privacy and the ethical researcher

Fanny Burney, inveterate scribbler and archivist, thought a lot about the afterlife of her words. While she couldn’t stop herself from writing and collecting, she was nonetheless deeply concerned that someone, at a later date, might misread her words and in so doing, mistake her intentions. Simone de Beauvoir was apparently similarly concerned with her intellectual inheritance, so much so that she adopted an adult daughter – Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir – a student who possessed the integrity and strength of character necessary to act as the executor of her adoptive mother’s intellectual wishes.

Some of Tissot’s patients demonstrate similar desires to control their bodily narratives. In one haunting letter, a young man suffering from onanism entreats the good doctor to destroy his letter, that nobody else would be privy to the horrors of his immoral behaviour. This precaution, even though the letter is unsigned. And yet. Two hundred years later, the letter still exists…

Scholars like Jacqueline Hellegouarc’h have pointed to The Birth of Intimacy during the eighteenth century, a growing preoccupation with private life and with the necessity of shielding the private self from the public eyes of the courtly sphere. The shift from courtly life in Versailles to city life in Paris, the careful designation of individual rooms in grand hotels, the birth of the novel with its emphasis on the life of the domestic sphere, and the emergence of literary novels, built on the trope of the author as editor of a collection of mysterious correspondence all attest to a growing interest in the intimate life.  For some of Tissot’s patients, the workings of their bodies, too, were private, meant only for careful revelation to the most respected of doctors.

As researchers, we carry a huge responsibility. We must tread most carefully indeed.


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