Thank You for Not Sharing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This story would have been published sooner, but we just got out of detox for cocaine and LSD, plus we've been involved in a string of dark, obsessive affairs with our therapist, our parents, the baby sitter and an emotionally abusive ventriloquist dummy.

Oh, and did we mention our bowel surgery?

Hey, if this is more than you wanted to know, get over it.

Blabbing intimate personal details to strangers is good for the soul--and quite the rage. Aboard elevators, at parties, on TV talk shows and in books, the famous and non-famous are spewing secrets in record numbers.

The latest guts-spiller: novelist Kathryn Harrison, whose forthcoming memoir reportedly divulges the twisted, six-year affair she had with her long-lost father in her 20s.

Other recent confessors range from singer Iggy Pop (who informed the world that he likes to lick women's sweaty armpits) to MTV star Jenny McCarthy (who wanted everyone to know she once passed gas during "Singled Out").

Can things get any more explicit? Well, yes (and we'll get to that soon).

But just when it seems the nation is turning into one giant, nonstop segment of "Ricki Lake," a rumble of protest has arisen:

"Why can't we all take our pain and suffering and our gotta-be-me-ness back into the closet?" asks Doug Marlette in an essay in December's Esquire magazine. "That goes for everyone, gays and straights, alcoholics and addicts, codependents, transvestites, transsexuals, angry white males. . . ."

The problem, he says, isn't so much the content of the sharing as the strings attached: "Approve me! Applaud me!"

Marlette's solution: "Maybe we should have signs in restaurants and on buses that say, 'Thank you for not sharing' and 'Keep it to yourself.' "

Maybe, but don't expect them to work. Confession-obsession watchers call the trend unstoppable. Some argue that it's beneficial.

At Esquire, hate mail over Marlette's commentary is already rolling in.

The public baring of souls isn't a totally modern phenomenon.

St. Augustine wrote a tell-all memoir in the 5th century. And long before Geraldo or Jerry Springer, the New Testament urged people to "declare your sins to one another."

But those were tame by today's standards.

"If you look at the history of self disclosure," says Century City psychologist and attorney Rex Julian Beaber, "privacy about one's sexual life and personal idiosyncrasies . . . was [usually] sacrosanct. . . .

"In fact, an incredible oddity of the law is that it is always legal to speak the truth, with one exception: If the 'truth' is about [a nonpublic figure's] private life."

The veil of secrecy began fraying after World War II. Poet Anne Sexton was among the first to let it all hang out, composing such verse as "The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator" and "Menstruation at Forty."

From there, excessive blabbing gradually spread to the rest of society.

"In part, it's a slippery slope phenomenon," Beaber says. "Most people who have a secret also have a fantasy that if the secret were to become known, it would be disastrous."

But during the 1960s, sensitivity groups, psychotherapists and the sexual liberation movement started encouraging public self disclosure as a way to achieve personal growth.

"When people began to make self-revelations [and discovered] that the earth didn't fall in . . . it escalated. 'What if I said this?' and 'What if I said that?' " Beaber explains. "Now, you can survive virtually any disclosure. Indeed, you are often rewarded, even when the disclosure reflects that you are a deviant."

Thus we see self-proclaimed former sex addict Michael Ryan, a professor at UC Irvine, score reams of publicity for a book in which he admits using his dog as a sexual toy.

Ditto for retired NBA star Wilt Chamberlain writing about sleeping with 20,000 women.

Or Roseanne alleging that her father sexually abused her and "chased me with his excrement [to] try to put it on my head."

The list blathers on.

"This is the kind of stuff famous folks used to try to hide," writes social critic Regina Barreca. "Now they hire publicists."

And no end appears in sight, although, curiously, some of the publishers cashing in on the lucrative confession craze profess to being disturbed by it.

Michael Viner of Dove Books in Beverly Hills, which published Faye Resnick's diary about Nicole Brown Simpson, says he doubts the dirty-laundry pendulum will ever swing back, but "I wish it would."

So why add to the genre?

He blames finances: "We publish a lot of wonderful titles, like children's books and biographies, but the thing that keeps those going is the occasional sensational book."

Likewise, Judith Regan of Regan Books, responsible for Howard Stern's sexually graphic autobiography, says she's "tired of hearing about everybody's problems. I think they should shut up already."

But that's more on a personal level. When it comes to business, she argues that although some secrets are better left unsaid, others should be told. The way to stop something like incest, for example, is "to talk about it and write about it," she contends.

Viner says he drew the line on book proposals from Heidi Fleiss (because "she's the essence of trash") and the convicted killer of model Linda Sobek. But Regan sees no limit to how explicit future memoirs might become.

"People love to read about what happens in our intimate lives because that's really the truth of our lives," she says. "And I don't see it as a bad thing."

Psychologist Beaber agrees. People are "desperately curious about other human beings," he says. And, in turn, they're also eager to unload their own stories: "Some spend $100 an hour just to have other people pretend to listen to them. . . . We even get married, in part, so someone has a continuing obligation to participate in [our self disclosure]."

But a backlash has been brewing.

The late Erma Bombeck was one of the first to complain, writing in 1989: "Was it only a few years ago that Bob Eubanks asked a couple on 'The Newlywed Game' which way they were facing when they 'made whoopee'--the Arctic Circle, South America or Ohio? And the audience gasped?"

By 1994, the urge to spill had escalated to the point that columnist Ellen Goodman labeled the United States "an emotional nudist camp. . . . We used to keep quiet about the things we were ashamed of. Now we seem to be ashamed of keeping quiet."

*

Editorial cartoonist Marlette is the latest to burn out on what he calls "this age of compulsory sharing."

In a telephone interview, he suggests that emotional exhibitionists "want the world to be their shrink" and are seeking affirmation from society "because they cannot accept themselves within. . . . It's not too much ego. It's no ego. People are trying to repair that depletion by looking for applause."

He also theorizes that some of President Clinton's political success comes from recognizing and tapping into that zeitgeist with his "talk-show, 'I feel your pain' presidency."

"Something seems to be in the air," Marlette says.

In Los Angeles, it's a waiter telling customers that lactose intolerance causes him to break wind if he eats ice cream. In Orange County, it's salon customers offering explicit details of sexual peccadilloes to a shocked hairdresser. And in San Diego, it's a retreat speaker admitting he once masturbated while speeding down a freeway.

Marlette has a technique to deflect such sharing: humor. If someone starts unzipping emotionally, he interrupts with, "Save it for your memoir."

But psychologist Beaber argues that we're better off letting people open up.

"Why would someone insinuate that rapid intimacy is bad?" he asks. "It's because we're trained to believe it's a special thing that should only occur with small numbers of people and under special circumstances . . . but that's an incredibly Victorian approach.

"What is defective about our culture is there's a dearth of intimacy. We've become afraid of it [because] it creates obligations. For example, it's much easier to fire someone if it's for purely economic reasons than it is if you know them.

"That's why we love TV talk shows," he adds. "We get to hear the self disclosure without having to live with the ordinary obligations of it. It's the ultimate psychic peep show."

But Barreca warns that personal secrets are like "pocket-sized Pandora's boxes" that can wreak havoc if opened. She quotes Samuel Johnson: "A man should be careful never to tell tales of himself to his own disadvantage. People may be amused at the time, but [the tales] will be remembered and brought out against him upon some subsequent occasion."

She also worries that confession allows people to shirk responsibility: "If I announce that I am a needy, greedy, selfish creature, then you must forgive me . . . because I have been straightforward," she wrote in a Chicago Tribune essay. "If I warn you I'm a cad, then you are responsible for putting yourself in the sphere of my influence, and I need not offer any apology for breaking your heart."

*

To avoid such risks, some confession junkies now seek their fixes via computer on the Internet.

"It's a fascinating vehicle for self disclosure because it's anonymous," Beaber says. "It also allows people access to different kinds of self disclosure. . . . I have patients who go on the Net and communicate very intimate aspects of their lives under different identities. I don't mean different names. I mean they go on as a man but say they're a woman so they can talk to a woman as a woman.

"Or they go online under their real name, then sign on under a different name and ask other people what they think of their true self. . . . The level of deception is very high, even among people normal in other respects."

Beaber predicts a confession explosion in coming decades:

"Once personal computers become ubiquitous, I expect anonymous self disclosure to become the most important and dramatic change in the way people relate to each other since the birth of Christ."

Then again, some topics might stay forever off-limits.

Says Barreca: "People will tell you anything about their family lives, their sexual histories, their alcohol problems, their sexually transmitted diseases. Every secret but one."

Their salary.

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