Friday, May 16, 2008

On Revelations

Truth is the secret of eloquence and of virtue, the basis of moral authority; it is the highest summit of art and life.
Henri-Frédéric Amiel

Would you? Or wouldn't you?

When I first read Barbars Walters' revelation, in her new memoir Audition, that she'd had a fling with then-Senator and then-married Edward Brooke back in the, what, 70's? I thought, gee. Why would you tell that?

Last night, I was intereviewed for a tv show,and as the host and I were chatting pre-interview, she asked me what I thought about it. Well, I adore Barbara Walters. Any woman who works in television, as I do, has got to bow down and applaud (if that's possible at the same time) one of the real pioneers in the field. No question, without Barbara, there's no Hank on TV.


So I start from the position of "she knows what she's doing." And I'm grateful.


Still. I was thinking about Senator Brooke's (now-deceased) first wife, and how the book would make her family feel. And what about Senator Brooke himself? The essence of a clandestine affair is that it's secret--for reasons of, well, all that. So why, I wondered, would she decide to reveal it?

Well, to sell books, the interviewer said. And that's certainly happening. Then she said to me--how far would you go to sell boooks? What would you tell? Then she smiled, twinkling, and said: I'm going to ask you that in the interview.


I'm usually pretty cool doing interviews, but I've got to tell you, I backed way off of that one. No! I said. Please don't.

And she didn't. But it got me thinking, and now, I think I've changed my mind.

We all know (cf James Frey and that not-gang woman) that if youre writing a memoir, you can't make things up. And I wonder if it's just as true that you also can't leave things out. Leaving something out means you're not a realiable memoirist, right? If you leave out the affair with the Senator, what else have you decided wasn't for public consumption? And if you've leavin' stuff out, why do I want to read your book?

Barbara Walters is a good journalist, agreed? And she knows how to tell a story. So all in all, I think I'm deciding she made the right decision. Um, for her.

What do you think?






25 comments:

Lori Avocato said...

First of all, if I did a "tell all" book and told all, no one would buy it. Yes, pathetically speaking my life hasn't been THAT interesting. Now it I told all and used my imagination--look out Babs!

As for Barb, I think she did it wrong. I think she should have told all EXCEPT the name. This way his family would not be involved and imagine the readers snatching the books off the shelves to try and figure out WHO he was?! Carly Simon's "Your So Vain," comes to mind. Hm, I guess I can't get out of the marketing mode.

Lor

Roberta Isleib said...

I think folks get into such a promotional frenzy, it's hard not to consider every angle. (Though like Lori, my secrets might sell half a dozen books...) And we live in such a voyeuristic culture these days. Remember when you and I sat through the Dr. Phil show Lori? We couldn't picture who would possibly want to talk about that kind of private business in front of all of us and a TV audience of millions!

I heard Barbara interviewed by Diane Rehm on this very subject. She said she told about the affair because it was such an important part of her life that it would have been false to leave it out...

Susannah C said...

Hey -- I'm in the middle of a memoir manuscript that won't name names. In some cases because I can't (Nondisclosure agreements) and in some cases because I won't (just because I chose to write a book doesn't make all lives intersecting mine, including victims and their families, fair game for public display). I say this up front in the Foreword. The who and in some cases where have frankly been changed to protect victims and families who still grieve; the what, why, and how are as true as one human's view can possibly render them.

I'm glad to expose my own weaknesses--and in my book's case I believe withholding would be very unethical. How unfair is that? a book from a search dog handler who seemingly never had a problem or never made a mistake--pish.

But I'm not willing to expose private individuals, by name, to public scrutiny. God knows any time a crime story makes the Internet and AOL puts up a 'talk about it!' message board, victims are raked over the coals of the great bathroom wall that is the Internet at its worst. I'm not willing to provoke more of that for the sake of selling copy.

But the scope and focus of my book is worlds apart from a tell-all backstory memoir such as Walters', and I suppose an additional risk in her case is that if she hadn't named names, any vagaries might have left a number of families uneasy about husbands of similar rank and proximity to Walters. Instead of one family certain about who was involved, there could have been a handful of families uncertain. And speculation provoked by book publicity could also be 'unfair.'

If this event is deeply relevant and pivotal to the story of her life's progression, I would imagine she gave it considered thought and (possibly) contacted the other parties, as well. I've always thought of Walters as someone of integrity and grace, and if she handled her own exposures with the ethic I've come to expect from her, then yes-- I guess she did it "right".

Hers wouldn't be a book I would care to write, but then again, no one's teasing for me to, checkbook in hand. }:>

Jan Brogan said...

I'm going to be a bit strident on this one. I think, in general, people today over-rate frankness at the expense of civility. I think what Barbara Walters did was utterly self-centered and self-serving. How much attention and success must one person attain? Is it like heroin? She just can't get enough? And she doesn't care if that means breaking into houses to get the cash? Because thats what she did to that family. At least in my view.

Rhonda said...

Had she not identified her lover, a mad hunt would have ensued for his identity. The "victor" would have claimed the scoop. And the senator's family would have suffered even worse in the process.

I have a feeling that the revelation was handled as tastefully as possible. Barbara took the wind out of any tabloid-esque sails herself.

What I'm wondering is, though, what was her beat when she had the affair? To this day, I remember a line from the old Lou Grant TV show: "When you cover the circus, you can't (date) the elephants."

BTW, I included the parentheses because Ed Asner deliverd the line that way.

Hallie said...

Joyce Carol Oates wrote this 6-word memoir: "Revenge is living well without you."

Maybe it should be "Revenge is writing well about you."

I have intensely mixed feelings about writing about real, recognizable people. Maybe that's why I'm nota historian.

MTV said...

Lori and Susannah have valid points. I have to go with Susannah's conclusion, though, given the integrity of Barbara Walters and the coupling of that integrity with her political savvy.

I mean it will sell copy, and it is really a part of Barbara the human. To me that is in itself the art form that I perceived Hank to quote - the art of life embraced by truth. To me truth is what validates life. It doesn't matter what we have done, but can we come to terms with it. That is redemption. Wether we bring others into that, that is another question.

I have to say knowing what I know about life now, I seriously question some of the "moralistic" admonitons purported to be in the bible by some. Each life flows from its own stream and yet the streams can intertwine. For me that intersection is directed by our choices and eons of our Karma.

So, I get down to there can even be a lesson in her actions for me and us. We will see what that lesson is as it unfolds!

So, I'm not sure she did the right thing. However, I am only involved to the extent that I am an observer and can learn from it. She and the senator's family are involved by Karma. So, it is not for me to judge what the results of that Karma will be or not be. I can only learn and observe.

Personally, I wouldn't have done it - but then I'm not a career TV journalist nor do I know the "real" personal details of the choice she made.



Mike

Lori Avocato said...

Oh, Roberta. I had tucked those hours of imprisonment at the Doc P show into the deepest recesses of my mind. Thanks for yanking them out! But it's true. People spill such intimate details nowadays.

By the way, what 6 people would buy your book of secrets? Just curious.

Roberta Isleib said...

Lori, I'm assuming you would buy at least one! And then there's Hank, and Hallie, and Jan, and Rosemary, the last one I'd foist upon my husband...

Jan Brogan said...

I think that if Barbara Walters had an ongoing affair with Edward Brooke, that assumes love, or at least a relationship. Call me crazy, but I just think you don't rat out someone you loved, or liked, later, because you just must tell your own story.

I think that Barbara Walters had enough going on in her life, that she actually could have skipped over this. There's no journalistic mandate that she tell her life story.

The world could have survived without this revelation. But of course, it might have affected book sales, and that's really the motivator here. Not journalistic integrity.

MTV said...

"I think that Barbara Walters had enough going on in her life, that she actually could have skipped over this. There's no journalistic mandate that she tell her life story."

Yeah, I can definitely see that point, Jan. The other side of that is that it shows more of her nature and the "mistakes" she may have made vs. the totally superwoman image that can do no wrong.

Sales aside, it presents an image of a more human person with foibles.

Still - I would make the call err on the safe side.

Jan Brogan said...

Hey MTV! I think I'm alittle over the bend on this one. I can see your point about the foible thing. But I think I'm seeing a completely different foible than the one she meant to reveal!

Okay, I'll stop now! Leave Bah-bah alone!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

It's interesting though, that she had to choose. You know? She went through the thought process, pros and cons. (I guess.) Then there's the moment you hit "send."

I guess the first choice, really, was to choose to write the memoir. And that happened long ago. If she were keeping notes, she had to decide to do that.

Diane Sawyer has said she won't write a memoir, because she didn't keep a diary. Wow. Can you imagine what would have been in that?
Nixon White House. Married to Mike Nichols. (She and I even dated the same person at one point. Not at the same time, though.)

I kept journals, for a while, when I was a reporter in Atlanta in the 70's. I went back and looked at one of them, oh, a year or so ago. It brought back lots of memories, and almost made me cry. Because I was so--young.

The Xcribbler said...

Jan is spot on. Do you think for an instant that BW's entire life is in that book? Do you believe that she told you her real foibles? Hardly. She left out the parts that would embarrass her (and judging from The View she is a dirty old "lady") and put in the parts that would sell books, without regard to her victims. It's a wonder to me that human beings can trust each other enough even to become friends, let alone lovers. How would you like to be on the receiving end of a "memoir" like this one?

Shane Gericke said...

Excellent topic, Hank! I agree wholeheartedly with Jan on this one. Barbara has absolutely no class for "outing" someone she claims was so important to her life. She caused his family unnecessary pain and embarrassment, and for what? To make more money? To get more attention? Sheesh. Some things you simply don't do for commerce. Betraying such a deep personal confidence is one of them. I just pray she doesn't talk about the love child she had with me after we (dated) in that alley in Times Square and, ah, whoops, look at the time, gotta run now, bye!

Shane Gericke

The Writers' Group said...

May provocative questions here.

I beleive that as writers, it's our job to write the truth -- for fiction, it's more of a universal truth rather than literal. Memoirists must be held to even higher standard. If one chooses that path, then one must bewilling to strip away the many facades, the protective layers, built up over time.

For me, I'll never be that honest. I grew in New England, home of the Puritans. Discretion is everything.

Amy

carole nelson douglas said...

Like Hank, I'm a woman journalist (16 years before the print masthead) who owes a lot to Barbara Walters. I watched her forge a career against relentless odds and unfair negativism. I was the only journalist in the country to defend her on an Op Ed page when she was crucified for being the first woman to co-anchor a nightly newscast.

There were virtually no women Op Ed writers in 1977 and I was just a reporter, but the unfair onslaught of national and local male comment trivializing her career achievements and wailing about the million-dollar salary (the male network anchors' salaries then were never revealed) made me write an opinion piece in answer. The Opinion Page editor at that time swore he'd never hire a woman, but he let me do my "female ranting" now and again in the late '70s.

And when Harry Reasoner's childish on-air snits forced Barbara off the anchor desk, she was ridiculed, including *by younger media women*, for rebuilding the only way she could: with celebrity interviews. (Which is what all the media have gone to now in these tabloid days.)

I'm thinking about writing a memoir of my media career, including in publishing, and wondering just how frank I can be about victims and villains and my own formative personal history and the people involved.

I think you have to be honest. Barbara has no need to "kiss and tell" just to make a buck at this stage. I think she wanted, as I do, to record the struggles of one woman to use her mind and any impact for the better she could make on the world to its full extent. To be honest, she had to address the personal costs of a career in a field hostile to women (and the news biz sure was when I was in it).

Her relationship with Brooke was key to her life, as were her three failed marriages. She had to address those issues if she was going to do an honest retrospective of her life and career.

Using Brooke's name? As others point out, allowing speculation can be more destructive than naming names.

It's a tough call, but she's been used to making them and I can't fault her for honesty.

The Xcribbler said...

I'm an old broadcast journalist. In fact, in my early life, I was always "the first girl" to do every job I did--not always the first in the nation, but always the first at my place of employment. I felt keenly the responsibility to do well--my failure could prevent other "girls" getting a chance. Men have always assumed that women succeeded by sleeping their way to the top. Like someone else here, I wonder what her assignment was and whether her "affair" with the congressman aided her ability to get news from that quarter. The fact that she had the affair puts her morals and her self-discipline into sharp question. The fact that she used it to sell books answers the question.

With or without BW, women would have made the same inroads, but maybe without the same drama. And continuing drama. ZZZZZ

Rosemary Harris said...

I don't even like to write those 100 word bios for trade show programs. And I don't really care who sleeps with whom (except for Colin Firth, he's pretty cute.)
Don't ask, don't tell.

Paul Lamb said...

I don't really think that a juicy and potentially embarrassing revelation in a memoir is a guarantee that the writer has given a thorough account of her life. Memoirs are interesting for what the writer chooses not to tell. I can generally see where there are big gaps in the narrative to suggest what the writer wants to withhold.

Barbara Walters may have been a groundbreaking journalist at one time, but in recent decades with her breathless, fawning celebrity pieces, her work on that 20/20 tabloid, and the View, it's pretty clear to me that she's long since sold out her credibility for fame.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

She's going to be signing books in Boston this week..and the invitation I read to at least one of her signings makes it clear:

NO photos. NO personalizations.

You've got to buy the book, then apparently stand aside, keep quiet, and she'll sign it.

Huh. That's pretty--what? Nervy? Self-protective? Haughty? I mean--aren't we the people who helped make her career? (What if--no one came? But I bet they will. )

MTV said...

You see Hank. That's the difference. That's what is so great about you! So, now with that comment you've tilted me - alot. I'm sure what BW and company assumes is that there will be tons of people just clammering for her tell all memoir.

Hmm... from my perspective I really don't give a rip about her long struggles etc. The only reason I would care is for the trail that she may have blazed for people like you. And you know how I feel about you and the gratitude that you exude - that's what is important, here.

I began to suspect that Barbara probably wasn't the sweet personna she puts on when that Rosie, Donald Trump media circus arose. There was so much back-tracking in between the Donald and her. Not that The Donald is a paragon of virtue either, so it intrigued me that she became embroiled in that. Talk about Karma.

Which then means more Karma will emerge from this. That is why I made the comment that I will observe and learn.



Mike

AliasMo said...

Well the conversation has moved on, but I still had to jump in on this one. Caveat: I haven't read the book, probably won't, so I don't know how Barbara Walters treated the material about the affair. Journalists always have to make choices about what to include and what to leave out, and I think every memoirist has to do the same. A memoir has to have some focus, some theme, or it's just self-indulgence.

I have heard one interview in which BW addressed the Brooke affair and one of the reasons she identified him: They were a white woman and an African-American man romantically involved at a time when race was a particularly inflammatory issue. If Brooke were similarly open about their relationship, I would probably say the revelation was relevant in that historical/social context. It's also relevant, to my mind, as showing a major lapse in her judgment as a journalist--that circus and elephant thing. (Plenty of male journalists of the same era had affairs, too, but with few women in such prominent positions, their ethical issues were less spectacular.)

However, Brooke is not commenting on the relationship, citing a right to personal privacy. He's no longer in the public arena, and there's no question of the affair affecting his votes as a senator, etc. No "public's right to know" imperative that I can see. At the least, I find it distasteful for one partner in what is purported to be a loving relationship to "out" the other against his wishes.

I'm with the "Why don't people keep their private stuff private?" school. I always admired Jackie Kennedy Onassis for not talking or writing about her personal life. Got room on your soapbox, Jan?

Mo

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

No,Mo, we haven't moved on! Always time to talk about something interesting. You know, I think I'll go to a signing. And I'll report back what happens.

And Shane. I think I read somewhere about your love child.

And MTV! Welcome! Can't wait to see the movie you;re writing.

Carole Nelson Douglas--you write the memoir, I'll line up at the bookstore to buy it! I know you have a milion wonderful stories. And I bet you'll allow pictures! But I agree--how honest could/should someone be? If there's a memoir, doesn't it have to be instructive? And can it be instructive without specifics? I'd love to know what you decide.

An xcribbler--I'm with you. Was she covering the Senate at the time? Will we have to read the book to find out?

Love Rhonda's quote about the elephants.

MTV said...

Hank -

Looking at this blog I stand in awe of the collective of lovely ladies who comprise this blog team as well as some of the interesting topics that you engage discussion in.

Your welcome is one of the reasons you will always be endeared to me. Barbara may have paved the way - but people like you and only people like you make it real.

Thank you for that. It continually assists my faith in humanity!


- Mike