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THE HUMAN CONDITION THE NEED FOR PRIVACY : What’s Mine Is Mine

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Does your wife know how much you really weigh? Would you tell your best friend how much you make? If a former lover came to town and you made a date, would you tell your husband?

The issue is privacy.

“Every human being has this need,” says Dr. Jerome Biegler, a Philadelphia psychiatrist who chairs the American Psychiatric Assn.'s committee on confidentiality.

“We each have a differential capacity for sharing ourselves. If one has respect for oneself, one sets a boundary. It’s counterbalanced by affection and commitment to another.”

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Claire and Maurice Segal, married almost 40 years, choose togetherness, as husband and wife and, for the last five years, as partners in a home-based Los Angeles public relations and marketing firm.

“I know everything there is to know about Claire and she knows everything about me,” he says. They share interests--music, theater, museums, traveling--and they always vacation together. They even share a WaterPik, without bothering to change the head.

He laughs and says, “The only place we’re apart is at the washing machine.” She adds, “He doesn’t know how to use the washing machine. I don’t teach him because (this way) I know he will never go away.”

The need for privacy--however it is defined--is universal. And, because of escalating assaults on our private lives in the outside world, we cherish even more the privacy we create for ourselves.

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A young child wants his or her own room, or at least a drawer in which to stash special treasures. An adult might draw the line at sharing towels or toothbrushes.

Even in some physically intimate relationships, some things are not shared. A woman, for example, might never let her lover see her without makeup.

It’s only natural, says Kenneth Sereno, associate professor of communication at USC.

“The culture dictates certain characteristics that define the ideal male and the ideal female . . . it’s difficult for us to reveal deficiencies.”

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For some men, he adds, “Revealing any kind of weakness or doubt or uncertainty is a real problem. And that’s one of the major problems in many relationships between men and women.”

To Sereno, true privacy is not defined in terms of shared possessions--though he is quick to say, “I don’t want my wife to use my razor.” Rather, he says, “I think of privacy more in terms of revealing aspects of one’s self.”

He sees privacy as the opposite of emotional intimacy, which has to do with sharing innermost feelings--happiness, guilt, doubt, fear. Physical intimacy and emotional intimacy do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Men do not readily admit to doubts or fears, Sereno adds, “because they’re afraid of losing control in the relationship. Most males have as one of their goals in relationships control and domination. . . . Men are much more power-oriented than women.”

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Still, there are few things the Segals won’t share.

Each knows what the other weighs. “We commiserate,” she says. He often sees her without makeup--and tells her he likes her best au naturel . “I don’t like red lipsticks, dark eyes, all that.” And neither person would lie about what they paid for some indulgent purchase.

Ralph Keyes, who dealt with privacy and loneliness in his book, “We, the Lonely People,” says, “The more money you have, the more privacy you can buy, the bigger house, the bigger lot--and then you end up feeling lonely.

“I want my privacy. I think we all do. The difficulty is learning how to balance desirable privacy with undesirable isolation.”

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When people live under the same roof, they establish ground rules. Keyes says he would share his toothbrush with his wife “if I wasn’t sick, and not on a regular basis.” He’d tell the truth about his weight, but might fudge about his height, which is about 5 feet, 7 1/2 inches--"We judge your political and social stature to a large degree by your physical stature.”

And he would confess to a meeting with a former lover. “It would be too dicey if I didn’t.”

If there is a single issue on which people tend to clam up, it’s money. We don’t always tell the truth about how much we make or what we really paid for that designer suit.

Even though people are dying to know.

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But some of the same people who consider TRW reports Orwellian and are offended if asked how much they paid for their house have no qualms about divulging the most intimate details to casual acquaintances. And hairstylists have heard it all.

David Jensen of the Roni Michels salon in Santa Monica doesn’t flinch when clients confide about “having affairs, their mates having affairs, the reasons for their divorces.

“One woman told me her husband began wearing female underwear. She came home one day with the kids and here he was, her husband the nerdy engineer, in a peignoir set.”

And these are the same people who swear those blond streaks were put there by the sun.

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Does anyone have true privacy in this high-tech age, when one’s credit rating, work history and family and financial data can be called up at the tap of a computer key?

“A large measure of it has disappeared,” says Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of a Washington-based monthly newsletter, “Privacy Journal.” Information formerly confined to “the sanctity of the home” is now public.

He knows which assaults on personal privacy worry his subscribers: Easy access to credit histories, “smart cards” that hide personal and consumer information about the cardholder beneath their magnetic strips, telephones that identify the caller.

Another kind of technology has also changed things--the video camera. Smith says, “A lot of people feel intruded upon if their neighbors are videotaping across the street or people come to a social occasion and bring a camera without asking permission.

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“There are lenses now shaped at a 90-degree angle so you can pretend to tape somebody else” while filming some unsuspecting person “who has not had time to primp or prepare.”

Smith takes some solace in the fact that, by being self-employed, he has clung to his “psychological privacy.” He says, “I can make mistakes and take risks and flop without anyone knowing.”

The elderly, as well as the very young, need their privacy. Janet Witkin tapped into that need in 1978 when she founded L.A.-based Alternative Living for the Aging, which now operates five residences offering low-income seniors a companionable alternative to institutionalization.

“We never ask people to share a room or a bath,” Witkin says, so each has a private retreat. But, “Most of our people have been alone for a while, or might be newly widowed and suffering through that. They are really happy to walk out their door in the morning and have someone say, ‘Hi, how are you? How did you sleep last night?’ ”

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Privacy--and the right to it--is different for celebrities than for ordinary folk.

“A public figure does not have the same right of privacy as a purely private figure,” says Gail Title, a partner in the Beverly Hills law firm Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman.

She mentions the case of Ann-Margret who, for artistic reasons, appeared nude from the waist up in a film. When a magazine printed stills of the scenes, the actress sued, citing invasion of privacy, and lost. The court found that “a woman who has occupied the fantasies of many moviegoers over the years chose to perform unclad . . . (which) is a matter of great interest to many people.”

But when an Oakland newspaper reported that the student body president of the College of Alameda, Toni Diaz, was a man--whose real name was Antonio--and suggested that his/her classmates in physical education “may wish to make other showering arrangements,” Toni-Antonio sued for invasion of privacy. The jury found for the plaintiff.

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“If this had been a movie star,” Title says, “there would have been legitimate interest.”

As technology continues to obliterate privacy, Robert Ellis Smith offers ordinary folk some ways to fight back. Always ask why information is needed. Have an alternative address such as a post office box. Get an unlisted telephone number.

Now, does “the Ralph Nader of privacy"--as he has been dubbed--have any little secrets he’d like to share with us?

There is a pause on the other end of the line. Finally Smith replies, “I probably wouldn’t talk about it if I did.”

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