About a year ago, when Ten Square Miles was in its infancy, I discovered that WordPress records the search terms people use to find my blog. Because I suffer from above average narcissism, discovering this feature was better than ten dollar bottle of wine night at Maxie’s–I had a window into what people out there in Internetland thought about me, if they thought about me at all.
Through this feature, I learned that my name is Googled, on average, about ten times a day (that number would be higher if WordPress counted my own hits on TSM, but it doesn’t as long as I’m logged on). I learned that the most common misspellings of my name are “Amy Montichello” and “Amy Munichello,” which I’ve taken to mean that the searcher is trying to Google phonetically. I learned that most people get to my post “Give the Rest Away” by searching “Van Gogh flowers.” I learned that more people than I imagined care about the ending of The Wonder Years. I learned that the scene on The Tudors where King Henry VIII masturbates into a bowl has fascinated many, many viewers.
One day, I discovered a curious search term in WordPress’ archive for Ten Square Miles. Someone had searched “amy monticello big whore.”
Big whore? I’ve written about the days when I maybe–maybe, a big maybe, I think–had a few too many sexual partners, but anyone who follows Ten Square Miles knows I’m happily married to the recurring character named Jason. And that Jason is pretty much fucking perfect. So I was surprised to find that, when I clicked on the search terms covering the previous week, there was a whole spate of insults lobbed at me via keywords on Google:
amy monticello slut
amy monticello who gazes at her navel until it turns to mush
amy monticello jerk
amy monticello who uses cancer to get attention
amy monticello cocksucking bitch
Whoa. Generally, I like to think my body has experienced a normal amount of penile penetration. Generally, I want to believe that my nonfiction, while certainly self-disclosing, aims for analysis and reflection of human behavior that uses the self as a lens through which to observe that behavior. Generally, I wish I hadn’t had part of my cervix removed on two separate occasions.
But then I saw two other searches that revealed the bigger picture:
amy monticello who rats out her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriends
amy monticello the bitch who wrote about me at nervous breakdown
Jason only has two ex-girlfriends, and the other one is a friend. Besides, I only wrote about one ex on The Nervous Breakdown.
If you click on that link, you’ll learn the significance of that particular ex, and that, years ago, I started this stalkfest, naively using her own email address to hack her Facebook account when I was younger and more stupid and before I really understood how that all worked. Was it ethically unsound of me to do that? Yes. Did we both write horribly mean things to each other for a period of several months? Yes. Did I actually say I hoped she was hit by a truck. Yes. Do I wish that now? No.
I didn’t write The Nervous Breakdown piece to hurt anyone. I wrote it years later, in a very different and more self-aware emotional state, because I believed that story represented something about the access we have to one another online, and how this access taps into our best and worst selves. My worst self was willing to commit identity theft, yes. But my best self was willing to make a public apology and try to more rationally and lyrically examine that particular moment of my immature life.
Actually, I think I come off a lot worse in the essay than the ex does, so it unsettled me to see her so upset. But she clearly was upset, according to her search terms. And I felt a strange mix of unease and relief at seeing this. Unease because I’d caused her pain by writing about our weird, squirmish relationship. Relief because she’d unknowingly given me something precious–a tiny glimpse into her private self.
As she is not a blogger, I assumed she didn’t know I’d be able to see her keyword searches. I confirmed this theory when I posted a status on Facebook about finding the WordPress archiving feature, and the scathing search terms vanished immediately. Since she didn’t mean for me to see her Googled insults, then she wrote them–typed out the phrase “amy monticello the bitch who wrote about me on nervous breakdown”–for herself. Because typing out those words probably helped her release some understandable anger. Because it feels good to tell ourselves our own truths. Because she was typing on her own damn computer, and she could write whatever she damn well pleased about me. Because she is a human-fucking-being, and that’s what human-fucking-beings do.
I was also relieved by the stalker equality we now shared. She was as interested in me as I was in her. I had caught her just as she had caught me. I am one hundred percent serious when I say that reading her search terms made me feel closer to her. Kinder towards her. She’s an attorney, and if I didn’t think she’d slap me with a harassment lawsuit, I’d write to her and thank her for writing every one of those keywords. But I probably shouldn’t push my luck.
Nonfiction writers are consistently asked to justify their use of real situations and real people in their work. And they’re constantly judged for what they reveal about themselves, as though the feelings explored, and not what the writer does with them, are what we should focus on. Just look at the comments section on Abby Mims’ “Et Tu, Nemesis?” on The Nervous Breakdown (as syndicated this week by Salon and analyzed by the New York Observer). Most of the criticisms hurled at Mims are about her jealousy towards writer Joshua Ferris. While I, too, wondered at times about Mims’ portrayal of Ferris as an arrogant sycophant, I also think these readers miss the point of the essay. Mims isn’t proud of her envy, or how it caused her to behave towards Ferris in their highly competitive graduate program–but she has to disclose these feelings in order to tell the far more important story of how she came to confront her own career as a writer, where jealousy towards other writers is not only useless, but detrimental.
These sometimes vitriolic readers also miss the other point of Mims’ essay: that writing about these feelings analytically is a sign of (at least impending) inner peace about her former rivalry. Successful personal essay and memoir require critical distance as well as emotional honesty. If we’re writing about it, whatever it is, with an attempt to reveal its full complexity, you can assume we’ve probably clawed our way up to acceptance. You can assume we’re writing from a place of humility, not pride.
Knowing that the ex is out there, reading my work, has done a strange thing. It has given me a new audience. Lately, while working on new material, I’ve been picturing her. Back in the days of our insult-trading on Facebook, when I was in contest with my own rage and envy, I judged her based on the effects her mistakes–her human-fucking-being mistakes–had on Jason and me. I didn’t do for her what I do for people I love, or even people who just deserve to feel better because they’re people, and people make mistakes: tell her a story about my own similar mistakes. Reach for empathy.
Ever since I felt her presence on my blog and other online writing, I’ve striven for greater bravery. I’ve tried to mine my mistakes and shortcomings for the chances they offer for personal forgiveness and an unveiled intimacy with others. I’ve tried to reveal–do I dare say embrace? Love?–my worst self so that her power over my best self can be lessened, evaporating in the fullest light possible. Maybe that’s why Catholic confession and AA begin with a personal inventory.
Over the years, I’ve honed my talent for Internet stalking. Today, armed with a nickname and general description of her graduate field, I found a buddy from my spinning class I need to email about tomorrow’s two-hour ride. My nonfiction writer’s memory latches onto detail, so with a little time and a genuine interest, I can cobble together a remarkably accurate portrait based on almost anyone’s Internet data. But I try not to do that maliciously now. Now I aim to use my skills for good. I use them to search for the hidden self. The one you think I couldn’t understand or wouldn’t like. The one that probably looks more like me than either of us would care to admit.
* Side note: Today, someone tried to search “amy monitello porn.” I don’t know if there is a real Amy Monitello who has been in/makes porn, or if someone out there believes or wishes I have done porn. Sorry to disappoint you. No porn.