By now, you have probably heard of Linda Walther Tirado, aka "Killer Martinis," the Gawker commenter gone viral for her first-person "poverty thoughts." You may have also heard people say she's a privileged full-of-crap grifter. The truth is weirder and far more complex.
Here's what we really knew at the outset: Tirado is married. She has two small children. She lives in Cedar City, Utah, and works as a night cook. In her Kinja post, "Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts"—which was promoted on Jezebel and Gawker—she said she was poor. Like, want-to-make-you-die poor. She claimed to have bad teeth, and unpaid bills, and nonstop work from 6 a.m. to 3 a.m. She suggested she had no bank account, but plenty of roaches crawling across her life. Most important, she had no hope.
It was too visceral. Too awful. Too too, for many readers. And it was read and shared hundreds of thousands of times over.
"I am not asking for sympathy," Tirado wrote. "I am just trying to explain, on a human level, how it is that people make what look from the outside like awful decisions."
Yet less than a month after publishing her post, she had begun talking about a book deal with an agent, opened a GoFundMe.com account that accepted tens of thousands in donations, and answered questions about her financial status and personal history that only seemed to raise more questions. Critics used her successive and seemingly inconsistent revelations to decry her as the privileged perpetrator of a liberal hoax, profiting off stereotypes about the impoverished.
(I'm not unfamiliar with the criticisms against Tirado, since I came in for a lot of them after my own viral, and admittedly privileged, rant on feeling like a white-collar working poor.)
Tirado demurred when I reached her by phone to ask her about truth of her poverty claims. "I am not able to speak openly at this point," she told me, her voice wavering slightly. "Mostly I need to get everything sorted." I asked if she was in any legal trouble, and she said no, but she'd "been advised not to make any comments to any media right now."
Here are the most salient points in the critics' case against Linda Tirado:
- She went to an "exclusive private school" in her early years, had "private music lessons from the age of four…owned twenty-three instruments" when she was 12, and "toured Europe as a featured soprano" the summer after high school.
- She admits to pissing away cash on smokes and making "a lot of poor financial decisions."
- She wants to turn her kids' room into a forest, "because I own this house and I can." Also, she has a china cabinet, which she wishes her kids would leave alone. (Gawker couldn't find a record indicating home ownership, but it did find 13 different addresses of record for her in West Virginia, Ohio, Florida, New Mexico, and Utah since 2001. Court records show she and her husband fought an eviction lawsuit in Cincinnati two years ago.)
- She's made some really bad academic decisions and also, that house? She says she's got no mortgage on it.
- She didn't mean to take donations online, it sort of started as a joke, but friends IRL and online ran with it and, well, why not?
- She's taking some of her donated money to go with her husband and best friend for "two nights in Vegas without children. It's gonna be awesome."
None of these—a charmed childhood, free-and-clear home ownership, a Vegas vacation—preclude poverty or invalidate Tirado's story outright, but they certainly raise a chicken-egg question: Does she make bad decisions because she's poor, or is she poor because she makes bad decisions? (Both can be true, of course. And when discussing poverty generally, neither needs to be true.)
The biggest criticism, though, is rooted in her own characteristically overwritten self-description:
How is it that someone with such clarity and evocation has any right to assert that they are poor? It is likely untrue. Well, it is and it isn't. You have to understand that the piece you read was taken out of context, that I never meant to say that all of these things were happening to me right now, or that I was still quite so abject. I am not. I am reasonably normally lower working class. I am exhausted and poor and can't make all my bills all the time but I reconciled with my parents when I got pregnant for the sake of the kids and I have family resources. I can always make the amount of money I need in a month, it's just that it doesn't always match the billing cycles.
It's hard to sympathize with someone whose every successive statement seems to ornament and hedge a previous statement. Timelines get jumbly. Tirado had lived in flophouse hotels and subsisted on frozen burritos, but no longer did. She does spend a lot of time online now, which maybe seems like a not-poor thing to do.
"When people say that I am perhaps not legitimate," she added, "it is maybe sort of true if you mean that when I was at the low points I did not have time for blogs and since I do now I am not at the bottom. That is a true thing."
Tirado's particular combination of details led many people to want to help her. With money. And she said Sure!:
The point is, I did not ask for any of this. I just wrote a thing on a Gawker forum. Everything that has come after is because something about the way I said it has resonated with hundreds of thousands of people. Everything that has come after is magic.
That's not exactly true. She wrote a thing, then emailed a Gawker Media editor asking for it to be shared, which it was. Then she started a Gofundme.com account based on the reaction to her story. That's not magic. That's how plenty of people make money, for good or otherwise.
Ten days ago, on her funding site, Tirado wrote that she would start a nonprofit with the money—after spending a little on her own dental surgery and work—and the sky was the limit: "I am raising the cap to $100,000, and if this insanity doesn't stop and we get there, I will make it $150K."
But the next day, she shut her Go Fund Me page down after raising $62,058, which she said had helped her realize her dream of "health, and a reasonable assurance that if I get the flu I will not miss the rent, and more time with my family." Why the abrupt reversal? And if she owned a home, why would she have to worry about missing the rent?
Those are the most valid criticisms against Tirado. Here are some of the less valid ones:
- One writer, who promotes herself as the author of an online Scottish Terrier newsletter, insists on the relevance of Linda's past as "a lesbian taking on the Mormon church and a feisty fast food franchise manager putting entitled customers in their place."
- A Village Voice Media blogger—who, given her employer's record on writer compensation, is understandably embittered—thinks Tirado is a lying antichrist who can't possibly be poor, because she's "married to a Marine" and "speaks both German and Dutch." GRAVY TRAIN. (Gawker confirmed that Tirado's husband was a Marine, but not that he was on active duty—the only immediate circumstance in which his service might afford her dependent benefits.)
- That blogger also points to Tirado's LinkedIn profile, which identifies her as a freelance writer and Democratic political organizer for four previous campaigns. Because liberal political work is super-profitable in Utah, obviously. Or perhaps the implication there is that because she loves Obamacare, Tirado concocted her story to advance a political agenda. In any case, several of the positions she lists appear to be unpaid, and Gawker located only one possibly related payment in financial disclosures: a single payment of $1,200 to her husband—plus a $37.40 reimbursement for food—for consulting on the campaign of Cynthia Neff, an unsuccessful Virginia statehouse candidate for whom Tirado also worked.
These are all ad hominem charges that weren't really researched by their originators—an epically ironic bit of sloth from writers claiming to debunk another writer's assertions of fact.
But they pale in comparison to the internet's fever-swamp vitriol poured on Tirado—most of it right-wing, much of it encapsulated in the National Review's claim that this alleged fabrication by a "private-school-educated Democratic activist" invalidates the entire liberal mindset on poverty and how to combat it.
(The piece is called "The Left Falls For a Revealing Poverty Hoax," and in it, Harvard-trained randsplainer David French lazily misrepresents Tirado as a purveyor of lies to make his point about the stupidity of progressive compassion for the poor—"We don't serve and strive to help the poor because they're victims of circumstance but because such service echoes the love that Christ showed for us." This from a publication whose ilk urges sympathy for high-six-figure "Henrys"—"high earners, not rich yet"—who are allegedly ground down by work and impoverished by taxes.)
Linda Tirado says she intended to become a voice for the voiceless—someone with a platform to speak about poverty. Has she earned the credibility to do that? It's clear she has a fine, if raw, writing talent and an ability to move many readers with her confessional posts.
But though she says it wasn't her intention, she profited directly from her talents and experiences on a scale that (while understandable) undercuts her own story. She continued to write, and write, and write, to her own detriment—not just for altruistic reasons, and not just for profit, but evidently because she likes to write about herself and her plight. She is meticulous in answering her commenters, good and bad. She definitely craves attention (as writers do), and she has supporters in a safe place online, more than willing to attend to her in exchange for her meandering missives.
But in exploding myths about poverty—that there is only one way to be poor, and that it's to be jobless and hopeless and meek and chastened and probably a minority in the hood someplace who is reluctantly on WIC—she built up her own, sanded the edges a bit around her story, and sold it online. Is it appropriate for media outlets to fill in the holes in her story? Completely. Is she worthy of the Two Minutes Hate, the vitriol-laden political footballery, the "loose lesbian" ad hominems? No one is.
Should you give her money? I wouldn't.
Update: As reflected in the robust comments here, myriad supporters of Linda Tirado on Groupthink take issue with this account. Commenter NYCyclist compiled their issues here. Read them for yourself.