‘The Power Notebooks’ Daringly Explores Contradictions In Lives Of Women
Some people, my mother used to say, look for trouble. In her most personal book to date, Katie Roiphe — frequently a lightning rod for her inflammatory, unpopular stances on issues such as date rape — probes questions raised by the turbulence in her private and professional life.
The Power Notebooks is a series of brief-but-potent meditations on women, autonomy, independence, and power, and more specifically on “women strong in public, weak in private” — including herself. In these reflective, journal-like entries, Roiphe opens up, revealing the gentler person behind the polemical writer — and the accomplished literary scholar behind both. She seeks insights into her unstable affairs, breakups, and challenges as a single mother in the lives and work of such outwardly successful writers as Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir, Mary McCarthy, and Rebecca West, who nevertheless abdicated power in their personal lives.
Roiphe draws connections between her uncharacteristically cowering, frozen response to her first husband’s angry shouting and Mary McCarthy’s humiliating relationship with the second of her four husbands, Edmund Wilson. She pores over Simone de Beauvoir’s pining letters to her longtime, free-ranging partner, Jean-Paul Sartre, and notes that “She drops everything for him, every time.” But, she adds, “On the other hand, this is what she wanted, the sometimes pain of a strong emotion over the muffled comfort of an easier one.”
Roiphe clearly relates. She also gets why Edith Wharton, already famous, threw herself at Morton Fullerton, the man who provided “her first taste of sexual happiness” — an experience she later channeled into her work, including The Age of Innocence.
The Power Notebooks is filled with apt quotes. Roiphe cites Virginia Woolf on the importance of financial independence — the threat to which fuels her own concerns when, as a single mother of two children by two different men, she feared for her job after a colleague at NYU tried to sabotage her chances at tenure.
Roiphe’s personal revelations in The Power Notebooks are part self-defense, part risky exposure to further attacks. Just don’t call them apologies: She has learned that “there are things you can’t apologize for… apologies themselves can turn into elaborate narcissistic performances, into self-justifications.” She acknowledges that her first husband — with whom she remains close — may well have an entirely different take on their failed marriage.
Roiphe has a knack for angering people and leaving a trail of enemies — boyfriends, fellow faculty, enraged feminists. In response, she devotes a lot of thought to the subject of likability and relatability, which she insistently links to a willingness — or worse, an imperative — to show vulnerability. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that a display of compassion might just as effectively mollify one’s image.
Of course, if you stick your neck out, you’re more likely to get your head cut off. (Thanks again, Mom.) After a disturbing encounter at a public reading with the close college friend she betrayed and then later wrote about in what “was meant to be a brutal examination of my destructive behavior when I was young,” Roiphe comments, “I know there is something ruthless and unnatural about writing about your life this way, about using or recycling it.” It takes a certain detachment, she admits, plus an element of cannibalism.
But she tries to convince us that she’s not as self-assured as she comes across in print; the ferocious persona is “a vehicle, a tank” for conveying her ideas. (That “tank” is, typically, a perfect word choice.) She explains, “For me, authority, which is the form power takes on the page, is a fiction. It’s not mine but something I dreamed up because I would like to have it.” She adds, somewhat alarmingly, “I write my opinions as a fictional character, a me who is more certain, more flashy, more fearless, less polite, less concerned with approval, less afraid of risk.”
Regarding risk-aversion, Roiphe tells her journalism students that hesitation and ambivalence lead to bland, tangled prose, and essentially advises them not to bother if they can’t give themselves permission to be forthright. Roiphe seems incapable of writing a bland sentence.
Still, she questions her motives in writing her controversial 2018 Harper’s article about issues raised by the #MeToo movement that she found troubling — an essay that unleashed a torrent of ugly attacks against her even before its publication when it was rumored that she was planning to out the creator of the Sh–ty Media Men list. (Moira Donegan preemptively outed herself.) “My life was finally so comfortable; I could go into the office and teach students I loved,” she acknowledges. “I could write careful books that took years of research and inflamed nobody. Why would I go back into arguing against received ideas?”
Why, indeed. “The ideas I was trying to get across felt more important to me than peace of mind,” she says. But she also confesses to a desire to be outside, apart, exiled. What she doesn’t admit to is a desire for attention, even if it’s negative.
The Power Notebooks deserves positive attention. Roiphe’s exploration of women’s complicated relationship with power — including her own — is sharp, smart, and literate. She clearly has a penchant for the unsettled and the unorthodox, and this book helps clarify not just her fierce and often irritating stands on sexual abuse, but also her attraction to subjects like the unconventional literary marriages she parsed in Uncommon Arrangements (2007) and the cultural idiosyncracies she celebrated in her essay collection, In Praise of Messy Lives (2012). In fact, The Power Notebooks is, at heart, Roiphe’s audacious assessment of her own messy life.
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