Like any self-obsessed millennial with a vaguely defined media job, I have a Google Alert set for my name. The name "Caroline" hasn't quite reached "Sarah" levels of popularity, but "Thompson" is one of the most basic last names on the planet, so the alerts usually let me know that another Caroline Thompson somewhere has made the fifth grade honor roll, won a local baking competition, or died.
A few weeks ago, I got an alert with a link to an article that seemed to be speaking directly to me. The blurb under the link was short: "When Caroline Thompson Googles herself and discovers the shocking details of a past she doesn't remember..."
The link took me to an article called How Well Do You Know Your Spouse by author Eva Lesko Natiello, about a book she'd written, The Memory Box. In the book, the main character—a former writer and aspiring novelist named Caroline Thompson—Googles herself and falls into a rabbit hole of fucked-up madness from a former life she has no recollection of.
I try not to take coincidences too seriously, but c'mon!
In his book The Improbability Principle, statistics professor David J. Hand argues that coincidences—even spooky ones—are unavoidable. "The universe is in fact constructed so that these coincidences are unavoidable: the extraordinarily unlikely must happen; events of vanishingly small probability will occur," he writes. As noted in the Atlantic story "Coincidences and the True Meaning of Life," when you have a sample size as big as the current population of the Earth, we should expect outrageous things to happen, and often.
Usually I brush off coincidences with this exact logic, but getting a Google Alert about a woman with my exact name and profession who Googles herself and discovers a litany of secrets about her past was unsettling.
I bought the book and read it cover-to-cover in two days; it's a thriller with an unexpected twist ending, and the story left me feeling all sorts of ways about myself and the natural order of the universe. The fictional Caroline Thompson is a sociopath who becomes increasingly unhinged throughout the course of the novel; she's cunning and cold, doesn't understand the brutality of her actions, and feels no remorse for the harm she's caused. The character is a murderer, as well as a kidnapper masquerading as a picture-perfect suburban soccer mom.
I reached out to Natiello, the author of The Memory Box, to see if she had any answers about what, if anything, I was to make of all of this.
It freaked her out too.
In fairness, I didn't consider how alarming it would be to receive an email from a fictional sociopath you created. It's been a few years since the book was published, and while Natiello was once consumed with Caroline's fictional world, she rarely thinks of her creation anymore. But because the world is strange and coincidences are all too common, Fictional Caroline had been on her mind the day she got my email; even though she was working on a new project, she kept getting distracted by the protagonist in her old book. After a visit to the dentist, Natiello came home to a message from Caroline—that is, me—waiting in her inbox.
"I was blown away that it happened on that day, of all days," says Natiello when I get her on the phone. "The way you found the book was so incredibly perfect and full-circle."
Natiello chose the name Caroline Thompson on purpose; her daughters found both names in their school directory, and when she she pieced them together, she fell in love with the result. She loved the cadence and the consonants. "Caroline Thompson" just sounded right.
"I wanted to pick a name that wouldn't cause anyone's alarm bells to go off," says Natiello. "You wouldn't raise your eyebrows at the name Caroline Thompson. It sounds smart, normal, like someone who has it all together. I wanted her to slip under the radar." Caroline is a wolf in sheep's clothing—her name is her camouflage—and personal experience tells me she landed on the right name.
Natiello never wanted to be a writer. Before she wrote The Memory Box, she was a publicist in the cosmetics industry—but after giving up her career to raise a family and moving from Manhattan to the suburbs, the story came flooding into her head so quickly she began to believe something or someone was giving it to her.
Natiello's writing was spurred by a bout of insomnia. During those sleepless nights, the story would rush into and out of her: the plot, the characters, the setting, the intricate twists and turns. Her insomnia disappeared all at once after she was done with the book, as though whatever force was compelling her to write was satisfied with her efforts.
One of the book's major themes (a theme that Natiello didn't even realize was there until she was done) is the fictional Caroline Thompson's obsessive need to be in control of everything at all times—something this real-life Caroline struggles with every day. I've spent my life planning for what happens next; I've perfected the art of getting what I want, even when it seems improbable; I like to believe, in a scientific, non–The Secretway, that I and I alone hold total authority over my reality.
"Maybe this is supposed to tell you not to try and control your life," says Natiello when I ask her what she thinks I should learn from her Caroline. "We need to let life take its twists and turns and learn to ride with them. Embrace serendipity, embrace coincidences. Don't feel like you have the power to control them."
Caroline Thompson isn't that uncommon of a name. There are more than 1,400 Caroline Thompsons on LinkedIn alone. There's even a Hollywood writer, director, and frequent Tim Burton collaborator named Caroline Thompson. Statistically, the probability that one of us would stumble upon The Memory Box in a Google Alert isn't hard to imagine.
But that doesn't stop me from being freaked the fuck out. I don't know if all of this was designed by a higher power to teach me a lesson about my place in the universe, or if it's just another unremarkable event in a meaningless life. All I know is I've recently developed an irrational fear of opening my Google Alerts. And that maybe I should make some friends with the countless real men named Patrick Bateman to see how they adjusted to the reality of sharing a name with a psycho.