In the southeastern corner of Missouri is a tiny town that was named by a man, local lore has it, in honor of his girlfriend. She was Shawnee; when it was time to make his tribute to her official, the man, Samuel Green, came to the realization that he was unable to fully pronounce—or accurately spell—his beloved’s name. So he paid her what he determined to be the next-best form of appreciation: He named the town after the only Native American woman whose name he was able to spell. Pocahontas, Missouri, was born.
The writer E. Jean Carroll hears this bit of myth while visiting Pocahontas over the course of the extended road trip she takes for her new book, What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal. At a local pie shop, she asks the owners about the provenance of their town’s name. Getting her answer, Carroll finds herself considering the fate of the woman: “I like to imagine the Shawnee girlfriend,” she writes, “mounting her stallion, galloping out of Missouri, riding across America, founding her own town, and, because she can’t keep white guys straight, calling it DermotMulroneyDylanMcDermottDeanMcDermott.”
What Do We Need Men For?, which publishes this week, began as a conceit in search of an insight. Carroll, the initial plan went, would travel to American towns named after women—places such as Charlotte, Vermont; Tallulah, Louisiana; Marianna, Arkansas; Angelica, New York; and Pocahontas, Missouri. She would visit more than two dozen locations that celebrate, at least as far as the map goes, the lives of women—and then ask those towns’ residents a central, Jonathan Swift–ian, satirical-serious question: What do we need men for? It was a hero’s-journey setup, promising the kind of extended jape Carroll has specialized in, as a journalist and as a gimlet-eyed advice columnist for Elle magazine: roving, curious, compassionate, whimsical. Its emphasis on geography would add a cheeky new dimension to that foundationally feminist argument: that women navigate a world designed by, and for, men. “The whole female sex,” Carroll writes at the beginning of the book that resulted, “seems to agree that men are becoming a nuisance with their lying, cheating, robbing, perjuring, assaulting, murdering, voting debauchers onto the Supreme Court, threatening one another with intercontinental ballistic nuclear warheads, and so on.”
As Carroll embarked on the trip, however, her premise expanded. The journey began in October 2017, just after the alleged predations of Harvey Weinstein were revealed and not long after a man who bragged about assaulting women was elevated to the American presidency. As the roads unfurled before her, memories returned. Realities became unavoidable. In Anita, Indiana, Carroll met a woman with red hair, a shade shared by the friend who happened, decades before, to glimpse welts on Carroll’s neck and put the pieces together. Neurons zipped. Trauma erupts unpredictably. Travel has a way of making things plain.
If you’ve read the excerpt from Carroll’s book that New York magazine published late last month, then you have a sense of the shape What Do We Need Men For? ultimately took, as satire’s center proved unable, fully, to hold. The memoir is currently getting the attention it is (such as it is) in part because its author is a beloved and famous writer, but in part as well because of one of the many claims Carroll makes in it: that, in the mid-1990s, Donald Trump cornered her in a department-store dressing room and raped her. (The president has dismissed Carroll’s story, just as he has dismissed the claims of the 21 other women who have accused him of sexual misconduct.) New York magazine’s lengthy excerpt of the book goes out of its way to contextualize the news-making allegation: “Donald Trump assaulted me in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room 23 years ago,” its headline reads. “But he’s not alone on the list of awful men in my life.”
It is that rarest of things—a headline that undersells. Donald Trump, in this setting, is most assuredly not alone. The story that started with a road trip structures itself instead around the collection Carroll describes as her Most Hideous Men of My Life List—21 of them, alternately neglectful and mendacious and careless and violent and cruel. It takes her 273 pages to describe them all. The list includes Les Moonves, who, Carroll claims, attacked her in an elevator after she interviewed him for a report about the psychology of TV executives. (Moonves, too, denies Carroll’s allegation.) It includes the romantic partner who, Carroll alleges, in a fit of rage, nearly choked her to death. (The New York Times, reporting on Carroll’s allegations, contacted the man she identifies in the book only by his initials; he declined to comment.) It includes a college classmate who, one crisp fall weekend, drove Carroll to an isolated area to look at the color-changing leaves, threw her on the ground, pulled a knife, and tried to rape her (she fought him off and then outran him, she writes). It includes the boyfriend of a babysitter who, with the sitter, made a game out of disrobing and then fondling the very young Carroll. It includes a camp counselor who molested her when she was 12.
There’s much more, as Carroll drives and remembers; the thing about a list is that it will keep on going until the list itself decides it is finished. There’s the television publicist who attacked Carroll in her car, she writes, “the same week Moonves attacked me in the Nikko Hotel elevator.” There’s the mob boss in Chicago. There’s Carroll’s own boss in the same city. There’s the official who refused to issue her a passport “unless I had dinner with him and sat on his lap.” There’s the rapist and serial killer—yes—who approached Carroll when she was on the porch of her house outside Nyack, New York, and who, when her dog growled at him, backed away. The man, Carroll writes, would go on to rape and nearly kill her neighbor later the same day.
There is still more. And not all the hideousness is sexual in nature. There’s—and at this point, Auntie E. might warn her readers that there is one more round of listing to go, and advise them to take a cleansing breath—the fur trapper in Montana (“a torturer of animals”), and the financial adviser (Dweebie D. Fleecer, she dubs him) who lost much of the money Carroll had given him as a seed for a retirement fund and then, when she questioned the failure, blamed her for his bad investments. There’s the mechanic Carroll meets on her road trip, after her car breaks down in Blytheville, Arkansas; he charges her an exorbitant fee to make the repairs, shortly after which the car breaks down again, leaving her driving without functioning brakes. (Carroll is able to maneuver the car into a stop at an empty parking lot; a man materializes to inform her, angrily, “You can’t park here.” Carroll explains the situation: busted brakes, just need to park long enough to get a tow, the whole thing. The fellow who quickly makes it to No. 9 on Carroll’s Hideous Men list repeats his no-parking mandate and punctuates it, she writes, with a warning: “Get out now.” She has little choice but to restart her brakeless car and comply.)
There are, then, two versions of Carroll’s book. There is, on the one hand, What Do We Need Men For? as a news maker—as a memoir that contains a serious allegation of sexual violence against the sitting president of the United States. But there is also What Do We Need Men For? as a consideration of the we of the book’s title: a story of gendered predation, as it has stretched across Carroll’s own life and across the lives of many of the women she speaks with as she travels. This latter version is strikingly cheery in its tone. Carroll refers to herself as “an eccentric personality,” and this is evident even in her story about abuse. The car she travels in is a Toyota Prius that she bought used and then hand-painted with large polka dots and frogs. (She named the vehicle Miss Bingley, after Jane Austen’s side-eyeing mean girl.) Her companion for the trip is her dog, a poodle rescue named Lewis Carroll. (Her cat, Vagina T. Fireball, she left in the care of a neighbor in New York.) You get the sense, as the story goes along, that Carroll’s quirkiness itself has a double valence: It is evidence of her simply being true to herself, but it is also an act of resistance—a declaration, to those who would try to diminish her, that she will respond with insistent humanity.
Carroll, in interviews, has emphasized the whimsy of the book—the memoir is “a merry romp,” she told CNN’s Brian Stelter—and there is indeed a certain mirth to the proceedings. But the strategic collisions of tragedy and comedy also become, as the story goes on, reliably gutting. “I am sick to my stomach,” Carroll writes on page 184, in an extended footnote about Moonves and his assorted enablers. By that point, dear reader, you are very likely feeling the same.
Carroll’s “merry romp” is overwhelming. It is exhausting. That is the point. This is not only a book about the failures of individual men; it is also a book, as its Swiftian title suggests, about the failures of a system that has given men the power to determine the whos and wheres and hows of women’s lives. Carroll does not talk much about patriarchy or toxic masculinity or trauma or otherwise make much use of the current feminist vernacular; the book can read, at points, as preemptively dated, with its references to “the whole female sex” and similarly winking generalizations. What it offers, though, is a kind of literary impressionism, based on 75 years of lived experience—a sense of what it feels like to have pulsing veins and fiery nerves and a teeming mind and be caught within the cold infrastructures of sexism.
The list Carroll creates, in that way, isn’t merely a list, or a method of organizing a narrative; it is also an indictment. It is a testament to the dull banalities of sexual violence. It is a reminder of the varied forms, insidious as well as obvious, such violence can take. The book stayed true, in that sense, to Carroll’s initial premise for it: It is a memoir that is rooted in maps. It suggests all that can happen, at the most local of levels, in a land that names towns after women and tells the rest of them to know their place.