In many ways, it was a watershed moment. Lindy West’s January 2015 appearance on This American Life was a universally praised, career-galvanizing piece of audio theater that has since taken on near-mythic status in recent cultural history. Entitled “Ask Not for Whom the Bell Trolls; It Trolls for Thee,” the piece found West confronting on-air a man who had relentlessly haunted her online–across comment sections, social media platforms, and beyond–occasionally in the guise of her deceased father.
During the episode, West has the chance to explain to the previously faceless entity how much misery he’d caused her, and to interrogate his motivations for doing so. The troll, in turn, explains how unhappy he had been at the time he’d carried out his abusive campaign against her and begs for forgiveness. It seemed like a hopeful sign. Perhaps anyone in this divided nation could work through their differences if they just took an occasional empathetic look through other people’s eyes.
Then again, perhaps not.
“At this point, in 2019, I have less interest in redeeming internet trolls,” West told me recently.
In the years since the best-selling author of Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman appeared on This American Life, a lot has changed. The troll of the man who was president at the time that episode was recorded ended up succeeding him as president. Trolling has practically become the default setting in internet discourse, with the president and his most ardent supporters sneering at the perceived enemy, and many on the other side sneering right back. The more conscientious future West’s TAL appearance seemed to nod toward never materialized. Why should the TV show based on her memoir be any different?
Because the troll confrontation proved such a pivotal moment in West’s life, it practically had to end up in Shrill, the series she co-created with Alexandra Rushfield and Aidy Bryant, and which debuted on Hulu last Friday. The version that takes place on her show, however, has far fewer shades of Kumbaya. Over the first five episodes of the series, West’s surrogate, Annie (Aidy Bryant), is hounded by a troll who spends a disconcerting amount of time ripping her to shreds in the comments of her articles. Eventually, she is able to locate the guy offline, in the so-called meatspace, without any help from Ira Glass. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say it doesn’t go so well.
Here’s what West had to say about what inspired the changes between what happened with her troll in real life versus what happens with Annie’s troll on Shrill:
“I’m really proud of that This American Life piece I’m in, with that particular guy. It’s one of my proudest professional accomplishments, and I think it’s a beautiful piece of work. It was a special encounter. But at this point in 2019, internet trolls have sort of metastasized in a lot of scary directions. Just while we were writing the show, there was some alt-right guy who murdered his parents to own the libs or whatever. It’s become this other animal that has started to manifest in real life in really dangerous ways, and obviously Donald Trump is the internet troll president, and it just doesn’t seem like–I mean, Nazis are marching in the streets and these people organized…online! I see people who are leaders in the alt right who used to just be little, like, Twitter avatars who used to harass me when I was working at Jezebel and now they have, to some degree, the ear of the president. So it’s just morphed into a different animal at some point. The idea of just doing a redemption narrative with one of these truly toxic and abusive people held no interest for me. I think it’s a different conversation now.”