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My Daughter, My Sister
Years ago, just out of college, I worked for a while in a large Dickensian day-care center in a poor mill city. The atmosphere was harsh. The kids were mostly from welfare families; the all-woman staff was working-class and tough. The director cared little for her job, and often in the afternoons she would leave her office, climb the two flights of stairs to her attic apartment, pour a succession of drinks for herself and the staff whom she had made her half willing guests, and tell stories. She was ambivalent about me and, having determined that I had one Jewish parent and one Italian one, referred to me alternately as "the Jew" or "the wop," depending on where I stood in her esteemthough how she kept score was unclear. She sneered at my naivete, yet at the same time it amused her that someone with a college degree could be stupid about things she understood well. Occasionally she invited me to join the others in her apartment.
Late one afternoon, after many stories, and after the alcohol, the early winter darkness, and the departure two floors below of most of the children had deepened our unlikely intimacy, she looked directly at each of the four or five of us sitting around her small room, paused, inhaled on her cigarette, and slowly said, "I know doctors in this town who go to people's houses and deliver the babies that men fathered with their own daughters. I know about an eleven-year-old who had a baby."
She was in her early fifties then, with hair dyed orange and occasionally stuffed under a blond wig. She wore fishnet stockings, short skirts,and spike heels, and claimed to be forty-two. For all that I found implausible about her, I knew she was telling the truth. And while I felt repulsed to learn that some fathers impregnated their daughters, I also felt relieved, having discovered ugly facts to be handy for creating a rudimentary map of adulthood.
What anchored these stories in my memory was not just the knowledge they offered, but the way they were wrapped like so many veils in innuendos and fabrications about the director's own life. She let us know that her conversations with doctors were privileged: Her allure made her the recipient of confidences whispered during romantic meetings in bars or bedrooms, not offices. And there was more she wouldn't say. What was she keeping private? She implied that it was the details of her conquests, and since she was our boss, we granted her that interpretation. But it was not hard to see, underneath the bravado, a fragile woman whose urgency to recount other people's hard times was an effort to keep us off the trail of her own. The distance between the person we glimpsed and the adept courtesan she would have us envytogether with the forbidden stories she offeredheld my interest. I would stare into the thick smoke of her assertions and silences and wonder, Was she as accomplished as she claimed? Perhaps she had a baby with her father or had helped a doctor deliver someone else's. Perhaps she was just expert at holding our attention with half-truths when she didn't want to drink alone.
The invitation to hear her tales also meant that I was at least grudgingly accepted by a womanin fact a group of womenfrom whom I had not expected acceptance. Like me, they had all been tagged: "Polack," "Canuck," "mick." But they were older and knew more. Listening to their talk, I heard about women who died from illegal abortions, and almost in the same breath about how to pick up a man in a bar, techniques lesbians used to impregnate each other, ways to remove tattoos, and how to mix sweet sticky drinks with names like Sombrero. Though the setting was uneasy and the delivery ham-handed, the conversations at the day-care center satisfied some of my hunger to hear private talk about women's experience. I had gossiped with other women in college, I had listened in on my mother and her friends, but the day-care center was different; the women had lived harder, and the exchanges often began where the other talk left off.
Of the conversations, it is the one about pregnant children that remains most vividly in my mind. In 1974, no one I knew spoke about incest. When, a year or so later, I watched the heroine in Chinatownplayed brilliantly by Faye Dunawayreveal that she was both mother and sister to her daughter, the scene was shocking and exotic, but also plausible in a way it would not have been without the director's stories.
Twenty years later, both the movie and the afternoons in the daycare center seem old-fashioned, even delicate. Today, anyone who turns on the television can hear talk-show hosts interview daughters who had children with their fathers, or interview their mothers, or even the fathers themselves. Companies sell transcripts of talk shows, and it is easy to purchase episodes of Donahue, Oprah, and Sally Jesse Raphael on hundreds of topics like "Soap Opera Addicts" or "When Smart People Fail," as well as the subject variously referred to as "Family Inter-breeding" or "Pregnancy from Incest." The public discussion of incest on these programs is not only striking for its contrast to our hushed talk in the day-care center, but because as narrative, it explores one of the emblematic stories of our timethe question of what is hidden within private life.
The transcripts are remarkable documents. One wonders what someone in the future will make of them, or, for that matter, what to make of them now. Each recounts an hour-long show on which the featured guests are daughters who had their fathers' or stepfathers' babies. The women sit on the stage next to their mothers (the men's wives) and sometimes their sisters. Also present are the studio audience and one or more therapiststhe "experts"who together with the audience create a contemporary chorus providing commentary on the stories and stotytellers. The hosts are attractive, charismatic, and adept: They prod the guests to reveal themselves, pump up the audience, invite the opinions of experts, and break for many commercials.
Oprah begins: "Hello everybody. We are talking today about daughters who get pregnant by their fathers and have the babies. We're going to hear one story of a family where three sisters had 13 children between them. The father of all 13 of the children is their father" [italics added].
Sally Jesse Raphael: "Two years ago, 17-year-old Ginger had a baby, and at first, her mother, Wendy, was really thrilled to be a grandmother, but months after the baby was born, Grandmother Wendy found out a shocking secret that her daughter, Ginger had kept from her."
Donahue: "More and more victims of incest and rape are keeping their babies. Do you understand that? Do you think it's a good idea? Would you keep your baby if your pregnancy were the result of a violent assault? ... Meet Mickey Booher. Your daughter gave birth to a baby that was actually fathered by your husband."
"Yes, sir," Mickey Booher answers in front of a television audience of millions. Or as Oprah observes at the end of her program, "It's been a very difficult thing to talk about, especially before 20 million people."
Why are these programs on television? What are the participants doing? One looks for analogies: revival meetings, gladiators in the colosseum, Queen for a Day, public lynchings, circus freak shows, mass baptisms, group therapy, soap operas, tabloid newspapers. Talk shows borrow from all of these but belong to none. They are new, different, and very popular. They challenge our notions about privacy: For on them, people who may never have uttered a personal word to anyone abandon reserve, restraint and discretion and bare themselves before the camera and the studio audience.
The studio audience participation is itself remarkable. Some members have come in search of entertainment, others are "survivors" (a term Oprah insists on over victims) of the day's affliction who recount their own stories. One woman stands up; a host places a reassuring hand on her shoulder. The camera zooms in so you can see her lip trembling, her eyes filling. "My father raped me, too, and I got pregnant." She continues for a sentence or two and sits down. The host moves on to interview another survivor or perhaps an expert.
On all the programs, expertsusually counselors or psychotherapists of various kindsare invited to comment. One says that sex with stepchildren is incest. A second explains how America is a violent and exploitive culture. A third asserts that incestuous parents rule by brainwashing. The experts are sincere people, earnest, and often well spoken. Depending on the show and the topic, they come across either as decent professionals, trying to make a difference, or co-opted ones, lending a veneer of respectability to the ogling crowd. But then, talk shows continually shimmer between two realities: one cynical and exploitive, the other more elusive yet genuine.
On some levels they are hateful. The hosts and networks make fortunes by inviting people to expose themselves. The programs feed on helplessness, voyeurism, exhibitionism, and confusion; they take advantage of loneliness and isolation, of a dearth of other more genuine communal forums. They exploit people's fear that the world will not adequately witness their suffering.
The studio audiences on some shows attack the guests. People are mocked, challenged, and humiliated. During one Sally Jesse Raphael hour on adultery, members of the audience stand up to yell "slut" and "whore" at the guests on stage. On a Geraldo episode about "men who move back to live with their mothers," the slur is "mama's boy." If an audience becomes too worked up with a particular guest, a host may move in or cut to a commercial, but this feeble gesture seems most reminiscent of people who call off their dogs with a bland, "He won't hurt you," after the animal has drawn blood.
Much of what passes for intimate revelation by the participants is in fact a sad imitation of intimacy, a faux intimacy made more insidious because no one distinguishes it from the real thing. Although the most private topics are talked about, there is little real conversation since conversation requires continuity, thoughtfulness, and a kind of quiet that television rarely tolerates. Participants expose deep feelings, sob, and shake, then sit staring at their feet while the host announces a station break. At their worst, talk shows appear to be in the process of perfecting a kind of psychologically informed, mass-media-disseminated sensationalism, a prurient, often destructive force that needlessly humiliates and debases people and cheapens intimacy and personal expression.
But what makes such programs complex is that side by side with the lode of fool's gold sits a nugget of the real thing: important revelations and people who have good reasons for making them. By doing so they attack hypocrisy, challenge social distance, and reveal the way misuses of power corrupt and abuse privacy. They are not destroying privacy; theirs has long since been destroyed. They are offering testimony about the nature of its loss and the ways that abuses within the private realm undermine the potential benefits of privacy.
The programs draw you in. Everybody tells a tale; and sometimes, gripped in spite of yourself, you applaud, call names, smile, frown, shake your head in horror, wince, and weep. It is moving to see men and women struggle to describe painful events. Participants set out to talk superficially, and sometimes find themselves describing deeply private, sad experiences. Social conventions are momentarily pushed aside, as they state the gnawing facts of their difficult lives.
Where else can an incest survivor, lonely, injured, isolated, tell her story to millions of witnesses, receive the host's sympathy, and weep with other incest survivors? "This is what happened to me. Don't let it happen to you," a woman warns the camera. When she finishes speaking, it is with a sense that she has offered hope to girls trapped in dark bedrooms and, with the host's help, has painted the tar of shame back on the perpetrator where it belongs. One assaultive father, a Baptist "reverend," speaks by phone from his jail cell (robbery, not sexual abuse, has finally incarcerated him), attempting to rationalize how his wife wanted him to father children with his children, and how his daughters enjoyed it. He is plaintive and insistent, but Oprah has the last word: "With all due respect to you, Reverend," she announces for twenty million people to hear, "you're a liar and you're a slime."
Almost like a goddess, like justice embodied, Oprah, an outspoken, powerful woman, enters the fray, dispenses absolution, defends the daughters, and vindicates their honor. They are no longer alone with their suffering and their shame. The father who has tortured them and destroyed their childhood is finally openly named. Out of the flimflam and the kangaroo court comes an honest encounter, a just moment.
Oprah offers her guests more than we ever offered the women we gossiped about at the day-care center. We were glad to talk about them, but the idea of hearing from them was taboo. No one spoke in the first person about painful experiences because the fear of being shamed was insurmountable. Justice was harsh, and any horroreven rapewas your own fault. Victims were the bearers of bad news, and rather than focusing on our common bond as women, we wordlessly decided that we were better off keeping themand the "them" in usat bay. We enjoyed the closeness, but the entry price was a tacit promise not to blink.
But Donahue, Sally, Oprah, and Geraldo have changed the rules. Working as psychic muckrakers, they garner the details of the horror sometimes hidden behind the facade of "private life" or "family life." "So it was a douche kind of abortion?" Donahue asks a young woman who is telling how her father used baking soda and hot water to abort her baby in the family bathroom. "Yes," she confirms.
One important discovery of the late twentieth century is of the terrible thingsphysical and emotionalpeople actually do to each other within the privacy of home. And there is no doubt that television has aided in the achievement of this sorry recognition. In too many instances, family life is not about love, but about exploitation of power. When Donahue interviews his guest, he momentarily breaks through denial and disavowal and forces viewers to confront the fact that nice guyschurch deacons, movie actors, good Christians, and bank presidentscan be violent or sadistic when the shades are drawn.
Talk-show hosts have invented a new alloy by forging psychiatry and sensational journalism. They have made themselves middlemen for isolated suburbanites, offering information about the dangers of private life while sparing viewers and asking the awkward questions for them. Television talk shows make people feel connected while they are unconnected, a paradox with many consequences.
Television offers the information of intimacy without the obligations. By creating celebrity hosts who behave like our best friends, and by flooding viewers with the intimate revelations of anonymous neighbors, television has devised a crude but potent answer to contemporary life with its enormous social isolation. You no longer have to make friends with a group of women to hear good stories. What is more, if a neighbor comes and tells you that her husband is beating her, her problem becomes yours. What do you make of her story? Perhaps you should talk to her husband, or call the police. You could offer her shelter, but then you might get more involved than you care to be. If a battered woman talks on television, you get the prurient thrill, vivid detail, the horrible, forbidden story, and none of the responsibility or the real-life mess.
When I was little and lived in Oregon, a cow with a glass plate in her side was the star attraction in the agriculture department of the local college. She had been surgically altered so curious students could peer inside her and watch her digest her cud. Contemporary television offers a similar view.
Often it seems to be desperation, loneliness, exclusion that one witnesses through the glass. One woman, describing her feelings after appearing on a talk show with her gay ex-husband and his lover, said, "I now know I'm the good guy because the audience proved that." Abandoned by her husband, who fell in love with a man soon after their wedding, she had apparently been unable to find any other way to ease her anger, guilt, and sorrow. The expiation had to come from outside herself, had to have the pomp of public ritual, the burnish of a slight celebrity. And apparently the hunger for such relief was enough to make her risk public humiliation. Privately held, her feelings had become unbearable.
In the era when I worked at the day-care center, the victim of incest, the woman married to a homosexual man, were expected to keep their misery to themselves. If their lives were harmed, we didn't want to know; we demanded a solid facade. We no longer demand total silence, yet our reception is ambivalent. Collectively, we are not sure we wish to face the implications of the stories.
Lacking efficacious communal forums, talk shows are one compromise. They offer a public hearing: for many, the only one possible. But because the shows set out to entertain and make money, important and trivial revelations are commingled and lose consequence. Political change and justice, two apt public ends of trading one's privacy to give testimony, are slightly addressed while commodity triumphs.
Still, there is an important take-home message in the shows: Family privacy may shelter and sanction interpersonal tyranny. While America may have outlawed slavery and attempted to regulate civic relationships, in the privacy of the home, exploitive practices sometimes continue, unobserved. The talk shows succeed in part because they have named this predicament of contemporary life, this frontier of privacy.
America is in the midst of a debate about privacy that takes many forms:
* A newspaper editor ponders whether he should print a story that reveals that a popular athlete has AIDS.
* An author publishes an account of how he masturbates, and a reviewer on the front page of The New York Times Book Review attacks the book, suggesting there are some details of sexuality best kept in the realm of fiction.
* A psychiatrist writes an introduction to a biography about his patient, admitting he made accessible to the biographer tapes of psychotherapy sessions; his admission stirs a controversy that makes headlines.
* A woman claims she has had an extramarital sexual liaison with a presidential candidate; he chooses to respond by being interviewed with his wife on prime-time television.
How we think about privacy has been greatly influenced during the past century by two phenomena of modern life: the development of massive media capacity, and the popularizing of psychological thinking, or more precisely, the emergence of a post-Freudian culture that takes for granted the public expression of once private experiences and parts of the mind. The confluence of these trends, the way they have become particularly entwined within the society, and the power they wield in the absence of other once potent social institutions are fueling the private/public tug-of-war. Some critics have argued for the virtues of restraint and privacy. Others have celebrated the demise of prudishness and hypocrisy. Still others have bemoaned the moral erosion and the ethos of victimization that they claim underlies public accusations and confessions. There is truth in all these positions.
All the disparate issues of privacywhether I can listen in on your telephone conversation, whether you can publish the love letters I sent you, whether I can find out your credit rating, whether you can test my urine for drugs before you hire me, whether I can prohibit your abortion, whether you can keep me alive in spite of my wish to die, whether I should write about you or talk about you on a talk showrepresent battles about power, money, values, and the elusive concept of "the common good."
We need to find our way through these issues because the qualities of humanness that make life more than a biological eventcreative and artistic expression, intellectual endeavor, sacred rituals, love and intimate sexuality, friendship, and individual dignityare qualities that must be sheltered to thrive. Privacy shelters, and thus offers sustenance to fragile virtues.
Privacy also supports freedom to make important personal choices. If you are an Irish Catholic woman and you marry a Muslim Ethiopian man whom you love, your choice may have hurt your mother and father, caused the other members of your church to curse you, and angered your neighbors. But you have made a private choice that has come out of your own feelings and wishes. Historically, what you have done is new; until recently such gestures would often have subjected you to either isolation or persecution. (Sigmund Freud wryly observed that for most of history, anyone criticizing religion could be assured of "an effective speeding-up of the opportunity for gaining a personal experience of the afterlife.") Private choice is more possible now because we live in a society and an era that is considering the ideaalbeit erratically and with harsh inconsistencythat a person's intimate feelings are the heart of humanness and therefore deserve protection. How far we will expand this idea remains to be seen, the struggle about legalizing gay marriages being one current battleground.
The risk of privacy is the absence of witnesses. One person's privacy can easily become another's license to hide, harm, or create bad secrets. Privacy is ready prey to exploitation, corruption, and abuse. If, in a home, an adult feels entitled to abuse a child, the act exploits and corrupts privacy. Or, conversely, if a child makes up stories about the way an adult harmed him (statistically a much rarer phenomenon), privacy is also harmed. Talk shows address misuses of privacyeven as they often misuse it themselves in the process. The important knowledge in the talk shows is the reminder that for many people, private life is not a haven.
The virtues of privacy are further obscured by the fact that a kind of corrupted, obliterating privacy is often forced upon people with less power. Henry James describes how, in nineteenth-century London, some rich people didn't want the bother of learning the names of a succession of maids, cooks, butlers, and gardeners. So they picked one name and imposed it on each person who filled a post. "Your name was Fred. Now it is Richard. Be careful transplanting the precious rose I brought from Shanghai."
Conversely, a group of people who have been oppressed or marginalized may raise their children to keep much privateeven more than other families. Once, when younger, my sons were playing at the home of African-American friends. The play was good, the exchange easy and comfortable; so much so that my boys' young friend, reassuring his older sibling of the propriety of an open comment, said, "It's okay, we're all black here." Seeing suddenly, clearly, the white faces, he fell silent. He had violated his family's careful efforts to keep him safe from the effects of racism by not letting outsiders know himby guarding the family's privacy.
Together with their particular biology and historical moment, people are ultimately made individual by those parts of experience that are difficult to communicate, the images sorted through as sleep comes, the composite of coherent memories, fragmented pictures, habits of love, powerful feelings, and perceptions that, like so many leaves raked into a pile, arrange themselves in relationships that cannot be replicated or completely described. They become the compost fertilizing creative expression. They are at once ineffable and essential. They may be profane or sacred. "What I keep," writes the poet Gary Miranda, "keeps me alive." At its best, privacy shields and nurtures what is unique and authentic in people, while its absence or its violation often contributes to dehumanizing them.
Struggles about privacy are struggles about access and control. They are about conflicting interests between individuals, and between individual and community. Privacy is a complex ecology. Like that of the earth, it is delicate, and the nature of its balance determines much about the opportunity people have to experience some of the most remarkable parts of humanness. But what is involved in privacy, and why does it matter?