How Writing About Pit Bulls Led to Death Threats, Online and IRL
On the Firestorm Around Bronwen Dickey's New Book
When Bronwen Dickey affixed the subtitle to Pit Bull, her recently published study of the pendulum-swinging fortunes of the dog who has gone from hero to reviled outsider in the span of a century, she could not have known how bizarrely close it would track to her own fate. “The Battle over an American Icon” has become for her, in a few short weeks, the battle over an American author. The true subject of her book—the steep cost of cursory judgment, stereotyping, and the durability of the fictions we frequently prefer over scientific evidence—is echoed in the events of her own life. They’re not pretty.
Even before the book’s launch, at New York’s Strand book store last month, the hate groups that gather in the internet’s gaseous depths emerged from the digital dark to fire salvos of gory memes and full-cap epithets at the author. She was taken as a dangerously vocal agent (speaking, as she would, from Knopf’s rostrum) of what they have termed the “pit bull propaganda machine”—in fact, anyone perceived to advocate anything less than full and immediate eradication of the breed they believe to be natural-born killers, possessed of an invincible drive to maul to death anything that moves.
Come to think of it, the escalating viciousness of the attacks against Dickey resembles nothing so much as the unholy savagery imputed to this dog.
Initially the tempest was contained in a relatively small teapot, a Facebook group with a few hundred followers called Pit Bulls and Amputees. They announced the forthcoming publication of her book with one of the milder images in their inventive canon of dog-attack (and dog-attacking) memes: the book’s cover superimposed on a photo of a pit bull emitting a torrent of vomit. They advanced to name calling, such as “pit nutter” and “ignorant bitch,” then to the ad hominem: she has “a screw or two loose, just like her dad”—poet, National Book Award winner, and most famously author of Deliverance. Next, in order to set the record straight about Dickey and the dangerous subject of her nonetheless meticulously researched book (with notes and bibliography that run to 35 pages), they proposed a protest outside the store.
On the appointed evening all was bookishly pacific, the occasional browser picking through the cheap stalls, couples conversing, nary a snarling cur in sight. Those were coming, courtesy of the Animal Care Centers of New York’s mobile adoption van parked outside. The outsized adorable black-and-white pit mix pictured smiling on the back of the van was a trick. So obviously was the handsome Santiago, a four-legged model with a winning patch of black over one eye who was now beating his tail against the rug of the rare book room at the approach of every admirer. It was inevitable he would turn murderous, according to sites such as Dogsbite.org, but for the present he settled for licking faces and suffering his paw to be pressed repeatedly against an inkpad and then the title page of newly purchased books. The closest the author got to unwarrented personal commentary was the man who stood up during the Q&A and, momentarily overcome, blurted, “You’re so much prettier in person than in your pictures.” It was uncomfortable for Dickey, but little could she know then that her audiences would soon do a bit more than cause discomfort; they would make her “feel like the Salman Rushdie of animal issues,” as she would put it. This night, though, there was no protest; it had been “called off” under pressure from Random House’s “legal department.”
As one of the most imperative messages of Pit Bull is that in an educated society every claim must be submitted to scrutiny, this one may too.
The result, built with the precision of an engineer, is a case for seeing the campaign to vilify one type of dog as a surrogate for expressing class and racial animus.
Earlier in the day Dickey and I had had lunch at the midtown hotel where she and her husband were staying in a splurge for what she considered “the biggest occasion of my life,” the publication of a first book that cost nearly eight years and “everything I had,” writing-wise. The result, built with the precision of an engineer, is a case for seeing the campaign to vilify one type of dog as a surrogate for expressing class and racial animus. “I was told, ‘Don’t go into the race thing, it’s a quagmire,’ but I had to tell the whole story.” The “whole story” meant, to the young journalist, following the map back to primary sources in investigating every pit-bull claim, myth, and canard. She has a deep reverence for substantiated data. With the irrevocability of publication day approaching, for the past few weeks she had been waking “at three a.m., petrified I got some detail wrong.”
For two hours, over salads and wine—the latter a medicinal necessity on a nerve-wracking day for a writer who admits that worry sometimes gets the better of her, understandable in light of a threat that pit-bull foes were planning to “ANNIHILATE this country club, ‘white bread world’ girl’s book on pit bulls with a tsunami of our OWN reviews”—Dickey talked about the nature of truth, the fear that drives hatred, and the curative power of science. All are primary themes in her book, which is less about dogs than it is about people perceiving dogs. They are a proxy for what frightens us, whether the expression of a vulnerability like love or of a socially proscribed bigotry. Justice is a burning issue to Dickey. In an irony familiar to many crusaders for fairness she is therefore in for large helpings of iniquity.
Pit Bull charts the course of this cultural icon from the beginning of the 19th century, when the descendants of the bull-baiting dog began to be associated with the “lowest type” of character who took up the breeding of lines for the purpose of fighting each other. A divide soon grew to a chasm between those who “could not be talked, reasoned, or wheedled out of their contempt.” Such enmity has evolved into a tenacious hostility that today results in the summary execution by animal shelters of more than 1,000,000 pit bulls every year. Yet, as Dickey takes great care in outlining, “pit bull” is neither a single breed nor even definitively identifiable—a study cited in the book found even trained animal professionals unable to correctly identify the breed makeup of shelter dogs over 87% of the time. What is being eradicated are individuals who have taken the mere shape of a specter we have grown to fear out of all proportion to its deeds, the germ of a “moral panic” that feeds abundantly on itself. After voluminous research, Dickey came to the conclusion that the venom of the haters, who themselves possess the uncontrollable obsession with violence they ascribe to their canine target, is aimed not at these dogs but rather at the cypher of their stereotyped owner. Often, he is nonwhite, poor, stripped of prospects, feared and reviled. Society will have his dog in lieu of him.
Dickey places her napkin on the table after lunch and thinks for a moment before answering a question. What does she most want her book to accomplish? She explains it is not one of advocacy, as her opponents maintain, nor is it a bid to elbow them off the stage of what she terms the Fantasy Outrage Theater of the insular arguments that thrive online. Finally she answers, “What I really want is for it to be a small toolkit for dismantling stereotypes. I don’t want to live in a world that extrapolates from the individual to the whole.” She agrees this is how walls on borders of all sorts are built (or proposed, at least). “I want the book to represent one case history in investigating how stereotypes are made. Never passively receive. That goes for me, too. I’m a journalist, not an oracle! So approach my arguments, too, with skepticism.”
Or, as her book recounts of one of the author’s predecessors, a London journalist who decried the hyperbolic killing spree enacted on every dog in the city of Edinburgh after one attacked others in 1738: “I cannot think that a whole species should have been destroyed on the account of one.”
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Anti-Pit Bull Memes could not have intended to so perfectly exemplify their purpose—witch hunting is defined as “the searching out and deliberate harassment of those with unpopular views”—when they tweeted a movie poster altered to show Bronwen Dickey as the Wicked Witch of the West and a pit bull as her winged monkey, under the title “The Killers of Oz.” Others were less oblique: “Sad lying cow. Blood on her hands, deviant lies in her book, evil in her heart.” “Why does Bronwen Dickey hate kids?”
She was able to maintain a certain equanimity through these attacks, digital as they remained, although the tsunami of largely unfounded counterpoints was starting to crest. A favorable review in the Raleigh News & Observer quickly ballooned with over 700 comments, many of them virulently anti-pit bull or anti-Dickey, which was beginning to look like the same thing. The book has amassed a large handful of one-star reviews on Amazon, though these are outnumbered 8-to-one by five-stars. (And sales are on a similar graph, with her book currently number 9 on the New York Times animals best-seller list.) Then things got real.
The threat of physical harassment has jumped the screen. It is IRL. And it is hard to imagine it happening in exactly this way to anyone but a woman.
Venues on her book tour started receiving threatening phone calls. Two either requested security or put it on standby. On June 2, at an appearance at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham, North Carolina, a man rose to heckle her with such animosity and then waited outside; she asked to be escorted out by police. Pictures of her house have been posted online with the suggestion that protesters bring their cause home. The threat of physical harassment has jumped the screen. It is IRL. And it is hard to imagine it happening in exactly this way to anyone but a woman, especially one who is pretty (yes, on the basis of hard evidence). It is gratuitous to mention it, but then the gratuitously physical is a dish served hot to women who dare to speak their minds. This is the real threat. The man who targeted her in Durham later claimed the reason she called for a police escort was “probably because she couldn’t fit out the door. That’s an old picture of her.” The spectacularly non-germane is both the first and last resort of the demagogue wannabe.
In writing a book that seeks to shine light into a sunless region of the human psyche, Bronwen Dickey issues a challenge to those whose activities can flourish only in the dark of ignorance. This rouses an insensible ire, one previously directed to a dog who was a stand-in for the real object of a radical hatred. Now the author has become her own subject: the pit bull of the imagination.
After the launch on the third floor of the Strand, I walked north through Union Square. Outside the dog run I stopped for a few minutes, watching. Dogs mouthed each other, chased balls. Some stood and watched too.