As part of my research for a family memoir, I found myself in Colombia a couple of years ago interviewing relatives about my great-grandfather’s life. The memoir was inspired by a manuscript he left behind, in which he narrates a series of amazing episodes from his life in early to mid 20th century Colombia. While my great-grandfather left a lot of material for me to work with, there remained some significant gaps, since the manuscript tends to focus on his most exciting and outlandish memories. It does make for great reading, yet one is left wondering about some of the most important aspects of his life, which to him seem to have been so obvious as to not require putting down on paper. In particular, I needed my relatives to give me more details about his wife, my great-grandmother, whom it is clear from the writing that he adored, and yet about whom he gives few specifics, except for the constant mention of her “ensnaring eyes.” While the manuscript left me with a very strong sense of who he was, the woman who was his lifelong love remained a mystery to me. I felt that if I was going to proceed with the memoir, this was a gap I needed to fill.
Digging through closets and the minds of my relatives yielded an abundance of old photographs, stories, and even more writings from my great-grandfather. Through them, I started forming a mental picture of my great-grandmother, but what I really wanted was to get a sense of who she was in her own words. Yet as I kept looking, not a single letter she had penned turned up. This might not have surprised me in another context, but the Garcías are nothing short of addicted to family memorabilia. Surely she had written something that someone had lovingly kept?
Determined to find what I needed, I scheduled a meeting with about fifteen relatives who had known her. I was asking my great aunt for details of her parents’ engagement, when at last, finding herself at a loss, she unveiled the mystery for me.
“It’s a pity,” she said, “after Papá died, she took all the letters they had ever written to each other and burned them.”
She did what? I barely avoided responding to my elderly aunt with an expletive. This was the treasure trove I was looking for! How, how could she have just burned it?
For a long time, I struggled to understand her decision. It seemed pointless and wasteful to me. Why destroy the record of a life and a love story that her descendants would probably have cherished for generations? What good had it been to put her thoughts and feelings down on paper only to turn them into ash? Her marriage to my great-grandfather could have lived on indefinitely through those letters—how could she let those memories just disappear?
My frustration over her actions lasted until a couple of weeks ago, when for some reason I found myself thinking again about what she had done. It suddenly occurred to me that the burning of her letters was the exact contradiction of the modern obsession with posting one’s life on social media. Rather than taking some mundane event or offhand thought—let alone an awkward selfie—and making it public, she had taken what I can only imagine was a deep and significant part of her life and declared it private for all time.
I thought then of the way many of us can behave these days when going on vacation. We’re lying under a palm tree on some glorious beach, away from it all, a glimmering ocean before us—except we can’t see it because we’re too busy posting pictures of it on Instagram. And it doesn’t happen only during vacations. How many of us have not found ourselves at some point of the day considering something we might do or say from the point of view of its Facebook potential? Are we actually living, or has our life become so much research for potential posts?
Self-consciousness is one of the great gifts of being human, but it doesn’t come without its costs. Social media poses the danger of making us our own paparazzi, thus turning any moment which otherwise we might have simply lived—lived authentically—into an occasion for “crafting our brand.” A wealth of research has established that when extrinsic rewards are introduced into an activity, intrinsic motivations die off. When we live to post, we can begin losing our ability to enjoy our actions for their own sake—even our basic pleasures. A great meal seems less delicious when our friends fail to admire the picture of it we shared. Our actions suddenly lose their meaning without the “likes” to vindicate their existence.
I think that long before the existence of the Internet, my great-grandmother knew this. I think that in burning her letters, she was protecting her marriage. I think she was declaring—not to the world, but to herself—that what she had lived with her husband was good in itself, that its worth did not depend on anyone else’s approval or remembrance.
A book is not the same thing as a Facebook update, but to the aspiring memorist, hers is not a comfortable lesson to hear.