The Cut on Tuesdays
Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School is one of the books we’re most excited about this fall: Critic Molly Young calls it “almost preposterously courageous” in her October Read Like the Wind roundup. So on this week’s show, we’re talking to Ben Lerner … and we’re also talking to his mom, Harriet Lerner. She’s a feminist psychologist and best-selling relationship expert, and she’s also one of the most important influences on her son’s writing.
Harriet told us about first starting her career in the 1970s — her feminist awakening came when she moved to Topeka for a new job at a renowned clinic. She found herself running up against a particular kind of entrenched male power … in this case, male power speaking the language of old-school Freudian psychoanalysis.
HARRIET: Just the fact that I wore long earrings from Berkeley —earrings that dangled down — I was told by one supervisor that this was seen as a reflection of penis envy. Or maybe even double —
MOLLY: Two penises.
HARRIET: Two ears, right.
Harriet could argue with guys like this all she wanted, but at a certain point, she was basically banging her head against a wall.
HARRIET: I remember a moment at the foundation cafeteria where I was sitting with a very wise older man, and he turned to me and he said very quietly, “Harriet, you can’t change your colleagues. You just have to wait for them to die off.”
Instead of just waiting for the old guys around her to die, Harriet realized she could speak directly to the women she wanted to help. Maybe she couldn’t treat them all personally, but she could write for them. Harriet knew a lot of other women were as angry as she was. That was actually something she wanted to write about — women’s anger, and how much it scared people. So she wrote an article called “Taboos Against Female Anger.” Originally it was for an academic journal, but it started to find its way to other readers.
HARRIET: And I got a call from Helen Gurley Brown herself —
MOLLY: Oh wow!
HARRIET: Oh wow is right — from Cosmopolitan magazine, who asked my permission to reprint that little article on female anger in Cosmopolitan for a great deal of money. That was like asking a drowning man if he would like some air, and so I said yes.
Harriet started working on a book about women’s anger, drawing on her own experiences and the experiences of her patients. Originally she wanted to call it Nice Ladies and Bitches, but her publisher talked her into calling it The Dance of Anger instead. It came out in 1985 and became a surprise hit — the book had a huge audience.
HARRIET: It found it in the old-fashioned way, through word of mouth, through women who recommended it to other women, then it got in the hands of therapists who recommended it.
HARRIET: I did go on Oprah, talking about The Dance of Anger, and I made a point about the language for angry women being called castrating and ball-breaking, and a man began to write to me saying that I was hating the male penis.
HARRIET: I got many phone calls, and of course you couldn’t trace them back then … I mean, some of the responses I got were really crazy.
HARRIET: The direct threat I got that I really remember was someone called my home, and I think what was scary is he sounded very calm and very intelligent, and he said, “I’d like to speak to Dr. Harriet Lerner.” I said, “That’s me” or “That’s I,” and he said, “I just want you to know that I have been following your feminist career and I plan to put an end to it,” and he hung up.
MOLLY: Oh my God.
HARRIET: And that that was very scary.
These guys were trolls before trolling was a thing: It was almost like Harriet got a preview of the abuse a later generation of feminists would face online, years before Twitter was a gleam in Jack Dorsey’s eye.
Eventually, Harriet developed an excellent strategy for dealing with those calls. To hear all about the trick she discovered — plus Ben on his high-school-debate days and his basement rap battles — click above and subscribe wherever you listen.