Holy Domesticity: Voyeurism and the Search for Normal

 I have always looked in other people’s windows. I think most people raised in abusive or unorthodox circumstances like looking in. We are very curious about this thing called “normal.” I write in my memoir,

It was a long drive now to Scottsdale, from the apartment and across Cactus Road to our only friends, the Ishaqs. During the evenings when we drove there or back, passing the houses that faced the road, I watched for those houses whose curtains were not closed, the blessed fearlessness of uncovered windows, projecting vivid icons of holy domesticity: father, mother, children, old couples at dining tables or nestled on sofas in a nimbus of light, the windows casting otherworldly visions into the night air.

To catch sight of an open window at night while zooming down Cactus Road in the passenger seat of my crazy mother’s car was like mental candy, windows blue and sweet and delicious.  Everyone behind the glass looked happier than I was. I do not remember hunting for windows before my parents’ divorce, when family and activity made its own world inside our walls, when we projected our own vibrant lives through the windows without regard for anyone else.

narcissaniblackthorneNarcissa Niblack Thorne made voyeurism high art. Well, Thorne might have been interested in interior design and historicity, but she made other people’s rooms her life’s work, work meant to be looked at from the outside.  She created at least 99 miniature rooms, most of which are now displayed in The Art Institute of Chicago and The Phoenix Art Museum. You can watch a video of her rooms here.

Thorne’s modern counterpart, Tim Sidford, writes on his blog, “I’ve always been fascinated by the beauty, atmosphere and sheer design daring present in many historic interiors.” He makes tiny “shelf rooms,” like morsels of doll house surgically removed and placed among your books.  I want one so bad.  You can see one of Tim’s “shelf rooms” on his site. (He does commissions.)

Decorating in and of itself is a sort of control. Within four walls we each create a narrative of how we think life should be properly lived, our “normal,” through the choice of colors and furnishings. Even an undecorated room is declaring something. My take on decor is “Half-drunk Granny”— an abstract vintage painting of flowers in pinks and yellows, a fat, green ceramic elephant next to a faded toile chair, a gaudy, fake golden monstrance, all an effort to convey benevolent silliness and comfort and a not too self-conscious reference to the heavenly realms—  comforts I haven’t always had. I leave my shutters open. Please look in.

“Decorate your home. It gives the illusion that your life is more interesting than it really is.”

         Charles Schulz                                                                  

Thorne Room, Phoenix Art Museum

Miniature rooms, open windows facing out to dark streets, the background in your friends’ Facebook photos,  invoke the hypnotizing power of surreptitious observation, voyeurism, if you will.  We are born in rooms, raise our children in them, make our irreversible decisions and mistakes; we receive declarations of love, hear of loss and tear open sympathy cards while our hearts are breaking into pieces.

Tell me about your  rooms.

7 thoughts on “Holy Domesticity: Voyeurism and the Search for Normal

  1. Clare Willis

    As dysfunctional as my family was we did have dinner together every night. My father would have started on his first 6 pack before dinner, continue through dinner, then finish up another after dinner before he fell asleep in his chair or on the couch. IT wasn’t horrific, but there was alot of ridicule thrown around the table. A friend in high school shared that she used to walk by our house at dinner time and see us all around the table, how nice it looked. I thanked her but thought. “If you only knew. I wish it was like you imagine it to be.”


  2. Pingback: Happiness is Any Little Place | A Word, Please. . .

  3. Paula

    I always make up stories about the windows I look into. After many trips to the airport through Boston during my college years, I finally came to live in the city later in life. I was thoroughly disappointed to learn that all those charming clapboard houses, actually housed multiple families in tiny dwellings all stacked three up – the infamous “triple decker.” Blew my whole Normal Rockwell vision right up.

    On lighter note, however, I was staring out the train window one afternoon on the way into the German city of Dusseldorf, watching the buildings tick by, and straining to catch a glimpse of an inhabitant. The train slowed considerably as we approached several large former factory-type buildings. There were many well lit windows, and activity in each. Through one window, I witnessed an attractive woman sitting at her dressing table and clad in only her brassiere. I gasped to myself in embarrassment for her, wondering if she knew how visible her room was from the train. As we rolled by, my eyes moved to the next window, where another woman, equally adorned stood facing the window, striking a bold almost confrontational pose with one arm on a hip, and her head cocked to a side, eyebrow raised (I swear I saw that detail). I pulled back my focus of the interiors, slightly aghast, only to notice a large banner stretched across the exterior wall, displaying a 1-800 number (the German equivalent). It was no accident that I had seen what I had. I was caught. Red with my own shame of innocence and naivete, but laughing at myself nonetheless.


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