The Phantoms of Culpability

“The sensation of the eerie occurs when there is something present where there should be nothing, or there is nothing present when there should be something….In the case of the failure of absence, the question concerns the particular nature of the agent at work. We know that Stonehenge has been erected, so the questions of whether there was an agent behind its construction or not does not arise; what we have to reckon with are the traces of a departed agent whose purposes are unknown.” Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie


Your DropBox is closing in 30 days unless you take action.


“The internet does not have room for my 300 pictures,” I joked to everyone and no one on the internet as I shared a screen shot of DropBox’s threatening automatic e-mail to Twitter.

Last year the laptop I used for 4 years died during the August Mercury retrograde. I lost 10 years of work I failed to back up. Now there is a liminality in my mind: there is work I have done, but it will never re-materialize. Short stories, an old manuscript, research papers from college. Now all I can do is create something new from the lessons of previous experience. Unfortunately, I did not have my writings backed up on my DropBox; only extraneous pictures.

A photo in my DropBox entitled “Colorado (864).” Yes, I took over 864 pictures of just Colorado scenery.

Browsing through my DropBox account, I found folders from 2007 and 2008. Reflecting on these I realize: I don’t think I’ll ever have a desire to delete these pictures. No one is holding me accountable: I’m not planning to reconcile with either of my exes (who are in or implied in both folders), they certainly wouldn’t care if I deleted the pictures. If I deleted the pictures, I’d be less likely to drudge up what I should like to forget about the past.

“California 608”
“California 611”

Like how I was engaged to someone at 20. Like when I went on a trip across the country with another ex and a random stranger asked if we were on our honeymoon so my ex told them it was a “warm-up honeymoon.” That will probably embarrass him if he reads this, but good because it embarrassed me too. “Warm-up honeymoon”? I did not sign up for that.

“Nevada 107”

Ultimately, all the reader needs to know is those relationships did not fit my standard of mutual respect, so I left. In retrospect, I knew early on the relationships were not for me, but I stayed. Those choices rest on me, were enforced by my conditioning, and directly relate to my self-worth as I knew it at the time I entered into those relationships. Culpability is a mixture of all those things.

We have learned opinions and ignorance—blind spots or places we’ve refused to look within ourselves. I have learned a lot over the years, especially since I’ve been writing online. Some of things I’ve learned right out in public.




“Who’s this, Edith?” I asked my great grandmother, who, I mentioned in my last post, I’ve only recently met. We sat at Edith’s kitchen table looking at family pictures. I noticed in this picture Edith was with a man her age who I hadn’t seen in other photographs. My mother took the photo out of my hand before Edith could see it.

“Oh that’s Ralph,” Mom told me.

“Who is Ralph?” I asked.

“Oh, Ralph was her boyfriend.”

“That was your boyfriend, Edith?”

“Hm, yes,” Edith said.

“That’s nice you had a companion to keep you company,” I said to Edith.

My great Aunt Yvonne was in the room and blurted out, ”Yeah, that was after he got divorced from Carlotta.” I was beset with confusion. Carlotta? Carlotta was my other great aunt, which would make Edith her mother. You’ve probably figured out: Edith dated her daughter’s ex-husband.

Not just a few casual dates. They lived together.

When I learned that about Edith I thought “Well what kind of trashy nonsense is this?”

Because of the love I am developing for her I made myself think “When have you also made a mistake? You have made mistakes. You have made mistakes.”

93 year-old Edith said, ”I should have never done that.”

After I left Edith’s house that day I didn’t get over it. It’s a callous disregard for the feelings of her daughter. These stories I’d been hearing about how Carlotta was an antagonist made sense now. I wondered what her other daughter, my grandmother (the eldest sibling), went through if her mom was willing to date her daughter’s ex-husband. It’s a moral quandary I tried to justify because my great grandmother also went through considerable trauma, but I still could not reconcile it in my mind: just because you were abused doesn’t mean you need to turn into an ignominious parent.

“What the hell was Edith thinking?” No transits of malefic planets or quotidian explanation would make me feel better about it.

If I hadn’t asked about that picture, I wouldn’t have known. If the picture wasn’t included with the rest in the photo box, I also wouldn’t have known. But now I do.

After we looked at the pictures we took Edith to Barnes & Noble to get out of the house. She doesn’t get many visitors. We got her a regular coffee with milk and sugar at the Starbucks. She told us it was the best coffee she ever had.




We’d all love to paint ourselves in the most flattering light, and on social media, we often, if not always, do. Why not? If we have the choice between showing the times where we fuck up versus the times we do something good, why not show the good stuff? But the fact is sometimes what we think is good is actually not and we’re going to get called out on it. We might hurt people’s feelings and make them question everything about our character.

It might embarrass us, and we’re going to have to sit with that.

There is an online footprint we leave, James Carraghan references this in his post “Living InFinite Museums,” and I believe we are approaching an era where privacy will completely dissolve. “Keeps ‘em honest” is a phrase that pops in my head. So: what happens when we make mistakes?

As someone who writes and teaches writing, to encourage the writing process (brainstorm, draft, revise, edit, revisit) I gladly volunteer that I’ve published work that I would now revise but am unable to.

Right now we’re going through a Pluto retrograde, which has me reflecting on self-transformation. It’s a time where we look at our shadows, our fragmented self that we must heal. A time where we change.

I believe people can change. It’s not always easy to admit when we are wrong, as Ijeoma Oluo writes in her article “How To Be Wrong.” Oluo points out, if nobody tells you you’re wrong you won’t have the agency to make anything right. Maybe someone can also tell you you’re wrong and be a little wrong too. I know in my own relationships I’ve seen the faults of others while also holding culpability. But damn if by pointing out mistakes we both learned something was it ever worth it.

It’s too whimsical to say “I would never take anything back.” I would love to take some things back. LOVE. But I can’t. All I can do is reflect on what I’ve done, amend, and change. Even that will not be enough to keep people in your life you may have hurt, whether intentional or not.

My DropBox, with all the photographic vestiges, is active. Though I’ve decided to leave the relationships I was in, I won’t forget passing through those times in my history so I can be better—for myself, for everyone.

We will make mistakes, and perhaps, due to increasing transparency, we won’t be able to escape them. Much of the fear of transparency comes in recognizing the fallibility in human reasoning. But if we agree to learn from missteps, we can be better, for ourselves, for everyone.

Doing art history homework in 2005.



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One thought on “The Phantoms of Culpability

  1. Reblogged this on Awaiting Moderation and commented:

    Here is my column this month on TERSE. Journal. I discuss the coming culture of transparency, eeriness of photographic memories, making mistakes, and being wrong.


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