Biograohy: Sex, drugs and litigation


April 09, 1995|By Deirdre Bair | Deirdre Bair,Special to The Sun

Does anyone have the right to privacy anymore? Not if they are important enough that it matters.

It was not until I finished writing my biography of Anais Nin that I realized the book was about a dysfunctional family, wife beating, child abuse, incest, pornography, promiscuity and bigamy - just to name a few of the more outrageous acts that defined this controversial writer's life.

The realization reminded me of Samuel Johnson's decree that biography (and by extension, history and general non-fiction) should never tell more than what is "seemly to know." I worried about just what Dr. Johnson meant by "seemly" as I wrote Samuel Beckett's biography (published 1978). Now considered a fairly discreet chronology of the man's life, the book was shocking then, mostly because biographies of living persons were rare. I chortled over criticisms that I had invaded Beckett's privacy, especially when I recalled all that I knew and had not written, particularly of his sexual proclivities. But in terms of "seemly," the book was right for the time and I stand by my judgments.

Things are different now. Ours is an era of sex, drugs and litigation, where all taboos have been broken and nothing is too shocking or violent to prevent it from publication. Everything is grist for the ever-churning mill of print, where tabloid journalism far too frequently sets the tone for what must be included in a serious account of a person's life and work if it is to be believable.

From celebrity gossip to politics, there is an insatiable appetite for every sordid and salacious detail. Nicole Brown Simpson's alleged drug use (see anything written about O.J.'s trial) and Grace Kelly's promiscuity (Robert Lacey's biography) command the same sort of appraisal as Eleanor Roosevelt's alleged lesbian friendships (Blanche Wiesen Cook's biography) or FDR's last passion for his sixth cousin, Margaret "Daisy" Suckley (in Geoffrey Ward's new book, "Closest Companion." 444 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $24.95). And the fracas over Diane Middlebrook's use of the tapes of Anne Sexton's psychiatric sessions in her biography has not abated: Even when people disagree about their use, they have no qualms about demanding to know what they contain.

"The biographer has the obligation to tell the truth, no matter what it may be," says Joan Mellen, the American biographer of Kay Boyle, echoing the British Desmond MacCarthy's half-century-old contention that the biographer must write as "the artist under oath."

Ironically, it seems to depend on what truths are being told about which people. Hackles may be raised, but only selectively. Readers dropped Cook's version of Eleanor's close female friendships as if the book were a coal too hot to handle, yet FDR's intimate letters to Daisy Suckley are accepted without a murmur. Why are there no blushes when reading of Nin's every perversity, while the several biographers now preparing alternate versions of Beckett's life tell me they fear the wrath that will descend upon them if they write the truth about his personal relationships? Is it because we don't want our idols to be homosexual, or are we merely talking about the different value society ascribes to the lives of men and women?

The controversy swirling around Middlebrook's use of Sexton's analyst's tapes divides into several camps. Mental health professionals, from psychiatrists to social workers, all agree that whatever passes between analyst and patient is forever confidential, even after the death of one or both. Writers and Literary scholars disagree, believing it is right to use anything that sheds light on an individual's growth and development.

The distinguished analyst and author James Hillman handled the issue succinctly in a recent conversation: "Your responsibility as the biographer is to find everything you can, including psychiatric documents, and to use it all judiciously and fairly. My responsibility as the therapist is to keep you from ever learning of such information in the first place."

Using everything involved me in a controversy similar to Middlebrook's. After Nin and her husband died, their analyst (aware that she herself was dying) collected every file pertaining to their 20 plus years of therapy and sent them to Nin's executor, saying he had to decide whether to destroy or preserve them. He chose to make everything available to me. I chose to use almost all this fascinating documentation because without it, I could not have explained much of Nin's behavior and most of her writing.

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