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Sunday Herald - 22 January 2006
Revered as a feminist icon, then slated for being an intellectual lightweight, Naomi Wolf has experienced highs as well as lows … and then she met Jesus
By Torcuil Crichton
SITTING on plump cushions in the faux drawing room of a London hotel , Naomi Wolf decides, for some reason, to talk about her epiphany. Wolf, the most widely read feminist of her generation, is fresh from a bruising radio encounter on Woman’s Hour with her own heroine, Germaine Greer.
It must have stung to be boxed around the ears by the matriarch icon who once described Wolf’s first book, The Beauty Myth, as the most important feminist tract since her own opus, The Female Eunuch. But Greer, like many other feminists, appears to have cooled towards 43-year-old Wolf since her 1991 polemic against the cosmetics industry radicalised a new generation of women.
Wolf’s follow-up books: Fire With Fire, on career success; Promiscuities, on sexual awakening; and Misconceptions, on marriage and childbirth – developed a feminist treatise from the mirror of her own experiences: what other feminists call an easy life.
Maybe it is an echo of Greer’s withering voice that spurs Wolf to open up for the first time in public about her spiritual awakening. Perhaps it is being asked once too often about the hitherto unexplained “mid-life crisis” that caused her to go off, in her early 40s, into the woods of upstate New York to write her latest book, The Treehouse. This self-help meditation on her father’s wisdom has drawn accusations that the author is embracing what she used to refer to as “patriarchy”.
Or it could have been the conversation about her divorce, during which she stared into the middle distance and seemed to be on the verge of tears . Whatever the reason , the trigger is a simple question about whether all the criticism and bitchiness has hurt her. She pauses then reveals something astonishing: her encounter with Jesus.
Naomi Wolf’s utterances on everything, from childbirth to Al Gore’s demeanour , have a disproportionate effect on public opinion. This latest confessional, a self-acknowledged “bombshell”, will make a generation of feminists cringe, while for her detractors, it will be the icing on the cake, plunging her into fresh controversy over her beliefs and her integrity as a feminist. Wolf’s very soul is about to become a theological battleground, and she knows it.
“ I am not going to be in the closet about this any more. I’m on a spiritual path, I answer to a higher authority,” she says, laughing at the apparent absurdity of the statement. “I don’t mean that in a kind of culty way. I’m here on the planet to make change and to help people in the best way that I can. I know what I have to do and if, in the course of doing that, some people get upset, or make fun of me, or attack me, that is not really important in the larger scheme of things.”
My next question is more cautious. That higher authority, is it God? “Yeah, God. I believe absolutely that every single one of us is here with a spiritual mission. We come in knowing it and then we forget. If we’re lucky, we re-remember. That’s part of what this book is about, helping people re-listen to their soul because their soul knows exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, even if it is not always clear it knows the direction in which to pull.”
She answers everything in a breezy, west coast American way ; she can’t help herself. Wolf’s life is a series of open books during which she’s catalogued everything from her crushing encounters with bulimia to marginalisation in the workplace, the rites of passage of sexual awakening and the invasiveness of the childbirth industry. Hers is a kind of self- centred feminism that turns personal experience into a universal agenda. Often it backfires. When she alleged, 20 years after the event, that she was sexually harassed by eminent academic Harold Bloom at Yale, it did nothing to stop sexist behaviour on campus and everything to open Wolf to further ridicule. Her nemesis, uberfeminist Camille Paglia, sneered that Wolf had been “bobbing her boobs in men’s faces” for years. The backlash against her as a feminist lightweight seemed complete.
Today, Wolf seems sharp and incisive . This is no Valley Girl on some psychobabble trip. But when one of the foremost feminists in the world, who is Jewish to boot, says she has met Jesus, the ultimate figure of Christianity and the redeemer of lost souls, it’s more than a little disconcerting.
She describes this mystical experience – which happened “a few years ago” – as terrifying, inexplicable and “completely not the appropriate spiritual experience of someone of my background”.
Too right. According to Judaism, Jesus is not God made flesh, or a Messianic vision. In a profane world, for anyone of Wolf’s publicly acknowledged intellect to confess to achieving spiritual fulfilment through Jesus is to invite mockery. In her native America, where interfaith rivalry informs all politics, it is a highly volatile admission. Typically of a writer who has spent a lifetime self-dramatising her experiences, Wolf’s epiphany seems to have been of Damascene proportions.
“I was completely dumbfounded but I actually had this vision of … of Jesus, and I’m sure it was Jesus.” Anticipating a raised eyebrow, she adds quickly: “But it wasn’t this crazy theological thing; it was just this figure who was the most perfected human being – full of light and full of love. And completely accessible. Any of us could be like that. There was light coming out of him holographically, simply because he was unclouded. But any of us could become that as human beings.”
Although disturbed , she was also elated. “On a mystical level, it was complete joy and happiness and there were tears running down my face. On a conscious level, when I came out of it I was absolutely horrified because I’m Jewish. This was not the thing I’m supposed to have confront me.”
Nor does it fit our picture of Wolf as a progressive feminist: the product of a very liberal, San Franciscan upbringing and a privileged education at Yale and Oxford. Although her books have brought her fame and wealth, Wolf’s achievements have always been double-edged. She advised Al Gore’s presidential campaign on women’s issues but her $15,000 a month wisdom was lampooned by opponents, after she told the vice-president to stop being a beta male and act like an “alpha” president. (Today, she says that her only regret over the matter is that, bound by confidentiality, she couldn’t answer her critics at the time.) She’s been repeatedly dismissed as derivative and has borne many vicious attacks from other feminists. As Zoë Heller noted, it stuck in the craw of a lot of women to be lectured about rejecting the Western conventions of beauty by someone who embodied the whole look. Wolf was, and continues to be, glamorously beautiful, with fresh, open features and thick brown hair.
A decade on from The Beauty Myth, when she seemed at her peak of fame and influence, Wolf’s nuclear family fell apart. Out of respect for the man she still considers an excellent father to her children, she doesn’t discuss the split, but somewhere on the road to turning 40 – at a time when she was being acclaimed by Time magazine as one of the most influential voices of her generation – Wolf lost herself.
She realised that for a long time she’d been using her intelligence and her polemical skills at the cost of neglecting her heart and soul. She had her moment of crisis – partly connected with her divorce, but also, it now seems clear, as a result of this unsettling, regressive, religious vision. Then she came through: partly thanks to the eccentric, woolly wisdom of her father, as detailed in The Treehouse, and a spiritual renewal in Jesus.
Born-again Christians might nod in recognition at Wolf’s awakening, but secular society will find it extremely bizarre. At the time, she was struggling with writer’s block, and sought help from a specialist, who induced what Wolf calls “a light meditative state”, then asked her to walk downstairs in a classic deep relaxation technique. “I opened the door and there he was,” recounts Wolf.
“I wasn’t myself in this visual experience,” she continues. “I was a 13-year-old boy sitting next to him [Jesus] and feeling feelings I’d never felt in my lifetime, of a 13-year-old boy being with an older male who he really loves and admires and loves to be in the presence of. It was probably the most profound experience of my life. I haven’t talked about it publicly.”
Well, no wonder. She confesses she still feels awkward speaking about it. “It’s very embarrassing. We’re intellectuals, we’re on the left, we’re not supposed to talk like that,” she says later .
The experience has made her happier than ever. She’s anxious about the repercussions of going public on her life-altering moment, but insists that her commitment to feminism remains as strong as ever . “ I don’t want to be co-opted as the poster child for any religion or any agenda,” she adds. “ There are a lot of people out there just waiting for some little Jewish feminist to cross over. I so much want to distance this from Christianity. It has nothing to do with any religion whatsoever.” But in the meantime Wolf has been doing some intensive reading about what the rabbi Jesus had to say, as a Jew “not as this whole Christian construct but as a teacher and a social activist, as a rabbi and as a healer”.
Nothing in the folksy, anecdotal style of The Treehouse reveals anything about her religious awakening, but the strength of her conviction is plain. “I absolutely believe in divine providence now, absolutely believe God totally cares about every single one of us intimately, that we’re not alone, that we’re surrounded by love. That everything is OK.”
This avowal, at the end of what could have been just another promotional interview, leaves Wolf slightly shocked. She needs a cigarette, she says, although she quit some time ago. The subject of her next book is intended to be her mother, but this subject, God, seems so much bigger. With her PR at the door, there is just time to ask: will she write about it? She’ll have to think about that, she says, disengaging from a conversation she already knows she’ll be defending for the rest of her life.
“ Let’s put it this way. When there’s a subject I’m supposed to share with my readers, and this is why I believe in divine providence, I will start getting knocks on the door from the universe. People will start crossing my path saying, ‘I’m really struggling with anorexia, I’m struggling with motherhood, I’m struggling with my sexuality.’ In the next few weeks if I hear the call that this is something I should bring forward, then I’ll bring it forward more. But I’ve just taken a huge step, so give me credit. Let me get over that.”
It’s as if she’s said too much. She leaves the room in a hurry.
The Treehouse is published by Virago, £12.99
Joan Bakewell finds a mixture of touching filial homage and new-age banality in Naomi Wolf's The Treehouse
Saturday January 28, 2006
Eccentric Wisdom From My Father on How to Live, Love and See
by Naomi Wolf
320pp, Virago, £12.99
"In the middle of life I came to a dark wood": Dante's famous lines speak for the 40-year-old Naomi Wolf who, after 15 years of expressing opinions for a living - a fallout from the immediate success in 1991 of her first book, The Beauty Myth - had hit a bad patch. "I had turned my face away from the grace of the imagination," she writes. Stripped of its lyricism, this means she was finding the pressure of being a New York literary celebrity, self-help guru to aspiring women and image consultant to Al Gore just too much.
The Beauty Myth was a timely success and thrust Wolf into the ranks of America's fluent feminists whose every subsequent word - and book - was analysed for penetrating new social insights. Yet with each one - Fire with Fire, about women's responses to men's work, and Promiscuities, about her own emotional growth - Wolf has edged closer to soft-centred self-help for women who strive. In seeking respite from the celebrity-fest she took time off for some quiet reflection in the country. Well, not quite. In fact she spent almost a year in a ramshackle old house in upstate New York where she embarked on a series of ambitious new projects: building, with her father's help, a treehouse for her children, taking lessons from him in the wisdom of life, and offering hospitality and succour to a slew of friends with unhappy marriages and careers. Some respite. Oh, and she got a book out of it!
The book runs on three tracks: the self-help advice that makes up the 12 chapter headings, the account of a lyrical summer spent with her poet/ philosopher father, and biographical reminiscences about his life and her own. The treehouse, while actual, also serves as an allegory: "maybe one has to build a treehouse internally", for Wolf is striving to get back to simple things, stripping away the dross of ages to find the clear grain of the wood beneath. These three strands are deftly worked with a lightness of touch that makes for pleasant reading, the family narrative winning out every time on the marshmallow philosophy. And there is at its heart an insight into current American thinking that is truly alarming.
The self-help stuff is for the most part routine new age banality: "be still and listen"; "use your imagination"; "destroy the box" (meaning don't conform to the world's expectations); "speak in your own voice"; "identify your heart's desire"; "do nothing without passion"; "be disciplined with your gift"; "pay attention to the details"; "your only wage will be joy"; "mistakes are part of the draft"; "Frame your work" (that is, know when your work is done); and "sign it and let it go". It comes a no surprise to know that her father teaches creative writing, and the book is dedicated "To teachers who help us climb".
The relentless search for self-improvement as the way up some metaphysical ladder is one of the motivating forces for modern living and modern publishing, and many Americans embrace it with naive enthusiasm. Books full of such advice pour forth to meet the passionate yearnings of would-be achievers to "do better and be better" (in Emily Brontë's phrase). Wolf is one of the leaders in the field, full of how-to perceptions that perhaps she doesn't always heed herself. But the messages are no less sound for being obvious, and if you're locked in a mediocre job, partnered to the wrong person with no space to pursue your passions, then this book's advice will read like pearls of wisdom. Alternatively you could dismiss it as "all right for some" and turn away in despair.
The book's saving grace is the portrait of her father, Leonard Wolf, a "wild visionary poet" of some 80 years whom Naomi clearly adores. He springs from these pages in a series of exotic clothes - a red-flannel Basque shepherd's shirt, a gaucho hat, a fisherman's cap with loops for bait, Greek boating boots - to offer the insights that 60 years of teaching literature has given him. Quotations spill from him, mostly the anthologised favourites: "The Windhover", "Dover Beach", "Ozymandias", Wordsworth's "getting and spending we lay waste our powers". "He is the happiest man I have ever known," she declares, a resolute optimist who, as the child of poor immigrant Jews, pounced on libraries, books and learning wherever he could find them. He grew to live and thrive in an American Bohemia when there still was one. Of a generation with Kerouac and Ginsberg, he shared something of their beat philosophy, transmuting into an indulgent teacher of rebellious 60s students as the times changed. He believes in "the heart's creative wisdom" and has encouraged generations of students to seek it out. He has taught at 12 universities - including those in Jerusalem and Iran - written 20 books, and is good at making things with wood. Naomi remembers the living room of her childhood home "having the feel of a Bethlehem carpenter's stall" (Nazareth, surely!). But he is no Christ figure: in 1950 he fathered a son and neglected to tell his family until decades later, though all is forgiven now and the 55-year-old Julius is one of them.
This is the man conjured in these pages by an adoring daughter. His outlook is old-fashioned, heartwarming, and surely at odds with many of America's prevailing values. He is, above all, a humanist. And therein lies the warning: to declare a belief in humanism (which Wolf defines as "the view that the human perspective and human emotions are universal and that the human creative imagination is the most precious quality of the species") is to court widespread disapproval in the contemporary US. The politically correct hate it because it regards the study of literature as offering "a key to unlock the universal soul" rather than a "map of oppressive power relations". Students are taught they have no right to imagine what it is like to be black or gay or working class, especially if they are themselves white and middle class. On the other hand, humanism is demonised as godless by the religious right. So it is fine to celebrate an octogenarian still wedded to human values, who still brings his wife Chanel No 5 whenever he travels abroad and who is helped to build the treehouse by a man called Mr Christian.
Joan Bakewell's memoir, The Centre of the Bed, is published by Hodder
Jan Moir reviews The Treehouse by Naomi Wolf.
Following her 40th birthday in 2002, the feminist author Naomi Wolf has a very singular kind of midlife crisis. You know what? Naomi's plum sick of being brilliant at everything. It's getting her down. It's a bore!
You might think that being the queen bee of the third wave of feminism is all lovely empowerment and genderquakes, but for our richly thatched heroine, success has become tedious. As she points out herself, all her books are bestsellers, she always wins her prime-time television debates, her newspaper articles sparkle and her easy prowess at speechifying means she is in demand from coast to coast. So after 15 years of 'expressing myself for a living', like a selfless wet nurse to the American nation, Naomi faces 'the fact that there was not one more thing I could learn in my life from one more plane trip, one more opinion piece, one more argument'.
The mistress of the matriarchal universe now needs to master a new challenge. But what? Where? And with whom by her side?
The answer comes when she buys a derelict house in upstate New York. The cottage is to provide a weekend retreat from her Manhattan home and assisting with the renovations and in the important business of building a treehouse for her two children is Naomi's 80-year-old father, Leonard; a San Francisco-based poet and teacher with eccentric taste in clothes and a handy literary quote for every occasion.
When asked why he needs another red flannel Basque shepherd's shirt when he usually sits at a desk all day, Leonard replies with a line or two from Shakespeare. 'Reason not the need,' he booms, adding as a statement rather than a question: 'You've read Lear.' He recites Gerard Manley Hopkins while pulling staples out of a piece of plywood and goes though phases of wearing river sandals and drinking yerba mate and collecting junk.
Sometimes his daddio fabulousness makes Naomi's eyes sting, but despite her affectionate homage, readers might feel that a little Leonard goes a long way, especially when he gets going on his central theme, which is that the heart's creative wisdom has a more important message than anything else. Naomi notes that her father is evangelical about this, and even people he meets casually are impelled to quit sensible jobs to become agitators or impoverished teachers in the Andes. This seems unlikely, but for his daughter, a poor lamb who confesses to be spiritually depleted by fame, all this talk of heart's desire and passion is like rain falling on a parched desert floor.
She soaks it all up, every last bit. And as Pops and Naomi begin spending q.t. together sanding wood and buying nails and stuff, she looks to him for wisdom and advice to guide her across the perilous terrain that lies immediately ahead; the crossroads of her life.
Out of all this comes a book that is part memoir, part testimonial, part self-help manual and wholly irritating beyond all human endurance. Wolf sweats the small stuff in a manner that is glutinously self-righteous yet carelessly arrogant in equal measure, as she finds an epiphany of sorts in DIY and marvels that at goddam last she has found something she cannot do; bang a nail in correctly. 'Being an unskilled learner,' she writes, 'was humbling.'
This sort of pious humbug grates, especially when she and her father turn out, in essence, to be the kind of institutionalised academics whose grip on the real world is faint, although this does not stop them lecturing everyone around them on how to live their lives at every opportunity.
Naomi, in particular, is unshakeable in her belief that everything she does is of global consequence, whether it's buying flower-sprigged curtains for the spare bedroom or learning how to use a drill. One of the key moments in the book is when the local landscape gardener turns up to survey the overgrown grounds and suggests a clearing plan that Lionel cries is; 'just like the 18th-century ideal of the sublime'.
At this, Naomi interprets the look the gardener gives her father as one of grateful surprise; a hardscrabble son of the soil indebted to the wise man for acknowledging the artist in his soul. There is no dim glimmer of awareness from her of the dignity inherent in the gardener's trade, or that he doesn't need the arty benedictions of the Wolfs to perform his job with skill and talent. It is Naomi's beauteous myth, and failing, that she sees people only as satellites to her own hot, beating sun.
Friends who orbit when the treehouse is being built are given brisk advice on their tattered marriages and urged to follow their hearts, although on her own relationship with husband David Shipley, a New York Times editor, Naomi is as forthcoming as a snapped clam. This feels like a cheat. Certainly, the road less travelled that summer is the one he takes to their country home and his presence in these pages is shadowy, to say the least. It is sad, but not surprising, to learn that they became estranged last year.
In the end, the autumn mists roll in and at last the treehouse is complete. But don't be fooled for a second. It wasn't really Naomi or Leonard who built it. It was the gardener.
The house that Naomi didn't build
Sarah Crompton reviews The Treehouse by Naomi Wolf.
When Sylvia Plath wrote "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, we're through," she addressed the line to a man who had died when she was a child, in an attempt to understand why he haunted her. But her words came to act as a summation of the troubled relations between fathers and daughters - and men and women.
So imagine, if you will, that both Plath and her father had survived and, having published "Daddy" in her youth, in her middle age she suddenly wrote an encomium to his wisdom. If you can grasp anything so outlandish, you might understand the shock of Naomi Wolf's latest volume.
Wolf became one of the leading feminists of her generation when her first book, The Beauty Myth, acutely analysed the power of the beauty industry to hold women in thrall. It was absolutely of its time and on the money. Since then, her touch has become less sure, but she has remained a force to be reckoned with.
The Treehouse is an extended mea culpa to her teacher father Leonard, whose literary vision she once rejected as part of "the patriarchy". "Children always need to overthrow their fathers, especially when the fathers are right," she writes with new-found humility.
In the midst of her own mid-life crisis, Wolf comes to recognise that her "wild old visionary poet" of a dad might just have been right all along and that "his insistence on creative freedom may be the secret to happiness". This epiphany arrives as she buys a cute little wreck of a homesteader's cottage in upstate New York and starts to renovate it.
As she and her 80-year-old father build a treehouse in the garden, she asks him to formally teach her the English Lit classes he had once taught. "I too let myself be a student to him," she says, in the pompous, consciously self-abasing tone that characterises the book.
Leonard's lectures, which give each of the 12 chapters its heading, have toe-curling titles such as "Be Still and Listen", "Your Only Wage Will Be Joy", and "Be Disciplined with Your Gift". They are neither as original nor as profound as his admiring daughter imagines.
Yet the one section of The Treehouse that absolutely springs to life is when Wolf forgets herself for a moment and describes her father's own upbringing as the immigrant son of a "one man corrective to the notion of a universally prosperous American Jewish immigrant experience".
But Naomi Wolf's peculiar solipsism is to see the events of her own middle-class existence as significant for all women. If she finds satisfaction in suddenly learning to use a cordless drill, laying a patio or - horrors - buying a Crock Pot and trying to cook a stew, then it must be applicable to the rest of the sisterhood.
It never seems to occur to her that for many women such simple skills are not things to be acquired as part of a soul-searching, into-the-woods self-evaluation but as the necessities of existence.
Furthermore, in her great rush to prove that she now understands "the heart's wisdom" and to "be a good wife and mother, to be a decent teacher", she dispenses a lot of patronising advice to friends and students who turn up in the midst of various crises. Their dilemmas become grist to her narcissistic mill, enabling her to prove just how helpful she has become. In the light of this, it is impossible not to be feel a certain Schadenfreude at the news that, since writing the book, Wolf's own marriage has split up.
Such intimate details would normally be irrelevant to a writer's work. But Wolf has made the political personal, and her lack of self-awareness undermines the wisdom she so proudly proclaims.
In this context, it is absolutely typical of The Treehouse that the whole book is based on an untruth. Having waded through nearly 300 pages and endured descriptions of the hammering of what feels like every single nail, Wolf suddenly reveals that the structure the family hauled into a tree wasn't really much use. The proper two-storey treehouse is built by a local landscaper, who does it effortlessly.
Wolf spends quite a bit of time justifying this: "His rightness did not exclude what we had created with such pleasure in our own first draft… The draft had been useful… Rosa and Clara's hammerings had been useful… The treehouse, as Dad would put it, was more important than its byline."
That passage is typical of the intellectual laziness that undermines Wolf's book, as well as her enterprise. Leonard emerges from the exercise with some credit; his daughter with none. The new landscape she promises women is just a blind alley. This wisdom is a con.