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My Life in the Times

Domestic Surveillance: Invasion of Privacy, or Necessary Evil?

The debate over privacy rages on: Can authorities be trusted, and are civil liberties at risk? Either way, in at least one Illinois household snooping may be the new law of the land.

GREENBROOK, Ill., Oct. 14, 1984—John Warner, age 14 of Greenbrook, Ill., is calling for a congressional investigation into recent allegations of spying by authorities.

The alleged perpetrator: A foreign power? The United States government?

No, his mother.

Sue Warner, 44, isn’t commenting directly, but sources in a position to have firsthand knowledge of her actions (her Wednesday-afternoon coffee klatch) don’t dispute initial reports of multiple unannounced and unauthorized entries into John Warner’s bedroom.

One source, who requested anonymity because she drives Mr. Warner to soccer practice and didn’t want him to get mad at her, stated, “By the time they turn 12, the boys just stop talking to you. You have no idea what’s going on with them. They could be up there plotting some kind of attack in the schools—stink bombs in the toilets or something. I think any tactic is fair game.”

It’s not clear how many instances of spying there were, but Mr. Warner first became aware of it last week when he noticed that his recording of Phil Collins’s “Against All Odds” was out of place in its rack.

Reached for comment, Mr. Warner said, “Of course, I don’t listen to that crap. I got it at a bar mitzvah or something. I’m into cooler stuff, like U2 and REM, but still, it’s my stuff.”

As to what else the surveillance turned up, reports are sketchy, but multiple sources confirm several dinner plates crusted with dried (and molding) nacho cheese. Legal scholars find this claim debatable. “Like most 14-year-olds who grow up in white, middle-class society, Mr. Warner has no independent source of income,” said Larry R. Schmitz, dean of the Georgetown University School of Law. “Mr. Warner may argue that his parents give him the funds he uses to purchase records by cheesy balladeers as a gift, but there’s a strong argument that as a minor, his parents own everything, right down to his ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,’ T-shirt.”

“I don’t have a Wham T-shirt,” Mr. Warner responded when informed of Dean Schmitz’s position.

“That’s not what his mother says,” Dean Schmitz countered.

As to what else the surveillance turned up, reports are sketchy, but multiple sources confirm several dinner plates crusted with dried (and molding) nacho cheese, as well as a “stained” jockstrap. In addition, there was likely at least one Playboy magazine that may or may not feature a Barbi Benton pictorial centerfold photographed on the island of Martinique.

Mr. Warner wouldn’t comment in detail, except to say that Ms. Benton is “smoking hot.”

Phyllis Wilcox, president of Parents Unusually Concerned about Everything (PUCE), sides with Mrs. Warner. “I look at puberty as a kind of war with hormones, and in times of war, certain liberties may have to be curtailed. We’ve got to keep the boys from touching themselves, or they might turn out gay.”

Congress sounds lukewarm to the idea of getting involved in this particular domestic issue. House Speaker Tip O’Neil’s office responded to a request for comment with snorts and laughter.

Ms. Wilcox says parents may even have to go further. “When my children are on the phone, I very quietly pick up the extension and listen in on their conversations.”

Dean Schmitz, however, finds this beyond the pale. “Americans treat their phone communications as sacred and private. For example, I can’t imagine a scenario where in the future phones become portable and people riding on overcrowded buses carry out entire conversations about how they drank to the point of blacking out and woke up in a pile of trash bags, surrounded by Girl Scouts.”

When asked about going so far as to have the government monitoring their calls, Dean Schmitz was even more dismissive.

“Don’t be insane. After Watergate, we’ll never have unchecked executive power again.”

However, when it comes to unchecked parental power, the 14-year-olds of America appear to be permanently out of luck.


TMN contributing writer John Warner’s first novel, The Funny Man was recently published by Soho Press. He teaches at the College of Charleston and is co-color commentator for The Morning News Tournament of Books. More by John Warner