I was wasting time online when I came across an article about a woman who breastfeeds her dog and has been doing so for the past two years. Every time I think I’ve heard or seen it all, I can go online and be proven so very wrong. The website where I learned about this woman is appropriately named Gawker. On this same website, months ago, I saw a picture of a man’s face after it had been eaten off by another, drug-crazed man. We will never see it all, apparently. The image was repulsive and shocking, salaciously so, and there I was, staring at it, slightly nauseous, wishing there was some way I could un-see what I had seen.
To gawk: to gaze or stare stupidly.
I don’t really want to know what a man looks like when his face has been cannibalized. I don’t really want to know about this dog-breastfeeding woman. I don’t want to be in the position of being able to judge or ridicule the ugliness and the strangeness of this world.
And yet, here I am. Here we all are.
We no longer have the luxury of disbelief, of being able to believe some ideas or practices are too strange to be true. We no longer have the luxury of curiosity, of wondering what life might be like for someone different. We no longer have the luxury of not being able to ever truly know.
I miss such luxuries.
I miss the quiet longing of considering everything I cannot possibly know.
Reality television and tabloid journalism bear some responsibility here. Everywhere we look, we see photographs and videos of celebrities or what passes for celebrity now running Runyon Canyon or getting coffee or stumbling drunk in Hollywood or having a spectacular breakdown (LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE!). It’s simple economics—there’s a supply for our insatiable demand to gaze or stare stupidly.
Nothing is off limits. If there’s a lifestyle, there’s a television show exposing that lifestyle to the world. The first season of The Real World, with young people who led relatable lives and held actual jobs seems rather quaint now. More than twenty years later, the show has become an absurd simulacrum of the show it once was, fueled by alcohol, sex, and manufactured conflict. This is what happens, when people stop being polite and start being real.
On Intervention we see addicts hurtling toward rock bottom. We hear their desperate and tragic stories—abuse, neglect, poor self-esteem, bad choices. Hoarders is very similar—people living in filth, surrounded by an excess of everything—the desire to accumulate triggered by abuse, neglect, poor self-esteem, bad choices. These shows should be unwatchable but Intervention is currently in its thirteenth season and the sixth season of Hoarders will begin in October 2012.
Every year, there’s a new slate of shows—Meet the Hutterites, Amish Out of Order, Swamp People, Sister Wives, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Nineteen Kids and Counting, Extreme Couponing, Ice Road Truckers, Couples Therapy, Celebrity Rehab, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, The Real Housewives of any given city or state, and on and on and on. The mysteries of how people live or what people do for a living are being solved, one by one. This is modern promiscuity, all this exposure, all this seeing.
We’ve long known there is very little that is real about reality television but the genre has collapsed on itself. Sometimes, the collapse is mild—on House Hunters, for example, a show about families looking for new homes, certain aspects of the show are staged but it’s no big deal. We still get to look inside other people’s houses and pretend the family of the week might not get their dream home.
The more dramatic reality programs edit people and circumstances to make them look their worst. The people on these shows say and do what they’re shown to say and do but these events don’t necessarily occur in the context producers choose to reveal them. This practice is so common there’s a word for it. Modern promiscuity has a vocabulary. A frankenbite is a segment of a reality program that has been edited from separate moments during filming to manufacture a more provocative scene.
And then there are the “reality” shows where everyone knows it’s all a ridiculous lie. TLC’s new series, Breaking Amish is currently under fire because so much of the show is simply misleading. The show is supposed to be about young Amish people leaving their community for the first time and how they integrate, or don’t, with the non-Amish world. Most of the cast members left the Amish years ago. There are criminal pasts, a secret relationship and child, and more. If we can’t see the reality we wish, we simply manufacture it. We supply the demand.
Like many writers, I am regularly asked when I’m going to publish a memoir. I politely sidestep the question. I talk about my parents and not living enough life to yet write a memoir. The first part is true—I do respect my parents and know any memoir I might write could potentially upset them. I don’t feel a strong enough need to reveal myself at their expense. The second part is less true. I have three or four memoirs I could write—about my childhood, about attending boarding school, about my wild twenties, about my thirties. Something significant has happened during each of these periods of my life. I know how to turn a phrase well enough to write about these significant experiences in ways other people can relate to. I hesitate, though. I want to keep some parts of my life to myself. When I see how interested people are in a memoir, I wonder, what is it you want to know? What do you think you’ll learn if I cut myself all the way open for you?
That said, I do enjoy reading memoirs. I enjoy how writers choose to reveal themselves. A well-written memoir is so powerful. It allows you to feel like you truly know another person. It certainly makes me feel less alone. As much as I enjoy memoirs, though, I also feel uncomfortable. I know things I shouldn’t; I know things I have no right to know. This knowledge was given consensually but I struggle, at times, with the intimacy of knowing so much sorrow and pain and even so much joy.
Books are not immune from this pervasive cultural desire to indulge revelation; they never have been. Neither are books immune from the manufacturing of reality. Anytime I see a book about someone who has spent a year or so living a different lifestyle, I am curious about how much they’ve really revealed of themselves, how much they’ve learned, how much we can possibly learn from temporarily simulated lives. A formerly homophobic man pretends to be a gay man for a year and writes a book about it. A personal trainer gains 70 pounds to better understand his clients and the challenges of weight loss and obesity and writes a book about it. A woman chooses to live a year of her life strictly according to the Bible and writes a book about it. These are experiments. The experimenters always return to their real lives. They choose how and what they reveal of themselves. When the experiment is done, there is a reprieve from the manufacture.
Modern promiscuity is mostly the purview of the Internet. Social media, blogging, online forums and the like allow ordinary people to reveal themselves, to be heard, to be seen, to feel extraordinary. We go online and offer strangers pieces of ourselves. We go online and take pieces of strangers. It can be as exhilarating as it is dangerous. Every day there is a new cautionary tale about what happens when we reveal ourselves to the wrong person. Sometimes those cautionary tales become tragic because people are too young or innocent or naïve to understand the consequences of revelation, because their revelations have not been treated with the care and respect they deserve.
Reddit is a popular online portal where, seemingly, anything goes. All the content is user generated by redditors, or registered users, and some of these redditors have become immensely powerful and renowned within their corners of the Reddit world. Redditor and troll Michael Brutsch was recently outed by Gawker’s Adrian Chen as Violentacrez. Among Brutsch’s many “accomplishments” was creating the subreddit, or forum, “Jailbait,” where users posted titillating images of underage girls. This was all legal, of course, because the images were not technically pornographic. There are countless such subreddits on Reddit, where distasteful ideas and images are shared anonymously by people who revel in their supposed freedom to do whatever they choose. It is the purest expression of entitlement.
Another subreddit recently in the news is Creepshots, which has now been banned. Before the banning, the subreddit was extremely popular because not despite of its encouragement of sexual predation. The forum allowed users to post candid images of women who did not know they were being photographed. These women were revealed, without their consent, simply because they existed and caught the attention of a man with a camera. Already new subreddits have emerged, thinly disguised but still the same Creepshots. As quickly as Reddit administrators ban these new subreddits, others appear. There are no limits to what some people will do in the name of entitlement.
In an excellent essay on Amanda Todd, a victim of cyberbullying who took her own life, Michelle Dean notes, “The founding myth of the Internet was its offer of a way to escape physical reality; the freedom to shape yourself, to say anything, became a sort of sacred object.” The Internet has empowered us to reveal ourselves to, as Dean says, shape ourselves, but it has also allowed us to be revealed, to be shaped, even if we would not choose that for ourselves. It is terrifying to consider what can happen in this new, open world where we see everything and know everything. It is terrifying that we value the sanctity of what the Internet offers, of how we can reveal, more than we value kindness and goodness and dignity.
There are so few happy endings anymore, but Brutsch has had some comeuppance. Since his identity was revealed, he has lost his job. He can no longer enjoy the comfort of anonymity. He is not nearly as apologetic as he should be. In an interview with CNN, Brutsch lamented that his life was ruined. His wife isn’t working and is on disability. He cannot afford the COBRA payments for the health insurance both he and his wife need. They may lose their home. While I am sorry for his wife, these consequences are not nearly recompense enough for the damage Brutsch has done. He is only one of hundreds or thousands who troll the Internet anonymously and destructively, satisfying their ids. His comeuppance is the exception to the rule.
We never considered the price we might pay for revealing ourselves. We never considered the price we might pay for seeing the whole world, opened, bared to us. I’m not saying all this revelation or the partaking of revelation is always a bad thing. But there are causes and effects. There are consequences when we stare or gaze stupidly.