There are plenty of good, or at least interesting works, sourced from their creators’ misdeeds. There are classic albums about relationships in which the singer was cruel and destructive, and films that owe their intensity to the emotional torture of their stars. In My Life as a Russian Novel, the French writer Emmanuel Carrère breaks his promise to his mother that he would never write about her father, a possible Nazi collaborator. He also reproduces a long, pornographic letter from him to his girlfriend, which she’d found terribly humiliating. More disturbing is Louis Althusser’s memoir The Future Lasts Forever, written after he’d been declared unfit to stand trial for the murder of his wife. It repulsed me when I read it, but I can say, years after the fact, that it did what I want art to do, and placed me in a different consciousness.
To make good art from bad things, however, requires, at a minimum, some kind of self-examination, which Gay Talese’s new book, The Voyeur’s Motel does very rarely. The book is nominally the story of Gerald Foos, who in the mid-1960s bought a 21-room motel outside Colorado for the purpose of spying on his guests. He installed viewing slats in the ceilings and observed from a carpeted attic, where he masturbated and made notes for a manuscript he called “The Voyeur’s Journal.” In January of 1980, he sent a letter to Talese, who was about to publish Thy Neighbor’s Wife, his sweeping study of American sexual mores and practices. Foos thought their projects complemented each other, and Talese somewhat agreed. “I don’t think there is a whole lot of difference between the voyeur and me,” he told the New York Daily News in July. “Good journalists are really voyeurs.”
Talese visited Foos and joined him in the attic, where they observed a couple having oral sex, and the voyeur sent Talese his journal in sections over the years that followed. Foos considers himself a “pioneering sex researcher,” a king among voyeurs; and a martyr, shouldering the lonely burden of his observations. The two kept a sporadic correspondence until 2013, when Foos announced that he was finally ready to allow his name to be published; Talese, a man of some principles if not others, refuses to write about a subject unless they consent to being named. Foos was compensated for the rights to his manuscript, which makes up a significant chunk of the book. The book has been optioned for film by Steven Spielberg.
Foos not only spied on his guests, but might have gawked at, and enabled, a murder. In November 1977, Foos, by his own account, snuck into a guest room to flush the male occupant’s drug stash down the toilet, having seen him dealing to kids. Later that night, he watched the same man accuse his girlfriend of having stolen the goods, and then strangle her until she collapsed. Foos fled the attic: “he carefully considered what he had observed,” Foos wrote of himself, using the third person, “and upon reconsideration he definitely concluded that the female was alright, and, if she wasn’t alright, then he couldn’t do anything anyway, because at this moment in time he was only an observer and not a reporter, and really didn’t exist as far as the male and female subjects were concerned.” The next morning a maid ran from the room to report a dead body.
Or not. Neither Talese nor subsequent investigators could find any record of the incident, although the Washington Post discovered that a similar murder had occurred around the same time in a hotel ten miles away. The Post found other discrepancies in Foos’s account—he had not, for instance, even owned the motel for eight years in the 1980s. In late June a reporter confronted Talese, who disavowed the book, then reversed his position the following day. So far, the fact that the murder may never have happened has done more damage to Talese’s reputation than the fact that when he reached that entry in Foos’s journal, he didn’t do much about it—and he doesn’t make much of it in his book, which further violates the guests it describes.
It shouldn’t need pointing out that Talese’s credibility should be less important than the rights, and lives, of Foos’s motel guests. The issue isn’t only whether he reported accurately, but the nature of the event he was reporting. Journalistic ethics are less important than ethics. You may be allowed, for instance, to manipulate someone’s emotions, exploit their suffering, and appropriate their life story, as long as you observe the codes of your profession, but that doesn’t mean you are right to do it. Janet Malcolm made the point most famously in 1990, in a book about, among other things, sourcing work from bad behavior.
The codes that Talese abides by were established at a time when journalism was practiced by an elite sliver of society—as he demonstrated at a conference earlier this year, when he failed to name a female journalist he’d looked up to at the start of his career. Later he asked a New York Times Magazine staff writer, who is female and black, how she got her job, and whether she was headed to get her nails done. While his moral code is not as deranged as Foos’s, the two have unexamined entitlement in common. Talese comes from an era in which a limited number of people were allowed to control anyone else’s narrative. The Voyeur’s Motel is, among other things, the product of such entitlement, and it is vile.
A better book, one that could begin to justify itself, would have to address the nature of Foos’s violations, and its own; it would have had to take seriously the matter of privacy, and consent. After observing hundreds of people in their solitude, Foos becomes increasingly misanthropic: In dehumanizing his guests, he loses his faith in humanity. The right to privacy is related to the right to self-mediation, and the story of one’s private life is a form of property. It’s an ethical violation, if not a legal one, to take this from someone without their permission. Foos not only witnessed, but recorded moments that were not his own, and he has now profited from those actions. Whether or not you call this a form of sexual assault, it is, like sexual assault, an intimate form of theft.
Talese—rather than take Foos apart, examine his own identifications, or knead his own complicity—swaps the difficult for the lurid. The book might succeed as smut, but amateur porn is better for the soul. At its most thoughtful, the book could be read as one of those meta-textual statements about audience culpability, and it wouldn’t be wrong, but it’s more accurate to say that it yanks the reader down to its level. If it had ventured a muscular, committed excuse for its own existence, it might have been wrong but worthwhile.
Like Foos in his attic, Talese’s book avoids questioning itself or its subject, or taking seriously the matter of harm. A more reflective, more relevant writer—and relevance is a matter of effort, not of age—would have had something to say about the transgression of the book itself. Let’s hope that Foos made it all up.