“Crazy artist seeks revenge,” an online comment reads. The comment is a response to Jessamyn Lovell’s art installation “Dear Erin Hart,” on display in Hollister Gallery, which illustrates the story of a woman from San Francisco who stole her identity.
Why do people steal? Well, one does not need to be a psychologist to answer: people steal because others possess something that they want and that they do not have. In this case, these thefts, either of money, or a car, or a pair of sunglasses, become in some sense reasonable. But what if someone steals somebody’s identity? It is not like they don’t have their own. So what is the reason behind this crime?
In order to understand, one would need to visit San Francisco in 2009, where, in a shopping mall, someone stole Jessamyn Lovell’s wallet. Obviously, this experience was not very pleasant to Lovell, but it also did not seem like the end of the world to her. The cost of that crime was just a wallet and a bill for the telephone call she needed to make in order to freeze her credit cards. However, for Lovell, that “regular” crime was destined to result into something bigger than a spoiled day and a phone bill. That single petty crime turned out to be a disaster, an inspiration, and a life-changing expe- rience all at the same time.
In 2009, her wallet was stolen, and she froze all her credit cards and continued with her life. In 2011, she got a call from a police depart- ment with a question about whether or not she let anyone use her I.D.
And, by the time she had responded “no,” understanding hit her: with her wallet, the San Francisco thief had stolen her identity. “A woman named Erin Coleen Hart was arrested a few days earlier attempting to check into a hotel in San Francisco using my I.D.,” Lovell said in her 2015 book Dear Erin Hart,.
After that, Lovell found out that Hart had also committed a couple of minor crimes. And, because she was using Lovell’s I.D., Lovell needed to fly to Oakland to defend herself in the court for the crimes she had never committed. After the hearing, as she walked “freely from the courtroom,” she “got incredibly angry” at her thief and decided to find her at any cost.
Lovell started her research online independently, but did not achieve any significant results. So she hired a private investigator, who in found Hart’s location within a week. Then, because Lovell could not let the situation go anymore, she decided to go to San Francisco and “see Erin Hart with my own eyes, photograph her and possibly learn something about who she was,” as she describes in Dear Erin Hart,.
A lot of people judged Lovell for this private investigation, with some calling her a “crazy artist” and claiming her photos were illegal because Hart did not consent to their use.
Yet Lovell claims the process was cathartic. “I started to gain an- other unexpected feeling—empathy. She seemed like a very lonely person,” Lovell said in a presentation at Babson. “I actually have seen myself in her. Like her life is an alternate future I could have had if I did not go to college.”
“I could not stop thinking about her for such a long time. So I tried to call or meet her. But I did not know what to say. So I decided to write her a letter.”
What was the reason for Hart’s crime? One guess would be dissatisfaction—not with yourself, but with who you are to others, and with how people treat and see you. This raises another question about the project: Should Lovell blame Erin Hart? Should we?