Gay Talese Stays Too Long At 'The Voyeur's Motel'
The penis, Gay Talese writes in Thy Neighbor's Wife,his 1981 book on the American sexual revolution, "knows no moral code."
"Often regarded as a weapon," he writes, it "is also a burden, the male curse. It has made some men restless roués, voyeurs, flashers, rapists." The penis is but "prey" to the omnipotent temptation of women, "the bevy of buttocks in tight jeans."
One such voyeur — victim, apparently, of the terrible and stern dictates of the penis — is Gerald Foos, the subject of Talese's new book.
Talese was about to publish Thy Neighbor's Wifewhen he got a strange letter. It was from a man in Colorado who claimed to have important information about American sexual habits. Gerald Foos, as his name was later revealed to be, owned a motel, and used it to spy on his guests having sex through vents in the ceiling, taking detailed notes on their practices while endlessly stimulating his male burden.
Talese had ethical doubts — occasionally, in this book, he'll produce these qualms as if for applause, and then immediately usher them offstage — but he flies to Colorado anyway. There, he accompanied the titular voyeur into the attic of the titular motel to watch unsuspecting guests have sex, go to the bathroom, and otherwise live their private lives.
"Had I become complicit in his strange and distasteful project?" Talese asks (and then — exeunt scruples). He continues to correspond with Foos over the decades, hoping the voyeur will eventually consent to be written about. That is not a courtesy extended to the people in the motel rooms whose sex lives are described by Talese and also in long quoted passages of Foos's journals, although Talese had their names and addresses.
That lack of consent is the book's original, irreducible sin. Out of it stem other, lesser faults — faults of fact, taste, and ethics — but it is this violation that makes the whole book basically untenable.
That lack of consent is the book's original, irreducible sin. Out of it stem other, lesser faults — faults of fact, taste, and ethics — but it is this violation that makes the whole book basically untenable. The penis may not have a moral code, but the journalist does. And a journalist just cannot commit a sex crime in the course of researching a book.
But what is almost more stunning than the violation is Talese's failure to reflect on it in any way that is not perfunctory. If there is a problem with your work, you can affix a disclaimer to it and move along, or you can make the problem the focus of the work, examine it, let it work its uneasy fingers into the story. If Talese does note some of the inconsistencies and moral problems — which should have been the heart of the book, if it were to be written at all — he then bypasses them with the swiftness of a moving train.
I think of the queasy and incisive book Janet Malcolm could have written. But so far is he from Malcolm and her characteristic self-interrogation that, in a recent NPR interview, Talese compared himself to Alfred Kinsey and James Joyce, saying that in their times they were both considered peddlers of smut — as if his critics are prudes unhappy that he is explicit about sex, rather than concerned about his factual errors and the ethical problem of writing about people without their consent. "Maybe as a writer, I'm a smut peddler, but this is the voice of free America," Talese told NPR's Lynn Neary.
But the Voice of Free America didn't do his research. In another disclaimer, Talese announces, "I cannot vouch for every detail that [Foos] recounts in his manuscript." And indeed, the Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi found that Foos lied to Talese about a number of important facts, errors that a thorough investigator would have uncovered. And if Talese has consulted victims, lawyers, or the vast academic literature on voyeurism, there is no hint of that research in this book. He never even performs the basic exercise of imagining what it would feel like to be the victim of voyeurism.
You could say voyeurism hits twice: There is the original violation of privacy and then the second punch of revelation. Foos (and occasionally Talese) was the author of the first, and Talese the author, in every sense, of the second. So much of the damage comes in the discovery, the horror of finding out that your private moments were not private. But Talese never attempts to contact the victims, although Foos gave him their names and addresses. Are they still alive? Will they recognize themselves?
Talese presents the voyeur like the journalist's dark twin — the curious invisible observer taken a step too far. He says he was drawn to Foos's story because of similarities between Foos's methods and his own journalism, and he cites the opening line of his book The Kingdom and the Power:"Most journalists are restless voyeurs who see the warts on the world, the imperfections in people and places." But the journalistic no-man, the disembodied observer, the silent witness, does not exist. Being a journalist does not absolve you of being a human; a voyeur is not just a benign disembodied eye. Talese encouraged Foos, corresponded with him over decades, validated him, and allowed him to profit — Foos will receive payment from the publisher for use of his journal entries.
Being a journalist does not absolve you of being a human; a voyeur is not just a benign disembodied eye.
"What charges, if any, might be levied against Gerald Foos?" Talese asks. "He openly admitted to being a voyeur, although he added that nearly all men are voyeurs. Foos insisted that he never harmed any of his guests, since none were aware of his watching them, and so the worst that might be said was that he was guilty of trying to see too much."
Not exactly. Talese has provided encouragement and money to a man doing very concrete and traceable harm: When Foos observed guests using drugs, of which he disapproved, he would go into their rooms and flush them — leading, in one case, to a murder after a woman's boyfriend thought she stole them (this is according to Foos — there is no police record of the murder). If a guest intrigued him and she lived nearby, he would follow her home.
What could justify encouraging this? By publishing parts of Foos's journal, Talese seems to implicitly endorse Foos's idea that it serves as a valuable or illuminating historical document. But even if we were to allow this grossly utilitarian justification, what have we learned? That people fight over money, pee in the sink, and prefer the missionary position? Is that worth the violation?
Talese has covered bad guys before: Honor Thy Father,his 1971 book about a Mafia family, for instance. But a strenuously-researched book, written with the consent of its subjects, about the dynamics of a Mafia family has clear value; a rigorless profile of a single Peeping Tom does not.
Talese means to implicate us, the readers, in this chain of voyeurism. He draws us into his collapsible telescope: We are watchers of a watcher of a watcher watching the watched. And if we read it — as I did, and wish I hadn't – he succeeds: We are guilty, too.
In his 1996 essay "Origins of a Nonfiction Writer," Talese says that he writes about those "who have earned society's disapproval and contempt," in order to "illuminate a larger area in which a part of us all live."Gerald Foos suggests that men are all voyeurs in some sense, and Talese seems to agree with him, that a part of us (or, rather, men) live up in the attic with Gerald Foos. As Talese puts it in Thy Neighbor's Wife,"Men were natural voyeurs, women were exhibitors."
Talese means to implicate us, the readers, in this chain of voyeurism. He draws us into his collapsible telescope: We are watchers of a watcher of a watcher watching the watched. And if we read it — as I did, and wish I hadn't — he succeeds: We are guilty, too. We are witnessing something very private from people who did not give us their consent.
In 2008, a Peeping Tom secretly taped the sports journalist Erin Andrews from the peep hole of her hotel room. He then published it online. It is not ethical for us to watch the tape, even if we did not make the video or disseminate it. The act of witnessing it — even in private, far away from Andrews in time and space — is still a violation. Here we have a book full of motel vents, a document opening down on something inarguably and inherently private, reproduced in bookstores around the country.
We can join them in the attic, or we can do what Foos and Talese didn't: Look away.
Annalisa Quinn is a freelance journalist and critic covering books and culture.
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