It started innocently enough. A query: "Are you the right Sarah Wildman?" But when I saw it, I flushed with adrenaline -- irrationally guilty. I had Googled him the day before, and there he was in my Facebook inbox as though some site tracker had wended its way into his consciousness, whispering that I, too, was peeking around virtual corners.
It was Child Star, the love of my junior year in high school, an actor. I pictured his teenage bedroom, his emerald green Mazda. Now he wrote: "Fifteen years to catch up on!"
I didn't know where to begin. Mine is the last generation to even have such long-lost reconnects. The ones behind me have never left each other. They're always digitally connected, one easy-click away from re-engagement.
In Jeffrey Rosen's brilliant New York Times Magazine cover story
this week -- "The End of Forgetting" -- my old New Republic colleague outlines exactly how dangerous our ever-growing digital trail is. How we can't reinvent ourselves anymore. How the American Dream was always about renewal, and now we've got kids losing jobs, or not getting jobs, or not advancing, because youthful indiscretions linger on forever. How we've willfully entered into a pact to undermine our own privacy, as my colleague Bonnie Goldstein writes today
, our own private lives, our own private selves. How we've stopped, as Helena Andrews points out,
living lives that have a quiet side, a personal side; we have no non-public identity. Rosen wonders if we should all find a bit more empathy, forgive more. And post less.
Without a protective shield of privacy and forgetting we all once lived behind one, we've become much more find-able. We can no longer be "lost." We're less able to shed the past because, sometimes, the past doesn't want to be shed.
In came another invite. "Deadhead," Facebook told me, "has made you a friend." It was my always-dabbling-in-the-vaguely-dangerous older boyfriend, my obsession just before Child Star (I was a serial monogamist). All I had to do to let him back into my life was click "confirm."
I really, really wanted to confirm. But then my sister reminded me of the time he'd called her and said he'd marry me or die trying. About how I'd nursed the hurt from that relationship for longer than the relationship itself. And how relieved I was, five years post relationship, when he finally stopped contacting me; chapter closed.
Yet there he was -- normal, smiling, with a pretty wife and an even prettier child. I was tugged to wonder about his path, despite myself. I was happy he'd turned out OK.
"No one innocently looks up old girlfriends," my friend Jake said, sagely.
My partner, Ian, didn't understand the dilemma. Just click ignore, he said, bemused.
But I was flattered by the attention. I casually posted new pictures to my account; nothing wrong with looking my best for these virtual meetings, right? It felt like high school, passing notes. I wanted to ask Child Star everything; I wanted to know how long he'd waited before he hooked up with the girl after me. I kind of wanted to tell him about the love letter I'd never sent. I wanted him to think I'd done well, looked well, was well. And Deadhead! I wanted to know how he'd cleaned up; found such a cute wife. I was peeved he didn't write a real note. I wanted to know if they'd thought of me over the years. These were not proud emotions.
Sure I'd Googled them, among others. But Google was public yet private, personal even, in its slightly surreal forays into people's lives; no one needed to know I was there, looking around. I only got so much information -- and, likewise, I was protected from the curious.
Facebook, in contrast, is the virtual equivalent of knocking on my door and stepping inside for a drink. Technology that makes effortless the information-gathering that would have been a Herculean task a decade ago. I mean, I have an unlisted number. I've moved a lot.
But, as per Jeff Rosen, I've stopped creating status updates that are terribly personal. I post my work, which is, to be fair, often personal. I mean, I write about my kid. I write about my body. But I've held some key pieces back. Things my real friends know, and my online friends . . . well, if they're my friends, then there's no issue, right?
To be sure, some (a lot, even) of the unexpected outreach is very welcome. Often I'm thrilled to discover someone with whom I'd -- sadly! -- lost touch.
But do I want everyone from my past suddenly sitting on my couch with me? Flipping through my photos? Would these shadow exes, long-ago flirtations, unfinished romances have an impact on my real-life relationship, the marriage in my actual living room? These were people who, in the normal world, I likely never would have heard from, nor would I have contacted, again. But now we're prodded not to contemplate. Now we're tempted to re-engage.
Are these idle fantasies (if that's what they were) physically safe but emotionally irrational? Maybe some doors, however easily unlocked, are meant to remain closed.