TELL ME LESS : It's the Urge to Tell All That's Taking the Fun Out of Gossip

Here's my problem: I'm a recovering alcoholic. Not only that, I'm the child of alcoholic parents. That would be bad enough, but I'm also an incest survivor. Worse yet, I can't seem to shut up about all this, nor can I get booked on "Sally Jessy Raphael" to talk about it.

What's the matter--I'm not a big enough celebrity for my personal and family problems to be of passing interest to millions of Americans? Or do I just need hotter problems?

OK. I got. I never fully resolved the bed-wetting thing. When I check into first-class hotels, they offer me my choice of synthetic or natural rubber sheets. No animal shelter will let me adopt a stray dog because of the notorious bestiality orgies my family forced me to engage in for a couple of decades. The neighbors said later they thought we were just playing particularly lively games of Scrabble. I used to check into detox programs for the sheer perverse joy of getting my fellow recoverers hooked on rubbing alcohol. Their renewed degradation was my only real pleasure in life.

And still the phone doesn't ring. Are Phil and Oprah suddenly going classy on me?

I get it. Maybe the country is sick of celebrities and near-celebrities using national television as their therapist's couch and the nation's bookstores as their dumpster. Maybe all of a sudden, an older, wiser America is deciding that, in the '90s, people's personal problems really are personal and that Robert Gates' handling of intelligence is more interesting and more important than Roseanne Arnold's parents' handling of her.

Absolutely. And maybe National Brotherhood Week actually does last the whole year long.

All right. Last shocking confession: All of my previous confessions were hideous lies. I'm compulsive about it. I'll say anything about myself to get on television. I'm a confess-a-holic, and I don't care who knows it, as long as it's everybody.

What is really going on here? Why are broadcasts and newsstands filled with this wave of celebrity confessions? It's hard to fault the TV shows: How would you fill a daily hour of television without being entertaining or having something of substance to say? It's even possible to understand the celebrities' motives for this ritual self-abasement. Confession, after all, is good for the soul; the bigger the confession, the better. Roseanne's soul must be in better shape than Schwarzenegger's pecs.

Celebrityhood also implies a certain exhibitionist drive, which is just as well served by rattling on about one's sordid roots as by helping to create something amusing or compelling. And this way, there are no writers' residuals to pay.

But what about us consumers? Why are we eating this stuff up? Gossip is one thing. It has a long and distinguished history, and a certain populist appeal: It brings the great and powerful down to the level of mere mortals. And, sad as it's been for some of the principals, "character issue" gossip really does have a place in serious democratic debate. A presidential candidate who dares the press to find his love nest or a Supreme Court nominee who may have practiced sexual harassment while running the agency in charge of prosecuting sexual harassment--these are cases where the titillation factor is balanced by the suspicion that these people may not be the right inmates to run the asylum.

But all the fun goes out of gossip when it's self-inflicted. It's like the soft-edged, good-sport satire you see when the targets play themselves (see, for example, Jesse Jackson hosting "Saturday Night Live"). I'd much rather watch an outraged paparazzo complain about the beating he got from Sinatra or Sean Penn than see those fine gentlemen tearfully confessing that they are victims of compulsive photographer-punishment syndrome.

This current fad, which critical-massed with Kitty Dukakis' book, may in fact be a deliberate campaign by celebrities to deal a death blow to the tabloids they've had only occasional success at suing. If I'm going to be degraded and made the object of amused pity, the fame-challenged may be saying, at least I should make the money off it.

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