"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Too Much Transparency–I Really Don’t Want To Hear About It

Jodie Foster is one of my Hollywood heroes, not just because of her acting but because she has kept her personal life absolutely private. Until recently she had been able to keep her sexuality, intimacies, family life, beliefs, and principles to herself; and as far as I can tell, such reserve and reticence didn’t affect box office receipts.  At the opposite end of the spectrum is Angelina Jolie who shared more about her double-mastectomy than anyone really wanted to hear.  In between there are celebrities lining up for a spot on Oprah or Phil to talk about their bi-polarity, addictions, abusive parents, and shameful obsessions.  This is all in the spirit of transparency.

The argument for these public confessions is to help others.  If an abused woman in Tulsa hears the life story of movie stars like Anne Heche who went through hell as a child, switched her sexuality at least once, and finally found herself, she might have some hope for her own desperate life. Robert Downey, Jr., Lindsay Lohan, or Jamie Lee Curtis might provide hope and solace for millions of alcoholics. John Hamm, Ashley Judd and a hundred other Hollywood stars have battled depression and are happy to talk about it.  Black dog funks, night sweats, hopeless afternoons in airless motel rooms, lethargy, and impotence – all to share with us.

It is no wonder that there is no longer a clear dividing line between public and private lives.  When Francois Hollande complains that the press have invaded his privacy – just like in America – what does he expect?  The public may not care what Monsieur le President does, but they definitely want to know how, with whom, and where he did it.  Very American indeed. 

There is something to be said for the allure of mystery. It was enough for us to admire John F. Kennedy for his charm, humor, looks, and sex appeal.  We all knew that he would be restless even with Jackie, and we didn’t need to hear about Marilyn, Hollywood starlets, or German lovers. We knew.

Anyone who has paid any attention to men in power know that they are an untamed lot.  Does anyone think that Enrique Pena Nieto, President of Mexico goes home to his wife every night?  Whether he does or not, we would prefer to imagine the impeccably-tailored, suave, and handsome Latin American leader squiring the most beautiful women in the world.


Everyone is confessional and transparent about disease these days.  As soon as a diagnosis of cancer is confirmed and the initial shock has been absorbed, the patient starts talking. Which breast was removed, how radioactive pellets in the prostate tingle; the pros and cons of chemo, radio, almond extract, and macro-biotic diets; and how one manages one’s anger. There are no such thing as cancer patients, but cancer survivors who proudly pimp hospitals, drugs, and physicians and run pink races for Susan G. Komen. 

One morning I asked our Senior Vice President for a meeting later in the morning. “Sorry”, she said.  “I’ll be in chemo”.  Far more than I wanted to know. “How about this afternoon?” would have been plenty.

I grew up in an era where what happened at home stayed at home.  Let the neighbors figure out from the vodka bottles in the trash if there was a drinking problem inside if they were that nosy. No one admitted that their children were any less than normal.  They could take care of themselves, bad report cards were nobody’s business,and families always looked their best to disguise any temporary financial issues. One always kept the Buick waxed and polished.  These days before the chips and dip are finished, guests hear about Jonathan’s ADHD, dyslexia, and the absolutely great resource learning teacher who is giving him the specialized attention that he needs.  Before the salmon is served, they hear of Marty’s messy divorce, his gender crisis, and how his children are doing in therapy.

Today, in the interest of transparency and the avoidance of litigation, doctors will come right out and say the worst.  “Mr. Jones, you have Stage 4 metastatic cancer of the liver and will be dead in three months.  Get your affairs together”

In the old days, doctors hid the painful truth and gave the patient a few months of an anxiety-free life before the truth would become obvious.  My father, an old-time physician, justified this practice by explaining that most patients couldn’t be fooled, but wanted to be.  It was ‘a pas de deux of benign complicity’ he said.  Families, however, were informed and counseled; but they too wanted to spare the patient the worst.

Most of us cannot possibly imagine what it would be like to receive a death sentence.  One day you are fine, eating at Delfina with your paramour, when the next you learn that you have three months to live.  Not a vague possibility, but a certainty.  The guillotine blade has been raised, the tumbril is ready, the executioner is approaching the scaffold.  All that was and is, will be no longer.  Of course my father spared his dying patients the agony of knowing for as long as he could.

There are limits to transparency, of course.  Men and women lie through their teeth all the time about their sexual exploits.  No matter how far we have come as an open society, most people are more jealous than Cymbeline,Othello, Troilus, and Posthumus put together.  Men stay late at the office, play an extra nine holes of golf, lose track of the time, sit in broken down trains for two hours, but never, ever admit that they have spent the last two hours in delirium extremis. Women have hairdressers appointments, tea with old college classmates, volunteer work at the library, or board meetings that went late. 

We choose what we want to expose to the public, and unfortunately we spew the worst that life has to deal out.  We keep the nice juicy bits to ourselves.

Women are always after men to share their feelings, and in this increasingly feminized society, men are opening up like never before and are exposing their soft, vulnerable, side. Some men anyway.  The rest keep their feelings to themselves for two reasons.  First, most of these inner feelings are about other women - the hectoring wives want to get rid of and the parade of beautiful young things they want to bed and ball. Second, men know that keeping mum is a powerful weapon in the war between the sexes.  Don’t give women what they want. 

Transparency is very overrated.  I’m all for having the financial records of Goldman Sachs, Enron, and Angola made public; but for everything else, I would like peace and quiet.  I don’t need to know all the smarmy details of other people’s cancer, their wayward husbands, dumb kids, racial hurt, and bullying.  Focusing on one’s own problems – dealing with them – will lead to resolution far quicker than blanket coverage.

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