In the Graham Greene novel Heart of the Matter, there’s a moment where the unlucky protagonist looks up at the night sky and wonders, “If one knew the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets?”
Nearly everyone and everything deserves sympathy, provided you know their side of the story. Look closely at the tales of some of our popular hate figures and you might even find yourself feeling sorry for them. No diagnosis or explanation changes the actions of these people, but in looking at the stories of these pop culture villains, it’s much easier to understand how they got to where they are today.
10Chris Brown Has Mental Health Problems
Chris Brown is known for assaulting Rihanna and refusing to apologize for it. He’s the sort of person who has entire lists dedicated to tracking his douchiest moments. He also happens to suffer from bipolar disorder and PTSD.
In 2014, E! News obtained a probation officer’s report from a treatment facility Chris Brown was attending. The report revealed that the singer had untreated post-traumatic stress disorder and suffered from bipolar II—a spectacularly unpleasant form of bipolar disorder that includes the horrendous depths but very few of the manic highs. The report concluded that his track record of violent behavior was linked to his attempts to “self-medicate,” a polite way of saying he tried to drink his demons away.
Though a lot of people suffer from mental illnesses without ever laying a finger on others, bipolar II combined with PTSD is serious stuff. Untreated, it can utterly wreck your life, making you feel worthless and overwhelmed by guilt. At worst, it can drive you into such a dark place that anyone with PTSD is at a high risk for suicide. If that’s what Chris Brown’s suffering, it’s not an envious position to be in.
9Josie Cunningham Was Horribly Bullied As A Child
Frequently called “Britain’s most hated woman,” Josie Cunningham is famous for getting breast augmentation courtesy of the state and offering to abort her baby for a place on Big Brother. Her entire modus operandi is to provoke outrage and revel in the attention.
In January 2015, Channel 4 released a documentary on Josie’s life. Mostly, it confirmed what everyone already suspected: She acted outrageous for the money. But it did throw up a surprising piece of backstory. As a child, Josie was bullied horrendously.
The bullying crossed the line into violent assault. According to Josie, gangs of older kids threw her down stairwells, tried to shove her out a second-floor window, and once doused her in gasoline. She received no protection from police and very little from her school. The reason for her victimization? She had a completely flat chest.
In the documentary, Josie talks about how her state-sponsored surgery made her feel confident for the first time in her life. This surgery first sparked the media backlash against her, courtesy of The Sun. Josie then simply rode the wave of outrage.
8The Cat Bin Lady Was In An Extremely Dark Place
Immortalized as “cat bin lady” after the above video of her dumping a cat went viral, Mary Bale was convicted of animal cruelty in 2010. For a brief period, animal lovers hated her deeply.
But Mary Bale was going through some incredibly dark stuff at the time of the incident. Her father was dying in the hospital, and Bale was walking home from one of her daily visits with a mind “stuffed full of bother and sorrow.” In a later interview with the Financial Times, Bale claimed she had no memory whatsoever of putting the cat in the bin. The author of the piece conjectured that this was likely due to the extreme grief and stress she was dealing with, concluding that it wasn’t a malicious act.
When the video went public, things only got darker. Bale was fired from her job, nearly lost her home, and then had her father die as her case dragged through the court system. She also claims reporters from UK tabloids hounded her family in the hospital. A year after she went viral, Mary Bale was broke, unemployed, alone, and utterly miserable. The rest of the world, meanwhile, had moved on.
7Russell Brand Had An Awful Childhood
Russell Brand may not be as unpopular as some on our list, but plenty of people find him extremely abrasive. His political activism has sparked backlash in his home country. He’s a celebrity many love to hate.
Russell Brand’s backstory, meanwhile, reads like someone sat down and tried to describe the worst childhood in human history. Before he was 10 years old, his mother had been diagnosed with cancer three times. His father was completely absent and ultimately brought the family to financial ruin. Brand spent his time feeling extremely lonely and depressed. He developed bulimia, fell into drug addiction, and as a child was sexually abused by a neighbor. In his autobiography, Brand said this abuse happened when he was only seven years old.
In interviews since, Brand has been pretty open about what he went through, and how traumatic it was—an attitude that seems to have helped other abuse survivors.
6The People In The 9/11 Photo Weren’t Indifferent
In September 2006, photographer Thomas Hoepker released the above image he’d taken five years earlier. Showing a bunch of young people relaxing in front of the distant fire of the collapsing Twin Towers, it was instantly controversial. Hoepker said his subjects “weren’t stirred” by the event. The New York Times damned them as representatives of their unfeeling generation.
But those relaxing young people were actually neither relaxing nor young. They were a group of mostly forty-somethings in a deep state of shock.
If you’ve ever been on the periphery of an accident, you’ll know it’s not like the movies. Instead of watching with terror on their faces, people smile blankly, act vague and polite, and make dazed small talk. It’s one of the ways our brains shield us from horror. According to Walter Sipser, one of the people in the picture, the group was in a “profound state of shock and disbelief.” Hoepker never spoke to them and never asked permission to take their picture. He simply snapped it and later released it with an uninformed commentary on their reactions.
Although Sipser’s account has been on record for nearly 10 years now, the photo hasn’t gone away. In 2011, The Guardian even opined that its subjects were reminiscent of the characters in Seinfeld, who get sent to jail for not caring about others.
5The Auschwitz Selfie Girl Was Honoring Her Dead Dad
In summer 2014, schoolgirl Breanna Mitchell took the above photo, posing smiling outside Auschwitz concentration camp. Things got even worse when Mitchell responded to her picture going viral by tweeting, “I’m famous, y’all.” But Breanna Mitchell wasn’t at Auschwitz just to take dumb photos. She was there to honor the memory of her recently deceased father.
In a video interview after the debacle, Mitchell revealed that she and her father had shared a joint interest in learning about the horrors of the Holocaust. Far from being monumentally dumb, she’d studied the extermination of the Jews in high school and was highly clued up about the significance of Auschwitz. The two of them had even planned a trip to Poland to learn more about the site, a plan that sank when Mitchell’s father unexpectedly died. A year after the funeral, Mitchell went to Europe solo, and she took her selfie to remember her dad. As for the smile, it’s been suggested this was just an unfortunate reflex action.
Mitchell’s not the only one to ever take a selfie at Auschwitz. In 2014, a Facebook page was set up specifically to collect the hundreds of selfies teens take there every year.
4Lindsey Stone Was Improving People’s Lives
In 2012, Lindsey Stone posted the above picture of herself shouting and swearing next to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington. The world responded by making sure everyone knew she hated veterans and getting her fired from her job. That job happened to be with LIFE (Living Independently Forever), an organization dedicated to helping adults with severe learning difficulties. She was good at her job. Before she got fired, grateful parents called her “the best thing that ever happened to that campus.”
She also wasn’t disrespecting the tomb. Stone and her best friend Jamie were involved in a long-running gag about contradicting orders on signs. They took pictures of themselves smoking in front of no-smoking signs, for instance. When they saw the “Silence and Respect” sign beside the tomb, Stone immediately pretended to shout and swear, purely as a private joke. This joke cost her her job, gave her insomnia, and hurled her into a year of depression.
3Katie Hopkins Suffers From Severe Epilepsy
If there’s a terrible opinion, UK columnist Katie Hopkins has it. Over the years, she’s called people with dementia a waste of resources, mocked people with disabilities, and been accused by the UN of making “pro-genocide” comments.
She also has acute epilepsy, and if you’ve ever met a sufferer, you’ll know epilepsy is no laughing matter. The symptoms vary but can frequently be terrifying and leave the sufferer disorientated or injured. The Epilepsy Foundation estimates suicide rates may be 5.8 times higher among epileptics as a result of this.
In 2014, Hopkins revealed in an interview that her seizures were so bad that she had been hospitalized 26 times in the previous nine months. During several seizures, she’d even managed to dislocate her arms—an experience that’s pretty horrible if it only happens once in your life, let alone repeatedly. In 2015, she even wrote an open letter to her three children, informing them her epilepsy will one day kill her.
2Justine Sacco Was Nearly Cut Off By Her South African Family
Around Christmas 2013, PR “guru” Justine Sacco boarded a plane for South Africa. Her last tweet read “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” People took offense. Sacco lost her job and was nearly cut off by her family.
One thing few people stopped to wonder was why Sacco was on her way to South Africa for the holidays. It was because she had family there, lots of them. All of them supported Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress party, and as long-term members of the party that fought Apartheid, they came very close to cutting Sacco off.
Sacco held similar anti-racist beliefs, and the trip had got her thinking about how many people consider HIV/AIDS an “African thing.” Her tweet was meant to be an ironic commentary on some people’s ignorance of the disease, but everyone took it the exact opposite way.
The result was a family ashamed to have her home over the holidays and the destruction of everything she loved. At one point, things got so bad that Sacco escaped into charity work in Addis Ababa, where people continued to tweet her abuse. At least her family eventually reconciled with her.
1Fred Phelps Took It All Back (Maybe)
Head of the homophobic Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps was such a bigot that even the KKK campaigned against him. When he finally died in 2014, the whole world celebrated.
We’re not going to argue that Fred Phelps was a misunderstood man deserving of your sympathy. He was a world-class hate preacher. But not long after he died, a story came out that may make you see him in a slightly different light. In a Facebook post, a former Westboro Baptist member alleged that before he died, Phelps changed his mind on everything.
The story goes that Phelps had an epiphany in front of Equality House, a gay-supporting organization set up opposite Westboro headquarters to counter their message. Surrounded by Westboro Baptist members, he apparently told the Equality House guys, “You are good people.” The post further claims that Phelps then made a small donation to the charity and seemed to have finally repudiated his own toxic views on homosexuals.
Now, clearly this doesn’t excuse the misery Phelps had caused for decades beforehand. It also may not be true, although the head of Equality House claims it is a factual account. But if it is, it might show that even the nastiest, hardest heart is capable of change—even if it’s too little, too late. He may not be deserving of our sympathy, but perhaps there was a small spark of humanity left in Phelps at the end.