Life and Death in the Public Eye

The Chicago Reader has published its annual fiction issue, and one story worth checking out is Song for Dana Plato by Whet Moser. The piece is inspired by a real-life incident of Wayne Newton bailing troubled former Diff’rent Strokes star Dana Plato out of prison after she robbed a Las Vegas video store with a pellet gun. Moser uses this account as a launching point to explore larger issues of celebrity and human dignity.

His reimagining of real events and people is reminiscent of Jim Shepard’s excellent stories on John Ashcroft and John Entwhistle in his short-story collection Love and Hydrogen. Readers can debate whether stories in this vein are exploiting their subjects or enlivening them, but I’ve enjoyed the results in each instance. By appropriating the voice of a public figure, Moser and Shepard highlight the complexities of public image—and personal identity—in the media age.

We’re conditioned to feel we know celebrities (and to judge them as well—witness the poor Spears family), but we don’t. By offering a fictionalized glimpse into their inner lives, stories such as these humanize their subjects, providing one interpretation as to how they’ve been shaped by the society around them. At the same time, they also further that sense of false intimacy, leading to an interesting literary (and ethical) muddle.