The Magazine

THE SELF-REVEALERS

Jun 15, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 39 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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A couple of years ago, I watched an entire infomercial about toupees. It was late, and I was stranded alone in a motel room, but it wasn't boredom that kept me tuned in. It was the testimonials. "The girls at the health club used to laugh at me," one satisfied wig buyer explained to the camera. "Not any more." (Wait till they see this infomercial, I thought.) A half dozen other guys in bad rugs followed with their hard-luck tales of life before hair: "I couldn't get a date." "I was afraid to go shopping." "I was stuck in a dead-end job." In each case, a new hairpiece had been the answer. It made for compelling television.


But it also made me wonder: What was the point? Why go to the trouble and expense of pretending you're not bald, only to go on television and talk about your fake hair? It didn't make sense.


Until Viagra. The Washington Post broke news of the erectile miracle in a front-page story one Sunday in April. "It really, really works," enthused Alfred Pariser, a retired movie executive from Rancho Mirage, Calif. As if to prove it, the Post ran a photo of Pariser cuddling with his wife, Cheryl. In the picture, the Parisers look happy but worn out, and no wonder. Thanks to Viagra, Alfred told the paper, he and Cheryl are now mating "sometimes two or three times an evening."


Pariser may be exaggerating a bit -- Viagra or not, he's 58 years old -- but that's hardly remarkable given the subject. What is remarkable is that he and his wife were willing to tell the world about their sex life. Why did they do it? Because, like the informercial wig-wearers, the Parisers can't help themselves. They're compulsive self-revealers.


A lot of Americans are, I've learned. A couple of weeks ago I caught a cab in Los Angeles. We hadn't gone a mile before the driver launched into a monologue about all the unsavory people who have ridden in his car over the years: actors, drunken foreign businessmen, people who don't tip. The worst, he confided, are the politicians. "They're just the lowest," he said. "I mean, I cheat on my taxes, but those guys . . . "


It went on like this for half an hour, virtually every sentence revealing something new and embarrassing about the driver's personal life -- how he'd once worked as a hash dealer in India; how his son, the one with the drug problem, had finally found happiness doing body piercing in Hawaii; how he himself still smoked pot from time to time, though increasingly he was turning to concentrated ginseng oil for a more natural high.


By the time we got to the hotel I was exhausted. "Here's my card," he said cheerfully, leaning over the seat. "Give me a call when you come back to town." Sure thing, chief. I'm being transferred to the IRS field office here next week. I'll look you up then.


That's what I should have said. Instead I just took his card and thanked him for the insights. It's hard to know what to say when you're in the company of a compulsive self-revealer. All you can do is listen.


And over the years I have: To the woman next to me on the plane who talked for an hour and a half about her husband's testicular cancer and subsequent nervous breakdown. To the car-service driver who explained how he was committing adultery with his next-door neighbor. (He gave me his card, too.) To the hitchhiker I picked up outside Baltimore who informed me that although he'd had some "problems" with schizophrenia in the past, his time in prison seemed to have eased the symptoms. And of course to countless tales of addiction, self-help, and recovery. Just the other day, a cabby spent the entire trip from Capitol Hill to Georgetown reading me selections from his unpublished poetry.


Self-revealers ought to be a reporter's dream. Who needs Deep Throat when the guy next to you in line at CVS can't wait to tell you about every appalling thing he's ever seen or done? It sounds great. I can't stand it.


Last fall, by weird coincidence, I wound up on the phone with a man who had been my soccer coach in the third grade. I was doing a story on a topic he knew something about, and before we got down to the point of the call, we chatted for a while. He mentioned his wife and children, whom I remembered well. Then, without warning, he began to compulsively reveal. "Here's an interesting story," he said. "A couple of years ago this banker friend of mine told me about this beautiful girl, absolutely gorgeous. He said, 'Why don't you try her? She's terrific. She's a hooker.' And I said, 'Okay, that sounds great.' So I went to her condominium one night and . . ."


My mouth hung open. Don't say it, I pleaded wordlessly. Please, don't say it.