Sanctuary for the Abused
Sunday, January 02, 2005
Zapping Old Flames Into Digital Ash
By ANNA BAHNEY
Published: April 4, 2004
ILL HAMMELMAN, a hair colorist who lives in Manhattan, doesn't like to burn bridges with men she has dated. But she makes exceptions for those who have acted like creeps, as she did with a recent boyfriend she met online.
"When you're seeing someone," said Ms. Hammelman, 29, "they get top billing. When they lose their status, they have to go."
So when things unraveled in November, after Ms. Hammelman and Mr. Wrong had dated for three months, she cast a cold eye over the dozens of e-mail messages he had sent and the digital photographs of him on vacation that occupied a prominent folder on her computer desktop. She deleted everything in about three minutes. Having had a "ceremonial moving-on," she said, she felt empowered.
In predigital times, the end of a relationship might have been marked by the burning of letters. The ex would have been scissored out of photographs, and LP's too painful to hear dropped off in the nearest Goodwill bin. Or maybe everything would have been parked in a shoe-box way station under the bed.
But modern life means that mementos of affairs of the heart reside on computers. And they can be expunged with brutal efficiency.
While the Internet has sped up modern dating and made encyclopedic records about love interests more readily available, the magic of digital erasure allows the other end of a relationship, the bust-up, to be just as seamless: the lovelorn can simply delete away the pain.
It is debatable whether more sentiment is attached to physical mementos than to Internet text messages, blogs, postings at Friendster-like sites, electronic greeting cards, cellphone photographs and MP3 files of a couple's signature song. But the ease of consigning electronic remembrances to the virtual trash seems to be changing the age-old sorrow of the breakup and the rituals of moving on.
"In the old days it was burn the letters," said Dr. Kathryn Faughey, a psychologist in Manhattan, who counsels the lovelorn to destroy all trappings of failed relationships. "Today, clear the hard drive."
The natural reaction to a breakup — game over, start again — is played to a surreal end by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." The lovers opt to erase the memories of their relationship scientifically, as if their brains were hard drives. Kirsten Dunst, playing a nurse, quotes Nietzsche while Mr. Carrey's mind is being emptied: "Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders." A Manhattan legal assistant had a real-life catharsis of similar dimension after her boyfriend of three years coldly broke up with her in an instant message. She had saved many of his four-a-day e-mail messages, digital photographs from his camera phone and dozens of music files. But in minutes, she eliminated all trace of him. "It was fairly clinical," said the woman, who asked not to be named. "Technology makes it very depersonalized. It is just, `Select all — delete.' "
Jesse Lovelace, 23, who is studying math and computer science at North Carolina State, said the end of an affair leads to a sorting process. "Pictures and stuff, sometimes I'll keep them around," he said. "It is a lot easier to delete a digital photo than to trash something in a frame." A recent breakup led to a rewriting of his online biography. "I had all these references to her and pictures of her on my Web site. I did some editing."
Dr. Faughey suggested that digital keepsakes, which she calls "objects of magnetic emotion" that evoke memories, have a way of coming up again. If a new lover finds evidence of an old flame on a computer, it can be just as troublesome as finding physical evidence in a closet. "Some people come around with a lot of emotional stuff, and that becomes a lot of clutter in a new relationship," she said.
Gina Lynn, 32, a columnist on relationships and technology in Los Angeles for TechTV .com, recently wrote about digitally erasing her ex, an English professor whom she had dated for five months and who, she said, had confessed to cheating. She rounded up his e-mail messages, which she called long and prosaic; a screenplay and poetry he had written; and a digital folder containing pictures of them on a trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. All gone with a few clicks.
In her column, Ms. Lynn suggested tactics for digital deletion:
• "Block every I.M. handle."
• "Check `My Pictures,' `My Documents' and your attachments folder for images."
• "Don't forget to check your P.D.A., your text-messaging device and your cellphone."
"I didn't do it with a lit candle in a big ritual," Ms. Lynn said in an interview, adding, after a pause, "but I would recommend that."
But deleting isn't forgetting. And psychologists are divided over the value of expunging records of a failed affair, whether digital or tangible. This mirrors the ambivalence of some ex-lovers themselves. Dr. Michael Radkowsky, a psychologist in Washington, said that disposing of romantic detritus might slow the process of moving on.
"The important thing is the spirit in which you get rid of those things," Dr. Radkowsky said. "I could see how it wouldn't be useful — it might even be sad or heartbreaking — to hold on to that stuff. But if you get rid of it in a fury, that mood is more of a problem than what you choose to do with those artifacts."
Computers make actions taken in a pique irreversible, as anyone knows who has fired off an outraged e-mail message at the office, only to regret it instantly. Peter Rojas, a writer and editor for Engadget.com, a technology review site, cautioned that technology abets rashness. "Now it is too easy: you can delete a folder of pictures of you and your significant other and do it really quick," he said. "You might come to regret it later. But if you had photographs and letters, even if you throw them out you can still go get them out of the trash again an hour later."
Computer experts note that it takes more than hitting "delete" to consign an ex to the nether world — deleted files usually languish on the hard drive until they are overwritten or removed with special scrubbing software. And because of the interconnectedness of computers, it can be difficult to erase all the other virtual footprints of a relationship.
"For people who live some part of their life online, because they have a blog or use online networking sites, there is all this online detritus — that's the truly novel thing," said Dr. Bruce Barry, a professor at Vanderbilt who teaches a seminar on technology, culture and society. People are "communicating more often, more freely and more informally, using things that are archivable."
Last month, Jesse Hudson, 23, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, saw a revealing posting that his girlfriend, Jane Pinckard, 31, a writer and musician, had written about an ex-boyfriend on a Web site. Because so much information on the Web seems to exist in an eternal present, Mr. Hudson felt a sudden queasiness. Even after realizing that the posting was two years old, he remained uneasy. "I had a physical reaction to it," he said. "Sadness, jealousy, a little bit of anger."
Mr. Hudson explained his feelings to Ms. Pinckard. As it turned out, she had been there herself. Digital information lacks the time and place clues of old letters and pictures, Ms. Pinckard said. "Even if you see a date stamp on it," she said, "it is still there on the screen, indistinguishable from anything current."
While Ms. Pinckard is a saver — "I still have boxes and boxes of letters from predigital" — she agreed that hard copies are a different kind of marker of a relationship than digital remnants. "The fact that they are physical artifacts feels different," she said. "It is archival, and archaeological."
Mr. Hudson apparently feels the same way. He described a "cute, adorable moment towards the beginning of the relationship" when Ms. Pinckard sent him an e-mail picture of her computer's desktop with a photo of him as its background wallpaper. A note with it said, "This is what dorks do when they are in love."
He chuckled fondly, then confessed, "I deleted it." After a pause he added, "I regret that now."
Dr. Michael Anderson, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Oregon who has done research with colleagues on the mind's ability to repress unwanted memories, said that saved mementos, paradoxically, may help people forget.
"Most people would agree forgetting is a bad thing," Dr. Anderson said. "It is neglecting responsibilities and losing your history."
"But forgetting is precisely what you want to do with things that are hurtful and distracting," he said. "To be able to remember something is more distracting than to try to forget." To deal with a painful memory, he said, it's best to confront the reminders regularly and desensitize oneself to it. "It is that mental act of pushing them away — that's the thing that makes you forget."
Dr. Anderson said "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," impressed him because of the philosophical questions about memory it raises and its technological sophistication. "I thought the science behind the movie was pretty on target," he said, explaining that homing in on specific areas of the brain is similar to his work in tracking brain activity using magnetic resonance imaging — though memory-zapping remains one step beyond.
But even if a bad relationship could be deleted from the brain like a computer file, it may prove impossible to completely move on. Triggers to recollection lurk everywhere.
Now that "Eternal Sunshine" has been in theaters a few weeks, Anthony Bregman, a producer of the movie, said he has been receiving the usual congratulations from friends and acquaintances. But many include a personal and confessional note, he said: "A large number of people are saying they just got an e-mail from an ex."