A few politicians had started to use his talking points—that the president was soft; that the Carls were a threat; that if giant robots could suddenly appear in every city in America (somehow the rest of the world was left out), what was to stop giant nuclear warheads from appearing . . . and exploding? Hide your kids, hide your wives! There’s a space alien terrorist on 23rd!
Before Carl, Peter Petrawicki was a low-level conservative hawk “journalist,” which I put in quotation marks because he seems to have never done a moment of research in his life. He was one of thousands of people who scraped by filtering reality through their ideology and then yelling really loudly at the internet. But his quick thinking (and writing—it took him two days to write the first draft of his manifesto) had made him an instant voice.
This might have stung all the more because I had a fairly similar trajectory. I inserted myself into this conversation when I didn’t really belong there. I was pitching a particular ideology that fit for some people but didn’t fit for others. It made perfect sense that a different perspective was going to feel more legitimate to people who were more afraid of otherness. A competing ideology was bound to pop up, I just didn’t realize that at the time. And so I was legitimately shocked that people were paying attention to Peter Petrawicki. His perspective was ludicrous for a number of pretty obvious reasons. First, if the Carls wanted to destroy us, as we had both agreed, they could do it instantaneously. Just because someone has power over you doesn’t mean they’re going to use it to hurt you. People who believe that tend to either be:
People who have been victims of that sort of behavior, or . . .
People who, if given power, will use it to hurt you.
Peter struck me as the latter.
In the space of ten minutes of research, my vague understanding of “That Asshole” morphed into a fully fleshed-out mental map of the hairball of hate that was Peter Petrawicki. He was scaring people unnecessarily for his own personal gain, and from that fear was rising a fledgling hatred of Carl that lit a fire in me.
And he’d been on the news every single day since Hollywood Carl’s hand popped off. While I’d been breaking up with my girlfriend, moving apartments, answering emails, and replying to YouTube comments, this guy had built an anti-Carl ideology and inspired a growing army of followers. I had even seen them in my comments, but I just ignored them like they were normal haters. But there’s a big difference between an isolated troll and a movement. This was a movement, and I had completely misidentified, or willfully ignored, it.
In the days after Maya and I had broken up, I realized, I was just reacting to what was happening. I was trying to keep the jolt of constant attention alive, and who could blame me? There was a lot happening and I was overwhelmed. But I was also running out of fuel and I could feel it. I had solved my mystery, and the new one was far too big for any one person to tackle on their own. I thought maybe I was done. That maybe I could coast forever on what we’d done in two weeks. I was running out of that good ambition fuel, and maybe we had done all we could do.
Talking to the president was temporary fuel. The importance of the Hollywood Carl video was as well. Even knowing that I would go down in history as the person who made First Contact with an alien, that was somehow fleeting. Those things felt good, but they couldn’t keep feeling as good as they had felt when they first happened. And as they receded, even in the moments immediately after they happened, I felt the hole they left behind growing inside of me.
But this was different. My annoyance became frustration, which became anger, which became hate, and hate is a long-burning fuel. Peter Petrawicki refilled my tank.
This was excellent for my short-term mental health and productivity but terrible for absolutely everything else.
* * *
Peter Petrawicki also gave me a bunch of strategies. I took his playbook and turned it right around on him, except I had a bigger audience and a better message.
As soon as I was home from the satellite studio, I had Andy come over to make a video pulling Peter Petrawicki apart at the seams. I read and watched everything of his that I could get my hands on. (I even shelled out the three bucks for his book.) Then I took his arguments one by one and shoved them right back down his throat to rejoin the fetid lump that spawned them. Another thing I learned from him was to take what his supporters were saying as if it was what he was saying. He was fanning flames that ought not be fanned, and highlighting the worst of his audience was an easy way to show it.
And, of course, I had no idea of this then, but by engaging with him, I was affirming him and his wackos. Their ideas were getting more exposure through my larger audience, and I (and, of course, every news channel out there) was confirming the idea that there were two sides you could be on. It was a huge mistake, and also great for views.
It was a pretty dramatic shift for my channels. We had been informative, sure, but mostly wholesome, endearing, witty, and pretty lovey-dovey with the whole thing. The brand was happy, excited, interested. Now, suddenly, we were adding snark and bite and, yeah, politics. We went from being a thing that everyone knew about to a thing that everyone could have an opinion on.
If Peter had opinions about why the Carls were here, then I had to have opinions as well. I started being more overt with my suspicions that they were watchers, sent to observe how humanity reacts to the knowledge that they are not alone. This fit in well with the Dream: They were giving us a task that none of us could accomplish on our own. If we could accomplish it, that would show that we were a global, cooperative species.
The consequences for failing the test that Carl had put to us could be dire or they could be nothing at all. The consequences for passing, though, might be the end of poverty and disease. Whoever made the Carls obviously had technology far superior to ours, and if they wanted to, they might offer us everything from interstellar travel to immortality.
Of course, I was pulling this all straight out of my ass. I didn’t know if the Carls were dangerous or if my mind was being controlled. Who cared as long as my made-up shit wasn’t as poisonous as Peter Petrawicki’s made-up shit.
In the end, my brand was me, so whatever I said became something I believed.
And that’s how I came to spend months of my life being exactly the thing I hated most in the world: a professional arguer, a pundit. Not because I was good at it or because I needed the money but because I was mad and scared and I didn’t know what else to do. The Carls had become more than my life; they were my identity. I used to be good at TV because I didn’t care and that irreverence was something people enjoyed. Now I had to be good because I did care.
And that’s what I try to take away from this period. Whatever I did, I did it because I cared. I believed Carl was a force for good in the world, and humanity’s opinion of Carl mattered because I came to honestly believe that the Carls were here to judge us. It didn’t even matter if I was right, because that was the world I wanted to live in; that was the world that made sense to me. And even if I was wrong, I believed the world would be better off if we just acted as if I was right.
Every person who joined the loosely defined international (and mostly online) movement that Peter was part of (which of course became known as the Defenders) was a vote against humanity.
We just went through about three weeks of my life and it took almost half of this book. Now things are going to get a lot more spaced out. I hope you don’t mind. I am not proud of these months, but more importantly, they were mostly boring and you know that we’re still a ways away from July 13 and you’re wondering when the heck we’re going to get there. So I think I can give you a pretty good idea of what went down during those months with some vignettes and I’m going to start each one with a tweet I posted that day. Like this:
@AprilMaybeNot: Pauly Shore is the hero we deserve.
I’m sitting in the studio/office that Andy and I built in my apartment’s second bedroom. It’s a complete mess except for the area behind my desk that Andy and I have made look respectable so that I can make videos easily. There’s a semi-impressionist portrait of Carl on the wall behind me that we commissioned from a friend at SVA. One of the best things about having money is paying people to do good work.
Another good thing about money is that it makes problems go away. For example, Robin has brought us not only pizza but also a second phone for me, dedicated entirely to April May, the internet persona. We can pass it around so that Miranda or Andy or Robin can all tweet as me, while I can keep my personal phone dedicated to actually being a normal human.
The camera and lights are all facing me, but they’re off. Robin is sitting in the swivel chair Andy usually sits in while we make videos.
We’re both eating the pizza he’s just brought up from Frank’s downstairs. I’ve been trying to write the thing that would become My Life with Carl for about a week. So far it’s terrible, but I need to get something out. Putnam said we were losing a lot more than money. She feared we were losing a stake in the world. “Every time someone says ‘bestselling author Peter Petrawicki’ without being able to say ‘bestselling author April May’ is a day that we lose credibility” were, I think, her exact words.