Fair Game?

Forced to go public with his most private and painful truth, Arthur Ashe plays out his future in a spotlight

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HERE IS THE LIVES OF THE SAINTS gone tabloid. Here is the American Church of Celebrity Trauma and Redemption. Joseph Campbell should be alive to explore its mysteries.

The dramas are curiously ritualistic and similar to one another. A celebrity wanders in the shadow world of Dysfunction: amid drugs or booze or binge eating. Or else in Denial of something, of incest, say, or child abuse, or another shameful secret. This is the Exemplary Ordeal. Celebrity Hits Bottom (descent into underworld). Then stumbles halfway up, to Betty Ford or some equivalent purgatorial rehab. At last, fallen angel reascends to the upper air, finds new life (often new mate as well, or else peace with the truth that, hey, it's O.K. to be alone). The rebirth is celebrated on the cover of PEOPLE: Drew Barrymore, Richard Pryor, Kitty Dukakis, Roseanne Arnold, all the newly clear-eyed. After the exorcism of devils, resurrection and hugs. "I've got my life together now, Barbara. I'm more centered."

In a forlorn way, a sort of collective moral life of the nation gets enacted through the ordeal stories. They dramatize the problem. They dramatize the resolution. Here is a sample Rashomon of rape -- Willie Smith's accuser pacing the lawn with Archpriestess Diane. Here is Mike Tyson. Here is life and death itself: poor Michael Landon slowly dying in full view of the congregation of Johnny Carson and PEOPLE.

Arthur Ashe is not Michael Landon. He did not wish to appear in an Exemplary Ordeal. Ashe has AIDS -- a fact that the public knows now because the Press (in this case a reporter and an editor from USA Today) reached into the most private precinct of his life (inside his body itself) and forced him to reveal his disease to millions of strangers. Ashe and his wife Jeanne have a five-year-old daughter. The girl was entitled to privacy and to tenderness in how she would be told, and when.

Was it necessary to force the story out? Was some redeeming purpose served? Does Ashe's ordeal usefully warn potential AIDS victims about the all-but- vanished danger of blood transfusions, or promote collective human sympathy and solidarity with those who already have AIDS?

Irrelevant. There was no public need to know, or right to know. Everyone is not fair game to be dragged onstage for involuntary exposure. Does AIDS make | Ashe, or anyone, public property? As Ashe said, he is neither a political candidate nor a businessman beholden to stockholders. That Arthur Ashe is a "public figure" whom people recognize as he walks down the street is precisely the best argument for any decent human being's not informing the whole world that the man has AIDS.

If Ashe had had leukemia, would reporter and editor have published the story? Maybe, in one paragraph. But not if Ashe had asked them not to. AIDS made it different. Irresistible. Juicy gossip. Red meat. When reporters pick up that scent, they are off the leash and baying through the woods. The Ashe affair makes a strong case for media loathing.

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