It is breakfast time at the Bowery Hotel and I am sitting with the writer Katie Roiphe, talking about death. The occasion is the publication of Roiphe’s new book, The Violet Hour, which looks at how five writers — Freud, Sontag, Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak — dealt with the end of their lives. For those who think of Roiphe only as an unapologetic provocateur, perpetually irritating the women’s movement, the book’s subject may seem a departure. For Roiphe herself, however, it has been brewing for decades.
Roiphe lays each case study out in stark detail. She describes, for instance, Susan Sontag’s decision, when diagnosed with a terminal cancer at the age of 71, to opt for an agonizing, against-all-the-odds treatment. Sontag suffered for months in a hospital room in Seattle, and implicitly forbade conversation about what loomed, even when it became clear that the treatment had failed. Freud, on the other hand, dying in London of cancer of the mouth and throat on the eve of World War II, refused painkillers in order to be clear-eyed and present for the last experience of his life.
It is, inevitably, a harrowing read, and so Roiphe decided she better not make it too long, narrowing down her list of subjects to a strict five, plus James Salter in the epilogue. “At a certain point I realized I could be working on this book for the rest of my life,” she says. In all, it took seven years, and Roiphe found the long process to be, far from morbid or depressing, invigorating. “It took me to this place where you’re really on the edge of civilized conversation. You’re talking about things that are just barely socially acceptable, or not socially acceptable. That was part of what was so exhilarating about it.”
All of Roiphe’s books share this in common: The edge of civilized conversation is where she gravitates. She’s taken on a number of sacred cows: feminism, in her controversial debut, The Morning After; sex, in her follow-up, Last Night in Paradise; monogamy, in her study of marriages in literary London in Uncommon Arrangements; and parenthood in In Praise of Messy Lives, her collection of previously published essays. And yet, she believes, The Violet Hour breaches new boundaries. “I’ve written about all kinds of things you might think were taboo subjects, but there’s something about this that’s more of a taboo. Asking somebody what was it like in the room when your father died, is a really different kind of question.”
That example is a particularly loaded one for Roiphe: Her desire to write The Violet Hour came, in part, from the death of her own father 11 years ago. He had a heart attack as he crossed the lobby of his apartment building, and was dead by the time Roiphe and her sister arrived at the hospital. Her sister, a psychoanalyst, told her she should look at the body, “because if you don’t see the body, there is no body.” She couldn’t bear to, though. But now, it might be said, she has spent the last seven years looking closely at bodies.
In person, Roiphe is a tall, slinky presence in bell-bottoms and very high heels, despite the early hour and the driving rain. She seems infinitely more vulnerable in real life than she does in photographs, from which she tends to glower from beneath her long blonde curls, looking a bit like the MGM lion, seconds before the roar. She grew up one of five sisters in a townhouse on the Upper East Side — her mother, Anne Roiphe, is a well-known writer and feminist; her father was a psychoanalyst. As Roiphe writes in her new book’s introduction, she became so sick when she was 12 that she spent months in and out of the hospital, occasionally coughing up blood but not telling her doctors, finally having to have a portion of one lung removed. She didn’t entirely expect to see the eighth grade. Her illness was one of her life’s defining moments, she says: “It created this fierceness in my personality that would not have existed otherwise.”
That quality is evident in her writing: Roiphe is the kind of writer whose articles and books have produced a constant firestorm of reaction, with a mob of people — mostly women — who might proudly identify as “Katie Haters,” a term born in an internet headline, regarding her as an anti-feminist, an obstacle to the cause yet one too talented to be dismissed, which for some just really rankles. “I have noticed that I continue to write things that annoy and irritate people,” she coolly remarks, between sips of cappuccino.
Nothing perhaps as much as her first book, however. When Roiphe published The Morning After, at the age of 25, she started getting death threats at bookstore readings. Roiphe wrote The Morning After to push back against what she saw as a growing tendency on college campuses — first noticing it as an undergraduate at Harvard, then later at Princeton, where she got her Ph.D. in literature — to claim women as fragile and pure, in need of vigilant protection from a world teeming with would-be attackers. She questioned, among other things, exactly how real the date-rape crisis (then being so frequently trumpeted and discussed) was. “I didn’t spend much time thinking about feminism. It was something assumed, something deep in my foundations,” Roiphe wrote in the very first pages of The Morning After. It seemed odd to her that a vision of women as inherently victims, inherently victimized, should pass for feminist, but she was aware she’d be ruffling feathers by making that argument.
She was right: Roiphe has been accused ever since then of having set back the women’s movement, of denying that rape and sexual assault were problems, of assigning full responsibility to women for their physical safety from men. Writing in The New Yorker, for instance, Katha Pollitt accused her of distorting facts. Writing in Salon, Rebecca Traister described her book as an instance of “I’m too sexy for this movement” provocation. Others found her worldview intensely small and solipsistic, as if it hadn’t occurred to her to look beyond Ivy League campuses to construct her arguments. Aspects of sexual politics that Roiphe documented in these early years of her career, like the beginnings of “consent culture” taking hold at Antioch University in the 1990s, are, of course, still with us. “I think not much has changed,” Roiphe tells me, “and not in a good way.” She says much the same thing about where the women’s movement has come since she first tangled with it. “It seems like there’s a lot of anger and a lot of group-think. The internet is creating this kind of culture that’s not really the most intellectually sophisticated version of the movement … There’s a certain kind of internet talk, where you’re preaching to the choir, and if you don’t share their ideas, you’re a troll, you’re the enemy. I don’t think there’s a space for the exchange of complicated ideas.”
The years of hoopla mean that it is now almost de rigueur, when writing about Roiphe, to frame her against whatever the state of contemporary feminism happens to be. Is she a feminist, or isn’t she? What kind? Does she really believe that feminists have gone too far and taken women’s sense of joy and agency around sex away from them? It’s almost as if Roiphe becomes a fun-house mirror, reflecting back whatever issue or controversy others might want to rage against. Despite the furor, it isn’t always clear exactly what it is about Roiphe that so provokes. Maybe her greatest sin of all is that she doesn’t abide by girl-code, skipping the winks and gestures meant to reassure that she is, after all, just one of the crowd. Instead, she writes from an aristocratic remove, and the crowd is not pleased.
In some profound way, Roiphe herself seems bored by these kinds of inquiries. When I ask about the state of the women’s movement today, there is a palpable draining away of energy from her replies, as if the words have been repeated so many times by now that she doesn’t even quite know why she’s still having to say them. In fact, her books are notable exactly for their evolution. The coldly precocious voice of The Morning After is something of a chore to return to, when one has read the gorgeously rendered work that followed. “I didn’t know The Morning After would shadow me for so long,” Roiphe tells me. Then: “I’m not consciously trying to make people angry with my writing.”
Roiphe approves of the label someone else once gave to her — an “uncomfortabilist,” challenger of social mores, a swimmer against the tide. In her 2012 essay collection, In Praise of Messy Lives, she wrote, for instance, about the subtle (and not so subtle) judgments she encountered among friends and acquaintances when she got divorced and became a single mother. She was particularly struck, she wrote, that it was her friends and acquaintances who seemed to expect, or even want, her to disintegrate into catastrophe-mode in the wake of her divorce. A few years later, still unmarried, but pregnant again, she bumped into a writer she knew in Washington Square Park. “You could just wait and have a regular baby!” he said. “This is a regular baby,” Roiphe wrote in her essay “The Alchemy of Quiet Malice,” in which she showcased the assorted hypocrisies of the left-leaning New Yorkers she is daily surrounded by.
“This is my goal: It’s like the romantic poetics say, ‘making the familiar strange.’ It’s the idea of taking a subject we think we know about, say single mothers, and saying, wait, this really means something different,” Roiphe tells me. “Getting people to look at some familiar object really differently — it sounds like a very simple thing to do, but it’s actually a really hard thing to do, because mostly people are very set in their views. And you can’t get anyone to rethink anything. So people getting angry at me — well, if you’re so angry, at least you’re not bored.”