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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Is privacy dead?

Or is it just that nobody respects it any longer?

Okay, even if it makes me sound like something of a cliché, I must admit that I enjoyed reading Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s sometimes self-deprecatory sometimes self-indulgent account of the time she spent in Italy, India and Bali, recovering from a traumatic divorce and a rebound affair gone bad. But as the movie version, with the ever-lovely Julia Roberts in the lead, hits screens all over the world, I can’t help feeling a teeny-weeny bit sorry for the erstwhile Mr Gilbert aka Michael Cooper.

Surely it’s bad enough to suffer through a bad marriage and an acrimonious divorce. But then, to have all those private details of your personal life become public property through first a best-selling book and then a blockbuster Hollywood movie – well, that must be a very special kind of hell to suffer through.

Of course, Cooper is now re-married and has the children (two boys) that his first wife was so loath to grant him. But surely it must rankle that he will forever be known as that feckless so-and-so who chased Gilbert for every penny he could get out of her, even – wait for this – a share in all her future earnings.

Yes, though Gilbert is a bit hazy on the reasons for her divorce in the book (did she fall out of love with her husband; did she fall in love with someone else; we don’t quite know) she is generous enough to share the details of her divorce with her. So, we know that her ex-husband fought her every step on the way, laid claim to the marital home, asked for lots and lots of money, etc. etc.

Now, here’s the thing. The truth is that almost everyone behaves badly in a divorce – especially if they don’t want one in the first place. In fact I can’t think of many people whose behaviour in these circumstances would stand up to scrutiny. But not everyone has their financial wrangling brought into the public domain in so spectacular a manner. So, yes, I do feel a bit sorry for the first Mr Gilbert (especially since he failed to get a slice of his ex-wife’s rather fabulous future earnings and his own personal memoir, Displaced, was cancelled by his publishers because it wasn’t revelatory enough).

You could say, of course, that this sort of stuff is par for the course; it comes with the territory when you marry a writer. After all, isn’t that what writers do? Don’t they all mine their own lives for a good story to tell? And in Gilbert’s case, her life was the story.

Well, I guess so. But surely, anyone in a marriage – or any kind of relationship, for that matter – should have a reasonable expectation of privacy? Everyone should be entitled to keep their private lives private, to keep their personal life to themselves, if they so choose.

And yet, how do you accomplish that when everyone around you seems to be in such a confessional mode? Forget about celebrity sportsmen like Tiger Woods and Wayne Rooney who have to deal with mistresses/girlfriends/escort girls selling their stories for massive amounts of money. Even ordinary folk these days tend to deal with a break-up by venting on Twitter or starting a blog recounting their heartbreak in every excruciating detail. It matters little to them that they are not just invading their own privacy but also of their partners.

And this sort of compulsive over-sharing has become near chronic now. Just look at the recent slew of political autobiographies to hit the market. Peter Mandelson’s The Third Man and Tony Blair’s The Journey are just the latest in a series of books that show scant respect for the tradition of keeping political confidences. Private conversations are recounted verbatim, personal correspondence is quoted liberally, and everything that was off-the-record is placed on record without the slightest trace of embarrassment.

Needless to say, not everybody is happy with the consequences. Alastair Campbell was incandescent with rage when Cherie Blair revealed in her autobiography, Speaking for Myself, that he had once dismissed her hair stylist as “only a f__king hairdresser”, even writing in to newspapers to deny ever having said so. Cherie, for her part, sent in a legal notice to Peter Mandelson for quoting from a letter she sent him after his exit from the Cabinet in which she vented against Gordon Brown (“My only consolation is that I believe that a person who causes evil to another will in the end suffer his returns.”) Which, frankly, is a bit rich coming from a woman who cheerily recounted private conversations with everyone from Princess Margaret to the Queen in her own book.

While the art of the candid political autobiography is yet to come to India – somehow I can’t quite see A.B. Vajpayee or even Brajesh Mishra recounting their difficulties with L.K. Advani with the same reckless disregard for political niceties – a confessional culture is certainly creeping in. Journalists think nothing of tweeting about off-the-record encounters with ministers. Actors share candid details of their relationships with fans on social media networks. And even ordinary folk are getting in on the act, sharing private details in public spaces.

So, is it fair to say that privacy is dead? Or is it just in terminal decline, waiting for a miracle that would bring it back to life?

And do you think that miracle will come about in our time?

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