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Kirkus ReviewsLucid historical, literary, psychoanalytic, and (occasionally) personal perspectives on the vexing topic of privacy.
In Smith's view, privacy—whether as solitude, anonymity, reserve, or intimacy—both strengthens public life and invites its own violation. As the daughter of the famous (and famously reserved) writer Bernard Malamud, she sought anonymity in the unliterary profession of psychotherapy, building up plenty of personal insights from both experiences. Now her intelligent book analyzes some famous collisions between the public and the private in Western life. Her best example is the tawdry newspaper-media frenzy over the adultery trial in 1875 of the "gospel of love" preacher, Henry Ward Beecher. The event inspired a groundbreaking Harvard Law Review article in 1890 on the right to privacy, which criticized the media for violating that right. Smith spends a chapter on the relationship between literary estates and biography, using as her prime illustration the ultra-reticent Henry James and his highly pertinent novella The Aspern Papers. James himself, despite his efforts to destroy all materials regarding his personal life, became the subject of a probing five-volume biography. (After her father's death, Smith and her mother had to decide how much of Malamud's literary estate to make available to researchers, a matter she touches on in her prologue.) Her most moving case history is the narrative of ex-slave Harriet Jacobs, whose bondage precluded a private life until her escape. More contemporary topics include the pros and cons of Oprah's "psychic muckraking" and Clinton's need to expose himself, selectively, to his electorate.
Through the examples of Clinton, Henry James, and Henry Ward Beecher, among others, Smith intelligently outlines privacy's ticklish significance.