Famed MIT professor, clinical psychologist, and leading voice on the relationship between technology and human interaction, Sherry Turkle has spent her career analyzing the emotional component of the digital world. Now she turns the lens on her own life. An only child raised in part by doting grandparents among the Russian immigrant population in post-War Brooklyn, Sherry Zimmerman’s life was mired in secrets. Her father disappeared early, but his last name didn’t. One day her mother announced that she was being adopted by her stepfather, thus Sherry Turkle was “born.” That the family never discussed any of these events is unsurprising — there was much to sweep under the rug at that time — but Sherry was forever haunted by her missing father.
What starts as a memoir about parental abandonment shifts into a classic fish-out-of-water tale as Sherry wins a life-changing scholarship in 1965 to attend Radcliffe. A working-class contrast in her “day dress” and stockings to the WASP elite with their twin sets and pearls, Sherry quickly learned where she “belonged” as the unfortunate trifecta of female Jewish scholarship student. In a classic case of white privilege, the university put all the students who were poor, Jewish, and/or women of color in a subpar set of dorms, while their wealthy counterparts lived in the Cambridge equivalent of Hogwarts. Harvard justified this by saying these wealthy girls had requested the high-end dorms in advance, but who else would have the inside scoop on where to live on-campus? Certainly not a girl from Lincoln High School in Coney Island, even if she was the valedictorian.
At Harvard, Turkle latched onto the study of the impact of technology on children’s brains and development — you might say she was “visionary.” She discusses how she and her research were often dismissed by the powers that be ( white men), and how she was initially denied tenure. But she hobnobbed with the globe’s most elite scientific minds — a stint in Paris was particularly formative — and close friends-slash-luminaries such as Nicholas Negroponte make cameos. But the story is Turkle’s own. Her voice, which is clear and engaging, reveals a low hum of insecurity that shows itself in her relationships with men, particularly in her difficult marriage to AI pioneer Seymour Papert, her eccentric and much older collaborator at MIT. The intensely competitive and perfectionistic campus culture certainly didn’t help matters.
The book’s title is a nod to both Sherry’s working life and her personal one. While not in true diary format, the text has the intimacy of an authentic first-person confessional. The writing is honest and raw and allows the reader to feel the weight of Sherry’s struggles and heartbreak decades later. The story is bookended by Sherry’s few in-person meetings with her birth father, Charles; the complexity of emotion is felt on the page. Turkle is an accomplished scholar whose work has challenged a generation to consider the ethics of computing and human interaction, but she’s also just a daughter with lots of questions.
Amy Oringel is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, BusinessWeek, and The Forward.