The Gross Invasion of My Privacy I Didn't See Coming
On one of the situations that's been eating me lately.
In posts I published here this past winter I referred very obliquely to a couple of recent experiences that have dragged me down emotionally, contributing to the worst depression of my life. (Update: I’ve been doing progressively better over time. Is it the acupuncture? The spring weather and increase in daylight hours? Having one of those recent experiences resolved? Who knows?)
Here I’m going to tell you—only a bit less obliquely—about one of those experiences since there’s been some resolution to it.
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Now and then in life you’ll encounter a cruel irony. In 2022 it was my turn: in the same year I very selectively divulged personal secrets in my memoir and worked hard to thoughtfully protect others’ privacy by concealing their identities, I then had my privacy grossly intruded upon.
One night in November, as my husband and I were cleaning up from dinner, the doorbell rang, not just once, but again and again, loudly. We raced to the door together to find a large, scary man on the other side.
“Sari Botton?” he asked, surprisingly pronouncing my name right. (It sounds like “Larry Cotton.”) When I nodded yes, he tried to hand me a manilla envelope.
“What if I don’t take it?” I heard myself ask as I backed away from him.
“I have 60 pounds of teeth and muscle in there for situations like that,” the man said pointing to his car, referring to his barking pit bull. I accepted the envelope and he left.
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I’d watched enough of The Good Fight and other legal procedurals to know that I was being served with a subpoena. But it’s not something that’s ever happened to me in real life, so I had no idea what it actually meant. Not being conversant in legalese, I also had difficulty parsing what the papers inside indicated was required of me.
The long and short of it: I needed to turn over all of my private email correspondence with one of the parties in the case (I won’t say who it was or what the case was—please don’t ask), and worse, I needed to turn over the journal I’ve been keeping in a Word document on my laptop since 2005.
That’s right. They subpoenaed my journal. The document in which I’ve felt safe to record my most private thoughts and feelings, material I would never publish, or want another person to view. A sacred, very necessary release valve, where I’ve always put all the vulnerable, sad, angry, ugly, petty stuff I don’t feel comfortable sharing with a single other soul.
They subpoenaed my journal. The document in which I’ve felt safe to record my most private thoughts and feelings, material I would never publish, or want another person to view.
I was utterly shocked by these requests—especially when I learned they weren’t requests so much as requirements. I was legally bound to submit these very personal documents, even though I was neither the plaintiff nor the defendant in the case—merely a witness.
My lawyer arranged it so that I had to only hand in certain pages of my journal, including all of my entries about one of the parties in the case, along with the other unrelated entries surrounding those, to indicate that they were all authentic components of an ongoing journal. If I didn’t submit that combo platter of relevant and irrelevant entries, or if I tried editing any of them, I risked having my hard drive supboenaed, too.
The law firm representing me redacted the other entries, but just the idea of a law clerk poring over my private journal pages to determine what was and wasn’t relevant to the case made me feel horribly exposed. I felt horribly exposed by all of it. If the case went to trial, my private journal entries and emails would become public record. It’s hard to imagine feeling more powerless and vulnerable.
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This went on for months. I lost a lot of sleep worrying about being further exposed, and to add insult to injury, I couldn’t bring myself do what I’ve always done to put myself at ease when I’ve had something heavily weighing on my mind: write about it in my journal. I was afraid to write there, or anywhere, really. I am a person who makes a fair portion of my living writing about my interior life, first making sense of it in my journal, and I was terrified of putting down a single word.
At the same time, my privacy was (and still is) being invaded in another situation that I still can’t legally write about (and might not ever)—another instance in which I am not the party being investigated. It’s like I’m living under some kind of weird invasion-of-privacy hex…during the same year in which I exposed a lot about myself, of my own volition.
It has all been a lot. Fortunately, the case in which I had my emails and journal entries subpoenaed got resolved without going to trial. What I submitted will not become public record. Whew.
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Recently I returned to journaling again, although not without a bit of trepidation. There’s a terrified version of me looking over my own shoulder at the thoughts and feelings I’m putting down. I’m second-guessing myself a bit, wondering here and there, “What if there’s another situation someday where what I’m writing right now could be subpoenaed and become public record?”
But each day my terror lessens. It’s good to have my release valve back—probably another factor helping to dissipate this year’s deep depression.
So sorry for this crazy making situation you endured. The big question I have is as nonfiction writers, how do we best protect ourselves from this kind of horror?
What a horrible situation, I am sorry for what you have been through Sari!
Lately, I have been thinking about this too, in the wake of the amount of personal data that's out there on the internet (if you care to look for it, you'd be shocked), what AI can do with the data, how much involuntary surveillance is out there, and the list goes on. There is really no real privacy left. The risk we as writers have to take for being authentic, being vulnerable, and being brave is looming above us and getting ever so real, which sometimes really makes me think twice before I write anything, anywhere.