A Determined History

Privilege is growing up with two parents who love you. Privilege is going to a good school, living in the suburbs, having braces in middle school, knowing the best place to get sushi. It’s driving a car in your teens, and owning an iPhone in your twenties. It’s skiing, playing with your grandmother’s jewelry, and complaining about internet access.

Andrea wasn’t privileged; she was beyond it. Her road had been paved from the moment her CEO-track mother fell for the awkward and ambitious descendant of a political dynasty.

At some point though, Andrea confronted what had blindsided many of her ancestors: money can buy most things but not everything. Andrea did not learn this the way others had. She didn’t learn it by staring deeply into the mirror after a third surgery or from a bold headline -- POLITICAL GIANT LOSES TO DARK HORSE -- that would undoubtedly frame an obituary.

At thirty-five, Andrea found herself staring at her computer screen. David Thorne, the trusted political adviser of her uncle, had given her the task of “preparing her Twitter account for her political life.” As she dug deeper into her 10,706 one-liners, she realized she was already knee-high in quicksand and sinking fast.

On the surface, her update feed exhibited a woman developing a name for herself through community organizing. With each fundraiser and civic event, she became less the shy, reluctant insider and more the savvy go-getter. Passive tweets (“Enjoyed lunch at the Downtown Rotary. Great to see so many involved in the community!”) evolved to active (“Today we raised more than $12K for our next president. Thanks for coming out!). For most of her teens and twenties she had sidestepped the spotlight; by 30, she lassoed it and drew it to her.

Through this process, she had documented the best and worst of her humanity. Her promotions and break-ups, her Oscar de la Renta gowns (plural), her philanthropy, her hasty political rants and the fiery discourse that followed. She frequented women’s shelters and checked in at food banks. But, for the most part, her tweets were similar to other women of her generation.

Andrea wasn’t just another woman, however. The casual updates were often the most painful to revisit. They showed how ingrained she was in the upper class: the #nofilter image of the 3-liter Dom Pérignon 1971 at her cousin’s wedding, her frustration with the Bulgari.com interface, and the name dropping. As she tore through the feed, even the tamest of tweets were political liabilities.

Of course, Andrea had thought of the “social media obstacle” before David ever confronted her. She agreed with her friends when they convinced her that her generation’s self-documentation would bring a new layer of authenticity to politics. “We’ve put ourselves out there. We’ve made it clear who we are and how we react to things and how we cope with change or loss or, well, anything. This should make us more human and less political robot, right? We’re unfiltered,” Margot said at brunch. The others nodded in agreement over mimosas that, in retrospect, were overpriced.

With these words in mind, Andrea cleared away her Sunday afternoon. She, not the consultant David had nudged her toward, would go through the tweets one by one, deleting those that might arm her opponents in the statewide election. Though money couldn’t change her past, she could re-weave a personal story without any mention of Tiffany & Co. or her exes who shopped there.

She was an early adopter of Twitter and, thankfully, more circumspect than her friends. Angry tweets, like angry e-mails, may be written but never sent. No offensive jokes, no personal attacks. And, considering her family’s popularity among middle class men, she refrained from those things that would chip away at her father’s blue collar and reveal the gold underneath. It’s tacky to tweet about how many stars the resort has or how high the thread count is anyway.

Andrea’s first year with Twitter was an accurate documentation of her high school years as she remembered them: trial and error, feeble attempts to gain popularity, bad jokes gone bad, and passive flirting. But even through the innocence of it all, present-Andrea could detect a growing menace in past-Andrea.

Although many tweets showed the trend, the paradigm was this: “Three spares tonight, no strikes.” Perhaps unknown to her followers, she had written it from her home bowling alley. Whether intentional or not, Andrea read it as a veiled metaphor for the dull restlessness that had infiltrated her lavish lifestyle. She didn’t remember that night or much of her senior year for that matter, but the makings of a wild freshman year at Stanford were underway.

The night of her first Twitpic was the night of some other firsts, which brought her to question the uncanny coincidence and tragic underpinnings of the ability to share pictures in the moment. The teachers at her prep school had warned the students of the magic alchemy of alcohol, but they couldn’t have prepared the students for how their relationship with social media would change with the introduction of fluid mistakes to the blood stream.

Andrea was a good girl. Had she wanted alcohol, she could have easily obtained it. Her parents had offered her sips of martinis and fine wine since she was twelve, so curiosity never consumed her. She didn’t need alcohol to have fun, she assured her more desperate peers and the new bouncer at the 21+ club she and her friends visited regularly.

But her pre-college summer fling thought otherwise. And that’s how, within minutes of her first party foul, she managed to share with her followers that she had turned over a new leaf. She didn’t provide a caption. The wry smile and imperfect posture was all they needed to see, but the fallen bra strap confirmed any lingering suspicions.

The thirty-five year old quickly deleted that image and dozens of others from her eighteenth year. Her face burned with embarrassment at times, and before long she realized she had deleted nearly all documentation of her freshman year.

Sophomore year was less painful, except for the rounder face that evolved in the pictures. She deleted the bad shots and kept most of the rest. She matured a lot that year, and her tweets demonstrated this. Her opinions grew more political, and she showed some self-awareness when it came to her personal life. By the end of that year, she appeared to have placed a moratorium on pictures altogether, and the only insight into her private life was the mentioning of a few awards and philanthropy events.

By midnight, she closed her laptop with a sense of renewal. Deleting the tweets was almost like deleting the mistakes of the past. It was self-forgiveness. Mistakes were made. Time to move on. And the price for this? Just time and the two glasses of Napa Chardonnay that she needed to undertake the feat.

The following morning, she notified David that the social media obstacle was no more. He met with her in the afternoon, bringing along Elaine, the social media consultant. For the first time in years, Andrea felt intimidated. Elaine was beautiful but not in the classic sense. She had a long torso and sinewy arms. Her thick-framed glasses rested on a distinctive, pointy nose. Her hair was pulled back tightly, tucked in with an aquamarine hairpin. Her pantsuit was plain but well-tailored and hosted a brooch on the left lapel, also aquamarine.

“I’m a digital life engineer,” she corrected David. “I rebuild a person’s digital history that better reflects the life you want to remember.”

Elaine was the type of person who didn’t value the pauses between speaking and answering that to most are emblazoned in the laws of conversation.

“We’ll skip the introductions. Conversation is a poor way to introduce yourself. Social media is better, less cliched, more genuine. If someone cares to know you, they’ll Google you. Which is precisely why I’m here.”

She turned and led the way to the table. The sharp click of her heels sounded like the tap of a spacebar. As she found her seat she began, “You were anyone you want yourself to be. If you think the past is set in stone, you are kidding yourself--Ask your mother for pictures of her ex-boyfriends. She won’t have them. She tore them up a long time ago.--The past you remember has been shaped by your wants of today. You remember things not by how they happened but with exaggerated emotions. You are a self-editing being.”

When Elaine spoke, it was as if she was interrupting herself. “Which of these pictures do you remember?”

She pushed Andrea an iPad with a triptych displayed. The first was her sunbathing on the beach, the next was at a concert, and the last on the balcony with the skyline.

She guessed that the beach image was her twenty fourth birthday trip to St. Maarten.The concert was her friend’s boyfriend’s band, though she could remember the name. She drew a blank on the skyline.

“None of these images are yours. Not even the beach one -- you’ve been photoshopped in. This isn’t your past. You just invented the past for yourself. Just now. You see, your past is fluid. Let’s create the past you want to remember.”

Her services came at a price that David urged Andrea to accept. The money was to be paid under the table. Elaine’s business relied on subtlety and secrecy, so those were non-issues.

Andrea nodded, and she watched as Elaine’s heels clicked their way out only five minutes after their brief introduction.

Andrea wasn’t used to being out of the loop. She had expected a phone call the next day. If this was the past she wanted to remember, then why hadn’t Elaine asked more questions? The discomfort with letting someone else take control of a project of such personal significance scared her. She had a difficult time sleeping, so she resolved to call Elaine at ten the next morning.

Elaine expectedly answered after the first ring and promptly assured Andrea that they would be in touch.

The two met three weeks later. Andrea showed up with a notepad containing a week’s worth of brainstorming. She had ideas of the past she wanted to remember.

But the finished product had already been completed. Elaine brushed the notepad out of the way and handed Andrea the iPad.

Andrea read the first hundred tweets, and though it had been less than a month since she had read her full archive, Andrea could not always distinguish the original from the modified. She knew that anything with political undertones before college were not hers, and some of the people she @mentioned were likely invented. The philanthropy parties she was usually sure of, but the tweets from the Orange County Humane Society were certainly not legitimate.

Andrea felt Elaine’s eyes on her as she scrolled deeper into the past. The tweets in college were nearly impossible to decipher. The thoughts were definitely hers, but the eloquence was debatable. Elaine assured her that they only had made a few modifications during those years, the rest was her own. Andrea doubted this to some extent. She was confused. Was she reading her past or a smarter, more polished past that she wanted to read?

When she reached the law school years, very little appeared to have changed. Her breakup with her ex was notably absent, but most of her other challenges were delicately put to begin with. At this point in her life, she had been eyeing a political career. She wanted to ask Elaine if her intuition about these years was accurate, but she wasn’t sure if she trusted Elaine any more than she trusted her memory.

At this point, all Andrea had were guesses, suspicions, gut feelings. She wanted to be angry at Elaine for hacking her life, but the work was brilliant. It was what Andrea had wanted to see when she first revisited her social media history three weeks before. The embarrassment she had felt had evaporated. The feed portrayed a charismatic, passionate community leader ready for public office, but the woman behind those tweets wasn’t a cookie-cutter politician. She had wit and rooted for sports teams and loved her dogs. She even had bad first dates.

For a minute, she looked away from the screen, staring down onto the table. Money didn’t buy her a new past; it doesn’t wield that kind power. When her gaze returned to the screen, she found herself looking at her own reflection, not the words behind the glass. She could see the creases at the sides of her eyes.

“I’ll let you continue to peruse your feed,” Elaine said. “Twitter is only what you make of it. You misrepresent yourself all the time with your tweets. You try to appear smarter, more popular, more with it. It’s a persona of your invention to begin with. It’s a daily exercise in relevance. All I have done is help you morph that persona into one that fits your political ambitions.”

She stood up, thanked her client, and left Andrea hovering over the Accept Changes button