To Hell With All That [Click the title
to buy this book]
by Caitlin Flanagan
Nearly every newspaper or magazine review of Caitlin Flanagan’s new book To Hell With All That features a photograph of a smiling woman with perfectly coiffed hair standing behind a kitchen counter, admiring her collection of stainless steel pots or proudly holding up a freshly frosted cake. “The happy housewife,” reads the caption for one such illustration in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, “circa 1950.”
It’s easy to understand why Flanagan’s name evokes images of domestic bliss. Over the course of five years as an essayist for The Atlantic and The New Yorker, she has written almost exclusively about marriage, housekeeping, and childrearing. Her book is based on these magazine pieces, and a glance at the table of contents—“The Virgin Bride,” “The Wifely Duty,” “Housewife Confidential”—suggests a wholesale return to simpler days when women had few ambitions beyond pleasing their husbands and raising their children.
The essays themselves tell a more complicated story. Flanagan is not a housewife like June Cleaver, or even a homey Middle American humorist like Erma Bombeck. Her childhood home was in Berkeley, where her father taught literature, Black Panthers spoke at her school assemblies, and the Symbionese Liberation Army haunted her nightmares in place of the boogeyman. The one old-fashioned fixture in her life was her mother, a full-time homemaker whose presence in the kitchen was as reliable as the hum of the refrigerator. But in 1971, when Flanagan was twelve, her mother had an epiphany:
One morning she cooked breakfast for my father and me and sent us on our way…. She filled a basin with warm, soapy water, set it on the utility ledge of the kitchen stepladder, and climbed up. Her intention was to wash down the wallpaper, of which she was rather fond…. But standing on the ladder, dripping sponge in hand, something happened. In one clear moment, staring at a little windmill or a tiny Dutch girl, it became no longer possible for her to go on living that particular life anymore…. The fogs and mists that settle on the Berkeley Hills every night would have been just lifting when my mother threw the sponge back in the basin and said—out loud, to no one but herself, and apparently with finality—“To hell with it.” And then she climbed off the ladder.
The day Flanagan’s mother literally threw in the towel and returned to her nursing career was the day Flanagan ceased to take the domestic life for granted. Many girls Flanagan’s age who watched their mothers go back to work grew up to be ardent feminists. Flanagan, on the other hand, grew up to be an affluent, worldly woman who dreamily rifles through The Settlement Cook Book, wondering what it would be like to scrub out a glue stain with a vinegar-soaked cloth. “The way a lonely man in a motel room pores over Playboy,” she writes, “I pore over descriptions of ironing and kitchen routines.”
Flanagan is often criticized for assuming a homier-than-thou stance, portraying herself as a full-time mother who writes for prestigious magazines the way other housewives enjoy needlepoint. Though she encourages women to put their children before their professional goals, she herself seems to have the best of all possible worlds: a successful husband, domestic servants, and the flexibility to go on fieldtrips with her children, not to mention a flourishing career. She is in a position to cluck not only at the earnest PTA mom who needs to “get a life” but also at the busy working mother who never shows up at her daughter’s school, and in To Hell With All That, she does both.
Flanagan makes no effort to sweep these inconsistencies under the proverbial rug. Her book is as much personal confessional as it is social commentary, and thanks to her sassy eloquence, even the most moralistic passages are highly readable. In one aside, she pokes fun at modern couples who are too career-driven to enjoy their romantic getaways: “I recently sat on an otherwise deserted tropical beach, a few minutes after a spectacular sunrise, and watched a middle-aged American man march grimly through pellucid knee-high surf, barking commands on a cell phone.” In another, she ridicules sexually active fiancés who stand primly at the altar and wait for the phrase “you may kiss the bride”: “Well, why not? He’s been doing God knows what else to her since the night they met at the softball league happy hour.” Flanagan may be in the business of offering unsolicited prescriptions, urging women to pay their nannies’ social security set-asides even as she draws an anti-feminist moral out of Mary Poppins. But though her words are sometimes hard to swallow, her wit is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.
Flanagan lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Rob, and their eight-year-old twins, Patrick and Conor. I spoke with her by telephone on May 5, 2006.