3. The privacy of a child

The ethics of privacy is another lens through which to examine this documentary. In her book Secrets, Sissela Bok defines privacy as “the condition of being protected from unwanted access by others — either physical access, personal information or attention.” In the case of No Past to Speak Of, the child could not make a decision to keep the information about her trauma private or not, and so Gans and Lee had to make a decision about whether this was a case when her privacy should be interrupted.

Bok uses the case of William Sidis as an example of parents giving consent to journalists to put their child in the spotlight when the child cannot give informed consent of his own. Sidis was an extraordinarily intelligent child, partly the result of intense training, hypnosis and psychological testing from his father. His father used Sidis’ intelligence to promote his style of education as superior to conventional schooling. Sidis later expressed a strong distaste for publicity and academic life and sought to disconnect himself from that past, but he was exposed in an article in The New Yorker, by James Thurber, in 1937. Thurber claimed that by telling Sidis’ story he was trying to stop parents from putting their children in the spotlight — a clear question of violating privacy in the public interest. Sidis later took Thurber to court for invasion of privacy where the judged ruled that Thurber was not guilty.

William Sidis

Bok is unclear about who was right in the Sidis case. On the one hand, she says that to rule in favour of Sidis would imply, wrongly, that journalists should only write about people who give formal consent — endangering reporting on matters of public importance. On the other hand she writes that “Sidis might have argued that he could not, as a child, have put up sufficient resistance to his father’s efforts to publicize his precocity … Should he have to acquiesce in continued scrutiny because his parents had sought to make him famous?”

While not a direct parallel to the story in No Past to Speak Of, Sidis’ case has a number of similarities. As a young child, unable to given consent to his publicity, Sidis was put in the spotlight and later in life he found damaging. Both Gans and Lee recognized that they were making the choice to put a child, who was unable to consent, into the public eye without knowing the future consequences“We also thought seriously about how this would impact Princess as she got older. And that one we really struggled with because we just didn’t know and so we have to default to Alice’s prerogative as a parent,” Lee said.

Gans also said,

“It was never Princess’s decision to make, which is on one level very sad, and maybe, and we debated constantly, shit, do we want to be the ones who put this out there?”

Next: Guidelines for filming a child