The Voyeur's Motel by Gay Talese

Review by Rose.

“These book reviews show me as nothing more than a creep.”

“Well,” his wife says, smiling, “you are.” (From the documentary Voyeur, Netflix)

The independent newspaper labelled this a seedy little book that you should not trouble yourself to read. The financial times wrote, “The Voyeur's Motel is a weird, fascinating and thoroughly uncomfortable story built from layers of complicity [...] makes creepily fascinating reading”.

A man - a devious and particularly egotistical man - is determined to live out twenty-four hours a day a voyeuristic fantasy etched into his mind. His name is Gerald Foos. He plans his project to the finest detail, surveying his blueprint for any blunders, anything that could lead to his capture and imprisonment. He considers the equipment positions and viewing angles in the attic spaces with the precision of a filmmaker. He views the people inside his motel like a primatologist monitoring an enclosure of gorillas in a study of animal behaviour. He regards himself as unique: a man who will create the first large scale voyeuristic environment, unlike anything any other sexual observer had attempted. In his mind, he is not merely a voyeur, nor a man creating a sordid situation for his sexual gratification, but a scientist of human behaviour. The one difference, of course, between Mr Foos and say a qualified esteemed professor, is that no one is monitoring his actions: he has not for a moment considered the ethical and moral issues about his methods; he has never sought approval or permission to conduct his ‘observations’.  Crucially the guests are not informed, consenting participants, they are victims of a criminal act. He is also aroused by his work, pleasuring himself while he conducts what he considers worthwhile human research.  This is miles away from a respectable scientific method.

When he stared in the mirror in the 1960s and 1970s he may have deluded himself to the point of actually seeing the image cultivated in his mind. His notebook transformed into an executive grey clipboard, a white laboratory coat adorning his wide shoulders, a department clip attached with his name. As he stepped through the corridors of his motel, he was most certainly rather pleased with himself and his voyeuristic innovation. One day, he thought, he would be respected by the world, not only of being the most prolific voyeur in history, surpassing any other predecessor but as the man that found some hidden code in the secret behaviour of human beings in private settings.

Being famous and sharing his work with the masses was unquestionably in his mind in the early days. The image we have of ourselves in our heads is sometimes not very realistic. Sometimes the truth about our personality can be concealed, even from ourselves. In some, a mental health condition can blur the line between fantasy and reality even more. What is perhaps most fascinating about this story is the way that Foos saw himself as a social scientist, an experimenter and researcher of human behaviour. He forgot that others might perceive him as no more than a lurid man living out his sexual fantasy at the expense of others. A critical question is this: is there any truth that Foos recorded anything noteworthy about human behaviour? Is there something in this book that is more than seedy explicit sexual scenes pointed out by the Independent. As he was not trained in observing and documenting human behaviour, was he even capable of documenting his findings in a way that would provide illuminating material? Or is he like his second wife said in the TV documentary ‘just a creep? To answer this one must examine the notes from the book knowing that they are edited. Was Foos telling the entire truth in his notebook and did the journalist know that there were some untruths from the beginning?

In research, most voyeurs are typically male and this behaviour is often classed as a paraphilia, risky abnormal sexual desires. It’s most likely seen as dangerous as it often leads to criminal behaviour, the whole point of a voyeur is to watch the person without them knowing they are being watched. Voyeurism is seen in famous films like ‘psycho’ or the British 1960 shocker ‘Peeping Tom’. If it is long-lasting it may match the specific symptoms of ‘Voyeuristic Disorder’ as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). At the beginning of his book The Motel Voyeur, iconic journalist Gay Talese discusses another book ‘My Secret Life’: a voyeuristic journal examined by academics that discusses the hidden sex lives of the Victorians. Some have stated that the insatiable sexual appetite of the anonymous Victorian led through this book to an appreciation of the real-life sex lives of Victorians. Talese discusses his hope that the notes made by the 20th Century Foos could prove to be just as useful.

Foos let the famous journalist Gay Talese into his secret. So commenced a bizarre relationship between the two very different personalities, a voyeur and an intellectual journalist. To me, the involvement of Talese is one of the fascinating aspects of this book. Talese became famous in the 1960s working for the New York Times and Esquire. Interestingly, Talese in an interview once called all journalists voyeurs to a point. Talese carries himself as a man that knows his status; he is aware of his notoriety and relishes it. There is a certain refined arrogance in his demeanour, one that would make most think twice about arguing with him. If his opinion is challenged, his use of the ‘cold stare’ could freeze an adversary in his tracks. In the book, he becomes genuinely distressed when he has to remove his tie, while Foos is preoccupied with voyeurism, Talese is fanatical about elegance and dressing impeccably. Image is important to him and he has established a particular look that has become his trademark. Talese’s uptight personality, his uncomfortableness in the small attic space, staring at a naked couple on the bed is palpable. He questions his morals as a journalist, knowing that Foos is breaking the law, though he also realises he has a sensational story in his hands. Talese purposely did not write the book until 2016 so that Foos could never be prosecuted. To me, they both made a deal, Foos offered him the story as long as he was protected. Like many journalists, the bite of that story clicks into his mind like a euphoric drug. In the documentary about the two men, Foos tries to maintain his argument that no one would ever match his prowess and skill as the most prolific voyeur in history whilst Talese wants to be the luminous journalistic figure that captured on paper the most legendary sexual story in American history. This fight for stardom and dominance between the two egotistical men is intriguing. Foos becoming angry at the fact he has been left in the background, while Talese in his tailored suits and waistcoats, like an old wealthy eccentric, becomes the personality and face of a sexual voyeur’s story: Foos story.

The second noteworthy aspect to me was that his first wife, Donna, helped construct the secret rooms, enabling her husband to commit his criminal voyeuristic activities. She never reported him. One could say that without Donna’s participation Foos could not have operated at such a prolific level as a voyeur. The question is why did she do it? We do not find out in this book, which disappointed me. I would say this is a crucial aspect of the story. The females seem to have been placed in the background, yet without them, Foos would never have been so prolific. Foos described his first wife as ‘in love with him and dutiful in that love’. Could it be this love that allowed him to fulfil his crime and voyeuristic dream? Foos saw himself as the star of this story, thus we learn little information about his wife. We know Donna brought him snacks while he watched unsuspecting guests in his motel in sexual liaisons. We also know if particularly attractive guests arrived, Donna would direct them to the rooms she knew were created for his voyeurism. We know that she took part in some voyeurism and used the attic with him in liaisons but this was infrequent, she was not a voyeur herself and it didn’t seem to be about her. Was it the time and culture, where wives were supposed to fulfil their husband’s every desire? Or did she simply not consider the ethic and moral standpoint of what her husband was doing? Did she think nothing was wrong with him indulging in his voyeuristic nature with innocent people whose privacy was invaded? Perhaps she thought the hotel guests were not being hurt as they did not know, an excuse used by Foos himself for his actions. These were questions that played inside my head as I listened to the book.

There are times when I felt uncomfortable listening to the book. You can almost feel the eeriness of the crawlspace and the stranger staring into the room. There is an uncanny feeling of being trapped inside the voyeur’s mind, the way he thinks and feels spreading into the very pores of your skin through his descriptions. You think of the guests stepping into a motel and the ordinary foyer that awaited them. They expected it to be a safe environment, a place that followed societies rules, what they had entered was a part of the voyeur’s sexual obsession. His design, his vision, his sexual fantasy.

The book is sexually explicit at times, though not to the point that it's x-rated. Foos notes are read in a very mechanical way, with no elborate language or descriptions. He describes the sexual positions and acts of the couple in bed in a very unemotional way, almost like someone reading from shopping list. He does not add anything to the bare facts of the actions. They can also be strangely mundane at times, every voyeur understands this, Foo’s would spend many hours waiting for something to happen in the attic rooms, sometimes falling asleep, eating only snacks while he did this.

It's hard to imagine his family in another part of the hotel living as a family with him up here in the attic indulging everyday in his voyeurism. A large part of voyeurism for male voyeurs is the waiting. It’s that combination of dullness and sexually explicit that gives the listener a feeling they have entered a surreal landscape, between describing the guests in a sexual act, Foo describes the constant bickering of guests in the rooms, the many arguments centred on finances. There is a hopelessness to these descriptions at moments, people unable to be kind or affectionate with each other seemed to be the norm.

Talese notes that some of Foos notes one year, sound quite similar to his notes the previous year, after years, he'd seen the same acts, hear the same arguments, see the couples angry about the television programmes. Was there are time he ever felt like he'd seen it all? Obviously not, as he did not stop.

This was most certainly a serious addiciton to one part of his life, there is no doubt that despite him working on other aspects of his life that they were not affected in some way long-term.

The painful brutality of a relationship long over, playing out in a cheap motel room. Can human beings get along with each other? Foos seems to be asking. Are human beings actually capable of it? He comments on the way many couples are television addicts and tells us how much it annoys him that they do nothing on vacation but watch endless hours of television. That they show no real affection for each other, instead argue about what programme to watch. He thinks back to his time when he first dated in the 1950's and that coming from a farming community, there were was little technology and that people appeared to him to spend more time being more caring towards each other.

He witnesses the cultural shifts in sexual relationships and the time when people indulged in swinging, where the frequency of three people turning up at the motel increased, so the sexual cultural shifts are recognised in his notes. As are inter-racial changes in visiting couples after laws changed in America to allow African American's more rights. The torrid screeches of couples, the young couple in the first throes of love, a Texan who does not try to be romantic to the young girl in his presence, but instead uses coarse language, something that really upsets the voyeur who finds the man repulsive. It's moments like this, where you have a man watching couples for sexual pleasure, but becoming infuriated by the lack of affection and lack of romantism in the male in the room that make the entire listening a bizarre experience.

Foos has created his own morals over time and they include treating the female in a romantic loving fashion despite the fact in the laws of the land he is a criminal himself. At one point Foos watches a young attractive couple make love in total darkness, he becomes so indignant that he rushes out of the hotel and switches on car headlights directly into their room, so he can see their bodies and satisfy his sexual needs.

Foo analyses the couples in simple psychological terms, his thoughts and perceptions of their sexual interactions and fragments of their dialogue are like a person finding a few jigsaw puzzle pieces, yet never see the whole picture. Foos himself admitted he knew very little about his guests except some of the long term visitors. There is a sense that you too are becoming the voyeur, listening to tiny excerpts of their life stories echo through time from that motel bedroom long ago. You wonder about them in old age, how they fared in life. You wonder why vacations are settings that begin arguments and instead of being loving enviroments of two people on a break, so much bickering begins.

The vietman veteran states that the Vietnam war was all about money, while he struggles with one leg in the bedroom. The girl reassuring the veteren that it’s okay when you know it’s never going to be okay. However, strangely, Foo’s descriptions are often caring about the feelings of love or non-love expressed by guests, despite his sexual desires being foremost.

You are hearing his judgements in the notes, he is basing his own background, personality and upbringing in his judgments about the couples. He is viewing them with his own personality and perspectives of life intruding. This is something that a scientist or researcher would have been trained to let go, or to at least diminish, no research could ever be free of the observers personality. At one point he describes the lack of care many males took in satisfying their wives, that they didn’t seem to think about love or giving a woman sexual pleasure, and that he observed gay females who were much more loving and caring with each other in the bedroom sexually than females and males.

He becomes enraged at the sloppy way the guests eat, dropping food on the bedcovers while he waits in the shadows for them to stop eating. The unclean way the guests behave drives him to distraction at times. Like most voyeurs, he is also obsessed with the bathroom habits of his guests and talks about the different ways the couples use the bathroom.

The stories that bring out a sense of sadness are the wounded veterans unable to have sexual relations the way they once had, young boys and girls are thrown into traumatic situations far too young. While one wife trying very hard to help her injured husband, unable to help her have a satisfying sexual relationship, Foos comments that he believed she’d eventually leave him. The lonely females with no partner, not having sex, arrive at the motel with men that are only interested in money, the coldness of the exchange, which you know must have stayed with the woman as she walked home alone. The couples who readily showed love and compassion and sharing with their partners and both mutally caring about each other's feelings and sexual satsifaction were obviously his favoured guests.

Foos does convey an attitude of care about the couples and despair at the negative way they treat each other, which is bizarre considering he is breaking the law at the time he is writing these notes. He is not devoid of emotion, he is not callous in his notes. But one must still remember that he is invading the privacy of his guests that paid for a private room. How would I feel? How would anyone feel if they realised this had happened to them? It's not the most pleasant thought.

Many voyeurs begin at a young age, Foo was no different, he had a very loving upbringing and became at a young age obsessed when his aunt Katherine, would walk around some rooms naked, this would cultivate a fascination with voyeurism that would last a lifetime.

It's obvious that Foos may have co-mordid conditions, that is he suffers from more than voyeurism disorder, some have said that he is a sociopath. It's difficult to analyse his true psychiatric disorder without him agreeing to submit to a barrage of tests, but certainly his behaviour from the beginning of his voyeurism disorder demonstrates he had other mental health conditions.

His notes play out in an eerie melancholy fashion, the lives of the people you know are much older, maybe some of them have even died. They are bedroom moments, motel moments of lives....

The book is fascinating in some respects, sad in others....frightening at the understanding that a human being is capable of his and of succeeding in it. Who do we meet in life? Do we really know other people? We all might have met Foos in that reception and watched him smile and hand us the key to our room. Would have figured out that he was a criminal with a serious disorder? No, Foos was capable of wearing a mask of compartilsation, of hiding his true self.

Did he learn something about human beings, possibly that they watch too much television, argue about television programmes that they allow technology to rule their lives. That many are unhappy and not in fulfiling relationships.

That some lonely people will pay for company and the sadness of these late night exchanges. That some have satisfying relationships but many others do not.

What we really learn is that human beings are capable of great deciet, and that it does not matter who you know in life, there could be something dark hidden inside their minds. That they may be capable of things you could never imagine. This is what you really learn. That human beings will make deals for a story that enflates their status, even if one is a criminal and breaking the law. How important is ego? How important is fame and recognition? And just how far are we capable of going to get it.