Squealing on your children
IF you had to sum up the state of mass communications at the moment, you might say: Such discretion in public affairs (shush! national security, you understand) - and such indiscretion in private matters! Where would we be these days without people spilling all or nearly all the intimacies of their lives to the nearest microphone or word processor?
On a network football telecast a sports announcer proposed marriage to a woman who was watching - along with 10 million or so other Americans.
In the pages of the New York Times, not exactly your forum for sensationalism, a columnist quite soberly broke the news to her husband (and hundreds of thousands other readers spreading their morning marmalade) concerning what she would do if she ever caught the fellow cheating - shoot him.
Private faces in public places (to adopt W.H. Auden's phrase) loom everywhere - in closeup. The amplified, wide-screen confession has become a well-established custom of our times. The prosperity of any number of writers and editors depend upon it.
Of course, when husbands and wives - and ex-husbands and ex-wives, as well as widows and widowers - give the detailed, uninhibited play-by-play of just how they arrived at their condition, there is an assumption that they're performing a public service by helpfully sharing their experience with other survivors. So one opposes mass intimacy at one's own risk.
Still, some of us would like to draw the line in a comparatively new area where things are really getting out of hand. We refer to the genre of parents telling all about their children.
Once - and not very long ago - it was an embarrassment to admit to being a parent at all. One slid over the fact with a hasty mumble en route to explaining what one's real purpose in life was.
Certainly nobody in those days would dream of discussing one's children. Who would listen to such boring material? Instead, one discussed one's parents and what upsetting people they were - so upsetting that one could hardly have children for fear of making them as miserable as one had been made oneself.
But now children have become not only a topic for public intimacy but the hot topic. Pouty children like John McEnroe and Nastassja Kinski become parents and announce with suddenly radiant smiles that they had not known what life was all about until their baby transformed them - as if this were a late bulletin for the human race.
But the true confessionalists are the writers. What sneaks parent-writers can be at nudging the converation in print toward their favorite theme! Speaking of the birth-rate ... speaking of sibling rivalry ... speaking of the cost of college education ... speaking of the empty-nest syndrome - out comes the son or the daughter, like a wallet snapshot, to illustrate the subject so vividly that the reader forgets what the subject was in the first place.
A parent simply cannot write objectively about a child. Men and women who write coolly, even mercilessly about wife or husband or parents turn to warm Jell-O on the subject of their children. Oh, they try. They insert bits of verisimilitude, reporting what the child just cannot stand about old mom and dad, and vice versa. Such fierce growls! But it's no use. Everything turns into a disguised love song, even more banal than those warbled by a pop singer on one of his honeymoons.
And in the disguising process what incriminating details come out! We learn names, ages, cranky quirks, and most-embarrassing moments, from the sandbox on up. Even the reserved First Lady tells the world of her suspicions that her children experimented with drugs.
Adults who crusade against the sinister invasion of privacy elsewhere cheerfully spill out the files on their children for strangers to inspect.
Poor children! How do they feel when they read about themselves stripped down to the diaper, as it were?
What if we told all in this way about our friends? No friends.
But for the moment, frank and unstinting child-portraiture is the fashion, and nothing can stop it. If James Joyce were alive today, we would learn nothing about his father; we would know everything about his daughter. A Wednesday and Friday column