I had an odd experience yesterday. I was looking up some information for a curriculum guide I'm writing for an upcoming theater performance about the almost-march by Nazis in Skokie 40 years ago, and in the course of doing the research, I googled my father. My dad was the prosecuting attorney and assistant Corporation Counsel for the village at the time. Skokie is my home-town, and his job used to be sort of boring….until the Nazis tried to march there. I wondered what collected wisdom was out there on my dad.
There wasn't much new information on my father that I didn't already know, but on "his" search results, my mother's name popped up. Curious, I clicked on it, and started reading a dossier on my mother. Interesting. They got all sorts of things right…and all sorts of things wrong.
So many questions came into my head: how do you know about my mother? She's led a very non-public life. Where did you get this information? And, who are "you" anyway? And then, I had an irrational desire to correct the incorrect data! Whatever's out there should be accurate, at least!
It's an old saw that the internet knows more about us than we could ever imagine. We keep telling our kids that they should be careful about what they put out there, because it never dies, and it's almost impossible to edit wrong information. But how does that stuff get up there if we don't put it there?
I know you'll probably give me many ways that happens, but it astounds me. I'm left with the basic question: Who is in charge of our information? Who owns our stuff? Who is out there telling our stories?
The question of who owns one's stories gets raised in some pretty sensitive areas. Who gets to share information about a friend's illness? A break up? An adoption? A lost job? Where's the line between commiserating about a friend and gossip?
If we're being generous, we'll say that our friends have the right to tell their stories on their own terms, when and how much is to be divulged. If we're being honest, most of us would probably say that sharing that information, no matter how well-meaning, is our first impulse.
It's no surprise that we want to control our own stories. Our stories come from our memories, selective though they may be. In his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Oliver Sacks writes that each of us is a biography. Our own narrative is constantly being developed by us, and inextricably tied up with our recollections, our memories. He continues, "To be ourselves, we must have ourselves - possess, if need be re-possess, our life-stories. We must 'recollect' ourselves, recollect the inner drama, the narrative, of ourselves. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self." (London: Picador, 1986, pp 106)
We are our collected memories, and those are our stories to tell, and ideally, we set the boundaries as to who knows what about us. Every parent knows the pull of wanting to share those wonderful couple of stories about our kids, when they were cute or clever or witty or horrid. And mostly, with friends and family, we don't think much about it. But writers' families know that at any given point, everything they do is fodder for the next book or column, song or poem. Those of us who write must be extra careful about respecting our loved ones' boundaries, knowing what to share, what not to share, and when to ask permission.
I ended up leaving my mother's misinformation alone on that internet search. Anyone who knows her, knows it's wrong. Anyone who doesn't, doesn't need to know it in the first place. So there.