Tell Me I'm Worthless by Alison Rumfitt
Emoji summary: 🏚🩸🚩
- Content warning: rape, body horror, the swastika
- Spoilers: I talk about the book’s climax
Last night, I was milling about online when I saw people rightfully angry that Laurence Fox had changed his profile picture to a swastika made from a butchered Pride flag. Fox is a racist antivaxxer who once failed to run for mayor according to his embarrassing Wikipedia page. The edit he was using appropriates a popular, inclusive redesign of the Pride flag created by Daniel Quasar where there are black and brown stripes as well as the colours of the trans flag arranged in a triangle to one side. The profile picture rotates the flag through a full 360 so that the arrow mimics the tilted swastika symbol. It’s a little boy bragging about how many people he hates, he hates more people than you do so he wins. It’s weird and revealing and sad.
And I watched familiar names going through the motions of being annoyed about this. They were explaining their disagreement, giving historical context, doing the work, the replies, the quote tweets and screenshots, and highlighting other figures who had been hateful in the same way. I didn’t bother wondering how this man hadn’t been banned for having a profile picture like that when Twitter literally doesn’t care. I thought that this was the problem of the hour and there’d be another one soon, and I caught myself feeling blank about the whole thing. Why wasn’t I going through the motions with them? I think this imagery is terrible but I didn’t do anything about it. Do I not care as much as they do? Or have I just lost faith in the Internet when it comes to sticking it to the man, speaking up, and corralling my audience into swarming the enemy like fire ants every time something like this happens? Yeah, it’s that I’ve definitely lost faith in the virtual fight. I feel empty and tired. I feel guilty about it too.
I mean, sure, I liked it when the K-pop fans mobilised to troll some Donald Trump rallies but maybe that was the last time I felt it — you know, that feeling that we’re all here at the same time, engaged, online, ready to do something menacing together for the greater good out here in the open, in the mainstream. Maybe it’s because that example didn’t stay online, its effect was seen in half-empty stadiums and that was just very publicly funny. I love when badness is humiliated. But now, everything is dramatic but nothing really feels it. I watch evil appear casually on the timeline and when the firefighters come to settle the score, the whole scene feels like it is happening at the end of a long tunnel; I’m further away from the splash zone than I should be, you know, if I want to prove that I care. It happens every day and I don’t move.
And it’s not because I don’t care about these subjects, it’s more like the delivery of such vital conversations happening on Twitter tricks me into thinking I don’t. Somebody’s profound statement is a whisper between adverts on autoplay. A video of someone shouting at a protest passes by me on mute, no subtitles, completely defanged. Threads, observations, jokes. It’s too much, too quickly, out of order, competitive, and cold. I see people directly @ a president or a prime minister as if any of the current ones check Twitter raw in bed at night with no supervision, and I want to take them to one side and tell them it’s pointless — they’re not going to listen to you. But what options do we have? Instagram isn’t a better vehicle for the discourse — it used to be for pictures, long captions and infographics but now it’s simply a back-up for TikTok. All I see are videos by people I don’t even follow. And over on TikTok, creators are speaking in riddles to circumvent the platform detecting words that can get them banned. It’s creative, yeah, but it’s also sad as fuck. The platforms want to make money but if they get too radical, advertisers will pull away.
I don’t want to talk about any of this online. I want to look the problem in the face.
I stop writing this review for a moment and check Twitter instinctively, obviously. Someone called @ipod_video has done a perfect tweet: ‘taking a break from reading a great novel to look at twitter and read some of the worst shit ever written or even thought by humans.’
I can’t think deeply about anything that matters in and amongst the mess of social media — that pace, setting, the infrastructure, insecurity, surveillance, busyness, and the banality that cements it. It’s making my brain feel thin. When I saw the typical Laurence Fox profile picture debacle, I felt blank in a way that was especially noticeable because I had felt so the opposite recently when I read an actual book instead of the timeline. It was Alison Rumfitt’s debut novel Tell Me I’m Worthless where the swastika also features as central horrific imagery. I thought for a second that I should tell everybody doing their visible online duty to stop and read Rumfitt’s book instead. But then I felt self conscious that they’d all find out I’d lost faith in the Internet wars, especially in the sour way that replying to this kind of bait so easily affirms the identity of both the troll and the villain, so I’m just hiding that small opinion here instead.
I read the book and I felt the opposite of blank. Enriched, I was engaged. I read it fast, I was impressed. I thought about which friends would like it for their birthday, and then I felt nervous in a good way about making sure I sounded urgent enough when it came time to write this review. Tell Me I’m Worthless is social justice dialectics told through fiction that is lite but also completely dark; easy but hard to look at; cool but horrible, and then cool again for how horrible it dares to get. It’s also a book about a haunted house. If anyone ventures inside the house, or even exists in its vicinity, the house draws out or imbues racist, transphobic, antisemitic and generally eugenic beliefs in that person. It is intensely nationalist, too. That is to say, fascism is its breed of haunting. It makes people horrible or maybe it reveals how horrible they have been all along; it’s hard to tell which, and that is haunting in itself.
The author traps this expanded character of fascism in the haunted house trope and it isn’t a hard metaphor to crack because the house admits itself — it is proud of its work. In fact, it won’t shut up about it. The house has its own chapters where it gets the chance to spit its first-person diatribe all over the reader. It’s a house called Albion, the alternative name for Great Britain — it represents the country we’re trapped in, all scrambling in the well of its ugly sunken shape. And as much as I didn’t want to hear what the house believed in, I appreciated the constant metaphor reveal, because with the fiction around the house just a quick mask, it speaks to how gratuitous fascist action is. Rumfitt doesn’t need to cover that up or dilute it in any way, and why should she? It doesn’t ever fly under the radar. It’s a profile picture. It’s England. It’s America, too; I took another break from writing to check the news and 47 Central and South American migrants have died in an abandoned truck in Texas, where they are currently experiencing a heatwave. 47 people. I check the news half an hour later and the number is now ‘at least 50,’ so I come back to this text to update it. I’m listening to Glastonbury re-runs in the background while I work and Phoebe Bridgers is asking the crowd to ‘fuck the supreme court’ after they overturn Roe V. Wade. The crowd shouts and I’m glad. Abortion is barely legal in this country, we need to watch what is happening over there and get ready. No, this kind of evil isn’t subtle at all.
I think of the Internet again, how happily right-wing dickheads have made themselves comfortable there. I wonder how productively we can even think about their fascism on social media while we are standing right next to them, both using platforms engineered in such a way that users are invited to perform fascist behaviours. Is that right? It feels like it might be. We follow people we agree with because the tribalism is comfortable, and then we fight anyone who threatens the tribe; that fight is quick, all action over thought. One button to react. All instinct, protective. Influencers and articulate people become leaders. Followers with unquestioning loyalty cling onto the guidance of these influential accounts because the whole experience of being online is so overwhelming. No democracy, only looking up to hear what is said next, to hear what it is we should believe in. We let the algorithm nail on these blinkers, and then we let it lead us down a rabbit hole that takes us closer and closer to political extremes. And I say this as someone who has too many followers online: it’s scary how quickly some people are to do whatever I say, to agree with whatever I feel, and to hold back from challenging me on anything big or small. I am withdrawing more and more every day because of it.
I lean back into the odd safety of the novel where I feel more confident that I can hold my own as audience in the one-to-one experience; where I can hold the subject of fascism at arm’s length, where the lines can’t be deleted, where the writing isn’t interrupted by capitalist beats, and where the fiction feels solid in comparison to Internet speak even when it runs through my fingers.
Tell Me I’m Worthless is a book about a haunted house but it is also about the three girls that dare to venture inside it. There’s a white trans girl in a relationship with a mixed race cis girl, and there’s also their friend who is very much a third wheel. They go inside but only two of them come out, and what happens is a blur of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and pure body horror.
The characters visit the house before the book begins and it isn’t until we’re nearing the end that the narration takes us back to that memory. Much of the story revolves around the characters that were in a relationship having completely different memories of what happened inside there. They each think that they were raped by the other, and parted ways afterwards in complete fear and disgust at the other for what they supposedly did. I didn’t know who to believe. When the book finally takes us back to that awful night, Rumfitt splits the page in two so that we can read both perspectives concurrently. That’s when we learn that both of the girls were right. Both of them were abused and both of them were the abusers; it was a trick of the house to split their reality and thus hurt both at the same time, possessing the girls so that they would violate each other.
It was a huge, graphic climax, difficult to read but also not difficult at all because it was the grand reveal and the most interesting moment in the book for me. My eyes were buzzing left to right and left again to read the columns at the same time because, honestly, I was still somehow wanting one concrete account so that I knew who was the victim and who was the abuser even as the book was trying to show me there were two situations, not one straightforward truth but something like a shattered mirror instead. The book is a psychological horror for the #metoo era. We have to believe both of them even though the accounts completely, physically, impossibly overlap. And I wondered what it all meant. The house called Albion — the country called England — sows division and then it sows it again and again until there is no wrong or right, no truth or lie, just pure unstable conflict and violence in a space where nobody trusts anybody anymore. And that is hardly fiction, is it; splitting the page in two just felt honest.
And in this moment, when the two girls are stretched across the split narrative, their third wheel is left to one side. The third girl has been absorbed by the house itself, her bones broken and twisted into the shape of a swastika so that she now exists as a hate symbol suspended on a red wall. She is half-dead and wrecked; she is the creation of the house now, the best decoration it could design to fit its fascist taste. But just as soon as her body is manipulated into something so famously harrowing, the reader is pulled away into the rapes. It felt very much like the left-wing distracted by in-fighting while fascism grows unimpeded; or it would be more fair to suppose that this moment came off like a neat narrative reminder of how much of our in-fighting is triggered by fascist control and fascist organisation. There are problems intensely felt by victims, but there are even bigger problems to contend with. How can we pull ourselves away from this endless personal drama? How can we step outside of ourselves and deal with the house instead?
Good horror lifts the lid on what is scary to society and this book is effective in making me squirm, and then rethink how I act, how I consume media and also how I produce it. The criticism in Tell Me I’m Worthless is loud, straightforward, highly embarrassing and highly motivating for that reason too. God, I thought, I should only read books. I shouldn’t waste my time reading quote tweets and threads when that means my understanding of anything important is only brief and rudimentary — and not to sound paranoid but I think that’s what they want.
I got to the end of this book, then I got back to work, and I had an email from a curator who was having an issue with an exhibition programme in another country. They had forwarded a full email thread for me to read but when I looked closer, some of details had been omitted. The curators in the chain were referencing a document that the person who had gotten in touch had failed to send, and it seemed to be an important piece of the puzzle. I thought about the book, about the two sides, about not knowing who to believe, and about calling people out and what that even means. I couldn’t figure out how to reply.
As a person who runs a website known for criticism and for calling shit out, particularly in the art industry, I receive messages every single week telling me about something bad that has happened. Sometimes the stranger just wants to tell me to get it off their chest and that’s the end of that. Sometimes they want me to get involved though, to whistleblow, to muddy someone’s reputation. And I often have done. We have both done that for years. And do you know what, it has often felt good and powerful to feel so righteous and to fuck up a bad person’s day. But over the past year or so, it has made me feel ill. We have had messages from people after the fact saying that they wish they hadn’t gone the call-out route, that it has done more harm than good; we have had messages from people saying that we didn’t get the full story and we shouldn’t have gotten loud about something we weren’t there to witness; and on the cusp of lending our platform to someone who we thought was going through a really difficult time, we have seen the other side and realised that this victim might not be the only victim owed an apology. I’m not a journalist and I wish I had realised that sooner — not that journalists are usually any good but at least they have a duty to get the full story; I don’t think I really cared to know, because knowing would be slow and complicated and nuanced. I regret that position.
Reacting in that acutely Internet way that we have done for years, excited and fast, all guns blazing, all imagery, all crime and punishment, is too close to a fascist pace and tone; it’s not the type of writer or thinker or person that I want to be. So, when someone changes their profile picture and I don’t react, please know it’s because I don’t just want to deal with that one person, I want to set the whole house on fire. I don’t want to tweet about it. I want slow and complicated and nuanced writing like the work of Alison Rumfitt in ‘Tell Me I’m Worthless.’ God, I should only read books.