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August 4, 2003

Film at eleven
Posted by Teresa at 09:00 AM *

CNN reports that suspicious spouses, who in times past might have hired a detective, are now using DIY software packages to monitor their supposedly-errant partners’ internet activities:

Divorce lawyers and marriage counselors say Internet-abetted infidelity, romance originating in chat rooms and fueled by e-mails, is now one of the leading factors in marital breakdowns. With the surge in cyberaffairs, a new market for electronic spying has developed. Web sites such as and describe an array of surveillance products capable of tracking a cheating spouse’s e-mails and online chats, including some that can monitor each key stroke in real time.
This is one hot story, you betcha. Why, it must be the better part of ten years since I saw my first news story about it. If I recall correctly, that one quoted an interview with a prominent divorce lawyer. Somebody asked him what was the leading cause of divorce in America today. “E-mail,” he succinctly replied.

I found that strikingly logical at the time, which is probably why I’ve remembered it. This isn’t an internet thing. People who start writing to each other, whether electronically or in hardcopy, are going to be susceptible to the odd pitfalls of correspondence. This is one of them. In my own time I’ve known of several people who’ve done that, and I know from my litcrit-editing days that there’s a surprisingly long roster of author who’ve fallen into unexpectedly passionate exchanges of correspondence with persons other than their spouses. I’ve mislaid my Oxford Dictionary of Literary Anecdotes again—I know it’s somewhere around the house—the usual problem with books you absentmindedly browse at all hours—but right off the top of my head I know that Jonathan Swift and Benjamin Franklin both did that. And Carlyle, maybe? I’d have to check. I know there are more.

There’s a whole book out (Lotte and Joseph Hamburger, Contemplating Adultery: The Secret Life of a Victorian Woman: New York, Ballantine Books (1991), ISBN 0-449-90307-9) about Sarah Austin, an appealing Englishwoman who in the 1830s got into one of these epistolary affairs with a minor German prince, Hermann von Puckler Muskau, after she acted as translator for one of his books. She conscientiously destroyed his letters to her, but he saved hers, the cad, and a pair of modern scholars found the lot of them sitting in a Polish library—which is also one of those things that happens sometimes.

I’m not making light of this. People genuinely get hurt. What I’m saying is that falling into a passionate correspondence is simply one of the hazards of writing. We’re all writing more, so it’s happening to more people. As pitfalls go, I’d say it’s on par with another rare-but-documented condition that’s getting commoner, which is initially adopting a persona solely for purposes of playing a FRPG (fantasy role-playing game), then suddenly discovering that that persona has developed strong emotions and become a demanding part of your life, and that the relationships you’ve developed with other players and/or personas matter.

It happens. These things happen. Words can seem like lightweight little things, and you think you’re only playing with them; but if you stack up enough of them in the right order, they can up and turn real on you.

Comments on Film at eleven:
#1 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 12:30 PM:

Indeed. Add to that the almost irresistible urge to use Google to track down people (old dates, spouses, squeezes, whatever) and find their email addresses. There was some story recently in the Globe about a couple that divorced over just that (hubby at work looked up an old girl friend and started an affair).

#2 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 12:40 PM:

My most recent major relationship was facilitated by correspondance (and not the e-kind either!). And I do save old letters. They can come in handy -- I published (in an edition of 30 copies, reproducing the original handwriting, just for the family) a 160-page collection of my grandmother's letters to my mother during WWII. After reading it, my cousin who works for the New York Times (theater reviews, then Africa, now Health) said that my grandmother was the best writer the family has yet produced. One of my grandmother's letters to her mother was quoted at the family gathering last month.

Letters are becoming a lost art. And though e-mail may be as good for divorce court, it just isn't the same. It's similar, but nowhere near as sensual -- the thrill of getting an envelope, holding it in my hands, getting to make the connection between the handwriting and the person, feeling the _mana_ that comes from knowing she (he) touched the paper to produce it -- it's a rush, for me. Kinda like having a book signed by Cyril Kornbluth or Groff Conklin, or a personal postcard from Neil Gaiman.

Words are important. So are artifacts that include the words.


#3 ::: klam ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 03:28 PM:

As someone fast approaching a divorce after discovering some of the emails that my wife has sent & received, I have mixed feelings about this kind of spying. On one hand, without a keystroke logging program, I would have been blind-sided by many of her actions (as many people are & have been for years). But on the other hand, I have to wonder if the (assumed) relatively short pain of being surprised when she announced her plans to leave wouldn't have been easier than knowing what she's been up to all along. It's a bell I can't un-ring, but others contemplating similar spying might want to consider all the implications.

#4 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 03:31 PM:

As a friend of mine once told me, "Never ask a question unless you're sure you want to hear the answer."

#5 ::: Cassandra ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 03:40 PM:

There's a fascinating book I just read, Wired Women, which takes a look at how words and internet culture combine. It purports to do so from a feminist perspective, but I found that it was more generally applicable, which was a nice suprise.

As pitfalls go, I92d say it92s on par with another rare-but-documented condition that92s getting commoner, which is initially adopting a persona solely for purposes of playing a FRPG (fantasy role-playing game), then suddenly discovering that that persona has developed strong emotions and become a demanding part of your life, and that the relationships you92ve developed with other players and/or personas matter.

I think there's a generation gap here, too. I know that while several of my older relatives must have courted (I love that word) through letters, and one of my great-grandmothers, at least, was a prodigious letter writer throughout her entire life, my parents (and other people of their generation) don't entirely understand how I can really genuinely be friends with people I've never before met. I think they're much more comfortable with the idea of the phone as the private communications medium of choice for many kinds of relationships.

Are they analagous to each other? Is leaving a message on an answering machine the same as leaving a note with someone on Instant Messager when they're "away"? Does a long series of emails become the same thing as an hour-long long distance call?

I do agree that physical letters have a nice physical solidity about them that email doesn't have (and I can't use sealing wax on a screen). Some people just don't do well with email, even though they may be prodigious writers.

However, this also makes me wonder if there's people more prone to developing friendships over a written form of communication than a verbal.

I wonder if I should write an essay about this. Theresa, would you mind if I stole that quote above?

#6 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 03:46 PM:

I don't mind. If you credit me, consider adding that I got it from Jim Macdonald.

#7 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 03:52 PM:

Cassandra, love your comment about not being able to use sealing wax on e-mail. Yes please to the essay, and let me know when it's done (and where I can find it)!

#8 ::: Lauren ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 10:37 PM:

C.S. Lewis, too. He wasn't married at the time, but Joy Gresham certainly was.

It happens. These things happen. Words can seem like lightweight little things, and you think you’re only playing with them; but if you stack up enough of them in the right order, they can up and turn real on you.

Thanks for posting this. It should be obvious, but it really isn't stated often enough, or at least not so well articulated.

#9 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 10:43 PM:

and, of course, Possession, by A.S. Byatt, covers the old-fashioned paper version of this phenomenon as well.

#10 ::: Avedon ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 10:53 PM:

Er, "Reader, I married him."

And I think Rob has the hand-written postcard from Neil Gaiman pinned to the wall in his room somewhere....

#11 ::: Rachel Heslin ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2003, 01:02 AM:

Are they suggesting that email causes divorce? I think that they're confusing symptoms and causes.

As someone who because intensely imbroiled in an online relationship, I can say that, if I'd been happy at home, I wouldn't have gone looking elsewhere.

Fortunately, my marriage survived, we've done the therapy and whatnot route, and I'm now very happy at home -- and my online correspondences, although they still exist, are of a much different tenor than they were before.

#12 ::: Barbara ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2003, 07:34 AM:

"Lives of great men all remind us
As we o'er the pages turn,
That we too may leave behind us
Letters that we ought to burn."


#13 ::: hanne ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2003, 09:50 AM:

It makes me wonder, though... if e-mail can constitute adultery, why can't it constitute a loss of virginity?

Of all the brouhaha about online sex and so on that I've heard and read, it's only when it involves adults (and preferably married adults) that it's somehow legitimately sex rather than "being exposed to obscenity," or "being manipulated," which is what apparently happens to those under 18. Obviously this has a lot to do with the culture's attitudes about children/teenagers and sex, and infantilization or denial of the sexuality of the non-adult, but still, it makes me wonder.... if cyberattachments can constitute adultery, then why don't we hear 16-year-olds saying, "So, yeah, anyway, I finally lost my cherry on IRC... it was really great..."

#14 ::: Elise ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2003, 12:34 PM:

Doesn't THE VICTORIAN INTERNET, that book about the early days of telegraphy, contain references to the telegraph operators who talked, became close, and sometimes courted, proposed, and were accepted on-line? (If I recall correctly, telegraphers used to chat to one another when the wires weren't busy.)

I expect any day now to find that semaphore flag people did the same.

#15 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2003, 12:40 PM:

Elise, they did indeed. And during the Civil War, the Union telegraphers developed their own impenetrable fanspeak.

#16 ::: Bryan ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2003, 02:20 PM:

I always thought Jonathan Swift and Ben Franklin would have made a cute couple, nice to know they found each other...just think if they'd lived in Canada then...

Actually I don't think one could count Swift's correspondence as anything hot and heavy, and anyway he didn't have a significant other to hide it from. Not sure about Franklin. Cute couple.

#17 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2003, 07:57 PM:

Words can seem like lightweight little things, and you think you92re only playing with them; but if you stack up enough of them in the right order, they can up and turn real on you.

I've been thinking about this ever since I read it, but I can't but my complex emotional/intellectual reaction into words. Something about magic.

Oh Oh Oh.


#18 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2003, 08:58 AM:

How times change!

You can't make love by wireless;
It's like bread without the jam.
There is nothing girls desire less
Than a cold Marconigram.

For it's something you can't speak to
From a someone you can't see.
It's like a village church that's spireless,
Or a little home that's fireless,
Or a motorcar that's tireless,
And it isn't any good to me!

(Chorus to "You Can't Make Love by Wireless," music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse and George Grossmith -- the d'Oyly Carte player memorably portrayed in Topsy Turvy)

#19 ::: zizka ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2003, 02:12 AM:

"Hermann von Puckler Muskau"?

Is this a Monty Python skit?

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