Sunday, October 1, 2017
Why is the word "bitch" so empowering? Cathi Hanauer talks about The Bitch is Back (Older, Wiser, And (Getting) Happier), now in paperback!
Come on, who doesn't adore Cathi Hanauer? She's smart, provocative, profound--and a whole lot of fun to do a book event with. I'm honored to host her here for the paperback of The Bitch is Back, Older, Wiser, and (getting) Happier, which is important new. She's given a Ted Talk about this, too, and trust me, this is the kind of book that sparks conversations. You want to buy more than a few copies to give to your friends--because that's what friends do.
Cathi Hanauer is also the crackerjack author of the novels, Gone, Sweet Ruin, My Sister's Bones, and the editor of the #10 NYT Bestselling THE BITCH IN THE HOUSE. tShe has written articles, essays, and/or reviews for The New York Times, Elle, O, Self, Glamour, Whole Living, Mademoiselle, Parenting, Child, Redbook, and other magazines; she was the monthly books columnist for both Glamour and Mademoiselle and wrote the monthly advice column "Relating" in Seventeen for seven years. She has taught writing at The New School, in New York, and at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, as well as privately. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband, writer and New York Times 'Modern Love' editor Daniel Jones, and their daughter and son.
Thank you times a million, Cathi!
Q: What's different about "The Bitch is Back," or Bitch 2, from your wildly successful The Bitch in the House?
A: Bitch 1--"The Bitch in the House"--was about anger, because it was written at a time when I, and a lot of the women I knew in my situation or similar ones, were angry; we were working women juggling careers and motherhood with, we felt, not enough help from our husbands and from society, and we were angry that our expectations of what this time would be weren't what was happening in reality. Bitch 2, in contrast, is not angry; it was compiled at a different, much easier time in my life--kids older, marriage calmer (or, for some of the contributors, now over), sometimes more money--and it's a more content, more sophisticated book, more mature and "existential," as one reviewer put it, with more moments of grace, i think. It's about choice and enlightenment and having done the work that leads you to happiness, or at least contentment; about how smart, bold, enlightened women choose to age at a time when just about anything is possible--from having a baby on your own to choosing not to have children to choosing to caring less--or even more!--about your appearance, to transitioning from one gender to another. It's about asking yourself what you want and what you need, and then getting that: About either throwing off the old ways and fighting for a new self/life/identity….or finding a different way to look at yourself, or your life, once you realize that you're already living the life you want. It's about the wisdom of age--not the anger and exhaustion of juggling two full-time jobs.
Q: Why do you think the word "bitch" is both empowering and derisive? It's almost a mark of pride now for women, don't you think?
A: Women have reclaimed the word; when we use it about ourselves, it suggests strength and toughness and not being afraid to speak up for what you want; the opposite of Virginia Woolf's "angel in the house," who, "if there was chicken, took the leg; if there was a draft, she sat in it." As Olympia Dukakis said, "You say I'm a bitch like that's a bad thing?" At the same time, it's still not okay for someone else to call us bitches, b/c there's still a nasty connotation to the word when used in that way--think of Trump calling Hillary a "nasty woman." When we reclaim it, we can turn it into something positive, something we're proud of. But you don't want other people saying it about you. It's for us to say about ourselves!
Q: What startled you the most about this book?
A: I was surprised, I think, by the bravery of the writers, what they were willing to reveal--which is what makes the essays so powerful and exciting. Sarah Crichton, for example, talks about regaining her sex life after her husband dumped her for a younger woman. She does not hold back, and the result, since she's also a brilliant writer, is an absolutely stunning essay about midlife sex after a sex-less marriage--funny, smart, bold, just fantastic. Some of the women from the first book talk about leaving their marriage, or how their marriage has evolved, if they stayed. Debora Spar, at the time the president of Barnard College, now the head of Lincoln Center, talks about her decisions to use botox and other methods to keep herself looking young and thin, while Ann Hood talks about saying fuck-it to trying to stay thin, and letting herself relax into middle age. Both choices equally valid, of course. So many really smart women, truly excellent writers, revealing things in the interest of bold, honest, writing--and of debunking the myths that we all live with.
Q: What do you think changed you just in reading everyone else's essays?
A: Putting together both of these books was so much fun, so enlightening. With Bitch 1, I learned so much--that i wasn't alone, that other women were feeling much as I did, and that it wasn't just women being "spoiled"--there were, and still are, real problems with the way many of us are expected to combine motherhood and challenging work, sometimes work that brings in half or much more of the income, in a country that doesn't have good maternity and family leave policies, that doesn't support working mothers or women who leave the work force to have kids. With Bitch 2, i was mostly just amazed at the trust these women put in me, and how generous they were. It made me want to do the same for others in their anthologies--to want to really dig deep and speak out about these experiences. It also made me feel lucky. People have suffered some really difficult things--and come through better for them. My life has been relatively tame, in comparison. But it's all good. Wisdom comes from tragedy as well as education and deep thought--from a life fully lived.
Q: What's obsessing you now (beside politics...) and why?
A: I think these days we're all asking ourselves how we can help make the world a better place. I've had such a great life--I've been so lucky. How can i help others who haven't had as easy a time? How can i be a better person, here in midlife? And what, as a writer, do i have to contribute? Hope that isn't too political an answer! It is the truth, though.
Q: What question didn't I ask that I should have?
A: Maybe this: If there's one lesson you learned from doing Bitch 2, what was it? And the answer would be, i learned that it's so important to lead an examined life--to think about what you want and what you need and whether you're getting that and, if not, what can you do to change this? Is the problem with your external life, or with yourself? If the former, how can you fix or change that? If the latter, what will you do about it? Are you depressed? Do you need a career change? Or do you just need to learn to look at your life differently? Figure out what you want and need and how to get it, and then do it, and own it. No apologies. Lizzie Skurnick writes about deciding to have a baby on her own--and then doing just that. Jennifer Finney Boylan writes about realizing that she couldn't live another minute as a man, and so transitioning from male to female. Kate Christensen writes about realizing she needed to leave her marriage--and then doing that. Pam Houston writes about her decision to simply stop caring about being "smart" anymore, and instead to think more about "wisdom"--and to stop caring what people think. And how that was her path to contentment and joy.
I hope this book helps others, though reading these astonishing essays, find their own paths to midlife contentment. That's my wish for this book!