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The snoop who came to visit

Summer snoops are ready to descend upon our homes in vacationing droves, sniffing out our foibles and peccadilloes while they claim they're simply looking for the aspirin.

By LAURA ZIGMAN, New York Times News Service

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000

For years I've prided myself on being a recovered snoopaholic. But apparently, I'm in denial. My fiance cites last June's stay in our friends' summer house -- when I "accidentally" found a pile of photographs of our host and hostess frolicking by a mountain stream naked -- as evidence that my raging pathology is still alive and well.

It's houseguest season again, that magical time of year among friends when summer houses are loaned and borrowed, keys are exchanged, one another's beds are slept in, and the only questions asked focus on arrival dates, departure times and security system entry codes.

But for me, there is, and has always been, another question: To snoop or not to snoop.

I try to explain that I was looking for beach towels deep inside a bedroom closet, but this line of defense soon sounds hollow even to me. When visions of myself on all fours pop into my head, a familiar and deeply private sense of satisfaction overtakes me like a wave of endorphins.

The bone-numbing pain of crawling around on my knees on a hardwood floor in 90-degree heat with a flashlight in my mouth, not to mention the humiliation of being caught red-handed and having to be pulled out of that closet by my feet, had been well worth it. I'd hit snooping pay dirt.

"It was like trying to tear an alcoholic away from the bottle," my fiance recalled, before adding that something had to be done about my "bizarre compulsion."

But I submit that one person's bizarre compulsion is another person's simple curiosity. "I'm just nosy -- I like to know what people eat," I said, while more visions of my behavioral dysfunction that weekend floated by in silent parade: my head and elbows deep inside the freezer, obscured by a huge gray cloud of frost and fog (frozen Snickers bars, Eggo waffles, a package of 2-year-old tripe).

And what's in their medicine cabinet? (An old jar of Noxzema, a veritable storehouse of Kiehl's products, jock itch spray).

And in their sock drawer? (Socks).

"Admit it," he said, as if he were some impassioned 12-step leader intent on breaking me down in order to ensure my eventual recovery. "You can't control yourself."

Although my curiosity may be stronger than others', I am not alone.

"Some degrees of snooping are just more permitted than others," Ellen Wright, a veteran New York hostess, told me, adding, "I know the snoopers now; I've caught them red-handed."

"Usually, it's someone related to me," she said, "going through my wallet or a pile of mail on the counter. And I'll say, "That's very rude what you're doing,' and they'll say, "But you left it out.' Sometimes, even, they'll be brazen enough to snoop through my jewelry, which requires that they get into the bedroom, open the drawers. . . . Once, when I caught someone doing this, the person said, "I was just looking for Q-Tips.' Q-Tips! Please! It's pathological. But everybody does it."

Ever since my earliest baby-sitting days, when I found a plastic bag of hashish and a cache of Playboy magazines in what seemed the least likely of homes (that of a suburban periodontist and his wife), being left alone in someone's house has often proved to be a failed exercise in willpower. A lingering glance inside a closet as I hang my jacket; a light caress of a bathroom cabinet door as I brush my teeth; a lecherous ogling of a bedside table and its closed drawer before I fall asleep are all enough to trigger uncontrollable urges only drug addicts would truly understand.

My deepest snooping fantasies thus awakened (What will I find this time?), my moral and ethical quandaries washed away by the tidal wave of anticipatory adrenaline (and for lack of a better word, lust), more times than I care to remember or admit, I have left my body and watched myself commence to snoop.

The Random House Unabridged Dictionary traces the origins of the word snoop to its Dutch root, snoepen, "to take and eat food on the sly." The first definition says it all: "to prowl or pry; go about in a sneaking, prying way."

Just beneath this entry, there's one for "snooperscope," a device that displays reflected infrared radiation on a fluorescent screen, enabling the user to see objects obscured by darkness. (Which certainly would have come in handy last summer in that closet.)

But check The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for snooping, or nosiness, or prying, and you'll come up empty-handed. As you will with Emily Post's Entertaining by Peggy Post.

"With most snoopers, I think, curiosity gets the best of them," said Peggy Post, a great-granddaughter-in-law of the original arbiter of etiquette and civility. "Most hosts will say to their guests, "Help yourself to anything,' and that opens the door to snooping."

Figuratively and literally.

"Removing temptation," Post advised, "giving guests free rein to certain areas and encouraging them in a positive way -- providing them with everything they could possibly need while they're staying in your house -- might make guests snoop a little less."

But is a house guest's urge to snoop really just harmless curiosity?

"Growing up as children, we feel excluded from our parents' private lives, and we're very curious about them and feel we're missing out on something," said Dr. Lawrence Josephs, a professor of psychology at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. "Staying over at someone's house replicates that feeling. We're excluded from our friends' private lives, and snooping is exciting; breaking a taboo is exciting."

And Freud would agree?

"Freud's ideas would trace this back to curiosity about the parents' sex life," Josephs said. "With snooping, when you're a house guest, there could be an underlying curiosity about the friends' sex life, but the issue gets displaced onto what's in the medicine cabinet, what they eat. When there's something you're excluded from, you're relieved to find out whatever you can."

As with any negative behavior, the reward of positive reinforcement only makes the compulsion stronger, which is why fruitful snooping begets more snooping. Payroll stubs, credit card statements, photo albums documenting friends' bad-hair bar mitzvahs and cheesy Club Med vacations, secret stashes of Oreos or Twinkies or Kit Kat bars hidden behind cans of chunk light tuna or powdered Met-Rx mix, not to mention the obligatory collection of erotic magazines or videotapes -- these are the found treasures that make the hard-core snooper come back for more.

And more.

And more.

So now, I'm not taking any chances myself. We have house guests coming in two weeks, and I've already started locking down our home in advance of their visit.

I'm snoop-proofing the closets.

And the drawers.

And the freezer.

And the file cabinets.

And I'm taking the batteries out of all three flashlights.

And the film out of both cameras.

Not that we have anything to hide, mind you.

Or that anyone we know snoops.

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