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Do you remember the lowest, most painful moments of your life? I do –– my stalker Aaron Jacob Greenspan and his associates try to remind me every day.
Everyone’s life is made up of good times and tough times. Having had more than my fair share of happy days I was long overdue to be slapped in the face by reality. These are the kind of times you’re always unprepared for, but that usually shape you and help you grow much faster than the good times.
Long before I bought a Tesla and the attacks from Aaron Greenspan started, I was lost, struggling, and hurting badly. I’m not trying to be dramatic or asking for your sympathy by telling you this. I’m fine now, and pretty happy –– these problems are nothing compared to the struggles others have faced. This chapter is just meant to give some context on what I was going through before Aaron Greenspan started stalking me, and why getting a Model 3 made such a difference in my life.
I’ve never told this part of the story before because Aaron Greenspan blackmailed me using some of the events in this chapter, threatening to humiliate me unless I kept quiet about him and his “charity”. But now enough time has passed that I can finally tell the story publicly without being as embarrassed. If you’re being blackmailed by someone online, take my advice and speak up as soon as possible. Sooner or later they will make good on their threats, so don’t just ignore it and hope it goes away.
All my life I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and once I got started I found that having worked with software my whole life made me a natural… at least on a technical level. What I didn’t understand yet was people, and as our startup grew bigger things seemed to slow down significantly. Work wasn’t as much fun as it used to be.
That’s when I started having disagreements about the future of the product with some of the people we’d hired to help manage the company. They wanted to focus on selling to police departments (which involved a slow, byzantine, and expensive government procurement process) and I wanted to build a real-time database of all the world’s crime and explore other markets like real estate and insurance where crime predictions could be of huge value.
After 5 years of working around the clock, I decided it was time to leave and try something else. Not too long after that, the two people I had been disagreeing with were fired by the remaining founders. If there’s one critical lesson here to pass along to other startup founders, it’s that your team is everything. When you’re desperate and swamped with work, it’s tempting to just hire whoever you can, but be careful. The right person can change everything, but the wrong person can set you back further than if you hadn’t hired anyone at all. This advice was passed along to me by someone at Google in the early days of PredPol, but I still wasn’t able to follow it when I came under pressure. Remember, your team is everything. That is the company.
After I left PredPol a few college friends and I decided to start our own software startup that we called Smick, but we didn’t really have the discipline required to manage to launch any real products or build a real business quite yet. With more free time, I also rejoined my family’s software business to help transition the company’s desktop products to the cloud and mobile devices, while also getting into a few other random projects along the way.
Criticism of PredPol
As if leaving the company I founded wasn’t hard enough, right after I left our product started getting hit with some groundless bad press. As PredPol spread around the world, the attention lead some anti-police and civil rights groups to say that the software was racist. The main concern was that if racially biased police reports went into the system, racially-biased crime predictions might come out. These are serious concerns but based on my inside information I always thought this line of thinking was funny and never believed the software was actually promoting racism.
For one thing predictions were assigned by division, so the software wasn’t really responsible for moving police resources from one area to another in a major way. Secondly, I knew firsthand from looking at usage data that most officers were barely using the predictions anyway.
That was one of our biggest challenges: How do we get police officers to actually use this? These were cops who believed they knew how to police their city, and most of the time they weren’t too eager to listen to some computer program. Quite the opposite of being racist, the software provided hard statistical data that didn’t have the same biases a human might about where “the bad part of town” is. Some of the most crime-ridden areas actually under-report incidents due to fear of the police, so it’s not just that the data was biased in one direction.
Behind all the marketing about “predicting future crimes”, PredPol was really just a modern mobile and cloud software package that helped police departments access, visualize, and analyze the data they already had. It used no personal information on individuals at all: only where, when, and what happened for each crime record. For those reasons and others, I don’t believe the software contributed to racial bias.
These days with BLM and other groups raising questions, policing has become kind of a dirty word. But our goal with PredPol was always just to keep ordinary people safe: prevent home break-ins, car break-ins, auto thefts, and violence. I feel good about the impact we had. There could have been some better messaging about how the product was part of the solution to these issues and not part of the problem, but this all happened long after I left the company.
21st Century Break Up
I missed work after I left PredPol, and I felt that I had failed to realize the transformative potential of the software project I had built. But work wasn’t the only place I was failing: It turned out I was a really shitty boyfriend too. I was completely clueless, and somehow managed to do everything wrong.
Before the internet, I imagine breaking up was much simpler. People probably just said “goodbye”, and then didn’t see each other anymore. In this day and age where everyone always has a phone in their hand and anyone is always only a few taps away, things are a little more tricky. Emma and I would fight, and then get drunk and forget what we were fighting about… only to remind ourselves again a few days later. The fact that we tried to still be friends and hang out with our whole friend group together didn’t make things any simpler.
Even though Emma didn’t want anything to do with me anymore, I convinced her to come to Holy Ship with me anyway. Holy Ship was this big party on a cruise ship where a bunch of artists play music non-stop for seven days, and all of our friends were going for the first time that year. I told her I had already paid for tickets for both of us before we broke up, so we might as well go. She said no at first, but caved after we hung out a few times and talked about how much fun it would be if she surprised all our friends by showing up unannounced.
It was one of the craziest and best parties I’ve ever been to. We danced until the sun came out, and then passed out in our cruise ship cabins. On the last night Emma and I sat and watched the waves through the window, talking until the sun came up. For a moment, it seemed like everything was going to be okay.
Things were good with Emma for a while after Holy Ship, but within a few months we realized that nothing had really changed. It was time to finally accept that it was over, and we wouldn’t be in each other’s lives in the future. It really sucked.
When it rains, it pours. Leaving PredPol and breaking up were the start of a series of events that gradually eroded my physical and mental health, leading me into the most painful days of my life. I’m fine now and can look back and laugh about it, but at the time it totally consumed me. If you’re going through something similar know that it will get better eventually, even though it never feels like it.
Emma said I was on a “downward spiral”. I never realized all the little ways she was making my life better –– the music she would send me, the podcasts she would tell me to listen to, the backpack she bought me when she saw my old one falling apart, and all the other little things she would help me with. Without her, I was hopeless at figuring out even simple things. I hadn’t appreciated her, and now she was gone. I’ve never missed anyone so much. Worse yet, I felt like I was losing my friends too. Emma and I used to hang out with all our friends together all the time, but suddenly that wasn’t always possible without making things awkward. I’d never felt so alone in my life.
Less than a month after that, someone close to me passed away unexpectedly. Then a few weeks later, a girl from my neighborhood who I had gone to elementary school with died in a motorcycle accident out of nowhere. She was my age, in her twenties. What was going on? It felt like the sky was falling, and life was over.
One of my best friends from high school passed and I feel so fucking sad and scared and small. Tell the people you love that you love them please.— Caitlin (@caithuls) December 16, 2020
I was drowning in loss. Every time I thought I’d hit rock bottom, things would get worse. I started to believe with irrational certainty that soon I was going to die too. If things kept getting worse, that just seemed inevitable. I wondered if I should just take my own life on my own terms before it was inevitably taken from me. Every day was so painful to get through anyway, and it felt like I was permanently broken and would never recover. I was so lost in my own head, overthinking everything, that hurting myself actually felt like a relief. Pain doesn’t leave you much room to think about anything else.
I did some damage to my body and soul, but eventually reached out to my friends when I realized things had gone way too far. They helped me get it together again. But now, I faced extreme digestive pain that made it difficult to focus and even more difficult to eat. If left untreated it would pose serious risks to my health, I was told.
To deal with medical complications I saw doctors who prescribed me some medicine and some weed. These days recreational marijuana is legal in California so you can just walk into a store and buy some, but back then you needed a doctor’s prescription. These were pretty simple to get from a doctor, but for people with legitimate medical needs medicinal marijuana can often be a much less harmful alternative to prescription drugs.
When it came time for next year’s Holy Ship, Emma booked her own cabin. Later, she decided to just save her money and cancel it. I was really bummed that I’d have to go without her. I knew it would still be fun, but there was no way it would be the same without her.
The Next Holy Ship
My friends and I went to Disneyworld when we arrived in Florida for the second year of Holy Ship. We would be on the party cruise for seven days, so we wanted to enjoy civilization while we could.
When we got ready to board the ship the next morning, friends checking in early warned us to be careful. Police were searching people’s bags randomly, looking for anything illegal. As you can imagine, people brought a lot of drugs on Holy Ship every year. My friends warned and begged me not to bring any weed, but I told them it would be okay because Florida also had medical marijuana laws similar to California’s. By that point, I had started leaning too heavily on alcohol and weed to stop myself from thinking and feeling everything that was hurting my head and my heart. Honestly I worried that if I didn’t bring any weed I might impulsively jump off the boat, so I tried to hide it in my suitcase inside one of my socks just in case someone checked my bag. That turned out to be a huge mistake that I would regret for years to come.
I went through security and check-in without a hitch, and the cruise staff handed me my room key. But as I turned to board the ship, someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was a white male police officer with a dog, who told me to follow him.
“Do you have a bomb? Are you from a terrorist country?”, he asked.
“No”, I told him, “I was born in Los Angeles”.
“Then what’s the deal?”, he pressed, “Why was the dog sniffing your suitcase? What am I going to find inside?”. I told him I had medical marijuana with me, and when he found it he passed me along to another officer who took me to a giant room where dozens of people (and even one of the female artists booked to perform on the ship) were being searched on rows of silver tables.
The officer who went through my suitcase was kind and joked with me as he wrote me up, but told me he would have to charge me with possession of a controlled substance for having weed with me. He said even though I had a California medical recommendation, I needed to have one from a doctor in Florida. He thanked me for being cooperative and told me, “it’s just weed, you’ll be in and out don’t worry. I’m sorry, it’s the law”.
The police put me in a van with a bunch of other kids and took us to the police station to be processed. When we got there they told me to change in front of them, then put all my clothes and belongings in a bag. After I changed they photographed me, and then told me I could make a phone call.
To add insult to injury, the only person outside my family whose phone number I remembered off the top of my head was Emma –– the girl who was so sick of me that she didn’t want to come to Holy Ship in the first place. “Seriously?“, she said when I called her collect asking for help. She was having dinner with her family at the time but said she’d reach out to my friends for help since I didn’t want my parents to know what happened. What they would do to me if they found out was much scarier than anything the police could come up with. If your parents are from Kashmir or anywhere in Asia, I’m sure you know very well what I’m talking about.
It was a far cry from the party I thought I was going to, but ended up being one of the most educational experiences of my relatively privileged life. I’m thankful I saw and experienced what I did, because it shaped my understanding of the world profoundly. Most of the people waiting with me were other kids from Holy Ship, but we were in a big common area with all kinds of people. Some of them had been there for a long time just because they didn’t have enough money or friends to get out. It was eye-opening to see this other side of America on the way to a luxury cruise ship party –– an experience worth a million words. When I was cold and hungry, an elderly African-American man gave me Cup-O-Noodles to eat and a pen to write with.
It was an all-time low. A new freshly-paved rock bottom. Was this really happening to me? I was so sad, so embarrassed, and so ashamed of myself. I hated who I had become, and I wanted to die more than ever. While I waited, I scribbled a long note to Emma telling her how sorry I was and promising to turn things around. I never ended up giving it to her though, because once I got out and turned on my phone it lit up with a bunch of messages from Emma and other friends who were worried about me. Emma and I started talking on the phone and laughing, so I just threw the note away. It seemed a little bit dramatic once they let me go.
The moment I was free to go I headed to the airport and boarded a plane to the Bahamas to try and catch the party cruise ship that had left without me. I didn’t get there in time to catch the ship docking in Nassau but managed to get on board back in Florida. Boarding the ship, I met a girl named Kelly who thought my story about getting caught with weed and flying to the Bahamas to try and catch the ship was hilarious, and the rest of the weekend was still amazing despite the initial hiccups.
It was easy to forget what had happened while we were partying over the weekend, but once it was time to go home reality hit: this was a serious legal issue. Local media had written all about the Holy Ship bust, and to my embarrassment, photographs of dozens of people involved (including mine) had been published in local news articles about what happened. Apparently, Florida has very open laws about that kind of information. I sold some stocks to gather funds for a lawyer, who had me send him my medical documentation.
Thankfully once Florida officials reviewed my medical information and doctor’s prescription, they declined to press any charges against me and dropped everything. I guess it was kind of a “scare them straight” operation, which I definitely was having suffered a great deal already. Not everyone is so lucky though: every year tons of minority and disadvantaged kids face non-violent drug charges, and many people are serving jail time over offenses like marijuana possession, even though most states have decriminalized or legalized since then.
I breathed a sigh of relief, desperate to move on from a traumatic ordeal and try to turn things around. I hated myself more than ever but my friends reminded me that we aren’t defined by our lowest moments, and that I had the potential to do great things. A few weeks later, I got an email from Tesla notifying me that the Model 3 I had put down $1,000 to reserve two years ago was ready to configure. I took the money I had put together and used it to place my finalized order for a Tesla Model 3. It was scheduled for delivery on April 20th, just three short months away. I was excited, hopeful that it would be the start of something new.