Janna Malmud Smith’s Book, “Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life”

July 18, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now a Gergen dialogue. David Gergen, editor-at-large of “U.S. News & World Report,” engages Janna Malamud Smith, a pscyotherapist, author of Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life.

DAVID GERGEN: Janna, at a time when many Americans are worried about losing their privacy, one of the main themes of your book is that we, by historical standards, we actually have a lot more privacy today than we have had in the past.

JANNA MALAMUD SMITH, Author, Private Matters: That was one of the things that really sort of surprised me in writing the book. When I set out, I didn’t know that, and I realized as I was looking at the material that, in fact, until the 18th century–I think it is–Phil Barrios says–no one ever thought about spending time alone.

It wasn’t that they had “no” privacy. They could pull into themselves. They could decide not to speak, but they didn’t expect to be alone to spend time reading, to spend time writing letters, to spend time alone with a friend. These were experiences that really we’ve developed in the last couple of hundred years.

DAVID GERGEN: It was striking that in some of the colonies it was forbidden to live alone, or you could be heavily fined if you lived alone.

JANNA MALAMUD SMITH: That’s right. And I think in 17th century Connecticut you were absolutely forbidden to live alone. It was just considered a bad idea.

DAVID GERGEN: It was striking in this book how you saw privacy through the eyes of artists and how much this expanded privacy met to their personal development one way.

JANNA MALAMUD SMITH: Right. Artists are sort of wonderful people to look at when you want to understand privacy because it turns out it’s very hard to make art–perhaps not the stained glass windows of Shartre, but the art that we live with today, to write a book, to paint the kinds of paints we love, to compose, without being able to have a lot of privacy.

And when I started looking at the lives of these artists, it struck me that they really embodied the issue. For example, Henry James was fanatical about his privacy. When a friend of his died, he traveled across two countries to go burn some letters he was afraid that she might have of his.

And I think that he felt that if he could keep his life unobserved, he could make it safe to expose himself a lot in his writing. And I have a feeling that that’s almost a template for the way a lot of artists feel, or maybe all of us on some level feel.

DAVID GERGEN: But with Emerson, for example, you would argue that it’s that veil of privacy behind which an artist can really grow and develop in ways they might not otherwise reach.

JANNA MALAMUD SMITH: Right. And what’s wonderful about Emerson’s stories that we think now about Emerson as some aloof man who was sort of remote–and, in fact, he was a very passionate man who had deep, close friendships–and what I learned looking at his life is that it was only through these friendships, having the audience of a friend on whom he could try out a new idea, that gave him the courage to then go public with his ideas.

And what that allowed him to do in the course of his life was to take some pretty important, unpopular positions to be against slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act before that was really acceptable in his community, to raise money for John Brown, to do different things that required an enormous amount of self-reliance. His idea of self-reliance was that it meant you listened to your own voice; not that you didn’t have close friends; not that you tried to live alone.

And it turns out that you can only listen to your own voice well if you’ve had periods of privacy and intimacy and friendship, being part of what privacy shields, where you can learn to trust that voice, where somebody could say, yes, I like that idea; that’s a good one.

DAVID GERGEN: Recognizing then how important privacy is to freedom and to dignity, how serious are the threats to privacy today?

JANNA MALAMUD SMITH: I think they’re very serious. And maybe the most serious one is how little we think about some of the changes that we make to protect people against the downside of our culture.

And what I mean by that is that as we get more isolated from each other and we can’t watch each other personally, we’re more and more kind of in an anxiety, turning to means of surveillance as a way of watching each other, whether it’s through cameras at the office place or urine tests, or–one of my favorite examples are teddy bears with video cameras in them so that you can watch the person taking care of your child.

And so, in a way, in an effort to get on top of some of our fears about contemporary life, we are too quickly sacrificing privacy. And I think we’re going to lose something very important–

DAVID GERGEN: So at the very time we have this expanded freedom, this expanded privacy, in some ways it can be an illusion.

JANNA MALAMUD SMITH: That’s right. And I think it’s funny because what we’re giving with one hand–for instance, a gay couple might have the right to a relationship–a private relationship if the culture will leave them alone–which is an important part of privacy, I think–we’re taking away with the other, which is that the minute anybody goes to work now in many, many corporations, they agree to a kind of surveillance from the day they’re hired.

DAVID GERGEN: How then should we think about the lines that–how to draw the lines, so that we protect people’s privacy, but we don’t, in effect, allow them license to do things that we might find socially intolerable?

JANNA MALAMUD SMITH: Right. I think that in a sense that’s the question we’re struggling with now as a culture, though I’m not sure we framed it accurately as that question. And I think when we look at sending people who’ve abused children home to a neighborhood and wonder whether we should inform the neighbors, that’s a wonderful contemporary issue of how much privacy do these people deserve.

And I think that our rule of thumb needs to be much more based in respecting the kind of level of humanness and human dignity that can’t exist unless we have some privacy. So we always have to trade off the harm of the way that privacy can be turned into a kind of corrupted secrecy, so that some people use privacy to carry out secret acts that are harmful.

They sort of corrupt it from that side. So we have to balance that concern that the privacy will be corrupted into secrecy, where things will happen that are harmful to people and to the common good, with the other concern, which is if we up our surveillance in the kind of impersonal bureaucratic surveillance that we tend to have now, without thinking that we’re upping it, we will harm privacy from the other side.

DAVID GERGEN: You had to think about this a great deal as the daughter of Bernard Malamud, the novelist, how much the public had a right to know about his life. I’ve thought about this working for public figures. How much should the public know about these personalities that loom so large in our culture?

JANNA MALAMUD SMITH: It’s a hard question to answer categorically. I think that there are situations–for example, Paul Tsongas’s cancer in a candidate, where probably the public had more right to know than the knowledge they were given–but then what worries me are the situations where the public doesn’t want to know–for reasons to help make informed decisions but wants to know for reasons of either harming that person gratuitously, or just out of sort a purient voyeurism, and how you balance these two things is a really tricky question.

DAVID GERGEN: It’s also true that some political figures do put their private lives into play. They try to get votes by talking about their private lives.

JANNA MALAMUD SMITH: Right. And I wrote about that in the book. And I think that what’s been difficult lately in sort of what we might call the post Woodstock nation era is that people, in part, want to represent themselves as having sort of these touchy-feely private lives.

You know, I’m a good father; I’m a good husband, or a good wife, or whatever it is. On the other hand, they don’t want the press to look closely. And I think that’s a terrible double bind for them.

DAVID GERGEN: Well, Janna Smith, thank you very much for your insights.