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Through the Looking Glass : The temptation to snoop in other people's bathroom cabinets can be irresistible. Visitors in your home just might be doing the same thing unto you.

May 03, 1994|KATHLEEN DOHENY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The party started more than an hour ago. Now, your host's house is brimming with interesting characters chatting against a backdrop of soft music.

And there you are . . . in the bathroom . . . slowly unlatching the small mirrored door above the wash basin . . . giving the toilet a quick flush with your free hand to muffle any telltale sounds.

You draw in a breath and hold it, afraid a bottle or two will come crashing into the sink. But the door opens with nothing more than a click .

Yesssss, you say to yourself while taking inventory, you are a low-life, an incorrigible medicine cabinet snoop.

Why do generally upstanding, respectable folks--who wouldn't lie, cheat or steal--find it perfectly OK to root through your medicine cabinet like DEA agents with a search warrant?

We went to the experts to get the scoop on snooping.

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For some of us, "there's a certain thrill in breaking any kind of rule," says Gary Emery, a Los Angeles psychologist who has "occasionally" looked in others' medicine cabinets.

Peeking, he says, "has a kind of voyeuristic quality." It might also be a backward way of trying to get to know someone better--a kind of mission to find out personal details, he says.

"Medicine cabinets are where you find secrets," agrees Dr. Troy Thompson, chair of the psychiatry department at Jefferson Medical College and Hospital in Philadelphia. "People are naturally curious, and they like to know things about other people."

Hollywood has tackled this burning issue. In the 1991 movie, "Father of the Bride," Steve Martin rifles through the medicine cabinet of his prospective in-laws. More recently, Ann-Margret sneaks a peek at the medicine cabinet of her neighbor Jack Lemmon in "Grumpy Old Men."

"Medicine cabinets are treasure troves," Thompson says. "Look in, and you can find out if someone has a disease, a medical condition requiring treatment, their contraceptive practices and how vain they are."

Sociologist Jeanne Curran, a professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, cites another motivation for snooping.

"These days, people are having a terrible problem with trust," she says. "A medicine cabinet contains objects, and we have a weird faith in objective reality."

Its contents can verify information. For example, he says he's into preventive health; you spot his vitamin supply. She says she can't meet you for lunch because she has an eye doctor appointment; her cabinet stores her contact lens cleaning solutions.

The innards of a medicine cabinet also reveal a thing or two about fidelity.

Let's say she says she loves you and you alone, but when you open the medicine cabinet, you find a razor that definitely is not your razor, nor are the little shavings your shavings.

Or he says you are the only one for him, but when you go inside the medicine cabinet to retrieve your Chanel No. 5, you notice there's a bottle of Jean Nate on the bottom shelf, next to two toothbrushes--his and not yours.

Why the attraction to medicine cabinets? After all, this story isn't about rummaging through glove compartments or socks drawers.

Face it, bathrooms are fertile ground for snooping. Your poking around is unseen by others, you can take as much time as you need, you generally are uninterrupted, and running water from various sources is a natural muffler as you proceed full throttle on your search-and-discover mission.

Of course, some peeking is nosiness, pure and simple, as Curran well knows.

For a time, she kept a plastic Venus de Milo statue, made up with lipstick, in her bathtub with the curtain drawn. When she had guests, she made it a point to watch their expressions as they exited her bathroom.

"I could always tell who had drawn back the curtain," she says, "by the looks on their faces."

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