On Tuesday, XoJane, whose central mission is to convince writers to share personal stories that would be better left untold, outdid itself: It published an essay called “It Happened to Me: My Friend Joined ISIS.” No, it’s not satire.
Writer Katherine Burke recounts the story of her friendship with Ariel Bradley, a Tennessee native who moved to Syria with her Iraqi-born husband in 2014 and, well, joined ISIS. If you want to know more about Bradley’s journey to extremism, BuzzFeed ran an excellent piece of reporting on it by Ellie Hall last year. If you look to Burke’s essay for information, instead you’ll just get lines like:
She was often a bit smelly, kind of hairy, and her clothes were wrinkled and full of holes.
For me, it was love at first sight.
Behold, for possibly the first time in human history, a comparison between a terrorist sympathizer and a 1960s it girl.
Whenever I think of Ariel, I remember an essay by Patti Smith about Edie Sedgwick. Ariel and Edie shared the same blonde pixie cut and petite, skinny body type, but it was the way Patti described Edie’s actions that reminded me of Ariel: Edie standing over a crowd at an art event, letting the long bell sleeve of her Pucci dress dangle above the fray. This is how I picture Ariel now, light as air and just out of reach.
Laugh until you weep at the absurd understatement of the essay’s thesis statement:
Ariel was a fighter; she fought her parents, she fought the system, she fought for herself, and now she has a new cause.
In the internet’s first-person industrial complex, it’s not uncommon for tragedies to be commodified and exploited, which is in itself morally disquieting. But it’s particularly troubling when a tragedy is told from the perspective of a witness as opposed to the person who makes up the “person” part of “personal essay.” When publishers value virality over humanity, they publish stories that are questionable, uncomfortable, and totally unnecessary. “It Happened to Me: My Friend Joined ISIS” is bonkers, but it’s also the inevitable outcome of a system that requires a steady stream of shocking content to attract clicks.