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Let’s unpack that

How the internet is helping women to expose toxic men

Social media may be a bin fire – but it’s also ensuring that serial liars get their just desserts. Chimene Suleyman, author of memoir ‘The Chain’, tells Helen Coffey how the online sisterhood kicked into gear to create healing out of hurt

Tuesday 07 May 2024 10:38 BST
Social media can be a tool for women to warn others about bad relationship behaviour
Social media can be a tool for women to warn others about bad relationship behaviour (Getty/iStock)

It sounds like a nightmare. Or a horror film, maybe. The idea of sitting in an abortion clinic, frightened and overwhelmed, and realising that your partner – who said they’d just gone to find the toilets – isn’t coming back.

This is precisely what happened to British writer Chimene Suleyman in 2016. Her then boyfriend left her without a word, then went straight to her New York apartment to remove all of his belongings – something she only discovered later from watching CCTV footage. The only explanation he gave was a message telling her she was “ruined”, that no one would ever love her again, that she shouldn’t attempt to contact him or his friends. After that, she was blocked.

“It’s one thing to break up with someone – it’s quite another to be abandoned in that way,” she tells me. “I was in shock; I remember everything felt manic. It just seemed incomprehensible. I couldn’t make sense of what had happened.”

His behaviour left Chimene, 33 at the time, in a state of limbo, robbing her of the headspace to properly grieve the abortion he’d talked her into getting, while myriad unanswered questions swirled around her head. She spent a month in a fog of devastated confusion, consumed by self-loathing. Then, she saw a social media post that changed everything.

“A month after the clinic, in a bar at the end of my road, I typed his name into Instagram. I was still terrorising myself. Still hoping to find evidence that he was better off without me,” Chimene writes in her new book inspired by the experience, The Chain. Instead, what popped up was a black and white drawing of her ex’s face, accompanied by a hashtag of his full name and the comment, “Unfortunately the guy in the picture turned out to be a psychopath.”

It had been shared by Zoe, a woman in Melbourne who, when Chimene contacted her, revealed that she’d had a brief but awful romance with the man in question. He’d still been in a “committed” relationship with Chimene at the time. Zoe connected her with another woman in New York, Jessica, who’d also dated him simultaneously; also fallen pregnant; also been persuaded to have an abortion, spurred on by a fraudulent story about his mother being on her deathbed. Jessica had capitulated to his various requests for money, too, funding a world tour for his work as a comedian, and ostensibly paying for stints in various treatment centres (he never told her which ones) when he claimed to be struggling with his mental health. The total amount stacked up to around $30,000 (£24,000).

As time went on, more women got in touch with Zoe via the post. All had had similar experiences, in which he wooed them initially before telling them he suffered from agoraphobia and autism to explain away erratic behaviour, often staying at their apartments without paying any rent while borrowing large sums of money. Empty promises to pay them back after his next “lucrative” gig never came to fruition. Often, he was seeing multiple women at once while pretending to be monogamous – even taking dates back to other girlfriends’ apartments, which he claimed were his own, while they were away.

Legions of women came together thanks to one Instagram post
Legions of women came together thanks to one Instagram post (Getty)

By autumn 2017, the original Instagram post had blown up, attracting hundreds of comments from the women he’d abused and hurt along the way. They shared stories and commiserated with one another, starting a WhatsApp group as a kind of support network. Uncovering the fact that he had been leading multiple lives concurrently – and that he had cheated on, betrayed, stolen from and lied to so many other women – was, for Chimene, an oddly cathartic experience.

“I was incredibly relieved,” she says. “Seeing the full scale of what he did to these really brilliant, smart women – I suddenly realised the issue wasn’t that I couldn’t see what had been in front of me, but that there were red flags all along and I didn’t trust my intuition. I didn’t trust my gut.”

As soon as she started speaking to and meeting more of his victims, it fast-tracked her healing process. “I was like, ‘OK, I’m not crazy.’ Because when I looked at another woman who’d gone through the same thing, and really admired her – thought she was great, and funny, and bright, and successful, and extremely kind – I realised I wasn’t judging her. So why was I judging me? We shared an almost identical experience at the same time – and if I don’t think she’s a worthless person, why do I think I am?”

Periodically, the comments on the post would get taken down – referring as they did to the subject being “dangerous” and a “psychopath” – but Zoe left her illustration up, amending the caption to read: “I leave it here because it is true. It is not meant to shame, but to alert women that they may be in danger when becoming close to this man.” Through it, women continued to connect, to reach out, to warn others who seemed at risk of being used and disposed of in the same way. Through that one social media post, countless women could finally find a voice and start processing their trauma.

There is a palpable consequence to this man’s actions – an Instagram post that cannot be erased, that will haunt him and serve as an eternal beacon

While this may be on the extreme end, it’s just one example of how social media can be a tool for good when it comes to deeply problematic relationship behaviour. Internet forums are often seen as raging bin fires of despair, but they have also enabled women to connect the dots. Ten years previously, had Chimene been walked out on while awaiting an abortion, that would have been the end of it. She’d never have found any answers – perhaps forever believing that she wasn’t good enough, that it was somehow her “fault”, that she deserved to be stuck in a spiral of shame. Now, not only does she have closure, but there is a palpable consequence to this man’s actions – an Instagram post that cannot be erased, that will haunt him and serve as an eternal beacon to others.

In much the same way, Facebook groups such as “Are We Dating the Same Guy?” have sprung up, enabling women to compare notes to see if they’re being lied to by a serial cheat or player. TikTok videos have gone viral in which women issue warnings – “If your fiancé just went on his bachelor party to Las Vegas and was at the MGM Wet Republic Pool yesterday, he cheated on you...”

Then there are the deadbeat dads and men who ghost their literal wives, being brought to justice by a generation of armchair internet sleuths. One recent example is the woman who used social media to locate her awol husband after he walked out on her and their child – while she was still pregnant with his second baby – never to be heard from again. Her only aim, she claimed, was to find him, two years after the fact, so that she could move on with her life.

“Divorcing someone who’s completely unreachable is really tough and drawn out, so I’m trying to track him down to get his signature on a few papers so I can finally close this chapter,” Ashley wrote in her original Facebook post. “If you know him, if you’re working with him, if you’re dating him or friends with him, can you please have him get in touch with me or let me know where I can find him.”

She finished by making a direct appeal to women online: “All the girls’ girls out there, feel free to share.”

Reader, the internet found this man’s exact whereabouts in under 24 hours. In Chimene’s opinion, this form of social media in action is, by and large, a positive development. “I do think it’s brilliant,” she agrees. “It’s dangerous if you get the wrong person, of course, but so long as it’s implemented responsibly... If we’re going to live with this much access to each other’s lives because of the internet, which can be dangerous, this is at least a way of turning that on its head and using it as a force for good.”

Women have created online sisterhoods to support each other through dealing with toxic behaviour
Women have created online sisterhoods to support each other through dealing with toxic behaviour (Getty)

Women, she argues, have always done this to a greater or lesser extent – because we don’t have systems in place that truly protect us, as we have seen in the historical failures of the police force, the legal system, and the mainstream media. “We’ve had to create our own ‘undersociety’,” she says. “We’ve created the whisper network: if you can’t trust that a man at your workplace will be held accountable for harassing women, you take the new girl aside and warn her not to end up alone with him in a meeting room.” We keep one another safe where society can’t (or won’t).

As for Chimene and her fellow survivors, the WhatsApp group is still going strong – but it now has little, if anything, to do with the man who brought them all together. What started as solace-seeking blossomed into friendships that easily pass the Bechdel test: “Once in a while, if something crops up about him being a danger and someone’s seen it, they’ll share it. Beyond that, it didn’t take very long for us to have conversations with each other that had absolutely nothing to do with him.”

And perhaps, in the end, that’s the best revenge: reducing this small, toxic man to nothing more than a small, toxic footnote in these formidable women’s far more interesting life tales.

‘The Chain’ is out now, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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