This past spring, both my in-laws and my mother unearthed old writings.
From my in-laws’ basement, it was mostly correspondence between my partner and me from the mid-to-late 1990’s when we still spent summers with the widths of several states between us. If my in-laws read the letters, they didn’t say anything about it. They just handed the box of letters to us.
My partner found it embarrassing to read things he’d written to me in our late teens and early twenties, but I was surprised to find myself feeling empathy towards our younger selves. Yes, we wrote some stupid things. If we wrote the same things now, we’d have cause to feel embarrassed, but we were nineteen and twenty. We were very young. Much younger than we thought we were at the time.
It was interesting to see from nearly twenty years’ distance how we were trying to figure things out, trying to learn how to navigate our relationship. Our energy and passion were still so diffuse and so untempered. My partner found it embarrassing, but I found it endearing.
We read for a while then taped the box shut and shut it in the trunk of the car to take to our basement at home.
At the same time, my mother found in her attic old journals I wrote from the same time period.
She did not just hand them over. She did not refrain from reading them.
Indeed, after she read them, she phoned me up and called me to task for things I’d written about my parents’ divorce when I was nineteen. To myself. In my journals.
Once I got past the feeling of alarm that my journals had been read without my consent, I reflected on the mixed blessing of having a written record of our thoughts and feelings during our late adolescence. On the one hand, it might give us more empathy for the people we were then, which could help us feel more empathy for who we are today.
On the other hand, if it’s there for everyone to see, they might not let us forget about it.
All of my partner’s and my stuff was written on paper, by hand in pen and sometimes pencil. But what about young people now who have so much on the Internet from so early on? It’s not just a mom cleaning out her attic who’ll find this stuff, but anyone with a smartphone.
And while there’s a chance that they’ll look at what we’ve written and say, “My, that’s interesting that she was considering that at age nineteen,” or “Look! He thought that career change at age thirty-five was completely out of left field, but you can see it brewing even when he was twenty-one,” there’s at least an equal chance that they’ll look and say, “How dare you say these things twenty years ago?”
There’s a danger that they won’t let us change and evolve. There’s a danger that they won’t let us grow up.
Do authors with long careers feel this way? Does Margaret Atwood feel odd or maybe even disappointed when someone criticizes her for something she wrote in The Handmaid’s Tale or The Edible Woman? (Does anyone criticize Margaret Atwood for things she wrote in 1970?)
Is it fair to hold people responsible not only for who they are but for who they were?
By recording our thoughts, feelings, and impressions of life events on the essentially timeless Internet, are we forever chaining ourselves to a past iteration of our Selves?