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When I was a very little girl in the ’50s, my father brought home our
first TV — a 10-inch black-and-white Dumont in a streamlined cabinet –
and soon after, apparently, TV dinners were invented, so we could each
unfold our individual metal tray-tables and scarf up grasshopper-sized
fried chicken, gluey mashed potatoes and battered peas while we watched,
the rhythm of our chews in time to the flickering Kinescope. I remember
Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Howdy Doody, Captain Video and His Video Rangers,
Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life, Elvis twitching his Pelvis on the Ed
Sullivan Show, Sheena Queena the Jungle, Ming the Merciless on Flash
Gordon, Peter Lorre sweating his way through innumerable encounters with
evil.

We each had our favorites. This was in our modest apartment in Asbury
Park, NJ. My little asthmatic brother and I both liked weird sci-fi
stuff about Outer Space and Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. I seem to
recall how much he watched cartoons. My parents both liked game shows.
My glum father liked sitcoms like The Honeymooners, and talk shows. My
depressive mother liked Queen for a Day, soaps — her ‘stories’ — and
NY Yankee baseball as she ironed. While I, a budding “Theda Bara,”
adored weepily melodramatic movies like “Pinky,” anything starring Fess
Parker and Guy Madison and Jeff Hunter and even that proto-nerd Larry
Blyden who became my template for 20 years of useless dating.

But what I really preferred to TV was painting by numbers or sewing
or writing neo-Emily Dickinsonesque poetry in my pink attic bedroom with
most of my clothes off, growing odd flowers like Bee Balm in my backyard
garden, speed-reading my father’s “forbidden” Nero Wolfe murder mystery
library books in the bicycle basket hidden under my parents’ bed, or
even listening to the radio. Radio was more interactive — you could
close your eyes and use your imagination and make anything up, which
was, to me, more fun than sitting passively and LOOKING, the way my
brother did until he arguably grew up and died far too young of AIDS.
After I got married, my husband and I watched Star Trek, Dan August, and
The Prisoner together, but apparently TV put me into an alpha-state
trance and I would end up asleep on the couch in mid-program. Except for
the War. That kept me awake for months and months, even years.

Yes, the Vietnam War was on TV while I was a bride. “On TV” does not
begin to do it justice. Make that televised. Like all wars, this was a
stupid and bloody and violent one, and I like most Americans watched
’til my eyes were blotchy, compelled by my scorn for LBJ’s imperialistic
pose, my disappointment that our “boys” were mostly poor inner city
youths lured into the military as a way outta the ghetto, and my
incredulity at the USA’s futile involvement in such pointless, costly
foreign misadventures. Even then it was clear that the lines were
beginning to blur between reality and spectacle and entertainment. …
Despite Gil Scott-Heron’s dictum, “The Revolution WILL not be
televised!!”

Now my entire family is dead — mother, father, brother — but TV
goes on, relentlessly, an insatiable tabloid beast whose slavering maw
can never begin to be sated, let alone filled, with our carcasses, or
those of O.J., The Menendez Brothers, Bill Clinton. Wait!! How could I
forget to mention the Army-McCarthy hearings on TV when I was a little
girl. But they were. And I will now. I watched them, stark in black,
white, and gray, grim-faced, angry, self-righteous men in hot,
relentless pursuit of the so-called enemies in our midst. That was how
it began, I think, how America could sit and watch ANYTHING on the tube
as they chewed their cuds in stunned, passive silence … while others
onscreen lived their/our lives for them/us.

This was the creepy cauldron that spawned Roy Cohn. How can I forget
that scowling avenger Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his loyal minions as they
attempted to ferret out the “disloyal” among us? A truly traumatizing
part of my childhood that led to nightmares for years with McCarthy as a
monster chasing me under the bed. Why it was particularly scary: My
father was a federal employee, a civilian electronics engineer who
worked for the U.S. Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, and Ft. Monmouth
was the locus of McCarthy’s rabid anti-Communist witchhunt.

My father and mother were no Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Quite the
contrary. My father was something of a patriot. But one of my
uncles-by-marriage, rebellious as a college student in the ’30s, flirted
with “The Party” before becoming a millionaire CEO. Never mention Uncle
X, we were instructed. Eventually this uncle and his seductive bristly
moustache was read out of the relatives completely when he left my aunt
for an Older Woman.

I will never forget a knock at my front door during the thick of the
Army-McCarthy hearings when I was a very young child. “FBI,” said a pair
of MIBs, men in black suits, flashing their badges, just like on TV.
“Little girl, is your mother or father home?” The FBI had come to OUR
HOUSE to investigate our next-door neighbor Jerry C., who worked at “The
Place,” as my father called it. The next day, Jerry, his wife Mary, and
their two little Jewish-Catholic daughters Nancy and Joanie — who I had
just started babysitting for — were GONE!! Fled. Packed up and escaped
to Bucks County. Vanished!! Not a trace!!

To me, that symbolized the power of TV. One day, Sen. Joe McCarthy
was ranting and raving about “Reds,” the next, your dearest neighbors
had vanished, without a word, never to return. And your parents sternly
warned you never to mention of a word of this to anyone. And I haven’t.
Until now. When I am filled with an incredible sense of sadness, an
overwhelming urge to weep, at the thought of millions of Americans
watching President Clinton’s impeachment hearings on television. I can
no longer pretend to have an opinion on his presumed guilt or possible
innocence. I am sad because we have all lost something, and it’s a
stupendous loss: the right to a private life, here, in Millennial
America.

I can only share with you something Anthony Lewis wrote in the New
York Times that truly moved me to the point of tears: “… The great
Czech writer Milan Kundera, at a time when his country lived under
Communism, warned of the cost of revealing ‘intimate life.’ The police
destroy it in Communist countries, journalists threaten it in democratic
countries, and little by little the people themselves lose their taste
for private life and their sense of it. Life when one can’t hide from
the eyes of others — that is hell. … Without secrecy, nothing is
possible — not love, not friendship. …”

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