Cover of Guarding Life
Guarding Life's Dark Secrets
Legal and Social Controls over Reputation, Propriety, and Privacy
Lawrence M. Friedman


360 pages.

Hardcover ISBN: 9780804757393
Ebook ISBN: 9780804763219


Excerpts and More

Guarding Life's Dark Secrets tells the story of an intriguing aspect of the social and legal culture in the United States, the construction and destruction of a network of doctrines designed to protect reputation. The strict and unbending rules of decency and propriety of the nineteenth century, especially concerning sexual behavior, paradoxically provided ways to protect and shield respectable men and women who deviated from the official norms. This "Victorian compromise," which created an important zone of privacy, first came under attack from moralists for its tolerance of sin. During the second half of the twentieth century, the old structure was largely dismantled by an increasingly permissive society.

Rich with anecdotes, Friedman's account draws us into the present. The Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution to include a right of privacy, which has given ordinary people increased freedom, especially in matters of sex, reproduction, and choice of intimate partners. The elite, however, no longer have the freedom they once had to violate decency rules with impunity. Although public figures may have lost some of their privacy rights, ordinary people have gained more privacy, greater leeway, and broader choices. These gains, however, are now under threat as technology transforms the modern world into a world of surveillance.

About the author

Lawrence M. Friedman is Marion Rice Kirkwood Professor of Law at

Stanford Law School. His books include Private Lives: Families, Individuals, and the Law (2005), American Law in the Twentieth Century (2004), and Legal Culture in the Age of Globalization (2003).

"This is a wise, learned, and memorable text by one of the leading historians in America."

—James Whitman, Yale Law School

"As always, Friedman's wonderful eye for historical detail and his deep and wide research provide the reader an engaging and highly readable narrative ... The manuscript is a characteristically excellent piece of work by one of the very best practitioners of legal history."

—John Fabian Witt, Columbia Law School

"In his new book, Stanford legal historian Lawrence M. Friedman does not address these questions directly, but lays some useful groundwork for their contemplation by providing a social history of the legal remedies most commonly associated with protecting the privacy of personal information and behavior The book tells its main story clearly, entertainingly, and persuasively."

—James A Gardner, University at Buffalo Law School, State University of New York

"Friedman provides a detailed history of various legal concepts related to privacy and personal reputation. The strongest parts of the book attempt to address intriguing puzzles such as why truth has emerged as an absolute defense for libel, but truth makes blackmail a more serious offense Friedman's command of the material and many interesting examples make much of this story interesting."


"To a cultural historian interested in the social construction of privacy Friedman's book offers an interesting and useful discussion of how the law has worked to protect reputation and privacy for some while leaving others unprotected."

American Historical Review

"[The book] enriches our understanding of privacy as a shifting legal and cultural concept, it illuminates changing attitudes toward life's dark secrets, and it helps us fit the fate of a figure such as Eliot Spitzer into a broad historical context."

Journal of American History