This episode of the n+1 podcast features interviews with associate editor Richard Beck and author Sheila Heti. First, Richard Beck will talk about his essay in Issue 18 about the child-care sex-abuse hysteria of the 1980s. Then, Sheila Heti discusses her thoughts on writing, friendship, feminism, and more.
Hosted by Elisa Wouk Almino, Moira Donegan, and Eric Wen.
Audio Engineer: Malcolm Donaldson.
Produced by Elisa Wouk Almino, Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, and Eric Wen.
Sheila Heti interview recorded in Toronto and coproduced with Queen Arsem-O’Malley.
Music from Neu! and My Bloody Valentine.
Original Music by The Westerlies featuring Andrew Mulherkar, Luke Sellick, and Sammy Miller.
Elisa Wouk Almino: Hi, this is the n+1 podcast. I’m Elisa Wouk Almino.
Moira Donegan: And I’m Moira Donegan. For this podcast I sat down with Rich Beck, an associate editor with the magazine, to talk about his piece on the Friedman family and the satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980s.
EWA: Then we’ll have an interview with Eric Wen who travelled all the way to Toronto to speak with Canadian author Sheila Heti.
Segment 1: Interview with Richard Beck
MD: One of the things I love about our associate editor Rich Beck is that he’s always sort of telling me about these things that I otherwise never would have heard of and one of them is the satanic ritual abuse panic in the 1980s. This was a widespread social panic in which many child-care workers were accused of sexually abusing children when they in fact had not done so. A lot of people actually went to jail for it, some of them have only been released recently, and Rich wrote really great piece for our latest issue about the case of the Friedman family on Long Island. So I sat down to talk to him a little bit about it and here’s our conversation.
MD: How did you even get into reading about the satanic sex-abuse panic?
Richard Beck: So n+1 had a research group going for a little bit and the idea was just that rather than always having to be working for a month or two trying to get an article ready for the magazine, that you were getting people together and taking as long as you wanted to research something really in-depth, and one of the first projects we started doing was the history of second-wave radical feminism: which parts were accepted over the course of the ’70s and ’80s, which parts were rejected, and it was doing that research that I heard about one of the satanic ritual abuse cases out in Los Angeles called the McMartin Preschool Trial. So I went and spoke to a journalist who had written about it and then she told me that there were actually dozens of these that happened all over the country during the ’80s. So that’s how I got started researching that.
MD: Yeah, I thought that this was happening just in the US, but it was actually happening in other countries as well, right?
RB: Yeah, there were sort of—it was mostly in the US, but in the late ’80s early ’90s, a number of the therapists who were instrumental in making these cases happen as cases in the US started to get debunked, these people had to leave the country because there wasn’t such a receptive audience for what they were doing anymore. So a number of them went to England. So in the early’90s–mid ’90s you have a handful of similar cases in England, there were a couple in Australia or New Zealand, I think, and there was even one that popped up in Jerusalem a year–a-year-and-a-half ago.
MD: Wait, so you’re saying that it followed these psychiatrists so it’s almost like a pathology of psychoanalytic practice in part that germinated around the world as these people travelled?
RB: Well a little bit. There’s an interesting relationship between these cases and psychoanalysis because a lot of the people who really made them happen were critics of Freud. There were a series of critiques of Freud that were put out in the ’70s around something called the trauma theory which Freud came up with before he came up with the Oedipus Complex—the idea of the unconscious drives, sort of what everyone knows as psychoanalysis. And the trauma theory he said he had interviewed, or he had worked with about a dozen female hysterics and came to believe that hysteria was always caused by actual abuse. That it happened to them as children. He eventually rejected this theory and said that, “No, in some of these cases, what’s being talked about are fantasies or dreams and that it didn’t really all happen.” So he got rid of the trauma theory. In the ’70s these critics of Freud tried to rehabilitate the trauma theory. They said Freud had been right the first time. Everyone really was being sexually abused and that was what was causing their problems. And they said that he had only abandoned the trauma theory basically as a professional cowardice because his theory implicated all of the men who were his colleagues in Victorian society, he had essentially called them all child abusers. So then those people really, really interested in saying, “No, abuse really does happen. Psychoanalysis as it came to be practiced in the US is basically a device for covering up abuse, we need to get rid of that.”
MD: And you also mention in your wonderful piece on the Friedmans that this sort of coincided with the perfect storm of social anxieties over women leaving the home and that’s—on one had that explanation is very intuitive but on the other hand it seems so insufficient in light of the way that this spread and how it happened. Tell me a little bit more about the cultural moment of the ’80s and what the day-care center and child care where a lot of these sexual abuse cases were focused. Tell me about how that functioned.
RB: In the ’70s and ’80s, day care was seen as a really important institution for the women’s movement, for feminism, because that’s the institution that made it possible for mothers to leave the home and enter the work force. So as the conservative anti-feminist backlash gets going in the ’80s and even in the late ’70s, you have these people starting to say, “Well, you know, this is damaging the family to have these people out of the home. What happens to children when they’re not raised by their parents, when they’re raised in these communal little day-care centers?” And in the ’70s the use of the word communal is not sort of hard to figure out what that was about. And there was just a lot of free-floating anxiety about whether children were OK at day care, what it meant for them to be there, and when a few of these cases started popping up, that confirmed a lot of people’s worst suspicions. You know, it’s not only that children are going to be emotionally stunted or sad because they’ve been left at day care. They’re actually going to be raped by Satanists at day care, and this somehow is caused by the fact that their selfish mothers left the home to indulge their professional vanity.
MD: A lot of these cases were focused around day-care centers, but the people you wrote about for the magazine, the Friedman family, they were actually running computer classes.
MD: Tell me about that.
RB: So the term that I’ve come to use for the panic is the child-care sex-abuse hysteria, because it’s not always day-care centers, right? Sometimes it’s day-care centers, sometimes it’s little babysitting services being run out of people’s homes—those are much more common in working-class neighborhoods—and then in the case of the Friedmans on Long Island, that’s a very affluent neighborhood. And Arnold Friedman had been a really successful and respected schoolteacher in Long Island. He played the piano, he was a music teacher, and when he retired he started teaching computer classes in his basement at night. This is 1984 so personal computers are still pretty new. That tells you something about the ambitions that parents there had for their kids: that they would want their little kids to be working on computers this early. And you do these classes a few nights a week in addition to the piano lessons he taught in his home, there were just kids coming in and out of his house all the time.
MD: Arnold Friedman, you said, really was a pedophile.
RB: Yeah, Arnold Friedman, so his troubles began when he was caught by the postal inspector—the office of the postal inspector—ordering child pornography from somewhere in Europe.
MD: And they kind of cajoled him into incriminating himself, right?
RB: Yeah, I mean, he had collected some of the stuff, but of course you can’t—back then you couldn’t make an arrest unless you could convince him to send child pornography somewhere. So they started writing to him as a fellow pedophile talking about the magazines saying, “It sounds like you have some really, really great ones. Would you send me some?” And it took them I think two or three years of corresponding with him because he was very hesitant to send anything through the mail before he finally put some child porn in the mail and sent it. So they arrested him then for possession of child pornography, they found a little stack of magazines in his basement office, and in the course of that search, they also found his class lists, the kids who were there for computer lessons every night during the week. And that was really alarming so they decided to open an investigation to see whether he had done anything worse than just looking at child porn.
MD: So tell me about what he was accused of ultimately.
RB: He was ultimately accused of repeatedly systematically abusing dozens of kids who had attended computer classes and he was not the only one accused. He had three sons and his youngest son Jesse, who was a teenager and would help out at the computer classes, also wound up accused of abusing these kids. And this kind of abuse ranges from fondling, taking the kids clothes off, taking his own clothes off, to eventually stories about really bizarre violent games. There was a game called “leap frog” that they talked about where supposedly he would get the kids naked and line them up in a row on the floor and he and Jesse were supposed to have also taken their clothes off and jumped over each one sodomizing them one by one as they went down the line.
MD: And investigators got all the anecdotes from questioning children?
RB: Yeah, from questioning children. Police investigators interviewed all the children who had attended classes and as many of the children who were involved in the case have since said the investigators basically bullied them into fabricating stories of abuse. They would say, “What happened to you?” They would say, “Oh, nothing. I don’t remember anything.” And then they would say, “Well, but we talked to your friends and your friends told us that this happened, you were there while they were there, if it happened to them, it must have happened to you.” And these kids are pretty young and eventually a number of them gave in and just started saying, “Yeah, this stuff happened to me too.”
MD: This is sort of a trend you hear about a lot when you talk about this child-care abuse panic, these aggressive interrogations, and it’s not just you, this was also cited by the appeals court that took up Jesse Friedman’s case years later after he’d done his time. Tell me a little bit about these aggressive interrogations.
RB: So these started in Los Angeles with the McMartin trial where one mother went to the police and said that she worried that her son was being abused at the preschool. This was the most highly respected preschool in Manhattan Beach, this very kind of affluent beachside community. And the children were then sent to this place called Children’s Institute International. These were much younger children, these were like three, four, five, six years old. And they were interviewed by a woman named Kee MacFarlane, who had worked in Washington, DC on child abuse and related issues for a number of years. And those interviews, they just bullied dozens and dozens of kids into making up stories about abuse. And then this pattern repeated itself in cases all over the country. So there’s a case in Miami, Florida where the same thing goes on, there’s a case in Chicago where it happened, this was a national kind of phenomenon.
MD: Well I’m trying to figure out which one freaks me out more: whether a child invents a story of something really specific and lurid, like the “leap frog” game, or whether an adult thinks that up. Because somebody seems to have been inventing this.
RB: Well it happens in all kinds of different ways and it’s not like someone comes along and kind of maliciously makes up this elaborate story out of whole cloth. So with McMartin, during the course of the investigation some parents remembered hearing a kind of schoolyard nursery rhyme that some of the kids would say, which is, “What you see is what you are / You’re a naked movie star.” Once the investigation began, this took on very sinister connotations. Especially because they believed child pornography had been involved in the abuse. So they would ask all these kids, “Did you ever play the naked movie star game? What’s that like?” And then the kids would say, “Yeah, I remember saying that once, you pretend to take a picture,” and it’s just over the course of many interviews with input from a lot of different therapists, a lot of different parents, you wind up with this story of, “Oh, the naked movie star game is where the kids are made to take their clothes off and dance around while someone records it on a video camera.”
MD: Well tell me about what happened to Jesse during the process of this trial. How did he start getting accused? This is also something you see—it’s another trend among these cases, right? It’s like people close to the originally accused person will also be drawn in as suspects.
RB: Yeah, Jesse got accused because when the kids were being interviewed, of course, they all say that he was there because he was there. He was assisting at all of the classes. So if he was there and Arnold was doing this stuff Jesse must have been involved some how. So his name starts getting folded into the stories about what’s going on and he was arrested a few months after his father was. What ended up happening in the trial—and this is what is sort of depicted in such an incredible harrowing way in Capturing the Friedmans, the documentary—is Arnold Friedman decided ultimately that he had to plead guilty in order to give Jesse any kind of chance of not going to prison. Because Arnold Friedman really was a pedophile, that wasn’t debatable, and he decided that if Jesse had to stand trial next to his pedophile father, he just had no shot. So Arnold Friedman plead guilty, went to prison, and died a few years later—probably committed suicide—and Jesse Friedman, then once his father had plead guilty, quickly came to realize that he was going to be convicted as well. And because there were so many kids involved, because they were supposed to have done so many things, he’s looking at basically a guaranteed life sentence. So then he also plead guilty so that he wouldn’t be given a life sentence. He was given 15-20 years, something like that.
MD: And he was ultimately released, right?
RB: Yeah, he was paroled in I think 1993 or maybe later, but he spent years in jail, he was released, but of course he was still a level-3 sex offender, so this makes many parts of his life very difficult. There are restrictions in every state in the country on where you can live, how close you can live to a place where children gather which includes schools, bus stops, parks, there’s all kinds of jobs you can’t have, so what he’s trying to do now is have himself exonerated: declared actually innocent. And that’s what prompted the circuit court ruling and then the conviction and integrity review I write about in the piece.
MD: Yeah, tell me a little bit about that document because it’s pretty exhaustive, right? They just cite—who is this committee that wrote the conviction and integrity review?
RB: OK, so the thing that prompted it was an appeals court in New York. Jesse had filed an appeal to have his conviction overturned and the appeals court had said because he had waited too long, for some other sort of technical reason they were not able to grant him the habeas corpus release he was seeking. But they also then did something pretty unusual at the end of their ruling, and said, “Despite the fact that we can’t help him, this case seems crazy, and we believe that the people who convicted him should take a real, long, hard look at what happened.” So in response to that, the Nassau County prosecutors office undertook something called a conviction and integrity review where essentially you reinvestigate the case. You interview the police officers who investigated it, you interview as many of the kids who were involved as you can—
MD: Who by now are adults, right?
RB: Who by now are all adults, and you see whether the conviction has merit. In the Friedmans case, it’s pretty clear, I think and a lot of other people think, that his conviction should be overturned if he was convicted on the basis of false testimony. The conviction and integrity review, however, is a really sort of bizarre, exhaustive, obsessive document, and they say, “Not only do we not think that any errors were made that would merit overturning his conviction, but we are more convinced than ever before that he’s absolutely guilty of all the crimes that he was charged with.”
MD: Do they revisit and reaffirm the evidence that was presented at trial or did they find new evidence?
RB: No, it’s all the evidence that was presented a trial. So they went and interviewed all the police officers who interviewed the kids and they find ways to excuse all of the interviewing mistakes that the police officers make, including they excuse them on the basis that no one knew any better in the ’80s than to interview children in this way, which should be exculpatory evidence for Jesse Friedman because if no one knew any better, what they were doing was bad. They say, “Well, the basically meant well so that’s fine, no errors committed by the police officers.” And then they sort of take up one-by-one the testimony of children who have since recanted what they said happened to them and they come up with all kinds of ways to dismiss the recantations as unreliable or untrustworthy or unsupported by factual evidence, although it is not clear what factual evidence someone is supposed to produce in order to back up their story that they made things up when they were a kid. So yeah, they just gave no ground whatsoever.
MD: And what’s really clear when you read about this cultural moment is that a lot of these people who were accused were people who were easy to pathologize or scapegoat anyway and something that really comes out pretty beautifully in your piece is that the Friedmans were a little bit off, or they weren’t good at “PR.”
RB: Yeah, that’s one way to put it. The Friedmans, you know, I’ve said to a lot of people that I think Capturing the Friedmans is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen because—so for people who haven’t seen it, that’s a documentary about the case and there’s lots of sort of sit-down interviews with people and archival footage which is very interesting. The thing that really makes the movie important is that the family dynamic was really organized around performance. Arnold Friedman was a jazz musician in the Catskills when he was young in the ’40s. He performed Latin jazz, which was trendy among vacationers then, under the pseudonym Arnito Rey and he handed this love of performance down to his kids. So his three sons would spend all of their time putting on little plays for one another, they would go out on the street downtown with handheld cameras to do little man-on-the-street interviews, little skits, performances in home, just constant. And so when the investigation began, David Friedman, the oldest son, kept a camera on so he recorded all of these fights that they were having.
MD: And that wasn’t unusual for their family before the investigation, right? David Friedman’s recording was habitual in that household?
RB: Yeah, they would just—someone would usually have a camera on when they were going around. So when they’re having these, you know, Arnold Friedman and his wife Elaine who obviously feels incredibly betrayed by the discovery that her husband is a pedophile, so the fights that they would have, they would, at a Passover Seder, put a camera on the mantle—this is as the family is trying to decide whether Arnold should plead guilty for Jesse’s sake—and you just watch the family rip itself to pieces over the course of this dinner. And that footage, you feel queasy looking at it because you feel, first of all, that this should never have been shown publicly. It’s a mystery to me still why David agreed to show that to the filmmaker Andrew Jarecki and why he agreed to have it included in the film. You also watch it and have the thought that this should have been destroyed as soon as the investigation was over when actually it just sat in David’s closet for years and years. And you also think that this should not have been made in the first place, you know? This stuff shouldn’t be recorded. So those scenes are really awful and they’re the most compelling ones in the film. And this sort of impulse to perform pops up in different parts of the case, you know, always in destructive ways for Jesse. So after he goes to plead guilty, he and his brothers go out on the courthouse steps and they’re just kind of manic with kind of anxiety and anger and grief about what’s going to happen because Jesse’s going away to jail now. And they start improvising this little skit on the courthouse steps essentially where they recite what turned out to be, when I looked it up, a Monty Python sketch where John Cleese is running around yelling, “Nurse, my brain hurts!” And a lot of people who were in the courthouse that day remember this vividly just thinking, “Oh, there must be something really wrong with this kid if he’s on the courthouse steps screaming, ‘Nurse, my brain hurts!’” And it’s probably true that he should not have done that. But he also did not abuse a bunch of kids. But it’s also true that in a number of these cases it’s not like pedophilia and hysteria about pedophilia are mutually exclusive, right? They both happen at the same time. So Arnold Friedman really was a pedophile and in fact a number of the children who went to his courses do remember him—although not doing anything that he could be criminally charged for—sort of like sitting kids on his lap and letting that linger for a little bit or putting a hand on their shoulder, moving his hand up and down their back. Something probably needed to be done about him. It’s not clear that he should have been allowed to continue teaching these classes. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t also then have a panic about pedophilia in hysteria about pedophilia. They coexist and they sort of reinforce one another.
Segment 2: Interview with Sheila Heti
Eric Wen: Our next guest is Sheila Heti. She is the author of several books, including the acclaimed novel How Should a Person Be?, and she is the interviews editor for The Believer magazine. Her work has also appeared in n+1, including an excerpt of How Should a Person Be? in Issue 10—before its US release, and most recently in Issue 18 where she published excerpts from her diaries. For this interview, I was joined by my friend Queen Arsem-O’Malley—a Montreal-based journalist—and we interviewed Sheila at her home in Toronto. Our conversation covered her thoughts on writing, feminism, friendship, and more, but seeing as we were in Toronto, we also asked her about living and being a writer in Toronto. Here’s what she said:
Sheila Heti: I guess the reason that I’m in Toronto is because it’s my home and I just think that a lot of people don’t have a home and it’s kind of not something to take for granted, the feeling of home. So all the times that I’ve wanted to leave—and of course I have; many times I’ve thought, “Oh, it would be great to live in Paris, it would be great to live in New York, it would be great to live in LA,”—all those home feelings kept me here; friends, family. If I’m in a relationship, the idea of moving to another country, that’s the end of the relationship. There’s just very practical reasons and like heart reasons to stay. I also don’t think that you need to be in New York or LA in order to be a writer. I think that also it’s nice to have a slightly different perspective on the world—not that Toronto is so different from an American city, but it is kind of. I think the values here are different from the values in New York or Los Angeles, or—I mean Canada has different values than the United States and I like the values—I prefer the values of Canada. But I do visit New York a lot, like I’m there every other month and I love being there and I have nothing against the city, but I don’t know, I always—I think sometimes about moving there but then I imagine transposing my life here there, but it would be a completely different thing. Like, I’d have to teach, I’d have to get health insurance, I’d have to—everything would be so different. I couldn’t actually live there the way that I live here.
EW: Well I guess we were thinking about how you seem to experiment with your writing style a lot in your work. Like each book is very distinct from the other in terms of content and style. Like, Ticknor takes place in the 19th century and has this kind of Edith Wharton or Henry James feel to it, whereas How Should a Person Be? is very different from that. And does being friends with different artists from different mediums kind of influence you in that desire to experiment with your art form?
SH: Maybe. I mean, actually, when you were saying that I was thinking, well maybe it’s just that I’ve been in the same city my whole life. So if you move around you change your life, but if you don’t change your life that much, then change has to happen in other places. So maybe that’s why I wouldn’t want to write the same book after the last book. Like, then everything would just be too much the same, you know? So if you write in a completely different style, you see the world in a different way, the city feels different, everything feels different. Like it’s a way of traveling without actually having to travel.
Queen Arsem-O’Malley: That’s a good line.
SH: I was just going to say, that’s such a cheesy line.
QAM: We’ll tweet that for you.
EW: Let’s talk about writing about real people versus writing about fictional people. In your books, you write about real people and there’s a quote that you had in an interview with Dave Hickey in The Believer where you said, “It seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story. … It doesn’t make sense to me. And the complicated thing is, I like life so much. I love being among people, I love being in the world, and writing is the opposite of that.” So could you speak more about that interest in writing about real people as opposed to creating fictional people for your stories?
SH: Well I don’t feel that right now in my life at all. Right now, I don’t have those same feelings, but at the time it was just an impatience with being alone at my desk with my imagination. I was just—what’s that word?—I felt sort of stir-crazy when I was at my desk. I was like, “Ugh, I don’t want to be here!” Like, “There’s nothing for me here!” When you’re writing fiction, you’re sort of learning from yourself and you’re learning from the depths of yourself, but you can’t access necessarily if you’re just walking around everyday, but I’d just finished writing Ticknor and it was five years of doing that and I just thought, “If I do that again I’m going to die!” It just seemed so boring to me and I didn’t feel like I would…I don’t know, I didn’t think I’d get anywhere and all I wanted to do was talk to other people. So it just really came out of this physical need to be out in the world among other people talking to other people. And then I love writing and I always want to be writing and I always am thinking about writing and so that sort of naturally happened, that what I was writing came out of those experiences of being with people. I started recording and transcribing. So just, it wasn’t a plan or anything. It was just a, “I can’t do this. I can’t sit at the computer. It’s just, there’s nothing there for me.”
EW: Well, with How Should a Person Be? I think a lot of people in the press kind of conflated the fictional elements of it with the real elements of it and some people called it a memoir and the line between real and fictional was blurred for a lot of people and, I guess, misunderstood by a lot of people. Did you find that people find that people made assumptions about you or your friends that you wrote about in the book?
SH: Yeah, I think that the main assumption is that I’m a narcissist and that the book is a narcissistic undertaking, which I don’t feel like it is. And so that was, I think, the main assumption: a shallow, silly, vain person. I mean, maybe I am, but nobody could know that without knowing me. To suspect that from reading the books, yeah, I think that was…I was creating a character that had a lot of flaws and had a lot of problems, therefore was asking this question, “How should a person be?” I mean, the person who’s asking that question is not the person who’s perfect, who’s great, who knows what they’re doing, and who’s doing things well.
EW: Do you think that experience kind of turned you off from writing about yourself and your friends in a conscious way or subconscious way?
SH: It sort of turned me off from the experience of writing a little bit. I mean, I’m writing now, but for a while I was just like, “What’s the point if everything is going to be received in such a boring—like, in such a banal way?” Like not as art, but as just yourself. Why not then just be a self? Why bother writing? Why bother making something? And I don’t feel like that anymore, but I did feel like that for probably about a year.
QAM: To kind of go back to what you were saying about after writing How Should a Person Be? sort of felt it wasn’t worth or maybe not productive to write about that kind of thing and you just published—
SH: Or to write at all.
QAM: Yeah, exactly! And you just published a piece in n+1 that was excerpts from your diary and so maybe could you talk about why you decided to go back into that sort of true-to-life or based-on-your-own-life form of writing for that piece?
SH: Well I didn’t think that that was a piece that I was going to end up publishing in n+1. I was just playing around for myself. Like, I have hundreds and hundreds of pages of journals just, you know, the way people write journals for themselves and I was curious to see what…like if you write for five or six years, you have this sense like maybe you’ve evolved and changed. But I would look back from the journals from five or six years ago and they seemed so similar to the journal that I wrote yesterday and I started to wonder is there some kind of—I thought if I alphabetized them, will I see that the same sentence appears ten times, or a very similar sentence appears ten times. I was just kind of curious to see how much repetition there was, how little change there actually was, like trying to impose this kind of scientific eye on something that’s really not, you know, that’s not in the domain of science at all. It’s just your stupid diaries. But yeah, so I did it. So I put my journals in alphabetical order using Excel and I was kind of fascinated not reading it, but like how many times does it say, “You really shouldn’t” where I’m speaking to myself “you really shouldn’t” and it’s like twenty times that sentence appears. And then I thought, “Oh this should be a book.” And then I was like, “Oh, this is not going to be a very good book. [Laughs] This would be really boring and I also wouldn’t want to publish it.” But then I—I can’t remember how the idea came to make it like a short piece and send it to Mark Greif, but yeah, it sort of same out of my own curiosity with how repetitive are one’s thoughts, is one’s brain. Like how little change is there or how much change is there over time?
QAM: So a lot of what you’re writing about in How Should a Person Be? is friendship and sort of friend relationships and I guess in a lot of your work, including—I mean The Middle Stories is obviously very, very different—but you sort of treat the idea of romantic love in sort of this very blasé way, almost. So I guess I would be interested in hearing about how you think about writing about romantic relationships and love and if it’s something that you don’t want to write about because friendships, you think maybe, are more prominent or interesting, or if you do write about love and people just don’t see that.
SH: Well I wrote a novel really quickly after How Should a Person Be?, which is a love story between a man and a woman, and it is a love story. So I have written about it. I haven’t published that book. I’m still sort of thinking about it. But I don’t know, I just think probably in my twenties friendship felt deeper to me in some way and more permanent and more my own than romantic love. Like romantic love is something that so many stories have been told about and when you experience it for yourself, it’s always a matter of either like my experiences are aligning to the stories that I’ve heard or they’re not. Whereas with friendship, it just felt like something sort of original or something that I was experiencing in a way that felt very like…like it hadn’t been processed in my mind a million times, friendship. It felt more alive, it felt more exciting; the paths that my friends went down were more surprising to me. With love there’s always this feeling like “it’ll work out, or it’s not going to work out,” and we all know what those things mean. But with friendship, you don’t think like, “Well, this friendship will either work out or it won’t work out.” You don’t really have those—there’s not really such an easy lexicon around friendship. So I guess for my own mind to think about friendship, there was more absence to sort of name, maybe. But, I mean, I wasn’t thinking like that at the time, I’m just saying that now. And I didn’t really see my parents—my parents didn’t really have friends, so to me it really did feel like something new. Like something I’d never really witnessed as how do adults have friendships. And I think like the love in a friendship is as profound as the love in a romantic relationship. Maybe even more, because sex isn’t involved which kind of…I don’t know, which pulls you in weird directions, but I think like most friendships have a quality where your whole self is really involved. Sometimes you can be in a romantic relationship with people you don’t even like, you know, but it’s really hard, I think, as an adult, to choose a friend and stay with that friend when you don’t like the person. You know? I don’t know. At least I haven’t had that experience in friendships as an adult.
EW: So in a lot of the press that we read before this interview, we saw a lot of comparisons between you and Lena Dunham and while you expressed that you like Lena’s work a lot, did you, I don’t know, welcome this kind of constant comparison between her?
SH: Not really because it kind of flattens—it flattens anything to be compared over and over again to one other thing. I mean, if somebody had been comparing my book to Curb Your Enthusiasm like 100,000 times, like I wouldn’t have liked that either. It had nothing to do with the fact that it was Lena’s show. It was just like—
EW: Well I was thinking about that do you think that it’s kind of reductive? For critics and book reviewers to compare it to Lena Dunham just because there are very few narratives about young women out there and you wouldn’t necessarily compare a narrative about young men and young male friendship to some other story, but because your book was kind of similar to Lena’s work do you think that it was a kind of reductive comparison?
SH: Yeah, like kind of superficial maybe? I mean, not to say that they don’t have similar concerns, but those concerns are shared with so many works of art. Like, you know, just the story of growing up, basically: how do you grow up? And I did feel like there’s so many works of art by young women and the fact that my book and her—I don’t know if she feels like her show was compared to her book a lot, but my feeling was that my book was compared to her show a lot—made me feel like in some ways the reviewers are saying, “There’s like two works of art by young women right now.” And there’s just so many! And it felt awful to me. I feel like young women probably make more art than anybody, any other demographic, let’s say, and to narrow it in that way and also just to just…there’s not a lot of thought that goes into that comparison. There are so many books or there’s so many—like why wasn’t my book compared to Annie Hall for instance? Like that was a movie I thought about a lot. Or My Dinner with Andre. That was a movie I thought about a lot when I was writing the book. But for some reason the concerns of two young women, like myself—or Sheila—and Margaux, you would never think of comparing them, or that conversation, you would never think of comparing it to the conversation between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory even though it’s so much more similar. I mean, they actually use their same names the way Margaux’s name is Margaux, and Sheila’s name, or my name is Sheila, or Sheila’s name is my name. So I kind of thought it was lazy after a while. And also just the originality with which everyone would say, as though they were the first ones to say it.
QAM: I guess also when you’re interacting with female artists and writers, do you think about some of the more political implications of being a female artist or of trying to think about some feminist issues, and like does that ever affect you work? Do you think any more of these political aspects of being a young woman?
SH: Yeah, probably. I think that the stuff that I’m working on right now has more of a political aspect than my previous work—than Ticknor, than The Middle Stories—and I’ve always understood myself since I was 15 or 16 as a feminist and I’ve always cared a lot about women, at least since my early twenties. I don’t know, I just, I don’t want to overstate it or anything, but yeah, I think it’s an interesting time to be a female artist and I think that I’m glad that I’m a woman and I’m glad that I’m a woman writing right now and I think that something exciting is happening and I think that whenever I encounter Kate Zambreno or somebody like that, there’s a real spark and there’s a real sense that something is happening and that there’s a real conversation to be had. I definitely feel that and that’s not something that I would’ve predicted and that’s not something that I ever experienced around the time that Ticknor came out or around the time that The Middle Stories came out. I think something is going on and I feel like a part of it.
QAM: I think my favorite line in How Should a Person Be? is when you say that you’re tired of being—or Sheila says that she’s tired of being a good girlfriend and if he dumps me, it just gives me more time to be a genius.
SH: Yeah! [Laughs]
QAM: Which was a great line in itself and even better that it was said by a young woman because that’s something that so rarely is conveyed by young women fictional or real, and so maybe I want to talk about this idea of having a legacy or even just trying to attain genius or even have female genius role models plays into your thinking.
SH: Well I’d like there to be more role models for how to live a life apart from, “You get married and you have children.” I know women who won’t break up with their boyfriends because the alternate life seems so sordid. And it’s such a shame that there aren’t more models of a non-sordid alternative to that kind of path. So I’d like to see more of that in the world. In terms of legacy, I think I feel the way that anybody who writes feels, which is you want your books to be read forever. And I don’t have any desires apart from that in terms of legacy and I don’t think that the word “genius” really means anything to me anymore, but I’m glad that it doesn’t mean anything to me anymore.
QAM: Sort of an impossible pressure. Or an impossible concept
SH: It’s not even that it’s an impossible pressure; I just think that it’s a false category. I mean, anybody who’s created works of so-called genius has had a lot of help and has been in conversation with a lot of other incredibly intelligent people and has synthesized their ideas and the culture decides that this person’s ideas are particularly relevant. I mean it just doesn’t seem like a quality of a human being. It just seems like the quality of a character in a story that we tell about a human being.
QAM: You’ve found a lot of very different and creative ways to just maybe find excuses to talk to people and people that you wouldn’t otherwise meet or interact with necessarily, so maybe what do you think drives that? Is there a topic and you want to know what twenty-five people think about it or is it just sort of like thinking about how other people think about the world, how other people express themselves?
SH: I think doing interviews for The Believer, you know, I’d like to talk to this artist, I’d like to talk to John Currin, I’d like to talk to Sophie Calle, because I want to see how they make what they make. I’m interested in that process of making things and I want to know how other people make things that they, you know, and I also want in terms of transcribing and editing, I love seeing other people’s sentences—their spoken sentences—written down. I find that the differences between one person’s sentences and another person’s sentences to be really compelling and beautiful and just like a thing in nature like the way you look at trees or something. Some people love looking at different species of trees, like to me the same thing is when I look at somebody’s words written down that they said. So there’s something kind of exquisite about that. And, well in terms of this book Women in Clothes that I’m working on, which is a collaboration with Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton, the book’s coming out in the Fall and we have surveys asking women why they wear what they wear and we have like 500 surveys in and those surveys are making up a lot of the content of the book. So that was really what you’re talking about, like a subject. I wanted to know how people thought about self-presentation. That was not for the sentences. That was for the information.
EW: How did that project come about?
SH: Well, I went to the bookstore one day. I was like, “I’ve got to figure out how to dress.” And I wanted to, you know, I mean, most of my life I haven’t put too much thought into that. I went to a school that had uniforms and I just—it’s not something that I’ve ever been preoccupied with. I didn’t read fashion magazines or something. But I felt that at a certain point, I want to know that. I want to put some thought into that. So I went to the Indigo, which is a Canadian bookstore, like a Borders or, right? Barnes and Noble or something. Does Borders still exist?
EW: No, it’s gone.
SH: Barnes and Noble. That still exist?
EW: Yes. For now.
SH: So I went to this big store and I went to the fashion section and I was like, “I’m going to buy a book today where I can read how other women make decisions about what clothes to buy, how they know what they want, how they know why put that pair of pants with that shirt.” Like, I just wanted to know what women thought about so I could see like, “OK, here’s how stylish women think about what they wear! I can learn from that!” And I feel like I learn better from how people think than from looking at a magazine. So looking at a Vogue, I didn’t think would be the thing that would teach me, I just wanted to know how people thought. And there wasn’t any such book, and I thought, “Well, I’ll just send this survey around to my stylish friends and I’ll ask them these ten questions.” Like, “What are some dressing rules that you have for yourself?” And there was like ten questions like that and one of the people I sent it to was Heidi Julavitz who is an author, a great novelist, and my co-editor and The Believer. And she was like, “Are you doing anything with this?” And I think together we thought, “Well this could be a book.” And then Leanne Shapton who’s also a great writer and designer came on. So that’s sort of the genesis, that’s like how the book evolved. And we’re basically, like, this is it right here on the desk, this incredibly thickly bound pile of papers. We’re nearing the end. We’re going to be done in the next month. And it worked! I feel like my—I have now the book that I really wanted to read two years ago or a year and a half ago! So that’s kind of neat when you can, like, you want to read a book and then you write the book and then you have the book and it actually solved my problems and answered my questions. And it was fun to work in this new way and it’s a form that I’ve never tried before and I haven’t really seen before. And in terms of co-editing with Leanne and Heidi, that was the smoothest thing I could ever imagine. I just couldn’t believe how well we all worked together, how good the chemistry was. That was kind of magic.
QAM: After we talked about you being an interviewer, are there any questions or topics that you are always maybe surprised or disappointed that you don’t get to talk about when you’re being interviewed, like a question that you sort of think is obvious that nobody ever asks you?
SH: People always ask that question!
SH: No, I think in an interview, you’re more disappointed to hear the same question over again than you are thinking like, “Oh, if only you would ask me that question! Then I could talk and talk and talk!” I feel like it’s usually, “Ugh, why did you ask that question?”
QAM: Yeah, I guess mostly I was sort of just wondering are there is there an element of your writing that you think is obvious and all the critics sort of crowd around this like Lena Dunham thing or like “you write about your friends” thing, and then you’re like, “Do you not even see this whole other element that I was thinking about?”
SH: Yeah, of course! Of course, but I don’t need to talk about it in an interview. It’s enough for me to know it. I don’t feel this—and in some ways it’s actually kind of nice because then you have a certain degree of privacy. Like if every question was asked of you, then you’d have nothing for yourself, but the fact that there are these huge areas, like formal concerns or whatever usually, that people don’t ask about, like, I guess a person could be disappointed not to be asked about it, but why do you need to talk about it?
EW: Thank you so much for joining us for the interview.
SH: You’re welcome!
MD: Thank you for tuning in. The podcast is produced by Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, Elisa Wouk Almino, and Eric Wen. We’d also like to give a special thanks to Sheila Heti, Rich Beck, Dayna Tortorici, and Carla Blumencranz. And on this episode, we’d like to give a very special thanks to Queen Arsem-O’Malley who helped us out with the Sheila Heti interview in Toronto.