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Katie Roiphe On A Childhood Without Dolls & Her New Book

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Photo: Anna Schori
A friend recently described Katie Roiphe as an uncomfortablist, and even she agrees it’s an accurate characterisation of her work. There’s nothing the 47-year-old American author and New York University professor relishes more than delving into topics that are widely considered taboo. So controversial was her debut book, The Morning After (1993)a polemic which argued that feminism was inhibiting women’s sexual freedom – the poet Katha Pollitt branded her ‘absurd’ in a review in The New Yorker at the time, and feminist groups at Princeton University, where Roiphe was completing her PhD, signed petitions against her.

Roiphe has written five more books since then on sex, monogamy, parenthood and now, death. In The Violet Hour, published in May this year, she reimagines the final days of six great writers, including: Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud and Dylan Thomas. “I’m just drawn to subjects that make people uncomfortable,” she confesses. “And death is the ultimate one!”

Here, we speak to Roiphe about a childhood without dolls and the surprising nature of death.

You were born and raised in New York, how did the city inform you as a writer?
I grew up in a very different New York; it was wilder and less materialistic. My family lived on the Upper East Side on a scruffy block full of artists, writers and intellectuals, the school bus wouldn’t go there because it was considered too dangerous. My mother was a writer and she had a lot of friends who were writers so they definitely influenced me. I’ve always been a big reader and became interested in an older version of New York City from an early age, the New York documented by the likes of Mary McCarthy; she had fierceness to her cultural analysis, which has inspired me, as have Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion and Rebecca West. I’ve taken little bits of inspiration from them all –magpie style.

My mother is an eccentric, quirky feminist who wouldn’t allow me to have dolls when I was a child.

Katie Roiphe

Your mother Anne Roiphe is a prolific feminist writer and essayist, have her values rubbed off on you?
My mother is an eccentric, quirky feminist who wouldn’t allow me to have dolls when I was a child. One day my grandfather gave me a Barbie beauty palace, which I was thrilled with – I thought it was the greatest thing ever. A few days later it mysteriously disappeared and when I asked my mother where it could be she said it was ‘lost’. When I watched TV she’d hector me; saying things like ‘girls shouldn’t grow up wanting to be cheerleaders!’ I definitely reacted against some of the more straightforward feminism I grew up with.

There were a number of occasions when my mother had written something outrageous that upset everyone. For example in December 1978 she wrote an article in the The New York Times about being a Jew who celebrates Christmas, in the UK that doesn’t seem a big deal but in America it was inflammatory. I remember walking into school the next day and the other kids giggled at me.

My family disinherited my mother because her novels gave such an honest portrayal of things, so I grew up with the idea that you should write whatever you think and I definitely internalised that. I obviously don’t have a fear of upsetting or offending people with my writing – that is definitely something I got from my mother.

What should feminism be focusing on in the 21st Century?
I went on demonstrations with picket signs from a young age so I admire and grew up in the feminist movement, however I’ve always been critical of its unthinking ideologies. In 1991 I wrote an article for The New York Times, where I compared the language of date rape pamphlets being handed out to college freshmen at the time, to a Victorian guide to conduct for young ladies, and found they were talking about women in the same way – in a way that I felt was condescending. There is this tendency to use politicised language that is too easy or too simple to address some of the more complicated things going on in the world.

Feminism wastes too much energy on policing people’s opinions. When the journalist and writer Gay Talese was interviewed recently, he was asked which female writers inspired him and he said he couldn’t think of any. His reply resulted in a Twitter backlash. There is a fascist ugliness to these social media witch-hunts that say you have to think certain things otherwise you are the enemy. Instead we should be focusing on more important issues like equal pay, which I wrote about in The Guardian earlier this year.

So do you think we have become a more liberal society?
We live in an ostensibly liberal, ostensibly liberated, ostensibly tolerant culture, but – as my book In Praise of Messy Lives (2012) discussed – this isn’t the case; sometimes our conservatism and puritanism masquerades as something else. For example, we don’t say that something or someone is immoral anymore, instead we use the term health, but there is still the same moral judgement. We are imprisoned by the idea of living a good life.

I only really came to understand this when I became a mother. I have two children to two fathers and I have lived the majority of my life outside the institution of marriage. There is a lot of judgement towards single mothers, and although it’s not directly expressed in more liberal, urban settings, you see these books that present being a single mother as something radical. It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it – why should it be that somebody who doesn’t settle down and get married in their 30s or 40s is this outlier?

Your latest book is about death, what made you choose this subject?
When I was 12 I developed a type of pneumonia that was resistant to antibiotics and I stopped breathing on the way to the hospital. I was in intensive care for weeks and everyone thought I was going die because – until the doctor removed part of my lung – there didn’t seem to be a solution. Ever since then I’ve been preoccupied with the subject of death. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag wrote about how our appetite for images of people in pain is equal to or greater than our appetite for images of sex. Yet humans have this primal drive to keep the subject of death out of our lives, and modern life makes that possible because it's cordoned off in modern hospitals most of time. For me it’s not a depressing subject to write about, but it’s certainly considered a taboo.

We’ve lost a lot of legends in 2016. Whose final days would you reimagine?
I have a feeling there are always celebrity deaths, it's just that we are noticing and thinking about them more as a culture. The recent one that most affected me was David Bowie. In part, because he seemed so much like a figment of his own imagination; with someone so spectacularly self-invented it's almost hard to imagine him ceasing to exist. The confrontation of mundane, real world things like death with such flamboyance seems impossible. I can't imagine his final days. They were probably as drab as anyone else's. The thing I learned from writing The Violet Hour is that your imagination is wrong in these instances. Real deaths are full of surprises.

The Violet Hour is published by Virago; www.virago.co.uk
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