It all started last week when Heather Wick logged onto her now-deleted Facebook page and wrote: “Do you think Trump will bring back slavery? I could use a maid.”
Reaction was swift as the post went viral. The 44-year-old Burlington woman says she has been deluged with death threats, upward of 300 per hour.
The phone calls come from across the country, originating in states such as Texas, Illinois, Indiana, New York and South Carolina. She doesn’t answer the phone, which rings incessantly, but the callers leave voicemails saying some of the most nasty things imaginable.
“Go to hell, you’re a nasty woman,” one man hissed. “Oh haha, get a sense of humor! No shut the fuck up with your racist fucking jokes, bitch. Fuck you! I can’t wait for you to fucking die and go to hell. But I’m not going to do that; you’re just going to do that on your own you fucking son of a bitch, kill yourself.”
Wick told Seven Days in a phone interview Thursday that the post stayed up for three days. One of her four brothers called and told her to take it down, and she did — but the damage was done. Wick believes that at least two Facebook friends took screenshots of the post, her LinkedIn page and other personal information and shared it online.
What these people know about Wick has been gleaned from her digital footprint. She attended Albany Medical College and has got “M.D.” next to her name, so in the eyes of her critics she’s not just racist, she’s a racist doctor. She’s married, and callers have harassed her husband. They’ve found more distant family members and left threatening messages for them.
What’s not apparent online: Wick is bipolar and was likely in the midst of a manic episode. She says she was diagnosed in 1997 while attending Albany Medical College. Yes, she did graduate. But she never finished residency. One year in, she quit.
“I had to leave because I was still sick with bipolar disorder and working 120 hours a week was detrimental to my health,” Wick told Seven Days.
“Between 1998 and 2007, I was hospitalized five times for bipolar disorder,” she added. “I have had the same psychiatrist since 2000 and it took eight years to get on a medication regimen that works for me. I have ups and downs, but haven’t had to be hospitalized since 2007.” Wick didn’t use her mental illness as an excuse for what she posted on Facebook. In fact, she said just the opposite.
“My mother keeps calling and saying — she’s my bipolar watchdog — she says, ‘You were manic when you wrote that, you were manic!’” Wick told Seven Days on Thursday. “I wasn’t manic, I was making a satirical joke. I regret that I did it because it was a little too over the line. I meant it as a joke but I apologize if I offended anybody.”
Often, someone experiencing a swing in bipolar disease doesn’t realize it or won’t admit it in the moment, according to Dr. David Rettew, the director of the pediatric psychiatry clinic at the University of Vermont Medical Center. Rettew spoke to Seven Days about general background on the disorder, not Wick’s specific case.
He said an episode can be brought on by a change in season or something like travel, where there are time zone changes that affect a person’s sleep cycle. During a manic episode, which by definition last at least a week, the person can either be “giddy and euphoric in a super hyped up and happy way, while others present a profound, intense irritability. You can get that whole range.”
“People may end up doing a lot of high risk activities that they later regret and that have painful consequences,” Rettew continued. “They can say things they don’t believe, they can spend money they don’t have, they can become more promiscuous. A lot of mistakes are made when people are manic.”
A concerned family member of Wick’s contacted Seven Days after learning about the story. This close relative, who asked not to be named because he, too, has received angry phone calls and was concerned for his family’s safety, reiterated Wick’s statements about her mental health. He detailed Wick’s struggle and said she’d been in good shape for the past five years.
He said that a recent trip to Hawaii, and the resulting jetlag, threw Wick out of whack. Wick, he said, has been in the midst of a manic episode beginning some time before she typed up her ill-fated post.
None of that was known by people who first saw her post shared.
It took on a life of its own when it reached a woman in St. Louis earlier this week. Just after midnight Tuesday, Gina Cheatham, a TV personality with a digital following of nearly 2,000 people, posted the screenshot on her Facebook page.
“Dr. Heather Wick: Where and when is joking about chattel slavery ever funny???” Cheatham wrote.
The post exploded, pinging around cyberspace to blogs, forums and websites. Cheatham’s original post had more than 22,400 shares, 7,300 reactions and 4,800 comments.
Cheatham, who appeared on a Lifetime channel reality TV show called “BAPs,” later wrote a post condemning those who chose to send Wick death threats, which she explained was not her intent.
Courtesy of Gina Cheatham
“We are not here on this earth to judge but to lead with love and encourage others to do the same,” she wrote shortly after her post went viral. “So please stop the cycle of hatred! Responding to racial insensitivity with threats of violence and/or racial insensitivity begets nothing more than racial insensitivity, and/or threats of violence.”
Cheatham, who spoke to Seven Days on Friday, posted about Wick’s slavery remark after she saw someone share it in her feed. She never expected it to take off like it did, she explained.
“My intention was not to hurt anyone, Heather or her family,” said Cheatham, who hosts a TV show called the “Daily Mix.” “It just shocked my senses. I didn’t go digging for [Wick’s personal information], it was all right there. And her words were right there.”
Cheatham was unaware of Wick’s mental illness until Seven Days brought it up with her. She encouraged Wick to see her doctor and get the help she needs.
“It’s not OK. We all have issues we are dealing with individually and that does not excuse us for hurting other people,” Cheatham said. “Your mouth is the biggest weapon you have and you can use it for healing — or for hurting.”
Wick eventually deleted her Facebook page. But her LinkedIn profile, which includes a photo, a Yahoo email address, her cellphone number and her address, remained active. People began blasting her information out for the world to see.
Others contacted her past employers, her husband’s employer and anyone else they could find associated with the person dubbed, “Heather Wick, the racist doctor from Burlington, Vt.” Someone even commented on a Facebook page for alumni of Albany Medical College. The hashtag #HeatherWick circulated on Twitter.
Wick couldn’t keep up with the torrent of furious emails, texts and phone calls. “They’re hitting me from all angles,” she said.
One of her brothers advised Wick to pick up and apologize to the callers. “I made some friends; some said ‘Fuck you,’” she recalled.
Wick contacted the Burlington police and the FBI, which advised her to not respond to any of the threats or calls.
Such swift and far-reaching backlash is life in the digital age. In late 2013, a woman named Justine Sacco posted a tweet before getting on an 11-hour flight to Cape Town, South Africa.
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” she wrote.
But what is the ultimate goal of such online vigilantism, and what does it accomplish? How can so many people judge someone they’ve never met, based on 13 words published on the internet? Does context or that person’s life story matter?
Wick’s a Burlington native who says she finished third in her Burlington High School senior class of 225 students. She went on to attend Dartmouth College before enrolling at Albany Medical School to become a doctor.
Then, she said, she “cracked up.”
“When 9/11 hit, I must’ve made 50 phone calls to the FBI tip line because I thought all Toyota drivers were terrorists,” Wick said. “I called the tip line every time I saw one and gave them their license plate number. That’s one extreme. What you have with me are these minor blips where I go up and do things I wouldn’t ordinarily do and that’s what this post is all about.”
After leaving her residency, Wick said, she worked as a barista and at Stowe Mountain Resort before bouncing around medical professional jobs in New York City, Boston and Burlington. She finally found work she enjoyed, recruiting in the health care industry, and has done that for five years. Family members have helped keep a close eye on her and her mental health.
As presidential election fever hit last year, Wick found herself staunchly supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). She thinks the nominating process was bogus, but decided to back Hillary Clinton anyway.
She was shocked when Donald Trump won the presidential election.
“I have a lot of liberal friends. When Trump won, I said, ‘Holy shit. I’m terrified; he’s a madman. But I have to accept this because this is reality.’ I accepted the fact Trump won and I’ve been doing what I can to be supportive of this transition.”
“I was reading posts from Facebook friends,” she continued, “who were saying, ‘Trump’s going to kill us all; he’s going to remove all protections for the LGBT community; he’s going to turn back civil rights.’ Finally, I got sick of hearing all these doomsayers, and I put up a post that said: ‘Hey, maybe Trump will bring back slavery. I could use a maid.’”
And here we are. Wick reiterated that she apologizes and regrets the post immensely.
“Bipolar is one of those illnesses that, even if you’re stable, you can have minor blips on the radar,” Wick said on Friday. “Unfortunately one minor blip on the radar was the comment I made about slavery.
“Managing bipolar disorder is an hour-by-hour job,” she added. “If it comes on, I’m completely uncontrollable. I become a monster. You just have no idea what’s going to come out of my mouth.”
Burlington Police Deputy Chief Shawn Burke said Wick called to report the threats earlier this week. All the threats have been online, over email or over the phone, he said. No one has threatened her in person.
Tracking down the threats, which have come from all over the country, is difficult because people often use phony email addresses or mask their identities using Google Voice, an app. Charging someone from out of state with disorderly conduct by electronic means is fruitless, Burke said, because the charge is a misdemeanor and not extraditable.
Burke said the department formulated a “safety plan” for Wick and advised her to change her phone number and to leave her home until the clamor dies down.
“It’s a major disruption for a person’s life, but you’ve got to make your world really small to recover from an event like this,” Burke said.
Burlington police have never seen anything like this, Burke said. This should serve as a warning for people, he added.
“People really need to evaluate before they post,” he warned. “Just because the Constitution says it’s protected speech, it’s probably not wise to put out on a social media platform where there’s zero control about how far that might go. You should really think about how much personal information is online about yourself: your address, your family members, your employment status, phone number — all of that is easily available online.”
Cheatham, who described a family life steeped in African American history and an attitude of openness and acceptance, recognized the fact that she and this stranger, who lives 1,100 miles away, are now forever inexorably linked.
“What’s funny is she does not know me and I don’t know her,” Cheatham mused. “She probably doesn’t even know my name.”
Wick’s name, on the other hand, is a hashtag. Things posted on the internet, after all, don’t just go away.