Harriet At Forty-Eight

If you never read the novel Harriet the Spy, I hope you will ASAP.    My hope is that most children, parents and therapists have had a chance to read it already, because it has a lot to teach us about digital citizenship.  You can get it on Amazon here.

Harriet spends a lot of time writing down things in her notebook.  Truthful things.  Unflattering things.  And one day the notebook falls into the hands of her classmates, who read these things, and respond to her with anger.  What I find interesting is the way Harriet’s friends, teachers, and parents respond.  Their initial response is to take, or try to take, Harriet’s notebook.  Of course Harriet gets another one.  That’s not the problem.

Harriet the Spy was published in 1964.  According to Wikipedia, at least one variation of the technology of the notebook had been around since 1888, and there are examples of its common usage in the early 1900s.  This technology was prevalent long before the 1960s.  No one says to Harriet that she has a “notebook addiction,” although her usage of it becomes problematic.  In fact, her redemption in the book also comes from the same technology of the written word.

One of my favorite moments in Harriet the Spy comes in Chapter 14, when Harriet has her initial appointment with a psychiatrist.  As they settle down to play a game, the psychiatrist takes out his analytic pad:

Harriet stared at the notebook.  “What’s that?”

“A notebook.”

“I KNOW that,” she shouted.

I just take a few notes now and then.  You don’t mind, do you?”

“Depends on what they are.”

“What do you mean?”

“Are they mean, nasty notes, or just ordinary notes?”

“Why?”

“Well, I just thought I’d warn you.  Nasty ones are pretty hard to get by these days.”

“Oh I see what you mean.  Thank you for the advice.  No, they’re quite ordinary notes.”

“Nobody ever takes it away from you, I bet, do they?”

 

This vignette illustrates how the clinician is not above or apart from technology.  Harriet’s psychiatrist uses it himself.  And his response to her struggle and worry about using technology is an approach I’ve come to see as key:  He doesn’t try to restrict her from using the technology, he engages her around its use and thinking about its use.  He actually gives her a notebook, and then respects her usage of it when he lets her leave the office without taking it back or asking to see it.

He then recommends that her parents talk to the school about allowing her to use technology to amplify her thoughts and expression there, via the school newspaper.  He also suggests that they use technology in the form of a letter written by Harriet’s old nanny to give her some advice and connection.  Many will say that Ole Golly’s letter is the pivot point for Harriet in the story, but I’d suggest that the pivotal moment comes when the mental health practitioner doesn’t demonize technology (the notebook) or pathologize its usage, but rather leans on technology as an avenue into the patient’s forward edge transference.

Technology, as Howard Rheingold reminds us, is a mind amplifier.  It can be used to amplify our memory in the form of notes, for example.  It can also be a voice amplifier, for better or for worse.

If Harriet was around today, I imagine she would be on LiveJournal, perhaps with her settings on private, but on LiveJournal nevertheless.  In fact, her LiveJournal notebook would probably be more secure than a notebook carried around on her person without encryption.  But maybe she’d also be on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.  And unless she had parents or teachers who talked to her about digital literacy, she might not know or care about privacy settings or mindful use of technology.

Every day, on Facebook or Twitter or other social media, people young and old post, and “drop their notebook” to be read by hundreds or thousands of people, who can amplify the notebook even further by liking, pasting, sharing or tweeting it.  By comparison, Harriet’s class of 10-15 students seems paltry.  When an adolescent complains about her ADHD medication on her status, or when a parent tweets how proud he is of his Asperger’s child, these nuggets of information, of expression, of identity formation are sent out into the world and amplified.  Our work as therapists needs to be to help our patients understand the significance of what they are about to do to themselves and others when that happens.  And to do that we need to understand the technology ourselves.

Few of us would consider giving Harriet a notebook as “feeding her addiction,” or giving her a hair of the dog that bit her.  Yet, we level such technophobic claims on the social media and technology of our time, trying to focus on technology as an addictive substance rather than as a tool, and pathologizing its use far too quickly and easily.  And we often join technophobia with adultism, when we try to intrude or control the use of technology by children and adolescents (note that I said “often,” not “always”)

When you look at some of the stories Harriet prints in the school newspaper, you have to marvel at the bravery of the educators in that school!  How many of school administrators would allow entries like “JACK PETERS (LAURA PETER’S FATHER) WAS STONED OUT OF HIS MIND AT THE PETERS’ PARTY LAST SATURDAY NIGHT.  MILLY ANDREWS (CARRIE ANDREWS’ MOTHER) JUST SMILED AT HIM LIKE AN IDIOT.”  Can you imagine the parental phone calls, even though the parents were both the behavioral and quoted source for this story?  Can you imagine kids being allowed to experience communication and learning with this minimal form of adult curation?  But also, can you imagine parents saying that the problem is allowing access to the technology of writing a newspaper, and that the idea of a school paper should be abolished?

When you think about it, we live in an amazing era of the amplification of human thought and expression.  Our children will need to learn how to manage that amplification in a way we still struggle to understand ourselves.  I remember one notebook I dropped, when I was managing a staff of guidance counselors.  I was very frustrated with the response of one of them to something, and wanted to share that with my supervisor.  I thought it would be important to share my emotional response to this with someone I understood to have the role of helping me sort this stuff out, and I was being impulsive and cranky.  I ended up sending the email to the staff instead.  Boy, did that torpedo those relationships.  But I did learn a lot about how to pay more attention to the power of technology, and that part of being a good digital citizen requires thoughtful use of ampliying your words and ideas!

Most of us probably have a notebook-we-dropped story we’d rather forget, but we need to remember them and share those stories with the up and coming generations as cautionary tales, and examples of good and poor digital citizenship.  Ole Golly tells us, “Remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends.”  Writing, a technology we have come to understand a bit better since Gutenberg, can be used for good or ill; but we don’t ban it.  Now we are all learning, albeit uncomfortably at times, how to handle the newer technologies of social media, digital communication, and video games.  It may be a bit utopian to suggest that texting/tweeting/gaming/Facebook/blogging is to put love in the world.  But the alternative seems to be that while some of us ignore, avoid or fear it, other people, governments and corporations will learn how to use it against our friends.

Embedded in Harriet the Spy is a quote from Lewis Carroll, which aptly describes where we find ourselves in the 21st century of social media: “‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,/’To talk of many things:”  Indeed, the chatter can be deafening, impulsive, hurtful and confusing.  But the solution is to choose our words carefully, not to stop talking altogether.

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