Today we enjoy more privacy than ever before, yet the encroachment of the media, computer data gathering, and electronic surveillance in our lives undermines our sense that we have privacy at all. Although privacy is essential to our capacity to love and create and think, it can be used for the wrong reasons. The same condition that sustains intimacy, creativity, and freedom can also be invoked as an abusive kind of secrecy. In Private Matters, Janna Malamud Smith explores this paradox through various prisms: the bedroom, the psychiatrist’s couch, the biography, the presidency, the media, women and their bodies, and post 9/11 policy. More pertinent than ever before, this modern history of privacy offers important insights into the role of this increasingly elusive and fragile virtue.
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Lucid 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. (Author tour) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.From Booklist:
Where Alderman and Kennedy's Right to Privacy (1991) addressed the legal background of the "right" to privacy and current violations, therapist Smith, daughter of the late novelist Bernard Malamud, offers a wide-ranging analysis of privacy's role--positive and, sometimes, negative--in individuals' construction and expansion of their humanness. Reminding readers that the modern concept of privacy is a relatively recent historical phenomenon, linked to but not coterminous with individualism's rise, Smith examines the complex, even contradictory sources of the wish for privacy (shame, inhibition, self-protection, control, exhibitionism, shyness, guilt), the in-the-family crimes privacy can cloak, and the vital personal purposes that privacy (which, Alan Westin suggested, includes solitude, anonymity, reserve, and intimacy) often serves. Familiar figures (Freud, the Reverend Henry Beecher, Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson, Bill Clinton, Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey, and Smith's author-father) play notable roles in Smith's probing meditation on why human beings need particular kinds of privacy and on our contemporary ambivalence about privacy and surveillance. Insightful and provocative. Mary Carroll
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