Too Much Information?

I was at a wedding, standing just off the dance floor, when a pleasant young man in his 20s approached, introduced himself and asked where I’d had my hair done. I shook his offered hand and began to answer, but before I could he said, “I’m gay, by the way.” I nodded as if this were my business, but thought: I wonder why a total stranger thinks I want to know what he wishes to do with his genitals? What an odd way to say hello.

We live in a time in which people routinely violate their own privacy.

I don’t think the young man lacked a sense of privacy. I suspect if I’d said, “Tell me your annual salary,” he would have bridled. That’s personal.

Maybe he wanted me to approve (“That’s wonderful!”) or disapprove (“Unclean!”). Maybe he felt compelled to announce his orientation because homosexuals are so often told that not to declare is to be closeted, and to be closeted is shameful. Maybe he was doing what he thinks he must to do to show integrity.

Whatever his thinking, it has occurred to me that in the old, clucking, busybody America it was not unusual to meet people who needed to be told, “That’s none of your business.”

But in the new and infinitely stranger America there are a lot of people who need to be told, “Buddy, that’s none of my business.”

Or, as people began saying about five years ago, “Too much information!”

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Yet there is one change in the national conversation that has been beneficial. It is one case in which the sharing of personal information has struck me as a big step forward.
This is the demystification of illness, especially cancer. It is being demystified by the number of people who have lately come forward to tell people they were ill and to ask for their help. Tony Snow of Fox is one, Peter Jennings of ABC another. Melissa Etheridge came out at the recent Grammy Awards and rocked the house with her brilliance, energy and bald-from-chemo head.

And there is Laura Ingraham. Laura was, as pretty much everyone who reads this column knows, recently diagnosed with breast cancer. At first, like everyone in such circumstances, she was shocked. Then she did an amazing thing. She told friends and family exactly what was happening; then she told her listeners on her popular radio show and asked for their prayers. She gave daily treatment updates on her Web page. Before April, Laura hadn’t been to a gynecologist in 3 1/2 years. Now she is reminding women not to be as “moronic” as she was.

Laura is funny, irreverent, beautiful and about to be married. She once told me that before she met her excellent fiancé she’d met her share of frogs. I teased her that it wasn’t a few, it was more like the ending of “Magnolia.” Her laugh filled the restaurant and made people stare. After she was diagnosed she took a week off from her radio show. But she called in from outside the operating room to report she’d just asked the surgeon if he was offering a lift with the lumpectomy.

It is not possible that her beautiful spirit—and Tony’s, and Peter’s, and Melissa Etheridge’s—isn’t helping people.

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Illness used to be considered a personal and intimate matter, and of course it is. But publicizing your struggles with it can save the lives of strangers. The other day the Associated Press reported that more than one-fourth of those who were aware of celebrity urgings to get cancer screenings had gotten such screenings.

Certain illnesses, and cancer is one, have been treated as if they were obscurely shameful. In “Illness as Metaphor,” Susan Sontag said disease arouses dread. An illness “that is treated as a mystery and acutely enough feared will be felt to be morally, if not literally, contagious.” She quoted Kafka writing from his sanitarium: It was hard for him to get accurate information on his tuberculosis because in discussing it “everybody drops into a shy, evasive, glassy-eyed manner of speech.”

In the past people have acted as if illness were an evil predator and not what it is, a condition that can be treated.

So why not open the windows, air it, let everyone know? Why not let those who choose to talk to God talk to God for you? Laura had full convents praying for her. The day of her operation, a Mass was said for her at a small church in Brooklyn, where strangers very specifically prayed for her full recovery.

The other day I called in to welcome her back to her show and she mentioned a friend had questioned her approach. Was it wrong to be so public?

No. It was healthy.