relationship. And I just had this realization that I don't want to wait the rest of my life, that I had to reckon with the possibility that I might be fat forever. And if I'm going to be fat forever, what am I going to do, wait forever? Not live? Not strive to do all the things that I want to do?

And I started reading fat positive blogs. I started looking at fat fashion blogs, just looking at pictures of fat women, fat people wearing cute outfits and seemingly living normal, happy lives. And I thought, "Oh, that's not just something other people can do. I can do that."

As I started going through that process, I got out of a bad relationship and I got into a good relationship, which is now my marriage. ... There's something really very, very powerful about setting a firm boundary and saying, "No," [and] just declaring that I own my body and my life and I decide whether or not I have value.

On abortion-rights supporters who still feel that an abortion is something to be ashamed of

There are a lot of ostensibly pro-choice people who still believe that if you have an abortion it's your obligation to talk about it with shame and regret and to apologize and to grovel and to justify it, and I would argue that that's not really being pro-choice. ...

Especially pro-choice left-wing men often have a really hard time talking about abortion. I find they have often not really thought about it that much, and have just sort of internalized this messaging that, "Yeah, abortion should be legal but I still feel kind of icky about it, and we should try to avoid it." ...

I do not tolerate that argument in my presence and I do not engage with it. I have nothing to be ashamed of. I made the right choice for me and my family. ...

The reality is that abortion is a normal, necessary medical procedure that people will always need and we can either make it safe or we make it unsafe. And we can make it accessible or we can make it inaccessible. And those are the options. Putting this layer of shame and stigma on people for exercising their constitutional rights is disgusting.

Therese Madden and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Lindy West, has become famous for her writing about feminist issues and for calling out misogynist trolls, comics who make rape jokes and fat shamers. She describes herself as fat. In answer to her critics who have called her and other feminists shrill, she used that word as the title of her collection of personal essays, which is now out in paperback. "Shrill" includes essays about learning to like her body and to insist on a place for herself in public life.

She writes about her experiences being trolled, confronting one of her trolls, having a surprising conversation with him, and finally, leaving Twitter because she found it such a toxic environment. In a New York Times review of her book, West was described as one of the most distinctive voices advancing feminist politics through humor. Now she writes a weekly column for The New York Times and wrote a couple of recent columns about sexual harassment. She formerly wrote for the Guardian, Jezebel and the Seattle weekly The Stranger.

Lindy West, welcome to FRESH AIR.

LINDY WEST: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: So in writing about sexual harassment, you wrote a response to conservative women who are sharing eloquent and heartbreaking accounts of rape and abuse but at the same time are trying to distance themselves from feminists. You write, that's fine; whether you like us or not, we've carved out this space for you. Would you elaborate on that?

WEST: Sure. You know, I thought it was really interesting to watch conservative women come forward and tell these really harrowing stories of rape and assault, and talk really candidly about not being believed and being afraid of losing, you know, social status or jobs or relationships because those are the issues that the feminist movement has been hammering away at for, you know, generations, and at great cost.

You know, we've really been punished for being squeaky wheels on issues of male violence. So it was sort of encouraging to me to see conservative women come forward and say and, you know, acknowledge that we all live in this paradigm and suffer under this power structure - but to still, you know, feel obligated to distance themselves and say, well, I'm not - but I'm not that kind of feminist. Well, you know, it's feminists who made it relatively safe to tell these stories. It's feminists who are here to catch you and support you no matter your political leanings.

And I just think that that's - it's sort of an interesting, I hope, gateway to, you know, maybe a little more honesty about what the feminist movement is and isn't. You know, I don't - I have no interest in destroying every man's life, just the ones who are sexual predators (laughter). And I don't even - I mean, it's not even like I vindictively want to destroy their lives. I just would like them to stop harassing and raping women. You know what I mean?

It's not that I take great joy in Harvey Weinstein being fired from his own company and going into hiding. What I would prefer is that he had made different choices to begin with and also that we were - that we talked more about all of the women's careers who've been ruined, and who have had to leave their jobs and whose - I mean, who knows where they could've gone if they hadn't been victimized at the beginning of their careers.

GROSS: So you've written a lot about being trolled. And you recently learned about one of your trolls from a leaked cache of emails from Milo Yiannopoulos, and he's the provocateur who had been a Steve Bannon protege. He wrote for Breitbart News. He wrote that now-famous article "Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive And Crazy." And he had to resign from Breitbart after a video emerged in which he was condoning sex with boys as young as 13 and later saying that that wasn't pedophilia.

So describe how your name came up in an email between Yiannopoulos and Mitch Sunderland. Sunderland sent the email to Yiannopoulos. And he, by the way, writes for the Vice site Broadly.

WEST: Yeah, so - well, he was fired after this came out, so he no longer writes for them. But yeah, so a writer for Broadly, which is Vice Media's women's site, named Mitchell Sunderland sent an email to Milo Yiannopoulos with a link to one of my columns when I was still writing at the Guardian.

And he said - I think he said, please mock this fat feminist, which is significant because it's sort of evidence that Milo's harassment campaigns against media figures that he doesn't like - mainly feminists, and people of color and trans people - was a deliberate, coordinated silencing campaign and not, as Milo wanted us all to believe, just a bunch of, you know, random boys on the Internet having spontaneous fun. You know, it was coordinated, and it was on purpose. So it was a really, actually kind of traumatic and jarring revelation for me, even though it wasn't completely surprising.

GROSS: Is that enough evidence to prove that it was this kind of systematic thing?

WEST: I mean, I don't think that one piece is. But I think if you - I think the body of emails in total - yeah, absolutely. It happened in plain sight. We watched it grow, and we watched - those of us who were targeted by Milo and his followers - we watched it happen. I mean, there - it was very - there was a pattern to it. It was very obviously directed and systematic.

GROSS: Tell me what you saw. Tell me what that pattern looked like from your receiving end of it.

WEST: You know, Milo, for example, got a hold of my wedding photos. And then he tweeted some pictures from my wedding implying that my husband is gay and that he married me for a green card. And I believe that's what the tweet said. Milo was eventually suspended, so I can't go back and verify. But so then what happens is - you know, that's the - he just points them in a direction, and then Milo's followers descend on you.

And then you have to spend sometimes a week or two weeks or a month or - I have friends who have been dealing with this for years - fielding just constant harassment with a script provided to them by Milo, essentially, and a target provided to them by Milo. And the idea is to make public life so uncomfortable that people remove themselves from it - you know, remove their voice from the conversation and remove their point of view. So to me, it's very obviously a systematic silencing campaign.

GROSS: How uncomfortable did it make you? Give me an example of ways in which you felt violated by these tweets.

WEST: I mean, I was fully doxed. So I had - that means I had my home address posted online, my cellphone number, my personal email. And my home address is where my children live, you know? It's not - and that comes in while I'm also getting really frightening messages about, you know, my death and about, you know - violent photographs of dead bodies.

And so each one of those tweets individually, you could look at it, and be like, oh, that's just some idiot trying to scare you. But taken cumulatively, and even in combination with more innocuous tweets - just people insulting you or trying to hurt your feelings or trying to waste your time - cumulatively, it's very, very, very emotionally draining. You know, it's not feasible for me to just not be - at least at the time, I thought I really needed to be on Twitter for my job to promote my work, and I have since left Twitter.

I guess the worst incident was - or one of the worst was a man made a Twitter profile pretending to be my father who had recently passed away and sent me - you know, like, he had his picture and was sending me really abusive messages. And it said he was - his bio said, embarrassed father of an idiot. And then I later - I had copycats of that guy. So I had more accounts pretending to me my dad, telling me he was ashamed that I'd written about having an abortion - you know, stuff like that (laughter).

GROSS: Well, but this...

WEST: It was just relentless.

GROSS: This turned into a pretty famous story. You actually contacted the person who started the Twitter account in your father's name and pretended to be your father, and you're getting trolled by somebody pretending to be your father. So you tracked him down and had a conversation with him - like a phone conversation with him - that you recorded for This American Life and was a really remarkable piece...

WEST: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: ...That you made out of it. So for our listeners who haven't heard it, describe to us how he explained his reasons for trolling you like that.

WEST: He said that he was really unhappy. That was the crux of it, you know? He said that he hated his body. And I write a lot about body image and learning to love yourself no matter what you look like. And he was really miserable in his body. He hated his job. He got dumped, and he was just a lonely, miserable guy who also - there was also misogyny mixed in with it.

You know, he also mentioned that he targeted me specifically because he felt like I didn't write and speak the way that women are supposed to. I was too loud. And I was too opinionated. And I didn't care what people thought about me, and that was very threatening. So it kind of, you know, confirmed what I already thought, which was satisfying. You know, these are lonely young men who hate women and who have some very deeply rooted traditionalist notions about how women are supposed to behave and how women are supposed to use their voices.

GROSS: Did you take any - did you find that at all encouraging that he was willing to engage with you on the phone, person-to-person - I mean, voice-to-voice...

WEST: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And that he actually apologized?

WEST: Yeah. I mean, it was encouraging in an acute way. Like it - you know, it was very sweet. And it was nice to be reminded that you really can connect with another human being and get through to another human being and that people do change sometimes. It's hard to remember that or to really believe that.

But it was also - I mean, it's not practical on any kind of scale. You can't scale that. You can't individually sit down and hold hands with every troll and talk them through their problems and get them to apologize. And so the trolls who targeted me grew into - directly into the Trump campaign. Like I don't - I see a straight line from those people to the current president. And so, it's...

GROSS: Draw the line for me.

WEST: Well, I mean, when I first started getting aggressively trolled online, it was because I wrote about stand-up comedians making rape jokes. And I was just deluged with hate, with really violent reactionary hate supposedly from just comedy fans trying to have a good time, and I was ruining their good time. And the rhetoric that they were throwing at me was all about political correctness and free speech and silencing - men being silenced and women being too sensitive and people of color being too sensitive and social justice warriors and all of the same identical things that, you know, then - I don't know, maybe four or five years later - I hear Donald Trump say in a debate that destroying political correctness was his number one campaign promise.

And destroying political correctness is what stand-up comedy fans were yelling at me about in 2012. And it's what video-game fans were yelling at me about in 2014 when Gamergate was going on. And it was, you know, it's what straight-up white nationalists yell about. It's this idea of protecting the same status quo that's always protected Harvey Weinstein and has, you know, it's - has protected Donald Trump and has allowed white men to maintain this death grip on power and influence and keep the rest of us subordinated. And so I really feel like feminists and especially black women on Twitter and other marginalized people were really used as a training ground for what eventually became kind of the youth wing of the Trump campaign.

You know, they tested these tactics on us, the sort of constant barrage of misinformation whipping people into a frenzy. And I felt that happening as far back as 2012 and 2013. You know, it was - and I also think that Internet trolling, it was also a recruitment tool. I think that we were also served up as bait. Like, hey, here's something fun for you to do. Have girls been mean to you? Come join this giant slavering throng harassing them on Twitter. And oh, by the way, part of the entry fee is that you're now, you know, a pro-Trump troll army.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lindy West, and she's now writing a weekly column for The New York Times. She also has a new collection of personal essays that just came out in paperback, and it's called "Shrill." We're going to take a short break and be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEE TRIO'S "LOLA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Lindy West, who writes about a lot of feminist issues including - she writes about getting trolled. She writes about sexual harassment. She writes about fat shaming. And now a lot of her personal essays are collected in a book called "Shrill," which has recently come out in paperback. She also writes a weekly column for The New York Times.

You know, I went to check out what you were saying on Twitter because I usually check out people on Twitter before I interview them. And as the page came up saying that you no longer are on Twitter, I realized, of course. Of course I know you're not on Twitter. But I just had kind of reflexively looked for you, even though I know - I've known for a long time that you shut down your account. But it's an example of the world we're living in where you just assume people are on Twitter. And I'm saying this as somebody who does not tweet, myself (laughter).

WEST: Wise.

GROSS: But nevertheless, you make that assumption. So what was the turning point for you where you decided, like, I'm done? I'm shutting this down.

WEST: It was Trump. I think a lot of people assume that I got hounded off Twitter by trolls. But by the time I left Twitter at the beginning of 2017, I was a real pro at weathering online harassment. But the turning point for me was when Donald Trump started to taunt North Korea about their nuclear program. I just thought there is absolutely no reason why this man should still be allowed to have an account on this platform, and I don't want to be a part of it. Like, my presence on Twitter is - felt like an endorsement of Twitter. I just couldn't be a part of it. I just wanted to get out of there.

And I, you know - and it also, it's such a - it was, for me, such a time suck, you know? I would just get drawn into these conversations. I mean, I don't want to say debates. I don't know - arguments. And I feel very charged to do my best work in this political climate. I think it's important. I really feel very, very genuinely viscerally frightened. And I didn't want to waste time arguing with teenage boys about the economy on Twitter.

GROSS: You know, I know some people say, well, why don't you just, like, block all the trolls? And you've pointed out, when you're getting trolled a lot, you need to sometimes read that and see, do I need to call law enforcement? Do I need to call the police or the FBI? Did you ever need to do that?

WEST: I - there were a couple of instances where I got tweets that were scary enough that I felt like I wanted to talk to law enforcement, but I never did. I never - I think I called once and couldn't get through to anyone. And everyone I know who has tried to do that, if they do get through to someone, you know, the cop says, what's Twitter? (Laughter)

You know, there's just not really a mechanism for dealing with online threats at this point. And it's - I think it's getting better, from what I - just anecdotally, what I've heard from people who have not quit Twitter. But yeah, I never made it past the first phone call. And you know, I'm fine. No one ever came and murdered me.

I mean, I remember once I was talking to Jessica Valenti, who is another feminist writer. And we were talking about this, and I was like, you know, should I - do you think I should try to talk to law enforcement about X, Y, Z, whatever harassment I was in the middle of right then? And she said some law enforcement person told her once, it's not the loud ones you have to worry about.

GROSS: How has it changed your life to not be on Twitter?

WEST: Oh, it's great. I can't recommend it highly enough (laughter).

GROSS: What do you find that great about it?

WEST: Oh, I mean, it's great and it's terrible. You know, it frees up a lot of mental energy for me. I used to wake up every morning, you know, with kind of a knot in my stomach. Like, what kind of horrors are going to be there when I open my phone - when I turn on my phone? And I don't have that anymore. I don't wake up with dread every day.

But at the same time, I don't get to be a part of these really, really important and often beautiful national conversations that are happening right now, you know? I don't - I have to read, you know, compiled lists of tweets later when someone posts them on Facebook. And that's - I feel very behind. And it's - and I love Twitter, you know? I mean, I loved the good parts of Twitter.

I really loved being able to communicate with people, and learn from people and, you know, riff, joke around with people. And so in that way, I guess the silencing campaign succeeded. You know, I'm not there. I'm not part of that conversation. But it's - my mental health and my personal life are much, much better not on - not being on Twitter.

GROSS: My guest is Lindy West, a columnist for The New York Times and author of a collection of personal essays called "Shrill," which is out in paperback. After a break, we'll talk about how her reaction to her writing changed early in her career when her readers discovered Lindy wasn't a man and that Lindy was fat. And we'll talk about the showbiz side of her family.

Later, Ken Tucker will review the new Bob Dylan box set of performances from the period when he turned to evangelical Christianity as a theme in his music. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DARRELL GRANT'S "FILS DU SOLEIL (FOR TONY WILLIAMS)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Lindy West, a New York Times columnist who describes herself as fat, female, feminist. And that identity provides the lens through which she does much of her writing. She was so often trolled on Twitter, she eventually decided it was too toxic an atmosphere and shut down her account. Her collection of personal essays is out in paperback. It's called "Shrill," a word she appropriated from men who call feminists shrill.

You started as a critic. You were reviewing theater and movies for the Seattle weekly The Stranger. And you say that, you know, you didn't have your picture on the page. And your name, Lindy, that could be a man's name or a woman's name. It's kind of gender neutral. And a lot of people assumed that you were a guy. Did the response to your columns change when people found out that you were a woman?

WEST: I think so. It felt like it did, to me.

GROSS: How did they find out, first of all?

WEST: It was sort of just the natural rise of social media. Suddenly, people could search for me on Facebook and find my picture. And also, The Stranger's blog started up. And then, you know, in that world - in the alt weekly world, especially at The Stranger - there's a degree of cult of personality to it. So the writers are all - not just - they're not just reporters. They're personalities that you follow.

So we just naturally became more and more integrated with the blog, and people got to know us, and it became obvious, you know? And also, I got a weekly column. And so then I had a little - there was a little picture of my face. And yeah, it did. It felt like it changed, to me.

It changed from being critiques of my ideas to critiques of my gender and my body, and really, really dismissive comments about, you know, me not being qualified to write about film and theater at all - film, especially. But yeah, I definitely felt like I was taken more seriously before my gender started to find its way into my work.

GROSS: Once people started seeing your pictures, they also found out that you are fat. And I'm using the word fat because that's the word you choose to use. So am I OK with that word?

WEST: Oh, yeah, totally.

GROSS: OK, great. So how did your weight - once your picture started to become more public, how did your weight affect the kind of responses you were getting from people?

WEST: Oh, we just don't take fat people seriously at all. Just every comment is a fat joke, you know? It's already pretty audacious to be a woman who presumes to have an opinion. And to be a fat woman who isn't even fulfilling, like, the duties of a woman - to then also presume to be a voice of authority on something, I mean, it's just - people cannot abide.

And it's also - it's a very, very convenient, tidy way to hurt a person. Other people - people who are not fat can hide what their insecurities are, and just being fat makes you an easy target, you know? No pun intended (laughter) - or not that it's a pun, but you know what I mean.

GROSS: I get it.

WEST: You get it (laughter). You know, and so this was the early-to-mid days of internet toxicity, and people were just gleeful about reminding me that I'm fat and disgusting, and they don't want to have sex with me, although - as though I had offered (laughter).

GROSS: So what was the turning point for you in deciding that you were going to actually write about being fat, and you're going to write about it without apology or shame, and you were going to start calling out people who tried to fat shame you?

WEST: I think it was - a lot of it was time. I was just getting older. I was getting into my late 20s. I was probably 26 or 27. And I just started to get so frustrated because I was waiting for my life to start. I felt like this was a thing I had to fix before I could have a real life, and have a real career and have a real relationship.

And I just started - I just had this realization that I don't want to wait the rest of my life, that I had to reckon with the possibility that I might be fat forever, and if I'm going to be fat forever, what am I going to do, wait forever, not live, not strive to do all the things that I want to do? And I started reading - you know, I started reading fat-positive blogs. I started just looking at pictures of fat women, fat people wearing cute outfits and seemingly living normal, happy lives.

And I thought, oh, you know, that's not just something that other people can do. I could do that. I could do that. And as I started going through that process, I got out of a bad relationship, and I got into a good relationship, which is now my marriage. So this might seem morbid or something, but I also - I got pregnant by my bad boyfriend, and I had an abortion without telling him.

I just knew I - thought to myself, this isn't the life that I want. And that wasn't really related too directly to my body. But in retrospect, it was. You know, I just thought, I don't want to be with someone that treats me like this, and I don't want to treat myself like this, and I'm going to make this decision for me. And that was a real turning point, definitely.

GROSS: One of the essays in your book is about getting pregnant when you were 27. You were in a bad relationship. It was ending or you decided to end it, then you had an abortion. And you express how you have, like, absolutely no regrets about it. Tell us why you felt so confident that you wanted to have it and why you never second-guessed that confidence even now, years after you had it.

WEST: You know, sometimes - this is why we need to trust people to make decisions about their own bodies. I just knew, you know? I just knew. It was not right. And I - it's - I've never doubted that decision for one second. You know, I was not established in my career. I lived in a studio apartment. My relationship was very unfulfilling. It was the right option for me.

It's not that I would've had a bad life. I'm sure I would've adored the baby that I had with my ex if I had had it. But that's not what happened. And I think that I'm a productive member of society who cares about other people, and tries to take care of other people, and do a good job and make my world better. And I don't regret any of it.

GROSS: Do you ever get called out for not having regret, for not doing the, like, I hated to do it; I was really sad to do it - you know, abortion is tragic, yet I knew it was the right choice, therefore, I did it?

WEST: All the time. There are a lot of ostensibly pro-choice people who still believe that if you have an abortion, it's your obligation to talk about it with shame and regret, and to apologize, and to grovel and to justify it. And I would argue that that's not really being pro-choice. If you put conditions on abortion, if you put conditions on women's ability to make their own medical decisions and you demand groveling and shame as payment, you're not really pro-choice, and you're not doing it right.

You know, especially pro-choice, left-wing men often have a really hard time talking about abortion. They have - I find they have often not really thought about it that much and have just sort of internalized this messaging that, yeah, abortion should be legal, but I still feel kind of icky about it, and we should try to avoid it.

And the reality is that abortion is a normal, necessary medical procedure that people will always need. And we can either make it safe or we can make it unsafe. And we can make it accessible or we can make it inaccessible. And those are the options. And putting this layer of shame and stigma on people for exercising their constitutional rights is disgusting. Sorry. Was that too...

GROSS: I'd say you definitely have strong opinions (laughter).

WEST: I mean, who are you to tell people that they should be ashamed of making a medical decision with their doctor and their partner and their family? Who are you? What do you know about their life, you know what I mean? I mean, it's just so presumptuous.

GROSS: Just want to point out you're not - when you say, who are you, you don't mean me (laughter).

WEST: No, you, Terry.

(LAUGHTER)

WEST: No, I'm talking...

GROSS: For anyone just tuning in, she's not hollering at me.

WEST: (Laughter) No, no. You know, I'm speaking figuratively. But I think it's just so cruel. It's so cruel.

GROSS: OK. Well, why don't we take another break here? If you're just joining us, my guest is Lindy West. She's a feminist who writes a column now each week for The New York Times. She has a collection of personal essays which is called "Shrill," and it's recently come out in paperback. We'll be right back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORATONE'S "FRONTIERS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Lindy West. And she now writes a column for The New York Times on feminist issues. She has a collection of personal essays called "Shrill." That has recently come out in paperback.

I want to talk with you about your family. Your grandfather on your father's side was a radio producer, and he was a producer of the "Burns And Allen" show, George Burns and Gracie Allen. And for people who don't know, I mean, they were a vaudeville team that had a comedy radio show. It transitioned into being a TV show. He was a producer of the "Lucky Strike Hit Parade," which was a kind of top 10 music show that also transitioned to television later. I know he died before you were able to meet him. Did you ever hear his shows?

WEST: I do have a couple recordings of his voice on the radio announcing.

GROSS: Oh, he was the announcer?

WEST: Oh, yeah. He was also an on-air guy. And my dad was a voice talent, too. And my grandma was a singer on the radio. Yeah, I mean, it's - I do have a couple recordings of my grandpa's work. And it's - I mean, it's, to be honest, kind of impenetrable. Like, I don't understand any of the jokes (Laughter). And it's a little boring to sit down and listen to the whole thing. Like, they're talking about - I don't know - inside jokes about horse racing or something that I have no context for.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WEST: But it's kind of amazing that I ended up in this business, you know, to me at least 'cause I never thought that I had - I don't know. I always felt kind of unremarkable as a kid in this sort of dazzling family, so - but here I am.

GROSS: Well, you know, I should say, you know, your grandfather was a producer of "Burns And Allen." And you know, it was like George Burns and Gracie Allen - part of the running gag was that, like, she was really dumb...

WEST: Oh, yeah (laughter).

GROSS: ...You know, that he was a smart man. And she was loveable but really a handful and very dumb. And so, you know, I always thought it was a funny show, but I always felt like, gee, it made me uncomfortable in ways that I couldn't articulate that the joke was how dumb this woman was.

WEST: Oh, great, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

WEST: Well, I mean, I guess I'm out here writing my grandfather's wrongs.

(LAUGHTER)

WEST: No, I mean, you know...

GROSS: Your father was an advertising person...

WEST: Yes.

GROSS: ...And also a musician. He played piano. He played in lounges in Seattle.

WEST: Yep, yep.

GROSS: So I mean, you're really - like, half of your family is really a very showbiz family. Did you feel that growing up?

WEST: Well, kind of. My dad was very, very special. And people just loved him. And he was a really rare breed of entertainer I think, you know? He sang, and he played the piano. And he did little comedy patter. And it was this kind of lounge act that you don't have any more. You know, people would go every night.

And so I grew up with him. You know, I grew up sitting under the piano while he was playing. And we would have these beautiful dinner parties, and everyone would sing and drink and yell. And it was - you know, I did feel like I was - I grew up in a special environment.

GROSS: Do you sing?

WEST: I was in choir (laughter), but I - yes and no. I like singing. I don't feel like I have any particular talent for it. But actually just - my husband is a - is also a musician. He's a jazz musician and a composer. And about six months before my dad died, we had a - we put together a gig for him at a bar in Seattle. He hadn't really played in a long time. And so I do have one recording of my husband and my dad playing a gig together. My husband plays the trumpet. And then I sang on a couple of songs which I will never release.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WEST: But it was fun. It was really, really, really sweet.

GROSS: That sounds great.

WEST: Yeah.

GROSS: On your mother's side - your mother was a nurse or is a nurse.

WEST: Yeah. She's retired.

GROSS: OK. And you write that you were introduced to hospitals at a young age. What did hospitals look like to you when you were there as your mother's daughter?

WEST: Oh, (laughter)...

GROSS: I always get this kind of sinking feeling when I walk into a hospital to visit somebody or for an outpatient procedure or something. I just think, like, I don't want to be here.

WEST: Yeah. I definitely never had that. You know, I - I've never been one of those people who was afraid to go to the doctor. I love going to the doctor (laughter). Like, I love going to the doctor and making - like, oh, there's just this person that you can go visit, and they'll tell - like, make sure you're not dying. That's amazing. Or if there's anything wrong with you, they'll give you medicine and fix it. My mom definitely made me feel comfortable in medical settings since I was young, which is nice. It was less that I spent time at the hospital and more that she brought home tons of medical supplies. Like, our house was just full of medical supplies.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WEST: All of our kitchen towels were, like, blue surgical towels. She would send me - literally, this is real - she would send me my lunch in urine specimen cups.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WEST: Like, she would send me, like, a urine cup full of mandarin oranges or whatever.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WEST: Which...

GROSS: Well, you know it was sterile.

WEST: I know. I think that's exactly what she said when I was like, Mom, they're making fun of me.

(LAUGHTER)

WEST: You know, I mean, it's a free Tupperware. What are you going to do?

GROSS: Your father had already died when you got married.

WEST: Yeah.

GROSS: You know what I think is really beautiful? Your description that when you marched down the aisle or walked down the aisle - however you want to put it - that you played a recording of your father playing the Gershwin song "Someone To Watch Over Me," I just think that's such a beautiful way of making your father present at your wedding.

WEST: Oh, thank you. I always worried that it was too on the nose (laughter).

GROSS: Well - because of the title of the song.

WEST: Yeah (laughter). No, that - I really - I genuinely appreciate you saying that. Thank you. It was - I mean, it meant a lot to me. And it's - yeah, I mean, my dad was just the best, you know? It was - he would have had a really, really good time at our wedding.

GROSS: Lindy West, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

WEST: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Lindy West is a columnist for The New York Times. Her book of personal essays called "Shrill" is out in paperback. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.