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Anna Quindlen

Anna Quindlen, Public and Private, Part II

VTR Date: April 22, 1991

Guest: Quindlen, Anna


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Anna Quindlen
Title: “Anna Quindlen: Public and Private”, Part II
VTR: 4/22/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND…and I want to start this program just as I did our last program by noting that my guest today once reported that press pundit James Reston had bemoaned the fact of a newspaper strike many years ago by asking: “How can I know what I think until I read what I write?”

By which standard Anna Quindlen must be very certain of herself by now. For over the years she has written 3 different columns for The New York Times – the best known being “Life in the 30’s” – her 30’s of course – and now her “Public and Private”, compelling excursions into both of life’s realms. Her novel “Object Lessons” has just been published by Random House. Read it. As you would expect if your read Anna Quindlen regularly: it’s an absolute delight.

And it’s a delight to have you back here again, Ms. Quindlen. We talked about lots of things, not cabbages and not kings…well kings to a certain extent…

Quindlen: Kings…

Heffner: …we ended up talking about the press and I want to go back to it. I wondered what you thought when you read this paragraph: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on, knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of non-fiction writing learns, when the article or book appears, his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments; the more pompous talk about freedom of speech, and the public’s right to know; the least talented talk about art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living”. Now…of course that was Janet Malcolm…

Quindlen: Janet Malcolm.

Heffner: …about journalism and journalists in America and I wonder what our response was to that when you read it?

Quindlen: Oh, well I once wrote a column about feeling like I was an emotional hit-and-run driver because of the kind of copy that I wrote. I would go into people’s lives at the very worst time…I mean I, I recalled spending an afternoon with Julie Patz on the fifth anniversary of the disappearance of her son, Etan, who’s probably the best known missing little boy in America, only he’s not a little boy anymore. And, and feeling so emotionally involved and sitting there in tears half the time, talking to her and then walking away, and writing and thinking in six or eight or ten months later, Julie’s still there waiting…I’ve gone on to ten or 12 other stories and Julie’s still there waiting. And I think that if you’re really a human being you never get over that feeling, you never get over the feeling that you cover the policeman’s funeral, and you walk away and ten years later there’s still a hole in his mother’s heart. The best that you can hope for is that somehow you’ve enlarged human understanding enough and I will call it art, okay, even if it makes me seem like one of the stupidest…you, you’ve made somebody else, for a minute, feel that hole in the heart and empathize with another human being…that, that you’ve connected people in some way. But you never get over that feeling of…that you’re somehow doing something wrong. In fact it was…people used to say to me about “Life in the 30’s”…”Aren’t you uncomfortable with revealing so much of yourself?”…well, Lord, at least when I was doing that I was the only one that I was revealing…I was the only one whose emotions I was hitting and running…Hmmm, I think that if I ever lost that feeling that I was coming into people’s lives and leaving them with the lives and going off with the one-time story, I would think then it was time to get out of the business.

Heffner: Now that means you agree with this paragraph?

Quindlen: Yes.

Heffner: Or that means that you don’t?

Quindlen: Oh, I agree with that paragraph.

Heffner: Then what was the fuss about at the time that Janet Malcolm wrote this…what was the fuss about on the part of your fellow journalists?

Quindlen: Well, I think that Janet Malcolm…when…first of all there’s a lot of different issues that surround, for example, the, the case with the psycho…the psychiatrist who says that she changed his quotes around, paraphrased…and so on and so forth…but, also, I think that there was some sort of effort to show that Joe McGinnis improperly insinuated himself with Jeffrey McDonald, who he wrote about in “Fatal Vision”, that he made certain representations or promises to him. I have never done that with a subject and I don’t think any good reporter does. I mean people say to you all the time, “Is this going to be a positive piece?” Well, I mean you’re a fool if you say “yes”…you only say, “Well, I don’t know what this piece is going to say until I’m finished reporting it”. Or…

Heffner: But now…wait a minute, wait a minute…let, let me just ask you whether that’s thoroughly a forthcoming response.

Quindlen: Well…I mean…it’s, it’s not any less forthcoming that, than saying, “Yes, it’s going to be a positive piece” and then getting back and finding out that you can’t write something entirely positive…very few pieces are entirely positive and very few…more and more are entirely negative I guess you’d say. The fact is I don’t know what I’m going to write until I sit down to write something. And…but I don’t make deals with people I interview, unless they’re deals again that will not affect the reader. For example, if someone wants to tell me about an illegal abortion and says “I’ve never told my family about this, so would it be alright if you only used my first name?” And I know their first name and their last name, and know that they’re a real person and can tell by the way that they tell me about this that it really happened. I don’t have any hesitancy with making that sort of agreement, but an agreement in which you suggest to a subject of a book that you are going to write a, a positive portrayal of the fact that they’ve been railroaded into being accused of killing their entire family is not an agreement that I’d ever enter into, and I don’t know what sort of agreement Joe McGinnis entered into.

Heffner: What, what do you tell your good friends…what will you tell your children about heir relationship with the press…stay away?

Quindlen: No. I would never tell them “stay away”. I would say, “Don’t say anything to a reporter that you don’t want to see in black and white on the pages of a newspaper the next day”. It’s amazing…I can remember being 19 years old and interviewing a New York City politician who, who had a great deal of experience in the field…now maybe it was because I was very young, but I went back and I wrote the story, and he had said some very silly things, and the next day he said, “I had no idea she was writing them down”. Well, I don’t know whether he thought that I was doodling in that notebook or, or writing sonnets, or, or what it was. The thing that you realize, really early on in this business, is that lots of people who aren’t accustomed to dealing with the press, have a difficult time making the metal leap between having a conversation with you while you’re writing it in a notebook, and seeing it in the paper the next day. That’s why you have to be vigilant on some of their behalf. I’ll give you a good example. It is not…

Heffner: Really? You the reporter have to be vigilant on behalf of the person you’re interviewing?

Quindlen: Sometimes, sometimes…and let me tell you why.

Heffner: Sure.

Quindlen: It’s not uncommon for me to go into certain neighborhoods and to talk to kids, and to talk to kids about drug use, for example. So I’m sitting with a 12 year old and a 13 year old and they’re talking to me about how they’ve tried crack, but they don’t use it too much, but sometimes they’ll but it for friends of theirs and take it up to a guy who’s 18 years old, who sells it up on the boulevard and so on and so forth. And when we finish talking they’re more than happy to spell out for me how their name is spelled. I don’t believe a 12 year old or a 13 year old can give informed consent to me…I don’t believe they really understand what they’re doing. I don’t believe that they understand what it’s going to be like when that shows up in the pages of The New York Times and the principal of their school maybe reads it. So I am likely, if a 12 year old gives me his name and tells me all the particulars of his drug and his illegal activities not to use his full name. Maybe just to use his first name, and where he lives. That sort of thing. I judge on a case-by-case basis whether somebody’s given me informed consent.

Heffner: But the question of informed consent is not just the matter of 12 year olds or 14 year olds, or 18 year olds. It’s a matter of 50 year olds, too.

Quindlen: Right.

Heffner: And are you not as generous, would you not be as generous with someone who is equally naïve, who really didn’t know what in the world informed consent means in the first place, and didn’t know that you weren’t, just because you are as nice as you are, a nice person, talking about an important matter.

Quindlen: Well, let me tell you what my experience has been. My experience has been most 50 year olds take care of themselves. For example, 12 year olds and 13 year olds uniformly are happy to give me their names. I’d say that if I’m doing street reporting and I’m talking to 50 year olds, roughly half to 2/3 of them don’t want to give me their names because, again, they’ve thought this through a little more that a 12 or a 13 year old. And, and some of them who do give me their names will, on occasion, say something spectacularly stupid that opens them up…if it appears in the paper…to disapprobation. I make that decision on a case-by-case basis depending on what the story is going to say, but in general I tend to think that most adults can take care of themselves and I’ve seen them do it time after time.

Heffner: You know, I’ve been reading Anna Quindlen for many years now, and I know that you have a great personal concern for privacy…

Quindlen: Right.

Heffner: I know from what you’ve written about…well, rape victims. I know from what you’ve written about abortion, from what you’ve written about birth control, etc. that you do have a very special concern for, for privacy. Does the press, generally?

Quindlen: I can’t talk about the press generally, I can talk about my colleagues. Most of my colleagues do. Most of my colleagues do have a great respect for peoples’ privacy.

Heffner: Then how do you account for the fact, and I think it’s a fact, that most of us on the outside, most of us non-journalists…not thinking just of The New York Times…certainly not…but feel generally when we’re, let’s say, at least, informed enough to understand what informed consent means…leery about the press and the way it does invade our privacy.

Quindlen: Well, first of all, because like any other business, we have all kinds of reporters.

Heffner: Fair enough.

Quindlen: We have all kinds of reporters in my own shop, but more especially we have all kinds of reporters in all kinds of newspapers, all over the country. And they are more or less responsible, and I think that, that sometimes we tend to hear in, in big headlines about the ones who are less responsible. I meant the name Janet Cook still sticks in our mind as someone who fabricated an entire story and won herself a Pulitzer Prize until we found out about it. How common is that? Not common at all, but when it happens it’s, it’s so startling that anyone would try to do that, that it lingers with us. And I think the gross invasions to privacy linger with us, too. The reporters we hear about who go through people’s trash, for example. Now, have, have I every worked with anyone who went through someone’s trash?…no.

Heffner: But you watch television every night and you see the counterpart of that with the microphone thrust…

Quindlen: In the face…

Heffner: …to the face…

Quindlen: Right.

Heffner: “How did you feel when your baby burned to death this afternoon?” Do you think we’re, we’re going to come to the point where journalists, print and electronic alike do something, teach themselves something more about the nature of responsibility, privacy and the mixture of the two, the balance that you were talking about before in another area?

Quindlen: Well, I think we teach ourselves as we go along. I think, for example, that I know a good deal more about this now than I did 20 years ago when I first started in the business. The problem, of course, is that it’s…we’re…learning by doing, sometimes we can make mistakes. And sometimes those mistakes can really hurt ordinary people.

Heffner: Do you mind if I switch to another subject…I just can’t let time go by here without asking you about something that seems unrelated, but frequently, or recently there have been a number of instances on THE OPEN MINS when we’ve begun to talk about PC…politically correct…I don’t think you’ve addressed yourself to that subject as yet, unless I’ve missed…

Quindlen: No, I haven’t.

Heffner: …a column…what are you going to…

Quindlen: Although I get a lot of mail addressed to “PC Quindlen”…

Heffner: That’s…

Quindlen: And it arrives on my desk, I might add…

Heffner: That’s very funny. Now you mean your colleagues can identify you that way, too?

Quindlen: Well, I, I guess the mail…

Heffner: Or is there another…

Quindlen: …I guess the mailroom can.

Heffner: At least there’s no other Quindlen…

Quindlen: Right.

Heffner: …at The Times.

Quindlen: Right.

Heffner: Fair enough? What’s, what’s your own feeling about this involvement in the campuses about what is politically correct?

Quindlen: After New York magazine wrote a story about PC, Eric Foner, who’s a very distinguished professor at Columbia, wrote a very, very good letter to the editor in which he said that like a good deal of journalism, the magazine story had focused on the two extremes. The extreme of the person who is, is punished by so-called politically correct liberal thought and the extreme of, of those who promulgate such thought and that the vast majority of colleges falls somewhere in the middle. I couldn’t agree with him more from spending time on college campuses. I think the thing that keeps getting lost in the PC debate (chuckle) is that there are valid reasons to say, “Hey guys, there is a lot of racism out there, lot of nasty talk about Black and Latino people…we’re not going to allow that anymore, we’re going to speak up and say ‘No, no, no’.”. There was a lot of nasty talk about women, there was a lot of put-down talk about women, the professor who once told me that he didn’t teach Jane Austen because she was a second rate novelist, for example. And that, to some extent we’re going to redress that balance. Are we going to go over the line sometimes and say, “Hey let’s just study women novelists, not matter if there’s a novel by a male writer that falls within the area of study we have?” Sure, maybe sometimes we’re going to go over the line. I’ve got to tell you that from being out in the world, PC is not alive and well on the street. When college students get out of their colleges, they’re going to find out that, that it is still acceptable to make slurs against Blacks, against Women, that there’s still a lot of sexism and racism out there and that most of the operative thought is promulgated by White men, and so I tend to think that if during four years they’re exposed disproportionately to minority viewpoints, that they will probably survive and may even thrive because of it.

Heffner: Now wait a minute. I’ve got to pick up this business about Jane Austen…you mean if I were to say to you on the campus, “Jane Austen is a second rate novelist”, you would say…what? You would, you would…

Quindlen: I would disagree with you.

Heffner: You would disagree with me?

Quindlen: And I would say that your curriculum is not representative of great books unless it includes PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.

Heffner: Fine, but would you, would you put me in a category other than “He doesn’t choose his books right. He doesn’t recognize what’s good literature?”

Quindlen: It would depend on how much else you went on to say…

Heffner: Aha…

Quindlen: …I mean if you indicated to me that you thought a gyno-centric approach to literature did not expand human consciousness in any way, what that would translate to me as is that you’re a sexist who doesn’t believe that women can write great books, and that you’re dismissing half of your students out of hand. And under those circumstances I probably wouldn’t take any more courses from you because I’m not sure I’d think I had anything to learn from you.

Heffner: And you wouldn’t. But…let’s take what you just said. Isn’t that more likely to be said by those who are burning with, ardent about the male/female relationship from another direction? Women who identify themselves as arch-feminists and who think in terms, not of literature, but of sexual division, more than anything else. Perhaps because they feel that the other side has prevailed for ever and ever and ever. But isn’t that example that you’ve given more likely to come from the other side of the fence?

Quindlen: Well…I…

Heffner: Isn’t this more likely the, the, the dismissal of an author because he or she has a pro- or an anti-so-called feminist approach, more likely to come from people who are somewhat defensive about the posture they’ve had to occupy?

Quindlen: No, you see, I think that’s a central fallacy. I think there’s been dismissals of authors and points of view and, a variety of view points for a long time that’s come from the Conservative side of the fence. I just think we didn’t take note of it because it’s a prevailing ethic. I really do.

Heffner: Well, there’s no question but that’s what Eric felt in his response.

Quindlen: Right. I think it’s…I think now…maybe we’ve swung too far. Look, this is all a dialectic, working it out as we go along is all a dialectic. Our…we’re probably in antithesis now and we have not yet gotten to synthesis…where everybody calms down a little bit. But I think there are genuine reasons why people began to feel this way, began to feel that their history and their literature was not reflected in college curriculums or on college campuses. Anything that abridges freedom of speech, I’m opposed to. Okay, I was very interested to see that when, when that student was kicked out of Brown for what…for whatever he was kicked out for…that the President of Brown tried to make a clear distinction…he was, he was sent from the University for “behavior and not for speech”. I think he was cutting it a little close there. It sounded to me like, like it was objectionable speech, that we were objecting to there. I am in favor of absolute free speech because I feel that the price that you pay for the free exchange of ideas is some objectionable speech. But I am so in favor of, of saying to…in the classroom…hey, how come this is not reflected…you know, how come, how come we don’t know about the role of women in World War I, or the role of women in World War II? And I don’t have any hesitancy about saying that even if it’s going to be seen as politically correct.

Heffner: Well, talking about women…and we were…let’s see, where is that…”The Room of Your Mother Unarmed”…

Quindlen: Right.

Heffner: I’ve, I’ve got to ask you about that. You, you quoted Dorothy Thompson after World War II, writing disarmament…”You cannot talk to the mothers with planes and atomic bombs”, she wrote, “You must come into the room of your mother unarmed”.

Quindlen: Right.

Heffner: Still feel that way?

Quindlen: Sure.

Heffner: Fell that that’s such a…an absolutely…I mean you, your write that after you quote “The Gender Gap”, after you refer to “The Gender Gap” in the, in the question of approval or disapproval of the Gulf War.

Quindlen: Right. There was a statistical gender gap of some significance.

Heffner: What then, would that lead you to want to see happen in American politics?

Quindlen: Well, the obvious answer is more women…but it’s interesting because we get into a circular situation here. Which is that when I talk to women about running for political office, what they say to me is “No self-respecting woman would be crazy enough to want to do it the way it needs to be done nowadays”. No self-respecting woman would want to be crazy enough to hold her personal life up to that kind of scrutiny or her husband’s personal life, after 1984, or to have to raise that kind of money, or more important to a lot of them, to have to work those kind of hours. For example, you know the women that I know who are in their 30s, which is a good time to get started in politics…a lot of them have small children and the kind of hours that politics require at this point would require that they essentially cede the role of mother and they’re not willing to do that. So I think we have a real thorny problem here in terms of bringing women into politics and I’m not sure exactly how we go about getting passed it.

Heffner: I, I’m convinced that when you wrote what you did in “The Shadow of War” back in January ’91, you weren’t so much worried about women coming into, into politics, but the attitudes of women…what was reflected when Dorothy Thompson said “you must come into the room of your mother unarmed”. What do you see happening to that notion…you must not come into the room of your father…ah, you must come into the room of your father unarmed…do you thing that, that the younger fathers, and you have a young family, you have young children…do you think they feel so differently? Do you think they don’t ask themselves the question that you raised at the time of the Gulf War…would I want…would I be willing for my child…I remember that letter that, that quite poignant letter in The Times from a father who made the point that he was not willing for his son to be involved in the War. You really think there is that kind of sexual dichotomization?

Quindlen: I think it is, it is blurred, more blurred now. I think there are more men who are willing to reveal their emotional side, to deal with issues from the heart, for lack of a better term, and I, I think that there are more women who are willing to be…to say, “My heart tells me one thing, but my head tells me another thing and I’m going with my head”. I think that, that some of the macho/feminine lines have blurred but I still found over and over again when I was talking to people during the Gulf War that there were many more women who said “This is not worth is, I, I would not send my children” and there were many more men who seemed to feel, not necessarily that they would send their own children, but that this was something that we had to do, that you had to take the bully on…I think the statistics…I would not have mentioned the statistical gender gap that we found in our polls if I had not…discovered it anecdotally over and over again.

Heffner: Now does that mean that you feel that this is a culturally attributable phenomenon or that you think it’s just a fact of the difference between the sexes?

Quindlen: I don’t know. I tend…I tend to have some difficulty separating out those two things and because we all grow up in the culture…and so there are no controls for the women who have not been culturally affected or the men who have not been culturally affected by what society demands of, of the different genders. I mean I, I think the great shortcoming of the women’s movement in the first 20 years has been that it changed things just enough to make them different, but not enough to make them work. And one of the ways in which it didn’t change enough to make them…things enough to make the work is that men seem to be simultaneously expected to be like the old version of the guy, the old macho version of the guy and to be a nurturing warm guy, too. To be a participatory father, but still work 60 hours a week, but nobody can quite explain how you can do those two things at the same time. I think it changed our lives more for the better than it changed the lives of the men.

Heffner: Aren’t women also expected to work and to…I mean when they said “I don’t work, I’m at home”…ridiculous…

Quindlen: No, I don’t think that’s true any more. I think we’ve gotten a lot better about that. The fact of the matter is that we still are willing, to some extent, to accept women who are taking a year or two or three off when they have young children to raise them. But I, I think a man who is staying home to raise his kids is considered to be unemployed.

Heffner: Anna Quindlen, I don’t want to stop, but I’m told that I have to. Thank you so much for joining me again on THE OPEN MIND.

Quindlen: You’re welcome.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.