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Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life

from Chapter 1: My Daughter, My sister

Years ago, just out of college, I worked for awhile in a large Dickensian day care center in a poor mill city. The atmosphere was harsh. The kids were mostly from welfare families, the all-woman staff was working class and tough. The director cared little for her job, and often in the afternoons would leave her office, climb the two flights of stairs to her attic apartment, pour a succession of drinks for herself and the staff whom she had made her half-willing guests, and tell stories. She was ambivalent about me, and having determined that I had one Jewish parent, and one Italian one, referred to me alternately as "the Jew" or "the Wop," depending on where I stood in her esteem -- though how she kept score was unclear. She sneered at my naiveté, yet at the same time it amused her that someone with a college degree could be stupid about things she understood well. Occasionally she invited me to join the others in her apartment.

Late one afternoon, after many stories, and after the alcohol, the early winter darkness, and the departure two floors below of most of the children had deepened our unlikely intimacy, she looked directly at each of the four or five of us sitting around her small room, paused, inhaled on her cigarette, and slowly said, "I know doctors in this town who go to people's houses and deliver the babies that men fathered with their own daughters. I know about an eleven-year-old who had a baby."

She was in her early fifties then, with hair dyed orange and occasionally stuffed under a blond wig. She wore fishnet stockings, short skirts, and spike heels, and claimed to be forty-two. For all that I found implausible about her, I knew she was telling the truth. And while I felt repulsed to learn that some fathers impregnated their daughters, I also felt relieved, having discovered ugly facts to be handy for creating a rudimentary map of adulthood.

What anchored these stories in my memory was not just the knowledge they offered, but the way they were wrapped like so many veils in innuendos and fabrications about the director's own life. She let us know that her conversations with doctors were privileged: her allure made her the recipient of confidences whispered during romantic meetings in bars or bedrooms, not offices. And there was more she wouldn't say. What was she keeping private? She implied that it was the details of her conquests, and since she was our boss, we granted her that interpretation. But it was not hard to see, underneath the bravado, a fragile woman whose urgency to recount other people's hard times was an effort to keep us off the trail of her own. The distance between the person we glimpsed, and the adept courtesan she would have us envy -- together with the forbidden stories she offered -- held my interest. I would stare into the thick smoke of her assertions and silences and wonder, was she as accomplished as she claimed? Perhaps she had a baby with her father, or helped a doctor deliver someone else's. Perhaps she was just expert at holding our attention with half-truths when she didn't want to drink alone.

The invitation to hear her tales also meant that I was at least grudgingly accepted by a woman -- in fact a group of women -- from whom I had not expected acceptance. Like me, they had all been tagged: "Polack," "Canuck," "Mick." But they were older, and knew more. Listening to their talk, I heard about women who died from illegal abortions, and almost in the same breath about how to pick up a man in a bar, techniques Lesbians used to impregnate each other, ways to remove tattoos, and how to mix sweet sticky drinks with names like "Sombrero". Though the setting was uneasy and the delivery hamhanded, the conversations at the day care center satisfied some of my hunger to hear private talk about women's experience. I had gossiped with other women in college, I had listened in on my mother and her friends, but the day care center was different; the women had lived harder, and the exchanges often began where the other talk left off.

Of the conversations, it is the one about pregnant children which remains most vividly in my mind. In 1974, no I knew one spoke about incest. When, a year or so later, I watched the heroine in Chinatown -- played brilliantly by Faye Dunaway -- reveal that she was both mother and sister to her daughter, the scene was shocking and exotic, but also plausible in a way it would not have been without the director's stories.

Twenty years later, both the movie and the afternoons in the day care center seem old-fashioned, even delicate. Today, anyone who turns on the television can hear talk show hosts interview daughters who had children with their fathers, or interview their mothers, or even the fathers themselves. Companies sell transcripts of talk shows, and it is easy to purchase episodes of Donahue, Oprah, and Sally Jesse Raphael on hundreds of topics like "Soap Opera Addicts," or "When Smart People Fail," as well as the subject variously referred to as "Family Inter-breeding" or "Pregnancy from Incest". The public discussion of incest on these programs is not only striking for its contrast to our hushed talk in the day care center, but because as narrative, it explores one of the emblematic stories of our time -- the question of what is hidden within private life.