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11.26.09

Memories in the Facebook Age

Richard Rushfield was confident his new memoir of his college years was accurate, until old friends and enemies started contradicting and questioning his memories on their Facebook profiles.

Around 2004, I began writing the memoirs of my wayward college years in the mid-1980s. My writing was initially inspired by news of the death of one of my old classmates. It had been more than a decade since I had last seen my friend, whom I call Frank in the book—and his death from a drug overdose came after years spent adrift, floating through life; a road that many of my peers had taken. On learning of Frank’s death, my thoughts drifted back to those chaotic times 20 years ago, when the party of the ’70s and ’80s had given way to the earnestness of the ’90s, and many of my generation, caught between the two eras, had made their stand by checking out in a nihilistic wave that would become known as grunge.

No sooner had I started a group on the portal for my book then the old fingers started pointing again, the very people portrayed in my book as constantly at each other’s throat, appeared again, 20 years later, all their ill will and resentment intact.

Looking back in time, I saw that in that brief moment, something had been permanently knocked loose for many of my peers, and I began writing my book to figure out what it had been. When I started writing, I was only in contact with a handful of college acquaintances, and reflecting back on my wayward youth, reading through old papers and journals, became a pleasantly wistful bit of therapy.

And then along came Facebook.

book-cover---rushfield-college-facebook
Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost: A Memoir of Hampshire College in the Twilight of the ’80s. By Richard Rushfield. 304 pages. Gotham. $26. ()

When the social-networking portal appeared on my radar around 2006 and a handful of old acquaintances turned up, it was at first a huge aid to my research. Suddenly others who were present were at my fingertips to compare notes, lost memories were reclaimed, as though the floodwaters suddenly receded and revealed sunken neighborhoods. Tales rushed back into my consciousness of late-night raids on unguarded campus refrigerators, of unauthorized concerts in dorm basements, of obscure, barely understood critical theory texts whose layers of meaning were debated until dawn. The words flowed into my manuscript as I struggled to keep up with the recovered memories.

But they didn’t stop. As more people came aboard the site and as word of my book got out among them, the memories kept coming. And not just memories, but pictures, photographic evidence—much of it contradicting things that I had locked down for certain as part of my past. Campus icons remembered turned out to be very different from what one had pictured, or turned out not to have been enrolled during a semester in question, or, worse still, when one talked with them via Facebook messages, their personalities and perspectives turned out to be nothing at all like the cartoon sketches in my imagination.

In the post-James Frey era, no memoirist can write without making every effort to doublecheck one’s own past. But when the past becomes a moving target, how is one to nail it down? Suddenly the hordes of my youth flooded out of the fog like a zombie army, opening up Facebook accounts and filling in their profiles, and at every turn, I entered some unmapped alleyway.

Worse still, the act of memoir writing is supposed to be a reflective, distanced act; holding the past at arm’s length to study and poke at it, as a tea-soaked madeline evokes sensations from afar. But in the narcissistic social-media age, when we collectively catalog and curate every moment and preference of our lives, one can’t get far enough from one’s self to have any thoughts larger than “OMG, I looked humungous in that! What was I thinking?”

Greater challenges were still to come, however. As word of the book in progress spread even further via the Facebook jungle drums, old acquaintances began not just to share their stories, but to ask, “So what are you saying about me in this book? You are not telling the story about the time we—, are you?” Or worse still, the dreaded question, “What do you mean I’m not in it?”

Perhaps the hardest thing about writing a memoir, I found, are the worries about how the other people in it will respond to their portrayals. But all attempts to create nuanced portraits, to turn individuals into composites, to mask identities to soften the worst moments become all the harder when one feels the cast of characters is collectively looking over your Facebook shoulder.

Eventually the active awareness of eyes upon me probably was for the best, making me strive harder to find sympathy for characters who had initially been cast as the heavies or in cartoonish terms. More than a few earned themselves extra scenes in the final version with their vigorous lobbying; a shadow, no doubt, of the haggling and negotiation that await memoirists in the future.

Once the book was done, however, and word of it spread beyond my circle of friends to the camp of those who had been on the other side of the fights back when, Facebook served another purpose—reviving the old feuds and battle lines depicted in the story. The book tells of the battle between the rising forces of political correctness and a group of proto-grunge slackers, a battle that in its day was fairly heated and got at times quite ugly. One of the more charged stories in the book, for instance, tells of how one friend’s offhand tongue-in-cheek promise of a “wet T-shirt” contest at a party he was planning (anyone who knew the militantly unwashed campus of the time would know how ludicrous such a plan would have been, had it been true), turned into a frenzy of demonstrations and demands for the expulsion of all involved. In another episode, my friends and I formed a guerrilla a cappella group, the Hampshire Happy Notes, which managed to offend the Hampshire alternative culture with our homage to traditionalism and the tighter-laced cultures of our neighboring schools by becoming the Mad Max of college a cappella, holding audiences hostages with hour-long renditions of the Hogan’s Heroes theme song.

But with the passage of time, one might have thought all these fires would have faded into a satiated afterglow. But this, as Facebook proved, was not so. No sooner had I started a group on the portal for my book then the old fingers started pointing again, the very people portrayed in my book as constantly at each other’s throats appeared again, 20 years later, all their ill will and resentment intact.

One voice from the opposite side wrote: “I remember a whiny cult of self-victimization that defended itself with bitter irony, if not much else. I suppose congratulations are in order for making it pay, but you could have had a good education, too.” Another wrote recalling that my protagonists—and I—showed “hostility” toward him, back on campus, slights that clearly rankled 20 years later and which seemed little placated by expressions of regret. On the other side of the fence, others jumped in to explain or defend, elucidating the philosophical underpinnings of the counter-counter-cultural movement.

Perhaps the most astute word, however, came from one fellow alum of the era who wrote simply, “I wish I remembered my Hampshire days!” Where I had selfishly thought I could write the final word on the battles of yore and enshrine my own version between hard covers, I was reminded that in this age, there is no hubris greater than to believe one’s self in control of any conversation.

And that revealed the flipside of Facebook’s celebration of every individual’s every moment. With that celebration of our past, as well as enshrining every band we’ve ever liked, every wedding we’ve ever been to, every photo we’ve ever taken, on Facebook every battle and feud can live on to the ends of time. Who knew narcissism could get so petty?

For the aspiring memoirist who hopes to use the writing process to tie a neat ribbon around the past, beware—in the social-media age, the past shall not go nicely onto the shelf.

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Richard Rushfield is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the author of On Spec: A Novel of Young Hollywood. His writing has also appeared in many other publications, including The New York Times, Variety, and LA Weekly.