Interviews May 2006

A Woman's Place?

Caitlin Flanagan, America's feistiest stay-at-home mom, shares her thoughts on gerbils, gay marriage, and Robert Graves
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book cover

To Hell With All That [Click the title
to buy this book]

by Caitlin Flanagan
Little, Brown
272 pages

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.

—Jennie Rothenberg



Caitlin Flanagan
Caitlin Flanagan

Your title essay, “To Hell With All That,” seems to be a pretty direct allusion to Joan Didion’s 1967 essay “Goodbye To All That,” which is about her life as a working girl in New York.

Well, of course her title was an allusion to one of the greatest memoirs ever written, Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That. Graves said the title was his one and only contribution to Bartlett’s; for many years it has been a famous expression—suggesting elegy, nostalgia, regret, the complete end of something. I used “To Hell With All That” to suggest both my nostalgia for the housewife era and also the vehemence and anger with which so many of those women ejected themselves from it.

A young woman reviewed my book for a New York newspaper and she went into some length about Didion’s use of the title, and I suddenly realized, “Bless her heart, she’s never heard of Robert Graves.” I was going to send her a copy, but these things can be misconstrued. The book is to be had for $2.95, and I would commend it to anyone who has a weekend to spare and the inclination to read a masterpiece.

Interestingly enough, when I taught school, we had the honor of having Maya Angelou come and speak to our students. She read her poetry to a mesmerized audience of six hundred—not a peep from all those teenagers. She had them in the palm of her hand. Afterward, during the question and answer period, someone much braver than I—Ms. Angelou is a formidable person—asked her about the literature that had most influenced her as a writer. She told us that her two biggest influences had been the King James Bible—in particular the Psalms—and Shakespeare. She recited Portia’s speech on the Quality of Mercy, and again the kids were rapt. It was a moment of pure vindication for those of us in the English department; at that time we were fighting a losing battle against political correctness. Two of the texts very much in the crosshairs were the King James Bible and Shakespeare’s collected works. We were moving toward a curriculum that would have more Angelou and less Shakespeare. And here was Maya Angelou herself paying homage to these great works—and proving that they could still carry meaning and beauty for the children of today.

Because of political correctness, we are raising a generation of young people who are familiar only with the echoes and reverberations of the great books. It’s always the moment just after, and never the blackbird singing.

Even so, I think there’s a reason your book brings Didion to mind rather than Graves. His book is a gritty World War I memoir, whereas Didion’s essay actually ties in with some of the issues you deal with in your book. Didion had a glamorous working girl’s life, but one day she woke up miserable, so she got married, left New York, and, in her own way, lived happily ever after. Your mother was a housewife, but one day she woke up miserable, so she put away the cleaning supplies and went back to work.

Joan Didion lived happily ever after? I think the reason so many women love her work so much is that it speaks to a particularly female kind of sadness. As far as her “Goodbye to All That” is concerned—I don’t think it was just the workaday world that made her depressed and miserable. Reread that essay enough times and it will give up its secrets.

Also, it was after Didion got married, quit Vogue, and moved to California with a man who loved her and believed fiercely in her writing that she began her true work: the writing that moves us all so deeply, and the making of a home for the two people she loved most in the world. I am sure if you asked her about the “work” that she has done in this life, she would give those two elements equal weight.

Every male American writer must grapple on some level with Hemingway, and every female one must work within the context of what Joan Didion created. The territory that she opened for us, her method of moving cunningly into the middle of an apparently banal subject and then wheeling upon it with everything she knows and everything she believes, the fearlessness balanced with the intense femininity—this, to me, anyway, constituted a kind of woman’s liberation. Reading her essays as a young teenager stuck in Dublin for another dreary summer, I felt explicitly and mysteriously liberated from something that I couldn’t even name. I felt a possibility for myself. Not as a writer—I never wanted to be a writer. But as a reader, and—in a complicated but very profound way—as a girl from California.

Interestingly enough, for much of Didion’s writing career—I am thinking of the early essays that will endure all tests of time—she was considered by many to be quite conservative, even reactionary. I remember hearing some Berkeley English professors—men who had taught Didion when she was an undergraduate, and who were in awe of her—speak of her great John Wayne essay as being “right wing.” Maybe it was. It is also one of the greatest essays ever written about the movies. At that time, for an intellectual to write something that a Berkeley English professor could construe as right wing was an act of pure, brazen fearlessness, intellectual honesty of the first order. I was dazzled by it.

I’ve heard that your book’s subtitle was originally going to be “How Feminism Shortchanged a Generation.” Why didn’t you end up going with that? Did it get vetoed because it was too politically incorrect?

We did think about that subtitle. It wasn’t the sales notion that steered me away from it. It was the fact that a subtitle like that suggested the book was polemical, a tract. The press would love it to be a tract. But anyone who actually reads the book says, “Oh, that’s not what it is at all.” It’s intensely personal, it’s at times memoiristic, at times sharp-witted. But it’s not a book that offers any definitive answers or any definitive signposts to anybody else. So I decided I wanted to have a much softer subtitle.

The subtitle you went with instead—“Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife”—has a very different ring to it. It brings in the idea of ambiguity.

When I first came to The Atlantic, Ben [Schwarz, the Atlantic book editor] and I were both fascinated by Martha Stewart. The notion that someone could make housekeeping glamorous intrigued us. That it could be sentimentalized was clear—Capra had done that years before. But that it could be made glamorous, that cleaning and ironing and looking after chickens—the chores that once defined the middle class or working class female experience—could be set into the context of a society woman’s daily round, that was astonishing to us. I was also a great admirer of her style—although I don’t think Ben likes her taste, her aesthetic, as much as I do. We knew not only that we wanted to write about her specifically, but that we also wanted to address in the magazine the intensely held feelings so many professional class American women have about housekeeping. The way some women love Martha Stewart so much, and the way others hate her in this weird, deeply personal way. And that is where the notion of loving and loathing the inner housewife came into being.

On a side note, one of the reasons that Ben, [his wife,] Tina, and I dawdled so much in our late twenties is that we spent a huge amount of time flopping around in their living room, drinking cups of coffee and talking about Martha Stewart and the Donner party. Evening would close in, and Ben and I would wheedle Tina into cooking, and we would have cocktails—there was a Campari and soda phase, we were young—and we would continue our analysis. Eventually, Tina—the one we had intentionally slowed down by making her cook—got together enough pluck and postage to send off her novel and became, overnight, a celebrated novelist. Ben was then forced, as a point of pride, to take one of the jobs he was always being offered. They moved back east, which left me on a couch in Los Angeles, doing a monologue about Martha Stewart and waiting for a cocktail that never arrived. Eventually Ben called me from his new office in Boston and told me to start typing.

You mentioned the great literary classics earlier. I’ve always been intrigued by your choice of book reviews. You tend to write about books like Martha Stewart Weddings or White House Nanny or The Settlement Cook Book—books that ordinarily wouldn’t be classified as literature. Considering that you’re a former high school English teacher, how does that kind of literary analysis compare with writing about James Joyce or Balzac?

Every serious bit of writing I’ve ever done—since my college days—has centered on the daily lives of women. So I tend to read a lot of cookbooks and etiquette guides and yearbooks and journals and Junior League newsletters. Private life, domestic life, household life—that’s what I love. Give me a quiet morning and a copy of a 1957 Junior League newsletter, and I’m in heaven.

That reminds me of a quote of yours that I read in an L.A. Times article. You pointed out that if you’d written a novel, as you once planned to do, people would be in a position to say, “I like this book,” or, “I don’t like this book.” But because you’ve written about yourself, people feel they’re in a position to say, “I don’t like her.”

Many of the criticisms have come in the form of ad hominem attacks, and that is to be expected. If I wrote a book about France, the reviewer’s job would be to write about my thoughts on France. What’s interesting to me is how much of the reviewers’ own lives they feel compelled to share in their essays, and how much unhappiness they report. In a review that appeared in an entertainment magazine a female reviewer suddenly blurted out that she had been forced, for the sake of her career, to put her children in day care and then to claw out at me for the choices I have made. It was a bizarre revelation, but it spoke to how personally she took the book, how much she needed not just to review it, but to engage with me about her own life.

I know the editor of that particular book review—a very nice man. He is someone who has created a fine books section in an unlikely place, and he obviously should have told his reviewer, “You can trash this book to the end of the universe, but discussing your childcare arrangements in a very short review is unprofessional and weakens your attack.” But he didn’t. Why not? For the same reason that the book only gets assigned to female reviewers. Men don’t want to get in the middle of these catfights, and who can blame them?

Before I sat down to read your book, I’d seen some of the early reviews and profiles, and I’d thought the journalists had gotten all your best friends to dish out dirt about how you’d never sewn on a button in your life or how you laughed at other mothers behind their backs. Then I read your book and realized that those admissions were actually in there. Didn’t you worry when you wrote these things that they’d leave you vulnerable to personal attacks?

Ben and I marvel at this. I wrote a book about the many contradictions and complexities in my life, and about how these contradictions and complexities reflect the culture I live in. Then profile writers come along and report on the facts they discovered by reading the book and present them as though they are breaking news, the result of crackerjack investigative reporting. It’s sweet in a way—a bit like the essays my tenth graders used to write. They would make some discovery about a character in a novel and bash away at an essay like they were the first person in the world to think of it.

Speaking of contradictions, I noticed that in your chapter on nannies, you referred to your 2004 Atlantic article “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement” as a “convoluted and slightly insane cover story for a national magazine.” I found that pretty amusing, all the more so because I happen to work at that particular magazine. Do you really look back and laugh at some of the things you wrote in that piece, and if so, what led to that change of heart?

If your goal is to get professional class women to think deeply about their right relationship with their immigrant domestic workers and to behave toward them in a morally and legally responsible manner—don’t write a twelve-thousand-word article that berates them.

To quote that great thinker, Ms. Alanis Morissette, “You live, you learn.”

Let’s talk a bit about the “dragon lady” portrayal you just mentioned. What do you think it is about your writing that really bugs women?

I recently had the privilege of watching All Aboard! It is the documentary that Rosie O’Donnell and her partner Kelly made about the cruise they created for gay families. It is as moving a tribute to the gay family as anything you will ever see. The film features a couple who adopted two separate sibling groups—literally gave these kids who were languishing in foster care a home, love, a way of life that brings honor to all of us.

When I watched the film I didn’t say, “Rosie is attacking the straight family!” I didn’t say, “I feel personally threatened by the pride she takes in her own family!” I didn’t say, “Rosie has no right to promote the gay family—she’s rich. She doesn’t know the half of what real gay families have to endure!”

I said this: “She made a lifestyle choice. She thinks it’s valuable. And she probably thinks that she is showing other gay people that there is a way for them, too, to be out, proud, and in the family way.”

My book is about my lifestyle choice—a choice that, like Rosie’s, was predicated on my sexual orientation, my personal values, and my financial situation. I hope the book will demystify the experience of being a fairly traditional woman in a fairly traditional marriage. I also hope that it may show other women that there exists the potential for great happiness in this kind of domestic structure.

What would you tell a mother who came to you and said, “Look, I’m not a writer like you are. My passion is practicing law, and I can’t do that from home. What’s more, if I did quit my job, I wouldn’t be able to afford full-time help the way you can. So I’d not only be abandoning my professional dreams but changing every sheet and washing every dish myself. What advice could you possibly have to offer me?”

I have excellent advice for that woman! She should buy a copy of Bonnie Fuller’s new book: GO FOR THE BIG LIFE: The Great Career, the Perfect Guy, and Everything Else You’ve Ever Wanted. Bonnie Fuller has got it all figured out.

At one point in your book, you mention that your husband took a demanding corporate job so you could afford to stay home with the children. Just the other night, I was coming home around six o’clock and I saw a father and a mother and their kids out walking their dog in that picturesque late-afternoon sunlight. Some might argue that when the woman works, it allows for a scenario where both parents can come home earlier and spend a full evening with their kids, rather one where the father is absent a lot because he’s working twelve-hour days.

What I think a lot of people are complaining about is the 24/7 work culture. It doesn’t surprise me that poor people are stuck in this hideous way of life—it is part of the increasingly grotesque nature of American poverty. What does surprise me is how many affluent couples have voluntarily mired themselves in round the clock work, and how many affluent children are starved for time with their parents. If two parents can share the workload and manage thus to increase the amount of time that they and their children are able to spend together, that—to me—is a superb solution.

That brings up another question about gender roles in the home. I have to admit that I share the predicament Barbara Ehrenreich told you about in your email exchange with her for Slate: I’m really not the best housekeeper. My boyfriend is always the one who notices that my windowsills are getting dusty or that the dishwasher is leaving a crust on the dishes. Is there any reason a naturally neat man shouldn’t take over the domestic chores? Or is that kind of work somehow more appropriate for a woman?

The problems don’t arise when a neatnik marries a bohemian; the problems arise when they decide to split housekeeping 50/50 and the neatnik expects the bohemian to do 50 percent of a meticulous job. The bohemian wants to do 50 percent of his or her premarital routine. That’s when trouble arises.

I wanted to ask you about one incident that’s been drawing a lot of ire. When Laurie Abraham interviewed you for Elle, she wrote in the article that on her way over to your house in L.A., her daughter called from New York crying because her gerbil had just died. At first, you comforted her. But at the end of the interview, she asked you about a statement you’d made in your “Serfdom” essay: “When a mother works, something is lost.” You replied, “Yeah. The gerbil’s dead, and you’re here.”

I was making Laurie cup of tea in the kitchen, and I asked her, “How are you doing?”

The first thing she blurted out was, “My daughter’s gerbil died. I just got the call.” She was upset, and as a fellow mom I felt terrible for her. These kinds of things are often harder for us than for our kids, and I tried—successfully, I gather—to cheer her up.

Then we sat down in the sunroom, and all of a sudden she got very argumentative about the things she dislikes about my writing. She said, “What in the world did you mean when you wrote, ‘When a mother works, something is lost?’”

I thought—what the heck? Didn’t we just talk about that painful concept in the most concrete terms when we were in the kitchen? Is this a joke?

And that’s when I made reference to the recently departed Gerbie.

In that hideous moment, I realized why there has been such controversy about the simple sentence “when a mother works, something is lost.” It’s not controversial because it’s wrong. It’s controversial because it’s true. Laurie had built a firewall between the reality of her life—that her chosen career forces her to miss out on some of the key events in her little girls’ lives—and the feminist rhetoric that encourages moms to work, and tells them they won’t miss a thing if they do so.

Laurie and I are alike in many ways. We are writers for important publications, well-married ladies with well-employed husbands, women who hire nannies to help us and pay private schools to educate our children. But in how—and where—we choose to spend the fleeting and unrecoverable hours of our children’s early years, we are as different as night and day.

Laurie asked her editor if she could write about me—the piece was not assigned to her. She knew, when she proposed it, that I live in Los Angeles and she in Brooklyn. She made the choice to leave her children far behind and fly to California to conduct a ninety minute interview, which we could easily have done over the telephone. In other words, she made a series of decisions that would take her far away from her children, not in the interest of putting bread on the table and not in the interest of furthering an important bit of public knowledge. Merely in the interest of writing a smear piece on a writer she hates. These are not choices I would have made.

It’s true that no one can be in two places at once. But what about the other side of the equation? When a talented, career-driven woman makes the choice to give up her work altogether and do nothing but raise her children, isn’t something also lost?

Ask an at-home mother if she has sacrificed anything, and she will answer you honestly and immediately: she has lost the power and prestige and sense of financial independence that work once gave her. Ask a working mother if she has sacrificed anything, and she just can’t admit it. It’s too painful. But obviously, during those eight or ten hours that she is gone every day, she is missing out on something. It may be a price she is willing to pay—she may be a much happier mother in her two hours a day than she would have been in fourteen hours a day. But she is still paying a price, in terms of the number of hours she is spending with her child. If Laurie Abraham had stayed in Brooklyn and interviewed me over the telephone, it would have been she—and not her girls’ nanny—who was home on that fateful morning when Gerbie merged with the infinite.

I think one reason modern women continue to read your writing is that you tend to be very naughty. You may have traditional notions about family life, but you’re not a prude. Do you ever worry that your sons are going to read some of your spicier essays?

If you notice in the back of the book in the acknowledgements, it says, “Patrick and Conor: I don’t know why the publisher didn’t call it ‘To Heck with All That,’ like we decided.” I don’t use language like that around my children. Fortunately, I don’t think these essays about domestic life will be of any interest to my sons until they are so grown that they will find my occasional naughty language kind of cute.

But I would never fear their reading my book, because what they will find there is how much I love them and how much I love their father.

I did read somewhere, though, that you’re planning to expand your recent Atlantic piece on oral sex into an entire book called On Their Knees. Is that the case?

That is the title of my next book, but it’s going to be about teenage girls and how we have sold them out. Only one chapter will be about oral sex.

I wanted to ask you about your appearance a few weeks ago on Comedy Central’s fake news commentary show The Colbert Report. Steven Colbert is famous for his shtick of pretending to be a dyed-in-the-wool Republican while actually ridiculing conservativism. Somehow, though, you managed to play along with his game and even one-up him. Did you decide beforehand how you were going to approach that particular interview?

The Colbert Report is a serious piece of television journalism, and all of the information and opinions expressed on the Report are to be taken at face value. Steven is well aware that there is a lunatic fringe who believe the Report is a “goof” or a “gas,” the same kind of America-haters who were firing up doobies when he and I were studying presidential history. When Steven and I discussed my book on-air, we were talking journalist to journalist, American guy to American gal.

Your mother seems to be the heroine of this book; her personality comes through even in the essays that aren’t explicitly about her. You began your magazine writing career around the time she died. Do you think your writing might have been different if your mother had still been alive throughout this time?

When I came home the day after my mother’s death, there was an envelope waiting from The Atlantic. Inside were copies of the very first issue where one of my articles appeared. I never told my mother I’d written it. I was waiting to bring it to her. The only real difference is that if my mother were alive, The Atlantic would have the largest circulation of any magazine in history.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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