This year, for the first time, my sister will bring her new fiancé home for the holidays. He is a fantastic guy. He adores my sister, and she, him. Also, he is Internet-infamous. For a sex scandal.
I learned this over the summer, the day after he asked my parents for their blessing to marry my sister, a secret my mom spilled to me approximately three minutes later. (In her defense, we were at a wedding, and there was an open bar.) I was excited, and the next morning, for whatever reason, I Googled him.
And there it was, Result Number One. “Sex! Contest!” the headline blared.
My excitement dissolved into disbelief, and then careened into stomach-twisting nausea. We went to brunch. I did not say anything.
I did not finish my eggs.
Scandal, it turns out, is in the eye of the beholder. Or the blogger. In the years-old incident that rendered my future brother-in-law’s online reputation ruined, there were no crimes, nor accusations of such. Neither was there cheating nor Wedding Crashers-inspired capers. What there was was sex, plenty of it, and a trove of hacked emails between a group of young men about said sex, often described in inglorious detail. The emails are pretty appalling; reading them is like being a fly on the wall for the worst locker room conversation a woman could imagine—exactly the sort of thing you do not want to read about the guy you just learned wants to marry your little sister.
I was upset, but the woman in me was not entirely shocked. The journalist in me, however, was disgusted. These were private citizens’ private emails, stolen and published, without comment from said citizens. Offensive, obnoxious, and immature as they may have been, it would take some seriously slippery standards to make a case for their newsworthiness. But, when cherry-picked, heavily edited, and slapped with a salacious headline, those private emails became the sort of foolproof clickbait that nets websites of a certain stripe enough traffic to satiate their advertisers for weeks.
The sister in me was paralyzed. I did not know what to do with this information I wanted only to un-know.
Initially, I was convinced my sister didn’t know. There was no way. She does not suffer fools kindly. Then again: I Googled the guy and I’m not the one sleeping with him—was there any way she could not know?
But if she didn’t know, and I didn’t tell her, and then she found out, and I would have to come clean that I knew because it would be written all over my face because I am the world’s worst liar, wouldn’t she feel horribly betrayed?
But she is so happy; how could I ruin that happiness?
This reel looped in my head for weeks.
Soon enough, he popped the question. They announced their engagement. Then, one of my cousins Googled the guy who’d landed my sister, and told his dad, my uncle, what he found. My uncle called my dad. Then, on a family vacation, my dad and my future brother-in-law went for a walk. Then, my future brother-in-law came back to the house, and poured himself a shot of scotch.
It was not yet noon.
Turned out, my sister had known all along. She’d Googled him too, of course. That night, she said it was a relief that, now, it was out in the open. Taking that as an invitation, we talked about it at dinner.
Pause while you consider discussing your sexual past with your future-in-laws, over grilled chicken and sausage.
It’s easy—isn’t it?—to dismiss that challenge with the smugness belonging only to the uninitiated. Well, you might say, I would never be in that position because I would never do something like that.
We gossip over email, flirt via text, tweet whenever pithy inspiration strikes, bitch about our bosses on gchat, sometimes while we are actually at work. (Or so I’ve heard.) It’s stream of consciousness with an indelible paper trail—and while many of us would argue we’re better people than our streams of consciousness might suggest, a transcript likely would indicate otherwise.
Earlier this month, the day of reckoning arrived for some Sony execs, when their hacked emails were unleashed upon the masses, exposing smack-talking about some of Hollywood’s biggest names and a shockingly racist exchange about what movies President Obama might like.
I watched as those emails were released, and initially, I felt that same urge, to look down on the proceedings, from high on a perch of moral superiority: Serves them right. I never would have said such things. But then, this not difficult for me, when a transcript of me at my most awful has never been trending on Twitter; when I haven’t had the experience of waking up one day to discover the internet has christened me the Jerk Du Jour. It’s understandable, the way I, and the rest of the luckily untried, absolve ourselves of considering such scenarios from the other side. The reflexive reaction is just so convenient: They wouldn’t be in this position if they’d never done what they did in the first place.
It’s tempting to leave it at that.
I’ve also been tempted to wade into the details, to claim my seat in the stands, my spot on the jury. (How bad was he? How out of context were the emails? …And hey, Sony execs, I’d like to know more about Angelina Jolie, please!) But, with time, I’m less interested in dissecting, let alone defending, the actions of my future brother-in-law or any Sony brass. Now I only wonder how we’re able to casually consume personal dirt about strangers without considering that the only reason that dirt is available for public consumption is because their privacy was terribly—possibly criminally—breached.
My perspective has shifted after this brush with internet infamy. I’ve had a front row seat and a backstage pass, and what this experience has left me with, more than anything, is an acute awareness of the fact that my own home (yours too, my friend) is made of glass. Way more problematic than what any person says in their private correspondence—no matter how sexist, racist, or tasteless—is the fact that this voyeurism has become so accepted that we have no shame, no sense that what we’re doing amounts to peering into a stranger’s bedroom window. But the more we accept it, the more it becomes routine, and the more we are all at risk.
And the fallout is severe. My sister’s fiancé and his friends have lost jobs, relationships, and other opportunities to the debacle. Of course, both the initial narrative and its subsequent aftermath are destined to vary, depending on which rung of the privilege ladder the hackee occupies. Those Sony execs surely have more recourse available to them than my sister’s fiancé and his friends; they, in turn, undoubtedly received different treatment than black men, for example, or women, would have in similar circumstances.
But the great majority of us—those without a team of lawyers and PR reps—would simply find ourselves forever at the mercy of Google’s long memory, the whole of ourselves reduced to a single embarrassing incident that will continue to haunt. Online, information is immortal; every interaction has the potential to become an awkward chicken and sausage dinner.
And that meal will live on in infamy. We each assumed a role—prosecutor, therapist, Oprah—and asked the questions we felt we needed to; he answered them all. He told us he was young and stupid. He was forthright, contrite, and chastened, but not newly so. Mostly, he struck me as weary, beaten down, accustomed to assuming the position in the hot seat. It had been years since the bomb was detonated; our interrogation was not the first. (He’d already been through it with, for example, his mom.)
Looking back, I feel a certain shame about the way I lapped it all up, the entitlement I felt to even more of the story. And putting myself in my sister’s fiancé’s shoes—an exercise which, admittedly, I’ve never bothered to perform for any other random jackass on the internet—I feel the burn of my own hypothetical humiliations. I think about things I’ve done and said and emailed and texted, imagine what would happen were they given top billing upon the Googling of my name, and I shudder. (Then I imagine that perhaps I might enjoy living in a cave.)
I imagine also that I’d be pretty tired of explaining. Silently, I’d be sick of being repentant, constantly conscious of ensuring that people understand, No, you see, I really am a good person. I might resent that I no longer had the right to any human flaw.
I understand that my sympathy might seem misplaced. Perhaps we all appear the fools, doing mental gymnastics to find a way to make peace with the whole embarrassing imbroglio. But, on the other hand, are we fools to attempt to know the whole person, rather than write him off based on the most foolish thing he’s ever done?
Now, I wish only that my sister wasn’t touched by any of this, that she could just be in love and a bride like any other, pitching fits about the cake and worrying about seating arrangements. I wish she didn’t have to wonder who knows about the burden they’ll continue to carry or deal with its consequences, or believe she has to explain when asked by those who feel deserving of the full, juicy saga.
Granted, had the story not come out and exploded every aspect of his life, her fiancé might be a different person now. Perhaps a not-as-good person. Who can say? But if my family’s own Fappening has left me certain of anything, it’s this: When it comes to welcoming his wonderful and flawed self into my wonderful and flawed family, he’ll fit right in.
Shannon Kelley is a writer and author based in California who writes frequently on the intersection of feminism, pop culture and politics. Follow her on Twitter @Shannon_BKelley.