the Voyeur's Motel by Gay Talese
Grove Press, 2016; 240 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
Gay Talese’s controversial new book The Voyeur’s Motel is a difficult text to unpack. Since a version of the story ran in The New Yorker several months ago, the nonfiction book has come under intense scrutiny as both a journalistic narrative in which the truth is under question, and for the ethical choices Talese made in working with the subject of the book, Gerald Foos.
Foos first contacted Talese in 1980 just as the author was about to publish his best-seller The Neighbor’s Wife, an intimate study of sex in modern America. Foos wanted to share with Talese the details of his own life, specifically in the illegal and unethical ways he considered himself a researcher of sex and sexuality. For several decades, Foos owned and operated a motel outside of Denver as a way of satisfying his peeping Tom tendencies he’d had since childhood. With a walkway above the rooms and specially made vents that allowed him to see inside, Foos spent several decades studying the sexual habits of his guests. While the secret hideaway afforded him the opportunity to fulfill his kink, he also documented what he saw, including changing sexual norms, morally dubious guests, and a murder.
Foos sent Talese excerpts of his journals over the years (some entries in first person, others in third, with Foos referring to himself as the Voyeur) under the stipulation the author would not publish anything until Foos gave his consent. Talese grapples with the ethics of what he learns (all too briefly) as he learns and, at one point, witnesses firsthand Foos’ elaborate perversion. The Voyeur’s Motel has also come under fire over questions about how factual the book is. Much of the material comes directly from Foos’ journal. Some information Foos provides seems contradictory, and records of his motel ownership would indicate that he had sold his property in years he claims to have documented what he saw. In the days leading up to the book’s release, Talese said he would not promote the book over the dubious facts, only to reverse his opinions in a later interview.
The book itself is a fascinating read. While the veracity of many facts can’t be confirmed, Talese has confirmed the existence of the walkway and viewing vents, so much of Foos’ behavior is at least true. The journal entries may not be useful for research reasons, but like many published journals, the excerpts in The Voyeur’s Motel offer fascinating glimpses into the ways that knowing too much about what goes on behind closed doors can weigh heavily on someone. Foos recalls bored marriages, wounded Vietnam veterans returning to their wives, drug deals, people who mocked the motel he loved, dishonest guests, and other people who left him feeling more beaten down than titillated. What weight could a lifetime of watching people in their private lives do to someone? Fiction or fact, the details are raw, emotionally heavy, and real.