Drawing the Blinds--and Growing Up

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I came of age in a house of glass. Yes, of course, you're probably thinking. Ronald Reagan was a well-known actor before becoming governor and then president. But that's not what I mean. Our house--literally--had more glass than walls. Or at least it felt like that. A line of plate glass windows and sliding glass doors offered a breathtaking view of the sky, the city, the Pacific Ocean. Every room, actually, seemed constructed around windows.

I could never understand, growing up, why my parents pulled the drapes at night. No one could see in; we lived on a hill with no neighbors to peer in unless they trespassed through bushes and slinked between trees. Yet, predictably, at sunset, drapes and shades would be drawn. My earliest act of rebellion was to open the curtains in my bedroom after I was put to bed so I could sleep with the moon and stars on my face.

It's become an odd metaphor in my life, this business of open windows and closed shades. I have sought out homes in which I could leave windows uncurtained 24 hours a day, yet over time I learned to draw shades tightly around portions of my life.

Not at first, of course. In the realm of presidential offspring, I might always be known as the one who exposed the most. I displayed my political differences with my father at rallies, protests and in interviews. I openly and angrily detailed family tensions. I became fodder for both the public and the media. Maureen Dowd once called me one of the walking wounded.

But life in the public eye is like military training. You either figure out how to survive, or you are pulverized. And survival means pulling down the shades. I still expose a lot--writers always do--but sometimes I feel like a liar, because for every naked truth, there is a window with the curtain down.

What saddens me about the media frenzy over Jenna and Barbara Bush is not what's going on now, but what I know is coming. It is true that the present moment, for them, is hardly pleasant. If you've never heard Jay Leno or David Letterman make jokes about you, if you've never been the subject of Letters to the Editor in prominent newspapers, or been dissected on morning talk shows, you can't really appreciate the depth of the embarrassment or the sharpness of the cut. I certainly made mistakes in public but to read a letter saying Patti Davis is a good argument for abortion seemed a little excessive.

But our society has a short attention span; by next month, someone else will be the butt of jokes. The sad part comes later, when--to survive--you start pulling down shades across parts of your life, your self, that were once so trusting, so wide open. When you stop mid-sentence because you suddenly fear finishing the story you're telling--what if you can't trust the listener? Once that suspicion creeps in, it never leaves.

One day, the Bush girls will look at who they used to be and who they learned to be, and they will feel a disconnect between those two realities. I can say this with certainty because it happens to all of us. It's a border crossing; it's permanent and nonnegotiable. And more than anything, it's sad.

It's sad because you look back and remember how open and carefree you once were, how easy it seemed to be to let loose and have fun. Then you see how selective and safe you have become. Chelsea Clinton made the transition so seamlessly that it doesn't seem like there even was one. But I'm sure there was; there had to be. She just happens to be blessed with a mastery and a poise beyond her years.

You don't get over being splashed across headlines or being made fun of. You just become a clever architect; you build rooms to house the old hurts and walls to protect you against future assaults. You choose each step more deliberately. You assess everything. You pull down the shades. And you remember when your world was younger. Jenna and Barbara Bush are 19--so young to have to start pulling down the shades.

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