My parents sold their home recently, a small, vinyl-sided house at the end of a cul-de-sac, next to an eerie, overgrown hill where I once watched a hawk disembowel a squirrel. They’ve lived there since I was 16. Visiting over the holidays, I found myself caught between clashing perceptual modes: I wanted just to be there, enjoying the mundanity of a place that would soon be mythological to me. I also wanted to tour it like a stranger and send away dispatches — to friends who would never see it, to myself who could never go back, to no one in particular.
My mother has always been a beautiful decorator, as well as a very good thrifter, and the house is sprouting with objects she’s been accumulating since I was a girl. I took pictures of the lacquerware, the silk textiles, the exquisitely potted plants assembled in front of the window like overachieving siblings. I took pictures of family photographs; homemade greeting cards; a portrait of my uncle in the 1980s, painted by a friend of his, that my mom had restored after a basement leak and presented to me for my birthday. I was swamped with memories, but I found myself appraising every item by a strangely dispassionate standard — not so much what it had meant to me, but what I could “do” with it. I was gleaning the place for visual anecdotes suited to the person I am now.
Some pictures I texted to friends. Others I posted to my Instagram, which is slapdash and homely, with about as many followers as it deserves — I use the app like I once used Facebook, as a way of being ambiently with people I like, or to set up a dopamine drip while I’m doing something I’d rather not. My friends, flung out over the continent, were posting their own holiday or non-holiday pictures, and as much as I love my parents I felt homesick, as one does, for my independence. I live in a new city now, and Instagram was the simplest way to reconcile two lives.
My mother noticed what I was up to and eyed me uneasily. “Why do you have to document everything?” she said, as I snapped away at some erotic ceramicware. I told her I didn’t plan to show anyone, but the point was that I could.
My mom and I have very different conceptions of privacy. This has been a steady source of conflict in our relationship. She is extremely careful about what she shares of her personal life, and with whom, whereas I’ve been flippant in the past about broadcasting mine. For a long time I didn’t see a need to be discrete about my sex life, living habits or childhood, and while I’m not ashamed of the details, I’m ashamed sometimes of the character I was revealing. I regret having trespassed her boundaries when our personal lives overlapped (I cleared this column with her beforehand). And it makes me sad, sometimes, to think of how callously I’ve treated my life, the ways I traded down experiences for anecdotes.
The divide is partly generational, of course. Like many million others I’ve been exposing myself long enough, in a workaday fashion, that gauging a moment’s shareability — whether it’s interesting, to whom, and at what valence — has become a reflex, which feels both like a pathology and a necessary life skill. I value privacy, but for me it doesn’t feel at odds with self-exposure. The two seem related — I’d sooner post a picture of my messy apartment than let a friend come by; when I feel ugly, I find a good angle and post a selfie. Shaping your own image is mitigating when you feel vulnerable, a way to send out a decoy in your place.
For my mother, privacy is not just a personal boundary or a practical concern but an instinct, and something like an ethos: She has a deep revulsion to the idea of something private circulating in public context. She dislikes having her picture taken and hates having it shared; it removes her right to represent herself. She feels uneasy when she encounters other people’s old, anonymous family photographs at flea markets. The shots might be totally banal — a woman standing barefoot on a lawn, or a child crying at the beach — but their very banality is demeaning; they meant a lot to someone.
When she first explained this to me, I didn’t get it. I remembered a performance I saw years ago by the Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players, a mom, dad, and daughter who collected strangers’ old snapshots and made up songs about them. As a teenager I thought this was a neat schtick, and a nice gesture, a way of honoring the humble people traced by old Polaroids. Now I think of how I’d feel were the artifacts of my life used as fodder for someone’s art project, and it makes me very angry.
More and more, I understand my mother’s circumspection: Most of the time, what feels monumental to you is a trifle to anyone else; describing it out loud, absorbing an outside response, can put you at odds with your own emotions. Posting pictures of a loved one is, on one hand, like placing them on a work desk; on the other, it seems obscene to consider the image’s likability. Posting pictures of friends means using their image, in some way, to augment your own, inviting the sort of self-presentational calculus from which friendships are, ideally, an oasis.
Relationships are subject to their own, encrypted terms; to air them publicly is to submit them for outside judgment, and risk letting something delicate and conditional wilt in the light. I often think of a clip featured in Montage of Heck, the 2015 Kurt Cobain documentary, in which Cobain is covertly filming himself kissing Courtney Love in bed. The closeup makes his face look fetal; you can hear the sucking sounds as their lips mash together, and her offhanded, guttural moans. Of all the home movies excerpted in the film, it gives the strongest impression of their chemistry, and it’s absolutely disgusting.
Familial intimacy can have the same effect: I remember my discomfort when, as a child, I heard an adult I loved call his father “daddy,” or when, in my 20s, I watched a boyfriend’s mother scoop mushy leftovers of his favorite dish into a yogurt container. A certain idiosyncrasy might be vital to a relationship, and hold as much appeal out of context as a healthy organ removed from the body. There are few things more alienating, or revolting, or compelling than other people’s intimacy; it is literally not for you. There are few states more helpless than being exposed in your own.
As I circled my parents’ house with my phone, I claimed to be acting in good faith. I wasn’t posting mom’s image, or even taking her picture, just capturing what I loved about the home she’d made. But I knew I was acting obnoxiously. I was trailing the threat of an unknown audience through her space. She once told me that after a break-in, she’d felt vulnerable above all else that someone had rifled through her belongings; I feel that way letting a friend use my laptop.
I was also framing her world on my terms, which are skewed by my compulsion to affirm the person I think I am. My documentation had an ulterior motive: my phone was a mechanism that could place me at a distance from any shared moment, turn it instantly into a minor spectacle for parties not present. I told myself this was a show of affection, but it didn’t feel that way — it felt callous and performative, like placing my loved ones in scare quotes. I wanted to be present, to reaffiliate with my family; I knew the right thing was less an action than an orientation, but it’s easy to skirt such imperatives. To reassume the role of your parent’s child entails an internal rearrangement akin to shapeshifting, as easy to dread as to long for. Every time I go back I hope to stop resisting.
Instagram, or any platform for self-broadcast, materializes a tension in the overlap of any two lives: not only separateness of experience, but of language. You can’t control what you mean to someone else, or how they’ll share that meaning; no matter your fidelity to each other, you will make and remake yourselves at the other’s expense, repackaging that closeness as much to dismantle as to express it. Intimacy is exposure, of course; it narrows the margin of self-creation and risks revealing you as something other than you mean to be. The instinct to self-expose is as obvious an antidote as it is a betrayal.