“Privacy is the Last Thing We Have.” I Am No One by Patrick Flanery

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Each word I put on paper I imagine may be the last I write in freedom.

I came across this quote a mere 22 pages into I Am No One, and immediately found myself identifiying with Jeremy O’Keefe, the History professor who said it. How often I have wondered if our freedom of speech will someday be taken away, as the world that I have known and trusted slowly turns upside down.

Jeremy is now teaching at NYU, after leaving Columbia and then Oxford. His life is in shambles, and throughout this book which is a testament he seems to be recording, we are never quite convinced of his sanity. Is he telling the truth, or is he paranoid? Could it be he is somehow being manipulated?

The novel begins with a missed appointment he thinks he has made with one of his students. She doesn’t appear, and when he arrives home to check his email he finds a note cancelling their meeting which he does not remember writing. While he was waiting for her at the cafe, he exchanges a few brief words with a young man who keeps appearing, apparently coincidentally, in Jeremy’s life.

Things worsen when unmarked cardboard boxes appear, addressed to him with no indication of who sent them, yet they contain hundreds of pages of private information: every URL he has ever visited, every phone number he has called, and files of photographs of his life.

To me, this is the most fascinating part of the novel. Do we know how visible we are in our every movement? Do we know who it is that is watching is, or worse, keeping track of our private lives?

To be human is to be watched, to be part of society, because we are social animals, but we do not expect that observation by community or government will extend into our private lives. Those of us who are rational believe that as long as we are not breaking any laws, there is no reason the government should be watching what we do inside our homes, within the confines of our private property, and yet this apparently rational belief has been demonstrated, time and again, by behavior of law enforcement and intelligence services, to be profoundly false.

I Am No One is a literary thriller with immediate implications to the lives we live today. Privacy, past relationships, technology and terror are all brought into sharp focus as Patrick Flanery examines their interplay with this book. It is a job well done, a thoroughly fascinating read, making me wonder if any of us have the courage  to make our private lives visible. Should we be required to do so.