Response to Igo

Sarah Igo considers the history of privacy in modern America, examining the complex rights and experiences associated with being “known.”  According to Igo, what do debates about privacy tell us about what it means to be a “modern citizen”? 

In chapter 8, Igo explores the history of what she calls “confession culture.” How does this history inform currents debates about privacy and why is it important see today’s privacy debates through a lens of changing cultural attitudes and expectations? 

1

In a sardonic poem of 1940, composed just after his migration to the United
States from Great Britain, W.  H. Auden memorialized an “Unknown Cit-
izen.” Written in the form of an epitaph for an “unknown” and yet all- too-
knowable citizen, the poem offers a capsule biography of an unnamed indi-
vidual from the point of view of the social agencies charged with tracking
and ordering his affairs. The citizen it commemorates is identified by a string
of code similar to a U.S. Social Security number— “JS / 07 / M / 378”— and his
life amounts to a compendium of details gathered by employers, hospitals,
schools, psychologists, market researchers, insurers, journalists, and state bu-
reaus. The poem’s final lines point si mul ta neously to the hubris and the limits
of society’s knowledge of this man. “Was he free? Was he happy? The ques-
tion is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”1

If seldom as eloquently as Auden, con temporary Americans raised sim-
ilar questions about those who sought to know them, whether for the
purpose of governance or profit, security or con ve nience, or social welfare
or scholarly research. Indeed, the proper threshold for “knowing” a citizen
in a demo cratic, cap i tal ist nation would become in the twentieth century one
of Americans’ most enduring debates. How much should a society be able to
glean about the lives of its own members, and how much of oneself should
one willingly reveal? What aspects of a person were worth knowing— and to
whom— and which parts were truly one’s own? Where and when could an
individual’s privacy be guaranteed? As the century advanced, the questions
became more insistent. Were private spaces and thoughts, undiscovered by
others, even pos si ble under the conditions of modern life? What would

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T h e K n o w n C i t i z e n

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an ever more knowing society mean for the people caught in its net— and
for the individual liberties that Americans supposedly prized? To wit:
Could known citizens be happy? Were they, in fact, free?

This book borrows the poet’s questions to pry open the contentious
career of privacy in the modern United States. Individual privacy first sur-
faced as a sustained po liti cal issue only in the late nineteenth century, but
it would swiftly become a fixture— even fixation—of U.S. public culture.
As corporate industry, social institutions, and the federal government
swelled, so too did disputes over what sort of prying and how much probing
into citizens’ lives were acceptable. These debates emerged alongside an
increasingly impersonal, urban society: its techniques for maintaining so-
cial order but also its mass media, its scientific technologies as well as
its styles of selling. Privacy talk waxed and waned, following no predict-
able path. But it closely tracked public attention to the perils—and the
promise—of being a known citizen.

Modern privacy sensibilities were honed at the crux of a contradiction.
Even as Americans grasped at wider freedoms in the twentieth century,
they, like Auden’s protagonist, were becoming ever more intelligible to an
expanding array of parties: state bureaucracies and law enforcement; the
popu lar press and marketers; financial institutions and private corpora-
tions; scientific researchers and psychological experts; and, eventually,
data aggregators and proprietary algorithms. A knowing society impinged
on individual liberties in unsettling ways. Being known could bring pun-
ishment from the state or destroy a reputation crafted for peers; it could
raise one’s insurance rates or cost someone a job. It could even compro-
mise one’s free will and sense of au then tic personhood. Because they pos-
sessed this capacity to know, modern social institutions raised Auden’s
questions quite directly. Emerging technologies and media, novel modes
of expert and corporate surveillance, and new practices of official docu-
mentation all propelled the prob lem of individual privacy to the foreground
of U.S. public culture. There it would remain, becoming more and more
central to citizens’ assessments of their state and social order.

Americans turned to privacy talk because it helped them navigate the
pull and push of a knowing society, one that sought to apprehend, govern,
and minister to its members by capturing them in fuller and finer detail.
Such a society carried rewards as well as risks. The proliferation of tech-
niques for rendering citizens knowable, from credit reports and CCTV

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I n t r o d u c t i o n

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cameras to psychological testing, promised opportunity and security, even
self- understanding. But being known too well— through the monitoring of
one’s sexual or consumption habits, for instance— could threaten personal
autonomy, undermining the notion of a free- standing individual so foun-
dational to U.S. politics and culture. In like fashion, to remain unrecog-
nizable was in certain contexts a sign of privilege, but in others a form of
disempowerment. Being traceable in a national criminal or DNA database
was a dif fer ent matter than being identifiable to a benefits- granting pro-
gram like Social Security. It was pos si ble, that is, to suffer not only from too
little but also from too much privacy. Invisibility to ser vice providers or
census takers could sharply limit one’s social opportunities and legal rights.2
Whereas one’s individual dignity might require being shielded from public
view in some contexts, in others it could demand just the opposite: the vali-
dation of being named and seen. A longing for public recognition could
oscillate with a desire for obscurity, even within the same person. And so,
whether one could be known accurately and authentically— and on one’s
own terms, rather than the larger society’s— was yet another question ani-
mating privacy’s presence in American public life.

Arguments about privacy were really arguments over what it meant to
be a modern citizen. To invoke its shelter was to make a claim about the
latitude for action and anonymity a decent, demo cratic society ought to
afford its members. Responses to that claim exposed the fault lines of civic
membership. Which citizens, after all, could be entrusted with privacy,
and therefore be liberated from official scrutiny? Because privacy could
both foster intimacy and nurture vice, it came packed with assumptions
about the kind of person entitled to it. And so, although privacy was obvi-
ously not the only way to talk about citizenship in the twentieth century,
any conversation about privacy was already entangled with ideas about
one’s status in the broader society. How much privacy, for example, ought
to be allotted to prisoners, soldiers, patients, or teen agers? When could
dif fer ent sorts of sexual subjects— male, female, straight, gay, married,
unmarried— claim its mantle? Under what social and economic conditions
could a person be said genuinely to have privacy, and how on a daily basis
did one’s class and race shape access to it? More generally, who had the
ability to keep parts of their lives secret? Conversely, who could be recog-
nized and appraised for who they truly were? The degree and nature of
privacy that individual Americans enjoyed— including who could demand

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it and under what circumstances— were ways of defining, and divvying up,
civic membership. No won der, then, that privacy would become a dominant
theme of twentieth- century politics.

To conceive of privacy as a social benefit and a mark of belonging
enlarges the standard meaning of citizenship as a status conferred and regu-
lated by the state.3 Auden’s anonymous subject, after all, was defined not
simply by his nationality but also by his many other quasi- civic roles: em-
ployee, union member, father, neighbor, and consumer. “The Unknown
Citizen” points us to the ways that full inclusion in an industrial democracy
was a matter of one’s capacity to move relatively freely through a force field
of social institutions, private as well as public. For citizens themselves, it
is clear, “citizenship” was never merely a juridical status, but instead a
looser, more expansive marker, gesturing to one’s ability to exercise choice
and autonomy in the many realms of social life.4 Like them, this book em-
ploys the term “citizen” in its most capacious sense. Privacy, understood as
freedom from intrusion or scrutiny, could by these lights sometimes act as a
substitute for explic itly enunciated rights. Its absence— via formal law or in-
formal circumstance— could work to deny even full citizens equal social
standing. Asserting how one could be known in the workplace or the
marketplace, on a city street or in a suburban bedroom, was a claim to
self- determination as well as social power. Americans in the twentieth
century thus made of privacy much more than a legal right. They made
it foundational to their sense of personhood and national identity.

Privacy has played a vital po liti cal and cultural role in the modern
United States. But it has largely eluded scholars. This book pursues its his-
tory from a new vantage point: the question of how Americans would, and
should, be known by their own society. Across the last century and a half,
tabloid journalism and new technologies, welfare bureaucracies and po-
lice tactics, market research and personality testing, scientific inquiry
and computer data banks, tell- all memoirs and social media all posed this
question. In response, jurists and phi los o phers but also ordinary citizens
weighed the advantages and hazards of being known. They would, in the
pro cess, remake conventions about access and intimacy, redrawing the bor-
ders separating the private from the public self. Trained on how citizens
approached unfamiliar practices of identification and intrusion, rec ord
keeping and revelation, this book illuminates the deeply personal— but also
profoundly social and political— meanings they attached to private matters.
Spanning the long twentieth century, from the era of “instantaneous photo-

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I n t r o d u c t i o n

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graphy” to our own age of big data, it offers a wide- angle view of privacy as
Americans have argued and imagined it.

Privacy, it scarcely needs saying, looms large today. If the drumbeat of
headlines and bestsellers is to be believed, Americans are in the midst of
an unpre ce dented privacy crisis— under “relentless surveillance,” on the
road to a fully transparent society, and with “no place to hide.”5 The
ingredients of this crisis are well known to us. Data mining and NSA
spying, recommendation algorithms and electronic footprints, bio-
metric identification and extensive information sharing on social media
platforms have raised fears about government and corporate surveillance
to a high pitch. That a certain standard of protection from the gaze of
others is routinely violated, and perhaps unrecoverable, is widely decried.

In this climate of worry about any number of parties and techniques
that expose us against our wishes, privacy seems self- evidently a po liti cal
matter. Despite privacy’s starring role in con temporary diagnoses of U.S.
culture, however, we have a surprisingly poor grasp of how it arrived there.
Certainly, privacy has figured for centuries as an essential ingredient in
theorists’ formulations of liberal selfhood. Almost endlessly elastic, the
term has, since its first appearance in En glish in 1534, accrued religious,
philosophical, social, po liti cal, legal, and psychological dimensions.

Yet privacy was not always a matter of public import for Americans. As a
topic for widespread popu lar debate or as a common public language, it is
a creature almost entirely of the late nineteenth century. Born of disquiet
about the status of the private person in the post– Civil War United States
and an age when the contents of citizenship were under reconstruction,
modern privacy arrived on the scene si mul ta neously prized and endan-
gered. A new form of privacy talk took hold in this era, with mounting num-
bers of citizens both claiming a right to privacy and believing their privacy
to be under siege. Only in the twentieth century did privacy emerge as a
central concern of American life, with some commentators going further,
tagging it an obsession or a “cult.” 6 And only then was it vigorously pursued
as a public, and sometimes collective, claim. “Privacy” gained an unusual
capacity to frame Americans’ discussions about the state, their social institu-
tions, and even themselves. This is a story that is still unfolding, of course.

Privacy may have made a late entrance into U.S. politics and public life,
but its staying power has been impressive. Nearly every major development
in the United States since the Civil War— public health campaigns, media

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and communications technologies, military mobilization, social welfare
legislation, workplace innovations, therapeutic methods, urban planning
and suburbanization, social movements, criminal and terrorist threats— has
been assessed in terms of its implications for citizens’ privacy. Privacy talk
has coursed through realms as dif fer ent as bioethics and celebrity, national
security and architecture, social etiquette and professional codes. At least
since the turn of the twentieth century, it has also been demo cratic: just
about anyone can demand privacy, if not achieve it. Immigrants, laborers,
schoolchildren, and prisoners have all laid claim to the concept. It has
featured as regularly in science fiction as in scholarship, in poetry as in
po liti cal commentary. Invoked as an essential freedom and even a human
right, yet worried over as a fragile and perhaps dying value, privacy became
in the twentieth century a dominant concern of modern publics around
the globe.7 In the post– World War II United States, concerns over its status
gathered enough momentum to launch a new constitutional right. Since
then, it is safe to say, privacy’s role in the American public sphere has only
intensified.

Privacy in the modern United States thus has not been “private” at all.
Rather, it has functioned as a crucial category of public life and a durable
feature of partisan politics, even as its availability—or absence— has shaped
countless personal choices and relationships. Highly vis i ble contretemps
over what should be kept out of the public eye across the last century fun-
damentally shaped U.S. po liti cal culture. The same is true today, even as
a large body of writing declares that privacy is dead and gone.8 In fact, pri-
vacy has never been more pres ent in American life. It informs pundits’
and citizens’ discussions of topics ranging from the social be hav ior of youth
to airport screening procedures, and from online search tracking to state
intelligence operations. It regularly punctuates public life as a policy con-
cern, a legal claim, and an individual hope.

The modern concept of privacy, as even this brief sketch makes clear, is
sprawling. It has for good reason prompted voluminous scholarship in law,
philosophy, lit er a ture, communications, design, technology, and the newer
field of surveillance studies. Yet inquiries into its past have been curiously
confined. As I worked on this book I kept arriving at a paradox: privacy is
everywhere in modern Amer i ca and yet hardly anywhere in modern Amer-
ican history. Arguably one of the most charismatic words in the national
lexicon, privacy is missing from the indexes and headings by which we or-
ga nize our understanding of the past. Key episodes in the legal history of

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I n t r o d u c t i o n

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privacy are well charted, as are specific controversies. But the scholarship
remains heavi ly state- and rights- centered, neglecting privacy’s significance
as a cultural sensibility and public value. Historical works that examine the
idea of privacy in all of its unruliness, or even some of it, are scarce, espe-
cially for the twentieth century— the period in which it entered national
life with force.9

Existing histories of privacy are typically narrower affairs: explanations
of the emergence of privacy rights, trained on doctrine, pre ce dent, and
policy. Legal scholars have devoted much attention to the first widely rec-
ognized demand for a “right to privacy” in 1890, the codification of state
privacy laws over the ensuing de cades, and the enunciation of privacy as a
constitutional right in 1965.10 These works treat the evolution of jurispru-
dence as a proxy for less neatly contained shifts in Americans’ thinking
about intimacy and intrusion. But such studies do not dwell on changes in
citizens’ sensibilities or on the reasons behind them. Scholarship on pri-
vacy’s technical, juridical career has thus made little impact on our under-
standing of the politics and culture of modern Amer i ca. Privacy as such
makes only a brief—if dramatic— appearance in standard textbook surveys,
usually beginning in 1965 with Griswold v. Connecticut and cresting in
1973 with Roe v. Wade. It bursts on the scene as a po liti cal prob lem, is
transformed into a constitutional if controversial right, and, thus dealt with,
promptly vanishes again.

There are excellent accounts that take up aspects of the history of pri-
vacy, especially concerning sexual regulation, the popular press, and state
spying.11 Each of these is a massive and complex topic in its own right. But
fixing on a single strain of privacy’s history can be misleading. For example,
the two leading narratives about privacy in the United States— its eradica-
tion through state, workplace, and electronic surveillance, on the one
hand, and its gradual, if tenuous, triumph through hard- won criminal or
reproductive rights, on the other— point toward radically opposed conclu-
sions.12 Impor tant as such scholarship is, it cannot do justice to privacy’s
wide- ranging, generative role in U.S. public culture. It cannot explain why
Americans have so regularly turned to privacy to talk about such unlike
things: their intimate relationships, their living spaces, their personal data,
their po liti cal rights, and even their psyches. And it cannot account for why
citizens’ understandings of and feelings about privacy have evolved over
time. Yet precisely what we require is a history of privacy’s per sis tent, pli-
able appeal. Only by attending to its arrival in disparate spheres— law and

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technology, medicine and media, lit er a ture and architecture— will we be
able to fathom how privacy came to sit at the very core of American
politics and social life.

My panoramic approach attempts to overcome what is thus far a patch-
work history. This book deliberately peers into other wise unrelated do-
mains in U.S. society in order to piece together a new picture of how and
why privacy came to matter so much to modern Americans. Rather than
lament privacy’s disappearance, as do so many recent commentators, I
track privacy’s appearances in the U.S. public sphere, asking: When and
why did privacy make its claims on citizens’ attention? In what terms, and
with what consequences? How, in the pro cess, were Americans’ expecta-
tions of privacy not simply diminished but transformed?

What, indeed, made privacy such a compelling idiom, brought to bear on
topics as varied as intelligence gathering and confessional memoirs? Pri-
vacy talk, I argue, has been a response to, and sometimes a resolution of,
an inescapable impasse of modern life: the fact that, even as U.S. public
culture purported to honor the will and choices of individual citizens, its
agencies pressed in new and forceful ways on the private person. “Privacy”
rarely referenced a thing with definite contents; rather it served as an
index to changing ideas about society itself.13 Legal scholar Lawrence
Tribe captures this sense of privacy when he describes it as “nothing less
than society’s limiting princi ple.”14 And indeed, citizens enlisted it, time
and time again, to fix the line between the modern person and the col-
lectivities to which she or he belonged.

To call something private, an option more and more Americans exer-
cised in the twentieth century, was almost never to make recourse to an
agreed-on definition. It was to make an argument about the proper rela-
tionship among citizen, state, and society. Sociologist Christena Nippert-
Eng puts it this way: “privacy is about nothing less than trying to live both
as a member of a variety of social units—as part of a number of larger
wholes— and as an individual— a unique, individuated self.”15 The topic of
privacy invited, even incited, grassroots social theorizing about power and
intimacy, surveillance and subjectivity. It was the public vocabulary citi-
zens reached for to debate the scope of the state, the conduct of social re-
lations, and the very borders of the self.

More specifically, privacy was the language of choice for addressing
the ways that U.S. citizens were— progressively and, some would say,

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relentlessly— rendered knowable by virtue of living in a modern industrial
society. Given the number and range of parties that aspired to know them,
Americans rightfully wondered what aspects of one’s body, personality,
identity, biography, and data an individual had ultimate claim to. In dif-
fer ent ways, a candid photo graph, a financial rec ord, and a psychiatric di-
agnosis each raised this question: How distinct from the mesh of institu-
tions, practices, and norms that constituted social existence could a person
actually be? Privacy talk attempted to bridge the tension between ex-
panding claims to personal inviolability and more sophisticated methods
of infringing on it. It mediated, too, between the desire to be “let alone”
and the urge to be known. These tensions created special prob lems in a
national culture staked on personal autonomy. Invoking privacy was one of
the chief ways that Americans of all stripes weighed in on an enduring po-
liti cal and philosophical quandary as to what separated self from society.16

And yet, as we would expect, privacy was not a shared or unitary con-
cern, but was experienced and summoned in markedly uneven ways in
the American twentieth century. Citizens viewed and wielded privacy dif-
ferently depending on their status and circumstances, and some could
barely access it at all. As a general rule, those excluded from full po liti cal
citizenship because of their class, race, gender, age, nationality, able-
bodiedness, or sexuality—or combinations thereof— also suffered most from
a lack of privacy.17 Prisoners and other institutionalized populations, but also
the young, the poor, and the infirm, had few defenses against the intrusive
monitoring of their lives. Racial minorities, immigrants, and noncitizens
were subject to far higher rates of police and bureaucratic surveillance
than were white native- born Americans; intensely scrutinized, they were
perhaps always less deeply known by agents of the dominant society.18
Women and sexual minorities were presumed to have a lesser claim on
privacy than heterosexual men, and as a result they came first to the rec-
ognition that altering privacy’s terms through disclosure and confession
might be the path to a more inclusive public sphere.

In contrast, owning a home, making a comfortable living, and con-
forming to dominant norms of respectability all decidedly increased one’s
chances of evading society’s gaze. And yet it was often white middle- class
citizens who denounced privacy invasions most vociferously. This has led
some to consider privacy talk a bourgeois pastime, the preoccupation of a
select part of the population.19 Elite Americans have sometimes embraced
that characterization; privacy, noted the prominent nineteenth- century

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editor E. L. Godkin, was “one thing to a man who has always lived in his
own house, and another to a man who has always lived in a boarding-
house.”20 It is undoubtedly the case that privacy debates in the United
States came with a class profile. As privileged citizens felt the press of social
institutions on their own lives and liberties, their par tic u lar worries be-
came the fodder for media coverage, congressional hearings, and public
policy. But it is also evident that privacy’s promise beckoned, if in a variety
of registers, to a wider swath of Americans, including juveniles, patients,
soldiers, union members, research subjects, and welfare recipients. As
W. H. Auden—an immigrant to the United States and a gay man— well
understood, the extent to which an individual could be rendered know-
able was full of consequence in a modern nation.21 The efflorescence and
democ ratization of privacy talk over the course of the twentieth century
were testament to that fact.

Precisely because privacy in the United States has been billed as a per-
sonal possession, outside the realm of the state or politics, its history opens
an illuminating win dow onto the social strains of modern citizenship.
Across the last century privacy was increasingly linked to that most public
of identities, the rights- bearing citizen. Privacy talk thus became a potent
avenue for claiming and circumscribing the social benefits of a modern in-
dustrial democracy. At the same time, insisting on recognition—as a citizen,
a holder of a specific identity, a person out of the shadows— was basic to
enacting one’s membership in society. How well known a citizen would be
was a sensitive marker of status and power, a fissure like any other cutting
across professions of equality and opportunity in American life.

Charting the travels of something as abstract, but also as intimate, as “pri-
vacy” has its challenges. To begin with, the question of what privacy is has
long bedev iled legal and philosophical discussions. In the course of re-
searching this book it was amusing, if also sobering, to come across other
observers’ frustrations with how ungovernable a subject it is. “Few values
so fundamental to society as privacy have been left so undefined in social
theory or have been the subject of such vague and confused writing by
social scientists,” charged legal scholar Alan Westin in 1967.22 Forty years
later, Daniel Solove, a leading theorist of privacy, branded it “a concept in
disarray.”23 Like the weather, concluded a sociologist in 2016, privacy is
“much discussed, little understood, and not easy to control.”24 A large body
of work nevertheless offers ever- finer taxonomies of privacy’s “spatial,” “deci-

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I n t r o d u c t i o n

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sional,” “aesthetic,” “proprietary,” and “informational” dimensions.25 But
these efforts have considerable limitations for the historian. If we want to
understand how Americans in varied contexts and times understood pri-
vacy, we need to abandon the notion of it having a stable definition. We
cannot treat the bundle of ideas that inform modern privacy as transhistor-
ical or ahistorical, a timeless princi ple waiting to be discovered, as in the
abstract “right” to privacy— itself a puzzle since no such right was enunci-
ated in formal legal terms in the United States until 1890.

The history offered here undercuts assumptions that there is something
essential, even constitutional, about the concept. I argue that “privacy” has
served in the United States as a catch- all for concerns about modern life
and social organ ization, from new forms of media and technology to new
state proj ects, new kinds of expert intervention, and even new living
arrangements. As Americans reckoned with these developments, and par-
ticularly what they entailed for personal bound aries and individual rights,
privacy itself—as an idea and a practice— evolved. In entertaining novel
understandings of what could be asked and what could be said, what could
be exposed and what should be disclosed, citizens shifted the very contents
of “public” and “private,” even as they regularly treated those categories as a
fixed feature of social life.

In contrast to virtually every recent book on the subject, then, mine is
not an account of what happened to the privacy Americans once, and
seemingly straightforwardly, enjoyed. Instead it recounts what has hap-
pened to citizens’ thinking about privacy— and, just as significant, what
privacy has allowed them to think about. Threats to Americans’ solitude
and security changed dramatically over the last century. Their expecta-
tions about privacy shape- shifted in response. In certain eras, privacy de-
bates focused most intently on incursions into personal space; in other
periods, on violations of individual bodies, psyches, data, or peace of mind.
Although citizens at times seemed to crave privacy, at others they were
insensible to its importance or deliberately repudiated it. In the name of
personal dignity—or autonomy or liberation— some wrapped a cloak of
privacy around themselves, whereas some tore it off or tried to strip it
from others. Americans never all conceived of privacy in the same way, of
course. Nor did they all attend to, or participate equally in, such debates.
What remained remarkably consistent, however, was their recourse to
privacy as a way of arguing about their society and its pressures on the
person.

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Here, the same imprecision that vexes theorists proved to be privacy’s
true po liti cal value. Privacy, it turns out, has been a highly flexible con-
tainer for social thought. The various domains in which Americans in-
voked privacy had little in common. But the questions that provoked the
claim— who had the right to know, what ought to be publicly known, and
who and what should remain unknown— were surprisingly stable, linking
debates over print journalism in the 1890s to debates about confessional
memoirs a century later, and contests over state filing systems in the 1930s
to those over commercial algorithms in the pres ent. Privacy may have been
an inadequate vocabulary for that range of concerns, as a number of ob-
servers pointed out along the way. But the fact that so many items huddled
together under its umbrella suggests privacy’s indispensability as a medi-
ator of modern social life.

Privacy is, fi nally, a tricky historical quarry because it refers to those
matters one hopes to keep out of the public eye, to those corners of life
that are off- limits or beyond scrutiny. And yet, at many points across
the last century, privacy went public as it were, suddenly becoming vis i ble
in editorial pages, congressional hearings, and popu lar protests. To get at
its changing contours, I take my cues from major controversies that had
privacy at their core, whether in the form of “instantaneous photo graphs,”
Social Security numbers, or reproductive rights. A focus on public debates
naturally leaves much hidden. This book cannot speak to the irreducible
diversity of the ways Americans experienced privacy in their daily lives. Yet
national debates can hint at more intimate ones, and what these disputes
disclose is how regularly private matters have reshaped the public domain.
Moments of uncertainty over the borders of public and private threw the
concepts themselves into sharp relief, rendering cultural norms, and their
transformation, vis i ble. Attending to those moments moves us beyond elite
commentary and legal arguments, getting us closer to the complex texture
and meanings of modern privacy.

When did Americans call for privacy or give it up, and how did this de-
pend on the setting: a bedroom, a laboratory, or a government office?
Which citizens felt privacy’s lack—or publicity’s glare— most keenly? With
what words did they defend their claims to privacy or argue about its viola-
tion? How were such beliefs, even deeply cherished ones, revised? Exam-
ining what a diverse array of Americans made of privacy, I document how
conventions about access, intimacy, and disclosure were built but also dis-
mantled. And I replace a now- familiar narrative about the “end of privacy”

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I n t r o d u c t i o n

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with one that recognizes both the curtailing of old privacies and the in-
vention of new ones over time. That history cannot be told in linear fashion.
And so I pick up the threads of par tic u lar privacy debates when they first
appeared and let them go when others gained ground, without carry ing
each story to its conclusion. Rather than retell the history of photography,
policing, research ethics, or “outing”— although portions of each of those
histories appear here— I have sought to follow in the tracks of the known
citizen.

No one book could capture the whole of this story or every angle of U.S.
privacy debates. But by alighting on a series of critical episodes, this one
aims to illuminate both the prominence and the significance of privacy
talk in the modern American public sphere. That story begins in new un-
derstandings of the “inviolate personality” in the late nineteenth century
and culminates— though does not end— with the emergence of a national
“confessional culture” in our pres ent. In between, I showcase pivotal mo-
ments when privacy talk became concentrated and consequential.

The first such moment came in the 1890s, when Victorian norms of
propriety and respectability collided with mass- media technologies and
prompted the first modern call for a “right to privacy.” The second was oc-
casioned by the rise of the administrative state in the early de cades of the
twentieth century, which heightened anx i eties about the government’s ca-
pacity to cata log and monitor its citizens. By mid- century, the intersection
of a full- blown national security apparatus with more intimate forms of
prying—in suburban communities, therapists’ offices, the white- collar
workplace, the public school, and the consumer market— riveted public
attention on the invasiveness of American culture itself.

In the 1960s, in response to this series of technical and cultural develop-
ments, privacy gained new status as a constitutional right, becoming a cor-
nerstone of Americans’ popu lar lexicon of entitlements. Yet the fragility of
that right in an era of advancing social and scientific research, government
surveillance, and computer data banks meant that privacy concerns did not
fade away. Instead, they were aroused anew, ushering in altered norms
around confidentiality, consent, and access. In the 1970s and beyond, po-
liti cal demands for transparency, exposure, and disclosure—by one light
privacy’s opposites— redrew the borders between society and citizen. By the
end of the century, the commercialization of surveillance along with the
outflow of confessional talk would prompt many to conclude that there
was no longer any privacy in the United States, nor even any desire for it.

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T h e K n o w n C i t i z e n

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Yet privacy talk erupted with force once again in the twenty- first century,
triggered by the arrival of social media, big data, and startling exposés of
just how well corporations and the state could know individual citizens.

The ways Americans debated the fate of personal privacy in the late
nineteenth century can sound strangely familiar in the twenty- first, espe-
cially citizens’ conviction that threats to privacy were new and uniquely
compromising of individual liberties. Impor tant continuities do in fact
mark this history. Yet there have also been striking transformations, which
we can only understand by reference to the prob lem of the known citizen.

One was Americans’ turn from an emphasis on tangible claims to
privacy—in the form of property rights and physical space—to intangible
ones centered on psychological freedom, decisional autonomy, and per-
sonal identity as a more knowing society took root. Another transforma-
tion was in the shifting sense of who was entitled to privacy’s refuge. The
person imagined to be deserving of privacy, from the man of reputation in
the 1890s to the “data subject” in the 1980s, did not stand still; the expan-
sion of formal privacy rights and regulations across those de cades testified
powerfully if insufficiently to the felt need for protection from those
claiming a right to know. But perhaps the most unexpected development
was the way in which the closely guarded secrets of the Victorian era
moved out into the open after the 1960s, whether in po liti cal, psycholog-
ical, or pop- cultural form. Although never completely or fi nally, an older
fear of exposure gave way to an embrace of disclosure, an age of discretion
supplanted by an age of self- broadcasting. The yearning for recognition
and authenticity that would take hold in many corners of American so-
ciety in the 1970s confounds conventional narratives of privacy’s twentieth-
century career. It too is tightly bound to the career of the known citizen.

Although this book takes a broad view of privacy’s history, its omissions
may surprise. Today’s commentators on privacy tend to gravitate to the
most brazen instances of overreach and invasion, whether illegal federal
wiretaps or covert social media profiling. My own search for bearings in
more than a century of privacy talk has led me down a dif fer ent path,
alert to the manifold ways that Americans have managed their relation-
ship to those who would know them. This has led me to spend far more
time thinking about Social Security numbers, subliminal advertising, and
public rest rooms than I could have anticipated when I set out to write
about privacy. The Known Citizen is, as a consequence, neither a history of
the surveillance society nor of the national security state, two of the most

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I n t r o d u c t i o n

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common frameworks for thinking about privacy in the early twenty- first
century (for perhaps obvious reasons).26 Without a doubt, surveillance tech-
nologies and the demands of national security ratcheted up privacy talk in
the twentieth century, as did innovations in commercial data mining at the
turn of the twenty- first. But it is also the case that these developments—if
and when Americans became aware of them— intersected with and ampli-
fied public debates that were already well under way. For this reason, Face-
book surveillance and malware, as well as the headline- grabbing episodes of
the Cold War and the War on Terror, show up here as bit players rather than
the main event.

By trailing the known citizen, this book foregrounds less expected places
where privacy talk percolated in modern Amer i ca: scientific laboratories
and family living rooms, marketing agencies and welfare bureaus, social
movements and therapeutic encounters. Those conversations, I contend,
were as critical to public debates over privacy as were revelations of state
break-ins and massive data breaches. Scandals may have provided a clear
focus for American privacy talk, but daily negotiations supplied the sensi-
bility. Well- publicized privacy violations in this way obscure what might best
be described as an ongoing skirmish over the demands of the modern social
order and its many claims on the person. The encroachments of a knowing
society—in the form of telephone lines or psychological exams, public rec-
ords or credit cards— were often most keenly felt in the intimate rounds of
personal life.

The potential rewards of such a society were evident too, with many
people willing to live more openly by embracing new modes of exposure
and disclosure. The domains of the house hold, the bureaucratic agency,
and the talk show yield plentiful stories of those who si mul ta neously re-
sisted and craved being known, who both pursued and dispensed with
privacy. Writers focused on surveillance often neglect this crucial fact: that
concerns about intrusion have often been accompanied by a desire for vis-
ibility. Citizens, indeed, have often sought to be better known by their state
and society— whether in the name of security, con ve nience, or social recog-
nition. If Americans were in the twentieth century increasingly sensitive to
infringements on their privacy, they were also aware that the way they lived
often depended on such invasions. That, in a nutshell, was the dilemma of
a knowing society.

The history offered here also makes abundantly clear that the impetus
for privacy claims in American society— stretching all the way back to the

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nineteenth century— has as often been the actions of private entities as those
of the central government.27 The notion that privacy talk in the United States
has been animated primarily by governmental power is a byproduct of fo-
cusing on the legal right to privacy, generally framed as a defense against
state action. Although aggressive journalists and photog raphers were a cata-
lyst for modern American privacy arguments, it has been all too easy to ne-
glect the central role of nonstate actors, whether corporations or private citi-
zens themselves, in ushering in a modern sense of privacy’s precariousness.
The government could be both guarantor and violator of individual privacy.
So too could the many other institutions of social life: workplaces, laborato-
ries, schools, and homes.

Recent commentators often envision a giant ledger where privacy is slip-
ping ever more swiftly into the deficit column. Yet we miss something
impor tant if we insist, as many do, that it has been on a steady and precipi-
tous decline. Privacy in the modern United States has been less a thing
with definite contents than a seedbed for social thought, a tool for navi-
gating an increasingly knowing society. Recurring debates about intimacy
and intrusion across the last century are a product of this society’s dynamic,
unavoidable tensions. This history explains why securing the boundary be-
tween one’s private affairs and one’s public identity has become such a rou-
tine, and yet urgent, task of modern life. A focus on the predicament of the
known citizen— perhaps even more pressing today than it was when Auden
wrote— will, I hope, help us better grasp privacy’s significance for con-
temporary U.S. culture, politics, and law.

As such, this book allows us to listen in on a vital strand of social thought
in the twentieth- century United States. Its goal is not to decry but to explore
the multifarious forms of publicity, exposure, and disclosure that modern
Americans have lived with either by choice or necessity. It acknowledges
that individuals’ search for privacy has always been complicated by their
quest for recognition. It takes up the themes of secrecy and surveillance,
recording and revelation, identity and identification that together constitute
the danger but also the appeal of being known. It does its best to reckon
with the knowledge prob lems at the heart of modern privacy— and of
modern citizenship too.

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307

On the cusp of the twentieth century, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis
had hoped to rein in an aggressive media so as to sequester personal matters
and images from general view, except in that limited band of cases that
concerned “public men.” This was the only way, they argued, to protect
the “inviolate personality” from newly intrusive forces in American society.
Many in the de cades that followed made similar claims for the necessity
of privacy and of privacy rights in a demo cratic society. These claims
accompanied anxious discussions of identification systems and psycholog-
ical testing, reproductive decision making and welfare administration,
electronic eavesdropping and computerized dossiers.

At the century’s end, however, a reversal appeared to be at hand. Some-
thing that commentators began to call “confessional culture” seemed to
impel the very public airing of highly personal stories and what in another
day would have been tightly concealed secrets.1 Unlike the forced disclo-
sures of gay public figures or the calculated comments of politicians, these
were voluntary utterances, willingly offered up. They did not carry an ob-
vious public message or po liti cal intent. These confessions, instead, spoke
to the heightened value of personal expression of all kinds. Americans, it
seems, were actively seeking out new venues for self- revelation. As they did,
shame in disclosing private matters seemed to tilt decisively toward shame
in concealing who one really was.

The rise of a much- decried “confessional culture” appears at first glance
like a fundamental discontinuity from the rights- oriented privacy talk of

8

Stories of One’s Self

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the 1960s, with its emphasis on protecting citizens from the gaze of others.
How was it that some individuals had come to relish the prospect of making
their own lives, not to mention the lives of others, an open book? To a re-
markable degree, privacy discussions by the 1990s concerned not just the
intrusions of authorities into private life but also the extrusion of private
matters into public places. The flip side of the relentless exposure of promi-
nent figures— President Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades the most sensational
example— was ordinary citizens’ own quest for publicity: their voluntary
divulgences of matters ranging from child abuse to drug addiction in con-
fessional talk shows, tell- all memoirs, and real ity tele vi sion. What if we
have met the privacy invaders, some critics implored, and they are us?

So it was that at the end of the twentieth century, journalists, corpora-
tions, and state authorities were joined by yet another set of actors seeming
to imperil Americans’ privacy: willing exhibitionists, happy to dispense
with the concept altogether as they foisted intimate details of their per-
sonal lives on strangers. Their unceasing urge to divulge provoked phi los-
o phers and social critics to issue dramatic pronouncements: that privacy
was dead or dying or that “the destruction of privacy is the great collective
proj ect of our time.”2 The recent arrival of self- broadcasting genres such
as blogging and social networking has only cemented the analy sis. Some
legal scholars would even pivot from devising ways to curb privacy intru-
sions to calling for laws that would restrain citizens from giving their pri-
vacy away. Arguing that privacy is both “so impor tant and so neglected in
con temporary life,” Anita Allen for example envisioned “a rescue mission
that includes enacting paternalistic privacy laws for the benefit of uneager
beneficiaries.” The state of public culture was such that there was perhaps
a need and a place for “coercing privacy.”3

What commentators often neglected to take into account was the
broader context in which late twentieth- century Americans were moved
to “confess,” as well as the way new modes of disclosure grew out of a
longer dialogue about privacy in the United States. Americans gleaned
impor tant lessons from this history, both the failure of po liti cal rights to
protect individuals from exposure and the inevitability of classification by
opaque bureaucratic operations. Especially critical was the simultaneous
establishment of privacy rights and the recognition of their inadequacy in
solving the prob lem of privacy in a “surveillance society.” 4 Depending on
how you looked at it, the demo cratic citizen was either being extended
or dissolved by the technologically advanced, mass- mediated, and data-

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hungry world he or she inhabited. In a society that knew so much, where
might “zones of privacy” or autonomy be found? The search for an answer
pushed ideas about personal privacy in surprising directions. Whereas
privacy had once been conceived as a retreat from public view, in some
domains it was being rethought as a matter of very public self- definition.

Making Oneself Known
The confessional genre, whether in its religious or secular guise, was hardly
new in the 1990s. Both St. Augustine at the turn of the fifth century and
Jean- Jacques Rousseau in the eigh teenth century penned what they called
“Confessions.” Confessional speech has long served in Western culture as
a way for individuals to establish their “inner truth.”5 But when surveying
that time- honored tradition in 2000, literary scholar Peter Brooks suggested
that this method of laying the self bare “to know oneself and to make one-
self known” had gotten seriously out of hand. “In a con temporary culture
that celebrates the therapeutic value of getting it all out in public,” he la-
mented, “confession has become nearly banal.” Citing tele vi sion talk shows
in par tic u lar, full of “ people speaking confessionally about their own lives
in ways unthinkable to earlier generations,” Brooks condemned “a gener-
alized transparency, in which each of us is fully open to all others without
dissimulation.” That impulse was tyrannical, “a policing of the very pri-
vacy that selfhood requires.” 6

Brooks was not the only critic to bewail the way a discipline that had
been part of Roman Catholic practice for centuries— a “secret transaction
carried out in the closed space of the curtained and grilled confessional
box” set apart from the “usual confines and censorships” of daily life— had
become so very undisciplined.7 A host of observers concluded in the 1990s
that confession had come to define American public life. Volubility about
one’s faults and shames, to anyone who would listen, had become standard
practice. Whether celebrated or lamented, the trend was clear: in all kinds
of venues, people sought the sympathy (or attention) of others for acts that
they had previously kept quiet. That American culture had gone “confes-
sional” was so obvious that books on the topic did not even feel the need
to prove the point.8 Examples were not hard to come by. Televised talk
shows, pioneered by Phil Donahue in 1967, took on a more spectacular
form in the de cades that followed, with guests spilling ever more painful
and provocative stories.9 Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the same period
energized evangelical Christians to merge their po liti cal and religious

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activities, making narratives of weakness and salvation a regular feature
of national politics.10 Meanwhile, twelve- step groups such as Alco-
holics Anonymous ushered personal testimonies into Americans’ public
vocabulary.11

The biggest domestic po liti cal story of the 1990s for many confirmed the
trend. The Clinton impeachment was proof positive of a society bent on
exposing secrets. But for some observers the imbroglio was less significant
for how ruthlessly the scandal was investigated than for the manner in
which the president and his accuser told their stories. In an age when
public apologies for national sins had become commonplace, Bill Clinton
and Monica Lewinsky alike seemed rather too ready to talk in a register of
recovery and redemption.12 The careful parsing of the president’s multiple
“confessions” by rhetoricians and reporters showed how finely tuned such
public acts had become.13 Some viewed the president, like the nation he
led, as a product of a confessional culture pure and simple. “In Bill Clin-
ton’s Amer i ca,” wrote one scholar, “the intersection of Protestant practice,
therapeutic technique, and talk- show ethos was complete.”14 Clinton
“combined legal evasion with the repentant fervor of the sinner,” argued
another, while also “displaying signs that he wished to be treated as a re-
covering addict.” Had the president “not been under the shadow of the
perjury charge,” this writer mused, “one suspects he would happily have
appeared on a talk show to tell all, to seek consolation in the community
of fellow- sinners.”15

For critics, this kind of self- exposure was harmful in two distinct ways.
First, unseemly disclosure of personal matters affronted individual sensi-
bilities as well as public decency. One person’s voluntary expression, that
is, could be another’s violation. Similar defenses of propriety and “community
standards” had accompanied debates over privacy for at least a century.
The question of the “unwilling audience” and a claim on something like
a collective right to privacy had surfaced in outcries in the 1960s over
sexually explicit materials sent through the mail, for example.16 “Crossing
a border to impose upon the person,” privacy scholars would note, could be
as much an infringement of privacy as was deliberate prying into one’s af-
fairs. Telephone and mail solicitations, neon signs, public nudity, loud music,
or the sharing of inappropriate information were perhaps not first- order pri-
vacy intrusions.17 But to be assaulted by others’ excessive revelations—to be
“constantly exposed to other people’s life stories . . . their breakups, the
health of their portfolios, their psychotherapeutic pro gress, their arguments

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with their bosses or boyfriends or parents,” as one critic described Amer-
ican society in the age of the cell phone— could impinge on one’s sense of
solitude and peace of mind as surely as could a breach of one’s personal
space.18

The second and perhaps greater prob lem was what some going back to
the 1960s called “self- invasions of privacy.”19 Individuals who revealed
themselves too readily were thought to do themselves damage by failing to
recognize the impor tant distinction between personal and public life. In
this analy sis, the outflow of personal stories in the 1990s signified a char-
acter prob lem: a troubling borderlessness between intimate thoughts and
deeds, on the one hand, and their recounting, on the other. To some, Amer-
icans’ very capacity for inwardness and introspection— what Peter Brooks
described as the “privacy that selfhood requires”— appeared in jeopardy.20
Worry about citizens’ willingness to cede their privacy was thus the uneasy
companion to concern about intrusions by power ful authorities. Bewailing
the confessional impulse in American life, some commentators wondered
if citizens had ever cared about privacy to begin with.

Observers had in fact periodically fretted over Americans’ tendency to
disclose more than they ought, as well as to seek to know more than they
should. That had been one response to the arrival of postcards in the 1870s,
and their apparent lack of concern with who might have access to private
communications. In more sustained form, the complaint accompanied the
rise of tabloid journalism. Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis spied dan-
gers to privacy not merely in the intrusions of photog raphers and reporters
but also in a coarsened and trivialized public sphere awash in citizens’
peccadilloes and foibles. Believing that readers’ “demand” for gossip was
stimulated by the press, they sought to staunch its effects on public mo-
rality. Warren and Brandeis in 1890 targeted the media, but they sensed
the lure of self- disclosure for the discloser and the audience alike.

The same recognition underlay the success of True Story Magazine, a
publication created by physical culture enthusiast Bernarr Macfadden in
1919 that circulated the “au then tic secrets” of ordinary Americans. A cor-
nerstone of the emerging “confession industry,” it was soon plagued by imi-
tators.21 Debates over how much revelation was too much— whether of
one’s body, biography, emotions, or secrets— were provoked not just by the
press and publishers but also by new styles of public comportment at urban
dance halls and other mass amusement sites of the early twentieth century, by
the social uses of the telephone in the 1920s, by the vogue of psychoanalysis

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in the 1940s, by the emergence of confessional poetry in the Cold War
era, and by the counterculture’s embrace of more casual modes of self-
expression in the 1970s.22 Each of these developments in its turn seemed
to threaten established conventions of propriety, violating the border
between public and private affairs. The premium on personal disclosure
in the twentieth century thus had deep roots. Why then, did American
culture suddenly appear to “go confessional” only in its final de cades?

A number of trends, some long in the making, conspired to make pri-
vate matters newly prominent in public forums in the 1980s and 1990s.
They were the work of both the po liti cal Left and Right and both religious
and secular culture. The growing presence of evangelical Protestantism in
the postwar United States was one impor tant source. Whereas the modern
Catholic tradition of confessing one’s sins was an expressly private act,
public testaments of conversion and religious revivals had been integral
aspects of Protestant practice in Amer i ca from the beginning.23 In the
twentieth century the confessional form, wherein individuals stood before a
congregation to voice their transgressions, would gain a wider audience.

Radio ministry starting in the 1920s and its televised counterpart by
the 1950s transmitted the practice of confession into American hearts and
homes, and preachers with an extensive national following like Oral
Roberts and Billy Graham pop u lar ized it. Graham’s televised “crusades”
to bring sinners redemption were major cultural events, with regular pro-
gramming often canceled to cover them— drawing audiences rivaling
those for other media spectacles such as Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.
After 1960, when federal restrictions on religious programming changed,
“confession- oriented programming became the most vis i ble, the most
aggressive, the most familiar of all religious broadcasts.” The practice of
public testifying, Susan Wise Bauer notes, “moved from church to airwaves,
and then, sideways, from sacred airwaves to secular programming.”24
During the 1980s, a surge of televangelists, led by figures like the husband-
and- wife team of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, prodded guests “to reveal
more and more about their private lives, their sins and shortcomings” in
order to engage and hold their broad tele vi sion audiences as much as to
convert them.25

Secular confessions can be traced to the strength and spread of a thera-
peutic approach to personal prob lems that had expanded from its postwar
purchase to infiltrate every cranny of U.S. culture. A new vocabulary of the
self moved into po liti cal discourse in the second half of the twentieth

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century, such that mental fitness, au then tic emotion, and self- interrogation
all came to matter in public life.26 Con temporary commentators pointed
to the grip of Freudian theory, which held that discovering— and talking
about— the hidden truths of one’s personal history, especially of one’s child-
hood, held the key to emotional well- being and psychic health.27 The
rapid growth in those seeking counseling in the postwar United States,
therapists’ emphasis on the hard work of self- knowledge, and radio’s and
tele vi sion’s amenability to the therapeutic mode all played a part in
building a psychological society. What seemed most distinctive in its later
twentieth- century manifestation was the way therapy seemed to flow out-
ward, such that highly personal narratives of suffering and healing infused
public culture.28

In the later 1970s, the most remarked-on instance of this impulse to
“open up” was the emergence of group therapy and “ human potential” or
encounter groups, in which individuals loosened their inhibitions as part
of their quest for personal transformation.29 Openness and directness were
the currency of this movement, which encouraged people to find self-
acceptance by sharing their deepest strug gles within a safe circle of
others.30 To doubters, the point was to “invite people to collaborate in their
own exposure— and frequently their humiliation as well.”31 Much like tele-
vi sion viewers’ attachment to the Louds, a critic argued in the Wall Street
Journal, such practices made evident that “the inner self is no longer sac-
rosanct and that the intimate lives of strangers constitute meaningful emo-
tional experiences for those to whom they are revealed.” Reporting from
California’s Esalen Institute, where people came “precisely for the purpose
of making public their private selves, of disclosing to total strangers their
covert fantasies, their angers, their delights,” she believed that “this exer-
cise in total undress” revealed that privacy had “become a negative value,
the unmistakable opponent of the ‘openness’ that is here equated with the
realization of human potential.”32

As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, the most popu lar site for such con-
fessions, however, was surely the televised talk shows that were taking over
the airwaves. TV hosts like Phil Donahue acted in the guise of counselors
extracting secrets from tele vi sion guests so as to banish those secrets’ power
over their holders. Beginning in 1986, the Chicago- based Oprah Winfrey
fused the links among confessional discourse, tele vi sion, and sales as did
no other media personality, such that the televised talk show became iden-
tified first and foremost as a “vehicle of personal transformation.”33 Guests

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on the Oprah Winfrey Show, speculates one scholar, appeared on the
program precisely “ because of their belief in the curative potential of TV
talk, in the form of public confession.”34 The host herself, who described
the show as “a ministry,” would eventually brand its distinctive blend of
uplift, self- help, “inner revolution,” and consumerism as “Change Your
Life TV.”35

The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, themselves inflected by
the psychological currents of the age, were yet another factor propelling
personal stories into public fora.36 The re orientation of politics around
identity categories and toward questions of damage and status, theorists
have speculated, shifted the way publics in postindustrial democracies
operated.37 In the new “life politics” of late modernity, truth- telling in the
form of personal narratives was a means of critiquing what many saw as
the crippling falsehoods of American society.38 Confessing was understood
as an act not solely of individual redemption but also of social politics and
protest, most notably in feminist consciousness- raising groups. For this
reason, privacy claims had—in both the women’s and gay liberation
movement— been subject to considerable suspicion. In some arenas, the
claim looked like a cover for exploitation, rendering some voices and sub-
jects unknowable.

By the 1990s, the longer- term consequences of these developments were
becoming evident. The quest for authenticity in relationships and the post-
1960s critique of authority were still palpable forces in American life, but
they now often appeared decoupled from an explicit collective politics. For
example, the once po liti cally motivated “coming- out moment” for gay
Americans served by the 1980s and 1990s a largely subjective purpose
linked to “feelings of self- worth and self- fulfillment,” notes historian
Heather Murray. As one advisor on the practice urged in 1990, coming out
was “the first step in liberating yourself to be a whole, complete, and
power ful adult— the authority figure in your own life.”39 Emotional satis-
faction and closure, forms of personal rather than social transformation,
were the new rewards of revelation. Although some gay Americans,
reflecting on their pre- Stonewall days, missed the sense of belonging to a
hidden subculture, more and more seemed to feel the tug of confession,
disclosing their true identities to friends and family members to foster
genuine bonds.40 As gay citizens made the transition from “secret to known,
even formalized, selves,” writes Murray, gay expressive culture became

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marked by autobiographical accountings and explanations. The personal
was, above all, to be “named and talked about.” 41

Yet only the fact that personal disclosures still carried a po liti cal charge,
and still held the power to disrupt, can fully explain what made “confes-
sion” both so resonant and so reviled in the late twentieth century. The
owner ship of one’s story and the desire to tell it were often trivialized. But
the amount of attention such narratives captured in American po liti cal
culture suggests that the impulse to reveal oneself in talk, on tele vi sion, in
print, or online was not in fact trivial. When critics denounced a topsy-
turvy world in which the most private of matters received the most public
of vettings or argued that some of the most impor tant privacy invasions of
the age were self- inflicted, they implied a deficiency in both public cul-
ture and private life. What they responded to was nothing so simple as
an urge to share. Confessional culture, 1990s style, had many taproots: the
media forms and celebrity culture that made self- publicity so alluring, the
critique of secrets that was transforming po liti cal culture, and the incit-
ements to authenticity and redemption emanating in equal mea sure from
the couch and congregation. But it found ground as well in Americans’
sense that they lived, inescapably, in a society that knew too much about
them already.

Bearing and Baring All
In 1974, the cameras having decamped, the controversy over An American
Family subsiding, and the Louds moving on to life beyond the show, the
family’s matriarch published her autobiography. Pat Loud: A Woman’s
Story relied “entirely on the notoriety of the tele vi sion show, and Pat Loud’s
subsequent celebrity, as its raison d’être.” 42 The book is indeed only con-
ceivable in the wake of the broadcast, Pat’s story notable because her pri-
vacy had already been breached, her life already exposed. In its pages she
mused wryly about the effects of that publicity: “Most people become fa-
mous for a reason. They develop a vaccine, or cross the ocean on a raft, or
star in a movie, or embezzle a lot of money or . . . or . . . or. But we, the
Louds, Pat, Bill, and our five kids, managed to get famous without doing
a thing except giving our permission for PBS to follow us around with a
camera for a while—to lend our lives for seven months to the making of
An American Family. And it seems that if you’re on TV, you’re famous, and
free game in a weird way, no matter what you’re on TV for.” 43

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Pat Loud, along with the rest of her brood, had of course been roundly
criticized for their part in exposing themselves. Relying on a set of psycho-
logical experts, Time magazine suggested that the Louds were “symptom-
atic of a cultural ‘compulsion to confess’ ” and that parading their trou bles
in the mass media was just another species of therapy.44 Likewise, a writer
for the New York Times opined that the Louds were just like other, lesser-
known people trying to “solve personal prob lems in public,” flocking, for
instance, to encounter groups in an attempt to fix what ailed them.45 As
Pat surely knew, her decision to surrender still more of her secrets in print
would draw similar censure. But it was 1974, and she had already allowed
her family to come apart on public tele vi sion before millions. So, “since
we’re letting it all hang out” as she put it, Pat detailed— often with win-
ning humor— her upbringing, her marriage in 1950, her love for her
children but also her loneliness in being a house wife, her discovery of her
husband’s infidelity (“in ’66 the whole thing blew up”), the course of Bill’s
affairs (and her own, offered without much elaboration, but the mere fact
of them a bold admission), her resulting depression and sessions with a
psychiatrist, her visits to lawyers to initiate divorce proceedings and then
to halt them, and her postdivorce dating life.46 In doing so, the woman who
inadvertently became one of tele vi sion’s first real ity stars placed herself on
the leading edge of yet another cultural phenomenon.

Pat Loud’s autobiography, even if it now seems rather chaste, is a recog-
nizable contribution to a new breed of memoir—or, at least, a new em-
phasis within memoir writing on offering up one’s most closely held
secrets.47 In the pages of Pat Loud, we can glimpse the lineaments of a
genre that would overtake the publishing market in the final de cade of the
twentieth century.48 Confessional memoirs— termed “redemption mem-
oirs” by one critic, and “traumatic memoirs” by another— were crafted from
the author’s intimate pains and triumphs.49 Culturally, they were of a piece
with other forms of popu lar revelation, the talk show as well as the “coming
out” moment. These highly personal narratives chronicled distress, damage,
and abuse (sometimes self- inflicted) and typically also how such hardships
were overcome.

The ascent of the confessional memoir told a bigger story too, shining a
light on the peculiar status of privacy at the century’s end. It arrived, after
all, in a period when many citizens took for granted that they lived under
the watchful eye of both state and society. Not just instant celebrities like
Pat Loud but also ordinary Americans in the 1970s came to understand

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their lives as recorded for the benefit of strangers. Any number of agen-
cies, known and unknown, gathered and housed pieces of their history in
databases and files— whether to advance them credit and insurance, rec ord
educational achievement, or track health and retirement benefits. It cannot
be a coincidence that some individuals began displaying their own lives
very publicly in these same years. Meant not to pin down identity but to
illuminate it, the confessional memoir was nevertheless bound up with
these trends. Memoirists exposed themselves, but on their own terms.
They put revelation in the ser vice not of regulation but of self- realization.

The personal narratives that would soon fill publishing houses and
bookstores stood apart from older forms of self- narration like diary keeping,
usually meant for the author alone rather than an audience of strangers.
They also differed from standard autobiography. Autobiographical writing
is, one scholar writes, “always a gesture toward publicity, displaying before
an impersonal public an individual’s interpretation of experience.”50 In-
deed, public figures, from the early American statesman and inventor
Benjamin Franklin to the African American intellectual and leader of
Tuskegee, Booker T. Washington, and from the blind teacher Helen Keller
to the immigrant novelist Mary Antin, had in the past shared their histo-
ries in order to inspire and instruct. From the early nineteenth century on,
publishing one’s life story was a familiar genre for lesser- known narrators
too, whose personal experiences generated curiosity and sometimes a profit
in a thriving print culture; beggars, criminals, captives, soldiers, and fugi-
tives all peddled their stories.51 The slave narrative became a genre unto
itself in the same era. There the telling of a life served larger po liti cal ends,
mobilizing abolitionist sympathies and often— reversing the autobiograph-
ical tradition of famous men— propelling a hitherto unknown writer onto
a public platform.52

Whether authored by little- or well- known Americans, these works
stressed public actions and events and the biographical incidents, character
traits, or personal aspirations that shaped them. They did not typically
hinge on divulging intimate secrets. On the contrary, most steered clear
of the author’s “private” life. Frederick Douglass included only cursory
discussions of his childhood in slavery before he set out into the public
world. And even in a careful reading of Up from Slavery (1901), one could
miss that Booker  T. Washington was married three times and fathered
three children. Late twentieth- century memoirs, by contrast, made such
matters— and far more sensitive ones— their soul and substance. In the

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pro cess, the very definition of what constituted a memoir shifted. The
term, notes critic Ben Yagoda, had once been reserved for reminiscences
about notable persons, with the author merely a character and observer.
The new- style memoir was instead “resolutely focused on the self.”53

In hers, Pat Loud recorded for public consumption aspects of her
biography— love and sex, depression and counseling—to which not even
her viewing audience had been privy. Once again, reviewers were not par-
ticularly kind. To some, Pat’s life story appeared flimsy and potted, mod-
eled on well- worn commercial formulas. The Washington Post called it “a
composite of those flashy best- sellers the public buys in carload lots and
the more cultivated reviewers regularly denounce as libels on American
life.”54 Others spied more profound cultural developments at work. Robert
Kirsch of the Los Angeles Times, although he judged Pat intelligent and
articulate, read the autobiography as the product of an age in which “self-
exposure” was the rage, with Americans confusing “the two- dimensional il-
lusion for the three- dimensional real ity.” Putting her book in the com pany
of con temporary phenomena such as nude streaking and theatrical poli-
tics, he described Pat as angry and hurt by her experience before the camera,
yet “strangely elated by the instant celebrity.” It was a hallmark of the
times, Kirsch believed, that “seeing ourselves exposed is a way of estab-
lishing our identities.”55

Pat Loud’s memoir may indeed have been an act of identity making. She
did not, however, frame her memoir in those terms. Pat made clear instead
that a central reason for writing the book was to correct “the impressions
the tele vi sion camera left.”56 No longer the object of a film and at the
mercy of a director’s gaze, Pat leveraged celebrity in order to exercise
some control over the story of her life. She also needed the money. Her
divorce final and short on funds, Pat explained that she had broken
her vow of “purity of motive” regarding the tele vi sion series and was de-
termined to capitalize in any way pos si ble on her newfound— but she
recognized, temporary— notoriety. “We are all unabashedly trying to get
anything we can from the instant fame brought us by the series,” Pat
admitted. The family had even auctioned off “a weekend with the Louds”
for the local public TV channel (“a nice- sounding couple who got us for
$210 is coming to stay,” she remarked).57 The memoir was surely part of
that campaign.58

Already, however, there were “fewer and fewer talk shows. It won’t be
long before they’re saying, Pat who?”59 This was less a lament—as her

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critics would have it— than a pragmatic reckoning about how much more
she might eke out of her fame. In fact, as time passed, Pat became the most
reticent of all the Louds regarding An American Family.60 In 1982, she
declined to talk about the series to a reporter, saying, “I just don’t want any
of that.” 61 Even as she unburdened her sex life in the 1974 autobiography,
Pat fantasized about regaining her privacy. Its final chapter charts her
moving away from a town that knew too much about her to New York City,
where “nobody knows anybody else” and “you have privacy, you can get
lost in the crowds.” 62 Pat Loud claimed, anyway, to want an “all private”
existence, where “nobody knows what we’re doing.” 63 Her desire for privacy,
and specifically for a place where she could be unknown, challenges easy
assumptions about the inducements and aftereffects of a publicized life.

For all that, there was something undeniably transformative for Pat Loud
in choosing to open up her own life and that of her family in the early
1970s. This much is evident in her brief musings on women’s liberation in
her memoir and even in its subtitle. Hers was, after all, “a woman’s story,”
and the press coverage of the book focused on its most au courant as-
pects: “single motherhood, divorce, sexual liberation, and the women’s
movement.” 64 Underwriting the late twentieth- century memoir was the
legacy of feminism and its insight that personal harms were profoundly
enmeshed in power relations— requiring painful excavation and publicity
to exorcise. Although Pat claimed she felt “too old” to be part of the
women’s liberation movement, she grasped the affinities between her life
and the cause. Sending tentative feelers out to the revolution in gender
roles, she understood that letting loose her marital woes, treating them as
neither shameful nor secret, entailed seeing them as something more than
mere individual injury or failure. In this way, her autobiography—no
matter the harsh reviews— partook of a broader turn to personal narrative
as a route to analyzing one’s own social formation. If this meant dispensing
with old strictures regarding talking about personal matters, so be it.

In the 1970s, even Betty Ford didn’t say all that was on her mind or re-
veal every thing about herself. In a memoir published in 1978, The Times of
My Life, she discussed topics ranging from her physical attraction to her
husband to prob lems with her prosthetic breast.65 The cultural proscrip-
tions on talking about bodily, sexual, and medical matters were clearly
loosening. But Ford made no reference to a facet of her biography that was
for her still more private as well as shameful— her addiction to painkillers
and alcohol— even though suspicions had been raised on this score during

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her time in the White House.66 Only years later would she append a chapter
dealing with her substance abuse. It was not until 1987, and the writing of
a second memoir, titled Betty: A Glad Awakening, that she would tell this
story in full.67 In the meantime, the former First Lady had founded a treat-
ment fa cil i ty, the Betty Ford Center, and become the most vis i ble spokes-
person in the nation on the prob lems of substance abuse and addiction.68
Reflecting on the evolving shape of her autobiography, she explained, “The
first book was on the outside— about people, places, and things. This book
came very much from the inside.” 69

In this decade- long journey from relating her “outer” story to resolving
to tell her “inner” one, Ford traced a path that others would follow. By the
late 1980s, others too were beginning to divulge the darkest, most painful
details of their lives in print. The most thorough scholar of the memoir,
Ben Yagoda, finds that up until the late 1960s, nearly all works in that
category presented their subjects in a positive light. While a handful of
personal narratives on mental illness and addiction did appear in the
early postwar de cades, they were almost always fictionalized or written
under pseudonyms.70 Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar of 1963, published
under the name of Victoria Lucas, was a case in point.

However, “like many other things . . . autobiography broke loose in the
middle and late 1960s.” A trickle of wrenching firsthand accounts, named
and narrated as such, began to appear. African American memoirists were
among the first to offer their searing personal histories to the reading
public.71 Dick Gregory and Malcolm X, Anne Moody and Maya Angelou,
all mined the “trauma of their pasts” in order to bear witness to the harms
of the American racial order.72 Holocaust memoirists followed suit, of-
fering testimony about and finding a reading audience for lives marked
by tragedy and sometimes transcendence.73 The floodgates then opened
to a stream of memoirs by “minor celebrities” in the mid- to late 1970s.
These typically focused less on social or po liti cal traumas than domestic
ones.74 The best known, Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest (1978),
offered a no- holds- barred portrait of the actress Joan Crawford from the
perspective of her estranged daughter in the same year that Betty Ford
published The Times of My Life.

Mining the damaging dramas of personal and family life would become
the memoir’s métier. Across the next de cade or so, the genre would take
on its distinctive con temporary shape. By the 1990s, the ranks of memoir-
ists had increased far beyond the “minor celebrities” of the 1970s. And prior

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levels of frankness would be surpassed, with books pouring out on child-
hood abuse, mental illness, family dysfunction, sex addiction, physical dis-
figurement, grief, alcoholism, drug abuse, and incest.75 Critics turned to
William Styron’s 1990 “unexpected best seller” and memoir of depression,
Darkness Vis i ble, as one origin point for what they labeled the “memoir
boom.”76 In it, Styron, a successful author, divulged the self- loathing, anx-
iety, confusion, and dread that took hold of him suddenly at age 60. He
explained his decision to write about his crippling depression as a desire
to overcome public ignorance of the illness. “My need to communi-
cate,” he reflected, “overrode the risks of self- exposure.”77 While it is
impossible to cata log all the other motives that led memoirists to dissect
their own lives for the reading public, a quest for fame, visibility, and more
book contracts surely played a large role, as critics suspected. But a thera-
peutic quest for “closure,” an interest in unmasking power in family and
sexual relationships, and— less noticed at the time— a desire to renarrate
an already- told life were also recurring themes.

Changes in the commercial publishing industry were part of the expla-
nation for the warm reception of such narratives. With tele vi sion coverage
one of the best ways to boost sales, the promotion of books was increas-
ingly keyed to talk shows— themselves a leading factor in fostering a cul-
ture of self- revelation by placing “ordinary people and their prob lems in
the spotlight.”78 Media scholar Joshua Gamson writes that the promotion
of “the guest- who- is- expert- in- her- own- life” was “indebted to a talk show
ideology and format in which emotional experience is the most respected
real ity” and in which “getting people to talk revealingly and personally”
was the primary draw for the audience.79 Indeed, the publishing industry
rule- of- thumb was that the best way for a book to get noticed was through
the hook of “a dramatic or unusual personal story.” As one editor instructed
Vanity Fair readers as to why memoir trumped fiction in the marketplace,
“You can send the ‘I’ out on tour.”80 Early TV hosts like Phil Donahue,
Sally Jessy Raphael, and Montel Williams, as surely as Oprah Winfrey’s
book club, were behind the flurry of memoirs by the 1990s. The commodi-
fication and salability of personal suffering— the evident financial, rather
than simply psychological, rewards of unburdening— also account for some
of the sharp criticism directed at the genre.

But a hunger for realness and authenticity in print drove the memoir
boom as well. The new confessional narratives were much like documen-
taries in their piercing of facades and their search for raw truths.81 They

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built on the new esteem for personal transparency. The cofounder of
Random House estimated that when he entered the publishing business
in the 1920s, fiction had outsold nonfiction by four to one. By the late twen-
tieth century, he observed, “that ratio is absolutely reversed.”82 In 2000 a
scholar supplied more evidence for the appeal of the real. “Although it is
unclear whether the market has led or followed,” she observed, “market
demand currently encourages marketing practices such as subtitling an
author’s first book ‘a memoir’ when in previous years it might have been
classified as fiction.”83 What was abundantly obvious was that many were
finding their voices by confessing. “The triumph of memoir is now estab-
lished fact,” pronounced a critic in 1996, with even academics getting into
the act by using personal pronouns in their scholarly writing and penning
“moi criticism.”84 Americans had clearly, and volubly, plunged into “the Age
of Memoir.”85 The 1990s would be both known and scorned as “the de-
cade of revelation.”86

In this era, writes Ben Yagoda, there was “none of the coyness or veiling
strategies” that had marked earlier memoirists’ treatment of their most pri-
vate moments. Instead, “authors faced the camera straight on and told the
truth— the more unsettling, shocking, or horrifying the truth, it sometimes
seemed, the better.”87 Kathryn Harrison, author of The Kiss, a 1997 memoir
about her four- year- long sexual relationship with her own father, perhaps
pushed the form the furthest.88 A writer for Amazon . com, noting that
Americans now lived in a world awash in “ordinary citizens selling their
personal traumas,” nevertheless strug gled to summon up a list of topics as
shocking as the one Harrison had written about: “ Mothers Who Sleep
with Their Daughters’ Boyfriends; Men Who Wear Their Girlfriends’
Clothes; People Whose Families Have Been Murdered before Their
Eyes.” Clearly the culture had reached the point where “no subject is too
salacious or too shameful for public consumption.”89 Responding to Har-
rison’s memoir, Entertainment Weekly asked, “Just because a writer can
speak the unspeakable, does that mean that she should?” This same writer
reflected on how jolting the book’s contents had been for reviewers, The
Washington Post blasting The Kiss as “slimy, repellent, meretricious, cyn-
ical,” and a critic for the Wall Street Journal resorting to a phrase of her
grand mother’s, urging the author to “hush up.”90

Harrison responded to readers’ and critics’ revulsion with some surprise:
“I expected some people to be angry with me,” she wrote, “but I imagined
their anger would be directed toward what I had done, not toward the

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choice to write about it.” Borrowing a meta phor from the gay liberation
movement, she acknowledged the fact that “I’m held up as one of the
writers who have changed the complexion of memoir as a form— that my
example has helped open the collective closet” and that “a lot of skeletons
have been dragged out into the light.” That act was welcomed by some
readers but shunned by others. Of her harshest critics, Harrison later wrote,
“I accepted their vehemence, because they mirrored my private responses
to my history with my father. It frightened me and it made me angry. It
disgusted me. It still does. It’s supposed to. It’s taboo.”91 But what Harri-
son’s and other memoirs suggested was that the age of taboos was over, that
there was nothing one could not broach in print.

This overstates the case, of course. There were limits to disclosure, even
in an age of relentless confession. Women’s per sis tent silence surrounding
their own abortions, although a constitutionally protected right, was a case
in point. Whether the decision to keep one’s abortion “private” was an ex-
ercise of privacy was, however, not so clear. As legal scholar Carol Sanger
argues, that choice had more to do with secrecy, which was motivated not
by the “right or preference to keep something to one’s self ” but by “fear of
the consequences of revelation.”92 Some topics, even in the 1990s, still car-
ried enough stigma to keep them largely out of public conversation. And
certainly, most Americans did not make it a practice to reveal their greatest
shames to utter strangers. Yet it was still striking that what Victorians would
have considered to be their deepest, darkest secrets were now the common
currency not just of psychotherapy but also of politics and popu lar
culture.

E. L. Godkin had sworn in response to the inquisitive census of 1890
that “no man, and especially no woman, likes to tell a stranger about a se-
cret disease or disability.”93 Memoirists a century later were proving him
wrong in spades. Writers like Harrison told strangers about far more than
disease or disability. They played brilliantly to a public eager to peel away
the layers of a person and to enter into another’s inner life, perhaps es-
pecially if something scandalous was involved. And they benefited
handsomely—in fame, dollars, book contracts, a place on the talk show
cir cuit— from the bargain they made to dispense with some of their se-
crets. Detractors railed against the trend, art critic William Grimes pro-
testing, “Is there not something to be said for the unexamined life?”94
Invariably, they pegged it to the waning fortunes of privacy in American
society. Blaming the recovery movement, a therapeutic culture, a “strong

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interest in victimhood,” and, most worrisome of all, a shrinking “concern
for privacy,” commentators lamented that “what used to be private is be-
coming increasingly public.”95 Pronounced the New York Times Maga-
zine, “We live in a time when the very notion of privacy, of a zone beyond
the reach of public probing, has become an alien concept.”96 Many words
were spilled in the attempt to understand why so many Americans were so
freely baring their intimate lives. After all, these were typically not citizens
who had been pressed to disclose their affairs by others— who had attracted
the glare of the media, who were driven by po liti cal necessity, or who had
been outed. Rather, they exposed themselves willingly and, critics sug-
gested, indiscriminately.

Why was privacy, one of the most charismatic concepts of the postwar
era, being disavowed with such abandon? In the debate over the tell- all
memoir, few registered the ways that releasing personal details out into the
stream of public culture could be a response to a sense of privacy already
violated or diminished. Whether one was going to be known might be out
of one’s hands. For some confessional writers, however, telling one’s story
was perhaps the best means of controlling the way in which one would be
known. Disclosure could be less about giving information away than about
reining it back in— and publicness a path for reclaiming private life or at
least one’s own version of it. Confessional memoirists thus discarded pri-
vacy as traditionally understood even as they sometimes embraced the
airing of one’s life as its best protection. Was writing The Kiss a supremely
exhibitionist act or the only way to banish private shame? It was not always
pos si ble to sort out whether a given memoir was an assertion of privacy or
a rejection of it, a yearning to be surveilled or a flight from it. What does
seem clear is that the confessional mode represented yet another episode
in the story of how Americans have both fought to enlarge privacy and in-
vade it— often at the very same time.

Correcting the Rec ord, Controlling the Narrative
One of the most notable of the new crop of memoirs was, like William
Styron’s, a work on mental illness. Written by Susanna Kaysen about her
eighteen- month psychiatric confinement at McLean Hospital for border-
line personality disorder when a teenager in the late 1960s, Girl, Interrupted
(1993) was a runaway bestseller.97 It was also acknowledged by many critics
to have “helped spark the memoir craze.”98 In its pages, using spare but
eloquent prose, Kaysen offered an account of the daily rounds of mental

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illness. Of the young women on her ward, she observed, “In a strange way
we were free. We’d reached the end of the line. We had nothing more to
lose. Our privacy, our liberty, our dignity. All of this was gone and we were
stripped down to the bare bones of our selves.”99 It was an apt description
of the new memoir form too.

Compared regularly to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar— also set at McLean
and trained on psychiatry and female adolescence— Girl, Interrupted
was, however, a product of its own time. Plath had written under a pseud-
onym, careful to distance this difficult story from her public self. “The dif-
ference of three de cades,” noted one critic, “is that Susanna Kaysen leads
off her book with a facsimile of the first page of her own case rec ord folder
at McLean Hospital.”100 Indeed, the very first things the reader learns
about Kaysen are plucked directly from her confidential medical file: her
name, her parents’ names and address, her date of birth, and her diagnosis
of “borderline personality.” Rather than cloak such details, Kaysen fixed
on them, interspersing her narrative with the administrative paperwork
that recorded her experience of psychiatric confinement.101

In this re spect, Girl, Interrupted bears some resemblance to The File: A
Personal History (1997), another memoir of this era, by En glish journalist
Timothy Garton Ash. Ash had conducted research in Berlin in the late
1970s and would later learn that he had been closely scrutinized by
the East German secret police during his time there. The memoir was
his attempt to reconstruct this two- decades- old history in dialogue with
the Stasi’s newly opened files. Ash compared the “subjective, allusive,
emotional, self- description” of his own diary entries from that period
with the “cold outward eye” of the Stasi’s observation reports.102 If less
overtly, Kaysen’s was also an account of studying others’ surveillance of
herself— nurses, doctors, psychiatrists, and orderlies— and placing their
interpretations alongside her own to unsettle the reader’s sense of whom
to trust. Did the doctor who committed her to McLean while knowing so
little about her do so after only twenty minutes (her recollection) or three
hours (his documented account)? Should one rely on the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual’s characterization of “Borderline Personality Disorder,”
on which Kaysen spends a chapter, or the less technical and more en-
gaging chapter that follows it, called “My Diagnosis,” for one’s under-
standing of the author?103

As such, Kaysen posed in stark terms the question of the known citizen
and its consequences. Just how well did the doctor, the hospital staff, and

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8.1. Emblematic of the new frankness of memoirs in the 1990s, Susanna Kaysen
reprinted documents related to her psychiatric confinement at McLean Hospital.

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the broader society that committed Kaysen to a psychiatric hospital know
her? On what grounds, indeed, was authoritative knowledge of a person
built? And what kind of power and responsibility came with the knowing?
Kaysen’s response was to offer a more intimate version of her history.
Coming on the heels of the period in which Americans first contended
with the “rec ord prison,” the shape of her memoir is noteworthy. Although
it goes unmentioned in Girl, Interrupted, the author’s father was the
economist Carl Kaysen, who had headed the federal task force on the
storage of government statistics during the National Data Center contro-
versy of the mid-1960s. The Kaysen Report addressed public concerns
about the warehousing of citizens’ data, ultimately backing the proposal.104
In 1993, Susanna Kaysen resurrected her own ware housed data in order
to tell a story that was a quarter- century old. She did so, at least in part, to
challenge the file.

Girl, Interrupted is littered with reproductions of documents from
Kaysen’s medical dossier. Her case rec ord folder, admission form, medi-
cation and treatment chart, nurses’ reports, pro gress notes, and discharge
form— not to mention interoffice memoranda about her and letters from
her doctor offering assessments that she is ready to rejoin the outside
world— tell their own spare story. Their inclusion invites questions about
others’ categorizations and about the ways Kaysen herself was classified
and filed: she titles one of her chapters “Stigmatography.” Kaysen’s closing
words are a meditation on a Vermeer painting that haunts her, titled “Girl
Interrupted at Her Music.” She writes, “Interrupted at her music: as my life
had been, interrupted in the music of being seventeen, as her life had
been, snatched and fixed on canvas: one moment made to stand still and
to stand for all the other moments, what ever they would be or might have
been. What life can recover from that?”105 Implying that she had been
“fixed”— not by an artist, but by the judgments in her medical file— and
never fully seen, Kaysen in her memoir refocused the reader on the life
beneath the paperwork.106 Disclosing the details of her institutionalization
could be read less as a casting off of privacy than a reclaiming of those
“snatched” months.

Indeed, Kaysen vigilantly sought to preserve her privacy after her memoir
came out. As Time magazine reported, the fact that the memoirist wrote
so openly about her strug gles with mental illness made her a “cult figure,”
bringing her many letters, fans, and invitations to take part in public de-
bates about, for example, antidepressants like Prozac.107 It was not, Kaysen

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claimed, a welcome publicity. Rather, many readers, drawn in by the
transparency of the author’s prose, assumed a familiarity that made her
uneasy. Kaysen objected to such overtures, saying, “I don’t believe I
have any obligation to let people into my private life.” Time probed the
seeming paradox: “as Kaysen becomes famous for writing a confessional
book, it is her reticence that is most striking.”108

In an interview years later, in response to a second memoir concerned
largely with her sex life, Kaysen again attempted to draw a line between
herself and the person who appeared in the pages of her books. That dis-
tinction confounded readers and critics alike. Kaysen wanted to have it
both ways, they implied. The interviewer, insistent, asked, “Why did you
withhold information about your family in Girl, Interrupted and why are
you now unwilling to answer the natu ral follow-up questions about your
current sexual functioning?” Kaysen replied, “ People assume that if you’re
willing to say something about personal matters, you must say every thing.
You’re a bad sport if you don’t participate in total self- revelation.” Although
she included documents from a confidential file in her first memoir in part
to signal her account’s transparent truth, and although she divulged highly
personal details, psychological as well as physical, with an arresting direct-
ness in the second, Kaysen rebuffed those who believed they were entitled
to know her. These firsthand accounts were just as crafted and artificial as
a novel, Kaysen asserted, not “a CAT scan of my emotional life.”109 Full
disclosure had never been her interest or her point.

As many memoirists were coming to discover, however, their fans often
demanded a more intimate relationship. Noting that “many readers feel
they know me after they read one of my books,” author Cheryl Strayed ex-
plained her need to set bound aries with audiences who took for granted
that her “entire life is up for discussion.”110 People seemed to believe that
“a memoirist has simply opened a vein and bled on the page,” writer Ayelet
Waldman protested. “The reader thinks they know all of you . . . but you
don’t owe your reader every thing, every story of your life, every ele ment of
you. You owe your reader only what you want to reveal.”111 Critics of the
memoir boom notwithstanding, these writers spoke to readers’ desire for
more particulars, not fewer. And, whether sincere or savvy about their rea-
sons for withholding personal details from their fans, these authors also
indicated that there were limits to what even a confessional writer would
reveal. For her part, frustrated by her fans’ per sis tence in wanting an un-
mediated view and personal access, Kaysen would later claim to have given

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up on the memoir as a genre.112 Each of these public protestations about
privacy from memoirists came on the heels of highly revealing accounts
of their personal lives. The pattern underscored privacy’s ambiguous
allure—do we want it or don’t we?— and perhaps even its commercial
value. Would readers, one won ders, have been as interested in memoirists
if they had truly revealed all, leaving nothing to the imagination, or to fill
the pages of the next book?

Kaysen’s second memoir would test the bound aries of public discourse.
It would also probe the limits of privacy law. Was there any protection for
the lives a memoirist dragged into the spotlight along with her own? This
was one of the thorny issues raised by Kaysen’s 2001 book, The Camera My
Mother Gave Me, which was centrally concerned with ongoing, seem-
ingly incurable vaginal pain and its effects on her sexual and emotional
life. Critics classed it as “autopathography,” a term coined to describe the
raft of new autobiographical work homing in on individual illness, both
physical and mental.113 Like Kaysen’s first memoir, the book stood out for
its brutal honesty and transgressive subject matter. Less favorably reviewed,
however— Publishers’ Weekly billed it a “thin, disappointing chronicle of
what happened when ‘something went wrong’ with her vagina”— some
dismissed it, in a telling phrase of the period, as “TMI”: too much informa-
tion.114 BookPage, for example, noted that Kaysen was “being criticized
for  taking autobiography to a new level of exposure with her personal
confessions.”115

It was the nature rather than the amount of that information that would
trigger a legal challenge against Kaysen by her then- boyfriend. At the core
of the lawsuit was the author’s characterization of him as aggressively
sexual, unsympathetic to her pain, and, in one episode that she recounted,
physically coercive. The dramatic arc of the memoir would come in her
soul searching as to whether his actions constituted sexual vio lence.
Although the boyfriend was unnamed in the text and some identifying
details had been changed (his occupation, his home town), it would have
been obvious to any of their acquaintances—he charged— precisely to
whom she referred. Under one of the torts that had grown out of Brandeis
and Warren’s call for a right to privacy, he sued for the “public disclosure
of private facts.”

Memoirs of this era were regularly portrayed as navel- gazing or un-
seemly. Kaysen’s, however, led to questions about the impact of intimate
revelations on others within the memoirist’s circle— and, more distantly,

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about the consequences of true confessions in the public sphere. To what
kind of privacy was a character in the life of a writer entitled? And what
had happened to the right to protect one’s reputation, one’s “inviolate per-
sonality”? In Bonome v. Kaysen of 2004, the Mas sa chu setts court agreed
that the boyfriend (now publicly identified, as he had not been in the book,
as Joseph Bonome) had a right to privacy and even a right to control the
dissemination of private information about himself. Yet the court acknowl-
edged that “it is often difficult, if not impossible, to separate one’s intimate
and personal experiences from the people with whom those experiences
are shared.”116 The court went on to emphasize the public’s legitimate in-
terest in Kaysen’s memoir, particularly its examination of how “a person’s
physical difficulties would affect her relationship with her boyfriend, in-
cluding highly intimate aspects of it.”117 Most importantly, however, Kay-
sen’s right to “publicity” and “to disclose her own intimate affairs” was
protected by the First Amendment. The court concluded that “Kaysen’s
own personal story— insofar as it relates to matters of legitimate public
concern—is hers to contribute to public discourse.”118 As one legal analyst
described it, any other ruling would unfairly restrict an individual’s “ability
to describe his or her own life.”119

In 2004, the law, like the media and the culture at large, seemed to line
up on the side of self- publicity rather than privacy.120 It was an illuminating
commentary on the dramatic changes in public discourse since Warren
and Brandeis’s time. As legal scholars have demonstrated, the “right to pri-
vacy” that the Boston lawyers envisioned in 1890 was treated increasingly
in the twentieth century by courts as a frail claim against First Amend-
ment rights. The privacy torts their essay triggered largely failed to shelter
individuals from unwanted publicity, amounting to “a jurisprudential dead
end.”121 The evolution of free speech jurisprudence, shifting notions of de-
cency, and increasing deference to the press as to what counted as “news-
worthy” had all made claims of emotional damage of the sort Warren and
Brandeis laid out very difficult to sustain.122 As the most recent edition of
the Handbook of the Law of Torts summarizes, “The law is not for the
protection of the hypersensitive, and all of us must, to some extent, lead
lives exposed to the public gaze.”123

Exemplifying the strong U.S. tilt toward freedom of speech (including
commercial speech), press, and expression as compared to Eu rope, Bonome
v. Kaysen revealed “a road not taken in American privacy law— that of a
right to personality.”124 It pointed to the failure of Warren and Brandeis’s

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concept of an “inviolate personality” to gain any real traction in U.S. so-
ciety and law.125 Or perhaps it revealed a legal as well as cultural prefer-
ence for the confessing rather than the reticent personality. For some, the
prioritizing of individual self- expression over the texture of public discourse
was the wrong turn that privacy law had taken as far back as the late nine-
teenth century, its effects on American life painfully apparent in the no-
holds- barred quality of public talk at end of the twentieth.126 At the very
least it implied that the conflict between the freedom of speech and the
right to one’s “personality”— the right to express oneself and the right to be
known in a par tic u lar way— had no easy resolution.

The issues in the Kaysen- Bonome dispute were unusual in being adju-
dicated by courts. Similar standoffs had been fought in the pages of literary
magazines, newspapers, and the court of public opinion, leading to a
searching debate in the 1990s over the consequences of unrestrained self-
expression. Biographers, autobiographers, and even historians would be
implicated in controversies over improper disclosure.127 These were pitched
strug gles for “control over the story of a life” by subjects, authors, and es-
tates, each with their own position on which contents of a life ought to be
shared and which sealed.128 Although the privacy of famous figures, living
and dead— and how specific revelations would affect their reputation— was
often the primary consideration, broader cultural sensibilities about the
bound aries of propriety entered the discussion too.

One of these disputes surfaced right at the beginning of the de cade. Fit-
tingly, it concerned the “confessional” poet Anne Sexton, known for
writing about matters “many people thought should be kept entirely pri-
vate” in the early 1960s, including mental illness, abortion, and addic-
tion.129 Her life was the material for Diane Wood Middlebrook’s Anne
Sexton: A Biography, published in 1991.130 There was in this case no un-
willing subject, no “unconfessional confessionalist,” as Susanna Kaysen
had been tagged for her stubborn refusal to elaborate on what appeared
between the covers of her memoirs. Sexton, who committed suicide in
1974, had left exhaustive files and clear permission for a biographer to use
them. Her daughter Linda, executor of her will, was happy to hand over
those materials to Middlebrook, whom she had selected as her mother’s
biographer. But the volume stirred up a storm nonetheless for making use
of more than 300 hours of tape- recorded psychotherapy sessions between
Sexton and her psychiatrists. The controversy rested on the special status
of medical rec ords, even those of the dead. These sorts of documents

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were holdouts in a tell- all age. Linda Sexton had, however, consented to
their use, declaring, “My mother had no sense of privacy, and I don’t be-
lieve it’s my place to construct one on her behalf.” The Sexton estate had
moreover agreed to the arrangement and even planned for the tapes’ de-
posit in a research archive. Even so, the American Psychiatric Association
filed a formal ethics complaint against the psychiatrist who had consented
to publication. Only several years after the biography was issued would he
be exonerated.131 All along the way, Middlebrook and Linda Sexton af-
firmed that the poet herself had intended that the psychotherapy sessions
be part of her life’s rec ord.

Whose life was it anyway? Critic Janet Malcolm dissected the dilemma
of who owned an individual’s story in her 1994 book The Silent Woman, a
meditation on the ways multiple biographers had impinged on the lives of
the poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath (Sexton’s contemporaries and the
subjects of a later biography by Middlebrook).132 Hughes, who kept his own
counsel about his famous, estranged wife after her suicide at age 30, had
been lacerated by vari ous Plath chroniclers in what Malcolm called “pun-
ishment by biography.” In a voluble world, Hughes’s reticence, as he well
understood, was itself suspect. Thus, Malcolm wrote, it was “Hughes’s
bitter fate to be perpetually struggling with Plath over the owner ship of
his life, trying to wrest it back from her.”133

Casting the biographer as a “professional burglar,” Malcolm set out to
expose the voyeurism at the genre’s core, which she likened to reading
someone else’s mail. But she also made clear that such prurient curiosity
was abetted by the machinery of a knowing society. Hughes had at one
point, in frustration, written, “I hope each of us owns the facts of her or
his own life.” Malcolm strongly, if regretfully, dissented. “Of course,” she
wrote, “as every one knows who has ever heard a piece of gossip, we do not
‘own’ the facts of our lives at all. This owner ship passes out of our hands at
birth, at the moment we are first observed.” In her view, “The organs of
publicity that have proliferated in our time” were just an instance of
“society’s fundamental and incorrigible nosiness.” Indeed, claimed Mal-
colm, “Our business is every body’s business, should anybody wish to
make it so. The concept of privacy is a sort of screen to hide the fact that
almost none is pos si ble in a social universe.”134

Malcolm furthered her point by recounting the tale of Sylvia Plath’s first
biographer, who published an account of the poet’s life in 1976 without the
benefit of any access to her family and friends, archival materials, or pub-

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lished letters and journals.135 How could this be? “Facts as such are rela-
tively easy to come by in a society whose growing complexity has spawned
a growing network of official institutions,” Malcolm explained. Schools,
libraries, newspapers, government offices— all “ were there for the plun-
dering, as every credit house and FBI investigator well knows.” This made
it relatively easy for the would-be biographer to “construct a reasonable
collage from the bits and pieces resurrected from these bureaucratic mau-
soleums.” Malcolm went on to observe that this first biography of the poet
bore a “striking resemblance” to the many later ones, despite their reliance
on a more intimate trove of materials, including Plath’s own published
letters and journals. “The traces we leave of ourselves are evidently so deep
that every investigator will stumble upon them,” she mused. “If the door
to one room of secrets is closed, others are open and beckoning.”136 The
rec ord prison, it turned out, was a goldmine for the diligent biographer. As
Susanna Kaysen had discovered too in dredging up her adolescent med-
ical file, a documented life was easy to find.

The biographer’s ability to ferret out facts even about subjects who de-
fied being known was most impressive in the case of novelist J. D. Salinger,
the famous— and famously reclusive— author of The Catcher in the Rye
(1956). Plagued by fans, photog raphers, the press, and those who wished to
tell his life story, Salinger attempted to deter them all by retreating to his
home in Cornish, New Hampshire, and steadfastly refusing public engage-
ment. Salinger, who was said to have “elevated privacy to an art form,”
would nevertheless be the subject of four separate book- length exposés in
the late 1980s and 1990s, with two more following shortly after his death in
2010.137 His re sis tance to confession was in fact part of what made him so
captivating to biographers and the reading public both.

One of the more per sis tent intruders was British writer Ian Hamilton,
who embarked on a biography of Salinger in the 1980s. The angle Ham-
ilton took, however, was a postmodern one: the challenge of a quarry who
didn’t want to be caught, a subject who resisted the biographer’s entreaties.
As such, Hamilton aimed to make himself rather than Salinger the cen-
tral character in the book. But the premise did not pan out. Janet Malcolm
recounts, “As Hamilton pursued his researches into Salinger’s childhood
and youth, his own role as comically thwarted biographer was pulled out
from under him.” Indeed, “far from being thwarted, he was amassing a
great deal of information about his subject.” Salinger, though he had been
in seclusion for more than twenty- five years, “had lived in the world until

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the mid- sixties, and had left the usual traces.”138 These included many pri-
vate letters that had wound up in archives. Eventually the biographer and
his subject would come to a head over these documents in a court of law.
Salinger sued for the rights to his unpublished correspondence and won,
barring Hamilton from using the letters.139 The biographer’s ill- starred
proj ect delayed, he would fi nally publish a much diluted and quite dif-
fer ent version of his book in 1988.140

Salinger was the victor in that par tic u lar case, although ironies
abounded: he had to publicly testify and also file his private letters at the
Library of Congress.141 But knottier issues surfaced when his intimates—
an ex- lover and his own daughter— sought to write about him as part of
their own life stories. Joyce Maynard, a woman who had been romanti-
cally involved with the much- older Salinger when she was a teenager, and
Margaret (Peggy) Salinger, now a middle- aged woman with a family of her
own, wrote not as biographers, but as memoirists. For both writers, the au-
thor’s privacy was a cloak for ugly secrets, whether Salinger’s exploitative
relationships with young women or his emotional abandonment of his
family. Each described a need to tell her own story, in which Salinger just
happened to play a pivotal role. These were “autobiographies of women
whose lives were damaged by him,” writes a literary scholar, and which
“narrate the harm that Salinger’s obsession with privacy caused for the
women who participated in his private life.”142 Maynard, for example,
recounted an episode in which Salinger turned on her for purportedly
allowing his phone number to fall into the hands of a Time magazine
reporter, telling her that the book she was writing “could be the end of
us.”143 Peggy Salinger related that before taking an overdose of pills as an
adult, which she knew would send her to the emergency room, she veri-
fied that the hospital would not be able to identify her as Salinger’s
daughter.144 Both memoirists made the point that striving to keep some-
thing private could be as harmful as disclosing something secret.

In terms of content, these memoirs were hardly unusual fare in the
1990s. But their authors faced severe criticism for raiding Salinger’s care-
fully curated solitude.145 Maynard’s At Home in the World (1998) came in
for special rebuke, especially in connection with the author’s decision to
sell Salinger’s letters.146 As a writer for the New York Times Magazine sum-
marized, “For years, Maynard refused to discuss this affair. In doing so
now, she is violating the privacy of a figure who is revered in a very per-
sonal way by a great many people, both for his writing and for his decision

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to retreat into the silence that Maynard is breaking. She will be— indeed
she already has been— called shameless and mercenary. Maynard knows
this, of course.”147 Indeed, “knowing this” was part of her shame. Her lack
of consideration for J. D. Salinger’s reputation, but also for her own in vio-
lating his, was a key feature of the criticism that rained down in the wake
of her memoir. Maynard was a well- known figure even before the Salinger
controversy, a standard- bearer for what some saw as excessively self-
regarding and intimate essays. The same New York Times Magazine ar-
ticle displayed this animus, taking the writer to task by introducing readers
to her fans— those Maynard referred to as her “website community”— who,
it was reported, followed her every move on her highly personal web log,
one calling Maynard “the literary equivalent of ‘The Truman Show’ or
Princess Diana.”148 Such details, a kind of 1990s shorthand for overexpo-
sure, cemented the case of the memoirist as exhibitionist.149

The controversy over Salinger’s “outing” laid bare what had been barely
hidden to begin with: the gendered nature of the memoir boom. Many of
the path- breaking contributions to the genre had been authored by men,
including Frank McCourt, who wrote about his impoverished childhood
in Ireland in Angela’s Ashes (1986); Tobias Wolff, who recounted his life
with a hostile stepfather in This Boy’s Life (1989); and Dave Peltzer, who
narrated a harrowing story of childhood physical and emotional abuse in
A Child Called “It” (1995).150 Despite acclaim for these works, the highly
personal nature, domestic settings, and emotion- laden thrust of most of
the era’s memoirs ensured that the genre was readily feminized.

Women confessors— memoirists like Pat Loud, Susanna Kaysen, and
Joyce Maynard, but also public disclosers of others’ sins in the 1990s, like
Anita Hill and Monica Lewinsky— were often the vessels for the new ex-
plicitness about matters sexual and traumatic in public life.151 They were
also routinely blamed for debasing both the private and public sphere and
scorned for their lavish regard for their own small lives. For Joyce Maynard
and Peggy Salinger, the implicit, and sometimes explicit, comparison was
to the larger- than- life man they dishonored. While for instance Jonathan
Yardley of the Washington Post called Hamilton’s biography of J. D. Sa-
linger “decidedly unauthorized,” he branded Maynard’s and Peggy
Salinger’s memoirs “self- serving.”152 The latter was “an unattractive and
unwelcome book . . . almost indescribably self- indulgent, and it invades
the author’s father’s cherished privacy to the point of disloyalty and exploi-
tation.” It was, he summarized, “a blow beneath the belt.”153 Maynard

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came in for even more stinging reviews.154 Yardley wrote of her memoir
that “you may . . . find yourself struggling to comprehend self- infatuation
so vast and reckless that the victim cannot imagine a detail of her life so
minute or trivial as to be of no interest to every one else on this planet.” A
former Yale classmate of Maynard’s wrote that she suffered from “a delu-
sion torn from the Oliver Sacks casebook: The Woman Who Mistook Her-
self for Someone In ter est ing.”155

Against this account of the disrobing of a “private man” in the ser vice of
self- promotion, however, was another story concerning feminism’s trans-
formation of the meaning of the private and, along with it, the power of
intimate revelation. Peggy Salinger described her “sacrilegious” decision
to break the silence about her father and “generations of moldy secrets,
both real and imagined,” as akin to allowing “some light and fresh air” into
her life.156 “I have come to believe that my greatest protection comes in
self- disclosure,” was how Joyce Maynard defended her own decision, char-
acterizing it as a holding- to- account of a power ful man, as well as an act of
self- liberation. As she put it, “It’s shame, not exposure, that I can’t endure.”157
Another woman in Salinger’s life, Jean Miller, applauded Maynard’s work:
“She was very courageous in breaking the code that we all had, not ver-
bally but emotionally, signed onto: don’t talk.”158

In tune with other memoirists, especially those who sought to publicize
exploitation— whether by parents, partners, or priests— Maynard defended
“a woman’s right to her own story” because, she said, “the most power ful
tool most of us possess is our own voice.”159 Maynard, moreover, under-
stood the attacks and trivialization she faced in doing so as a matter of
gender politics. “One day I hope some feminist scholar will examine the
way in which a woman’s recounting of her history is so often ridiculed as
self- absorbed and fundamentally unimportant,” she charged. “One need
not look far for examples of male writers who have written freely and with
no small mea sure of self- absorption about the territory of personal experi-
ence, who are praised for their courage and searing honesty.”160 Maynard
herself countered her detractors with “letter after letter” from readers who
found solace in her story, given their own experiences of family alcoholism,
exploitative relationships, and unrealistic standards. Among those letters,
she noted, in a gesture to sisterhood, were those “I received from two other
women who had also engaged in correspondences with J.  D. Salinger
eerily like my own.” Maynard’s reflections turned the tables on those who
viewed privacy as “sacred” and her own spilling of secrets as “a profound

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betrayal of trust.” Although “the pursuit of privacy has been portrayed by
many as evidence of purity of character,” she contended, it was just as often
a shield for be hav ior that was much more fundamentally “inappropriate
and invasive” than was her own.161 Privacy, so often figured as a social
good, was here billed as a conspirator against the weak and vulnerable.
Confession might offer a surer path to possession of one’s story or one’s life.

It was no accident that famous men who shunned publicity became cul-
ture heroes in these same years— Salinger, of course, but also the novel-
ists Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. Unlike the Pat Louds and Joyce
Maynards who seemed to thrive on the attention that came from public
fixation on their stories, these men did not spill their secrets and seemingly
required no such confirmation from an audience. In a tell- all culture,
many admired them for bucking the trend. DeLillo in fact made this a
running theme of his work. His Great Jones Street, as early as 1973, revolved
around a rock star “who tries to step out of his legend”; the hero, one scholar
notes, earns the admiration of “a cultish group” for whom privacy becomes
“a revolutionary wish.”162 Inspired by a photo graph of J. D. Salinger that
appeared in the New York Post in 1988, DeLillo placed a reclusive writer at
the center of his novel Mao II (1991).163 As the novelist grasped, obsessive
interest attaching to the recluse made those who opted out of publicity the
most fascinating of public figures. Jonathan Yardley remarked in the
Washington Post in 2004 that he had “largely forgotten” about Catcher in
the Rye (which he judged overrated) since its publication a half- century
earlier. But he could not say the same for Salinger, “whose celebrated
reclusiveness has had the effect of keeping him in the public eye.”164

Yardley contrasted Salinger’s thin publishing output with the outpouring
of writing about him. “ Whether calculated or not,” mused Yardley, “his
reclusiveness has created an aura that heightens, rather than diminishes,
the mystique” of his literary production.165 As the question of calculation
here suggests, even Salinger, the most private of writers, was shaped fun-
damentally by a culture of disclosure. This was not simply because others
relentlessly sought to expose him, although that they certainly did. The
most recent Salinger biography to date— a compilation of ephemera,
photo graphs, and remembrances about the author— pledges that it fi nally
answers the mysteries of the man’s life: why he stopped publishing, why
he dis appeared, and what he wrote during those reclusive years. It also
promises, via nine years of research on five continents and more than 200
interviews by which the authors “disclose, track, and connect” the pieces

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of Salinger’s life, to “place the reader on increasingly intimate terms with
an author who had been adamantly inaccessible for more than half a
century.”166 One conclusion of all this digging echoes a uniquely damning
revelation in Maynard’s memoir: that Salinger obsessively followed his
own press. “Far from being a recluse,” these chroniclers observe, Salinger
“was constantly in conversation with the world in order to reinforce its
notion of his reclusion.”167 The author “ferociously monitored every blip
on the radar screen and cared hugely about his reputation,” refusing to
speak to reporters only until “the press had forgotten about him for too
long.” What appeared impor tant to Salinger, in an environment in which
it was impossible truly to withdraw from the world— a truth his biographers
inadvertently demonstrate— was that “he controlled the communication,
the narrative.”168 Despite the apparent gulf between them, Salinger and
his former lover Maynard may have shared this par tic u lar definition of
privacy.

Controlling the narrative may have been the most that citizens could
hope for by the end of the twentieth century, given that their lives were
co- owned by so many others. Much as the Louds had aspired to be their
own producers, memoirists seized the opportunity to shape and edit their
lives for a broader audience. As a media scholar put it, “Repre sen ta tion in
the mediated ‘real ity’ of our mass culture is in itself power.”169 Sociologist
Joshua Gamson has made a similar case for the rise of “trash” talk shows
in the 1990s and their par tic u lar appeal for those of nonconforming sexu-
alities: “While you might get a few minutes on national news every once
in a while, or a spot on a sitcom looking normal as can be, almost every-
where else . . . you are either unwelcome, written by somebody else, or
heavi ly edited.” On the other hand, “on tele vi sion talk shows, you are more
than welcome. You are begged and coached and asked to tell, tell, tell.”
Gamson sees what are, in one light, exploitative spectacles as subversive
vehicles for “moving private stuff into a public spotlight, arousing all
sorts of questions about what the public sphere can, does, and should
look like.”170 The airing of intimate matters, in this view, might nurture a
more hospitable public culture for privacy, understood as personal
self- determination.

Easily caricatured and dismissed, the confessional memoir of the
1990s— still alive and well today— was not simply an exercise in narcissism
nor an evacuation of privacy.171 Some memoirists wrote to puncture others’
secrets or to unburden their own, carry ing on the legacy of feminism and

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other social movements that had transformed the rules of public discourse
beginning in the late 1960s. Others sought to take the reins of their own
narrative. Pat Loud and Susanna Kaysen each wrote not only in order to
add to but also to counter the information about them already out there in
the world, whether in the form of a tele vi sion camera or the quieter but
still weighty judgment of a medical file. In their memoirs, we recognize a
desire to be truly seen. We can also glimpse the effects of the multiple
forms of surveillance that had taken root in American culture by the time
they wrote, continuous media coverage as well as the running bureaucratic
rec ord. That those who attracted the most condemnation for their revela-
tions were women spoke to the fact that, by the 1980s and 1990s, it was
no longer just “public men” who were engaged in tending their public
reputations or personas. Citizens of all stripes had a vested interest in the
ways they broadcast their lives to the larger society, as well as new tools to
put to the task. Battles over the memoir, pitting private citizens against
one another, gave vivid testament to the fragmenting of an official con-
sensus about privacy in the latter half of the twentieth century, an era in
which the bound aries of propriety had been exposed as having a politics all
their own.172

At the century’s end, the combination of new vehicles for telling all, the
imperatives of authenticity, and every individual’s steadily accumulating
rec ord meant that achieving some semblance of privacy—or control over
one’s narrative— could entail talking rather than hiding, divulging rather
than seeking solitude. That doing so could place one in a community of
disclosing others meant that the confessional turn was never as solipsistic
as critics imagined, just as a mania for privacy could prove narcissistic and
public facing.173 What the talk shows, the memoir boom, and a thoroughly
personalized public sphere indicated was that the old terms for thinking
about privacy, laid down in the nineteenth century, were being sloughed
off for new ones.

Publicists of Their Own Lives
The memoir boom showed no sign of retreat in the twenty- first century.174
Between 2004 and 2008 alone, sales of those books categorized as Personal
Memoirs, Childhood Memoirs, and Parental Memoirs increased more
than 400  percent.175 Memoir, a critic argues, had become “not only the
way stories are told, but the way arguments are put forth, products and
properties marketed, ideas floated, acts justified, reputations constructed

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or sal vaged.”176 The proliferation of memoir- writing guides and websites
(such as one “dedicated to delivering the message that Every one has a story
to tell and telling those stories!”) and the spate of false or faked memoirs in
recent years are indicative of the memoir’s pride of place in American
popu lar culture.177 Those who write and teach about memoirs are often
rueful regarding the genre’s status: one dedicates her book to “ those who
read memoirs and those who write memoirs,” as well as “ those who wish
we wouldn’t.”178 But they do not doubt its relevance or staying power. As
one of them puts it, “Memoir is, for better and often for worse, the genre
of our times.”179

Debate over the implications of the tell- all mode continues apace.
Looking askance at the phenomenon in 2010, one writer believed that it
fed off a “dramatic confusion . . . between private and public life.”180 De-
fenders of the genre instead described writing about oneself as the most
au then tic sort of examination available to con temporary citizens. David
Shields, an essayist— and a biographer of J. D. Salinger— had started out as
a fiction writer. But he found himself increasingly “bored by out- and- out
fabrication, by himself and others; bored by in ven ted plots and in ven ted
characters.” Compared to exploring one’s own life, “every thing else seems
like so much gimmickry.”181 He hoped these narratives “(autobiography,
confession, memoir, embarrassment, what ever) can perhaps produce some-
thing that is . . . ‘truer,’ more ‘real.’ ”182 A teacher of memoir criticizes the
critics who treat memoir writing as “nothing more than a New Age
Excrescence, a latest fad, the apotheosis of a self- as- victim movement spon-
sored in equal parts by therapists, confession gurus, and scandalmongers
eager to cash in on the bottomless societal appetite for self- exposing dis-
closure.”183 He argues instead that at its best the memoir responds to the
Socratic injunction to “Know thyself.” Faithful self- knowledge is its true
product, a “necessary wisdom” that cannot be found in any other way.
The pressure on individuals to make sense of personal experience “is as
intense as it has ever been,” he writes, and the need for exemplars that
light the way “if anything, growing.”184

This argument over what truly motivated con temporary confessions—
was it self- discovery or was it self- exploitation?— raged on even as disclo-
sures on the page were joined by those online.185 Structural changes in
the very nature of communications at the turn of the twenty- first century,
heralded by the arrival of “Web 2.0,” both tapped into the confessional
impulse and renewed debate about it. The social media platforms of the

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early 2000s were perhaps as significant as the telegraph cables and phone
lines of Warren and Brandeis’s day. And they resulted from a similar part-
nership of technology and commerce. Affinities between the new memoir-
ists and the “new media” would be immediately apparent. Social networking,
video sharing, blogging, and microblogging (that is, status updates and
tweets) did not simply permit their users to “create and share their own
content.”186 They practically incited them to do so, calling on users to
offer a steady stream of opinions, stories, reviews, likes, and dislikes, pref-
erably eliciting others’ interest in the pro cess. To be “invisible” on social
media— meaning “to post content without others noting it in some
way”— was to have fundamentally botched the proj ect.187

As technology scholar danah boyd makes clear, what was novel about
this networked mode was precisely its encouragement to share and spread
information. Personal communications, as a consequence, were more vis-
i ble and accessible than ever before. Wiretapping and “listening in” had
been products of a society that presumed most exchanges of information
to be privileged or at least hard to get at. In stunning fashion, new media
platforms inverted this “private- by- default, public- through- effort formula.”
This was evident in social media companies’ public ethos of “sharing,”
underwritten by their interest in the profits to be made from consumers’
data. It was also part of their hidden architecture, which ensured that
privacy settings were difficult to manipulate.188 The new code—technical
and cultural both—supported publicity rather than privacy.

If new confessionals upended traditional autobiography and even tradi-
tional memoir writing, the web log (or blog) reinvented and recharged the
diary for the Internet age. New formats for circulating one’s story prolifer-
ated, spurred on by the ease of projecting one’s life into cyberspace and
the lure of winning untold readers and fans. What ever one’s stance on this
“global autobiography proj ect,” there was no gainsaying its appeal.189 By
2006 there were 27.2 million web logs in existence, with the number of new
blogs doubling every five months or 75,000 new blogs being created a
day.190 Five years later, a Nielsen survey put the number of blogs around
the world at 181 million, with three of the ten largest social networking
sites— Blogger, WordPress, and Tumblr— housed in the United States.191
This “unpre ce dented movement of modern autobiographical speakers”
was explained as the confluence of digital diarists’ “relaxed view of
personal privacy, the desire to share their stories publicly, and the techno-
logical access to reach a widespread audience.”192 Others characterized

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the trend less charitably: “Kids today. They have no sense of shame. They
have no sense of privacy. They are show- offs, fame whores, pornographic
little loons who post their diaries, their phone numbers, their stupid
poetry— for God’s sake, their dirty photos!— online.”193

The pivot to “kids today” was not incidental to the discussion. While the
memoir was often the province of the middle- aged or older— a medium
for those who had lived enough of a life to reflect on at length— web- based
formats were initially the territory of the young. Fear and fascination about
new modes of self- broadcasting centered on adolescents who appeared to
have no understanding of, or placed no value on, personal privacy. A New
Yorker cartoon from 2010 pictured a mother sitting in her attic thumbing
through an old diary; her daughter asks: “What was the point of writing a
blog that nobody else could read?”194

Some saw teens as harbingers of networked sociability, their inner selves
firmly beamed outward toward a host of friends and followers. Others
portrayed them as the society’s true realists, the “only ones for whom it
seems to have sunk in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illu-
sion” in a world of not just known but surveilled citizens.195 The most
popu lar refrain by far, however, was that the young pioneers of social media
were on a mission to do away with personal privacy. This was true even as
scholars dismantled the assumption that teen agers were any more inter-
ested in baring themselves to the world than was anyone else.196 In this
analy sis, social media was simply the latest stage for strug gles over “private
space and personal expression” that adolescents had waged before in their
diaries and suburban bedrooms.197 Indeed, it was yet another site where
teen agers sought to evade the most irritating privacy intruders of all: their
parents, who often insisted on monitoring teens’ social media use. Privacy,
concluded one study, was something that youth “are actively and continu-
ously trying to achieve in spite of structural or social barriers that make it
difficult to do so.”198

The publicness of social media presented opportunities for young and
old alike: the ability to keep track of a wide range of acquaintances, and
its converse, a much- expanded potential audience for one’s own daily
life. It for the same reasons introduced new privacy prob lems. As two
scholars of surveillance would summarize the state of things, particularly
in light of the rise of power ful data aggregators, “If you figure that your
life is so disor ga nized, private, and fragmented that no biographer would
or could keep track of it, think again.”199 Managing what about oneself

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should and should not be made available to others suddenly became
fraught with complexity. Social media users in response devised creative
strategies to control the flow of their data. One of the most in ter est ing of
these, as documented in an ethnography of teenagers conducted by
danah boyd, was sharing information in order to maintain one’s privacy. “In
a world in which posting updates is common, purposeful, and performa-
tive,” she writes, “sharing often allows teens to control a social situation
more than simply opting out. It also guarantees that others can’t define
the social situation.” By emphasizing, excluding, or rewriting aspects of
their personal lives on platforms premised on “unlimited sharing,” boyd
contends, these users have both sought out and been able to achieve
meaningful privacy online— even and perhaps especially when they ap-
peared to be telling all.200 Teens thus navigated the unfamiliar techno-
logical platforms on which social life now played out with the tools at
their disposal. Much like confessional memoirists, they deliberately pro-
jected narratives about themselves that might shelter private life or at
least their preferred telling of it. They spilled secrets, but they also worked
to shape their stories.

8.2. Blogs and other social media provoked much consternation about
changing privacy norms in the early twenty- first century.

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Social media users’ ability to regulate how and to whom they are known,
however, was hardly as simple as that. The same technology that facilitated
connection and sociability carried unpre ce dented possibilities for surveil-
lance, as well as the prospect of forced visibility. Norms around privacy
were, as always, a complex amalgam of individual choices and societal co-
ercion. The ability of giant technology corporations to set the terms for
online “sharing” was a case in point. The deliberate weakening of Face-
book’s privacy policies from 2005 to 2009, argue two scholars, “betrays that
this medium isn’t simply adapting to new conceptions of privacy as em-
bodied by younger people—it is actively shaping those conceptions and
slowly pushing users toward ac cep tance of further exposure and less
control.”201 The notion that users of these platforms in any real sense
consented to trade away some of their privacy for access has been called a
fiction (or worse). As the same scholars pointedly ask, “To what extent are
we truly willing participants when a nearly universal architecture of com-
munication . . . dominates our social world and becomes necessary for
keeping a job, attending school, or having a life? Can you really opt out?
Can you really even imagine opting out?”202 A journalist likewise ob-
serves, “In a culture where people judge each other as much by their
digital footprints as by their real- life personalities, it’s an act of faith to
opt out of sharing your data.”203

Yet the fact that so many opted in was the easier target and more potent
fascination for commentators. This included one cybercritic who dismissed
blogging as confessional culture’s end of the line, where “narcissism and
voyeurism join together in a closed cir cuit and the lines between inner
and outer life dissolve entirely.”204 Blogs were not the half of it. Real ity
tele vi sion, webcams, and smartphones were each roundly criticized for
violating the categories of inner and outer, public and private, watcher and
watched.205 That sense of transgression had defined the memoir boom too.
By the turn of the twenty- first century its technologies of talk had escaped
its generic confines to become the very texture of modern public life, ani-
mating what one critic described as “the inexhaustible eagerness of people
to tell their life stories.”206

Once again, An American Family pointed the way. The series was reg-
ularly returned to as ground zero, seeming to foreshadow the nonstop
exhibitionism of real ity TV and a larger culture of self- display.207 One
twenty- first- century critic described the voluntary self- exposure of the
Louds in 1973 as “quaint” mea sured against later developments (he noted

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programs like Fear Factor that competed for ratings by heaping abuse on
participants) that would make it “grotesquely obvious that many Ameri-
cans will do anything to be on tele vi sion.”208 The PBS documentary was
also the acknowledged template for The Real World, a trail- blazing pro-
gram that gathered a set of young adults, strangers to one another, in a
residence in a new city and then let the cameras roll. It would, however,
dispense with the sort of negotiations that had enabled the Louds some
control over what would stay off the camera. The show debuted on MTV
in 1992 and went on to become the longest- running real ity program on
tele vi sion; at this writing it is in its thirty-third season.209

No longer were commentators surprised, as they had been in 1973, by
Americans’ desire to play out their private moments before strangers. Ac-
cording to one 2000 source, The Real World received upward of 35,000 ap-
plications to appear on the show each year. Competitors such as Survivor
and Big Brother joined the field even as individuals discovered that they
could bypass them all by setting up shop as their own documentarians.
The Internet by the late 1990s teemed with web cameras broadcasting
“live feeds from their offices and boudoirs.” By the turn of the new
century, a quarter- million webcam sites were registered, with more coming
online every day.210 Once again, as had been the case a century before,
the camera was critical to the shifting relationship between private life and
public persona— and right at the center of debates over what was becoming
of privacy in modern Amer i ca.

The Louds were not just precursors to this brave new world of self-
display, but active participants in it. Ten years after the original PBS series
aired, Susan and Alan Raymond made another documentary about the
family. Titled An American Family Revisited (1983), it focused largely on
how publicity had entered and then altered their private lives.211 Afterward,
the filmmakers vowed never again to intrude on the family. But in 2001,
reversing the usual positions of documentarian and subject, Lance Loud
invited the Raymonds, who had remained friends, to start up their cam-
eras. His request: that they film “one final chapter.” The occasion was
Lance’s imminent death from complications of hepatitis C and HIV.212
According to the Los Angeles Times, Lance viewed this as his last shot at
the screen and a chance to repair his family’s image—to prove to the
American viewing public that the Louds were, in the words of Susan
Raymond, a “strong family” and not a “disjointed, fractured” one. Tell-
ingly, the newspaper reported, “He wanted to do it on camera . . . even

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though it was tele vi sion that had also deeply wounded the family in the
first place.”213 It would be difficult to find a stronger testament than this to
the idea that publicity makes people real, to the profound transformations
that real ity TV had effected in citizens’ consciousness, and to the confes-
sional impulse itself. Lance Loud’s private life had been uniquely entan-
gled with his televised self since age 19. Even as it ended, his sense that its
message required a large, anonymous audience persisted.

Lance’s desire to have his last days broadcast may not be particularly
shocking in an age when blogging, sexting, and twenty- four- hour camera
surveillance have become normal. But it should be emphasized, as had
been the case for his mother’s memoir (and also of a later biography she
wrote of her son), that Lance was not intent on disclosure for its own
sake. He had par tic u lar ends in mind. Most of all, he wanted to correct
the rec ord: to be known publicly as he knew himself.214 He told the Ray-
monds that the film was “for the naysayers that claimed ‘American
Family’ revealed us to be vacant, unloving, uncaring morons of the
materialistic ’70s.” And he vowed that “this image will be proven wrong
when Mom and Dad remarry.” The Raymonds agreed to the proj ect.
Lance Loud! A Death in An American Family, which PBS promoted as the
“final episode” of the famous series, aired in January 2003, portraying Lance’s
physical decline, as well as his attempt to “sort things out about his life.”215
Uncannily, as if scripted beyond the grave, soon after the broadcast Pat
and Bill Loud were reported to have re united. In this they granted “one of
their oldest son’s last wishes,” the Los Angeles Times observed. The film
ended, “as Lance wanted, with a written epilogue stating that his parents,
Pat and Bill, are now living together again.”216

Lance’s biography, the newspaper reflected, was a “cautionary tale of the
aftermath of a life profoundly affected at a young age by instant celebrity
brought on by intense media exposure.”217 In its analy sis, the blurring of
private and public matters had undone him. The New York Times echoed
the sentiment in its obituary, reflecting that “overnight celebrity created
special prob lems for Lance, as a young gay man in Manhattan.” The film-
makers concurred. Among the themes of the new film, said Alan Ray-
mond, was the “price of media celebrity.” Lance, he observed, “carried the
burden of being the first openly gay person on American tele vi sion, frozen
at age 19, forced to forever carry that wacky gay guy persona into his ma-
ture adult life”— a sentiment reminiscent of Susanna Kaysen’s reflections
on her own interrupted life.218 Lance Loud was, in other words, never able

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to return to a purely private life or to distinguish it from his public one. He
was a known citizen all the way to his core, and this was a form of tragedy.

The makers of the series appeared scarred by the experience too. The
Los Angeles Times reported that the Raymonds found it a “mixed honor”
to be credited with real ity TV, of the sort that flourished in the new century,
judging shows like The Real World, in a word, “terrible.”219 A retrospec-
tive on Craig Gilbert in the New Yorker in 2010—in response to yet an-
other retread of the documentary, this time a fictionalized version of the
making of An American Family for Home Box Office— also found the
director uneasy with what he had wrought. Prolific up until that point,
Gilbert never made another film after the 1973 series, and “he has spent
the years since then trying to avoid the notoriety that came with his cre-
ation.”220 The article noted lasting animosity between the director and his
crew, with Susan Raymond charging that “Craig destroyed that family.”
The New Yorker suggested that battles over owner ship were instead the
cause: “the Raymonds are still bitter that they weren’t given proper credit
for effectively creating real ity TV.” Gilbert, for his part, “seems crushed by
the knowledge that he did.”221

Lance himself took a less anxious and ultimately more generous view of
the phenomenon. Twenty- five years after his screen debut, he was asked to
comment on “the genre of exhibiting somebody’s life” and whether “ we’ve
been exposed to too much of it.” He joked that the greatest contribution
in his case was to supply a trivia question for the game show Jeopardy.
Nevertheless, he thought An American Family had been worth doing: “It
gave people solace. As for the invasion of privacy, we don’t have that much
privacy in the first place, and offering other people comfort is a good way
to spend it.”222 Acknowledging the already existing limits to personal pri-
vacy at the turn of the twenty- first century, as well as the pleasures of
disclosure, Lance’s reflections might get us closer than did his inter-
preters’ to understanding what a confessional culture offered to those
who inhabited it.

In the three de cades spanning the two PBS documentaries, private life—
to a degree that would have astonished Americans of earlier generations—
would be played out in public. A couple’s failing marriage and divorce, a
woman’s strug gle with psychological and sexual disorders, a daughter’s
emotional suffering at the hands of her father, and a dying man’s final
days became publicly vis i ble and consumable in print, on screen, and

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online. Some proponents of the searing new standard of disclosure praised
these developments for their honesty, arguing that they exposed exploita-
tion and healed pain, enabling their audiences to form more empathetic
imaginations.223 A greater number billed these same trends as voy eur is tic
and damaging, a sign of Americans’ emptiness— but also their misappre-
hension of the proper place of privacy in their emotional and psychic
lives. Parties on both sides of this argument might have agreed that an era
of privacy, as it had once been understood, was ending.

Was Lance’s last per for mance an act of control, a successful bid to take
charge of his public image and vindicate a vision of his childhood? Or
had TV, as he memorably charged on another occasion, “swallowed” his
family? Was the documentary, and the whole apparatus of real ity TV and
self- broadcasting that it gave rise to, simply another sort of rec ord prison?
Or the only way to escape it? Were the new modes of public introspection
in the late twentieth century, from confessional memoirs to talk shows and
blogs, always and only a repudiation of privacy? Or were they a sign that a
new relationship between the private person and the technologies of pub-
licity was under construction?

If nothing else, the full- throated embrace of publicity at the turn of the
twenty- first century— unimaginable to those who first called for a right to
privacy a century before— made evident the ways past debates were im-
pinging on the pres ent. At least some portion of the impulse to disclose
and become vis i ble, to stage one’s public story by plumbing its private di-
mensions, was a response to what had come before. The urge to talk so
palpable in our own age of social media was already there in the confes-
sional turn of the 1990s. And under neath that confessional turn was both
the expansion of the documentary rec ord on all citizens and the failures
of legal rights and regulations to enforce secure bound aries around the
person. “This confessional age,” as one journalist put it, “in which mem-
oirs and personal revelations tumble out in unpre ce dented abundance,”
was in this light a long- germinating response to the dilemmas posed by a
knowing society.224 Even if we conclude that the new mode of self- exposure
exacted a price, we should not ignore the fact that it came with its own
strategies for personal autonomy and control.

Americans did not simply start giving their privacy away or in any
straightforward way change their minds about its importance in the late
twentieth century. From a certain angle, privacy was valued more than ever
in this era. So was the right to tell one’s own story. Critics who assumed that

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the confessional turn meant a weakening of Amer i ca’s moral fiber or that
citizens had become inexcusably self- consumed missed the complex of
developments that made personal revelation so potent. They could not
grasp the way that confession might turn the surveillance society inside
out. Early in the twenty- first century, a commentator declared that “our
physical bodies are being shadowed by an increasingly comprehensive
‘data body,’ ” a body of data, moreover, that “does not just follow but precedes
the individual being mea sured and classified.”225 In such circumstances,
continuous visibility on one’s own terms, whether through a memoir, a spot
on real ity tele vi sion, or a status update, begins to look like a tactic—if not
an unproblematic one— for defending a privately claimed identity.

The impulse to tell one’s story that reached such a pitch in the 1990s and
is with us still charted a shift in social imaginings of privacy. In an era of
dossiers and databases, tabloids and transparency, privacy no longer was to
be found in cordoned- off places— indeed, such spaces no longer seemed
to exist— but rather in the act of controlling one’s information and image,
those pieces of external repre sen ta tion that more and more seemed to con-
stitute one’s inner self. Shape the narrative; mobilize the facts and details
of yourself; get out ahead of your critics; be your own image maker, editor,
and producer; live out loud: this seemed to be the emerging practice of
privacy at the turn of the twenty- first century. Both a symptom of and a
solution to an all- knowing society, the trend suggests that the age of con-
fession may be just beginning.

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