Nobody's Looking at You

Nobody's Looking at You

by Janet Malcolm


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A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice. A 2019 NPR Staff Pick.

"Malcolm is always worth reading; it can be instructive to see how much satisfying craft she brings to even the most trivial article." —Phillip Lopate, TLS

Janet Malcolm’s previous collection, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, was “unmistakably the work of a master” (The New York Times Book Review). Like Forty-One False Starts, Nobody’s Looking at You brings together previously uncompiled pieces, mainly from The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

The title piece of this wonderfully eclectic collection is a profile of the fashion designer Eileen Fisher, whose mother often said to her, “Nobody’s looking at you.” But in every piece in this volume, Malcolm looks closely and with impunity at a broad range of subjects, from Donald Trump’s TV nemesis Rachel Maddow, to the stiletto-heel-wearing pianist Yuju Wang, to “the big-league game” of Supreme Court confirmation hearings. In an essay called “Socks,” the Pevears are seen as the “sort of asteroid [that] has hit the safe world of Russian Literature in English translation,” and in “Dreams and Anna Karenina,” the focus is Tolstoy, “one of literature’s greatest masters of manipulative techniques.” Nobody’s Looking at You concludes with “Pandora’s Click,” a brief, cautionary piece about e-mail etiquette that was written in the early two thousands, and that reverberates—albeit painfully—to this day.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374279493
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 02/19/2019
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,197,507
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Janet Malcolm is the author of many books, including In the Freud Archives; The Journalist and the Murderer; Two Lives: Alice and Gertrude, which won the 2008 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography; and Forty-One False Starts, which was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. She is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. In 2017, Malcolm received the Gold Medal for Belles Lettres and Criticism from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Read an Excerpt



There is a wish shared by women who consider themselves serious that the clothes they wear look as if they were heedlessly flung on rather than anxiously selected. The clothes of Eileen Fisher seem to have been designed to fulfill that wish. Words like "simple" and "tasteful" and colors like black and gray come to mind along with images of women of a certain age and class — professors, editors, psychotherapists, lawyers, administrators — for whom the hiding of vanity is an inner necessity.

The first Eileen Fisher shop opened in 1987, on Ninth Street in the East Village. Today, Eileen Fisher is an enterprise with nearly a thousand employees. The clothes sell in department stores and catalogues as well as in six Eileen Fisher shops in Manhattan and fifty-five throughout the country. Over the years, the clothes have become less plain and more like the clothes in fashion. Some of the older Eileen Fisher customers grouse about these changes. They want the clothes to remain the same, as if anything can. Surely not clothes.

I remember going into the Eileen Fisher shops that were opening around the city in the late 1980s and never buying anything. I was attracted by the austere beauty of the clothes. They were loose and long and interesting. There was an atmosphere of early modernism in their geometric shapes and murky muted colors. You could see Alma Mahler wearing them around the Bauhaus. But you could not wear them yourself if you weren't fairly stately. After a few years, the clothes changed and began to suit small, thin women as well as tall, substantial ones. But their original atmosphere remained. I joined a growing cadre of women who regularly shop at Eileen Fisher and form a kind of cult of the interestingly plain.

One day in February, I went to talk with Eileen Fisher at her house, in Irvington, New York, and was immediately struck by her beauty. She does not look like a woman who is uninterested in her appearance. She looks glamorous and stylish. She is slender and fine-boned. Her straight, completely white hair is cut in a geometric chin-length bob. She wears dark-rimmed glasses. Her features are delicate, and there is a certain fragility about her, an atmosphere of someone who needs protection. And she came to the interview protected, by two executives in her company: Hilary Old, the Vice President of Communications, and Monica Rowe, the Director of Public Relations. I was received in a large, light room that looks out on the Hudson River and its distant shore (the river is magnificently wide here) through a picture window. A lunch of choice dishes — crab cakes, rice salad, a salad of winter squash and goat cheese — had been laid out on a long table. Eileen (as I will call her, as one calls Hillary Hillary) presented herself as someone who is still trying to overcome an innate awkwardness and shyness and verbal tentativeness. "Speaking and writing have always been hard for me," she said as her colleagues looked on fondly and encouragingly, as if at a relative with an endearing quirk.

She apologized for the lunch that clearly needed no apology. But she had planned to serve sushi prepared by her Japanese cook, who had been called away at the last minute. That Eileen Fisher had a Japanese cook did not surprise me; nor did the story she told a few minutes later about a fateful chance encounter with a Japanese designer who became her employer and lover. A sense of Japan hovers over Eileen Fisher's modernism (as it does, when you think about it, over modernism itself).

When the encounter with the Japanese designer took place, in the mid-1970s, she was a young woman from the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines ("Home of McDonald's, Anywhere, U.S.A.," in her description) who had recently graduated from the University of Illinois as a home ec major and had come to New York to become an interior designer. But she wasn't succeeding. "I wasn't good with words," she said. "I wasn't that good with people, either. I couldn't explain my ideas to clients." To support herself, she waited on tables and also took small graphic-design jobs. One day, while at a printing shop to which she had brought a design for stationery, "this Japanese guy was also printing something, and he looked at my design and liked it and said, 'I'm a graphic designer, and I need an assistant. Would you apply for the job?' I applied and he hired me and we ended up getting into a relationship. I moved in with him — that was kind of a mistake — but the working part of it was a great experience. His name was Rei. We went to Japan to work on advertising projects for clients like Kirin beer and a large stationery company and a big chemical company. We needed to present a lot of ideas, to throw in a lot of stuff, so he had me throw in my designs. Then weird things would happen, like they would pick my design. And he would get upset. I think he thought I was this little assistant, I was nice and cute or whatever I was. When they picked my design, it created a problem in our relationship." The relationship did not survive the problem (of her talent), but the lesson of Japan stayed with Eileen: "I got inspired. I saw the kimono. I saw it worn different ways. I saw all those little cotton kimonos and those kimono things they wear in the rice paddies and tie back and little flood pants. I was intrigued by the aesthetic of Japan. The simplicity of it. I was already interested in simplicity from interior design. And Rei was really minimal. But it was the kimono that inspired me. The piece you're wearing is an extension of the kimono."

The piece I was wearing was a heavy, charcoal-gray wool cardigan sweater that I bought at an Eileen Fisher shop six or seven years ago and rarely wear because it is rarely cold enough to wear it. But the day was bitterly cold and raw and windy, and it was not too warm inside to be wearing it. The sweater is a remarkable garment. On the hanger it looks like nothing — it is buttonless and ribbed and boxy — but when worn it becomes almost uncannily flattering. Everyone who wears it looks good in it. Eileen then said something surprising, namely that she had not designed my sweater. Twenty years earlier, she had stopped designing; she had turned this work over to a design team that has been doing it ever since, at first under her supervision and now under that of a lead designer.

"I stored that idea about the kimono," Eileen went on. "After Rei and I split up, I went about my business. I tried to make a living. I did apartments, stationery, small things. I designed a tofu package. But this idea kept haunting me, this clothing thing, the kimono. I was living in Tribeca and had artist friends and designer friends. I was dating a guy who was a sculptor. He was designing jewelry, and he had taken a booth at a boutique show where owners of small clothing stores from around the country come to New York to buy clothes and accessories from small designers. He took me to the show, and I remember looking around and going, 'I could do this.' I had never designed any clothes, but I could picture it, I could see clothes I had designed on the walls."

At the next boutique show, a few months later, Eileen took over the boyfriend's booth. (He had stopped making jewelry but had committed himself to the booth.) She shared it with two other designers, since she couldn't afford the rent for the whole booth. "It was three weeks before the show, and I had no clothes. I had to figure out what to do. I ended up hiring someone to sew for me and make the first patterns."

"You drew the designs?"

"No. I never learned how to draw. I found other garments that were similar, that kind of got me close."

"What do you mean other garments?"

"Things that were in stores. That were similar to what I was thinking."

"You bought these clothes?"

"Yes, and I said to Gail, the woman who was making the patterns, it's kind of like this, but the neck is more like that, and it's a little longer, or it's a little shorter, it's a little wider, it's got a long sleeve or a shorter sleeve or something like that. It was going off of something that existed. Gail sewed the clothes — there were four garments made of linen — and I took them to the boutique show and hung them up. I remember being terrified standing there and waiting for what people would say. But everyone was kind, maybe because I was quiet and shy. I wanted to know what the buyers thought, and they would tell me and I would listen."

Gail had been unimpressed with the designs. "'You have to have an idea, Eileen,' she told me. 'This is a little boring. Put some piping on it or something.'" The psychotherapist Eileen was then seeing was not encouraging, either. "She felt I was making progress with my interior-design business. I was learning to communicate and to express my needs and ask for payment and other things that were hard for me to ask for. She thought that my taking a divergent path was some kind of sabotaging behavior." But several buyers liked Eileen's unadorned garments and ordered them, and at the next boutique show buyers stood in line and wrote orders amounting to forty thousand dollars. This was more than Gail could manage, and a small factory in Queens was found to do the sewing. "We cut the pieces and carried them in garbage bags on the subway to Queens."

* * *

Hilary Old and Monica Rowe had been listening quietly while Eileen told this history in answer to my questions. She had not touched her lunch, and, so that she might do so, I questioned her companions about what they did in the company. Rowe, a handsome African-American woman of forty-five with an air of friendly reserve, had only recently joined the company. "I've spent most of my career in corporate communications," she said, mentioning Sephora and Bath and Body Works as companies she had worked for, and speaking admiringly of the "woman-friendly" ethos of Eileen Fisher. Old, who is also forty-five, with a fresh, open face and a manner that is at once confident and modest, has been in the company for eighteen years and rose through the ranks from a job as a saleswoman in the White Plains store. She had majored in women's studies at the University of Colorado and came to the attention of higher-ups in the company when she sent a letter to Eileen in which she expressed her sense of the Eileen Fisher aesthetic as a "totally radical feminist project" and proposed that the company connect itself with women's groups. She was steered toward a job in public relations, working on a newsletter written in Eileen's voice. A year later, she became Eileen's assistant. "I was lucky enough to have that role when the company was going through hard times and had to reimagine and reorganize itself in some profound ways," Old said.

When I asked about the hard times, and how they were surmounted, she and Eileen spoke about the almost magical intervention of a woman named Susan Schor, who arrived as if from Mt. Olympus, though she actually only came from Pace University.

"It began as an effort to give more structure to this almost feminine way of doing things — I didn't know how to run a business," Eileen said. "You're looking at me as if I'm weird or something."

I said I was surprised to hear her say she didn't know how to run a business, since her enterprise was such a manifestly successful one. "Weren't you making a lot of money?"

"Yes. Absolutely."

"That isn't something associated with the feminine."

"To me it was very intuitive. I was always good with numbers. I was good in math."

"So if the company was doing well, why were you dissatisfied? What was lacking?"

Eileen struggled to explain. Evidently, there was both a "need for more structure" and insufficient "joy and well-being." She told the story — now a kind of legendary tale in the company annals — of the male C.E.O. who had been hired during the period of wobbliness and discontent. "It was clear after a few months that this was the wrong path. He was a lovely guy. He would have been the right C.E.O. for our company if a C.E.O. was the right role for our company. But it was the old paradigm of somebody directing the action. I remember after a meeting going, 'I don't think this is going to work.' People would ask me, 'Do we have to listen to him when he tells us what to do?'"

"You yourself don't like to tell people what to do," I said.

"Right, right," Eileen said, and added, "I think it comes out of a family model or something." Earlier, Eileen had spoken of her family with a kind of withering rue. She is the second oldest of seven children, six of them girls. "We sort of raised ourselves," she said. "My mother — I shouldn't describe it like this — but she was a little crazy. My father was an accountant at Allstate Insurance. He was a quiet guy, kind of disengaged."

"So the model for the company was a family without parents."

"Yes. My parents weren't in charge. With my six siblings, we ran the show. We did what we did. My mother put food on the table and cleaned the house, but she never told us what to do. She yelled at us more than anything, but didn't teach us things and didn't really take charge."

The incomparable Susan arrived a few years after the C.E.O. left. "What did Susan actually do?" I asked.

Eileen tried to say, but her reply was like a hermetic text by Judith Butler. She spoke of a "core concept team" and "the leadership forum" and "this kind of concept of facilitating leaders, which is that they're actually doing the work, they're not leading the work, but sort of like the way I've been leading from behind, in a way leading by, you know, letting the group find what's coming up and facilitating that to happen." Once again, she read my face and stopped herself: "You're looking at me like I'm crazy."

I admitted that I had no idea what she was talking about.

Old stepped in but was equally powerless to explain the inexplicable: "What we're trying to do with this different kind of leadership is to have the leader facilitate the process, so you get the team or the craft team in the room together, to ideate together, to generate the ideas together, and then figure out who's going to hold what, who's going to move what forward, so it's less of, it's more about kind of again the holding the space for the team to find."

The talk gradually grew less opaque. But I noticed that whenever the workings of the company came under discussion the language became peculiar and contorted, as if something were being hidden. In fact, the company has nothing to hide. It is remarkably benign and well intentioned. It has a profit-sharing plan for its employees, whereby 29 percent of the profits are given to them. The plan includes the salespeople, who do not work on commission. (Two thousand twelve was an exceptionally profitable year, and every employee received the equivalent of an extra eleven weeks of salary.) The salespeople are expected to wear Eileen Fisher clothes to work, and are given five free garments a month so that they may do so. (The clothes are not cheap; they are priced in the "luxury" category, to which brands such as Ralph Lauren and DKNY belong.)

Along with being generous to its own employees, the company tries to help the workers in the Chinese factories where most of the Eileen Fisher clothes are now made; there is a Director of Social Consciousness, who oversees the inspection of those factories. In addition, there is a Director of Sustainability, who is in charge of environmental exemplariness. The company tries to be as green as it can without losing its shirt. For example, 50 percent of the cotton it uses comes from organic farms that do not use pesticides, and nontoxic dyes are preferred if not always insisted on. Eileen takes justifiable pride in her company's good works and good intentions, and its esprit.

However, when Susan Schor arrived at the company, in 1999, it was slipping away from Eileen. In 1988, she had married David Zwiebel, who owned two dress shops in upstate New York and was one of the early buyers of Eileen Fisher designs. After they married, Zwiebel joined Eileen at the company. She credits him with a "watershed moment": the opening of an Eileen Fisher shop on Madison Avenue at Fifty-Fourth Street. "David found that location and really pushed for it," she said. Before the opening of the Madison Avenue shop, department stores had hesitated to take Eileen Fisher designs; now they saw the point of doing so. Today, department stores represent 70 percent of the company's business. In the late nineties, the marriage ended, and Zwiebel left the company. "That was a hard time," Eileen recalled. "Everything was mixed up. It sort of reminded me of that situation with the Japanese boyfriend. Why do we repeat the same things?" After the separation, Eileen spent less time at the company in order to be with her children, Zack and Sasha, then eight and four.

On her return to the office full-time, a few years later, "Eileen no longer felt at home in her own company," Susan Schor said when I spoke with her at the company's headquarters, at 111 Fifth Avenue. "It had become more corporate, more hierarchical, less collaborative, less caring. There was more unhappiness, I'd say. People weren't kind enough to each other. Deadlines were more important than the process that led to the deadlines."


Excerpted from "Nobody's Looking At You"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Janet Malcolm.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Nobody's Looking at You,
Performance Artist,
Three Sisters,
The Émigré,
The Storyteller,
The Art of Testifying,
Special Needs,
Comedy Central on the Mall,
Pandora's Click,
Dreams and Anna Karenina,
The Master Writer of the City,
Women at War: A Case of Sexual Harassment,
It Happened in Milwaukee,
Sisters, Lovers, Tarts, and Friends,
"A Very Sadistic Man",
Remember the Ladies,
"I Should Have Made Him for a Dentist",
Also By Janet Malcolm,
A Note About the Author,

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