Posted in: Gender
Published on Jan 01, 1978 by Sybil Steinberg
Interview with Phyllis Chesler
Before our visit with Phyllis Chesler, author of "About Men" (Simon & Schuster), PW expected to be intimidated, if not overwhelmed. As her 12-page curriculum vitae informed us, she is a scholar of language and literature, has a doctorate in clinical psychology, is an assistant professor at the City University of New York. An earlier book, "Women and Madness," earned critical plaudits for its searching analytical insights. Her new study, a "psychosexual meditation" that sees men as victims of patriarchal hostility, evidenced in paternal infanticide and fratricide and displaced into rage against women, was greeted with advance reviews that called it "daring," "brave," "brilliant," "audacious."
Visualizing a tall, commanding, formidable presence, we found instead a soft-voiced, shortish, round – yes, maternal – figure, appropriately enough, since Chesler is a first-time mother with an infant son. On the afternoon of our visit, she was wearing a flaming red, extravagantly pleated caftan, its dramatic effect somewhat blunted by the curly cap of brown hair encircling her pillow-cheeked face and y her unabashedly bare feet. Warm, hospitable, bustling her cats Solomon and Sheba from her workroom/den – chockablock with pictures, hanging plants, filing cabinets, mementoes of a trip to Crete – Chesler demolished our image of an imposing professor.
But a conversation with Chesler is like an encounter with one of her books. She is dead serious about her views, and she speaks about them as fluently as she writes, her words far too rapid for any pen to capture. (PW was grateful for a tape recorder.) At times, her delivery accelerates to a fire-fast but well-modulated staccato.
"About Men," she reveals, germinated in the notes left over from "Women and Madness," a book that accused men of imposing sex-role stereotypes that create what they then call mental illness in women. As she tried to file or categorize her notes, she realized that they all concerned her attempts to understand the sources of masculine behavior.
"It was clear to me that men were very competitive with each other, rather deadly killers of each other, that they were, and are, very slow to achieve intimacy and are frightened of, as well as dependent on, women," she says.
Since the motivations for what she perceives as basic masculine traits were not apparent to her "as an analyst, as an existentialist, as a Marxist or as a feminist," Chesler says, she began writing the book "in order to understand men."
In the course of her research, which was to include hundreds of interviews with me, Chesler discovered that "men are love-starved for their fathers, are father-wounded, and no matter what women are expected to do willingly, we at some level fail because it is men that men want to make their peace with, want to be protected by or to be loved by."
This accounts for the societal conformity of men, for their admiration of father figures, their "slavishness" to make dictators, Chesler believes.
Chesler's investigation into the psychosexual bases of male personality is enhanced by a usual and imaginative presentation. Quotations from mythology and literature, reproductions or paintings and sculpture are interwoven through the text as vital components. In addition to what she calls "a poetic and prophetic voice," Chesler felt that the book required autobiographical testimony, her second "voice." Reaching back through her memory, she drew vivid portraits of the men in her life. Her father, whom she recalls as the first man she ever knew, the first man she ever loved, the first man who wouldn't marry her. Her first husband, who took his Brooklyn-born Jewish bride back to his fiercely patriarchal family in Afghanistan. ("The marriage was equivalent to Augie March going to Mexico – totally exotic, weird. The experience scared me. In some ways, it was one of those expensive educations that are very good in the long run if you survive them.") Her loves parade through the book in order, year by year.
The form of "About Men" evolved slowly, Chesler said. "I wanted to recreate chunks of patriarchal history from a psychic point of view, quickly, succinctly, and poetically, so that people could experience it as they read it, and be either grief stricken or plunged into remembrance of perhaps comforted. Then I found to my own surprise that I couldn't write it as a social scientist or a journalist would, to make it easily accessible to everyone. The subject seemed to require three different voices, or three different approaches. I wrestled with the angel and the angel one."
"The third "voice" of the book, the section devoted to interviews, was the most difficult, Chesler confesses. They were the hardest interviews she had ever done because she tried to "trap or guide or maternalize men into conversations." Men, unlike women, are unable to talk freely to a strange woman "about how their fathers might not have loved them, or about how their wives still don't…and how they really do suffer. They seem bound by a vow of secrecy."
If there was any kind of "hidden melody" to inspire her, Chesler says, it was Nathalie Sarraute's "Tropisms" and the books of Djuna Barnes. Their ability to capture a moment of experience was what she was guided by and what she found herself trying to emulate.
PW asked Chesler if she thinks writing "About Men" acted as an exorcism for her, the working through the significant and often bitter experiences she describes in the autobiographical section. Did it prepare her to accept a conventional marriage and motherhood?
It is a question she herself has been pondering, Chesler admits. In one sense, no. She had a binding relationship with the man who is now her husband before she started the book. "But the real answer is, of course, I don't know. The real answer is that all things are connected mysteriously. I think that men have been on my mind. But not in the old ways, not with longing and with daughter like dependency and not with betrayal and abandonment and not with legitimate feminist rage, either. I think men have been on my mind as the issue, as the subject, as the problem – and as my other."
Will her insights affect the way Chesler will raise her son? Chesler lifts her eyebrows, shapes her face into a moue of uncertainty. Maybe because she is a feminist, she had expected to have a daughter, she confesses. "I had a hundred year program mapped out for her. A son I hadn't contemplated, so he is actually luckier because I don't have a rigid program or a series of very strong expectations." She vows not to "delude" herself into thinking that what she will do as a mother will have overwhelming significance. There's a vast difference, she concedes, between knowing on paper and acting out for oneself.
Our interview concluded, PW was taken to see tiny Ariel David, sleeping peacefully in spite of ringing telephones, kitchen noises and comings and goings in the apartment. Gazing at the baby, Chesler looked wistful. Even so early on in her motherhood, she reveals some concern about balancing her two roles. She wishes, she said, that she were not quite so driven, that she did not have so many ideas waiting to be written.
(She is currently at work on what she calls an Automythography, partly based on materials in the journals she has been keeping since 1961. In the back of her head is a book on mysticism and medicine and magic, which she's been thinking about for a long time. She has still another book in mind, about exiles: tales of survival in the 20th century. And she is keeping a motherhood journal, while her husband is independently writing is own impressions of parenthood from a father's point of view.
In the past, she always went away to a quiet place to write her books, undistracted by even a telephone. Now, even when writing in the motherhood journal, she has been interrupted in the middle of a paragraph, "and that's never happened to me before!"
Chesler sighs, says she would like to be a "little more mellow and laid back. I would love a quiet slice of time, just to enjoy the baby." But, she concedes, that's an unlikely scenario for a woman with a mind as fertile as hers.
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