In 2011 I published a story on this site called “The interloper”. In it, a teenaged girl named Jessie falls in love with her best friend Sarah. They eventually break up when Sarah can no longer take the pressure of being queer in high school. Sarah gives Jessie a box of the notes they’ve exchanged and asks her to destroy it. The story starts like this:
Dealing with the shoebox was the hardest thing Jessie had ever done. For two days now it had been an unwelcome presence under her bed; she could barely sleep with it there. Every time she remembered it, something twisted inside her gut and she felt like fleeing out the back door, into the snowy woods. Disappearing. So the box had to go.
Lifting the lid, she thought back to earlier in the week, when Sarah had given it to her, held it out with a mixture of care and aversion, like it might explode at any moment.
“Jess, I need you to take this. Get rid of it.”
The box contained every scrap of correspondence that Jessie had ever given Sarah. Their notes started out as goofy exchanges during the one class they had together. Then, as they became best friends, the notes proliferated with the devotional ethic unique to religious fanatics and teenage girls, passed in the hallway between class periods, so that they never went more than fifty-one minutes without communicating. As their bond deepened into an ardent, desperate, confusing thing, dependent on secrecy and denial, most of their declarations of love remained unspoken, articulated only in private writing. Jessie often labored the night before on letters to deliver to Sarah in the morning. She drew sketches, cut funny cartoons out of the paper, made mix tapes, all in an effort to surprise and delight that beautiful miracle of a girl. So it accumulated, until more than a year of their relationship lay chronicled in the box⎯hundreds of missives. Some of the notes looked soft and frayed, like they had been unfolded and reread daily.
Jess struggles with the pain and heartbreak of having all her feelings handed back to her so suddenly. She spends the better part of an afternoon sitting in front of the wood stove, remembering her life with Sarah and trying to gather the courage to feed the box into the flames. For Jess, in those moments, “life seemed impossible.”
Although I didn’t say so at the time, several readers astutely realized that this story was one hundred percent true. It happened to me when I was sixteen. For two decades I carried the anguish of that day with me. Everyone endures the loss of a first love, but something about watching that box of paper burn felt especially devastating. In all those years, I think I told only one person the story.
Who can say why I decided to share it on The Great Whatsit? Maybe the story was a burden I finally felt ready to put down. Maybe it was experiencing the strange reminder of “Sarah” that came to me that summer. Maybe, in our little community of readers and writers that had grown out of my closest and oldest friends, I felt safe. After all, I had insulated myself with two levels of anonymity (“Jessie” is clearly a pseudonym, but “Berkowitz” is, too). When we started this site, I was a brand-new, untenured professor in a new city, unsure of how to comport my personal and professional selves online. I felt the need to distance myself from these kinds of disclosures. It seems naive to say, but I really wasn’t thinking that by telling it here, I made the story available for literally anyone on the planet to read.
Why bring this up now? Here’s the thing: last night I watched the season premiere of Grey’s Anatomy. The episode’s main plot concerns two teenaged girls who are brought into the ER with catastrophic injuries. It soon emerges that the girls, in love and unable to face the threat of their families’ rejection, had forged a grisly suicide pact and stepped in front of a moving train. One of them explains the relationship to her surgeon:
“We liked to pass notes in school…the kind that you fold a million different ways. I kept them, every single one, in a box under my bed, so I could reread them when I had bad days.”
Picture me sitting there in front of the TV. At this point, the blood’s rushing in my ears. I am practically having an out-of-body experience. I am forty-two years old and watching my words come out of someone else’s mouth onscreen. Then the penny drops: the catalyst for the suicide attempt is when the girl’s mother finds the box of notes under the bed and…burns them in the fireplace.
The girl’s name? Jess.
So, you tell me. Am I nuts? Can this possibly be a coincidence? Or did Stacy McKee, the author of this episode, come across my story and lift its details for her script?
I feel weirdly violated, but why? Do I have ownership of this story now that I basically gave it away? Do I have any sort of reasonable expectation of privacy? Do I deserve some sort of acknowledgment for having written it in the first place? My gut says yes to all these questions, but common sense (and probably the law) says no.
It’s not even the first time this has happened. In college I told a classmate a story from my childhood about the time my mom dated a guy known among their mutual friends as Crazy Eddie. I remember two things about the summer I was seven. First, Crazy Eddie had the most amazing shower curtain, clear plastic printed with a collage of black and white photos of naked ladies. Whenever I had to pee, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it. Second, Eddie had a kid named Will. Naturally, our parents expected us to play and get along. Will flatly told me that he could NOT be seen at the playground with a little white girl. There was nothing to be done about my being white, but at least he could turn me into a boy. So every time we went out, he dressed me in one of his t-shirts, shoved my hair under a baseball cap, and introduced me as “Ray.” Between the naked lady shower curtain (to this day seared on my eyelids) and the male alter ego, it was a very confusing summer.
One day we show up to my college fiction-writing workshop and–you guessed it!–it’s all there in my classmate’s story. Crazy Eddie. The shower curtain. The little white girl on the black boys’ playground. I was incensed, but everyone agreed that by telling the story, I had set it loose in the world like pollen, and could not control where it would drift or on whose land it would germinate. I relate it here without compunction, because I lost that story a long time ago. But the one with the shoebox? That loss still feels fresh.
The idea for The Great Whatsit as a collaborative blog hatched at a New Year’s party ten years ago. For nearly a decade, a rotating schedule of authors posted new content every weekday. Boy, did we have fun while it lasted. But over time, the friendships spread out, our enthusiasms and conversations migrated over to social media, and the site seemed to die a natural death.
Me? I never did figure out how to live as an online entity. How much sharing is too much? What degree of privacy should I freely surrender? Am I willing to let my memories boil down to what can be accessed with a Google search? I have no Facebook, no Twitter, no Pinterest, no Instagram. As such, I have no direct way to reach out to Stacy McKee (the Grey’s Anatomy writer), Sara Ramirez (the cast member and activist who so clearly championed a storyline featuring LGBT youth), or Shonda Rhimes (the show’s creator). But if some of you are inclined to do so, please send them this link and tell them thanks…I guess. For putting the story to good use. For creating a prime-time depiction of a teenage lesbian in love–a depiction that I’d have desperately clung to when I was her. For letting that girl, against all odds, survive.