What Is This Woman Thinking Of?

Published:April 6, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Whitney Houston and Virginia history—what, say you, is the connection? Only this: a philosophy teacher at Southern Methodist University has asked why Houston shouldn’t enjoy a right to privacy, even after her death—and I happen to think that this question bears on the business we do here.

Jean Kazez is the philosopher in question, and her blog post is an odd piece of writing in that she broadcasts information about Houston revealed in a recent coroner’s report while simultaneously tsk-tsking others for broadcasting that very same information, and she does all this in support of a piece of hypothetical legislation she dubs the “Whitney Houston Privacy Act”:

Of course, the Supreme Court might strike it down—obviously privacy means nothing to the brilliant dudes who recently upheld strip searches for people held on the most minor charges. But it’s worth a try. I can’t see any earthly reason why Whitney Houston shouldn’t have been able to take her most personal secrets to the grave.

Here’s another odd thing about Kazez’s post: while it raises a remarkable question, it doesn’t seem the slightest bit interested in actually pondering it. Someone who has pondered it is Janet Malcolm. In her book about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, she compares biographers (but she may as well speak of historians, too) to burglars who rummage through the lives of the famous dead, taking their secrets and dumping them out in full view of the world. “The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured,” Malcolm writes, “by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity.”

The walls of that bank came tumbling down, though, when one of Plath’s biographers argued that biographies of the poet written “during the lifetimes of her family and friends must take their vulnerability into consideration.” Malcolm describes this statement as “thoroughly subversive,” before proclaiming, with a healthy dose of sarcasm: “To take vulnerability into consideration! To show a compunction! To spare feelings! To not push as far as one can! What is the woman thinking of?”

So already Kazez’s proposition has been complicated.

  • Are we talking here about all the dead or only the famous dead? What about the dead in whom historians are merely interested?
  • And should we make a distinction between the recently dead and the long dead?

Laws exist to protect people, but the dead are, well, dead. They’re beyond our protection. So those potentially in need of protection are the living—family members and loved ones. Once they’re gone, what service would a “Whitney Houston Privacy Act” provide except to stifle research and prevent historians from asking questions?

I have a dog in this fight. While researching a book on the early jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, I became interested in the controversy surrounding his sexuality and his arrest, when he was eighteen years old, for “lewd and lascivious” behavior. I deemed my inquiries relevant because Beiderbecke drank himself to an early grave, and I can’t help but wonder why. Perhaps there is no good reason. But perhaps a good burglar might be able to come up with something.

Standing in opposition to me was a retired chemistry professor who sometimes refers to himself online as His Royal Majesty King Albert the First of Bixonia. “I am a strong advocate of the sacredness of privacy,” he told me, arguing that not even Beiderbecke’s personal letters should have been published—even as he used those very letters to advance his own view of Bix.

Even for King Albert, figuring out who Bix was takes precedence over the sacredness of privacy, and that is as it should be. Dead since 1931, Beiderbecke is not harmed by our mostly futile efforts. And for the government to draw some line would, I think, be wrong. Who is to decide what information is harmful or embarrassing? How long is long enough for us to wait?

You tell me, Jean Kazez.

IMAGES: Bix Beiderbecke, 1924; Whitney Houston