Friday, November 18, 2016

A Strange and Distasteful Project: The Voyeur’s Motel

Gerald Foos behind the desk of the Manor House Motel in Aurora, Colorado.

We who profess a helpless fascination with human nature were sitting ducks for The Voyeur’s Motel (Grove Atlantic; 233 pp.), Gay Talese’s book about an Aurora, Colorado, motel owner who made a vocation of spying on the sexual activities of his guests. On April 11, The New Yorker ran a lengthy excerpt to herald the publication, and though the reaction of commentators was largely hostile, the material had an undeniable, if unwholesome, allure. Probably many were compelled to read it, and Steven Spielberg was compelled to option it, for more or less the reason Talese was compelled to write it. It was just so . . . odd.

The motelier, Gerald Foos, had contacted Talese in the late 1970s. The latter was then writing Thy Neighbor’s Wife (1980), a social history of sexuality in American life and law, and a book whose research phase had been widely publicized. In his letter, Foos said that his life as a sexual voyeur had begun in boyhood, when he spied regularly on his naked aunt; that he had purchased his motel, The Manor House, in late 1965, specifically to watch other people have sex; that he had fashioned peepholes, disguised as air vents, in the ceilings of the units; and that he had been maintaining a detailed journal of his observations for well over a decade. While candid about his masturbatory interest, Foos cited a larger mission that was both scientific and sociological. His notes, he claimed, charted the evolution of Americans’ bedroom behavior over the years of the Sexual Revolution and were thus a trove of priceless data, particularly on the widespread practice of supposedly deviant acts. “I did this purely out of my unlimited curiosity about people and not as just a deranged voyeur,” Foos informed Talese. “If sexual researchers & people in general could have the ability to see into other people’s private lives and see this practiced & performed, and to ascertain exactly how large a percentage of normal people indulge in these so-called deviations, their minds would change immediately.” Elsewhere, he described his project in philanthropic-therapeutic terms: “The only way that our society is going to achieve proper sexual stability and mental health . . . is to know the truth of what people are actually doing in the privacy of their own bedrooms.”

Enticed, Talese flew to Colorado. He read Foos’s journals, and watched a sexual encounter from the spy nest (a thickly carpeted attic running the length of the motel’s pitched roof). Over the following decades, Foos continued to send him information and updates, having stipulated a confidentiality agreement which would prevent Talese from revealing anything. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that Foos, now out of the hotel business, said he was prepared to go public with his story.

From the beginning, Talese was dubious about Foos’s complete trustworthiness, not to mention properly put off by the man himself and his “strange and distasteful project.” Foos claimed to have witnessed the amatory gamut from masturbation and standard straight and gay intercourse to group sex, costumed role play, and incest. Most sensationally, he claimed to have witnessed a murder – the strangling of a woman by her male companion, a drug dealer. Talese could neither confirm nor disconfirm that the killing had occurred, but after the New Yorker excerpt was published, one of Talese’s editors at Grove Atlantic discovered, via some cursory internetting, that a quite similar murder had taken place a few days before Foos’s corresponding journal entry – but in a different hotel, ten miles away. Talese updated his book to countenance the discrepancy, but a check of property records exposed others. Though Foos’s voyeuristic journal was begun in late 1965, records indicated he hadn’t purchased The Manor House Motel until 1969; Talese fudged the gap by suggesting that Foos had not been meticulous in his dating. Then came the news that neither had Foos owned the motel between 1980 and 1988, years he had claimed to be in full voyeur mode. Foos’s versions of how, when, and to whom he had sold The Manor House, how he repurchased it, and how he retained access to the secret attic all the while were contradicted by documented bills and titles. Confronted with these, Foos held firm, saying he’d told the truth to the best of his recollection. Talese basically threw up his hands, saying he would do no more interviews or appearances for the book: “Its credibility is down the toilet.” He backtracked soon after, saying that while he did not stand by Foos, he stood by the book. But he would still decline to promote it.

What a mess. Gerald Foos turns out to be something less, or at least other, than he claimed to be, while Talese comes out seriously compromised, having failed to sufficiently corroborate much of what he presented, with only minimal disclaimers (“I cannot vouch for every detail”), as a predominantly factual story. Especially for an admirer of Talese’s innovations as a journalist (see the celebrity profiles collected in 1970’s Fame and Obscurity) and immense skills as a popular historian (magisterial works like 1969’s The Kingdom and the Power, about The New York Times, 1971's Honor Thy Father, about the Bonnano crime family, and Thy Neighbor’s Wife itself), The Voyeur’s Motel is grim reading: it represents a failure of both journalistic diligence and authorial craft.

Talese seems to have been so held by the sordid uniqueness of the Foos narrative that he abrogated minimum standards of verification with regard to publicly accessible facts. But going back even further – to the ur-text, as it were – he is distressingly uncritical of transparently implausible events described in the Foos journal. Two especially absurd scenarios involve dark rooms and headlights. When a man turns off the lamp before making love to a particularly attractive female guest, Foos goes into a rage: “I feel like killing him.” He scrambles from his attic, races to the parking lot, turns on his car’s headlights, and points them at the couple’s room. Back in the hidden perch, he watches the couple commingle, noting with pleasure the male subject’s irritation at the distracting glare. Soon after, two men and an “absolutely stunning” woman check in together; one of the men rooms singly, the others as a couple. Again, the lights go out just before coitus. Hurrying to position his headlights, Foos finds no proximate parking space. But he snatches a small voyeuristic victory: the curtains of the adjacent room are parted just enough for the passing Foos to see the third man listening through the adjoining door, while masturbating to the sound of his friends’ lovemaking. To which even the generously imaginative reader can only sneer, Come on. Real life doesn’t go down like that; fantasy and fiction do.

The flimsy factual scaffolding is burdened with many failures of style. Often Talese’s prose is weirdly lax and tinny, as if many lines barely received a first drafting, let alone a second. There are many of the split infinitives, lazy word choices, and other little sins of carelessness Talese has always been prone to – and which often matter less on the panoramic scale of bigger books, but in this claustrophobic context matter inordinately. Though the book is short, its energy is entropic, as if Talese’s interest in his subject, thinly nursed from an early point, had by the end expired completely. Ultimately he is content to transcribe every mundanity of Foos’s latter-day life and thought (e.g., his daydream of designing a splash-free toilet – a notably dumb sidelight), with several long paragraphs simply cataloging the walls and rooms of the house Foos lives in today. These are the dull resort of the extended magazine profile that The Voyeur’s Motel essentially is. (Also careless is the lack of consideration given to Foos’s two children from his first marriage. Both of his wives are described and characterized in detail, as both were complicit in his voyeurism; the children are mentioned in a few passing paragraphs. Didn’t they wonder where Daddy was all those years, on the evenings after the motel office closed when Foos was allegedly in the attic, eyes pressed to the peepholes? The question is not raised.)

Gay Talese. (Photo: Joyce Tenneson)
Foos’s journal entries, on the other hand, are – however poorly written by professional standards – surprising and compelling. They’re full of baroque touches: the author objectifies himself as “the Voyeur,” the motel rooms are his “observation laboratory,” and the unsuspecting guests are simply “the male subject” or “the female subject.” They sometimes read like softcore porn: “He took her, solidly, into his arms, and his lips sought for and found hers, and it was her moist, pink lips that came surging into his mouth, searchingly, as his hands began to explore the soft contours of her body.” Yet they also evidence an arcane, even archaic mentality: “The younger male placed the bedizenment of goat canonicals over his head.” (The OED says that to "bedizen" is “to dress out, especially in a vulgar or gaudy fashion.”) Often Foos indulges the twilight melancholia of a Poe manqué, considering at one point that “perhaps I don’t exist, only represent a product of the subjects’ dreams. No one would believe my accomplishments as a Voyeur anyway, and therefore the dreamlike manifestation would explain my reality.” Somewhat like the diary of Arthur Bremer, who in 1972 attempted the assassination of U.S. presidential candidate George Wallace, the journal has interest as a study in pathology. Foos like Bremer experiences delusions of omnipotence (“I had accomplished what other men had only dreamed of doing and the thought of superiority and intelligence occupied my brain”), and both journals are written in a stilted, unnatural diction (“I have seen most human emotions in all its [sic] humor and tragedy carried to completion”) which applies a pseudo-intellectual polish to semi-coherencies (“My voyeuristic urges will now be placed into effect on a plane higher than anyone else has contemplated”). Sometimes the cognitive detachment is comical (“Incidentally, this was the largest penis that I have seen so far”), but most often it is creepy, smelling of rubber gloves and dark spaces, suggesting the dehumanizing stare of the obsessive who, but for a few shifts of circumstance, might have been a serial killer instead of a sexual spy (“I feel like killing him”).

It can be justly concluded that Gerald Foos is a liar, whatever bits of truth might float in his brain fluid. But a literary work is before us, a work which gives his story a context and a semblance of form, and so Foos’s lies are not only lies, they are confabulations. His journals (for which the publishers paid “an undisclosed amount”) are quoted at length in The Voyeur’s Motel; in fact the book is, for long stretches, effectively a set of annotated journal entries. Talese aptly compares this patchwork of unbridled fantasy and autoerotic self-study to the once notorious and widely banned My Secret Life, the graphic (and often incredible) sexual memoir of an anonymous Victorian gentleman. That book’s veracity long ago became impossible to ascertain, and beside the point. Rather, its value, as Talese quotes scholar Steven Marcus, is to show “that amid and underneath the world of Victorian England as we know it – and as it tended to represent itself to itself – a real, secret social life was being conducted, the secret life of sexuality.” Conceivably, the long-term value of The Voyeur’s Motel will likewise be as the chronicle of an imagination, of a certain mind fantasizing within, and against, the socio-sexual parameters of a certain time. If read from that perspective today, it can give insight – though not the kind which, as a work of nonfiction, it purports to give.

As curious in his mental constructions as ever, Foos wrote Talese in 2012 that by documenting his voyeurism he had meant to oppose “any attempt to subvert reality, substance, the truth.” A confounding trinity: inasmuch as he pretended to stern factuality, and got Talese to believe him, Foos subverted reality rather effectively, while the “truth” of his narrative is so degraded as to require quotation marks. As for the trinity’s middle prong, substance: Talese asks at one point, “And where was I in all this?” For the reader, the more immediate and vexing question is “Where am I?” What is the reader to make of this work, with its dishonest subject, its too-credulous author, its toilet credibility? Again, it may be that The Voyeur’s Motel will find its rightful audience in a time as far removed from ours as My Secret Life was from the exploratory sixties, which unearthed it as an illuminating curiosity. Even spurious books gain historical weight with age, and it’s hardly impossible that one day Talese’s book will be read for whatever it reveals to others about our time. But if it is reprinted, it will have to be as a casebook, with surrounding police reports and investigative articles alerting readers to what was and was not true. The book by itself does not tell us that, nor can it: its subject did not tell the truth, and its author did not allow himself to know it.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is