Peep

By Becca Schwarzlose


Memory was the first. The immortalized footage, her initial ninety-three seconds of fame, begins with waxy paper fluttering and falling, settling onto the toilet seat. We glimpse her pants—dark wash denim slim-fit—before she pushes them down to her ankles. Her bare thighs are lean, milk-white and goose pimpled like Saran-wrapped chicken on display. The press would report that her neon pink-and-green panties were manufactured in China by a company called American Allure. Although they are not especially alluring, the style and color will sell out for months afterward as a novelty item.

We all see what's underneath her American Allures, sometimes in freeze-frame or agonizing slow motion with her legs together then apart as she sits, revealing hair and the tip of her pinkness. We see her face, white and bored, surrounded by a cap of beautiful black curls. Her mouth parts, exposing a prominent gap between her two front teeth that we find inexplicably appealing. Her full name is Memory Elizabeth Higgins and she is beautiful and young—a college junior, we will learn, at Wichita State. She dreams of joining the Air Force and raising six children, or so we will hear from those who claim to know her. On our screens she seems absorbed and faraway. We hear the sounds of her body emptying and witness the indignity of her wiping herself. She doesn't see the miniature lens peering out from the darkness of the sanitary refuse box, its lid left purposefully ajar. She has no reason to look or suspect; she was the first of his victims.

The mainstream press would call him a bathroom videovoyeur, but on the Internet and in tabloids he became known as the Potty Peeper. His camera, a MicroEye DX made by Erebos Security, came in sizes smaller than the head of a nail for as little as $99. We would marvel at the simplicity of his crime, which took little expertise and less effort: to hide the camera in the women's restroom of the university library, retrieve it later and download. Post and post again. He cluttered readers' sites and discussion boards with links promising everything from SAT prep lectures to grocery coupons to porn. It was a publicity campaign and it worked. Haplessly, people watched: a thousand of us, maybe two.

The footage was poorly lit, the contents commonplace, but in part it was that ordinariness that propagated the links in those early days and brought them to our inboxes, that made us click and forward them along. Any one of us could have been its star, and so we watched, cringing or snickering, relieved that we weren't the ones on the screen. We also watched because of Memory herself, with her imperfect beauty and porcelain youth. We grew enamored with the gap in her teeth and the proud lines of her shoulders, neck and jaw. We knew her unguarded and exposed, and it made us want to know more: who she was and what she was thinking in the hollow privacy of that bathroom stall.

Some of the video posts bore a caption that read Wichita State—Go Shockers. The link circulated wildly on campus and a few indiscrete classmates recognized its star and identified her. The girl had a name, a beautiful if odd one. Our interest should have trailed off soon after. Such videos are inevitably buried beneath the new, more entertaining footage that floods the Web daily: obese little girls performing sexy dance routines, Viagra-induced priapism, cats getting caught in people's hair. Certainly Memory's video would have faded too, if not for Wichita news station WGTN and an otherwise slow news week.

Their reporter, Tyson Jay Dotko, ambushed Memory in a campus parking lot. The news clip, circulated widely online, shows a pudgy Dotko in a turquoise suit jacket with mussed hair and coffee-stained teeth. He thrusts a microphone at Memory and asks if she has seen the video. It's clear that she has. She looks peaked; her lips are deeply chapped and gray shadows darken her lower lids.

Dotko presses the microphone closer. "What's your reaction to the footage?"

She casts a wary glance at the camera and then back at Dotko before sidestepping them both. They follow her, the video bobbing with the cameraman's steps. Wind against the microphone makes the sound of crashing waves.

Memory halts and stares across the crowded lot, as if she has forgotten where she parked. The camera zooms in, and through its lens we watch the Kansas sunlight catch her face at an extreme angle, illuminating her eyes and revealing their color: a breathtaking violet-blue.

At the edge of the shot, Dotko raises his microphone. "Miss Higgins, tell us—isn't there anything you'd like to say to the person who taped you?"

She shakes her head no but then she speaks, her voice croaky and faltering. "I don't see why," she says, still gazing out at the gleaming rows of cars. "Why would anyone humiliate another human being like that?" Before Dotko can press her further, she raises a hand to shade her eyes and takes off into the maze of parked cars, leaving the camera and its crew behind her.

Overall, it was what we'd expected: a sickened victim, the ubiquitous question why? What we didn't expect was the perpetrator's response. The Potty Peeper posted his answer online and sent it to the Kansas City Star, TMZ, and every major tabloid.

To Memory Higgins from the man who dared to film her:

It's not about why. It's about can or can't and I could. You were no one and like God I turned you into someone. Water to wine, crap like that. You're famous now and you're welcome.

After that, the video took off.

 

 

Memory hid out at her parents' home in Lawrence while the press pursued her. And as the country discovered her video, numbers alone made the story newsworthy. Within days, viewership skyrocketed from tens of thousands to millions. State and local police described their efforts to track the Peeper down, emphasizing that such cases take time. A senator expressed his outrage on behalf of Memory and the nation, and reprimanded Erebos Security for "enabling perverts." An autotune song made from her interview with Dotko hit the Top 40 the following week. And through all of this, we saw the bathroom footage for the first time or the second or the tenth. We watched Memory and, gradually, we took something from her: an ownership of body and spirit that it seemed she could never reclaim.

Journalists and aimless gawkers camped out on the lawn of her childhood home with their vans lining the leafy streets. They remained there for three days, keeping a vigil they called Memory Watch. News channels filled their empty airtime with interviews and commentary. Reporters guided us on tours of the Wichita State library bathroom, demonstrating its broken soap dispenser and showing us the leftmost stall where all of this began. Orthodontists came forward with generous offers to fix Memory's teeth. Psychologists discussed how the violation would affect her self-esteem, while criminologists profiled the Potty Peeper down to his age, race, and predilections. Memory's lifetime of acquaintances appeared one after the next, their faces sandwiched between tickers, captions, and ads. INVEST IN GOLD. Or, 8PM Tues: Who will be voted out of the igloo? Her family grocer smiled crookedly into the camera, drunk on attention, and described the time she threw up corndog in the canned goods aisle. Some called her bossy or full of herself, while others described a friendlier but no less ambitious woman. Their reports of her plans to fly planes, battle terrorists, and mother a half-dozen kids reminded us of a time when we too believed that dreams could be stacked like so many children's blocks.

On the third night of Memory Watch, a blogger broke into her parents' home, waking the dog and scaring the family. The next morning, her haggard parents announced that Memory would make a public statement. The waiting throngs were ecstatic. Word spread through tweets and blogs posts and messages on the We Stand By Memory Facebook page. She would finally break her silence and the major networks would carry it live.

 

 

By the time Memory appeared on her parents' front porch, everyone had an opinion about what she would say. Most expected tearful pleas for privacy and words of appreciation for the good wishes we had posted, mailed, and called in to stations. Some thought she would announce a book deal, an interview with Oprah, or a Playboy spread. Perhaps even her own reality TV show. We'd seen before how blind, fleeting fame could be converted into wealth with a few careful moves and a publicist.

When we look back now and reflect on that evening, we wish a real news story had broken and diverted our attention. A tornado, an assassination. Anything to keep Memory from stepping out before the cameras and speaking her mind. But no planes crashed that afternoon and no one phoned in a bomb threat. She faced the cameras and what followed would be played in the lecture halls of sociology and history classes for years to come.

The footage, recorded by the networks' high-definition cameras, is clearer than the Wichita clip. We see Memory step up to a cluster of microphones on the porch of her childhood home. Her lips are no longer chapped but the bruise-like darkness under her eyes has deepened and spread. Although her eyes stare straight ahead, joyless, we are captivated by their violet-blue brilliance. Her parents stand behind her, both of them black-haired with square, Midwestern jaws. Her father rests a hand on her shoulder as if posing a question, but she touches it lightly, dismissing him, and he lets it drop to his side.

She surveys the reporters and spectators with a look of disgust, no doubt aware that everyone assembled has seen the tape. "You've heard a lot about me recently," she says. "I've watched the coverage and I know what people have been saying. Only half of it's true." By some facet of her pitch or by her steady gaze into the cameras, we sense that she's speaking to us at home and we feel unsettled. A breeze catches her hair, causing the curls to tumble and flatten against each other and her forehead. Her spine is straight, her chin lifted, and her beautiful eyes are defiant. "All you really need to know about me is that I used to be normal. I used to be exactly like you."

Something is wrong and we all sense it. A murmur rises from those gathered on the lawn. Memory's parents look at each other. We can tell that there won't be any endorsements or pleas for privacy.

"The guy who taped me, the Peeper, he didn't change me," she says. "He didn't make me famous; you did. You clicked and watched and demanded this madness. You did that."

Someone in the crowd boos. A few reporters call her name, but one shrill voice rings out above the others. "You're blaming the public? Isn't that a little ridiculous?"

A bitter smile plays on Memory's lips. "I'm done talking to you. All of you," she says, waving her hand at the onlookers, the cameras, and us. "I have one thing to say and it's for the person who taped me."

Her mother's hand hovers tentatively near Memory's arm. The crowd has gone silent.

"Keep going," Memory tells him, wherever he is. "Don't stop with me."

The lawn erupts with questions and outrage, but Memory turns away from it all and strides back into the house.

 

 

No one can say whether the Potty Peeper would have continued his filming without her encouragement. All we know for certain is that another tape appeared online the following night. The victim, Abigail Spatinni, was shown relieving her bowels in a Denny's restaurant bathroom. When the camera position was extrapolated from the footage, experts determined that it had been hidden inside a drainage grate in the bathroom floor. Within a week, Abigail, a mother of three, entered rehab for a crystal meth addiction and sold her life rights to Miramax.

The first few postings to follow may have all been the work of the Peeper himself, but soon copycats abounded. New bathroom videos were posted daily, then hourly, originating from different states and even countries. Erebos Security stock surged on word of record sales and they announced a new line of smaller cameras with wireless streaming. Full-page ads appeared in every magazine: Small as the dot at the end of this sentence. And with that, our world began to change.

The less savvy videovoyeurs could be located by tracing the origins of their posts and some arrests were made. But as word of anti-tracking methods spread, and as the sheer volume of such posts strained law enforcement resources, Peeping, as it came to be known, became a relatively safe and anonymous hobby. The crime soon spread from bathrooms to other venues: hotel rooms, doctors' offices, department store dressing rooms, locker rooms and spas. Clothing sales and gym memberships declined. Hotel vacancy signs emblazoned their industry's downturn. We avoided movie theaters and malls, afraid we might need to use a restroom. We dehydrated ourselves each day before work. Some experimented with self-catheterization. And then, thanks to landlords, workmen, cleaning ladies and guests, hidden cameras found their way into our homes and our last havens of privacy were lost.

The unblinking MicroEye lens captured our inadequacies and infidelities, our confessions, secret perversities and humbling ordinariness. It caught our every tangled, awkward fumbling, our stunted bursts of copulation and masturbation, our grotesque faces at orgasm. It captured our flatulence, our nose picking and pube trimming, our dimpled thighs and hanging stomachs, undersized penises and pendulous breasts. Or it simply saw our faces as they were, straight from bed and before the foundations, concealers, and powders, when wrinkles and hideous age spots claimed their rightful real estate.

Over time, peeping became less a phenomenon of blind misfortune and more of a strategic act. People did it to competitors, bosses, and public officials. They posted shocking footage to humiliate their targets or saved it to blackmail them with. Wages might be increased, contracts awarded, legal battles settled prematurely and inequitably. Soon, even those with the best of intentions were setting up surveillance in self-defense, hoping their hidden cameras would catch anyone else who tried to hide one. As footage became a commodity, a kind of currency of its own, we collected damaging tapes of others to protect ourselves and serve as digital deterrents. As we built up our video arsenals, as we stopped leaving our homes and stopped inviting people into them, we entered the current era, the age of interpersonal Cold War.

More than the voyeurs, more than each other, we hated Memory for what she had begun. While we betrayed each other and squabbled, she remained true to her promise and refused any contact with the press. There were no endorsements or photo shoots, no opportunities to vote her off of a reality TV show. She finished her classes at Wichita State, graduating magna cum laude. We resented her teachers for giving her good marks and we cheered when the Air Force pilot program turned down her application, not wanting the publicity she would bring. We followed her coverage in tabloids and took pleasure in candid shots of her walking her dog, dressed poorly and gaining weight. Commentators speculated that she was depressed, and it only seemed fair, given what she had done to us. Some sent her death threats, but most of us claimed we merely wanted an apology, although we doubted that it would suffice.

Day and night, we agonized over our humiliations. The sight of our bodies in the mirror or out of the corners of our eyes reminded us of our mortifying videos online. We had lost possession of ourselves. The miniature circuits of the MicroEye had turned our surfaces—skin, pubic hair, the wet globes of our eyes—into something alien and absolute. Something digital and public. Our bodies had been taken and seen and laughed at and what was left, well, we didn't want it anymore.

 

 

The tabloids bring us word of Memory. We're delighted to hear the news is bleak. Since her job and graduate school applications have all been rejected, she continues to live with her parents. Chronic health problems plague her father, and her parents have struggled to cover the medical bills while paying for the security measures Memory's infamy requires. She still gets offers for adult film roles and television spots, but despite her family's financial distress, she has always declined. Until now.

After a three-week bidding war, CBS News announces the exclusive interview on freeway billboard signs and banners on every major website. They call it A Night of Memory and schedule the preceding airtime with pilots and entertainment sponsored by major corporations. Contestants in a new CBS reality show will race BMW M3 coupes through alligator-infested marshlands. Victoria Secret models will perform an interpretive dance in their newest line and a 14-year-old heartthrob on a Sony label will debut a serenade he's written for the occasion. Reebok will sponsor an appearance by Persnickety, a trained bear whose online videos rival Memory's in number of hits. As for the main event, the lucky interviewer will be Tyson Jay Dotko, the new darling at CBS News, whose fame has grown alongside Memory's.

It's Wednesday. Memory Night. The time is 9 PM Eastern, 6 Pacific. The lead-in entertainment is ending. Persnickety, dressed from head to toe in lime-green Spandex, is licking the last of a Ho Ho from its paw before fading to black. It's time. We stay tuned for the interview, nervous or impatient without knowing why. We expect something from Memory. We need something. A kernel of resolution. If not her apology, then assurance that we have survived our ordeal better than she has. Or perhaps we simply need to see her again, our fellow victim and our perpetrator. Our Memory, with her gap teeth and uncanny eyes.

A living room fills our screens, its beige walls cluttered with framed photographs. A large one depicts Memory's parents at the altar, the edge of the young bride's veil resting lightly on her husband's shoulder. Another shows Memory as a child, sprawled on the floor with a Barbie doll, its miniature nylon swimsuits and ball gowns scattered around them.

Two chairs occupy the center of the room. In one sits Dotko, a leaner, chiseled version of the Wichita reporter. He looks like a man trying hard to be handsome. In the other chair sits Memory, whom we have loved and hated for nearly three years. She is the girl we remember, only altered. Her eyebrows, once thin and neatly shaped, have been left to grow freely. Their new heft gives her face a look of studiousness and quiet determination. Although she is rounder than before, she isn't obese or unappealing; in fact, the change in the curve of her cheeks gives her an unexpected, healthy charm. By the slope and the height of her breasts, we can tell that she's braless beneath her t-shirt, and yet that too isn't without its own surprising, natural allure. We would like to believe that she's lost her looks but she hasn't; they've merely changed, like an abandoned campground reclaimed by nature.

"Memory Higgins is a woman who needs no introduction," Dotko is says. "She is an everyday college girl turned Internet sensation turned recluse, a controversial figure some pity and others hate." He turns to her, his smile too bright for the décor. "Memory, we're delighted you could join us this evening."

She leans back in her chair, looking calm and amused. "Actually, you're joining me."

"Right. Yes," he says. "So. It's been three years since you last spoke with the press. What has your life been like since then?"

Her voice is smooth and serene. "My life has been good."

Dotko waits for her to go on but she doesn't. "I have to admit I'm surprised. You've been publicly humiliated. You're unemployed and live with your parents. Yet you say you've been happy?"

"You make it sound awful, but it isn't. I won't pretend I was always happy about everything, but that's different."

"Different how?" he says, leaning forward. "Tell us what you haven't been happy about."

"I'd rather not," she says. "I don't mean to disappoint you and the folks at home, but I'm not going to crawl into your lap and start crying."

"Is that what you feel like doing?" Dotko says, blinking hopefully.

She laughs. "Your lap is all yours."

We watch from home, leaning in toward our screens. We resent her confidence and composure. Her contentment. How dare she laugh, after everything she's done to us?

Memory tips her head sideways, studying Dotko. "Is it so hard to believe I'm not miserable?" she says. "I bet I'm happier than you are."

"I'm not so sure about that," he says with a patronizing smile. "Anyway, we're here to talk about you. Let's move on. Do you—?" But he leaves off and leans forward. "Your eyes." We follow his gaze and see what we'd failed to notice before; her irises are deep brown, not the stunning violet we remembered.

Memory shrugs and says she used to wear color contacts. We feel duped.

Dotko clears his throat as he settles back into his seat. "There have been other changes in your appearance," he says. "Weight gain and such. Some would call them signs of depression. I'd like to hear what you'd say to that. Why do you look different?"

"I look like myself now," she says. "This is me, being comfortable." We can't recall the last time we were comfortable, in any clothes, in any place with any company. "Anyway, I could ask the same thing of you," she adds. "Why do you look different?

We examine him closely and notice the foundation caked in the corners of his lips and the crease of his nostril. The subtle jowls he once had are gone, as are the crescents of skin that once protruded beneath his eyes. His neck has grown thick as a wrestler's.

"What happened to you?" she says softly. "What have you had done?"

Dotko's narrowed eyes dart somewhere off screen, as if seeking assistance or a commercial break, but the cameras roll on. He turns back to her, a scowl dimpling the flesh between his eyebrows. "I'll ask the questions, Miss Higgins. Now tell me, do you plan on apologizing for starting this era of videovoyeurism?"

"Nope. No apologies," she says.

"Then you're still angry with the public?"

"Not that either."

"I see," Dotko says. Beads of sweat are forming at his temples and his face has turned a mottled red. "Then you're apathetic. You don't care about anything."

Memory looks at him with her lips together, unmoved. "You don't know me," she says. "You don't have all the answers. Tell me: are you happier now, as Tyson Dotko 2.0? Do your teeth bring you joy, real joy, now that they're blindingly white? Your new body and face, do they make you feel grateful to be alive?"

Dotko sits up straight in his chair, an island of red and white fury in the yellowing living room. Memory watches as he plucks violently at a pleat in his pants with one hand. "There's nothing wrong with looking good," he says. "Like there's nothing wrong with a woman dressing nicely and wearing a bra."

"Nothing wrong, no," she says. "But nothing right either."

He stops playing with the pleat. His hand comes down in a fist against his armrest. "Enough with the games," he says. "Admit that this ruined you. Four hundred million people have watched you urinate. They've seen you exposed. Admit you still feel wretched over that."

"Have you been online lately?" Memory says softly. "It seems I'm not the only one who pees." Dotko doesn't smile. He stares past her, looking damp and disgusted. She pushes on, unfazed. "It's part of being human, something everyone does. You. Me. Them. So no, I don't feel wretched. I feel fine. I don't care what people think."

He tugs at the knot of his tie, trying to loosen it. "That's a lie," he says. "Everyone cares."

Memory looks at him; her lovely, round face seems drawn and disappointed. "Don't you ever see it? Don't you ever suspect that you're the one who's been ruined? You're like that idiotic bear. You all are. Bears in Spandex, doing tricks like you don't remember any other way. Trying to be something you're not."

Dotko looks at her with a pained, pinched face. "Is that your great nugget of wisdom?"

Memory folds her arms and looks away, off camera. "Yes," she says. "It is. And now I think I'm ready for my check."

 

 

We wake the next morning, tired from a night of flimsy, hollow sleep. Depression dogs us as we lie in bed thinking of the interview. We picture Memory in her loose, logoless clothes, her eyes a miserable brown. Brown! We recall her self-assurance and how she pitied Dotko. How she pitied us. The thought is unbearable. She's supposed to be unhappy. As incomplete as we are, only worse. Worse because the eye is a terrible thief, and 400 million pairs of them have watched and stolen pieces of her, pixel by pixel, cell by cell. If we are incomplete, she should be all but invisible. And yet somehow she isn't; somehow she seems whole.

It's inexplicable. Unfair. Her serenity makes our misery worse. Finally, we consider her rant about bears and her hanging breasts—who goes braless on national television?—and we conclude the cause was psychiatric. Hers was the contentment of a loon. And it is only this thought, this comforting sliver of self-appeasement, that allows us to shake our melancholic lethargies and rise to face the day.

We prepare ourselves for work the same as every other weekday morning, except not quite. Spliced between our prosaic musings, memories will come. Recollections of cabins on a lake or by the slopes, of exhausted evenings and the joy of making love on someone else's sheets. Or of concrete shower rooms by the beach with our salty swimsuits balled in our hands, the sand streaming down our bodies to pool at our feet. We'll remember telling secrets over lunch breaks, happy hours, or hospital beds. Potlucks at someone's house, the warm if boring conversations, even the mealy pasta salads that somebody bothered to make and share. We miss everything. What it was like to feel safe and at ease, to be wholly with another person and to ever be entirely alone.

And yet this morning something will change. Something small, almost nothing. Maybe we'll linger in the shower or turn on the light instead of dressing in the dark. Nose hairs might go untrimmed or a blemish unconcealed. Perhaps we'll choose the flats over the heels, or we'll make plans to meet a friend for lunch. Or maybe we'll simply pause before leaving, turn back, and allow ourselves an extra sip of water before heading out the door.

 

Becca Schwarzlose is a scientist and writer living in Los Angeles. She earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience from MIT and has published her research in the scientific journals Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and The Journal of Neuroscience. She also writes about science, society, and life on her blog: www.gardenofthemind.com.This is her first fiction publication. She is currently at work on a novel and popular science writing.

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