Too Loud, Too Outspoken, Too Feminist: Anne Thériault Writes Her Truth

Whether she’s writing about rape culture or racism, postpartum depression or privilege, Anne Thériault pulls no punches. The thoughtful, passionate essays she publishes on her blog, The Belle Jar, seamlessly blend the personal and political — a potent mix that attracts tens of thousands of readers. She chats with us about longform writing, being an ally, and why the internet is such a great thing for women.


Your essays are often longer-form pieces. In a time of Twitter-friendly sound bites, why take these deeper dives? How do they play a role in larger movements for social change?

I am a verbose person, and I have come to realize that I cannot fully explain a thing in less than 1,000 words and that’s just who I am. Luckily, there are people willing to read lots of words about things!

Longform essays are always going to be important because some stuff just needs elaboration. Especially if it’s an idea that people are encountering for the first time. I know there’s a lot of hand-wringing about how Twitter — or whatever — will replace longform essays, but I don’t think that’s true. They’re two very different types of media that in general complement rather than detract from each other.

How has The Belle Jar morphed since you began? How might your site and writing evolve over the next few years?

In some ways it has changed a lot, and in some ways it hasn’t changed much. How’s that for a super-vague answer?

I definitely don’t write as much about parenting as I used to, both because I’m not a stay-at-home parent anymore and because I’m trying to be better about not writing things that the kid might someday find embarrassing. I also think a lot of my earlier stuff is all over the map thematically because I was trying to figure out what I wanted to write about and how I wanted to write it.

I am a lot more aware of my privilege than I used to be and, armed with that knowledge, am trying hard not to be a shitty ally to less privileged groups. I still mess that up sometimes, though.

I also hope I’m a bit better in my understanding of intersecting forms of oppression. I used to write a lot of stuff about HEY WHY DOESN’T EVERYONE IDENTIFY AS A FEMINIST, whereas now I realize that a lot of people don’t want to identify that way because they feel excluded from mainstream feminism.

One of the first posts that I wrote — “The F Word (or, why can’t you just admit that you’re a feminist?)” — is objectively not a well-written post (I was young! and green! and inexperienced!). My basic argument was the classic “if you agree that men and women are equal, then you must ALSO agree to call yourself a feminist forever and ever.” There was no discussion of any of the valid reasons why some women might feel alienated and betrayed by the mainstream feminist movement, no critical analysis of the intersections of multiple axes of oppression — just me, a privileged white lady, barking orders about how people should and shouldn’t identify. I guess the only part of the post that I still agree with is that the misogynist stigma of the word feminism shouldn’t scare anyone away from calling themselves feminist, but the rest of it is hot garbage.

I am a lot more aware of my privilege than I used to be and, armed with that knowledge, am trying hard not to be a shitty ally to less privileged groups. I still mess that up sometimes, though.

How have you messed it up? And what did you take from the experience?

I’m pretty ambivalent about stuff that I’ve written about things that aren’t my lived experience. Writing about them has definitely come from a genuine desire to be a Good Ally, but I also know I was probably yapping away trying to earn brownie points instead of doing what I should have been doing — namely, listening to people from more marginalized groups and amplifying their voices. I really struggle with the idea of performative allyship: do I do and say things because I’m really here for the cause, or because I think they make me look good?

If I tell myself that it’s good for me to write about things like race or transphobia or ableism because people are more willing to listen to a white, cis, able-bodied lady, then aren’t I in some ways reinforcing white supremacy, cissexism, and ableism? I don’t know all of the answers, but I do know that I want to be more careful, not to mention more generous about promoting other people’s work.

Topics like these — privilege, feminism, rape culture — provoke strong opinions. How do you shield yourself from blowback — or do you?

I’ve mostly disengaged from the haters, which is partially due to a need for self-care but also partially due to cynicism. I used to reply to every comment and had this real Pollyanna approach where I was like, “If I’m just nice enough they will understand and everything will be cool!” This didn’t really work and led to lots of stressful arguments with misogynist weirdos.

belle jar thank youNow I rarely reply to comments unless I really think an answer is necessary. My posts outline my thoughts pretty clearly, and the vast majority of people asking for clarification are not doing so in good faith. Plus, I have lots of cool people who will wade into the comments section and give the assholes a stern talking to (shout-out to my regular readers) — which I really, really super appreciate. I cannot emphasize enough how much I appreciate it.

What about shielding other people in your life? You recently published a pretty brutal post on a lifetime of (sadly common) gendered harassment and assault, which included threats against your son. How did you talk yourself through those so that you could continue writing what you write? How will you explain things like this to him?

I’m not sure how I talked myself through it! I did genuinely spend a couple of days feeling like it was my fault that someone was threatening my kid. On some level, it was easy to believe that I was asking for it, like, what else did I expect if I was going to be an outspoken internet writer lady? If I didn’t want threats, then I should have been less of a feminist, or more anonymous, or not talked so much about my kid.

Someone makes a death threat against my son.

I don’t tell anyone right away because I feel like it is my fault — my fault for being too loud, too outspoken, too obviously a parent.

When I do finally start telling people, most of them are sympathetic. But a few women say stuff like “this is why I don’t share anything about my children online,” or “this is why I don’t post any pictures of my child.”

Even when a man makes a choice to threaten a small child it is still, somehow, a woman’s fault.

— “Being A Girl: A Brief Personal History of Violence”

But then I realized it’s not my fault if another person makes the choice to threaten me or my kid. That is their fault. That is a sick, shitty thing to do and I did nothing to invite it.

It still scares me. When it happened, I reported it and went through all the right channels and after everything, I feel pretty confident that it was meant to scare me more than anything else. But I sometimes still wonder if I’m the world’s worst mother. I spent about a week asking all of my friends if they think I’m a monster. (None of them think I am a monster.) But I also think threats like that are such a clear silencing tactic, which makes me want to dig my heels in and fight back harder.

I don’t know how or when I’ll explain any of this to my son. Right now I’m in this sort of denial where I hope that by the time he’s old enough to be on the internet, all of this crap will be over or at least easier. That doesn’t seem very likely, though, does it?

The writer, age seven.
The writer, age seven.

What would you tell a woman who wanted to put her voice out there, but was scared — or thought she had nothing worth saying?

Probably the piece that was the most difficult to write and scariest for me to publish was my first essay about postpartum depression. I hadn’t talked much about mental health before that, and I had no clue what the reaction was gonna be. But you know what? My posts about mental illness have garnered the most positive reactions out of everything I’ve ever written, so maybe the takeaway here is that sometimes people surprise you.

Allowing myself to be vulnerable creates a safe space for other people to be vulnerable, and that is a pretty amazing thing to be able to do. The internet has had a real democratizing effect on media. People who a generation ago would not have had any kind of platform can now sign up and get a blog and a Twitter account and whatever else for free, which is amazing! THE INTERNET IS MAGIC.

Hey women! Please keep writing! And if you’re thinking about writing, please do it! You are a treasure and your thoughts are interesting and don’t let anyone tell you differently.

This means that we’re hearing from lots of different marginalized groups, and media gatekeepers aren’t filtering what those voices are saying in the same way they used to. You can publish any damn thing you want on a blog and as long as it’s not infringing on anyone else’s rights, no one can tell you to stop. This is obviously important for lots of different groups of people, including but not limited to women.

If I had to give advice to a woman who wanted to write but thought no one would care, I would tell her that reading stuff by other women has been so incredibly validating and affirming and enlightening. Hey women! Please keep writing! And if you’re thinking about writing, please do it! You are a treasure and your thoughts are interesting and don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer, activist, and social agitator. She is the author of My Heart is an Autumn Garage, a short memoir about depression. Her work can be found in the Washington Post, Vice, Jezebel, the Toast, and others. Her comments on feminism, social justice, and mental health have been featured on TVO’s The Agenda, CBC, CTV, Global and etalk. She’s really good at making up funny nicknames for cats.

Read more from Anne on at The Belle Jar, and find her on Twitter (@anne_theriault) and Facebook (The Belle Jar).

January 11, 2016Commentary, Feminism, Personal Essay, Writing, ,