God help the girl with an adolescent brother. Mine was an omnipresent snoop, like an inescapable eye in the sky.
Desperate for my own private place to hole up and write or read or draw unobserved, I made myself a private study in my bedroom closet. One day, I heard a scuttling noise, like a rat in the wall between the front-hall closet and mine. When I went to investigate, I found my brother innocently reading a magazine on the living-room couch. It wasn’t until later that I discovered the holes he’d drilled through the wall so that he could spy on me.
Worse was when the tiles beneath the bathtub faucet mysteriously broke, leaving an opening to the wall behind. I eventually figured out that he would sit in Mama’s darkened closet, snuggled up to the hatch that gave access to the bathroom plumbing, and secretly watch me bathe.
Then there was the time I fell asleep on the living-room couch under a light blanket and woke in the middle of the night to find that my brother had folded back the covers and pulled down my nightgown, and was now sitting on the rug staring at my newly developed breasts, as if in a trance. I pulled the blanket back up and pretended to be asleep. Later, I overheard him telling a friend that I had the most beautiful breasts he’d ever seen.
A few years ago, my brother came to visit me while he was in town for a conference, and he spent the night on the futon in my living room. Though I found it hard to sleep with him there, everything went just fine. The next morning at the airport, however, I felt the urge to confront him. As he was waiting for his flight, I told him how all his invasions while we were growing up had affected my sense of safety, even now.
“I was just being a red-blooded all-American boy,” he said, sipping his coffee.
“Yeah, well, what if it were your son doing those things to your daughter?”
That gave him pause. His kids were in their early teens at the time. He thought about it for a while, then apologized.
As I watched his plane take off, I felt as if I were standing there with a protective arm around the shoulder of my younger self.
J. K. B.
The e-mail message comes as a complete surprise. I stare at the computer screen, unable to respond or even to move. I want to cry. I want to run to my bed and burrow deep under the covers. But the children are already in the car, dressed in their leotards and ballet slippers, waiting dutifully for their mother to chauffeur them to their weekly dance lessons.
On the drive into town, the children are mercifully quiet. Gripping the wheel tightly, I avert my face to hide the tears that I am powerless to stop. I try to make my mind a blank, to forget the words of the message. I hope desperately that the baby will fall asleep on the drive so that, after dropping the girls at the ballet studio, I can lie back in the seat and give in to my tears.
But the baby doesn’t fall asleep, and the errands that I thought to abandon nag at me. I perform them quickly, seeking out empty aisles in the grocery store to avoid encountering anyone I know. Then it’s back to pick up the girls, who clamber into the car, talking excitedly about their lesson.
At home, I stumble through the routine of cooking, doing dishes, wiping noses, buttoning pajamas, brushing and flossing teeth, and reading bedtime stories. I worry needlessly that my husband of many years will notice and comment on my anguish. He is barely aware of my existence, and, for once, I am grateful.
Throughout the evening I swallow my emotions, promising myself that as soon as the children are in bed I will sit on the floor of the shower and let the hot water wash away the tears. But the children are slow to settle down, and by the time they do, I am too numb and weary to seek out the privacy I have craved since the moment I read my lover’s e-mail message: the message that carefully and decisively ended the secret affair that has sustained me for more than two decades.
My dad lectured us about privacy every chance he got. He was a lawyer and always said that if people didn’t need privacy, we would all live in glass houses. I was the youngest of three girls and three boys, and Dad made it clear that it was not funny for the boys to spy on the girls. “Doors are there for a reason,” he’d say. “If you want in, knock first.”
When I was eleven, my oldest brother took a birthday card addressed to me out of the mailbox and spent the two dollars that was inside. When Dad found out, he sat us down around the dining-room table and told us that this was a serious incident, that opening someone’s mail was a federal offense. I remember feeling that something terrible had been done to me.
While I was in high school, my dad had a complete nervous breakdown. He stopped talking, bathing, and eating. He smoked a lot, became thin, and let his salt-and-pepper beard grow shaggy. Every morning during my senior year, he came into my room while I was still asleep. My door sighed when it opened, and I always awoke right away. I’d pull the covers up to my face and watch him rummage through my things. First, he’d go to the dresser, lift the china lid on the bobby-pin jar, and play with the pins inside. Then he’d open drawers, from top to bottom, and push aside my clothes, as if looking for something. Over at my desk, he’d open my English-lit book and scan the pages, his mouth forming little puffs of words. I never found out what he was looking for.
Once, to test him, I left a sealed letter from my boyfriend on my desk. My dad picked it up and looked at the name and address for a long time. Then he turned it over. I felt sure he was going to break the seal; all he had to do was run his finger under the flap. But instead, he patted the letter against his lips and put it back, unopened. Then he closed my door behind him and never came into my room uninvited again.
Mary Jo O.
In a hospital cardiac ward, there is no privacy. During the time I spent visiting my husband there, I saw nearly every penis on the ward. The first was that of an elfin man down the hall who, as soon as no one was watching, detached himself from his IV and, gown flapping, went off to expose himself to unsuspecting women in the waiting area. When I reported his behavior to the nurse behind the desk, she looked up with mild annoyance and said, “Oh, that’s Gus. Yesterday we found him hiding in the ladies’ room.” Then there was the man in the next room, who, colostomy bag in hand and bare buttocks blooming with red spots, stood in his doorway during every meal to complain about the food.
The only one I liked was the old rancher across the hall, who did not want to die in this public place. He didn’t even want to die with his family. He wanted to go home to his ranch and walk up the hill to where his beloved cows wandered and lie down among them and pass out of this world. He wasn’t crazy. He just knew what he wanted: to die privately, in the place he loved, in the presence of the humble animals he tended.
Instead, the beeping machines that monitored his ebbing life also announced his death for everyone to hear.
Douglas City, California
The Chinese have no word for privacy. I think they know what it is, but they lack the means to talk about it. Their closest translation means something like “selfishness.” I think they want privacy, however, even if the structure of their world doesn’t support it.
I remember one young engineer who worked for me in China. Strong-willed and independent, she reminded me of students I’d known in Berkeley, with their peasant skirts, unshaven legs, and firmly held opinions. This engineer always told us exactly what she thought we should do. Then one day, she had to ask me, her supervisor, to stamp a piece of paper specifying her birth-control method. It was part of an elaborate bureaucratic maze she had to pass through before she and her husband could admit to the world that she was pregnant. I stamped the papers with embarrassment, hoping the old system would finish breaking down, and soon.
We foreign managers were supposed to monitor every aspect of our employees’ lives: where they lived, when they married, how many children they could have. Everyone in the company knew everyone else’s salary and personal particulars, no matter how many times we asked workers to keep those matters private.
I remember a self-satisfied American businesswoman I met at a plush American Chamber of Commerce event. She was exulting over the wondrous capacity of the Chinese people to live without complaint in such cramped quarters, crowded streets, and packed trains. “They don’t need the space that we do,” she said, as if they were somehow a different species.
I thought of the Hong Kong underclass who lived four or more families to one tiny apartment, and of the rich Hong Kong tycoons who had as many children as they pleased, then packed their offspring into small rooms like so many sardines. I thought of people with nowhere to turn but inward, of their unspoken pain and longing, of the many suicides in Hong Kong that substituted for lashing out at a world that will not let anyone be. And I thought of the Confucian scholars of ancient China, who, when other means of persuasion failed, would commit suicide to prove to the emperor that he should take their advice. Usually, he didn’t.
We’d been together since high school, but he waited until our fifteenth wedding anniversary to drop the bomb. Choosing a nice restaurant as the setting in which to ease his conscience, he disclosed to me all his sexual infidelities. He began confessing sometime after the first glass of wine, and by the time the dessert menu arrived, I was weeping.
When he was through, he assured me that he’d never do it again. In a gesture of what I thought was forgiveness, I vowed never to bring it up. Privately, I also gave myself permission to even the score.
Once, in a heated argument, he said he was sorry he had ever poured out that confession to me — not sorry, I noted, that he had fucked my best friend and five or six others, but that he had told me. I promised myself I would never make the same mistake.
In my early twenties, I joined a religious cult and quickly learned what a luxury privacy really is. My life consisted of communal work and meals and nights spent in dormitory-style sleeping quarters. I was never alone, except in meditation, where we were required to cover ourselves completely with a sheet lest an uninitiated person catch a glimpse of us practicing the cult’s secret techniques.
In that makeshift chamber only slightly larger than the confines of my skin, I wept, dreamed, drooled, and heard voices. I saw roses blooming in winter and fields of diamonds stretching to infinity. I also clawed at my hands and arms until they bled, and pulled out my eyebrows and eyelashes with my fingernails. I was both engulfed in love and drowning in self-hatred.
The avowed purpose of this practice — extreme communality alternated with periods of solitary confinement — was the destruction of personality. It probably would have worked had I not sabotaged it by keeping a journal. I called it “my memory,” and in it I wrote down everything that was too wonderful or too terrible to say out loud. That journal is what saved me.
It was an honest mistake. Our bathrooms were being painted, and all our toiletries had been temporarily relocated to our utility room. It was dark in there. And so, without realizing it, I used my wife’s toothbrush.
“You what?” Katherine snapped when I told her.
“You just ate a cookie five minutes ago!”
“So, you have to go buy me a new toothbrush.” She pointed to the door. “Right now.”
“Katherine,” I said, thinking of all the bodily fluids we’d exchanged over the years, “what’s the big deal? It’s not as if I scrubbed the toilet with it.”
“It’s my toothbrush,” she said.“It’s private.”
“Since when is your mouth so private?” I muttered.
She spun around and stormed off.
When I came to bed an hour later, Katherine was sleeping with her back to my side of the mattress, looking like an impenetrable fortress draped in a floral nightie. Putting my head on the pillow, I mentally replayed my words. Had I been insensitive? Was a toothbrush really sacred? How ridiculous! We shared saliva all the time. Just to be kind, however — and to avoid escalating the argument — I decided I’d offer to boil her toothbrush first thing in the morning, and to put some tape on the handle, to make sure this mistake never happened again.
Satisfied with this solution, I reached over to put my hand on Katherine’s waist, and she jammed her elbow into my fingers. (She fakes sleep so well.)
Without a word, I got up and drove to a twenty-four-hour drugstore. (They were having a sale on condoms, I noticed, feeling a tremendous sense of loss.) I bought Katherine a new toothbrush, a red one with soft bristles. Cost: $2.99, plus tax, plus sleep. Back at home, I laid it on her bedside table and climbed gently into bed. Seconds later, she sprang up and, with a nearly inaudible thanks, headed downstairs to brush.
Jeffrey K. Wallace
Trabuco Canyon, California
I was always the good son: altar boy, straight-A student, star baseball player. Then in ninth grade, everything changed. I traded the Bible for Rimbaud and Dylan Thomas, swapped my baseball bat for an electric guitar, and in one class dropped from an A to an F. Previously outgoing, friendly, and dependable, I began to keep to myself, limiting contact with my family to curt, often hostile confrontations. I spent a lot of time in my room listening to old Pink Floyd records, the smell of incense filling the air.
Searching for clues to explain my extreme shift in behavior, my mom found a barely concealed cardboard box on the top shelf of my closet; in it were vials of Quaaludes and cannabis seeds, a double-chamber bong, jars filled with whiskey and vodka pilfered from bottles in the liquor cabinet, and enough Trojans for a month-long orgy (wishful thinking). When I discovered my cache missing, I raged at my parents: “How dare you invade my privacy!” I singled out my mom and darkly cautioned her: “Don’t ever go in my room again, or I’ll make you sorry.”
She was undergoing chemotherapy at the time, and she died a few months later. No one ever raided my room again.
Years ago, I moved from New York City to a small town on the east end of Long Island. I first recognized that my privacy was disappearing when I walked into my local post office and, before I could speak, the clerk said, “Oh, we have a package for you.”
Oh, my God, I thought. He knows who I am.
Eventually, I got used to having mail addressed to me at work get delivered to me at home, six miles away. “We knew you were on vacation,” the mailman would say. Though I appreciated the service, it was unsettling to realize he not only knew who I was, but where I was.
“Saw your car parked all day at the public lot,” an acquaintance would say. “Did you take the bus into the city?”
Or, “Saw Linda’s car in your driveway yesterday. How’s she doing, anyway? Still carrying on with that salesman?”
Or, still worse, “Jeremy visiting you again? Noticed him driving up to your place last night. I do hope you haven’t been lending him money. I mean, he hasn’t been out of rehab that long.”
Recently, a town police officer stopped me for an overdue inspection sticker. When I then took my car in to get it inspected, my mechanic met me with a smile. “I’ve been expecting you,” he said. The officer who stopped me is his wife.
Cutchogue, New York
The curtains in my bedroom are covered with roses in full bloom, their petals about to drop. My mother put them up two years ago, when I was in fifth grade. Today, when she leaves for the grocery store, I take them down and replace them with a sheet of black upholstery, which I pretend is a darkened movie screen during intermission.
The next day at school is a bad one. Last week, the gym teacher sent us all home with flyers listing required equipment: white snap-front shirts and navy blue shorts for warm days, gray sweats for cold ones, a padlock, and a can of deodorant. My shirt doesn’t fit right and my knees are too knobby for shorts, so I wear the sweats during PE, even though it is hot out. I change clothes in the bathroom stall to a chorus of mocking voices shouting, “Hey, what’re you hiding? You got nothin’ to show!” This is true. I am the only girl in the whole class who does not wear a bra.
Instead of deodorant, I have reluctantly brought a note from my mother saying that I don’t need any — also that I will not be participating in the “filthy, barbaric” practice of showering with the other girls. I don’t look at the teacher when I hand it to her.
After school, I do not go home right away. Instead, I sit in the park across the street, surrounded by trees, and try to think of the right words to make my mother buy me some deodorant and a bra. She thinks I am too young for both, and Dad agrees. I have to make them change their minds, or I will never have any friends.
I walk home just as the sun is setting. My stomach flutters as I approach the front door. Noises are coming from inside the house. I am not sure whether my parents are fighting or the TV is up too loud.
The first thing I see when I open the door is my father in his easy chair, handing my mother a plate of food. “Take it away,” he says brusquely. “It’s no good.” Then he sees me. “Sit down!” he shouts, pointing to the ottoman at his feet. “You’re late, your room is a mess, and what the hell do you think you’re trying to do with those curtains?”
I know I should be apologetic. I know it is rude to walk away when someone is talking to you. But I can’t help it. I turn and go to my room and lock the door. Soon I hear the heavy thuds of my father’s footsteps. The doorknob turns uselessly, and then the door heaves inward with his banging. As the doorjamb shatters and my father bursts in, all I can think about is that tree-sheltered spot in the park: how quiet, how private it was.
Santa Barbara, California
After four years, he dumped me, forgetting that I had my own set of keys to his apartment. He’d given them to me not so that I could let myself in, but so that I could let him in when he lost or forgot his.
I waited until he was at work before I used the keys by myself for the first time. I had a clear mission: to get back my espresso machine and crockpot, which he’d said he would return. (But then, he’d also said, “You’re my life,” and, “I’ll never leave you.”)
Once inside his squalid one-room efficiency, I stepped carefully, as if I might disturb some pattern in the mess of clothes, garbage, beer bottles, and papers. He seldom used the place himself, preferring to stay at his current girlfriend’s house. In the kitchen, I found two bags of groceries that he’d never unpacked: limp boxes of once frozen vegetables and a bulging carton of half-and-half on top. Two yellow cats peered at me from the corner, one of them scratching at a scrap of teal-colored silk: the shirt I’d bought him after he’d admired it in a catalog — a shirt that was still accruing interest on my credit card. Having lost my taste for recovering my appliances, I snatched up the shirt and left, locking the door behind me.
It was the thought of those skinny cats that drew me back the second time — to feed them, and to look around. I let myself in and immediately choked on the smell of garbage and animals. I tore open the bag of cat food I’d brought, spilling some on the floor, then sank into the only chair, lit one of his cigarettes, and read through his diaries: yellow legal pads filled with careful cursive handwriting. His creepy inner life was spread out before me: grandiose, sadistic, and paranoid. I found a letter to the FBI about a former friend whom he suspected of being a serial killer and a letter to his father complaining about his latest girlfriend. Near his bed were a magazine called Big Jugs, some Victorian-looking spanking toys, and a baby bottle. On the way out, on a whim, I crushed beneath my heel a cheap blue eye shadow I’d found in the chair.
There wasn’t going to be another visit. But then, lying awake at 2 A.M., I felt the dull, insistent desire to violate him once more, to trespass where he lived. This time, I prepared like a thief: dark clothes, latex gloves, flashlight, a canvas bag to carry off evidence of his depravity. Though I had the key in my pocket, I took the back way in, climbing onto the gas pipes and tumbling through the easily opened kitchen window. Keeping my flashlight beam to the floor, I pushed aside the garbage with my foot. As I crouched beside the bed, nervous sweat running down my back, a small sound stopped me cold. I kicked aside a pile of sheets by the closet, ready for a mouse, or maybe a rat, to jump out. In the weak beam of my flashlight, I saw five or six tiny, hairless things. It took me a few seconds to identify them as kittens.
As I exited, I left the window open so that the kittens, if they lived, just might find their way out.
In my house, there was no such thing as privacy. Sometimes my brother, my sister, and I would wander in the woods together, just to get away from our parents. A family named the Hattons must have owned most of the land around ours, because deep in the woods we discovered many grave markers with the name Hatton, often miles apart. We used to marvel at the tiny tombstones for the baby Hattons who’d died at one or two years of age.
Once, while searching for a cut-through to the Super Chief drive-in, we came across another antebellum Hatton graveyard buried in the weeds, apparently untended for years — but not completely forgotten, because one of the graves had been dug up. When I couldn’t take my dad’s beatings and abuse anymore, I used to walk several miles to this particular graveyard. My most private moments were spent lying in that dug-up grave when it was snowing, watching the snowflakes float down and cover my body. There is a sound that snowflakes make in the deep woods. Sometimes, when the helicopters are hovering overhead here in the city, I yearn to hear it.
My parents kept their romantic relationship private. I never even saw them kiss until I was nine. I was dumbstruck. There they stood, arms wrapped around one another, bodies touching, lips pressed together. Silently, I backed out of the room, my face hot, heart pounding.
The next time I saw them kiss was ten years later, on Christmas. Mom had developed arthritis in her late thirties, and her knuckles had become so swollen that she’d been forced to have her wedding and engagement rings cut from her fingers. That year, for Christmas, Dad gave Mom an engagement ring to replace the one that had been cut off. Her face, though tired from being up late wrapping presents, lit up with joy when she opened the small black velvet box. Then she reached over, gently drew Dad’s face to hers, and kissed him on the mouth. It was a light peck, but a monumental display for them.
The third time I saw my parents show their affection for one another was when I was recuperating from a spinal injury. Mom had traveled eight hundred miles to care for me at my home. When Dad came to visit, they sat on the love seat opposite my rented hospital bed, and he put his arm around her and sang “Two Sleepy People”: “Here we are, out of cigarettes / holding hands and yawning, look how late it gets / two sleepy people, by dawn’s early light / too much in love to say good night.” I feel lucky to have heard this and wish now they’d been less private about their loving relationship.
The last time I saw that side of them was during Mom’s final two weeks of life, when she had to be lifted from bed to wheelchair. Dad murmured gently to her, “OK, pretty lady, put your arms around my neck. I’ve got you. I won’t let you fall.” His nearly eighty-year-old body strained to hold her, but she was safe in his hands.
Ruthanne M. DeMirjyn
I’d been celibate for years, without even a routine gynecological exam, when a storm of health problems arose. Suddenly, my feet were up in stirrups all over the city, and a series of medical workers were poking fingers and instruments up inside me. After such a long time, I would have found it difficult to open myself even to the kindest of lovers; to do so for strangers left me feeling assaulted.
After surgery, complications led to more of the same, only with several doctors at a time and my hospital roommate and her visitors just on the other side of the curtain. Then came a series of prolonged, painful, and always unsuccessful sessions with nurses trying to teach me to catheterize myself. I’d jab away fruitlessly, chanting, “I hate this, I hate this,” with tears running down my face. I could hardly wait for the nurses to do it for me and leave, so that I could pull the sheet over my head. I hated my roommate, because I couldn’t forgive her for being witness to my humiliation, to my fearful awakenings in the night, to my wrenching conversations with family and friends as I struggled with the diagnosis of cancer.
Back home, I felt volatile and raw. I was crazed for a few months and lurched about unpredictably, alternately pouring out my soul and guarding trivial information. I’d run into a casual acquaintance in the grocery store and recount the whole saga of my illness, but when my beloved, supportive sister called, I’d become terse, sullen, and resentful of her most innocuous questions. For weeks, I rehearsed “appropriate” answers to people’s inquiries: me, who had been so good at evading unwanted questions that co-workers of four years were still not sure whether I was married.
My difficulties have eased since then. I’ve learned some conversational skills. And I get through my checkups without too much trouble. (Last time, I yanked up my gown to ask about something, and the embarrassed doctor pulled a sheet over me.) Having sold my house, however, I’ve now lost my privacy in even the smallest matters. I split my time between a shared residence in the city and a one-room cabin at my sister’s country home. People know when I eat, how often I nap, whether I had insomnia, who my visitors are, and how often I choose not to answer my phone. There’s no pretending that I’m not home if a friend drops by and I’m feeling solitary; no hiding for days until a funk goes away.
This situation is forcing me to understand and communicate more explicitly my needs for quiet and solitude; to show more of my dark, difficult side to the people closest to me. The increased openness is good, but tiring. When it all gets to be too much, I pull the sheet over my head and dream about a time when it was easier to keep the ups and downs of my days to myself.
For thirteen years, my three brothers shared a bedroom with me, their big sister. The bathroom — the only room in our small house with a door that locked — was the sole place where we could find privacy. Whenever someone knocked, the person inside (whether using the facilities or not) would yell, “I’m on the pot!” This excuse worked until the other person peeked under the door and did not see feet in front of the toilet, where they should be. Then my father would yell from his TV chair in the living room, “Come out of that bathroom, right now!”
So we learned to remove our shoes and place them in the correct position. But if we forgot the perfunctory flush before exiting, or if we yelled out and the sound of our voice came from someplace other than the toilet, we were caught. To be caught meant that, from then on, either our stays in the bathroom would be timed, or we would have to leave the door unlocked. Everyone chose the timer.
My brothers and I are all in our fifties now, and three of us have chosen to live alone. I live at the end of a half-mile private road in the country. My oldest brother lives in a flat and keeps his window shades permanently drawn. My youngest brother lives on seven hundred acres of land, where his job is to keep the gate locked and people out.
Growing up, I had a beloved uncle who gave me the best Christmas presents — next to my parents, of course. But every holiday, we never knew whether he would show up until he walked in the door. I found it amazing — and wonderful — that he could be so noncommittal, so free.
While most of my family lived in the Northeast, my uncle lived in Texas. I imagined it would be an exciting place to visit, with cactuses, cowboys, and wide-open spaces, but we never did. “He likes his privacy,” my mother would say, explaining that he was a bachelor and probably had a messy apartment that wasn’t suitable for visitors. On the rare occasions that some relatives did visit him in Texas, he would arrange hotel reservations for them and meet them in restaurants. His mysterious life made him all the more intriguing to me.
Not having children of his own, my uncle gave his affection freely to his nieces and nephews. He always told me how pretty I was and how beautiful my eyes were, and he shook his head in disapproval when I wore my glasses instead of my contact lenses. As I became a young woman, he complimented my shoes, my clothing, and how I wore my hair. Around that time, my mother told me that he had once been engaged to a European countess, but the countess’s family had put a stop to the marriage because they disapproved of him. He’d been so upset by the breakup, my mother said, that he never became serious about another woman.
When my uncle was in his late fifties, he told my parents he had some important news. First, he announced that he had been married for thirteen years to a woman from South America. She was the sister of one of his best friends, and the marriage had been arranged so that she could live in the United States. Next, he told them that he was gay and had been in a long relationship with a man who had recently died of AIDS. Lastly, he told them that he, too, had AIDS.
Everyone in my family was stunned. I wondered how we could love someone so dearly and yet be so completely unaware of who he really was. I realized how much of his life we had all missed out on because my uncle hadn’t felt we could handle it.
And maybe he was right. My grandfather refused to let anyone outside the family know about his son’s homosexuality, or his illness. He did, however, readily tell people that his son was married.
Chappaqua, New York
Black people know all about privacy. After more than four centuries of slavery, both brutally crude and coldly sophisticated, we have developed an almost genetic capacity to hide from white people. We hide out in songs and slick fashions; in aggressive lifestyles and dreams of legislated equality. It’s been crucial to our survival, this ability to be both seen and unseen, noticed and ignored — all the while maintaining a divide that you shall never, ever cross.
To be black, male, and in prison is to be subjected to an exaggerated version of the situation in our society as a whole. There are things that cannot be done, words that cannot be said in certain company, places that are taboo, asses that must either be kissed or kicked. It’s a situation that most blacks become rapidly familiar with right out of the cradle.
In a shared environment like prison, privacy depends upon one’s ability to carve out a space amid congestion and to induce others to recognize and respect that space. I think that white guys here tend to suffer much more from the loss of privacy. Most of them hang on to their absurd illusions about the society we live in. They tend to actually believe in the Constitution and America and Disneyland and apple pie. So it’s no wonder this environment is so immediately painful for them. They just sit around waiting for their moms to come and get them. Blacks know that privacy is precious and valuable — and is therefore sold or bartered for or fought over. In any case, it damn sure isn’t something we’re all entitled to, any more than life itself.
I treasure the moments when I get to explore the inside of me, when I can push back all the chaos and slip into those wonderfully complex parts of me that I’m still discovering. I feel ageless, as affluent as I need to be, and absolutely sure of myself. Yes, black people know how to be private in public. It’s a legacy from the plantations. We all know how to hide deep within a passing smile or a shallow conversation. Music, work, art, food, or even sex can give us the most impenetrable cover. Tragically, this has become our way of life. We know how to close down. The thing we need to learn now is how to open up to each other.
Ossining, New York
In my family, we strove not to have emotions — or, failing that, not to reveal them. We talked with pride about intellectual and artistic pursuits, but when it came to personal matters, we each withdrew into our own cocoon.
Later in life, I remained a private person, a loner, convinced that friends were mostly an inconvenience. My romantic relationships failed one after the other, always at the point where my partner began to desire more intimacy. Once, when I was undergoing physical therapy, my doctor asked if there was someone who could do my household chores for me. I said no, that I lived alone. He seemed unconvinced, insisting that there must be someone. At first I was offended that he thought a young woman couldn’t live alone and be self-sufficient, but later I mourned the fact that I didn’t have anyone at all, that if I died it would be days before anyone found my body. My obsession with privacy had produced a life of near-total isolation.
I am now almost thirty. I have a job that means little to me, but which I tolerate because it allows me to spend most of the day by myself. I have a relationship that I’m fleeing because, after seven years, it’s becoming too intimate. I have a dog I love dearly because she doesn’t ask my secrets or tell me hers. I have a therapist who has helped me to see what a small box my privacy has become, and what a long ladder I will have to climb to get out of it.
I looked forward to meeting my assigned law-school roommate, hoping she would help assuage my sense of displacement. Instead, I found a brash woman several years my senior climbing in through the kitchen window. “They wouldn’t give me the key because of some unpaid fees from last year,” she explained. I remember calling my brother that evening and wailing, “She’s so sure of herself. She went to Harvard. And she’s from New York.”
It wasn’t long, however, before Theresa’s quirky personality won me over. She entertained me with family stories; she used her heaviest Brooklyn accent when ordering pizza; she introduced me to martinis at her favorite bar; and she assured me that hating law school was perfectly normal.
Still, I couldn’t stand living with a roommate. Theresa invaded my personal space with her very presence. I couldn’t avoid hearing every word of her many phone conversations. (Why, I wondered, did she have to be so loud?) And just by virtue of her being there, she knew who called me, when I showered, and how much I ate. In fact, she was the first to notice when I stopped eating dinner.
As my weight plummeted from 110 to 80 pounds, Theresa started nagging me. I wanted nothing more than to be left alone with my diet regimen and my treadmill, but she refused to comply. Despite my insistence that it was my body and therefore my business, she forced me to see a psychiatrist, even driving me to his office and sitting in the waiting room while I went in. When I reported his bumbling incompetence to her, she called his supervisor and demanded an appointment for me with the university’s top eating-disorders specialist. I refused to go and insisted that she respect my decision. Finally, she collapsed on my bed and cried, saying, “It hurts me to see how little you care about yourself.”
Until that moment, I’d seen my suffering as my own personal possession. I’d never understood that the damage I was inflicting on myself would inevitably injure everyone in my life.
The sessions with the doctor helped a great deal, but the real turning point in my recovery was the day Theresa cried.
San Jose, California
Because at twelve I was the oldest, and because I was the only girl, I got my own room. My three brothers had to share. I picked the small bedroom with the big closet. Mom and I laid royal blue carpet and put up bright blue-and-yellow daisy wallpaper, which I just about covered with Beatles pictures and baton-twirling and cheerleading mementos.
What I loved most about my room was the door. Shutting it closed out the noise and the chaos and the fighting and the drinking and the dog and the cats and my brothers. Behind that door, I was free to invent a world entirely my own.
When my girlfriend spent the night in my room, she became Paul McCartney and I became Paul’s girlfriend, Patty Boyd. Paul adored Patty. He would hold her hand and tell her (in a bad Liverpool accent) about all the songs he’d written for her, and how he was going to take her far away, and how much he loved her. Then he would slide his hand up her bare back underneath her flannel pajamas, and he would pull her to him and put his hands everywhere, and Patty would explode at Paul’s touch.
In the morning, we would wake up in each other’s arms feeling embarrassed and slowly untangle. In a moment, a baby would scream or the television would blast or the Saint Bernard would lumber up the narrow stairs and scratch and slobber all over my closed door, and I would be back.
In Kathmandu, I lived in a house that was huge by local standards, with marble floors and large rooms and a tile bathroom on each of its three stories. It was a shelter for Nepalese girls who were at risk of being sold into Bombay brothels by their impoverished families. There were nine of them, all giggly, charming, and full of drama.
I was surprised at first that none of the girls knocked before entering my room. Initially, I attributed it to the fact that they were from poor families that probably hadn’t had doors to knock on. But then the man who brought filtered water in the morning didn’t knock, and neither did the woman who brought my laundered clothes.
Despite all the empty rooms in the house, the girls’ teacher, his wife, and their two sons all lived in one room, and the nine girls shared a single room next to theirs. This sort of arrangement wasn’t unusual in a country where most families lived four generations to one room. I couldn’t even imagine what it would have been like to sleep in the same room with my parents’ drinking and fighting, my grandparents’ stiff disapproval, and my brothers’ and sisters’ ploys for attention and affection. My room had been my refuge, a place to hide from the sounds of my mother screaming obscenities at my stepfather.
Still, I wonder what it would be like never to have known privacy. I wonder what it would have been like, as a child, not to have lain alone in my dark room every night worrying about monsters and B-52 bombers, but instead to have slept pressed against the people I knew best, hearing their breathing and smelling their scents. I wonder about the secrecy and separateness that having rooms to ourselves creates. Might we feel safer had we never spent so much time alone? Might we feel richer had we grown up with our whole family around us in one room, day after day, night after night?
For most of my childhood, I had my own room — more like a suite of rooms, actually, with a private bathroom and balcony. My parents always knocked before entering.
At fourteen, I started keeping a journal. I imagined that someday a biographer would use it to reconstruct my early life. Until I was dead, however, I didn’t want anyone to read it. On the cover, I wrote in bold type: Private, do not open this book on pain of death, and below that, in smaller script, I really mean it.
As an added security measure, I devised a code for the drugs I used: hollow arrows for pot; filled-in arrows for “black beauties”; a snowflake for cocaine; a big black X for Quaaludes; the pound sign for LSD; an approximation of a mushroom for mushrooms. The pages were filled with these symbols.
I also documented my unrequited lust for one person or another. (I had a particularly big crush on Bette Midler and would blush hot just writing about her in those pages.) I described with shame how I’d given blow jobs to boys I hardly knew because I thought it would make them like me. I wrote about how, on the school trip to Manhattan, I’d lain on the hotel bed watching TV and listening to L. have sex with a boy she’d just met. As he fucked her, she called out my name. Later, we got really drunk and she asked me if I’d ever thought about sex with a girl. I just laughed and took another drink, too embarrassed to say anything. But I wrote all about it in my journal, along with other things I’d never tell anyone.
Then one night, my parents came in to talk to me, and my mother was holding the journal in her hands. I thought I was going to throw up, or faint, or die.
I have never kept a private journal again.
San Francisco, California
When I knock on my daughter’s door this morning, she shrieks, “Don’t come in!” Then I hear her push something against the door.
“I won’t,” I say. “I just wanted to tell you that we have to leave in an hour.”
“OK,” she says, breathing normally again. “Just don’t come in.”
What could she possibly be doing in there? Downstairs in the kitchen, stirring the hot cereal, I imagine the possibilities: Plucking her eyebrows, even though I’ve told her she’ll regret it? Writing about something awful in her journal? Looking at herself naked? She’s twelve, but a young twelve. There’s no chance of drugs. I pour the cereal into bowls. Could she have found some sexy magazine or book? Her room is small, and I know virtually all the contents of her drawers and shelves. What could cause her to barricade her door?
When she comes down for breakfast, she hands me a piece of paper. On it, she has drawn an intricate pattern with her new compass and shaded in the design with colored pencil. It’s breathtaking — beautiful enough to frame. On the bottom she has written,“To Mommy.”
“It took me a half-hour to get the colors just right,” she says, pulling her chair up to the table and reaching for the sugar.