When he isn’t fulfilling his obligations to Vanity Fair, where he’s held a “day job” as editor of creative development since 1998, when he left his position as director of photography for Life magazine, David Friend writes books. He does not think small.
As an example, for The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here, published in 1991, Friend asked 150 people from around the globe, from all social strata, “Why do we exist?” and asked 150 photographers to submit an image apropos to the question. He included another 225 responses and 137 images in the 1992 follow-up, More Reflections on the Meaning of Life.
In Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11, published five years after the destruction of the Twin Towers, Friend addressed that question from a more concentrated perspective. He interviewed dozens of people in the process of reporting the back-stories of a cohort of photographs culled from the thousands generated on that day — the burning skyscrapers and their smoldering ruins, dust-covered first responders and shell-shocked survivors, victims plunging from the buildings.
“Everyone on the planet simultaneously witnessed the horrific images,” Friend recalled in a recent conversation. “What did that mean in terms of visual culture? What did that mean in terms of our understanding of one another? What did that mean in terms of our understanding of terrorism in an age of grotesque spectacle?”
Friend traces the evolution of the “age of grotesque spectacle” in The Naughty Nineties: The Triumph of the American Libido, in which he examines the “Why do we exist?” motif at its most fundamental level. Over the course of thirty-two chapters and an Afterword, he explores the implications of his thesis that the decade witnessed, as he puts it, “something of a second sexual revolution” by which “America’s historically puritanical, repressed culture took on and mainstreamed the counter-culture’s values of the 1960s,” loosening the long-standing social proscriptions tempering expression of the biological imperatives by which humankind regenerates itself.
Using Bill Clinton’s 1992–2000 presidency as the throughline along which the narrative threads connect, Friend patiently traces the paths along which these cultural streams infiltrated politics, business, and popular culture, drawing from Guy Debord, Freud, and Marcuse while making the medicine go down smoothly with a light touch, sexy attitude, and minimum of jargon. Adding to the flavor is much first-person testimony culled from 260 interviews, which include descriptive encounters with Paula Jones; Monica Lewinsky; Lorena Bobbitt and John Bobbitt; sex addiction guru Dr. Patrick Carnes; the sisters who popularized Brazilian Wax and their satisfied customers; the scientists who developed and marketed Viagra for Pfizer; female orgasm guru Nicole Daedone; the Houston plastic surgeon Franklin Rose, a.k.a. Breast Man; Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss; and Woody Allen. —Ted Panke
The Barnes & Noble Review: It’s a huge subject, and writing The Naughty Nineties took a long time. What was the gestation point?
David Friend: My previous book was painful to do. I needed something lighter. I went out to dinner one night in 2010 with Dr. Michael Mendelsohn, a friend who used to be head for cardiovascular diseases at Merck. He told me a funny story about a heart drug they were developing in the ’80s and ’90s that came to be called Viagra. Sure enough, the patients in the trials were finding this little side effect, and they weren’t returning the pills after the trials were over. So, as scientists and as drug company executives, they decided to switch it from a heart health drug to a sexual health drug.
I thought: No one’s told that tale; I’m going to look into that story. Then I thought about what else was going on in the mid-’90s. My daughter was doing 100 sit-ups a day because she wanted to be like Britney Spears. Her friends were getting belly shirts and wearing low-slung jeans and deciding whether they should get belly rings. So I was seeing in my own family the encroachment of an over-caffeinated sexuality in popular culture that was going on in Hollywood, in Washington, on Madison Avenue, especially with the continued Bill Clinton discussion that was going on. I realized it corresponded with the Boomers coming to power. It seemed something of a second sexual revolution.
It’s a challenge to get people to talk about sex, and I like a challenge. I always like trying to get people to open up who’ve never opened up. I like doing deep reporting on unsung individuals, on people in the center of momentous events, on unwitting heroes or villains, people who are caught in the crossfire.
BNR: Did the scope expand as you wrote?
DF: The basic structure was always the same, but it kept metastasizing. I couldn’t do one chapter on the changing roles of men. I needed three. I couldn’t just do one chapter (as I’d hoped to) on third-wave feminism and the heroes of feminism in the ’90s. I needed two. I delivered a manuscript of 250,000 words, and we had to cut. My editor at Twelve, Sean Desmond, was very hands-on at telling me to, as they call it, “kill my babies,” to make it manageable for the reader. He said: Let’s cut this whole chapter on Madonna’s Sex book. It’s about publishing, and people don’t necessarily want to read a book about a book. Let’s cut this chapter on the two women who were called the “most downloaded women in the Internet,” which was a Guinness designation for a pinup star named Cindy Margolis and a soft-porn Internet entrepreneur who went by the pseudonym Dani Ashe, who became a very wealthy person from that business. Rather than put all the Clinton chapters together, Sean suggested using the Clinton chapters as a throughline — to alternate between the men and the women, to alternate between the Clinton chapters and the non-Clinton chapters.
We thought, as did the nation, that it would logically conclude with the last chapter, which I call “The Internet and the Intern,” looking at Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and the 2016 election. But sure enough, the Afterword was needed, because we were leading instead to Donald Trump and what Guy Debord wrote about in The Society of the Spectacle. I think Debord predicted what we’re living in, in the same way that Marshall McLuhan and Herbert Marcuse predicted what we’re living in.
BNR: Who were your models in the beginning?
DF: My inspirations in my writing have always been Freud and Joyce. Sigmund Freud, as unpopular as he might be in many circles today, was talking about the unconscious, and everything he says still rings true. Much of what he says about the sexuality of infants and of human beings even in infancy holds true. The idea of civilization being defined by how we curb our sexual attitudes and appetites. The Interpretation of Dreams is still a seminal book. His ideas about sexuality still guide psychoanalysis and, I think, Western thought about sexuality.
I read a lot of Foucault and found him a goad and counterintuitive in his thinking about sexuality. I’ve been extremely taken with Joyce in my adult life because he always plays with language.
Some of my guides for the book were imaginative reportorial voices I grew up reading and admiring. I thought about novelist Robert Stone, a mentor of mine, who did early reporting on Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. I thought about the great reporting at New Times magazine. I thought about Joan Didion. I thought about Norman Mailer. I thought about David Foster Wallace, who was quite important in the ’90s. I thought about Phillip Roth, although I’m not a huge fan, because I thought The Human Stain was spot-on in its discussions of political correctness in the ’90s. He opens The Human Stain: “It was the summer in America when the nausea returned, when the joking didn’t stop. It was the summer when a President’s penis was on everyone’s mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America.”
Christopher Hitchens helped me early on. He urged me to go to Twelve as a publisher. I liked his contrarian point of view, and I took to heart the way he criticized the Clintons. I thought I was writing a book about the ’90s that would logically lead to Hillary Clinton becoming the president. No. When you look at the way it all played out, it was logical that you would get Donald Trump.
BNR: You could describe Clinton and Trump as two different sides of the forces you’re portraying.
DF: That’s very true, in that they are two sides of the same coin, the coin being a culture that values quick fixes, fabrication, working the angles to get ahead and then get an edge. Things that we were taught in the 1960s, the Age of Aquarius, that we were ushering in a new age of people helping one another — that’s how it really works, ultimately, in the flow and symbiosis of living things and the universe. But in today’s harsh geopolitical world, that is not how it works. Though “it takes a village” is helping one another, that’s not how Bill and Hillary Clinton operated as politicians. That’s not how Donald Trump operates as a human being.
At the beginning of Chapter 19, I quote Virginia Woolf that “on or about December 1910 human character changed.” She meant that we were in the modern age, where society was breaking down, where writers were breaking things down to their basic elements — a world of the avant-garde. I took that as a model to write: “Sometime on or about June 1994, American decorum changed.” Paula Jones decided to go ahead with her lawsuit against Bill Clinton, which was based on sexual harassment and potential defamation of her. Clinton denied it. But the entire decade became gobbled up in this lawsuit. He would not have been impeached had she not done that. We would not have been fixated on Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky had the case not gone through the Supreme Court.
Six weeks after Jones filed that suit, O. J. Simpson was driving around in his white Ford Bronco after the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown-Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. This became the nation’s obsession for a year and a half and set up what we have today — this serial episodic TV-Internet show that we’re all watching all the time. We have Donald Trump not just because of the electorate’s sense that we needed a change in the direction of the nation, but because too many of the American people became an audience of watchers and not doers. They became fixated on what they thought was a limited-run series but became a reality show — that became reality.
BNR: You quote the late Ingrid Sischy that Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy “institutionalized lying about sex.”
DF: Yes. We’ve tended historically not to have people perjure themselves by talking about their intimate relations, but in that decade the government forced a lot of people to talk about and expose their sex lives — as did the Internet, the tabloid culture, and tabloid television. People were being pushed to reveal things that they themselves did not want to reveal, and shouldn’t have had to in many cases. There was a drift toward exposure for exposure’s sake and for titillation’s sake. It has not stopped. With the online bullying and exposés we see, it’s a poisonous culture.
In 1992 we met Clinton on 60 Minutes, with his wife beside him, saying that he had caused pain in his marriage but denying that he had had an affair with Gennifer Flowers. Steve Kroft, the correspondent, told me (it’s in the book) it was clear that Clinton was lying. Then, the key story that dominates Clinton’s first week in office, then his first six months, is “don’t ask, don’t tell” — the idea that people serving in the U.S. military must lie about their sexual orientation if they are homosexual or bisexual. Clinton introduced a mandate to lie about one’s sexual orientation. Then, Clinton was impeached because he lied about sex. He told the nation that he did not have an affair with Monica Lewinsky and, under oath, tried to weasel around in the language of his responses, and so was impeached.
The book discusses outing, which became a big deal in the ’90s and was an ugly, pernicious practice. There’s the sense that when you do lie about who you are, you end up corroding yourself in some ways. On the other hand, you have the right to make up yourself and define yourself, personally, politically, sexually, and otherwise. I think Ingrid Sischy was saying that the mainstreaming of these masks we’ve been putting on ourselves became institutionalized. It was condoned: We’re all going to lie; this is how we’re all going to be. Now we have an entire government that is lying all the time.
BNR: Let’s talk about how the cultural production of the ’90s reflected the events you discuss. One phenomenon you report on at length is the impact of Clinton and Oprah Winfrey on the culture of confession.
DF: I think Oprah Winfrey became the mother confessor of America in the ’80s and ’90s. She was very open about the abuse that she suffered as a young woman. She was open about her weight issues. She was very keen to promote writers who were writing in this genre and to get their work out into the world, so she promoted this book club that became huge and helped the book world immensely. But she was really channeling what she’d learned in the church — in parallel with what Clinton had learned. He was a born-again southern Baptist. He would go as a young boy to see Billy Graham. Unlike his mother, he decided, “Mom, I’m going to get baptized,” and she allowed this.
There was something very key in the ’80s and ’90s about absolution and resurrection through public confession. You saw it with certain evangelical leaders who were caught in sexually compromising positions and had to confess to the flock — most notably with Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. You saw it with Barney Frank, who was involved with a male escort he put on his payroll; he had to confess, then he won by a landslide. Bill Clinton confessed in 1992 to causing pain in his marriage. It became a culture of second chances, a sense of mercy and forgiveness, which I don’t believe had been ingrained in the culture before. A lot of that is from the church and from twelve-step programs and from these public purgings — the idea that we are, all of us, broken individuals, and if we just are open about it, we can heal and people will forgive us. We became used to taking people down several notches to make ourselves feel better, and then hoping they’d come back. That made us assuage our guilt from having demeaned them, by having them somehow resurrected by these public confessions and by their second acts in their lives.
BNR: Can you think of any ’90s novels that are emblematic of these themes? You’ve referenced The Human Stain.
DF: There probably are many. I just think I was less informed by them than I was by other issues. One that I thought was really a ’90s novel was Doug Coupland’s Generation X , which summarized this group of twenty-somethings that get together. It’s almost like a Silicon Valley version of Friends or Seinfeld — a lot of hooking up and groups living together. This was a very ’90s thing. Let’s hang, let’s hook up. Hooking up was big.
I don’t think it’s as much novels as confessional books. You had Prozac Nation. You had Daphne Merkin’s piece in The New Yorker about spanking. You had Jenny McCarthy and Drew Barrymore talking about their pasts. Wilt Chamberlain and Howard Stern wrote bestselling confessionals. From the ridiculous to the sublime to pain and darkness. Then, there’s this bumper crop of self-help, self-analysis books. The ’70s, according to Tom Wolfe, was “the Me Decade.” The ’80s, according to Oliver Stone and Michael Douglas’s character Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, was “the Greed Decade.” But I think the ’90s was about self-branding — that each of us can make ourselves a brand and use this new thing called the Internet to project this alternate self that people can react to.
BNR: One of the most compelling chapters describes a conversation with the sex addiction therapist Patrick Carnes in which he discusses the relationship of the Internet to the intensification of the addictive culture.
DF: Patrick Carnes came up with the concept of sex addiction therapy in the ’70s, and wrote influential books in the ’80s and ’90s that helped shape how we treat people with sex addiction. In the ’90s, it was a punch line. But it soon became evident that more and more people were turning to the Internet for sexual fulfillment or sexual exploration, and it was beginning to wreck marriages. It was destroying lives. People were ending up in prison for their off-hours dalliances. They were getting STDs. They were online all day, not going to work. It became evident that porn, as utilitarian as it is in people’s sexual lives, had a dark downside, which was, one, misogynistic in many cases; second, abusive in many cases; and third, addictive in a way that it would not have been had there not existed the Internet. Prior to the Internet it was very difficult to procure porn. You really had to go out and find it, although the culture was getting more sexually saturated. But for people who already had addictive personalities, the Internet was this unbelievable driver. According to Carnes and others I’ve spoken to on the subject, people who are sex addicts often have a secondary addiction. Perhaps in their family there’s alcoholism or drug addiction or gambling. They sort of go hand-in-hand as an addictive suite.
So the Internet was a handmaiden in this phenomenon, which began in the ’90s and has accelerated to this day, where young people growing up often are not learning about sexuality in an intimate way through peers or older siblings or parents or schools. They are learning everything that one could know, and more, from the virtual world by just clicking a few times on their computers or their cell phones. That’s harmful to many people not mature enough to handle it, and to many adults who then become fixated on it. I think as great as the Internet has been since its creation in 1993 in helping everything from the Arab Spring to booking your next Air B&B room, it’s put a distance between individuals in many ways, and has brought out some of the darker sides and hateful sides of the human character.
BNR: I’d propose it’s also generated a certain societal desensitization, and it’s one reason why Trump was able to overcome a broader revulsion to his taped incident and the culture of lying you referred to. You could also say that the ubiquity of the Internet, metadata, and so on has engendered tribalization on a broader scale.
DF: Dr. Drew Pinsky — who did important things in the ’90s on Love Line, his radio show, and has since communicated important things about sexual addiction on television — talks about Monica Lewinsky being the first person who walked into the line of fire of the online mob — this group-think that occurs online that allows you to shame others and then pile on. Historically, that doesn’t exist outside of a mob. It only exists when some larger societal force allows it to exist. You see this in fascist societies and authoritarian-leaning societies, and you see this on this new medium where the entire world is the public square. People can get away with anything. I think this is an outgrowth of what was going on in the scandal-scarred ’90s.
BNR: In that regard, in the chapter “Dudes and Subdudes” you talk to Woody Allen about his 1989 film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which the Martin Landau character, you write, “orders the contract murder of his lover and then walks free, and prospers.” Allen says: “There’s no question that there’s nobody out there to punish you…if you commit an immoral act like murder. If nobody catches you, then you’re fine, if you’re fine with yourself. If it doesn’t bother you—such a horrible act—there are no consequences from any karmic spirit.”
DF: Woody Allen’s world view is not my world view. He’s a brilliant filmmaker, and he had his own issues in his relationships in the ’90s. I’d call that idea that there is no ultimate judgment “post-moral cinema.” I think it began around 1989 or 1990. In the Thirties you had these noir films, and always by the last reel you got the sense that justice would prevail, and the scoundrels would be brought to heel. But not in the ’90s. You had Goodfellas and you had Quentin Tarantino’s films—Pulp Fiction especially. You had the Coen Brothers, Fargo. If you look at any number of films from that decade, superhero films or shows from The Sopranos (which began in the ’90s) to Breaking Bad, there was no moral bearing. Sometimes it was meant as dark humor, but sometimes it was meant as this sense that the moral compass is off-whack now. These looked at the darker side of human character in ways that left the audience reeling.
BNR: There’s a powerful passage where you ask Carnes about the addictive personality paradigm in relation to Bill Clinton. Was Clinton’s addictive personality, if it was an addictive personality, relevant to his actual performance as president? Or was it a sideshow?
DF: I don’t know the answer to that. Carnes deals with people from all walks of life, but many celebrities come to see him. Tiger Woods had just left his facility in Hattiesburg or thereabouts in Mississippi when I went there to interview Carnes. He didn’t tell me that. We just had reported that in Vanity Fair. So he comes from a perspective of seeing many people.
He does not say that Clinton is a sex addict. Nor would he presume to since he’s not his doctor. But I asked him: Was there any time that you felt this career-long pursuit of legitimizing sex addiction therapy was mainstreamed in the medical community, and the culture understood what you’ve been talking about all these years?
He said: “Yes, it happened on one afternoon in 1998. We got 121 calls over a two-hour period from journalists asking if Bill Clinton was a sex addict. We had more progress in one day, and then in the next five or six months, than we’d had in two decades of trying to talk about sex addiction.” To him, that meant people were beginning to understand the language of obsession and of behavior, and people wanted to know this about the president. Thereafter, people began to understand and accept that this notion of sexual addiction as a real social problem and public health problem was not merely hyped.
Aside from Clinton, there is this sense among certain people in that field that politics attracts an A-type personality, one that is about doing good for others and narcissistic at the same time, which is the same thing that drives people who are really sexually active. They have outsized peccadillos, they have a need to please, they’re always on. I think Hunter Thompson wrote about this in Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie — that the addiction to being in control, being in the public eye all the time, and having this great capacity for risk is similar to the intensity of sexual pursuit and sexual encounter.
BNR: In what ways did your activity at Vanity Fair influence your process? It seems to me that a number of your chapters could serve as Vanity Fair stories, and you quote quite a bit from Vanity Fair articles.
DF: I see myself, unconsciously or consciously, being influenced by writers like James Wolcott, David Kamp, Marie Brenner, and other people I know. I do think a lot of my grounding is in the journalism world. My frame of reference is often, “Oh, how did Vanity Fair cover that?” The book is partially a prism of how does Vanity Fair look at history.
BNR: What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing and editing and progressing through this book?
DF: The main thing I learned was how much I love writing. I spent nineteen years at Life, nineteen years at Vanity Fair. A lot of that was spent reporting. A lot was spent editing. A lot was spent picture editing. And a lot of that was spent landing exclusives, which became something of an area of expertise. I love sitting down and puzzling it all out. I love the process.
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