Gay Talese’s “The Voyeur’s Motel”

“I know a married man and father of two who bought a twenty-one-room motel near Denver many years ago in order to become its resident voyeur. With the assistance of his wife, he cut rectangular holes measuring six by fourteen inches in the ceilings of more than a dozen rooms. Then he covered the openings with louvred aluminum screens that looked like ventilation grilles but were actually observation vents that allowed him, while he knelt in the attic, to see his guests in the rooms below. He watched them for decades, while keeping an exhaustive written record of what he saw and heard. Never once, during all those years, was he caught.” (From the first paragraph of “The Voyeur’s Motel.”)

Gay Talese, a pioneering journalist who came to fame in the burgeoning New Journalism of the 1960s and ‘70s, recently wrote a piece that was published in the April issue of The New Yorker. It’s a sneak-peek of his upcoming book, set for release in fall of 2016, which shares the same title as The New Yorker piece: “The Voyeur’s Motel.” Essentially, it describes an ongoing, decades-long correspondence between Talese and a man named Gerald Foos, an epic, expert Peeping Tom, who spied on the private livesmostly the conversations and the sexof hundreds of couples who stayed, rendezvoused, or otherwise passed through the rooms of his motel for fifteen years.

This is an unprecedented, once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon and opportunity, as invasive and problematic as it is. The ethics of the Gerald Foos story are complicated. Foos argues that because the residents of his motel never knew they were being observed, it was fine for him to watch thema twisted spin-off of the adage that ignorance is bliss. Talese’s own position is equally questionable; after all, he agreed not to reveal or report what Foos was doing, even when he learned that Foos had witnessedand failed to immediately notify the police ofa murder in his motel. Glimpses of Talese’s moral equivocation come up in his piece in The New Yorker, showing his self-awareness, but it hasn’t been enough to stave off the slew of backlash from journalists pointing out how unethical this story is. Isaac Chotiner, in Slate, writes that Talese’s “latest New Yorker piece is far more troubling than his sexist comments” (referring to outrage on Twitter earlier this April when Talese said at a conference in Boston that he couldn’t think of a single female writer who’d influenced him). Chotiner is particularly appalled by Talese not turning in Foos to the authorities after learning about the murder, but he also mentions other moments when Talese omits commentary on the times when, for example, Foos stalked a woman.

Despite the heated contention, it’s undeniable that the information in The Voyeur’s Motel will be a grippingif not deeply disturbingportrayal of human behavior. With that said, how reliable are any of Foos’s own accounts? Throughout his piece, Talese mentions glaring inconsistencies in Foos’s narration. Is there any useful or profound sociological insight to Foos’s journals, as Foos himself believes there to be? And how complicit was Talese in enabling Foos to feel that there might be reason to continue invading others’ privacy? These uneasy queries are part of what make not only the story but the writing process behind it so fascinating and worth debate.

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