When we hear the name of the town Aurora in Colorado, we immediately have images flashed into our consciousness of the 2012 shooting at the Cinemark Movie Theater. During a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, 24-year-old James Holmes entered the theater, set off tear gas, threw grenades into the audience, and randomly fired into the chaos, killing 12 and injuring 70. He is currently serving a sentence of life without parole for his crimes. Eerily, Holmes lived in the former apartment of the subject of this fascinating book's son.
In January of 1980, lauded journalist Gay Talese, who had recently had great success with his book Thy Neighbor's Wife (a cross-country analysis of sexuality in America), received an anonymous letter from Aurora, Colorado, delineating that this man bought a motel, The Manor House, and proceeded to create a catwalk until the pitched roof, complete with specially-designed and rigorously tested grilles that allowed the person upstairs to see and not be seen, to observe the sexual activity of those who chose to stay at the fated site. He didn't do this to blackmail, take pictures, or because he hoped to rape someone, because Gerald Foos had a greater goal - to catalog human sexuality and psychology. He kept extremely detailed journals with every act, movement, and, at the end, his conclusion of the situation. Talese responded cordially but told him that, unless he could use his real name, he couldn't write about him in any capacity.
Eventually, Foos felt comfortable enough to invite Talese to his motel to show him the set-up, which Talese took him up on, observing a few acts in the room below with Foos.
Eventually, many years later in July 2016, Talese finally wrote a book-length profile of this man and his quest to catalog the myriad of sexual liaisons, entitled The Voyeur's Motel. Foos believed that "every man is a voyeur, along with about 10% of women." Part of that 10% were his two wives, Donna and, after her death to Lupus, Anita, who both happily joined Foos in his "observation booth" and even helped put more attractive couples in the rooms that were easiest to observe.
The book has come under flack from reviewers who say Talese's objectivity was tainted by witnessing a scant fifteen minutes with Foos, as well as refusing to alert the police to either Foos activities or the crimes Foos witnessed, including Incest, Rape, and Murder. I wanted to start my formal review with the caveat that yes, it is a highly suspect and controversial way of Talese endearing himself to Foos and to tolerate seeing strangers having sex himself. As a journalist, he breached a certain amount of trust with his readership when he climbed that ladder. I believe that, if you read this like a novel and not dissect it incessantly, it is all the more enjoyable.
Yet, apart from the fog of uncertainty, this book is a fascinating romp through the muck of the human mind and morality. It reads like a dime-store novel, filled with graphic sex, odd characters, and a narrator who tries to distance himself from the proceedings, yet is never truly convincing in his objectivity (think Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.) Foos, for all his foibles and neuroses, brings up extremely enlightening points on the role of marriage, the birth of feminism/birth control, and the dissolution of morality from his first observations in 1965 to his last in 1996.
He describes extremely happily married couples who have no sex life, the predecessors to today's Asexuals. He describes marriages where sex is a chore, something for the man to finish in minutes, leaving an unsatisfied wife who, according to Talese, had 1/6 of the number of climaxes of the men he cataloged. He analyses the creation of the birth control pill and its effect on the sexual trends the men and women who entered his laboratory. The pill, he describes, allowed women the liberty to have interracial relationships, same-sex relationships, and casual sex without fear. But, and this may describe the reason why rape cases have increased in the years since its creation, men felt inspired to take the sex of the women they slept with, whether the women wanted it or not, because there was no way a baby could mess things up anymore. In fact, the bulk of the book is transcriptions from the Journal Foos kept and, while fascinating, Foos is not exactly Margaret Mitchell. He tends to ramble on at times, lapse into melancholy boredom, and climb onto his soapbox and lecture his imaginary audience on his philosophy. His moral decisions are fraught with specificty, like the one where he condemns the perpetrator of the 2012 incident of illegally videotaping ESPN reporter Erin Andrews nude in her hotel room through a modified peephole, simply because Foos felt that he shouldn't have disseminated the tape onto the internet and blown his cover.
Foos himself is harmless enough, never having raped or killed anyone himself. His major crime is one of invasion privacy and failure to report felonies. In fact, it was his actions that caused the murder to happen, though he did not wield the death blow himself. He is ultimately a melancholic character, trapped in a world he created because of his repressed sexual upbringing. The true genesis of his career as a voyeur was his incestual fascination in his aunt, standing outside her window and watched her float around her room nude, something his repressed and sterile mother would never have done. He collected baseball cards, because he couldn't collect dolls and porcelain figures like she did. His feelings for her are what thrust him into his life's mission of understanding sex.
This is another addition to my pile of evidence for what I believe is the number one cause of the world's problems, past and present: repression. Sexual repression often leads to crime, rape, murder, and insanity. If you without feelings, without discussing them with family, friends, or therapists, they will boil to the point of obsession and madness, of which Foos suffered some form of.
Sadly, enjoyment of this book is marred by the critics pointing out the egregious loopholes, including discrepancies as to the date and year Foos bought the motel and the aforementioned moral dilemmas. The cloud of doubt has settled on the literary community, one that has obscured what could have been a truly singular literary event. Yet, if this were 1965 when Foos started his journey, this book (with slightly more mild language and description) could have been a hit pulp paperback that housewives would read to escape from the drudgery of their existence.
Talese is wise not to stretch out the thin narrative out longer than necessary and the 233-page tome is easily read in one afternoon. In this era of instant information and public outrage, this book epitomizes what the literary community despises, a good story with a complicated genesis. We like books where the is zero practical and moral doubt and we can focus on the facts. Life, as much as we would like it to be, is not always so black and white.
The Voyeur's Motel is a tale caked in grit and topped with a sterile bow, yet it is compelling reading. If you can discard the aura of distrust around the suspect narrator and his jittery subject, this book will entertain, fascinate, amaze, and ultimately, sicken.
If nothing else, it's a tale that urges you to check your hotel room before stripping your bathrobe.
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