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TAKE THREE / Three Views of the Southland | PATT MORRISON

What About the Public's Right Not to Know?

April 10, 1998|PATT MORRISON

A lot of dismal anniversaries have come around lately--Martin Luther King's assassination first among them--but one that should not be allowed to tiptoe past unnoticed is the 20th anniversary of that bestselling gutspiller "Mommie Dearest."

Its author, Christina Crawford (out of Joan, by adoption), splashed down last week from northern Idaho to the City of Prophets and Profits, here to begin a speaking tour on her book's big anniversary, and to dangle before us another manuscript, a "Mommie" sequel. (Dear God, there's more?)

"Mommie" was one of the first boulders to cut loose in the deafening, tell-all avalanche that has obliterated the median between private life and public confessional.

To the good, the avalanche demanded that we take such conduct seriously: that children are beaten and tormented even in the "best" of families, and that being a drunk makes you a menace, not a droll New Yorker cartoon. Private abuses are now legitimately a public concern.

To the bad, it set a benchmark for pique-and-peephole publishing, titillation packaged as therapy. And that beast, the one we've been feeding on pain and despair--he's all appetite, he's huge, and he's still hungry. Running low on Aesop morality tales, we've taken to feeding him tabloid tittle-tattle.

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Instead of horns, the postmodern devil has a producer's headset; Faust wears a lavaliere microphone and yearns for Oprah. People seem willing to deliver up anything of themselves to public scrutiny, as long as it gets them on TV. We wear our inner lives, such as they are, inside out, like underwear put on in the dark.

In the 20 years post-"Mommie," reticence has become unfashionable, even suspiciously un-American. "No comment" now sounds like taking the 5th.

A French TV news producer I once knew said he was appalled--professionally gratified but personally shocked--that he could walk up to an American on the street and, with that camera as an icebreaker, ask intimate questions about anything--sex, money--and get forthright answers.

So short is the journey now from therapist's couch or lovers' sanctum to the paperback rights that we might as well skip the middlemen, save a few trees and just slide a tape recorder under the bed and hook it up to the mall loudspeakers.

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It took another species of mammal to outclass us during "Mommie" anniversary week.

J.J., the gray whale rescued as a newborn and raised at Sea World, was tumbled back into the Pacific, restored to health and deep water, and bearing two transmitter packs bolted to her blubber. With these, researchers intended to track her for 18 months. Within 48 hours she had shed them both.

"Fallen off" was the official explanation. Scraped off is what I prefer to think--that having had her every twitch monitored for 14 months, J.J. invoked Justice Louis Brandeis' right to be left alone.

J.J.'s dumping her electronic paparazzi is a reminder that serious intrusion into privacy comes not from a TV camera, but a microchip. It didn't take a subpoena from Kenneth Starr to know Monica Lewinsky's bookstore purchases: They're already on someone's computerized list. We're all on a list.

Half of phone-owning Californians pay to have unlisted numbers, and yet by writing a check or using a credit card, you unwittingly reveal more about yourself than you ever could in 15 minutes in the Warhol spotlight. What you read and eat, what you wear and sleep on, are tracked like troop movements by some marketing firm that stands to make money by using or peddling that data.

Even my mother, a most blameless woman, bought a shredder, to keep out of other hands the strings of numbers that, to a microchip, sum up a human life.

Clerks have asked for my ZIP Code even when I'm paying cash, and I'm tempted to sabotage their demographics--as pre-Industrial Revolution workers threw their wooden sabots into newfangled machines to clog up the works--by giving them the ZIP Code of perhaps the saddest, poorest place in the country, Pine Ridge, S.D., or the saddest and richest, Capitol Hill . . . just a mutinous consumer dragging her feet on the forced march that is taking us from citizenship to consumerism.

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If this is a basic citizenship test, I've failed. I don't want to know . . . and I don't want to tell. I don't care which way the presidential penis tilts, and I don't want to come back after the break to chat about "Penises I Have Known." I don't need the intimate details of Joan Crawford's toilette; I think I'd find J.J.'s more engrossing anyway. If that talk show booking devil ever gives up on Faust, he'll find that my only remotely religious terror is that hell is a library stocked with nothing but People magazines.

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Patt Morrison's e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com

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