Maureen Dowd, in her column, on November 3, “From Love Nests to Desire Surveillance” notes that having a secret affair today is becoming more and more impossible. I presented a paper at the New York State Psychological Association several years ago on Betrayal in Cyberspace* and, like Dowd, chose Harold Pinter’s play, Betrayal, as a foil and contrast to today’s culture of cyberspace liaisons. Only I don’t think that affairs are as difficult to transact in today’s culture of surveillance as Dowd does. I work with individuals and couples who are quite adept at it. I do agree with Dowd, that a slip of the finger or a foggy headed lapse in alertness to secrecy, such as leaving a cellphone open on the couch can be deadly.
And I mean psychologically deadly, because when an affairs is discovered online, the data rushes at the reader suddenly with overwhelming trauma. Offline revelations of betrayal have generally been parsimonious: one line item in a visa statement for an expensive hotel room. A telephone number written on a cocktail napkin of an unfamiliar restaurant. The electronic trail of betrayal, once exposed, tends to be long and extravagant. And though deadly, electronic betrayal is paradoxically immortal: the electronic record can never be erased. When I work with partners who have been betrayed, they return over and over to the toxic emails, reviewing them to detect similar traces in current behavior, poignantly buttressing themselves from every trusting again. And lastly, though Dowd points to the unlikelihood of feathering a secret nest, the affair that is conducted today is done so right within the private domain of the home. Partners often slip out of bed in supposed or real insomniac states, or withdraw from family engagement to go online and get into it.
What I think is most dazzling about the world of Pinter’s Betrayal is how unimportant language is in transacting love life. What is utterly striking about the drama is the amount of information that is conveyed in disruption of language, in his uniquely brilliant talent for indicating substance through silence/missed hits. The words mean little; they are not taken seriously by the protagonists. Betrayal as envisioned by Pinter seems to belong to another glacial era with regard to internet betrayal: riveted in the electric field between two persons, the communication in the lapses rather than the incessant, texted, presences. Voila:
Jerry: “She told you….when?”
Robert: Well, I found out. That’s what happened. I told her I found out and then she….confirmed…the facts.”
Robert: “Oh, a long time ago, Jerry…. (Pause).
Jerry: “But we’ve seen each other…a great deal….over the last four years. We’ve had lunch. “
Robert: “Never played squash though.”
Jerry: “I was your best friend.”
Robert: “Well, yes, sure.”
When I reflect on the world of Pinter’s Betrayal, it’s not the sexiness of the secrecy, or the hideaway, but rather the sexiness of an embodied world in which to know something required gazing and listening and feeling and touching. Today, we read a Twitter release, or glance at an iPhone or Instagram image for a millisecond and think we’ve had an experience.