Press "Enter" to skip to content

Q&A: Author Janna Malamud Smith

Without Privacy, ‘You Don’t Have the Space to Make the Choices You Want to Make’ 

By Samantha Stone  

First of two parts. 

Long before smartphones, Facebook or airport security agents peering inside duffel bags, Janna Malamud Smith wrote about privacy as necessary to human well-being. 

But what does privacy look like — and how much is enough?  

Smith’s book, “Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life,” was first published in 1997. 

It explores privacy from the perspective of a psychotherapist — and, not incidentally, the daughter of a high-profile literary figure. 

Her father was the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Bernard Malamud Smith, whose notoriety the adolescent Janna sometimes found unsettling. 

Smith’s book blends history and personal observations, pondering the acceptable space between private matters and the public gaze.  

In the first of a two-part interview, Smith, 69, told Digital Privacy News that the value of privacy is variable, rather than constant.

Here’s what I took from your book: Societies endure periods of rapid technological advancement, political revolution, social change. When the sands are shifting, one way we seek equilibrium is by changing our view of what should be private. 

I’m not sure I would say “equilibrium.” It’s more of a power struggle. 

The people who want surveillance are at odds with the people who want secrecy or privacy. 

Both sides don’t want the same balance. 

And we tend to view privacy as a commodity: We have it or we don’t. But history and human behavior don’t bear out privacy as something absolute. 

No, it’s fluid. 

The Italians make a lot of the fact that there’s no word for privacy in Italian. 

Photo: Debi Milligan

“The people who want surveillance are at odds with the people who want secrecy or privacy.”

But there are states of privacy, where you keep things reserved. 

It exists as a phenomenon, but not as a cultural value. 

How? 

It exists in different ways, everywhere. 

Among the Inuits, if somebody is lying in a hammock, in a tiny one-room dwelling, the form of privacy available is just not to say what’s on his mind. 

You note, too, that the word and the concept of “privacy” are relatively recent in the English language. 

It comes with ideas about valuing individuals. 

Privacy becomes desirable when people want more control over their own practices — and more people want autonomy. 

If I don’t want you to control my money, I don’t want you to know what’s in my bank account. 

And, so, I get autonomy by that piece of privacy. 

You described how depriving people of privacy can drive them mad. Or, as practiced by oppressive regimes, make people submissive. 

It’s hostile surveillance that does that, basically. 

If you live in a community without privacy, where the whole village takes for granted that there are no locked doors and everybody shares rooms, it probably won’t make you crazy per se — because it exists as a cultural practice that everybody around you takes for granted. 

But if you put people under hostile surveillance — whether it’s the (panopticon) idea of the United States welfare system, where people have the right to come into your bedroom, or to check on you in a million different ways because they assume you’re cheating. 

“Privacy becomes desirable when people want more control over their own practices — and more people want autonomy.”

That kind of hostile surveillance makes people crazy. 

But at the same time, if you put somebody into solitary confinement when they don’t want to be alone, they can start going crazy in 20 minutes. 

The extremes can be really, really violating. 

Your book was published before social media, but the discussion of confessional TV talk shows is analogous. People reveal the shameful and embarrassing things in their lives while millions watch. You say these public revelations have a purpose. 

People want witnesses to their suffering. 

Part of what’s happened is, we’ve lost traditional communities — and there are pros and cons to traditional communities. 

They can be horrible in their own way — but one of the great things traditional communities did, they offered a lot of witnessing of each person’s life. 

“Witnessing”? Meaning other people know where you’ve been and what you’ve done? 

Just for example, I was born in a town in Oregon where I lived for nine years. 

My parents came there. Each was a child of a different immigrant culture, so I had no relatives there. I had no religion. I lived in 16 houses, in three or four different cities. 

There is no one in my life who has witnessed both kindergarten and my college graduation. 

“People want witnesses to their suffering.”

I just finished writing a new book about fishermen on an island off the coast of Maine. 

The majority of the people living on that island can tell you that their great-great-great grandfather lived in the house next door in 1806, or in 1790. 

All of their family live on that island — and the witnessing has been profound. 
The confessionalism that has become so attractive to people in contemporary society is relative to how much anomie people experienced — that they were suffering in different ways, and it was unwitnessed. 

Now you can have a virtual community, with lots of witnesses, but it means nothing because nobody cares much about you. How do we reconcile that? 

I’m not sure we do. 

People point to it as a reason for rising anxiety and depression, especially among adolescents. I think it’s terribly problematic. 

People of my generation were hopeful that you could create communities of friendship or communities of shared interest, but the problem is those bonds tend not to be as strong as the bonds that were created by just a lack of physical mobility. 

For instance, a farm woman in a village in the Dordogne, a friend of mine knew her very well, and said, “What do you think of your daughter’s husband?” And (the woman) said, “Well, he’s OK, but he’s not from here.” 

My friend said to her, “Where’s he from?” And she said, “The village 10 miles from here.” 

This is a one-off from what you’re asking. 

We haven’t begun to understand the revolution of motors. Of internal combustion engines — or even steam engines and petroleum — and just how radical the change has been. 

But that takes us back to the shifting sands. There’s a compensatory revaluing of privacy when things change in the world. 

Yes, because we think we can deal with that change by strengthening the individual. 

Autonomy and ideas we have about liberty and choice — and those are wonderful things — but this is what we have, in place of what we had. 

“The confessionalism that has become so attractive to people in contemporary society is relative to how much anomie people experienced.”

It requires a certain amount of privacy, because otherwise you don’t have the space to make the choices you want to make. 

Think about it: If your fertility cycle is tracked — and you want to become pregnant, but your government doesn’t want you to become pregnant, you have no autonomy at that point. 

Tuesday: Privacy, therapy and 9/11. 

Samantha Stone is a Nevada writer. 

Sources: