Do we need to share our private lives?

SHOW AND TELL

July 18, 1991|By Mary Corey

Look who's talking . . .

Sally Field 'fesses up to an eating disorder. An ex-Miss America reveals sexual abuse in her family. And Richard Dreyfuss discloses how he kicked cocaine.

In the sobering '90s, nearly any star worth a paragraph in People magazine seems willing to share a personal demon with the public.

But the latest tellers of tales are not only the rich and famous. Thanks to the plethora of talk shows, the rise of the self-help movement and the fall of the traditional family, society in general has grown more comfortable wearing its heart -- or disorder -- on its sleeve.

"Ten or 15 years ago, you'd never admit you went to a psychiatrist. Now if you don't go, you're not hip," says Burt Dubrow, creator and executive producer of "Sally Jessy Raphael."

In such a climate, former D. C. Mayor Marion Barry can come clean about his sex addiction; Mariette Hartley can admit that alcoholic stupors caused her to eat cat food; and a very pregnant Demi Moore can grace the cover of Vanity Fair wearing little more than a diamond ring.

All of which raises one nagging question: Is anything private anymore?

Not according to etiquette expert Letitia Baldrige.

"There is no discretion these days," she sniffs. "Anything goes."

Who deserves the credit? Or the blame?

"The Oprah-Donahue-Sally Jessy Raphael-Geraldo phenomenon makes a confessional posture seem normal, even desirable to the public," says Mark Crispin Miller, associate professor of media studies at Johns Hopkins University. "It no longer seems unnatural to exhibit one's problems, one's innermost fears."

Mental health professionals have long believed that the first step to recovering from addiction is to admit the problem, but many disagree about whether this current trend toward full disclosure is healthy or wise.

"People are telling other people things they normally wouldn't in order to feel a sense of closeness and to break through a sense of isolation," says Michael Figler, a psychology professor at Towson State University, who has written about this phenomenon in his book, "Happy Traveling: A Psychological Guide."

He believes that as people find less support in family, neighborhood or church life, they have begun a frantic search for intimacy. "There is this sense of wanting to connect to other people during a time of turmoil and change. One way of doing that is by telling people whatever you can about yourself. There's an air of desperation there," he says.

Others believe the growing self-help movement has played a significant role. "The whole society has become more psychologically oriented," says Ken Maton, associate professor of psychology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, who has studied self-help groups. "People now, as opposed to 20 or 30 years ago, are more willing to share what normally was very stigmatizing."

In the proper context, he says, revealing problems can help alleviate the sense of shame and self-blame people often attach to their disorders.

But when celebrities go public, there are other factors involved. Although they may help raise awareness of a social problem, there is also fame and money at stake.

"People are exploiting themselves to gain publicity and sell books," charges Ms. Baldrige. "We've become a gossip-oriented society. People are not reading great literature. They're

reading about somebody's fifth marriage."

L To the maven of manners, the whole thing reeks of bad taste.

"I personally feel that people should have pride of privacy, and there are certain things that should be relegated to the privacy of the home," she says. "Showing one's pregnant stomach . . . is better left in the realm of privacy. We seem to be heading in another direction. People are making money off telling their innermost secrets."

But those who have "gone public" also know that public revelations can exact a personal price. Several years ago, Tema Luft decided to speak out about having AIDS in the hopes of educating people. Since appearing on "Donahue" and "Sally Jessy Raphael" and making the rounds at colleges and universities, she has found people react to her with everything from admiration to disgust.

"Sometimes I think a lot of the grief in my life wouldn't have happened if I hadn't gone public," says Ms. Luft, 38, who lives in Parkville. "Some friends felt like I was airing my dirty laundry. My own mother and I barely talk now because of it. She says people are shunning her at her synagogue."

Attempts to share can backfire, psychologists agree, particularly when the secret is revealed at the wrong time or place. "If somebody has any question about whether it's appropriate to divulge . . . then it makes sense to talk about it with some trusted, good friends and to think about talking to a mental

health professional," says Dr. Charles M. Citrenbaum, a Cross Keys psychologist who works with abuse survivors.

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