I’ve seen movies, TV shows, and read books in which the key to the mystery lies in handwriting. Sometimes it’s showing a signature was forged. Sometimes the cops profile the crook from handwriting samples. Sometimes it’s proving that two separate documents were written by the same person. But handwriting is key.
I will admit that I, not being a mystery writer, have no real knowledge of how accurate handwriting analysis is. But I do understand that each person’s handwriting is unique. I think of my three best friends in high school, and I could never mistake one of their handwriting for another, even if they never signed the notes we passed in class. (Not that we ever did that, of course.)
There is something visceral, something humanly personal about handwriting. In my genealogy, I have gleaned signatures from hundreds of years ago from wills, marriage documents, and other official documents. Having this person’s signature somehow makes them real. They existed. They lived. Here is proof. Here is a tangible connection to my past.
When we have written letters or notes from people we love, they mean even more. How many of us have saved birthday cards or Christmas cards from friends and family? We don’t save them because of the tacky Hallmark sayings, we save them because of the personal notes, the loving or funny or poignant phrases written to us in a person’s own hand.
I recently found a bag of old notes my best friend and I had exchanged over the course of about five years. When I read the ones she wrote to me, I can see her face, hear her voice. Just seeing the handwriting, without even reading the content, flashes me back to our friendship, makes me want to pick up the phone and call her or shoot her an email just to say hello.
I can’t do that, of course, because she died eight years ago. But those notes make her alive again for me, as real as if she was standing in front of me. Handwriting, with its personality, intimacy, and tangibility, brings an immediacy that text messaging never can.
I wonder if our children, and future generations, will have the same type of memories. Will a cache of shared text messages bring the same strong visual, aural, and emotional response? Will emails with their standard Arial print convey the same personality and uniqueness? Will what they leave behind be as uniquely tangible, as connective, as what we and those before us have left?
Handwriting, even as my generation knew it, is vanishing. Many schools are not even teaching it anymore. I pity the generations who are losing something so personal and so emotionally evocative. A connection deeper than any social media will disappear, and one mode of personal expression will be lost to them.
I also pity the detectives of the future, trying to discern if an electronic signature was forged, or if two emails were written by the same person, or trying to profile a suspect from text-speak. It is inevitable that new technologies and techniques will take the place of the human experts of today in solving mysteries.
Unfortunately, with the death of handwriting, we lose one more clue to the greatest mystery of all—the mystery of what makes us human.