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There are two reasons you're likely to find the new biography of feminist matriarch Betty Friedan less than scintillating. One, Judith Hennessee is not a very good writer. Two, Betty Friedan is not a very good subject -- or, at least, that's what you end up thinking after you've read 100 pages or so of Hennessee's portrait. This reaction, naturally, is the sign of a poor biography, one that surely violates the cardinal rule of Biography 101: Never let your biography convince your readers or, worse, posterity, that your subject and your readers both would have been better off without you. Sad to say, Hennessee, a former media columnist for Manhattan, Inc. magazine, has an unfortunate talent for leaching the spark of life out of a life. She could make a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis read like an office supply catalog. In Hennessee's hands, Friedan's life seems strangely drab and discontinuous, and it shouldn't, because Friedan has more going for her than that, even if a fair share of it is unpleasant.
On one level, Hennessee admires Friedan deeply. She wants to pay fitting tribute to the woman who founded the National Organization for Women and who wrote The Feminine Mystique. Or, perhaps more accurately, she wants to pay tribute to NOW and The Feminine Mystique as cultural phenomena and to Friedan only secondarily as the brain that created them. In fact, Hennessee confesses in her introduction, she found it difficult to reconcile what she so revered about Friedan the thinker with what she learned about Friedan the person. Not long ago, this kind of disillusionment was a familiar problem among Heideggerians, who were dismayed to learn that their brilliant, percipient idol was a Nazi. So it is with Friedan, the great liberator of women, who turns out to have been a misogynist as well as an ill-tempered, selfish, ego-driven, arrogant and altogether disagreeable human being. Hennessee writes, "She was a feminist who preferred men ... and deferred to them -- and did not even like most women ... She was rude and nasty, self-serving and imperious ... But the movement she ushered in is immense ... What she did for women outweighs the rest."
Hennessee's laundry list of unsavory facts does its own work in the reader's mind, work that is all the more damaging to Friedan because you suspect that Hennessee herself doesn't fully realize the pervasively bad impression her prose is creating. She blithely recounts, for example, the lurid details of Betty and Carl Friedan's savagely tempestuous 21-year marriage: "Although her marriage was violent, Betty was not what one ordinarily thinks of as a battered wife. She and Carl were a match; she egged him on, and she gave as good as she got ... Her rages had started to frighten her. She would black out during fights with Carl and wake up with a bruised face and a black eye." Hennessee describes at length how Betty and Carl shouted and threw crockery and endless streams of invective at each other. Then she calmly drops this bombshell: "With the aid of therapy, all three children managed to distance themselves from the emotional fallout of the marriage."
Things get still nastier with Hennessee's detailed account of the all-out war that Friedan waged against Gloria Steinem (whom she called "the Hair") and Bella Abzug. When, in the mid-'70s, media wags accused Steinem of being a CIA agent, Friedan, Hennessee writes, did "her best to publicize the charges." As for Friedan's relationship with Abzug, Hennessee describes it in her characteristic lugheaded style: "Bella and Betty were like the North Vietnamese and the Americans fighting over the shape of the table at the Paris Peace Conferences."
Even when Hennessee praises her subject, she does it so ham-handedly that you feel a little embarrassed on Friedan's behalf: "Betty emerged as the giant, creating order out of chaos ... She was a force of nature, as indomitable as the movement she had helped to found ... Shouting into the microphone, pumping her fists in the air, she struck the chords of her life and outlined a transcendent dream ..."
If you go into this biography liking Friedan, you'll probably come away wanting to shake her harridan's dust off your bootsoles, even if you are a self-described feminist. If you go into it disliking Friedan, you'll come away with a well-stocked cache of fresh ammunition to use against her, and quite possibly a renewed desire to take out a contract on her life.