Does anyone have the right to privacy anymore? Not if they are important enough that it matters.
It was not until I finished writing my biography of Anais Nin that I realized the book was about a dysfunctional family, wife beating, child abuse, incest, pornography, promiscuity and bigamy - just to name a few of the more outrageous acts that defined this controversial writer's life.
The realization reminded me of Samuel Johnson's decree that biography (and by extension, history and general non-fiction) should never tell more than what is "seemly to know." I worried about just what Dr. Johnson meant by "seemly" as I wrote Samuel Beckett's biography (published 1978). Now considered a fairly discreet chronology of the man's life, the book was shocking then, mostly because biographies of living persons were rare. I chortled over criticisms that I had invaded Beckett's privacy, especially when I recalled all that I knew and had not written, particularly of his sexual proclivities. But in terms of "seemly," the book was right for the time and I stand by my judgments.
Things are different now. Ours is an era of sex, drugs and litigation, where all taboos have been broken and nothing is too shocking or violent to prevent it from publication. Everything is grist for the ever-churning mill of print, where tabloid journalism far too frequently sets the tone for what must be included in a serious account of a person's life and work if it is to be believable.
From celebrity gossip to politics, there is an insatiable appetite for every sordid and salacious detail. Nicole Brown Simpson's alleged drug use (see anything written about O.J.'s trial) and Grace Kelly's promiscuity (Robert Lacey's biography) command the same sort of appraisal as Eleanor Roosevelt's alleged lesbian friendships (Blanche Wiesen Cook's biography) or FDR's last passion for his sixth cousin, Margaret "Daisy" Suckley (in Geoffrey Ward's new book, "Closest Companion." 444 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $24.95). And the fracas over Diane Middlebrook's use of the tapes of Anne Sexton's psychiatric sessions in her biography has not abated: Even when people disagree about their use, they have no qualms about demanding to know what they contain.
"The biographer has the obligation to tell the truth, no matter what it may be," says Joan Mellen, the American biographer of Kay Boyle, echoing the British Desmond MacCarthy's half-century-old contention that the biographer must write as "the artist under oath."
Ironically, it seems to depend on what truths are being told about which people. Hackles may be raised, but only selectively. Readers dropped Cook's version of Eleanor's close female friendships as if the book were a coal too hot to handle, yet FDR's intimate letters to Daisy Suckley are accepted without a murmur. Why are there no blushes when reading of Nin's every perversity, while the several biographers now preparing alternate versions of Beckett's life tell me they fear the wrath that will descend upon them if they write the truth about his personal relationships? Is it because we don't want our idols to be homosexual, or are we merely talking about the different value society ascribes to the lives of men and women?
The controversy swirling around Middlebrook's use of Sexton's analyst's tapes divides into several camps. Mental health professionals, from psychiatrists to social workers, all agree that whatever passes between analyst and patient is forever confidential, even after the death of one or both. Writers and Literary scholars disagree, believing it is right to use anything that sheds light on an individual's growth and development.
The distinguished analyst and author James Hillman handled the issue succinctly in a recent conversation: "Your responsibility as the biographer is to find everything you can, including psychiatric documents, and to use it all judiciously and fairly. My responsibility as the therapist is to keep you from ever learning of such information in the first place."
Using everything involved me in a controversy similar to Middlebrook's. After Nin and her husband died, their analyst (aware that she herself was dying) collected every file pertaining to their 20 plus years of therapy and sent them to Nin's executor, saying he had to decide whether to destroy or preserve them. He chose to make everything available to me. I chose to use almost all this fascinating documentation because without it, I could not have explained much of Nin's behavior and most of her writing.
For those who write about public life and policy, the view that no information is too intimate to tell, no document too sensitive to use, is generally followed despite an author's misgivings. In his new book, "Secret Affairs," Irwin F. Gellman (Johns Hopkins University Press. 384 pages. $29.95) claims he was shocked to discover how deeply the "myriad personal relationships" (Proofs, xii) of FDR, Cordell Hull, and Summer Welles influenced foreign policy during World War II. Gellman believes that Welles may have been the first public official forced from office for being homosexual, that Hull's tuberculosis impaired his ability to function, and FDR's obsession with control led to many questionable foreign policy decisions.
Had he known what he would find, Gellman writes, "I probably would have never attempted to set down what you are about to read."(Proofs, xii), Why does he apologize? Doesn't the public have the right to know? Isn't it useful for scholars not only to place what happened in historical context, but also to ponder possible ramifications in today's fractious political climate?
The publisher of Gennifer Flowers' forthcoming tell-all tome about President Clinton is touting it as a serious book that conveys much about a sitting president's character and conduct, and not just a blatant grab for money and attention. OK. But how different it was 30 years ago, when the press turned a collective blind eye toward the side door of the White House each time Judith Exner dallied with President Kennedy. Then it was deemed that the public didn't need to know until news of Exner's simultaneous liaison with Sam Giancana seeped out. Several years ago Gary Hart's career was destroyed by revelation of similar escapades. Is the moral here: Get elected first, dally after?
In the current tell-all climate, can anyone remain above or beyond intense personal scrutiny? If so, who might fall within this rarefied category? Doris Lessing tried by rushing out a hasty memoir to stymie an aspiring biographer. Does Lessing have the right to limit, and indeed, censor, what anyone writes about her? She certainly has the right to keep her personal archives private, but she is also a public figure whose work has influenced contemporary culture and society. So again, doesn't the public have a right to whatever is in the public domain to understand her work better?
Serious biographers and historians who include sexual preferences and peccadilloes are generally not pandering to the lowest common denominator or hiding behind the tired old truism that they are only giving the public what it wants to know. Gellman probably describes best why we include the personal in our writing (and by extension, give readers what they expect to read) when he speaks of the "duty to examine the evidence and tell the story . . . within its confines." (Proofs, xii). In other words, no matter how salacious, scatological or scandalous the information, if it illuminates or explains the life and work, the writer has the obligation to use it.
And yet, if the 1992 election is to be believed, a massive overhaul of manners, morals, and public accountability is turning us all into Victorians. But is it really ? Once the floodgates have been opened, can the waters ever be re-contained?
Deirdre Bair is the author of the recent biography of Anais Nin. She won the National Book Award for "Samuel Beckett: A Biography." Her "Simone de Beauvoire" in 1990 was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. She is a cultural critic and essayist for the New York Times Book Review, the LA Book Review and International publications, among them, Lire (France) and Quadrant (Australia).