Face to Facebook with the past

For those who write memoirs, memory is not a mere recollection of facts; it is a ragbag we pick through, salvaging scraps to craft into literature. We take half-remembered events and stitch them together to form a larger story that will, we hope, resonate with others and help them make sense of their own scraps.

At least that’s what we used to do. Today, technology is wreaking havoc on the stories we are trying to tell.

I started writing “Unsupervised,” a memoir of my high school years, three years ago. In it, I intended to tell my version of a story that involves a number of people I had long ago lost touch with.


Then I joined Facebook.

In the last year, via the Internet, many of those people have come back to haunt me in cyberspace, sharing their memories of the events I am writing about. And there is a big part of me that doesn’t want the story I am trying to tell polluted with fresh information.

Memory is selective and deeply subjective: What and how we remember is as unique to us as our fingerprints. The events of my adolescence, as I remember them, have mellowed into a roux of my own concoction, flavored by my point of view, spiced with details that only I may have noticed. Another point of view is like a squeeze of lemon in the pot. Sometimes it’s delicious; other times it throws off the whole dish.

Of course, my memory is, in places, as thin and lacy as a slice of Alpine Swiss, and there’s a benefit to fact-checking with old friends. But memoirists also relish imperfect memories because it is in the interstices between facts that the magic happens. The emotion of a moment stands in for forgotten details. What we don’t need is a lot of people coming back 30 years later, banging on our cyber-doors, looking to set us straight with their recollections of events.

For instance, I’d always thought of my middle-school years as my last moment of true innocence. Then Mark, my seventh-grade boyfriend, Googled me. A lengthy e-mail exchange resulted in him mailing me his eighth-grade yearbook. On the last page, I had written in green ink, “I am going to take total advantage of you. (Get my drift? Heh, heh.)” So, maybe I was not quite that innocent after all.

Or there’s Melinda, my high school nemesis who “friended” me a couple of months ago on Facebook. Now, not only is she back in my life, but I see by her status update that she is suffering from a leaky nipple piercing. I think I liked her better as a nemesis.

One of the central characters in my book is the man who broke my heart when I was 18. Now, I’ll confess, I have Googled him a couple of times over the years. OK, I have Googled him regularly since the first day that technology became available -- but it has never turned up anything. Last week, I did a casual, habitual, laissez-faire re-Googling of his name and shockingly got a hit that contained his current contact information.

I have obsessively wondered about this man for 27 years. Now I can finally ask him the question I have sobbed into my pillow so many nights: Why? Why? WHY did you have to break my heart like that? I could maybe get some closure on a deeply wounding emotional event.

But you know what? I’m not going to do it. Because it might pollute the story, and I can’t risk that. At least not until I’ve finished writing the book. Story trumps closure for writers. Also, I don’t ever want to write the scene in which I find out that the man who nearly drove me to suicide just took the “Which Disney Star Are You?” quiz on Facebook and is Cole Sprouse.

Furthermore, to reconnect with this person through my own efforts, rather than the offices of fate and coincidence, feels like cheating, like finding out the sex of your unborn child -- another situation in which technology can vanquish essential human mystery. I think we need some mystery, and not knowing what became of everyone we’ve ever known is a big one.

We used to accept that there were unfinished stories, that we glimpsed pieces of other people’s lives and then moved on. Now the past rushes into the present, and we can fill in the holes. That’s a profound, if unacknowledged, change in human intercourse. Did your college roommate marry that jerk, or did she dump him? Did your erstwhile best friend ever come home from the Peace Corps?

I recently learned in the space of two days about the deaths of three people I knew from different phases and times in my life. The news came to me coincidentally through Facebook messages. They were newly departed only to me. I mourned them in a wall post -- not sure where else to place my thoughts or feelings about the loss, or what it meant.

Of course, there’s an upside to all this social networking, or we wouldn’t do it. One of life’s great pleasures is reconnecting with old friends and comparing notes. In fact, I just got off the phone with Rhea, a pal I hadn’t spoken to since my senior year of high school who found me on Facebook. She’s still the same sanguine, canny soul she was at 15. I told her about my experiences. Rhea said, “I just figure social networking puts people back to where they were in, say, 18th century France, when everybody knew the same people all their lives.”

See? That’s just the kind of story-changing input I’m looking to avoid.

Erika Schickel is the author of “You’re Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom.”