Locked Out of My Own Life | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
Remembering passwords is not always an easy task. (Illustration by Eric Palma)

Locked Out of My Own Life

Threats of identity theft prompt personal questions that can stymie the best of us

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I just flunked my bank’s identity test. You know, the one that interrogates you about your life. I failed to identify my favorite cousin, former address and the name of my maternal grandfather. I’m sure that the person monitoring my efforts thought I was either an identity thief or a complete imbecile.

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The problem is, I lost my cheat sheet, a ratty piece of paper on which I had scrawled cryptic clues to my user names and passwords. It looks like a string of comic book obscenities: “Xxxxxx###,” “Xxx@#Xx,” “X##%@#xx!” The clues are phrases like “snack food dot high school home room number” or “not dog under ’70s license plate,” which stand for Combos.223 and KiTTy_982K59, respectively. Mostly, these complex constructions succeeded only in locking me out of my own life.

Which is why, when I am confronted with questions such as the name of my first pet, I am stymied. Are we counting the turtle I had for three weeks before it died? Or the deformed hamster rescued from a research lab? For favorite food, are we talking about when I’m counting calories or eating leftover chocolate cake for breakfast? And as for the city I’d most like to visit, is it Machu Picchu, perched high in the Peruvian mountains (my choice years ago), or a flat Midwestern metropolis, since I now suffer from bad knees?

Then there are those made-up, spam-filtering words that look like they went through the washing machine. No matter how much I squint, I fail to interpret “WaDdle09” or “Sluggert55” as anything but a line of scribbles. Then I find myself yelling at the computer: “C’mon, give me one more try. Let me buy a vowel. Can I phone a friend? State Capitals? I’ll take hometowns for $500.”

Of course one could always take the streamlined approach and choose the same password for every account. This was my strategy for many years. Oh yeah, good ole “IP4395,” my aunt’s old license plate number, which I read as “I pee for $3.95.” It was my favorite joke when I was 8 years old. That one served me well. But after reading too many articles on identity theft, I was scared straight and devised a system so complex that it denied me access to my own bank account.

In fact, I managed to access it only after surrendering my Social Security number to a supervisor and explaining that the name of my favorite cousin changes almost weekly, that I’d changed residences several times and that my mother’s father was a scoundrel we try to forget.

The supervisor asked if I wanted to choose new security questions. I told her no, that I was investing in a memory improvement seminar so that as long as I can always remember who I am today, I can always become a different person tomorrow.

Now, if I could only find that ratty piece of paper.

Julia Anne Miller is a writer and performer based in Brooklyn, New York, whose essays have appeared in Salon.

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