Utah blogger makes her life public fodder
This story originally ran Oct. 14, 2006.
Soaking in a warm bath with her 2-year-old daughter, Heather Armstrong asks her husband, Jon, to wash her back.
He runs the washcloth between her shoulder blades and then quickly circles around to rub her breasts.
"That's not my back," she says.
"Yes it is," he replies. "It's the part of your back called The Front."
As they banter, Jon Armstrong scoops up Leta and wraps her in a towel. He catches a glimpse of his grinning wife and warns: "You are not allowed to write about this."
Sorry, Jon. But she did. And this little item is far from the most personal Heather has shared with the online world.
From her home in Salt Lake City, Heather publishes quite possibly the most well read parenting blog on the planet.
Her site, Dooce.com, attracts between 800,000 and 1 million readers each month. For comparison's sake, Dooce receives about the same online traffic as The Salt Lake Tribune's site. Instead of daily coverage of the Iraq war or restaurant reviews, Heather posts a daily photo and writes an average four times a week about her life, her health and raising a child.
For the past year, this blog has been more than a hobby. It's her profession and the Armstrongs' primary source of income.
John, 41, quit his job a year ago and manages the business end. Heather, 31, writes and designs. Online advertisements from such companies as Disney, The New York Times and Wal-Mart pay the bills.
Heather may quip that she makes her living writing "quaint little stories about poop," but her path through personal publishing is the story of a woman who bucked her faith, rocked her family, lost her job and fought a life-threatening battle with depression.
Through it all, she posts her ups and downs for anyone to see. And at times, even her husband wishes some things would remain private - like that bathtub grope.
The birth of Dooce: Well-behaved and studious, Heather grew up outside of Memphis, Tenn., the baby in a strict Mormon household.
She pulled straight A's in high school, served as president of the seminary and captain of the volleyball team. Her goal was to become the U.S. attorney general. She moved to Utah in 1993 via an academic scholarship to Brigham Young University. Heather appeared confident, but inside she was racked with doubts about her faith.
During college, she felt her true self bubbling to the surface. The day she graduated was the last day she went to church.
Instead of going to law school, Heather moved to Los Angeles and became a Web designer. She always wanted to write, so she created Dooce in February 2001.
Where did the odd name come from? She often misspelled the word "dude" while sending messages to coworkers and friends. Dude, became duce and latter doooooce.
"Initially I wrote about anything and everything as widely and extravagantly as I wanted to," she said.
A few days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Heather posted a "drunken diatribe" about religious zealotry, which included comments about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and her parents.
"I really naively thought I was in this private little world," she said. "I found out very quickly that was a very stupid, stupid assumption."
Getting "dooced:" She never expected her parents to read it. Her mom didn't know how to turn on a computer. Her dad never used the Internet. But her older brother did - and he showed his parents the blog.
"They knew the way I was living but they were never confronted with it," Heather said. "It was sort of throwing it in their face."
Her dad didn't speak to her for three months. Her mother was devastated. And Heather was ashamed.
In hindsight, she calls the post "terrible." She removed it and thought she had learned her lesson: You can write what you want, but "you can't be insulated from what other people feel."
Still, when it came to her unbearable bosses, she couldn't help but vent.
"The Company" was led by "Her Wretchedness" and "the Vice President of Spin" among others whose unofficial titles are a little too vulgar to mention here. She never named the company or any employee, but she detailed her attempts to slack on the job.
A colleague anonymously informed the bosses.
Two weeks later on Feb. 26, 2002, Armstrong became the first person ever fired for what she wrote on her blog.
The incident flew through the Web, then The Washington Post called. She inadvertently spawned a new verb: whenever a person gets fired for blogging, they get "dooced."
Heather played it cool, at least online. Personally, she was mortified.
"Now I lost my job, not because of cutbacks or layoffs, but because I did something monumentally stupid," she said. "I felt myself on the edge of a mental and emotional breakdown."
She stopped writing. Dooce went dormant.
The guinea pig: The first person Heather shared her blog with was Jon. They met while Heather was attending BYU, but began dating in L.A., where he also was a Web designer. A blogger himself, he urged her to share her work.
At first he was known as "The Roommate" on Dooce. He became her husband in the months after she got fired. Her life settled down and the need to write returned. Four months after giving up her blog, Heather returned to posting stories about ingrown hair, goofy conversations and constipation.
Through all of this, Heather's mother, Linda Hamilton-Oar, kept her daughter at an emotional distance, stung by the Sept. 11 post.
Once she found the blog, Linda read everything her daughter had written.
"Initially, I was heartbroken," she said. "I felt like a failure as a parent."
Her daughter not only wrote disparaging posts about their faith, but she wrote about sex and drinking. She cussed and mentioned bodily functions.
For a full year, Linda struggled with the embarrassment. Then, without warning, her stress and angst fell away.
Standing in the Seattle airport on a business trip, Linda had an epiphany. Her daughter had wanted to be a writer since she was able to speak- and now she had succeeded. What other people thought was irrelevant.
She called Heather and told her how proud she was. Since then, their bond has only strengthened.
Linda now speaks at church about how parents can maintain relationships with children who have left the faith.
"Do I wish she was still active in the Mormon faith? Of course, I do," Linda said. "But she is not and I accept her for who she is."
So does her dad, Mike Hamilton, who relishes her sense of humor, but he remains disappointed when his daughter uses a swear word or mentions Mormons.
Heather promises never to write anything about her family that she wouldn't feel comfortable saying directly to them.
She can joke about it now - "I like to consider myself the guinea pig when it comes to being tactful online."
Black spiral of darkness: Two months after their marriage, Jon got laid off. She wanted to have children. The thought of living in the L.A. suburbs repulsed them. In late November 2002, they returned to Utah and Leta was born just 14 months later.
In regular Dooce fashion, Heather proclaimed that her newborn daughter resembled a frog.
Her joy was interrupted by a disease she had kept suppressed for years - debilitating, suicidal depression.
She stopped taking her medication once she got pregnant and felt fine until after she gave birth. Extreme postpartum depression ripped her psyche to shreds.
She couldn't handle her daughter's tears. Anxiety overwhelmed everything else. It started bad. It got much worse.
She called her husband at work and hung up. She threw things at him. She thought about hurting herself. Jon took family medical leave because Heather couldn't pull herself out of bed, couldn't unclench her fists.
"It is a black spiral of darkness, where life seems pretty hopeless," Heather recalls. "I had a lot to be happy about, but there was just something that was smothering me inside."
When she upset her family or lost her job, Heather retreated from her blog. This time, she kept writing.
Readers sent her personal accounts of their own depression and urged her to fight against the pain.
"It was like group therapy," she said. "I was actively trying to come up with lighter things in my life than the fact that I wanted to jump off the house every day."
That's a joke. This isn't: Heather regularly contemplated hanging herself with her dog's leash or chasing a bunch of pain pills with tequila. Thoughts of Leta held her back.
Heather tried 10 anti-depressants. Nothing helped. On Aug. 26, 2004, she was admitted to the mental unit.
Within a few hours, the smothering feeling lifted, her anxiety decreased. She could sit still. Finally, doctors found the right medication.
"It was like seeing a light for the first time," she said. "It was a religious experience."
She remained hospitalized at the University Neuropsychiatric Unit for four days, and wrote her blog items long hand. Even here, she found some humor. The toothpaste tasted like an ointment for an open wound and the deodorant smelled "like the shavings that line the bottom of a gerbil cage."
Jon posted her observations. Instead of the 30 to 40 e-mails she was used to, she received thousands. Those readers tracked her recovery and her later bouts of bladder infection and skin cancer.
From that point forward, her readership only grew.
A loyal following: Heather resisted placing ads on the site until her psychologist recommended hiring a part-time baby sitter. She started with a few text ads.
Some readers balked at her attempt to profit from the blog; most didn't care.
The Armstrongs don't feel comfortable disclosing their finances, but Jon compared that early ad revenue to what "someone who works at Taco Bell part time would make."
A year later they posted the first banner ad and three weeks after that "it just exploded."
Heather worried that accepting ad money would force her to self-censor, but their agreement with Federated Media allows them to accept or reject any advertiser, an attempt to stop any undue influence before it starts. So far, a few companies dropped her site because of a graphic that included "sweaty goat" testicles.
Chas Edwards, a Federated Media vice president, said advertisers can look past the sometimes explicit material because of the demographic Dooce reaches: 89 percent women, most of whom are highly educated, tech savvy and young. The monthly checks add up to a "comfortable enough middle class to upper-middle class income," Jon said.
Riding the wave: Dooce's popularity drew the interest of Kensington Publishing. But negotiations ended in a lawsuit that dragged on for months. Heather never signed a contract, but the New York publisher felt a "looks good" e-mail was binding.
Legal fees mounted and Heather worried she would lose her home. That reignited her depression.
"I had the worst summer of my life," she said.
She settled the case this week, agreeing to compile an anthology with other authors. And for the first time, she blogged about it.
"Puking on the keyboard" led to an emotional release she hadn't experienced since she was hospitalized.
In a few years she plans to write a book about postpartum depression, but she has a more immediate goal.
"There is an undeniable thing going on with my insides," she said. "I want to have another child."
And this time Heather vows it will be different. "I will not go off medication again - ever."
She will undoubtedly chronicle the experience, then wade through what can be an overwhelming response from her readers.
Heather rarely answers an e-mail, though she reads every message. Most are positive, but she gets mail calling Leta ugly and her dog, Chuck, stupid. Each nasty letter stings and in a way, she wants it to.
"I'm a sensitive person," she said. "I think if I ever got to the point where it didn't matter, I would lose that part of my spirit that comes across in my writing."
For the Armstrongs, Dooce has resembled an unpredictable wave. Heather's attitude: "We will ride this as far is it will go."