In last Sunday’s New York Times Modern Love column, author Joyce Maynard wrote about trespassing into the e-mail account of her 22-year-old daughter, Audrey. The daughter had temporarily relocated to the Dominican Republic when her communications home were abruptly and, to Maynard, ominously silenced. From reading the purloined correspondence, Maynard learned that her daughter was embroiled in a personal dilemma-one that she apparently needed to resolve without involving her mother. After justifying the invasion of her daughter’s privacy (“I dreamed my daughter was running … her face a mask of grief”), Maynard goes on to tell Modern Love readers the details of her daughter’s very emotional crisis, including results of her HIV tests.
Maynard has, apparently, always had difficulty with boundaries. In 1972, when she was 18, the writer published a confessional essay in the Times about her generational perspective (sample: “Marijuana and the class of ‘71 moved through high school together”) that brought her national attention. She was later criticized about her 1999 memoir that excruciatingly detailed her teenage affair with then 53-year-old novelist J.D. Salinger. Maynard also auctioned off her love letters from the reclusive author.
Even had Maynard not been notoriously boundary-challenged, however, I completely understand how she felt. Having access to private electronic mail was too tempting, especially for a parent who is genuinely terrified her child is in trouble and needs to believe that she can rescue her. When my son first moved away to college a couple years ago, he and I briefly shared an e-mail account. Months after I had legitimate reason to monitor, I had a bad feeling he was hiding something important. I peeked at the hotmail and saw his college dean was writing him about academic probation. I immediately confessed (losing whatever moral authority I could muster over the suspension). He asked me never to use his account again, and I never have. But I wish I didn’t know how to.
Coincidentally, I also see the matter from Maynard’s daughter’s perspective. When I was about her age, I went silent for about a month just after arriving alone in Mexico (I had my reasons). Neither e-mail nor cell phones had been invented yet, but my mother called every U.S. consulate along the Pacific Coast and talked each one into pasting this sign in their storefront window: “BONNIE GOLDSTEIN CALL YOUR MOTHER.” I saw the one in Mazatlan and went inside. They let me use their phone.