Few things are as universally despised as passwords. The strains they put on our memory, the endless demand to update them, their sheer number. But there is more to passwords than their annoyance. In our authorship of them, in the fact that we construct them so that we (and only we) will remember them, they take on secret lives.
Many of our passwords are suffused with pathos, mischief, sometimes even poetry. Often they have rich backstories. A motivational mantra, a swipe at the boss, a hidden shrine to a lost love, an inside joke with ourselves, a defining emotional scar — these "keepsake passwords," as I came to call them, are tchotchkes of our inner lives. They derive from anything — scripture, horoscopes, nicknames, lyrics, book passages. Like a tattoo on a private part of the body, they tend to be intimate, compact and expressive. Yes, our passwords are used to unlock our various online accounts. But for many people they also hold the power to unlock fundamental questions about who we are, where we come from, and what we value most.
At least as surprising as their hidden stories has been peoples' willingness to tell me them. There was the former prisoner whose password included what used to be his inmate identification number ("a reminder not to go back" he explained); the fallen-away Catholic whose passwords incorporated the Virgin Mary ("it's secretly calming"); the childless 45-year old whose password was the name of baby boy she lost in utero ("my way of trying to keep him alive, I guess"). Read my article in the New York Times Magazine.