Look Who Is Watching

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Gay Talese might be an iconic journalist, but in his latest book he is an accomplice to a pervert

The Voyeur’s Motel | Gay Talese | Grove Press / Atlantic Monthly Press | Press 240 | Rs 1141

AS A HIGH-SCHOOL student, about one-and-a-half decades ago, I had a close friend who liked to peep through the vertical iron bars of his living room window. From the window, he saw a bedroom in the opposite building, which housed three girls: one was about his age; the rest were a few years elder to him. That bedroom had a long mirror, where those girls saw themselves, and my friend saw them seeing themselves, waiting and hoping for them to take off their clothes. Often, they did. But it wasn’t easy, usually he’d spend inordinate time near the window, looking at the empty room, enduring boredom, clinging to anticipation, trying to ward off feelings of stillness and inaction— ones he had brought on himself.

These feelings inform the pages of Gay Talese’s latest, The Voyeur’s Motel, centred on Gerald Foos, a motel owner in Aurora (a town located near Denver), who, according to his own admission, spied on his guests for nearly three decades, from the mid-60s to the mid-90s. Voyeurism isn’t uncommon, but accounts of its confession are. The Voyeur’s Motel allows us to get inside the head of one such man, Foos, someone dissatisfied and dissociated from his own self (his journal entries about his voyeuristic observations identify him as ‘Foos’, the ‘Voyeur’ and ‘Gerald’, though mostly as the ‘Voyeur’), to share the hotel attic with him, where he peeped through the 14x6 inch louvred screen containing a dozen slats, in the hotel rooms’ ceiling, at unsuspecting guests. While leafing through the pages of the book, we aren’t just readers; we, like Foos, have become voyeurs, snooping around the sexual activities of strangers, finding out how they behave when they’re vulnerable and intimate, imposing our presence— and, at times, judgment—on their stories, unasked.

The Voyeur’s Motel is loaded with promises, both narrative and thematic: the story of a voyeur evokes curiosity, but, we hope, its retelling—spilling out secrets hitherto unknown to us—would also cast light on human nature and morality, help us see closed doors, happy families, and cosy neighbourhoods with renewed insight. And Talese seems to be the right man for a project this ambitious. A journalist for six decades, Talese is the author of, among other celebrated works of journalism, the 1981 book Thy Neighbor’s Wife, which documented the changing sexual mores of Americans in a pre-AIDS era—a period and preoccupation crucial to Foos’ life. What’s more: Talese has waited 35 years to tell this story. (He first met Foos and visited his motel in 1980, then signed a non-disclosure agreement, agreeing to publish his story only if he got his consent.)

Foos is a man so remarkable, his obsessions and delusions so extraordinary, that had we come across him in a novel or a film, we’d have dismissed him as unreal. He, for instance, didn’t just see himself as a voyeur, someone fascinated by sexual proclivities of others, and merely satisfying his own perversions. Foos believed his voyeurism held a larger meaning; he liked to think of himself as not a ‘Peeping Tom’, but a ‘pioneering researcher whose efforts were comparable to those of the renowned sexologists’; his attic was a ‘laboratory’, his hotel guests ‘subjects’. But that is how, one presumes, people like Foos get through life, by stripping the humanity of others, seeing them not as whole but as parts: breathing entities composed of ‘pendulous breasts’, ‘large mouth’, ‘moist lips’. Foos, however, didn’t merely objectify his guests: in some of the cases, he conducted an ‘honesty test’ on them (left a locked briefcase, containing wads of cash, in their rooms and checked if they’d return it to the reception); followed them back home, if they lived around Denver; stealthily entered their rooms to check their bra size. As the guests didn’t know they were spied on, Foos saw aspects of their lives that were meant to be secret, where they weren’t always happy, composed, or dignified. But Foos, as evidenced by his journals, was barely moved by the lesser lives of these people: of a woman in her fifties crying because she had to pay for sex; wives being sexually exploited; a young girl, about to begin college, lying to her parents, and, shortly afterwards, crying alone in her room. Instead, he was mostly affected by their carnal choices and acts (husbands not caring about the sexual pleasures of their wives, couples spending their time bickering, watching television), and was harshly judgmental about them (‘this is real life. These are real people! I’m thoroughly disgusted that I alone must bear the burden of my observations’).

Even in a crowd of hardened misanthropes, Foos is likely to stand out. While reading his apathetic journal entries, it’s difficult not to wonder about the kind of man he is. And it’s here that we need Talese, the journalist who has brought these stories to life. But Talese, quite strangely, seems unaffected, too; he allows Foos’ journal entries to run unchecked through the pages of The Voyeur’s Motel, seldom scrutinising his thoughts or actions, as if what Foos did was acceptable, normal, significant. By hardly commenting on Foos, Talese gives him a free pass, almost silently endorsing his depravity. Talese needn’t have taken a moral high ground or judged, but the least he could have done was to explore Foos’ mindscape, to probe his psyche.

SO, HERE, TALESE isn’t doing what he’s most known for (‘hanging out’, spending time with his subjects, interpreting their lives’ most guarded and revealing truths); instead, the book reads like a litany of Foos’ diary entries. But that’s not it: although Talese does express concern about Foos’ reliability (as a number of facts and dates in his journals don’t check out), a few days before the book’s release, a Washington Post journalist reported that Foos didn’t even own a motel for several years in the 80s, something Talese, for reasons known only to him, didn’t care to cross-check.

The lack of Talese’s own writing in this book is both astonishing and disappointing. Chapter after chapter of Foos’ unending journal entries become tedious to read, and you expect Talese to relieve the book of its monotony and moral disquietude, but he doesn’t, probably because he doesn’t care. But he should have cared, because Foos ended up seeing much more. Foos saw robbery; he saw rape (including child rape); he also saw a murder (a drug dealer strangling his girlfriend). Foos had, in fact, in some way, caused the murder, because he’d flushed down the dealer’s packet of drugs and the latter suspected his girlfriend and murdered her during a heated exchange. But what’s worse, Foos could’ve saved the 28-year-old woman. At one point, he saw her chest heaving, but assumed that she’d survive the ordeal. Foos, however, never reported the murder to the police, for fear of being found out. Talese, after finding out about Foos’ complicity, does write about being ‘shocked and surprised’, ‘spending a few sleepless nights asking myself whether I ought to turn Foos in or continue to honour the agreement’, but then quickly absolves himself of any responsibility, because ‘it was now too late to save’ the woman. Had this been the only incident where Talese had fallen into a moral bog, his apathy wouldn’t have seemed so transgressive, so cruel, but in The Voyeur’s Motel, Talese’s reticence exhibits a troubling pattern and is, for the same reason, unforgiveable.

Talese loses, and abuses, the reader’s trust. Which is why certain facts about the book are so disconcerting: its year of publication, for instance, which conveniently protects Foos (through the statute of limitations) from invasion-of- privacy lawsuits filed by former motel guests. Foos, we learn, wants to come out with his story now to not just share his voyeuristic observations but also ‘call media attention to his sports collection … to sell it along with his large house’. Talese meets Foos after 33 years, in 2013, visits his house, and describes his sport collection, turning those paragraphs into an advertisement for Foos’ house.

We all know how this story may end: Talese will benefit monetarily from sales of his book; Foos will be able to find, if he hasn’t already, a buyer for his house. The creep and his ‘co-conspirator’ will walk away from this, as if nothing happened. But in their wake, they’d leave a book that is an artistic, a journalistic and a moral failure.