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Janna Malamud Smith Considers Privacy While Preserving Her Father's Legacy

Smith is the author of the book "Private Matters," about our contradictory ideas about privacy. She's the daughter of novelist Bernard Malamud.

21:29

Other segments from the episode on June 23, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 23, 1997: Interview with Beth Givens; Interview with Janna Malamud Smith; Review of Sylvia Jukes Morris's book "Rage for Fame."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JUNE 23, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 062301NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Beth Givens
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The Internet has given us access to an extraordinary amount of information. But the Internet has also given people easier access to personal information about us, from our consumer profiles to our Social Security numbers.

This month, the Federal Trade Commission held hearings about online privacy to determine whether the government should institute privacy safeguards.

My guest, Beth Givens, directs the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse which both collects information from people reporting privacy abuses and educates people on how to protect their privacy. The group is a project of the Utility Consumers Action Network, a San Diego-based nonprofit which advocates for consumer interests in the areas of telecommunications, energy, insurance, and the Internet.

I asked Givens about the most common problems they're hearing about on the privacy hotline.

BETH GIVENS, DIRECTOR, PRIVACY RIGHTS CLEARINGHOUSE: We get a number of calls from people who say "I'm applying for work. I've had a good, successful career to date. I might get to the first interview or to the second, and then I'm just dropped, and I have no idea why I'm being dropped.

And I'm wondering: is there some information out there that might be harming me? And if so, where could it be and how can I find out what's out there?"

Another common theme is that of lack of control, which I think relates to the first theme. And that is, people want to be able to control what's done with their personal information, but they really don't have the mechanisms to do that. We just aren't set up that way, for the most part, in this country.

GROSS: You've also been tracking something that's called "identity theft." What is that?

GIVENS: Right. Well, identity theft is something we started noticing just as couple years into our project, and we started in 1992. We would get calls from people who -- they'll say: my wallet has been stolen or I've been mugged.

Or for whatever reason, somebody has gotten my Social Security number, my credit card numbers. They've opened up new credit accounts in my name. They're impersonating me, and all of a sudden I find that my credit history has been ruined and I can't get a job or I can't get a loan, and I don't know how to stop this.

GROSS: How do you stop it?

GIVENS: It takes some time, and unfortunately the burden is entirely on the victim's shoulders. What you do, first off, is you contact the three credit reporting bureaus, because they're the clearinghouse of all of that information about you. And they will put a fraud flag on your credit history.

It's not entirely 100 percent effective, but when the impostor or impostors tries to open up a new credit account, of course the creditor will contact the credit bureau and if the flag pops up, they will demand some more information from the credit -- the impostor. And hopefully at that time, it will be stopped.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work 100 percent of the time, and for many times, the impostor, over a period of years, can go on impersonating you, spending your money, and giving you the headache of a bad credit report and the headache of having to clean it up.

GROSS: There are database companies that collect and then sell information about Americans -- financial information, health information, consumer information. What are some of the new ways that they have to getting information about us?

GIVEN: Well, I don't -- I think the newest way, of course, would be from your interaction on the Web, and that's not to the point where individually identifiable information is necessarily collected every time you're on, but some of the -- not necessarily new ways, but more robust ways.

For example, more and more records from government agencies are being sold -- public records from government agencies are being sold -- to these information vendors. They're making them available in their database systems and making it very easy to go from record to record, database to database, and compile what's basically an electronic dossier on you.

That's not necessarily new, but I think the power of the computer and telecommunications technologies to pull together all that information is a new aspect of this whole scene.

GROSS: Local governments have always had a lot of information about its residents -- birth and death certificates; tax information; how much money your purchased a home for.

GIVENS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And a lot of that information is now winding up in these big databases. Is -- are local governments actually selling information about us to profit groups?

GIVENS: Well yes, actually the sale of this information is a growing revenue stream for city and county governments. And interestingly enough, at the federal level, we do have some protection against this. It's called the Federal Privacy Act of 1974.

And at the state level, about half of the states have the equivalent of the Privacy Act, which puts some limits on the sale and allows you access to those records, so you know what's in there about you.

But very, very few states -- I think it's only four -- have the equivalent of the Privacy Act going down to the local level. And of course, the local level is where the -- where the -- really the treasure trove of personally-identifiable information is about you.

You mentioned property assessment; there's voter registration; there is a number of databases available at the local level which are quite revealing.

GROSS: Is there a call now to regulate, in some way, the databases and how they gather information and also who they can sell it to?

GIVENS: Well, what has happened recently is a four-day set of workshops held by the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, DC and they pulled in the major players. Day one dealt specifically with databases and reference services.

What has transpired is that the eight largest companies that market and sell these databases have come together and come up with a policy which they have agreed to abide by, and so they are promoting a self-regulatory approach.

The Federal Trade Commission is also more or less in favor of a self-regulatory approach and has given these companies about a year to show that they can adequately self-regulate. And the eight companies have been joined since by several other large information companies, and they have then all agreed to abide by this set of self-regulatory principles.

I've looked at those principles, and I must say they don't answer some of the concerns that I have. For example, let's say you are a job applicant and information has been obtained from various databases about you. They don't -- the principles don't get down to saying that the actual copy of that information that's been pulled should actually be revealed to the job applicant.

Now, there are some who would say that there are laws today which would require that to happen, but I see absolutely no movement by employers and the database services to actually make that information available to the applicants.

So I think that the principles that these companies have developed jointly are a good first step, but they really don't go all the way to dealing with some of the really serious problems that can transpire with these databases, which is mainly: what happens if there's erroneous information in there? Or what happens if they're pulling up the wrong Jane Smith?

GROSS: What are some of the principles that the big databases have agreed to?

GIVENS: Well, they have agreed to limit access to what they call the "non-public" information. That would be information that would be, say, from sources other than public records. They've agreed to limit those to people who have legitimate need, for example, private investigators, law enforcement, insurance investigators and so on.

Another principle would be to gather information only from legitimate sources. And that would be from public records and from commercial sources, where you've had some transactions with, for example, your credit card company or the credit reporting bureau.

And they'd also -- they have a policy of openness, which means if you inquire of the database company what information about you is there, they would then tell you the nature -- and this is -- they used the word "nature" -- they will tell you the nature of that data.

But when pressed by the Federal Trade Commission, they did not come right out and say that they would actually provide you with an actual copy of the data that they have on you, and I think that's another shortcoming of their policy.

GROSS: Have you tried to get information about yourself through any of the large database companies or through any of the websites now that sell information? Just to see what the -- what's there and how it works.

GIVENS: Yeah, I have. It's actually become kind of an obsession. Yeah, a few -- a couple of years ago, I contacted the major data compilers for the marketing industry. And I based it on -- actually, kind of a funny personal thing that happened to me. I had ordered some materials from I guess you might call it "paranoid fringe" press on privacy.

And since it was early in my job as being project director, I wasn't as careful about privacy as I am today, but I wrote a personal check and sent it to them and ordered these books from a company that sells things like how to make, you know, nitrogen fertilizer bombs and how to hide from the police and how to change your identity and things like that.

And I soon found myself getting all kinds of other mailings from similar types of companies. You know, how to buy knives and guns, and some really rather amazingly scary stuff. And I kind of jokingly said: I wonder how long it's going to be before the FBI comes knocking on my door because I have kind of a profile now of being a neo-Nazi or a survivalist.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Right.

GIVENS: And so I -- just out of curiosity, I said: I want to track down my profile. And so, I contacted the major data compilers and said I would -- and I told them exactly what I was doing and who I was. I didn't try to hide my identity or anything. And I said I really would like to know what information you have on me so that I can determine what kind of profile I have as a consumer.

And I would not get a single one to release to me the information that they have about me. They just simply aren't set up for it in their infrastructure. They just haven't been set up, you know, they just haven't developed their systems to the point where they can divulge all this information -- pull it together and print it out and give it to people, which I think is a real shame.

You know, it's a -- one of the key principles of privacy advocacy or privacy protection is that you have the ability, first off, to know that there is information gathered about you. And that would be called openness. And then you have the ability to access it. And then, further, you have the ability to make corrections or amend it if there are errors.

And then another one is to know who has accessed that information about you. These are called the "fair information principles" and they're embodied in our credit reports, for example. That's why we have access to our credit report because of a federal law. We have a right of correction. We have a right to know who has tracked that credit report. We have a right to have that credit report given to people with a legitimate need to know.

But unfortunately, in the major data compilers on the marketing side of things, and then also the major database companies on the public records side of things, that notion of access and disclosure and correction has not been built into their systems.

GROSS: So what else have you done to try to see what information you could get about yourself online from other people's data banks?

GIVEN: Well, I've done, I think, what just about everyone on the Internet does when they find out about these things. I've gone to all the people locator services, and there are a number of them.

These are free, by the way, and they're based on white pages of the phone book, for the most part. And I've looked up myself in various of these databases. For example, "Switchboard" is one; "WhoWhere" (ph) is another one. "411" is another one -- just to see if my telephone number is in there; if my address is in there; and if the safeguards that I have placed on myself in the white pages have been followed.

I don't have my address in the white pages. I just have my name and initial and my phone number, and indeed, that's what I have found.

I've also plunked down some money, and actually gone into one of the vendors of public records information just to see if I could pull out my own Social Security number. And I did successfully pull it out.

It took me about 10 minutes, and I didn't have to put in a great deal of information -- just my name, you know, where I live. And I waited while the computer churned a while, and there it was, along with my month and year of birth -- not the exact date; my address.

And had I moved around in past years, you would have been my previous addresses and you also might see my employer and previous employers. But in my situation, that did not come out.

And that's really about all I've done. I'm not willing to spend the amount of money -- it could mount up to $100 or $200 to see what I might find in some of these other fee-based systems.

GROSS: Well, this sounds actually pretty disturbing, because you don't want the public to have your address. You've left it out of the phone directory ...

GIVENS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ... and you were able to get it online through this service.

GIVENS: Absolutely.

GROSS: You don't want people to have your Social Security number, because they could use that to access all kinds of information about you, or to impersonate you.

GIVENS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So, how much a problem is this, do you think?

GIVENS: Well, there have been some studies done recently to try to determine how much of a problem this is, and they unfortunately haven't -- well, "unfortunately," maybe I should say "fortunately" -- haven't been able to prove that these databases are the source of information for identity theft and other problems.

But the reason they haven't been able to prove it is because it's a totally invisible process. There is no audit trail. I mean, when I did a search on myself, on this one database, I suspect that there really wasn't an audit trail kept; that if I needed to go back and find out who accessed that information -- who was stalking me -- how did they get it -- I wouldn't be able to retrieve that.

So it's an invisible process. I think the fact that these studies came up with zippo in terms of linking cause and effect doesn't really mean that's not there. I think it just means that we have an invisible system here.

GROSS: Now, the databases in which you were able to get your home address, your Social Security number -- do you consider these legitimate bases?

GIVENS: Actually, yes. In fact, the one that I used has since joined with these companies that have signed on to the privacy principles. And interestingly enough, about a week after I was able to pull out my own Social Security Number, that particular company, because of pressure from some of these other companies, decided to turn off that particular service.

So I can no longer go back to that particular service and get my Social Security Number. However, I can to others -- companies that haven't joined in this effort to impose self-regulatory regulations on them.

GROSS: My guest is Beth Givens. She directs the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Beth Givens, the Director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

Now, I have a question. I want some advice on a related subject. I use my credit cards a fair amount, and I often use them on the telephone, whether it's to order movie tickets or something from a mail-order catalogue; theater tickets.

And, you know, I do always wonder: what are people doing with the number? I mean, can't they just use the number to order something in my name afterwards, if they were so inclined? If there was somebody who was unethical working at the other end of the phone.

How much do you worry about that? How much should we worry about that?

GIVENS: Well, we are -- we're all at the mercy of the honesty or lack of honesty or those that we give those numbers to. You know, I think you can feel OK if you're going to a company which you've dealt with a lot -- for example, one of the major catalogue, mail-order companies that you have an existing relationship.

I would be real careful, first-off, if you've been approached -- say, you get a telephone call saying I've got this great deal for you; all you need to do is sign up and give me your MasterCard number and you'll get such and such -- a wonderful offer.

I would be very, very skeptical about when you've been solicited. However, when you're calling and you know that you've had a good, long relationship with that entity, that I wouldn't worry so much.

The other thing that you need to do is kind of your own housekeeping. When you throw out those credit transaction slips -- toss them out -- be sure that you rip them into a lot of little pieces. Because dumpster diving is kind of a popular way for the fraudsters to get information to use to impersonate people.

And I had an experience -- kind of a funny experience -- about that. I was asked by a local consumer reporter to give permission -- give her permission to do a search on me. And she said: "I'm not going to tell you how we're going to do it, but if -- but we're going to be doing a story on how easy it is to find information about people and we want you to be a subject."

So I -- probably kind of foolishly -- I said OK, because I know that I don't have a very in-depth database profile, and I thought that she was going to use databases. Turns out, what she actually did was she dug through my trash.

And normally, I'm very careful, but this was the Christmas season and I had thrown out one -- just one -- credit transaction slip that of course had my name and it had my full credit card number and the expiration date on it.

And on camera, she pulled this out and, of course, surprised and shocked me. And then she proceeded to call a local office supplies company and she talked into the phone saying: hello, my name is Beth Givens, and I want to order a -- she said -- a shredder. So she ordered a shredder.

LAUGHTER

This was a good lesson for me. So she ordered a shredder, using my information and claiming that she was me. And no questions asked; she was able to do it, and that shredder then was delivered to her office. Of course, she paid me back, but it became part of that news story.

GROSS: Did you destroy your credit card right after this was broadcast?

GIVENS: Well, I kind of chastised myself. I really am pretty careful, and it was so ironic that that one time that my trash was searched, she would find it. Actually, I hardly ever use my credit card. I'm one of those people that mostly uses cash.

GROSS: Do you think credit card companies are pretty good at not charging you for purchases that are really fraud?

GIVENS: Well, actually it's the law. They can't charge you, and that's a federal law. The maximum you could be charged is $50 and I haven't heard of a single credit card company that has ever charged a victim of identity theft that amount of money.

The real cost to you is in your time and -- you have to write a lot of letters; you have to spend a lot of time on long-distance phone calls. And I'm -- in most people who are victims of identity theft have to take off several days of work just to deal with it. So that -- it's those kinds of costs that really hurt you.

GROSS: Do you think that we're going to need to legally redefine the meaning of privacy?

GIVENS: That's a good question. The definition that we use in our project is the right to control information about you. And that's an old definition of privacy, going a long way back. I think what we need to do is start taking that definition of privacy more seriously, especially now that so many of us are spending an awful lot of time on the Internet.

The notion of control has not been codified very effectively into law in this country. And I like to look at, you know, Germany's notion of privacy. They have a word, and I'm -- it must be an immensely long word -- they call it "informational self-determination."

And I think that's a great way of looking at privacy. You should be able to determine what is done with personal information about you, and if that has to be done through laws and regulations, fine.

What's happening right now is that industry is saying: we -- let us prove ourselves. Let us show that we can do self-regulatory practices and allow people to control their information. I'm just not seeing those self-regulatory practices going the full length in terms of allowing us to control our information.

GROSS: Well, Beth Givens, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

GIVEN: Well, thank you very much.

GROSS: Beth Givens directs the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, headquartered in San Diego, and she's the author of The Privacy Rights Handbook, which will be published in September.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Beth Givens
High: Consumer advocate Beth Givens was astounded when she learned how much personal information could be accessed on the Internet. She'll discuss the kinds of personal information that are available to the public and how consumers can protect their privacy in the age of information. Givens is the project director for Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, an organization devoted to informing consumers about their rights and documenting consumers concerns about privacy for the use of policy makers and industry representatives.
Spec: Computers; Privacy; The Internet; Politics; Government

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Beth Givens
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JUNE 23, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 062302NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Janna Malamud Smith
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In her new book "Private Matters," Janna Malamud Smith explores the contradictory ideas we have about privacy in our homes, in our sex lives, and in the lives of our celebrities.

She's had to confront thorny questions about privacy as the daughter of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Bernard Malamud. He was best known for his books "The Natural," "The Fixer," and "The Assistant."

After his death in 1986, Janna and her mother had to puzzle through where to draw the line between public and private, as they settled his literary estate and dealt with questions about his personal life from reporters and biographers.

Janna Malamud Smith told me her father had left a lot of mixed messages about what he would have wanted.

JANNA MALAMUD SMITH, AUTHOR, "PRIVATE MATTERS": Well, on the one hand, he was an extremely private man, who had trouble talking about himself and who was often very, very reticent, and who put a lot of energy into protecting the fiction that he was writing by not saying much about his life.

And on the other hand, he was a man who loved biographies, and would call me on the phone when he was in the middle of one that really excited him, and tell me detail from a writer's life that grabbed him.

GROSS: How did not revealing a lot about himself personally protect his fiction?

SMITH: I think that one of the things it seems to me to be happening more and more with fiction is that we see fiction as sort of a world map that we can stick pins into by trying to locate the facts of a writer's life vis-a-vis the experiences that he describes in his characters. And I think that Dad felt that in order for fiction to thrive, you really wanted that process not to be terribly successful.

GROSS: What was your mother's position, finally, when she was approached by biographers and scholars for personal information about your father? Or for letters that he had written to her over the years?

SMITH: Right. It's an ongoing work in progress, and I think that one of the things that I discovered in writing the book is that my position about this has shifted somewhat in time, and I think, to some degree, hers has too, in the sense that when someone's been dead a decade, or now 11 years as my father has, some of the urgency to -- that you might feel early-on to be protective begins to mellow a little bit.

On the other hand, we are now just in the process of figuring out what to do with his notebooks and his most personal letters. And recently, I went to the safe deposit box and actually looked at a pile of -- the letters that my mother and father exchanged early in their relationship -- during their courtship, in fact.

And I had this visceral reaction that kind of surprised me, saying: ooh, I'm not sure I want this to be sitting in some library anywhere. This is sort of -- this is my Mom; this is my Dad; this is my family past.

And I didn't say anything about it to my mother, but who called me a number of nights later herself, and says: "you know, Janna, I'm not so sure that I feel comfortable having these letters out there. It feels a little creepy. It feels like giving over the flesh of another person in some way."

GROSS: What about the argument that, you know, after a writer dies, the full truth -- the full dimensionality of this writer should be made public?

SMITH: Well, if only we could ever make the full truth of somebody public, first of all. I think that in principle, probably the full dimensionality should be made public, but I'm not sure it's quite so simple as that. I think that the things that I would weigh are allowing some time to pass.

And in the book, I talk about Leon Adell's (ph) biography of Henry James. James had been dead for 50 years when Adell writes about him. And somehow, that seems very healthy to me. But even if one does a more contemporary biography, the question is: how you tell the story in the biography and what you honor and what you respect.

And you know, it isn't just simply a question of telling or not telling. I think there's much more to be said about how we tell, because in how we tell, we either give honor to people or we devalue them in ways that probably aren't terribly good for the whole culture in some sense.

GROSS: You first had to deal with the issue of privacy after your father became a famous writer. What were the first family concerns about privacy, when suddenly there were requests for interviews and magazine stories?

SMITH: Right. The first that I sort of knew of that -- I mean, I certainly was aware from childhood that my father's career was moving along pretty well, and I can remember when I was young and we lived in Oregon and he got his first National Book Award.

And he went East, and I can remember -- I must have been eight; I'm not even sure I was that old -- but I can remember him reporting that he had seen Marilyn Monroe there because she was with Arthur Miller.

So throughout my life, as I was growing up, it was beginning to seep in. But not until The Fixer was published in 1966 did he become really quite well known. And I remember the first time that that came -- knocked on the door was when the Saturday Evening Post, I think it was, wanted to come and stay in our house for three days and photograph him in the midst of his family.

And I think on the one hand, he was very excited by that because he was the son of an immigrant grocer and he'd had a tough growing up, and this was really -- to him, to some degree -- a sign that he had arrived in a world I think he was wanting to arrive in.

And on the other hand, he really thought carefully about whether this was good for his family life and for his kids. And I think he decided it wasn't.

GROSS: You said that your solution to your father's fame was to seek anonymity yourself. Why did you want it? And how did you seek it?

SMITH: I wanted anonymity because it happened at about the same time that he became famous, was the same time that I became a teenager and started moving in a world where I was touchy about the number of people who would say: "oh, yeah, you got that 'cause you were Malamud's daughter;" or "oh, who are you? You're Malamud's daughter."

And it turns out, as one is seeking to assert one's own identity, this becomes a somewhat clouding way of thinking about oneself. So I fled from that world and went to social work school and spent about 14 years working in a wonderful clinic in a housing project.

GROSS: And what are you doing now?

SMITH: I am still working as a social worker, both in private practice and at the Cambridge Hospital which is a hospital in Cambridge that works a lot in the public domain.

GROSS: And do you still feel like anonymity is what you want? Or do you want a lot of recognition, only just not for being your father's daughter?

SMITH: Right, well, I've certainly outed myself as a woman who wants anonymity -- here I am talking to you -- so I -- that would be a risky proposition to claim that right now.

I think that I've tried very hard to understand how I feel about privacy, and I knew that when I started writing, that I would be deciding that anonymity wasn't so important to me anymore. And I think when you're 45 as I am and married and with kids, you have a different idea about yourself, so I don't think that I feel so much that I need that space.

GROSS: You point out that we seem to be heading in two directions at one time, in terms of privacy. On the one hand, we have more privacy as individuals; more privacy at home. On the other hand, through the new high technology and the Internet, people have access to private data about us -- people who never had this kind of access before.

Would you elaborate on these two directions at once?

SMITH: Exactly. No, you've put your finger on something really, I think, that's really important. On the one hand, when, you know, like driving around today -- to come from my work to here -- in my whole day-to-day, I run into people, but there's no one who I run into who observes my life coherently, from the beginning of the morning 'til the end of the night.

And even though, right now, that's an extraordinarily common experience, I think it's historically somewhat a-typical; that I think people who've mostly lived in other times, in villages and in smaller towns, are used to being much more coherently observed.

And that kind of -- the way that we watch each other -- the eyes that are on us; the way that we think about the eyes that are on us -- have a lot to do with how we behave and a lot to do with how we think about ourselves.

And I think in return, as we begin to discover how much anonymity we've created in the world, we're really panicking, 'cause it turns out that an enormous amount of anonymity doesn't become privacy. It becomes isolation and it becomes harmful in certain ways, because people don't feel known.

And when people don't feel known, they, among other things, get lonely and among other things are more inclined to do things that probably aren't terribly toward the common good, you might say. You know, that watching us tends to keep us on our toes a little bit.

So I think that what we've substituted is this electronic surveillance, where the bank keeps track of us and the tax people keep track of us and the insurance companies keep track of us, and God knows only who else keeps track of us.

But all of -- we're watched from a distance in a amazing way. And I think that we haven't paid adequate attention to the way that this kind of more distant, bureaucratic surveillance has replaced the more historical surveillance of knowing each other.

GROSS: Well, it's not like we want it that way, you know.

LAUGHTER

SMITH: Well, we sort of -- we do and we don't, because think about it: if I go to the bank and it's dark at night and I go into that little place where I can get money out of the machine and there's a camera there, I sort of do want that one.

GROSS: Well, that's a good point. Yeah, I kind of want that, too.

SMITH: Right, so we're ambivalent.

GROSS: Somebody mugs you, you've got their photograph.

SMITH: Exactly, you know...

GROSS: Yeah.

SMITH: ... so I think we each want a piece of it, when we feel ourselves to have more to gain than lose by it.

GROSS: You know, in some ways I think out culture today doesn't value certain forms of privacy the way it used to. I'm thinking here of the way people willingly and openly reveal things about their lives that used to be considered much too personal and private to talk about in public.

And certainly on the TV talk shows; here on FRESH AIR, a lot, I ask people very personal questions, if they are open to that kind of questioning and if I think it's going to be revealing of their larger work.

How does that strike you? This sense of things that used to be just private, period, are now part of the public discussion?

SMITH: You know, I think it's something that is both good and bad, and I think that probably when you ask a probing question, it's one of the reasons that so many of us enjoy listening to you, because oftentimes, there is time for people to give a -- a person to give a considered answer and you listen back and, you know, it's a nice dialectic or dialogue in the process.

I think that one of the things that's really surprised me in -- as I was writing the book was I started watching the talk shows. And when I started watching them, I was prepared to be more, I think, reflexively condemnatory of them because they run somewhat against my grain.

And what surprised me when I watched them was I came to realize that the people who are on them oftentimes weren't giving up their privacy. Oftentimes, their privacy -- their right for control over access to themselves and to their control, to some degree, over their private life -- had long since been destroyed by other people.

And one of the reasons that they were talking about it so much publicly was that in a sense they were looking for a forum in which to repair it.

To give you an example, I watched and read a number of transcripts from shows both at Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue and other people ran on the question of incest and pregnancy and babies and families. Now, you would think that this would be the ultimate sacrifice of privacy -- to get up in front of 20 million people and to talk about the baby that you had with your father.

But as I thought more about it, I realized that that poor woman's privacy had long since been destroyed, because her right to be physically safe and emotionally safe in the privacy and sanctity of her own home had disappeared decades before. And in a sense, she was looking for witnesses to validate for her that it was wrong that it had disappeared that way.

Now, whether or not it's a good idea to find witnesses on daytime television -- whether that turns out, ultimately, to be an efficacious process -- is a really tough question.

GROSS: My guest is Janna Malamud Smith, author of the new book Private Matters. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Janna Malamud Smith, daughter of the late writer Bernard Malamud, and author of a new book about the nature of privacy called Private Matters.

"Privacy" is a word that usually has good connotations. We want privacy. We deserve privacy. We should have privacy. "Secrecy" is a word that usually has bad connotations. It means you're hiding something; you're ashamed of something.

Do you have any idea where privacy ends and secrecy begins? Where that withholding of information is a healthy thing? And where it becomes an unhealthy thing?

SMITH: It's a terrific question, and I think that that's a constantly moving shoreline in the sense that they're always trading off and moving back and forth into each other. Let me give you an example. If I sit down and write in my journal and I close the journal up and leave it on my desk, I've done something private. I've put my private thoughts into my journal and there they are.

If on the other hand, someone comes along and sits down at my desk without my invitation and starts reading through that journal, the next time I write in it, chances are I'm going to hide it somewhere and lock it up in a drawer.

So that what starts for me as private becomes secret because someone else is seeking it out. Or, for example, if a gay man has to hide his sexuality from his coworkers or hide his sexual orientation, he might just want it to be private. He might not want to hide it at all. He might not -- he might just not want to talk about it that day. But if his job is on the line, then he's forced with that to make it secret.

So it's always something that's based on what the context is around you at any given moment, and how, for example, how much -- because privacy is important for allowing us to be vulnerable and because that vulnerability allows some of the best parts of our humanness -- our willingness to be loving, to be intimate, and so on. When that vulnerability is threatened from the outside, then we begin to hide and become secret.

The problem with secrecy is that we're so busy shielding ourselves from all eyes at that point that we often, then, have to deal with the fact that many of our own impulses are not totally wonderful, and all of us have a great capacity to start corrupting secrecy towards our own ends.

GROSS: Now, over the years when you and your mother have been deciding how public to make your father, Bernard Malamud's letters and unpublished manuscripts and so on, have you wondered where the impulse was for privacy and where the impulse was for secrecy?

Things that you'd be embarrassed if they got out or you're afraid you'd be -- that he wouldn't -- he would have been embarrassed if people were -- if he were alive and people knew this about him.

SMITH: It's a really good question. I don't think it's so much that he would have been embarrassed if people knew this stuff about him. I don't think that's -- I wish I were that altruistic as to be really protecting that.

I think I'm more wanting not to be more known than the next person in the block, in that sense. I mean, I think that as for me, it isn't about keeping any particular thing secret. It's about wanting to have as good privacy as all the people that I meet during my day.

You know, imagine it for yourself -- that if suddenly there was a biography out about someone who is near and dear to you, or you that you hadn't authorized. All of a sudden, people just know a ton about you that you haven't told them. And there's something about the way that we ask people to treat what we tell them in an intimacy -- that changes the way they hold information about us.

And it's more that that I think is really on my mind about it.

GROSS: Elaborate on that for me.

SMITH: Well, that if you and a close friend are -- or if I sit down with a close friend and I say, you know, I'm really sad because such and such happened, and let me tell you about it, and I go into detail and I tell this story.

I trust that that friend will hold that story -- that she'll -- whatever she might think about some of what I tell her at that moment, I know that she loves me; that she cares about me; that she will value the story; that she'll try and say something honest to me about what my part might have been; that it -- maybe it shouldn't have been or whatever those exchanges are.

But it will -- it will be an ongoing part of our relationship, though, that these stories go back and forth; so that she'll hold that information about me in the context of our relationship.

If the same amount of intimate information goes out about me to people who don't know me, it's a very different experience because they don't hold it in the same way. They don't hold it so carefully or with some love to help temper the ucky parts or -- with some thoughtfulness that might come out of a relationship.

GROSS: I think you're saying, too, it's just another way to pass judgment on you -- "oh, I don't like her because she did this."

SMITH: I think that's right, and I think that the reason that's important isn't just so much about my feelings, but it's because we do so much of that in this celebrity culture...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SMITH: ... that we end up -- one of the things that sort of struck me as I was writing the book is that we end up creating a more narrow idea of how we ought to be as people; that just as we start condemning people for behaviors that we see in them that we take out of context because we can't really know the context.

I mean, take for instance, the woman in the Air Force -- Flinn, I think is her name -- you know, we don't really know what happened in that relationship. It only comes to us as an adultery, and she gets condemned for an adultery.

And because it's such a narrow way of understanding, all the richness and all the vicissitudes and all the struggles in a person's life that might have led her to this relationship that sounds sort of crummy -- it ends up reducing our view of how people should live their lives and what kinds of mistakes they should be allowed to make, and what it takes to grow up and how much tripping around you sometimes have to do in order to find yourself or to find a good relationship or to become mature -- all of these things.

So that I think that somehow the way that we voice things in the public culture ends up coming back on all of us in ways that probably are constricting and not terribly useful to other ideas we might have about people's development.

GROSS: I'm wondering if writing this book on privacy changed any of your thoughts about privacy in your own life? Or of protecting the privacy of your later father, Bernard Malamud?

SMITH: Well, I think it sort of ironically, maybe, it made me lighten up a little bit in the sense that I spent so much time thinking about it and really reading about it and trying to sort of soak in and develop my own ideas about it -- that I feel both that privacy is extraordinarily precious part of life and I understand better why I cherish it as much as I do and why we should all have the right to cherish it.

And at the same time, I came to understand that some part of what I was protecting in protecting my father's privacy was somewhat protecting him from my own aggression and my own wish to write, and sort of share the public voice with him a little bit.

GROSS: In a culture in which there is so much open discussion on the media and so much potential invasion of privacy on the Internet, we really have to decide what is it that we most want to keep private and what is it that doesn't really matter, you know, if other people know about it.

What are your guidelines for that now, both in terms of your life and your thoughts about, like, the larger culture?

SMITH: I'm not so sure I know an answer about my own life. I mean, I certainly want to most protect my family life with my husband and my sons, and my work with my patients. But I think that those things are pretty totally where I want them to be in terms of just being private 'cause they are.

But I think in the larger culture, I think we have to be really careful that we don't erode values that we set on other things by invading privacy -- and that's a muddy way to say it.

But let me give you an example: one of the examples I use in the book is that I noticed in a local magazine that they were selling video cameras that hid in teddy bears so that you could videotape your nanny taking care of your kids, so that when you left the nanny alone with the kids for 16 hours while you went off to your job, you didn't have to worry that the nanny was maybe behaving differently behind your back than she was when you were there.

And this sort of struck me as a terrible way of dealing with dilemmas in human trust, because not only were you disrespecting your nanny by spying on her, but you were further disrespecting her and your kids by believing that anybody should be able to spend 16 hours with kids alone without community support, without your support, without, you know, being allowed to be with other people in different ways.

And so that you were supporting with technology and technological spying and vigilance, some ideas about how human beings should be that are really, to my mind, not terribly healthy ideas.

GROSS: And so that's an example of a technology you don't think we should be using?

SMITH: Well, I think we should be -- with all these technologies -- I think we should just -- it isn't that we can get rid of any of them, probably, or that we should per se throw them all out the window at all. I'm not suggesting that.

I'm more suggesting that what we haven't done so much is think about what the downside might be of moving towards some of these technologies. And I think we're moving towards them in a kind of reflexive panic about how much we don't know. But I think we don't, then, think enough about what we might be giving up in the process of moving toward them.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

SMITH: You're welcome.

GROSS: Janna Malamud Smith is the author of Private Matters.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Janna Malamud Smith
High: Janna Malamud Smith is the daughter of the famous novelist Bernard Malamud. After his death, persistent biographers and reporters invaded her family's privacy. Their behavior caused her to consider the boundaries between public and private. She's the author of a new book on the subject, called "Private Matters."
Spec: Books; Author; Media; Privacy; Bernard Malamud
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Janna Malamud Smith
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JUNE 23, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 062303NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Rage for Fame
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: One fearful admirer once proclaimed that the playwright and politician Clare Booth Luce was "as feminine as a meat ax." To understand Luce's cutthroat charm, biographer Sylvia Jukes Morris spent years interviewing Luce before her death in 1987, and combing through the 460,000 items in the Luce archives.

The result is volume one of Luce's -- of Morris' biography of Luce called "Rage for Fame."

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Biographies attract readers for any number of reasons: they educate and inspire; titillate and dismay. But Rage for Fame, Sylvia Jukes Morris' new biography of Clare Booth Luce, exudes a twisted allure that appealed to my baser female instincts.

I've never been very drawn to Clare Booth Luce. Sure, the 1939 cinematic cat-fest, "The Women," made from Luce's play of the same name, has its moments. But Luce herself, a gold-digging, narcissistic, self-avowed Fascist, never struck me as my kind of gal.

Reading Rage for Fame, however, I found myself reveling in Luce's unchecked ambition. Luce's personal motto was: "never apologize; never explain," which made her as frightful in life as she is fascinating in print.

When Morris describes how, as a young divorcee, Luce bluffed her way into the offices of Vogue and successfully pretended she'd been hired as an editor, my jaw dropped. A few years later, Luce's mentor and lover at Vanity Fair died in a car accident. Before the body was cold, Luce had taken over his job as managing editor of the magazine.

"Tsk, tsk," I thought as I raced through this, and the subsequent disgraceful anecdote about how Luce juggled the visits of three paramours to her vacation cottage on the appropriately-named "Crotch Island."

I think that for nice girls like me, reading about Luce's escapades, as well as those of her fellow carnivore in couture Pamela Harriman, serves the same vicarious function as playing raunchy air guitar does for otherwise mellow men: it gets our "yah-yahs" out.

Luce's life would qualify as the quintessential American success story if only it didn't ooze such a musky scent of sex. Luce was born illegitimate in 1903 in a New York City tenement. Her mother, Anna, was a professional kept woman who advised her clever little girl to attract men with her looks, but to never let them see what makes the wheels go 'round.

Thanks to one of Anna's sugar daddies, Luce got a finishing school education. Then, after a stint working for the National Women's Party -- suffragists who she dismissed as "dowdy and dumpy," the 20-year-old Luce married George Tuttle Brokaw, hailed as the most eligible bachelor in New York and certainly one of high society's most diligent drunks.

"Matrimony," Luce punned, "should be spelled 'matter 'o money.'" One child and many, many diamonds later, Luce divorced the hapless Brokaw. "I prefer being alone with brilliant men," Luce once declared. And according to Morris, she certainly had more than her share, among them Randolph Churchill, Joe Kennedy, Bernard Baruch, and her second husband, Time-Life mogul Henry Luce.

As for women friends, Luce wasn't interested, though it's fun to read about her stinging encounters with other queen bees like Gertrude Stein and Freida Callow (ph). Apart from the naughty bits, what's interesting about Luce's life is her artistic and intellectual drive. She was raised solely to be an expensive bit of fluff.

But Luce, for reasons Morris can't account for, also wanted to be noticed for her mind. Even as she was gaining fame as a playwright, Luce convinced hubby to let her be a war correspondent. She fled the Ritz Hotel in Paris days before Rommel checked in, and was bombed alongside MacArthur's troops in the Philippines.

Luce's journalism, says Morris, was spoiled by her glibness and need to make herself the center of any story. Apparently, Dorothy Parker thought so, too. Parker entitled her review of Luce's collected wartime dispatches "All Clare On The Western Front."

Morris leaves Luce on the threshold of her midlife Republican hawk political career, with new nations as well as new men to conquer. Surely Madonna will snap up the movie rights. Like "Evita," Luce's life story would make another great Fascist fashion epic.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.

Dateline: Maureen Corrigan; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: Book Critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Booth Luce," by Sylvia Jukes Morris.
Spec: Books; History; People; Clare Booth Luce
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Rage for Fame
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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