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Sex-Obsessed: Private Goes Public in Poland '82 and U.S. '98

October 11, 1998|Nina Darnton | Nina Darnton, a journalist, covered Poland for Newsweek and National Public Radio from 1980-82

NEW YORK — When I lived in Poland under communism, I was accustomed to strange occurrences. The light bulb in my kitchen hummed from time to time, a peculiar buzzing with intermittent bouts of static. During phone conversations, I often heard the soft, distant sound of a radio playing a popular interview show, its host introducing some Polish celebrity. I wasn't surprised, exactly, because I knew my phone was tapped, but I was a bit disappointed that the machinery of communist control I so feared and abhorred wasn't a more worthy adversary: It was so clumsy and technologically inept.

I told my friends among the Polish dissidents and writers that we had to be careful not to discuss politically sensitive subjects on the phone, and they smiled that tolerant smile reserved for what they viewed as American naivete in the labyrinthine world of Eastern European communist society. "They aren't interested in your political views or even the names of people you are talking to," said the poet Agnieszka Osiecka. "They know all that through informants. They tap your phone for only one reason: They are interested in sex. They want to know who you and your husband are sleeping with and who your friends are having affairs with. They can use that information to force you and your friends to cooperate with them."

I found the explanation fascinating, but far-fetched. It seemed so Machiavellian and, in a strange way, so petty, that I couldn't believe it would actually be part of a nation's policy.

Later, after the Solidarity movement began, I heard that the actor Daniel Olbrychski, a Polish movie star who had made several films in France and Germany, was planning to go abroad to shoot a new movie. After applying for his passport--the coveted permission to leave the country that needed to be renewed with each trip--he was called into the office of a security officer. There was no problem with issuing a passport, the officer said, smiling. He was delighted that Olbrychski got the part, and he looked forward to seeing the movie.

There was one little thing, however. Would he have any contact with anyone in the Polish expatriate community living in France? Olbrychski allowed as how he might. Well, then, perhaps he would be willing, as a patriot and a good Polish citizen, to file reports to Warsaw on what they were talking about, their concerns and activities--not spying, you understand, just reporting on conversations.

Olbrychski said he didn't think he could. Ah, that is a shame, his inquisitor said. It would be terrible for the actor not to go to France, and he, the official, would hate it if Olbrychski's wife, Zuza, were to hear about the love affair her husband was having--and the officer named the woman Olbrychski was involved with.

So I learned my friends were right. What the authorities were after was material about private lives that they could use in a pervasive system of control.

I left Poland in 1982, and the totalitarian system that monitored citizens' private lives collapsed in 1989. Since then, the closest I've been to that kind of government-sanctioned snooping is independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation of the president of the United States. The wiring of Linda R. Tripp, a friend of Monica S. Lewinsky, so that she could monitor Lewinsky's private sexual confessions and turn them over to an investigator; the threatening of Lewinsky's mother to force her to reveal her daughter's secret confidences; the questions asked of Lewinsky herself, specifically aimed at garnering the most explicit sexual details, posed with the threat of criminal prosecution if she refused to cooperate; and then the use of those details to shame and humiliate both her and the president; even the political agenda and insidious intent behind the sexual phase of the investigation from its onset--are all worthy of the most Machiavellian thinkers in Poland's secret police.

How did it happen that this totalitarian aspect of government intrusion into private life, joyously overthrown by Eastern Europeans, was allowed to sprout up again in this country, where it is reviled? What weapon can be used against it?

Olbrychski used the truth. When his inquisitor threatened to tell his wife about his affair, the actor replied, "She already knows." Then he went home and told her. Undoubtedly, Bill Clinton should have told the truth. But his failure to respond correctly shouldn't obscure the fact that he shouldn't have been asked to respond at all.*

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