Thick summer haze blended with the spirals of smoke belching from the backyard grill. A teenage girl in a sepia-colored seventies outfit poked at the flames with a stoic face, silently urging them to gulp up more pages from the notebooks she fed them, one after another. The fire surged with joy and then abated, leaving only charred fragments sinking into dust or drifting lazily into the air. The grill was stuffed, but not for long. Soon the makeshift altar had reduced its sacrifices to embers. The girl sighed with relief, though the anger blazing in her chest had not subsided.
Her mother had read her diaries. They had to be burned. Her most private thoughts unmercifully exposed, her trust breached, the girl vowed to herself that no one would see those words again. As I would discover thirty years later, she also made a promise to her future daughter: she, unlike my grandmother, would never so mistrust and mistreat her own offspring.
“I trust you.” My mother said, over and over again. “I will never invade your privacy.”
I kept journals sporadically, largely as an outlet for childhood frustrations. When other girls shut me out of their circle, I scribbled furiously about it. When I realized guiltily that Christ had commanded us to love everyone, I hastily amended, “Ignore my last entry. I love everyone, those girls especially!” Sometimes the pages were filled with incoherent childhood rage: “STUPID STUPID STUPID!!” I vented. I knew more emphatic words, but good Christian girls never swore.
Despite knowing that my diaries would never be read by mortal eyes, I nonetheless resisted uttering any religious fears or insecurities. I had been told that Satan could not read our minds but could definitely hear what we said. I surmised, though I was never told, that the devil was probably smart enough to read, too, so I avoided showing fear or doubt in the pages of my journals. I alluded in the vaguest possible terms to crushes I had on boys, convinced that to have a crush was to succumb to sinful lust and thus to leave an opening for Satan. Those thoughts were evil, and must be repudiated and denied.
In time, new media burst on the scene. I sent my first email at 11 years old. My mother, still adamantly adhering to her promise to trust me, didn’t stand over my shoulder or vet my communication. I was free to email my friends at church as though we were having a private conversation. At least, that was my assumption. I was quick to discover, yet slow to appreciate, how different the lives of my peers were.
The internet was new to most people I knew, but some guidelines had been established rather quickly: the first rule was to remember that the people in chat rooms weren’t always who they said they were. The second was related: never share identifiable information. Armed with this common sense, I boldly entered chat rooms and held conversations with strangers. Their potential wiles and innuendos flew over my head like a fleet of supersonic jets. If they were there at all, I was none the wiser for a long time.
Among the interests I pursued on the internet were websites for other children who played the Catz video game, which allowed the player to raise and breed virtual pets and show pictures of them to others. I also discovered MIDI files, which exposed me to music I had never heard before and yet held none of the threats of Satanic infiltration like rock music on the radio. MIDI files had no beat or lyrics. They couldn’t infiltrate my brain with images of sex and drugs. This latter discovery soon led to my first jolt of surprise at the exceptional quality of my mother’s trust.