First, Internet fame brought Linda Tirado a miraculous windfall. Then it put her reputation through a meat grinder. She’s been saved and she’s been savaged. She has emotional whiplash.
Last month, Tirado’s essay about poverty, “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts”—originally written as a comment on a Gawker thread—went viral, and she was able to raise over $60,000 on GoFundMe to turn it into a book. On the cusp of a publishing deal, she’s been able to quit her job as a night cook at a cheap chain restaurant.
At the same time, though, there’s been a tidal backlash against her, replete with online death threats and media denunciations. If the initial narrative about her was that she was, as The Huffington Post dubbed her, the “woman who accidentally explained poverty to the nation,” the new story is that she’s nothing but a middle-class fabulist preying on naïve and guilty liberals. Much of this story is false, but it has legs. Earlier this month, Tirado was included in a CNN piece headlined, “2013: The Web’s year of the hoax.” This week, the backlash reached The New York Times, which included her in an article headlined, “If a Story Is Viral, Truth May Be Taking a Beating.”
Given that the Times piece was about fact-checking, it’s ironic that it got its facts wrong. Listing viral stories that later turned out to be “fake or embellished,” reporters Ravi Somaiya and Leslie Kaufman described Tirado’s piece as “an essay on poverty that prompted $60,000 in donations until it was revealed by its author to be impressionistic rather than strictly factual.” This is, at best, highly misleading. Somaiya and Kaufman’s passive construction—“was revealed”—elides the fact that the person doing the revealing was Tirado herself. She filled in her backstory in a post on her fundraising page dated November 14—well before most of her donations came in. It was almost a week later that The Huffington Post published her original essay, which gave her visibility a huge boost.
In other words, she was not hiding anything from most of the people who contributed to her book project. And what we know about the nuances of her story—particularly her middle-class upbringing—we know because she put it out there.
As Tirado explained in her November 14 post, as well as when she spoke to me ten days later, she’d had many privileges as well as many bad breaks. Her grandparents, who raised her, sent her to private school during part of her childhood—though not, as some have reported, to the fancy Cranbrook boarding school that Mitt Romney attended. The confusion about this is partly Tirado’s fault. In her essay, she wrote of receiving a partial scholarship to Cranbrook but being unable to afford the rest, but said her family “knew damn well what Cranbrook was and they were determined that I would have a chance at it.” Her point was that they had ambition and social capital, which is why they tried for the scholarship in the first place. Critics interpreted it as an admission that she is a Cranbrook alumna.