Now That We Know So Much About the Private Lives of Public Figures, What Should We Tell Our Readers?
It is now very easy to find out about the sexual affairs, the marital compromises, of famous people. But what part of this private history are we obligated to share with our readers? I mean YA, not middle grade or elementary. I ran up against this in writing about Bobby Kennedy. There is some evidence that he had a few affairs, but in his case the real issue was about his father and John. You really cannot write about them without dealing with their obsessive pursuit of women — especially because those activities had a big effect on Bobby. But if it was necessary to write about them, what about every other famous leader who had a mistress, or affairs, or a marriage that was more formal and public than intimate and private?
The problem is that, until quite recently, we generally accepted that to admire a person’s public acts did not require us to look too closely at his or her private life. That was certainly true when we wrote about role models in books for younger readers. But as a society we no longer split those spheres. Who you "are" as a person stands in judgment of what you do for a cause, or an ideal. At least that is true some times. We all write about Jefferson and Sally, but not every book on Muhammed Ali talks about his endless affairs, and I don’t know if any book on Martin Luther King for teenagers has looked into his relationships with women.
I was struck by this when I saw the movie Milk www.apple.com/trailers/focus_features/milk/ — where we learn that his four lifetime lovers all killed themselves. I recently saw this study, which shows that a parent who is even a bit more accepting and tolerant of a gay or lesbian child does wonders for that child’s mental health. www.rhrealitycheck.org/node/9014 So let’s assume the main reason for these four deaths is the prejudice and intolerance the men experienced all of their lives. And the movie shows Harvey as a person so dedicated to his cause that he is just not that emotionally available — a trait many if not all pioneers of political struggles share. But that brings me back to my initial question — when we honor a hero who has risked everything to improve our lives, how much of his or her private life should we examine?
I am honestly not sure what standard to apply — not out of fear of corrupting teenagers, their fiction is racier than anything we write in nonfiction, and surely the sexy, or even tragic, parts would make a biography more appealing — but rather because I am not sure of the purpose. Merely to state that a hero had feet of clay in his personal life (through emotional distance or infidelity or both) is useless unless it leads to a deeper evaluation of who he was — the personal details should lead to a more three-dimensional portrait. But when we are writing about figures our readers hardly know about at all, should we focus on their public acts? And what of the mores of the time — shouldn’t we understand private and public as they were at the time, not as we see them now? But, in reverse, perhaps it is that personal sphere, the home and its conflicts and tensions, that could make a public figure more accessible, more real, to teenagers.
Doubtless there is no "one size fits all" rule — but what do you all think, how do you wrestle with these issues in your work, your reviewing, your conception of NF for younger readers?