Michael Anthony Nalepa has come full circle from his days being bullied while growing up in suburban Wheeling.
Now known as simply Michael Anthony, he is a Los Angeles-based actor, writer and producer. He came back to Wheeling in late August to discuss and sign copies of his new book, anthology of anonymoUS. Anthony also discussed the "anonymoUS initiative" and his similar-themed documentary, set to be released this year.
"I'm really proud of the book and am actually shocked at the life it's taken," Anthony said. The book also has an accompanying soundtrack, anonymUS: mUSical mUSings, about the ways we bully ourselves, available on iTunes.
Much of Anthony's entire "anonymoUS initiative" has had a strong groundswell, dating back to March 2011, when he returned to Wheeling to film an inspirational anti-bullying documentary for local gay teens, inspired by the "It Gets Better" campaign.
He ultimately learned that most did not want to speak out about the bullying they endured.
So he turned to emails with a simple question in the subject line: "What is it that bullies you?"
The replies came in, lots of replieshundreds, then thousands.
Some came from Wheeling's gay teens, as well as their parents, their siblings, their straight friends and classmates, and others, he said.
"Some of these letters were long, multiple pages. Some, meanwhile, were short, maybe only a single word. There also were poems and drawings," he said.
Those emails led to the "anonymoUS initiative," and letters from literally around the world, though mostly from the United States.
He has received about 3,000 replies overall, and 99 of them are spotlighted in his new book. Each was published exactly as received and as written by its author.
"Originally, I just wanted to get these letters out there, but I think people have really been taken in by these short stories," Anthony said. "What I have found across the board is that people talk about how the letters make them feel."
Such as the letter from a mom living in Elgin, who wrote about her daughter who had committed suicide. "The thing I loved most about this letter was, she talks about something that happened 10 years ago, yet you can still see/feel so many emotions, including guilt, pain, forgiveness and love. That story really touched me," Anthony said.
About 50 percent of the book's stories are gay-related.
"The point of this project, and encouraging people to write their letters, is because although I'm pretty open, a lot of others are not that open," Anthony said. "But a letter is kind of the first chance/opportunity to take the problems in their head, which they are wrestling with, and actually put it on paper and give it a voice. I think, if you have the strength to write it, you will eventually have the strength to talk about it with people."
The book features stories sent from celebrities, Anthony said, though he would not identify the celebrity or the corresponding letter.
"While it would be great to know who wrote some of these [letters], it's anonymous because I'm not sure that is necessary. We can emphasize; we don't need to identify," he said. "This [book] is not [strictly] about gay teen bullying; this is about the bullies that live inside of us.
"This campaign is not about convincing people that, 'It gets better.' Of course we provide them with resources, if they need them. What it is is, an opportunity to tell your story and realize that you're not aloneand when you're in the thick of a problem, I firmly believe that knowing that you're not alone provides strength."
About 80 percent of the letters in the book are from Chicago, particularly the suburbs. All are from the United States.
Anthony and his anonymoUS initiative are no stranger to controversy, he admitted: "A huge part of the initiative is that we don't try and convince people that 'It Gets Better!' Yes, when it comes to gay teen bullying, it always gets better. But this campaign isn't a 'gay thing' and it's not a 'teen thing.' It's about the ways we all bully ourselves and, let's face it, not everything gets better. Cancer, the loss of love, money problems, losing a spouse ... those don't get better; they only get different.
"A few influential people have told me that because I'm gay and because I'm speaking about bullying, I have to say 'It Gets Better! It Gets Better!' But I'm not going to do that.
"This campaign is about helping people of all ages, races, demographics and orientations come together and realize that their inner bullies are exactly the same. I love the 'It Gets Better' campaign, and I think it is so vital in this day and age. But that's not what the anonymoUS initiative is about. It's not about telling people that things always get better. I'm not qualified to do that and, frankly, I don't know if I believe that either. All I know is that we are not alone. Even in our darkest moments, we are never alone."
Anthony will be launching a live stage show in 2013 a la The Vagina Monologues. It will feature actors bringing the letters to life.
He graduated from Wheeling High School in 1999, and then from the University of Southern California in 2003. But back in 1993 or 1994, Anthony was the one bullied.
Anthony, who is now openly gay, had his first same-sex crush while in eighth grade at MacArthur Middle School in Prospect Heights, Ill. Anthony made a Reba McIntyre mixtape for the subject of his crush, and it took him 90 minutes to make.
His classmate "freaked out," Anthony said, and he let everyone at school listen to it. "That's when I started to be bulliedbecause I was gay. I also was overweight, dorky and loved show choir though I was tone-deaf. I had a bunch of strikes against him.
"I was quite often picked on in school."
In 2006, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
"My bully is bipolar disorder," Anthony said.
He has since battled and beaten his bully.
"I'm really proud, perhaps also a bit shocked, by how many people have decided to help with this project," Anthony said. "It's touched something in people, whereas I just thought it was going to be a little quick email back and forth between 100 people in Wheeling, Ill."
For more information or to order the book, go to www.iamanonymous.org .