A few hours after our son was born in January of 2009, requests for photos on Facebook started to come our way: Friends who might not have been on the small, private email list that got the first few images we sent from the hospital wanted, understandably, to see him. One wrote, "Okay, if you have time to write on Facebook then you have time for pictures. Picture please. PICTURES!! I know I am not the only one — there is a chorus behind me. Chorus? :) xo." Another pleaded, “Pictures and name!!!” The truth is, we wanted to share him. As far as we could tell, he was the best thing we’d ever made. And, besides, the requests were genuine, supportive, and excited. But Dan and I hesitated.
Did we really want our son’s image out there on the Internet, where just anyone could download, use, and see it? Over the next few months, as we marveled at every gurgle and took endless photos capturing our newborn lying in his bouncy chair, dressed in tiny onesies, or cuddled up sleeping, we really did want to post some. Yet, still, we balked.
Then, in March, a piece of mine was featured on NPR about our experience with the recent recession. It went viral. With the unanticipated attention (I was used to twelve comments being a big day when a piece of mine aired) came an unfriendly downside: On the Internet, anyone can say anything they want about you. And some of the things people said about us, either on the NPR site or the various others that picked the piece up, were painful to read — especially for Dan, who had lost his job. But the thing that put us over the edge was an argument that erupted on the NPR site about whether Dan and I should have had a child. Someone proclaimed that we must be terrible parents (and people) to be stupid and foolish enough to have no money and a kid at the same time — as if we’d planned it that way.
We didn’t need to discuss it; it just happened: Lines were drawn up. Our child’s name would not be used in any of my writing. We would never use his image on Facebook or to accompany any of my writing in a way that made him recognizable. No shots that showed any part of his body naked, even if it was a tiny sliver of a butt cheek. His childhood was going to be as private and untouched by the virtual world as we could make it. What scared us, on a primal level, was the possibility that someone could use his name or image in an attack. We felt too raw, too sensitive, too protective of this new family we were building to allow that.
However, this was going to be a delicate tap dance: Obviously, I write about our lives. In fact, I ended up writing a whole memoir about our family’s difficult journey through the recession. I’m writing about my family right here — right now — on a website created by the founders of Twitter. So, I’m always putting us out there, aren’t I? If I break it down, I’m actually a liability to my family’s privacy (paging Dr. Freud—can you explain this to me, please?).
The thing is, my family is the richest source of inspiration for me — I feel more deeply about these people than I do about anything. So I almost can’t help myself from writing about them. And I can see, just from looking at the way other authors put their families out there, that giving more actually gets more. But more of what, exactly?
Dan and I found ourselves discussing the searingly beautiful work of Sally Mann, whose “Immediate Family” photographs created a firestorm in the 1990s. Mann had captured her young children naked and in provocative poses: holding cigarettes, dancing, or, in one, called “The Terrible Picture,” hanging limply from a tree. This series made Mann an overnight sensation — and what artist would argue with that? — but she was also called “abusive” and her work “child pornography.” Did Dan and I want to be responsible, albeit on a much smaller scale, for stealing our son’s innocence? Innocence that we ourselves were privileged to have as children when there was no such thing as Facebook?
Over the next few years, as our son grew from baby to kid, Dan and I eventually ceded some ground: we came up with a moniker to use when I wrote about our son (we call him Master M.). If we needed to use an image of us as a family for some publicity, we would make sure he was not recognizable — he’d have to be seen from behind, or blurred, or turned away. But we would still not post any images or identifying characteristics on FB. And, to this day, we still ask friends, however uncomfortable it is, to just email us photos they take of him, rather than posting them on their own FB pages. Now that Master M. is four and has opinions, we’ve also decided to include him in this discussion; before we use anything that he’s drawn or made in our own work we give him veto power.
For one of my recent columns for Medium, “O Maple Tree, O Maple Tree,” I wanted to use a drawing he’d done with markers of our maple tree to complement my piece. Before I uploaded it, I asked him if that was okay.
“No,” he said. “It’s mine.”
“That’s true,” I said. “I thought maybe we could collaborate. My words, your drawing?”
“Okay,” I said, and then turned to Dan: “Hey, can you make me a photograph to go with my column this week?”
Dan said, “Sure.” Case closed.
Now, most everyone on Facebook — from real friends to famous authors I don’t actually know — has their kids on there. And I honestly love seeing the cute faces and hearing the updates and being a part of their lives this way. So Dan and I are an exception, it seems.
I guess it comes down to this: We don’t fundamentally believe that anything we put on the Internet is really safe, or private, no matter what privacy features are put in place by Facebook. Just think of the game-changing news from Facebook’s Instagram last December that seemed to indicate that their new terms would allow them to use peoples’ images for advertising. And Dan, for the record, has never created a Facebook or Twitter account — he refuses to be a part of social media altogether because he just doesn’t trust it.
One of my favorite poems is called “Les Fenêtres” (“Windows”), by the French Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire. In it, Baudelaire writes about looking out his own window and into those of his neighbors: “What one can see out in the sunlight is always less interesting than what goes on behind a window pane. In that black and luminous square life lives, life dreams, life suffers.” I remember reading this poem in college and feeling that Baudelaire had given voice to why I liked to run around the hilly streets of Providence in the early evenings, just when people were coming home and unpacking into their private lives. I liked to spy on those lives, see intimate details that then became stories in my mind, stories I took with me into my writing. The thing about windows, of course, is that curtains can always be closed.
In our lives today, once we put up our luminous squares on Facebook, we can’t really take them back. There is no curtain to close, no window to board up — they’re out there forever, no matter what you delete.