On Eternal Sunshine, Erasing Memories, and Facebook Timeline

The first time I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, years ago, I didn’t like it.

The film, about two people who go through a procedure to erase each other from their memories, was made well, and I appreciated the vision of Michel Gondry. I also loved Jim Carrey’s more dramatic, tortured side à la The Truman Show. But the story scraped against me as I sifted through my own memories of guys that were never right for me, and relationships I had believed were more than what they actually were.

I watched Eternal Sunshine again this weekend. And I liked it this time.

I’ve said that the viewing experience of Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is malleable—the film elicits different emotions each time I watch it, and my relationship with it evolves as time passes. I feel this way, too, about Eternal Sunshine: I like it or hate it depending on where my head is. And where my heart is.

Even though Joel and Clementine use the services of Lacuna, Inc. to erase their relationship from their memories, they cross paths again—on a train from Montauk—and discover their identities soon after. I liked the movie because, despite how you interpret the ending, it’s ultimately all okay. Not in that they’ll get back together and it’ll work out this time and all is peachy okay, but rather in that she’s hurt and he’s hurt and life can be painful and hard but it’s still okay kind of way.

And I liked that—despite the harsh memories of the couple’s fighting, the awkward conversation about not being ready to have a baby, their silence while eating in a restaurant, the flaws, and the pointing out of these flaws—Joel brushes them aside, or rather, accepts them, in order to keep the happy ones.

Please, not this one. Don’t take THIS memory, he thinks as he lies in bed as the erasing technician zaps his brain of vestiges of Clementine: The good remnants. The beautiful ones. The early moments, the moments of discovery and curiosity, the moments under the covers, the moments lying on ice while gazing at the night sky.

If he erases her, he erases everything.

Failed relationships aren’t all bad, are they?

* * *

Memories of a relationship, good and bad. I’m reminded of “Chat History,” a sad, personal piece on GOOD about a woman who recounts her relationship with her partner Clark, who died of cancer, via old chats and emails stored in her Gmail account. She dives into a vault of memories not really intended to be archived—but they are—just as Joel is forced to face all his memories of Clementine:

I go looking for evidence of our partnership that’s not tied to a memory of me sleeping on two chairs pushed together next to his hospital bedside . . . I type his name into the search field and enter a world of the unscripted dialogue that filled our 9-to-5 existence . . . This is a history of our relationship that we didn’t intend to write, one that runs parallel to the one authored by his uncontainable illness.

In early 2010, I searched for my ex-boyfriend’s first and last name in my Gmail search bar and deleted, all at once, our email exchanges and chat conversations over a period of three years. Consciously erasing a relationship. Curating my own history.

But that action of pulling up that history and trashing those messages seems insufficient, doesn’t it? Memories aren’t just digital files. And even if a relationship has ended sourly, would you want to erase it completely?

* * *

So, Facebook Timeline rolls out this week. A bit on Timeline from Facebook’s intro page:

Last night, I sifted through my entire Facebook history and deleted comments, hid status updates, and untagged or removed unflattering photos I’d forgotten about. I didn’t delete much, as prior to 2011, I wasn’t that active on Facebook: I’d deactivated my account numerous times and was nearly nonexistent from 2007 to the first half of 2010. Still, I combed my Facebook wall like I was meticulously proofreading a job at work. Why? Not because any of the content was inappropriate, or meant to be a secret, but because I micromanage myself. Because I’m a perfectionist.

And because sometimes I just want to erase: to forget in the same way I had wanted to forget everything associated with a past relationship and a hard, confusing breakup.

But my curation of my own history—the deleting of previous status updates, the “featuring” of particular posts—is strange. More so than before, I am able to highlight what is important in my life—or what I want others to view as important—and fill in missing details from today to when I was born:

And no, there is nothing new about telling my life story exactly the way I want. But with the memory erasing procedure in Eternal Sunshine fresh in my mind, I find Timeline—and my general ability to click “Delete”—fascinating. And at the same time, rather scary.

Once you get timeline, you’ll have 7 days before anyone else can see it. This gives you a chance to get your timeline looking the way you want before other people see it.” Right here, in Timeline’s instructions, I’m encouraged to pluck out my flaws and dismiss memories that aren’t life-altering or amazing. 

And yet Timeline isn’t all about pruning and perfecting—we can note the end of a relationship, for instance, if we want to:

I can see how some people will find inputting missing details of their lives to be fun. But I sense a forced organization of things that can’t—or shouldn’t—be compartmentalized. And further digitization of my memories.

I don’t know. After watching Eternal Sunshine again, and feeling good about it this time around, I kinda want to let my memories just be.

Related post at the Atlantic: Facebook Timeline and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

158 thoughts on “On Eternal Sunshine, Erasing Memories, and Facebook Timeline

  1. I just watched Eternal Sunshine for the 5th? time. It is my wife’s favorite movie. All I can say is that I am glad I was married and went to college and high school just before Facebook and social media came alive. I can’t imagine growing up with it. It must create some awkward stuff for the kids.

    Great, thought-provoking post.

  2. “Curating my own history.” – I like the way you said this. I think in effect blogging, social media and online profiles compel us to make our online histories be the best story there is — minus the flaws and the unsightlies.

    I’m not about to give up on the past though, no matter how much some memories hurt. I believe in the power of mistakes 😀

    Eternal Sunshine… one of the best ones! I’m in love with The Fountain too, almost same theme! 😀

      1. The Fountain’s a bit of a mindf*** like Eternal Sunshine (excuse the language), but stick to it! 😀 Hope you like the movie (yes I’m pseudo-endorsing it ‘coz not a lot of people find the film wonderful, sad)

  3. I’ve watched Eternal Sunshine… several times, but I could never get over the sensation I felt in the first one. I had just been through a teenager-love-drama that ached so much and cried a lot watching the movie – as I still do.
    I guess some wounds never heal.

  4. My friend calls Facebook “personal marketing” and when the new “timeline” format appeared, that description seemed more apt than ever. It brings to mind two of my favorite quotes from a favorite author.

    “Because that’s how things are, and this goes for everyone: we will never find out why we irritate people, what bothers people about us, what they like about us, what they find ridiculous; for us our own image is our greatest mystery.”

    ‎”Thinking about how others see us and trying to make our image as attractive as possible is considered a kind of dissembling or cheating. […]

    It’s naive to believe that our image is only an illusion that conceals our selves, as the one true essence independent of the eyes of the world. The imagologues have revealed with cynical radicalism that the reverse is true: our self is a mere illusion, ungraspable, indescribable, misty while the only reality, all too easily graspable and describable, is our image in the eyes of others. And the worst thing about it is that you are not its master. First you try to paint it yourself, then you want at least to influence and control it, but in vain: a single malicious phrase is enough to change you forever into a depressingly simple caricature.”

    -Milan Kundera, “Immortality”

  5. What a well written, entertaining, and refreshing post! I am not a huge movie fan…but I will certainly be watching Eternal Sunshine this week.
    I like how you’ve highlighted that he’s hurt, she’s hurt…but pain is okay.
    “curation of my own history” & “digitization of memories”…I just like the sound of these words when strung together.
    You ultimately had me when you blurted out that you’re a perfectionist! Ugh, so am I. Isn’t it exhausting? I certainly wish that perfectionism was as romantic as “making things look perfect, or appearing perfect.” That would be a whole lot easier than crafting And choreographing this perfection where the ceiling is constantly rising. Ahhhh! I’ll be back to read more of Writing Through The Fog. Cheers!!!

    1. Perfection, and micromanaging oneself, can certainly be exhausting, and I like how you say “the ceiling is constantly rising.” Cause yes, it feels this way. And our lives seem to be under a microscope on a daily basis, which makes things even more challenging.

  6. interesting. i will have to rent this movie you speak of. i don’t think you can ever erase memories completely. you are who you are from your past experiences, whether good or bad.

  7. As a frequent, however methodical, user of Facebook, I’ve been surprisingly in the dark with the “Timeline” feature. Until I read your entry, the only experience I had with it was randomly seeing friends’ reconstructed profile pages. Aside from being confused with the new template, I was turned off by it, but I could not exactly verbalize what caused that impotence. This quote of yours struck me most:

    “I can see how some people will find inputting missing details of their lives to be fun. But I sense a forced organization of things that can’t—or shouldn’t—be compartmentalized. And further digitization of my memories.”

    For however great it can be to refine, shape, and share the narrative of your life, I suspect it’s a distraction from daily life and its defining moments. Instead of living life, and letting it happen organically, the habit becomes labeling each movement. That being said, I prefer the healthier, more humanly potent way of catching up on friends’ timelines: current or past personal stories told orally or written in email/text. The correct interpretation of importance level through these means can strengthen and invigorate bonds far greater than carefully, pre-categorized cliffnotes.

    Thanks for your post.

    1. Instead of living life, and letting it happen organically, the habit becomes labeling each movement.

      Really glad you used the word “organically” — it describes how I’d like my online life and movements to unfold, but the ability to compartmentalize (friend lists, life events, labels) makes it a challenge sometimes.

  8. When you can remember the good times in a relationship without feeling sad, and can learn from the bad things without feeling bitter, then you know you are ready to move on.

    I really liked your post.

  9. Wow! What a great post. I was so intrigued, too, by all of the comments. I can’t remember the last time — if ever — that I read through > 100 comments on a post. Maybe I’ve deleted such memories!

    I recently setup my timeline, but the 3 years I’ve been on FB is such a minor percent of my life. I found it funny that a photo I tagged in the ’60’s wouldn’t show up and then I realized that I hadn’t set up my correct DOB in my FB account, so apparently FB thought I was born 8 years before I graduated from high school.

    I can’t imagine that if FB was around when I was in HS and college that I would have wanted all of my relationships around as part of the “curated view” of my life years later. I recently was reminded of a past relationship and have thought quite a bit about it. More than anything, I’ve wondered why this failed — and oh so flawed — relationship would creep back into the forefront of my memory. I looked for this man on FB and at first didn’t even recognize his picture. I did not ‘friend’ him. I did wonder if he would even remember me, but I suppose that the more pertinent question would be whether he “deleted” me from his memories and has kept me intentionally in that delete file for all these years not because of time passing but because he wouldn’t want to be reminded.

    It’s easy to think that when we skit across another’s life briefly that it didn’t mean anything in the long run, but I think all — good and bad — makes me who I am today, as much as it reflected who I once was. Do I want that to be my public persona though? I don’t think so. I like the timeline feature, but I won’t go back and put in all of my life events. Does it matter that I was mattered previously? Do I want to indicate when my (now adult) children where born — and how does that impinge on their privacy, even if I don’t “tag” them? Scrapbooks and journals are important to me for remembering things, but I don’t need to share them with the world. And that is what we should be thinking about whenever we post anything to Facebook.

    Thank you for such a though-provoking post. I’m glad I checked out Freshly Pressed today and stumbled upon this post!

      1. What a spellcheck fail! I think I intended to write “Does it matter that I was maRRied previously” Somehow, though it is a bit weird, it seems perfect in this context!

        1. Ah. This is funny and interesting — I did notice how you used “matter” in a different, slightly bizarre way, but thought that’s what you’d meant! But I agree: it totally works for some odd reason, like you’re saying, “Yes, I have a past, and things happened, and they were important, and etc., but no, that doesn’t mean I have to call these things out and share them publicly now.”

          Thanks for returning to respond!

  10. I love Eternal Sunshine. It’s amazing how people do everything to erase pain instantly, just as amazing as universe will do anything to give what you suppose to have. The pain, and the love itself. 😉

    You have an interesting blog. Cheers!

  11. This is an interesting and timely post. It seems strange, unnerving and historic for Facebook, a corporation, to essentially force their users to revisit their own memories in this way. I can’t really think of any precedent for this sort of thing except in fiction like the example you gave of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Over the next few weeks millions of people will have experiences like yours as they confront not only the meaningful moments in their lives but also the embarrassing, even painful ones. Something like the “return of the repressed” will be experienced, individually, by most of the people you know. If nothing else this is odd. 2012 might be the odd year that begins with as many people are looking backwards, into the past, as forwards. And all because of the re-branding efforts of a social media company.

    Anyway, I don’t think I added much to what you wrote in your post, which I liked a lot. I look forward to reading more posts from you.

  12. I don’t normally listen to podcasts or audios on blogs. But your voice was amazing in its sincerity. It made your personal experience that much more heard. Thanks for sharing that. Do keep up the podcasts.

  13. I Love(d) LIT and hated Eternal Sunshine…and happening upon your article was funny because last night Eternal Sunshine popped into my mind while I was laying in bed. Can’t quite remember why…
    Found out about FB timeline for the first time today. I guess the Phoniness is not so alarming to me because often the whole thing seems pretty fake and more about vanity and popularity then truth or content.

  14. You mentioned two of my favorite movies of all time. 🙂 I agree, each time I watch them brings a different kind of experience. Perhaps this is why I love them.

    Though I have many painful memories, I don’t think I’ll give them up. They made me who I am now.

    Of course, Facebook is a different story. I’ve had the timeline for about a couple of months now, and I did do a lot of pruning then.

  15. i love Eternal Sunshine. watched it with an ex at a time when i was going through defining moments in my life. still hv the dvd. thinking of getting it in blu ray.
    i have always pondered if i could erase all remnants of relationships that failed miserably or were so heart wrenching, wouldn’t it be great? but then i tell myself that if i didn’t remember i had gone through those tough times, i wouldn’t be the person i am today, or for that matter, the person i’m going to be in future. i wouldn’t have any point of reference. and i still rue the day i burnt photos, knick knacks and other stuff that reminded me of those relationships. but i eventually had to.
    when i was getting married, i threw the last bits of my past. i told myself i wanted a clean start and nothing else mattered except for my wife. so i bade farewell to my past and moved on. happily married now and i make a mental note to keep memories of our lives together so that one day we both can dig them all up and have a right ol’ laugh…

    amazing post. enjoyed it thoroughly!

  16. I love Eternal Sunshine for all that it offers even if it’s guaranteed to make me sad. I’ve been trying to figure out Facebook timeline these past few days and although intrigued I can already tell that it’s going to end up being a gut wrencher. I haven’t bothered to add any life events because frankly I really don’t care to take the time to do so but I’ve already been tagged in some friend’s events. After reading your post I decided to look into specific months for relationship status updates. Oddly enough it seem to skip over those events. I’m partially grateful and partially a bit sad. They were moments I don’t always want to reflect on but they still happened. Guess Facebook went a little Lacuna on me…

  17. I’ve never heard of Timeline. Once upon a time, I would have embraced the idea of tailoring my life so that it made some kind of sense to the outside viewer, but I find, as I get older, I care less about what anyone else thinks about me and my choices and more about what I think of them. I also find, as I get older, that I feel more removed from the poor choices, not just by the years that have passed, but how I have changed as a person; I wouldn’t make those choices today. I spent 3+ years in a sick relationship with someone who was addicted to crack, and whom I loved as I have loved no one else, and I would honestly erase/take back/do over the entire thing because no GOOD came of it. He has tried to reconnect with me, to be friends, and I simply can’t do it. I don’t remember what I loved about him, and when I think about our relationship, I only see the BAD.
    P.S. I also love that movie for its originality and honesty.

  18. At the start of my Creative Writing class this past semester, we read the first ten pages of the screenplay for Eternal Sunshine–but the library didn’t have a copy, so I still haven’t seen it. However, reading this post and your beautiful writing was easy and inspiring somehow, and I appreciate that. Thank you for sharing this with us!

    1. Darren–thank you so much. I think reading it aloud and recording the audio allowed me to edit so it flowed better. I’m glad it was at once easy and inspiring to read. A nice compliment.

      Hope you get to see the movie soon.

  19. There are so many things I want to say about this post… that I actually took notes of what I wanted to say…and I’ve NEVER done that before. First thing for everything, I guess…

    “the film elicits different emotions each time I watch it, and my relationship with it evolves as time passes.” — it’s so true. Eternal Sunshine is my favorite movie… it’s probably a movie i can watch over and over again and never ever get tired of (… or have yet to get tired of). i suppose it’s because it does wake up different emotions in me every time i watch it.. and that rarely happens.

    “Memories aren’t just digital files” — oh man, sometimes i wish they were… then it’ll just be that easy to delete the unwanted ones. but i guess memories are there for a reason. they make you who you are… despite how painful a memory can be. i’ve done my share of erasing… since i do document quite a lot…and sometimes i regret it.

    …and speaking of facebook… i deleted my first one shortly after high school to start fresh in college…and now with this timeline… i kind of regret it. or not.i feel like all the things i documented (and i did a lot of it) in HS is gone… but not really right? just my version of the digital memories that were on my facebook…

    alright, i think i’m done.

    1. You took notes of the stuff you wanted to say! Yay. I’m glad that you identified with this piece and wanted to share your thoughts. I really appreciate the comment.

  20. This is such a great post–
    just stumbled upon your page while looking into WordPress (I currently use blogger, and think I need a change in pace.)
    It’s making me think a great deal now! Excellent writing.

  21. I love what you said about failed relationships being ‘not that bad’ I have has some amazing experiences in past relationships that sadly failed to continue into the future, yet have touched my life in deep and meaningful ways.

    Past relationships that end should not be considered ‘failures’ but ‘experiences’, there to guide us.

  22. Thank you, that puts rather nicely into words why I’m so wary of getting Timeline – my past is my past and I don’t want to have to edit it so it’s ok for the world to see, I don’t even really want to delve into it, I just want it to… be.

    Fab post. Am now following! And congrats on being freshly pressed!

    Oh, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind messed with my head so much on my first watching that I’ve never re-watched it.

    1. Yep, there are some movies that messed with my head the first time that I refuse to watch them again!

      My past is my past and I don’t want to have to edit it so it’s ok for the world to see.

      Nicely said.

  23. I just got Timeline, and I’m not adding ‘life events’ to it. I’ve had Facebook for just over three years now – at my age, almost a fifth of my life. A lot of ‘life events’ have happened in that time. But I didn’t mention them when they did, so am I going to mention them retrospectively? I’m not going to put on there the death of my grandad, the complications of my friendships, the day I started writing – is that just asking for sympathy or admiration? Facebook is for the little things, the song lyrics you have to share, the hilarious quotes from a movie you know your friends ought to see. Not for your entire life story. Sometimes, you’re the only who should know that.

    Congratulations on Freshly Pressed; I really liked this post. It was very meaningful 🙂

  24. About eight years ago, I had a friendship end that was a big part of my life before that. I am better off without the friendship as after it ended I was able to look back and see that it was a volatile and lopsided relationship where I did a lot of giving and the other person did a lot of taking.
    Anyway, after the friendship ended, I went through and got rid of all evidence of the relationship…pictures, mementos. I regret that now. Whatever the relationship was, it was a big part of my life and as all parts of my life, helped make me the person I am today.
    I am just not a big believer in erasing evidence of the past. I believe in embracing my past. Looking back on it, learning from it, and growing. It’s all a part of me and why would I want to erase any part of me…
    As fas as something like a Facebook Timeline, I love that my own history is so easily recorded. I will look back at it and I will chastise myself, laugh at myself, and compliment myself on different parts of my past. It’s all part of my story…the good and the bad. I have no interest in selectively ripping out pages of that story and hiding them.

    1. I love that my own history is so easily recorded.

      I love this. Your thoughts are different than many others here, and it’s refreshing to hear. There’s also strength and confidence in your words, and it’s wonderful.

  25. found you on the FB landing page – congratulations on being freshly pressed! I like your approach for offering narration to your essay, seemed to make the blog so much more personal. Eternal Sunshine was a high concept film for me, but brushing that aside, I see your points, as you evaluate a relationship, any relationship, there are good things and bad. Points for me to ponder today as I consider reconvening with my family this weekend. A somewhat rare event for us.

  26. This post was wonderfully written and it stirred up a lot of emotions that I have been trying to suppress during this holiday season and the looming of the new year….thank you for sharing.

  27. Great post. There is a similarly themed Japanese film from 1999 called ‘Afterlife’, in which recently deceased souls have to select one memory in order to cross over to the other side.

    1. Whoa. That sounds really intriguing. So when they select a memory and cross over, does that mean that’s the only memory they will remember in the afterlife?

      That makes me think — let’s say we lived in a society where we *had* to select a certain number of memories to keep — and trash the rest — for some reason. (I dunno, just brainstorming out loud here!)

      That said, which memories would I pick?

      Thanks for the food for thought.

  28. I love these lines. They ring so true:
    “But that action of pulling up that history and trashing those messages seems insufficient, doesn’t it? Memories aren’t just digital files. And even if a relationship has ended sourly, would you want to erase it completely?”

  29. Great post! I loved Eternal sunshine from the first time I watched it. I don’t think I would want to delete my memories, even the really bad ones, because that’s what you’re supposed to learn from, right?

    The Facebook Timeline thing hasn’t been rolled out properly in the UK yet, so I’ve yet to find out what I’m going to edit from it.

    I really like the audio clips you inserted into this blog. What inspired you to do that?

    And finally (I promise lol), there’s this three-part series in the UK called Black Mirror. The third episode, The Entire History of You, looks at memories too. If you can, you should check it out.

    1. I’ve recorded a handful of my blog posts — the ones I feel would be complemented by audio. I’m not really sure how I choose which ones, but they seem to be posts about the past, memory, longing, and wanderlust. A fellow blogger-friend started doing audio posts earlier this year, so I gave it a shot. I enjoy it so much now (and have gotten better and less self-conscious about my voice, so it’s good practice!).

      Also, thanks for the heads up on the Black Mirror episode. With a title like that — The Entire History of You — it must be interesting!

  30. I love this post. And it came at perfect timing too. I just “got” my timeline and was carried through memory lane after seeing how my timeline is a complete blah this year. I can’t put exact words in now since I am experiencing a sense of melancholy – the emotions are again resurfacing now as I type this.

    Hmm..enough about me. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. And to end this, I hate Facebook timeline. haha!

  31. I really love your blog. I found it to be very insightful and touching in a way. All I really know is that it truly got me thinking and remembering things and people. Thank you.

  32. Very touching post!

    Erasing the digital remnants of my past relationships is actually something I’ve done before. I was having issues with my girlfriend because she was obsessed with the notion that I hadn’t let go of my ex yet. In a symbolic gesture, I burnt all the chat logs, photos, and other instances of my ex-girlfriend onto a CD-ROM, deleted them off my hard drive, and then tossed the CD into a random public garbage bin.

    Melodramatic overkill, maybe… but I like melodrama.

    That said, I do believe in keeping memories. As a writer, you need them. I often go through my past diaries to re-live my emotions in previous experiences, to use those emotions in my writing. For that reason, I cherish my diaries, even if they’re mostly just textual angst from when I was an angry kid.

    1. Ah, yes. Surprisingly, you’re the first commenter who’s brought up keeping and revisiting memories for creative inspiration. I agree 100%. My old journals and diaries — the first started when I was 11 or 12 — are some of my most precious possessions. But that private vault of memories is much different than the digital ones posted for all to see. That said, it’s so odd to think about how different our memories are “stored” these days.

      Oh, and I don’t think all that was melodramatic. Like you said, it was a symbolic gesture. I think it’s natural to go through such motions. It’s quite human.

  33. It’s nice to hear a voice that thinks the same things as I do. When my ex broke up with me I was completely devastated. I deactivated my Facebook and deleted all old pictures and posts, got rid of the box of random items that were tied to so many memories, deleted shared e mails, phone conversations and voicemails, and sat drowning in my own desperate tears wishing that I really could erase my memories because wouldn’t it just be so much easier to move on with our lives had we not have had those songs, you know those songs, that remind you of the man you once had, and the movie, you know the one that you used to watch together all the time, or those places, those favorite places that only you would go with him that were so special to you. Wouldn’t life be better off without those painful memories? In some ways yes. But what we fail to notice in failed relationships is the success that they bring to us in the future. Everything happens for a reason, and when I see that ex and I start to think about all of the wonderful times we shared and how much I miss his family and the friends we shared that drifted after we broke up, I have to stop myself and realize the point in my life that he brought me here today. So in erasing those memories, we may be able to move past the person, but we would never gain anything or learn from those failed relationships and that would be the worst tragedy of life. To learn nothing and grow not one bit as a human. Loved your post.

    1. Really appreciate you sharing your thoughts and personal experience here.

      A life where one doesn’t learn and grow? Not the type of life I want to live, either.

  34. Two words: Relational Esthetics.

    The art of exchange between artist and participants. What does it mean to have our whole world commoditized? Social art?

    Thanks for your post. Very interesting and makes connections about things I’m exploring in my art. -Cheers

  35. I waited all day to write a response to this post. Memories have great meaning for me, on so many levels.

    I watched my mother “curate” her memories with the strong red pen of Alzheimer’s. A story she read became a day she spent with her sisters, her fears became realities of decades ago, and what was real blended seamlessly with desires that she had deposited with the bank of tomorrows.

    Events, pictures, benchmarks, break-ups and breakdowns. These things that become our life-patterns do not need a Facebook timeline we can rearrange. In our mind, our memories are the living puzzles that we can constantly rearrange for ourselves.

    This is a big subject, and I am hopeful that this will be the first of several pieces on it that you write.

    1. In our mind, our memories are the living puzzles that we can constantly rearrange for ourselves.

      Wise and deep, as usual.

      A big subject indeed. I didn’t expect a long thread of comments, which in turn has made me think even more about all of it. More to come, I’m sure!

  36. Hey Cheri, thanks for the great blog post. As a guy it’s sometimes even harder to deal with loss, and I’m no exception. I think I’ve deleted just about every ex-gf’s email worth any salt. Now that I’m comfortably married I look back at this time as a curious observer, rather than a hurt child, and I kind of regret not keeping some of the correspondence. Just quickly about Facebook timeline, as like all social media, it’s like getting dressed to go out – you make the conscious decision to go out warts and all, or you make the effort to cover up the blemishes. I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

    1. James, I love your analogy between Facebook Timeline and getting dressed to go out! I also like how you look back at the past like a curious observer, rather than a hurt child — a mark of maturity and perspective.

      Thanks for the note.

  37. This was really thought-provoking. Thank you for sharing your thoughts; they definitely helped me understand some of my own. I’ve been really resistant to the Facebook timeline, and reading what you had to say about it helped me pinpoint exactly what I can’t stand about it– the compartmentalizing of memory, and my life. I’m obsessed with memories, but so many of them cannot fit on a timeline. Memory isn’t linear, you know? It’s intuitive.
    Thanks again!

    1. I’m obsessed with memories, but so many of them cannot fit on a timeline. Memory isn’t linear, you know?

      Yep. The new vertical list of years you can click on in Timeline — ie, 2007, 2006, 2005, down to the year you were born — irks me for this very reason. Feels like an unnatural and robotic process to fill out.

  38. Love this post. Something about the holidays has been reminding me of past relationships lately and making me feel a bit sad. Like you, my initial reaction was to want to erase it all…. forget it ever happened.

    But as time goes on… I’m feeling more like you. Parts of those memories are bitter… but parts are sweet… and I’m trying to learn how to let them “just be”

  39. Great post. Gives me something to think about. I recently sanitized my personal facebook page completely. I felt exposed. There were no relationships in my timeline but I realized that my page might be viewed by a different people who are checking out “the Ex-Wife” and I thought, hmmm, maybe I don’t want my business published for that particular purpose. I routinely untag photos. I deleted photos of my own children. i don’t like my timeline — on facebook or in real life. I’ll always have memories but I need to reduce their hold on me. I’m a saver of memories and a purger of stuff. I need to minimize memories. What I really don’t like is to happen upon a painful reminder. So I guess it comes down to organization. Some things can be saved in a box/file — that never has to be opened. Anyway, great post.

  40. Forgot to add, I too experienced a dislike the first time I watched ESOTSM. Then, last month during a re-watch came to really appreciate the film. Age or wisdom possibly? A mellowing of regret and sadness? Who knows. But I am glad to find a new reaction to the film now either way.

    1. Age, certainly. And maturity and perspective. I really appreciate films like this, ones that age like wine. Better as we get older, or at least seem more complex from angles we may not have noticed the first time…

  41. I couldn’t relate more. The night I noticed timeline was available my first thought was to go back and erase all evidence of my failed marriage and ex-husband.

    Then, it occurred to me that I write about that chapter all the time on my blog. I’ve just never given that person a name or face on my site. Yet, how is it different. Why is it ok in one medium and not in another. And that spiraled into much the same conclusion you came to …. why edit my life when all of life is important. It’s all part of the fabric, both good and bad if you can boil it down to that sort of simplicity, of who we are as people. It’s all relevant even if it isn’t all always happy.

    [Footnote: I think Facebook erased my ex-husband and failed marriage all on its own. When I go to search for it now, it’s gone even though I never did delete any of it. Interesting!]

  42. Thank you for this post. I enjoyed reading it. I am glad I couldn’t erase my past failed relationships because I’ve learned, became more selfess, and by the time I met my husband – we clicked. 🙂

    I enjoyed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. 😀

  43. Great post. I really like your comment about believing that relationships were more than what they actually were. Taken as a sum of its parts, even the best relationship could only be broken down into a few grand gestures, then many more small moments of quiet restaurant meals, or trivial g-chats, etc. It’s believing that the relationship is somehow more than its parts that gives each part more meaning. That way, even if you go and delete individual memories, the essence is still there.


    1. Dani: It’s believing that the relationship is somehow more than its parts that gives each part more meaning. That way, even if you go and delete individual memories, the essence is still there.

      This may not have been your intention, but that sentence reminds me of how both Joel and Clementine, post-procedure, were again drawn to each other again. Eerily felt something. As if, as you say beautifully, the essence was still there.

  44. True that one cannot delete the memory from the hard disk of one’s brain, but deleting emails definitely helps a bit…the good thing that comes from it that when reminiscing any relationship – sour or sweet that ended is because human nature is to remember the sweet ones, we will remember the sweet memories that made us happy. It’s better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all 🙂

  45. Congrats on being freshly pressed! I’m so glad to have stumbled upon you today. This post reaches me in several ways. First Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and the comparison to Facebook’s new Timeline feature is amazing! What an interesting synchronicity. I like and dislike the movie depending on what is going on in my life too, and am a huge Jim Carey fan.

    I had three very painful and difficult relationships in my past. As hard and painful as they were, I am the person I am today and I am in a healthy, successful relationship (of almost five years) because of how I grew and learned from those experiences. So although I don’t really enjoy thinking about those relationships especially the things that went wrong, I’m grateful for what I learned from them so I don’t think I could erase them from my mind if I had the choice. It just seems some part of us, our spirit perhaps would still know on some level even if the memory was gone and who knows, maybe we’d end up having to go through it all over again because what we learned from the lesson might have been erased too! Yikes! Once is enough for me.

    1. Yep, totally agree. If given the choice, I’d not erase anything — in order to have perspective, you need everything — the positive and negative — to fully see. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  46. Your writing has a beautiful flow to it that makes it very pleasant to read. Thank you for sharing. 🙂 It’s so cool to get all these different perspectives on the changes that are happening in life, as well as the things that stay the same. Eternal Sunshine was a beautiful movie indeed. Keep doing what you’re doing!

    1. Hannah, you are sweet — thank you. (I think after recording some of my posts, I’ve become very conscious of the flow of my work and edit so it reads easier. So, thanks for this comment — it means a lot.)

  47. Very thought provoking. I work pretty hard at staying in the moment and I rarely spend much time worrying about what is past, so I’m going to have to ruminate on whether there are pieces I would erase… I’m on and off with Facebook and I use it more to share music or news that I think would be of interested to others on my list so I don’t have much in the way of history to delete but I have been aware that there is a certain consciousness to what I choose to post and what it says about who I am, which is kind of a different topic but now I’m gonna think about that too! Thanks.

  48. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is truly a good film. It shows how sometimes some memories are so painful, it’s better to not know they even existed. Just the knowledge that life was once a certain way and can never be again is simply too unbearable. Other memories, though are worth holding on to. That is when we must decide what is more important: truth and knowledge or complete and total oblivion? And of course Michel Gondry portrays this very well.

  49. Love this post! Your blog identity, the audio-scapes and the thoughtfulness of your writing on the subjects at hand. Never saw the movie (off-putting to me just from the pre-view) and am just considering FB Timeline. I think it is just one of those things you just cannot think about too seriously. If you do, you’ll probably just drop FB all together, and never watch a mildly entertaining film again. Seriously, I am aquainted with many a fine mind that just will not buy into it. They can not see beyond the branded, false hype of it all. On the other hand, I enjoy a well crafted scrapbook, a glitzy advertisement, a little pop of pleasing word strings. I find FB, just that…. and a great way to just say ‘hey, thinking of you’, get a little glimpse of a friend’s day, a peek into the life of a niece far away, etc.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts in a delightful but real style. Muse away…. it’s magic.

    1. This: I think it is just one of those things you just cannot think about too seriously.

      Yes. I tend to get really introspective when I muse about Facebook — but in a recent post about my Facebook status updates, I also write not to take it so seriously (and not to view it as a portal to real life, as it really is not).

      And you write kind words here — thank you.

  50. Both of those movies draw me in and leave me feeling melancholy and reflective. When I watch them, I find myself thinking about them for days after, so your comment about “how films live and breathe on their own, and brush up against me in intimate ways.” describes it perfectly!

    I’ve avoided the whole FB Timeline thing but I do like the idea of a clean slate. Lots to think about- thank you for an interesting read!

  51. Interesting how cinema can make us think, it’s so choice how that your pick tied in so well with a great post too. I’m for keeping the memories, applying healing to them as needed as yes experiences in life do seem to shape us… live and learn and all that stuff, though some so wounded may not realize it for all the worth there is hope. Fortunately we can learn from each other along the way avoiding some of life’s pitfalls anyway. I revel in all the good memories that I can find ever moving forward trying my best each day unstuck so as not to miss out or be robbed by all the downers there were, of enjoying the newness of now. About that timeline… I’m thinking many like me might just stick with the obvious: birth, school, marriage, career, and children or something like that otherwise it could be a bit too much! Thanks for giving us such a good read – cheers to happy holidays and new memories♥

  52. A beautiful and thoughtful post. Unlike you, I have the opposite instinct when it comes to deleting personal correspondence–I file it all away. I even have word docs of sms transcripts.

    1. Nice. This reminds me of keeping handwritten letters, old birthday cards, postcards, even post-its. Sometimes I feel like just because email is in digital form, it’s less precious, when I shouldn’t think this. Of course there’s something unique and elegant about correspondence on paper, and receiving that in the mail. But words are words, and having a record in whatever form, filed away, is wonderful.

  53. Great tie-in of one of my all time favorite movies with the new Facebook Timeline! Nice perspective and reflection on choosing what we’d like to remember and what we’d rather delete.

    Also, you have made me want to re-watch the movie!

  54. A well thought-out post. I really like your effort to have an audio narration of the entire post. So clever! And useful for some folks :-/
    I enjoyed Eternal Sunshine… much more than I expected when I watched it a few years ago. One of Jim’s best works.

    1. I love the more serious Jim Carrey — he’s perfect in this. I do audio for some of my posts, but not all — I felt like audio would complement this one. Cheers.

  55. I absolutely love your analysis of this “yet another” change to Facebook and how you related it to these movies. This social network gives us such an intriguing framework for life, but I agree that it’s better sometimes not to “delete” memories and evidence of them, even if they weren’t favorable. All experiences contribute to who we are, and even the bad times can bring good in us.

    1. It’s funny because I didn’t intend to weave a discussion about the movie with a discussion about Timeline — it just kinda ended up that way! Thanks for the comment.

  56. Cheri, I love this, not least of all (though rather selfishly!) because it coincides with some thoughts I’ve been having recently about curation online.

    I like the connection to Eternal Sunshine (which I loved when I first saw it, so much so that I watched it again almost immediately after, but that was a long time ago – I think I should watch it again).

    Maybe what’s interesting here is the collision between two kinds of curation – the curation of personal memory and the curation of one’s public self, or one’s public image, anyway. The former has always occurred – not as drastically, as literally, as it does for Joel and Clementine, but in little ways (misremembering the last months of a relationship, forgetting certain things, placing private but heavy emphasis on others, say). I know when I tell people I meet now about relationships I’ve had in the past, I’m not telling a whole story, or even a true (in the sense of factually correct) story – but I am, usually, at least telling a story which is emotionally true for me, based on my (curated) memory. But now, as you point out, “I am able to highlight what is important in my life—or what I want others to view as important—and fill in missing details”. We can not only present (and broadcast) a certain version of ourselves; we can also edit it, for an audience, we can do on paper (or Facebook, anyway) what we’ve always been able to do in our minds forever. I don’t know if this is a ‘bad’ thing, if any of it can be quantified, but I think it’s certainly raising questions about memory and identity that are fairly unique to our era.

    Thanks as always for writing something lovely and giving me something to think about 🙂

    1. Your comments always give me something more to think about, Miranda. Love how you’ve noted the “collision between two kinds of curation” — great way of putting it. Particularly like this, too:

      We can do on paper (or Facebook, anyway) what we’ve always been able to do in our minds forever.

      I don’t know if it’s a “bad” thing either — I’d generally say no, unless a person has a severely unhealthy approach to it all.

      Glad to hear you’ve been thinking about this stuff, too. Looking forward to reading!

  57. I’m so glad I saw this on FP. My online relationship ended very sourly – four days before my birthday (that was just last month).

    I had wanted to get him off my system completely, right then and there, as I didn’t want to hurt. So, I deleted all old emails and got rid of his email addresses. I deleted his number out of my phone. I blocked him on all of my social networking sites.

    I had to delete everything as I don’t want them to play with my emotions. And yet I know for a fact that will never completely delete him nor the others that have come and gone in my life.

    This post is a good prompt for me to write about that sad love story for one.last.time. At least before the year ends, so I could (try to) start anew.

    1. I think we know, deep down, that deleting memories online like this won’t make anything disappear, but we still have that impulse — that need to go through the motions, don’t we? Perhaps it’s more a symbolic gesture and at least a mark that tells us we *want* to move on.

      Hope you are able to write about your story. Thanks so much for the comment and kind words.

  58. This is a beautiful, touching post. I love how you weave all these elements of history, memory, relationships together so seamlessly, and also in their relation to the often very bizarre/fabricated nature of social networking. I feel extremely odd about facebook’s Timeline. Thank you for such a thoughtful post.

    1. I wasn’t quite sure where this post was headed, as I initially was going to focus on the movie and past relationships. But Timeline was on my mind, and that GOOD article kept popping up in my head, too. Glad that everything connected for you. Thanks for the comment!

  59. I thought Eternal Sunshine was a great movie, and it’s a really interesting premise. I deactivated my Facebook account a few weeks ago, and after reading about the Facebook Timeline I don’t think I’m ever going to reactivate it. I don’t think I’ve ever really put anything I would want to censor on my Facebook page, but I don’t want to have to go through and check everything to see if there is anything I don’t want out there.

    A very well written and thoughtful post.

    1. “I don’t want to have to go through and check everything to see if there is anything I don’t want out there.”

      All this digital housekeeping we must do now — strange, isn’t it? We clean up after ourselves in our physical world, so I guess it makes sense we must clean up after ourselves in our virtual one, too.

  60. Certainly your post is unique. I’ve never read one like this and don’t know anything about Face Book or the movies you mentioned. Still I felt engaged since everyone has had relationships they would like to erase from memory.

  61. I am a memory lane drifter & love to cherish experiences of the past. At times they help me motivate my present. I heard about this thing called memory conditioning. You have a bad memory about an event, somehow you live that in present in a different context and that changes the perspective of your bad memory in past. It’s no longer a bad memory anymore. True can’t apply to all memory. If there’s tool that selectively erases bad memory I am up for it, in lieu of it memory conditioning is not a bad idea.
    Facebook timeline will be an interesting idea to watch battling legality & morality that’s almost ready to seize the concept, awaiting that one fine opportunity.

    1. A memory lane drifter…Yes, I am one of those, too 🙂

      Memory conditioning? Interesting. I think if ever given the option, I’d never delete anything — I’m shaped by each and every experience, big and tiny. I’d be terrified not having that vault of experience as a reference.

  62. Nice topics, good writing, great feeling sharing.
    I like the post.
    On FB Timeline: personally I was thinking to delete everything (just like a new birth). What do you think about that?

    1. Do it!

      That actually sounds interesting (as opposed to deactivating your account entirely). I’d commented in a recent post about my Facebook status updates that I’d reached a “point of no return” earlier this year about Facebook — a moment where I realized/accepted that FB was an integral part of my life whether I liked it or not. Seems like this sort of action — wiping the slate clean — is an option for this reason.

  63. I love this and I think most people can relate to relishing intimate memories while simultaneously wishing them into a background of our days for safekeeping.

    1. That is well said. And lovely. I do agree. I understand a desire to move the bad memories into the background, but even the good memories, too — I like the word “safekeeping” in regard to this. Thanks for the note!

  64. Thank you for sharing. I love the way you write. I also enjoyed parts I and II. You provoke thought with your narrative and make me think of things I put away some time ago. I look forward to more…

  65. Good point! TMI for me!
    I loved that movie and it did make me think about how painful memories as much a part of me as the joyful ones.
    Congrats on being Freshly pressed!

  66. Interesting perspective. I hated Eternal Sunshine the first time I saw it, but your change of opinion about the flick makes me interested in potentially revisiting it! And, similarly, I hated FB Timeline the first time I saw it — but it will indeed be interesting to see how it all unfolds…


    1. At some point, I’d like to muse on the various movies that change shape over the years: this one, Lost in Translation, etc. It’s a quality about movies that irks me, but at the same time I love it: how films live and breathe on their own, and brush up against me in intimate ways.

      Try watching it again — one’s head space definitely has an effect on its overall tone.

  67. Wonderful! Made me think a lot. I’m actually a quite big fan of the movie, so it made me see it under a slightly different point of view, which is always good. Great to have a audio part for these.

  68. WONDERFUL post, Cheri!

    My two cents: There’s a big difference between “curating” your past for others’ eyes and attempting to alter your own recollection.

    Although there’s something very appealing about the latter, I’m all for letting memories be. After all, those events happened — and they helped shape who we are today.

    And who knows? Maybe with the benefit of hindsight, the reasons behind that confusing breakup or fizzled friendship might be more clear. Only by acknowledging the past can we make peace with it, sometimes …

    Anyway, thanks for another marvelous, thought-provoking post.

    1. “After all, those events happened — and they helped shape who we are today.”

      Exactly. I had a line like this in my draft but deleted it. Not that I think this sentiment is a given, but it felt unnecessary. I hope (or assume?) that people ultimately find that such challenges make us grow.

    2. Just yesterday I posted about about my decision to disconnect from Facebook.http://iedarla.wordpress.com/2011/12/19/my-facebook-disconnect/ I could not agree with you more. Our past has shaped us into who we are now. I like to believe that in going back through all of my post over this past week that I am reminded of some things that has escaped my mind. Kinda like PTSD.

      My ultimate reason for deciding to leave FB is my desire to rekindle real world relationships an the ever growing privacy concerns. Very well written.

  69. Part I & II are so timely for me…. I fell asleep with memories last night of a past relationship flying through my mind; as just before I headed to bed I found out that he might be engaged. I didnt even contemplate he wasnt single 2ish years after we split.
    It’s amazing how even if you do delete the digital and visual history (I did within days of the breakup) something can bring the memories back so fresh…

    Great post. Love your blog.

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