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Journalist Francie Diep discusses confronting her cyberbully

| Friday, September 14, 2018

While technology is an ever-changing force, human emotions have always remained constant, journalist Francie Diep said when she visited Saint Mary’s on Thursday to share her experiences with cyber bullying as a teenager. A staff writer at The Pacific Standard living in Washington, D.C., Diep grew up in Washington state as the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants. Diep was working as a freelance writer in New York City when she decided to stray from her field of scientific writing and submit a personal piece to The Atlantic.

On Sept. 30, 2014, The Atlantic published Diep’s article titled “Confronting My Cyberbully, 13 Years Later,” in which she detailed the three years of online harassment at the hands of a former friend. Diep said she met Amanda, her very real but fictionally named cyberbully, in the early years of middle school.

“I was totally enthralled by Amanda,” Diep said. “We met our very first day of junior high. We were both 12-years-old, so that liminal age between when you’re a kid and when you start to become more interested in more grown up things.”

Amanda was followed by a loyal band of girlfriends, who Diep said wore makeup, styled their hair and spent time loitering at the local mall.

“I quickly became friends with them. Amanda and I in particular became close very quickly,” Diep said. “We would talk for hours on the phone after school.”

The friendship lasted for about a year and a half before Amanda and the other girls decided it was time to exclude Diep from their group.

“They all got on the phone and called me on my parents’ landline to tell me this,” Diep said. “Admittedly, I had a pretty dorky reputation in school, despite Amanda and her friends’ glamor.”

This was Amanda’s modus operandi, Diep said, having already witnessed Amanda and her friends kick another girl out of the circle for threatening the group’s “cool” reputation.

“We were all sitting [at lunch] and all of a sudden, Amanda started talking really loudly, saying, ‘I just can’t believe people who can’t take a hint. You don’t even like them, and they still follow you around like a dog,’” Diep said. “This girl started sobbing next to us. She was sitting right there and none of us said anything. I personally felt relieved that Amanda was willing to do this so that she wouldn’t hang out with us anymore … turned out Amanda was willing to do that to me, too.”

In the following weeks, Diep said the group ran a campaign to make her unhappy at school, giving her the silent treatment while they pretended to whisper about her in the hallway. The bullying followed Diep home after Amanda found a way to access her Yahoo email account.

“We were so close that she knew my password and she knew the answer to my security question, which was an inside joke between us,” Diep said. “She would sign in, delete all my emails and leave one mean note for me.”

Diep said she began to develop a physical response to logging into her own email account, the anxiety of discovering a new message making her heart race and her hands shake. She would read Amanda’s notes, then quickly delete them.

“One thing I really wish I’d done is save those emails and taken screenshots,” Diep said. “It’s hard to do in the moment because you’re reacting and it’s really freaky and you’re emotional, but if this ever happens to you, save screenshots. That’s the most powerful thing you can do to make sure this doesn’t happen again to you and to make sure that the person who does this will see some kind of consequences. But I didn’t.”

Diep didn’t tell her parents about the abuse, and said she refused to change her email address because she did not want to allow Amanda to “win” by forcing her out of her own account.

“I carried this with me for so many years,” she said. “Maybe if I just changed my email, I would have been less affected by it.”

Amanda grew more creative, Diep said, accessing her calendar and setting threatening reminders.  These notifications, worded in first person and often set at midnight, reminded Diep of “her own plans” to kill herself.

“I would feel totally alone reading this,” Diep said. “Another really weird thing about this was that it made me feel like Amanda was in my head.”

After three years, Diep said the emails and reminders started to slow down. She applied to colleges out of state, and was accepted by UCLA.

“Fast forward ten years: I’m in New York, I’m in my mid-twenties, I’m a free-lance writer,” Diep said. “This is my dream. This is what I’ve always wanted to do. Ever since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to be a writer.”

Despite living out her childhood dreams as a journalist in New York, Diep said the introduction of Facebook made Amanda’s online presence a permanent and prominent fixture in her life. She said she would scroll through Amanda’s photos, following her life almost obsessively, watching her get married, have kids and move to the suburbs.

“I didn’t feel good about looking at these pictures,” Diep said. “It had been so long, I just wanted to get over it. So I started telling some of my friends what had happened to me.”

Her friends, mostly writers and producers themselves, encouraged Diep to take her experiences public.

“I started turning the idea over in my mind,” Diep said. “Coincidentally, The Atlantic put out a call for itches about stories about how technology affected your life personally.”

After The Atlantic accepted Diep’s pitch, she set about contacting Amanda.

“I wanted to get as much out of her, what she was thinking, why she did this, as much insight as possible,” Diep said. “So I started messaging her through Facebook. Turns out, I was still scared of Amanda. I would get the same freaked out … feeling every time I messaged her. I started to hate the Facebook pop.”

Diep said it took a long time for Amanda to open up about the cyberbullying, and though she apologized, gave little to no explanation for her actions other than the pettiness of adolescent girls.

“I tried really hard to put myself in the headspace of my thirteen-year-old self when I wrote this story,” Diep said. “I tried to recreate the feelings for the reader, and I tried to tell painful truths plainly.”

The story was published, and Diep said she received complimentary emails from editors inviting her to contribute to different publications, as well as a surprising feeling of closure.

“An unexpected result of this was that I stopped wanting to check Amanda’s pictures,” Diep said. “It was amazing. I haven’t checked them since I wrote that story. I felt really free after I wrote that story, and I didn’t know how trapped I felt until I wrote that story. It was an incredible experience.”

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