"Mirror Image" (Poisoned Pen Press) now at your bookseller's.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Given its obvious drawbacks, there aren't many good things to say about death. Sure, it's quiet, and you're unlikely to be bothered anymore by Internet spam and telemarketers. But, to many a noted person throughout history, perhaps the only real comfort of the grave has been the secrets you were allowed to carry to it.

Not anymore. A few years ago, a leading news story concerned the late Dr. Robert Atkins, whose popular diet has taken a bite out of the profits of bakeries, pizza parlors, and other purveyors of high-carb delights. Until a group of pro-vegetarian physicians obtained copies of Atkins' medical records and released them to the press.

Apparently, the happily-carnivorous diet guru's health was less than optimum for some years before his death.

Understandably, his supporters--including his widow Veronica--were outraged. "They're like the Taliban," she said. "The vegetarian Taliban."

Health issues aside, what I find alarming here is the increasingly common practice of violating the privacy of the departed. Just a few months after the Atkins story appeared, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' former priest broke his forty-year pastoral silence to disclose her private talks with him following her husband's assassination.

And he's not alone. In a parade of tell-all books, ostensibly scholarly biographies and TV show "exclusives," people are rushing to reveal the intimate details of the lives of (usually) famous friends and relatives no longer around to defend themselves. So much for the sanctity--let alone the silence--of the tomb.

It's as though we're in some new Age of Postmortem Debunking, a kind of sociological frenzy of hero-bashing that reflects our doubts about altruistic or intellectual integrity. Or, perhaps more to the point, confirms our cynicism.

How else to explain the spate of less than flattering portraits of formerly Great Men and Women that seem to be appearing weekly? Even such usually untouchable stalwarts as Einstein, Lincoln and Gandhi have taken a drubbing.

Lately, it's a truism of American life that privacy is under attack. From identity theft to "profiling" air passengers; from the inequities of the Patriot Act to the selling of personal information databases. But at least those of us troubled by these developments can complain about them. We can email our elected officials. Write scathing letters to the newspapers. Harrass radio talk show hosts.

Alas, these options are unavailable posthumously. Perhaps it's just the therapist in me, uncomfortable with the idea of confidentiality expiring just because the person in question has. Yet I can't help thinking of an interview I saw with Carl Jung, filmed shortly before his own death, as he politely but firmly refused to divulge the details of a painful dream Freud had disclosed to him.

In exasperation, the interviewer said, "What difference can it make now? He's dead."

To which Jung replied, "Because it was told me in confidence."

Bad television, maybe. An anecdote without a punch-line. Plus the fact that Jung--himself fodder for a number of recent idol-smashing biographies--was apparently something less than a paragon of integrity in either his personal or professional life. But in this moment he shone, merely by keeping silent.

For the rest of us, still above ground, not a such a bad model to emulate.

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