When My Daughter Googles My Name

“What are you going to do when Heloise is old enough to Google your name?”

I’ve been asked that question at least a dozen times in the past month, as the controversy around my pre-sobriety past has grown into a moderately noticeable kerfuffle in the blogosphere. I’ve written several times—and at several different sites—about my struggles with drugs and alcohol. Though I’ve been sober since 1998, I’ve shared quite a few unpleasant details of the kind of man I was before I got clean.  Those stories haven’t just come back to haunt me in the present, as I’ve become a better-known writer. Those stories are also archived in perpetuity online. 

Perhaps in as little as a decade, my now three-year-old daughter will inevitably come across these true stories her daddy recounted. Just as likely, she’ll come across some nasty criticism of her father’s decision to share those stories. My wife and I have committed to preparing Heloise for what she will find before she ever goes online unsupervised. We’re still not sure of precisely when to broach the topic of her father’s colorful (and all-too-public) past. We’re also not yet clear on how much we should say.

This same issue was foremost in the mind of Carré Otis, the famed former supermodel and ex-wife of Mickey Rourke when she chose to write her memoir, Beauty, Disrupted. For many people unfamiliar with the fashion industry, Carré is infamous for a graphic softcore sex scene she filmed with Rourke in 1989’s Wild Orchid. Bootleg clips of that erotic interlude are easily available on the internet, and presumably will be for the foreseeable future. That’s not all that’s out there; archived tabloid stories about Carré’s struggles with heroin, anorexia, and spousal abuse at Rourke’s hands are always just a few keystrokes away.

I worked as Carré’s co-author on her autobiography. In our first meeting, when I asked her what her hopes were for our project, she told me that perhaps her most pressing motivations to write the book were her two young daughters. What she said to me in that initial conversation ended up in the conclusion of our book: “My daughters deserve to know the truth about my life, and when they are old enough, they deserve to find out that truth from me, in context, and not from the internet or from stories told by my first husband.” 

Carré knows, of course, that she’ll have to do much more than simply hand her daughters a copy of her memoir when they turn 12. The fact that disturbing truths are coming in a parent’s own words rather than from a stranger online doesn’t eliminate their power to shock or overwhelm children. She and I both know we’ll have to do more than simply direct our kids to our written versions of the truth about our pasts.

Both before and during the process of co-writing Carré’s book, I chatted with other friends and acquaintances who have various levels of fame. Having spent many years in and around recovery circles in West Los Angeles and with a wife who works on the business side of the entertainment industry, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to ask celebrity parents how they approach the issue of their own often spectacularly troubled pasts with their kids. Though responses vary, those who have faced this issue (because their kids are already teens or older) tend to agree on one thing: A parent with a notorious past needs to be proactive.

“You should be the first to bring it up”, says “Ella,” an actress in her late 40s with two teenage boys. Three decades ago, Ella was a troubled teen star with a much-publicized cocaine addiction; at 19, she had a well-documented affair with a married movie executive nearly three times her age. Sober many years and happily married, Ella prepared early to help her sons come to terms with the inconcealable details of their mother’s past. 

“When my older son was 11, I mentioned in passing that ‘mom did some really foolish things when she was young.’ I didn’t go into detail because I knew that too much detail could be traumatizing. I just told him that if he ever heard anything from friends at school or anyone else, he could come to me and I would answer any questions.” As her sons got older, Ella gradually disclosed more. But she resisted the urge to share too much too soon.

Ella, Carré, and I share one thing in common: We’re well-known enough that our past indiscretions are matters of public record. In one sense, we have it easier than many other parents whose pasts are more easily hidden. We don’t have a choice about whether to reveal or conceal what we’ve done and who we were; our only choices revolve around how and when. We have one less decision to make than do most of our peers.

Perhaps even that difference is overstated. We may not have yet reached the Warholian future where everyone is famous for 15 minutes, but in the Google era, virtually everything we’ve said or done is stored, regardless of how well-known we might be. Teenagers, who are alternately fascinated and horrified by the prospect of discovering the truth about their parents’ pasts, will almost inevitably search for information online. 

It’s not hard to imagine that within a decade, every Facebook update and Tweet we’ve ever made will be archived—and accessible to a clever adolescent. Facial recognition technology will make it possible for anyone to search for your photos, including your most embarrassing digital pics from your own adolescence. In terms of what’s available about our pasts, the distinction between a “celebrity” and an “ordinary person” will be effectively erased.

As we worked on her autobiography, both Carré and I spoke with child psychology experts about how best to approach the challenges of talking to our kids about our pasts. The consensus was always the same: Tell the truth. Dr. Joanne Stern points out that lies invariably do more harm than good. “If you get into the habit of telling untruths to your kids when it’s difficult to be honest…you run the risk of damaging their trust in you irreparably.” Those of us who know well that our pasts are documented online have the advantage of being certain that we can’t get away with dishonesty. But in reality, those who aren’t public figures don’t have any more leeway than those of us who are. The truth will invariably come out.

Dr. Stern notes that when it comes to telling your kids about your past, you have to decide “what would be useful or valuable to your children and also consider what could be detrimental to them, frighten them or simply creep them out.” That sounds like good sense. But the reality is that in the end, none of us are ever the sole gatekeepers of our own histories. Relatives, old friends, and the internet are all-too-reliable sources of information that can shock or “creep out” our kids. People like Carré and me know full well that what we don’t tell our children, others surely will. But this is not a problem unique to parents who are public figures; our children are vulnerable only by greater degree. Yours are not immune.

I can’t know in advance when I’ll first broach the subject of my past with Heloise. Much depends on what kind of person she grows up to be; children mature at different speeds. But what I do know follows the advice of friends like “Ella” and psychologists like Dr. Stern: Share gradually. As with sex education, disclosing painful stories about our pasts needs to be done with respect for a child’s developmental needs. We can damage an eight year-old with “too much information” just as surely as we can damage an older child by remaining silent and allowing them to find out the truth online. It’s a tough balancing act.

Carré told me last week that Jade, her five year-old, recently asked her about a scar on her shoulder. The mark is a 20 year-old gunshot wound from Mickey Rourke’s .357 Magnum. (The shooting, detailed in the memoir, was an accident.) Carré gently told her daughter that she’d tell her the truth later, when Jade was older. Jade accepted this delay without complaint. Five is too young to hear about mommy getting shot, and to hear about mommy’s tortured relationship with the man she was married to before she fell in love with daddy. In a few years, Carré says, she will begin the process of telling her girls the truth. It will unfold slowly, in a respectful and age-appropriate way. I, who carry on my chest and arms the noticeable scars from years of chronic self-mutilation, will work through that same process soon enough.

I believe in redemption. I believe that people can lead reckless and selfish and destructive lives and then turn those lives around. I believe—because I’ve seen it—that those people can, in time, become wonderful, devoted parents. Though I’m far from perfect, I’m a far different man today than I once was. As ugly and scandalous as some of the stories from my past are, they are also reminders of the vital reality that human beings can make dreadful mistakes, atone, and transform. In a society where frantic perfectionism has become the great epidemic of the adolescent middle-class, what kids need more than ever are examples of safe, reliable adults who were not always so. Though I hope that Heloise does not go through anything like what I went through (and inflicted on others), I do want her to know that one mistake—or even 1,000 mistakes—need not ruin her life. Sooner or later, she will inevitably know about most of my own mistakes. When the time is right, she should and will start to hear about them from me.

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.

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