It started the way these stories always do: There was this guy.
He was affectionate, then absent, fantastic, then awful. We dated for nine months until all we did was fight. When it was over he wouldn’t even speak to me. It drove me crazy. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. What was he doing? Was he having fun? Was he missing me? Did he want me back? I wanted to believe he was miserable and I wasn’t the only one suffering. Not knowing how he felt was making me insane. I was sure if I could get some indication, even just a clue, I would calm right down.
So one day when he wasn’t home (which I happened to know because he worked right down the hall from me), I tried dialing into his answering machine. It didn’t take long. Sitting at my desk, hitting the pound button, I methodically punched in numbers trying to get his password right. I tried his name, his birthday, his address-nothing. Then it struck me: He’d use something simple. I punched in 7777 and heard the shaky buzzzzz of the tape rewinding. I sucked in my breath as the messages started to play. His mother beep… his sister beep-my heart was racing-his best friend beep. No one said anything much except, “Hey, it’s me. Blah, blah, blah. Call back.” Even so, my hands were shaking as I hung up the phone. This felt nothing like calm.
Snooping has such horrible connotations. It’s a violation of trust, thievery of the most intimate kind. And yet almost every Black woman I know has done it. One friend confessed to reading her teenage son’s journal (just to make sure he was keeping out of trouble), and another told me she’d sneaked peeks at her boss’s paycheck (just to see how much she’s worth). One of my closest friends, a reporter, used the database at her job to track down the contact information for an ex-boyfriend’s current wife. “I even found out her salary,” Simone says with a shrug. “He was married when we met, but he was so slick, never giving me any information about himself. It makes me sick to remember how I let him run the show. It gave me strength just to know that if I wanted to, I could call his wife and make a scene.” Simone never did make that call, but she confesses she fantasized about it all the time.
“Feeling powerless is often at the root of snooping,” says Veronique Thompson, a therapist in Berkeley, California. She suggests that Black women, who may be subjected to sexism and racism daily, are potentially more susceptible to those feelings. We’re even more prone to snooping if we come from fractured families or if our trust has been skewered in the past through a partner’s infidelity. Without ever analyzing what we’re doing, we may develop unhealthy coping mechanisms-like compulsive snooping-that give us a temporary sense of control.
Talk to any woman who snoops, and you’ll find the same thing: the need to feel secure. We want to know that our kids are okay, that we’re valued at work, that we won’t be hurt by our relationships, that we have the upper hand. We want to know that our ex-boyfriend is miserable, and our current boyfriend is true. We want to know that nothing is wrong and everything is right, and we become convinced that the best way to figure this out is through some missing piece of information that we just don’t have-yet.