This article first appeared in the November/December 2002 issue.
In the early 1980s, soon after the publication of psychologist Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, Lauren Slater, later to become the author of such daringly autobiographical works as Prozac Diary and Lying, was an unfocused psychology graduate student at Harvard, struggling (and failing) to write fiction. She decided to take Gilligan’s lecture course in developmental psychology, a decision that changed her life. “Even in this large lecture hall, she created this sense of connection and intimate discovery,” recalls Slater. “Listening to her, I could suddenly see that my difficulty wasn’t that I had writer’s block or no talent or a lack of motivation, but that I was disconnected from myself and my own particular voice. Fiction, for me, was all about artifice, wearing masks, putting words into made-up characters’ mouths, and making up ‘pretend’ voices. I had spent much of my life talking in a ‘pretend’ voice, and I needed to say things straight, in a voice that was my very own.”
This dawning revelation of a long-suppressed private self simmering below the surface is exactly what legions of women felt while reading In a Different Voice by Gilligan, which today remains among the most influential feminist works ever written, as Zeitgiest-altering in its way as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Gilligan’s In a Different Voice has sold more than 750,000 copies (an astonishing feat for an academic book), and has been translated into 17 languages. After 20 years, it’s still a staple of virtually every gender-studies reading list in America.
Now, Gilligan, after coauthoring and coediting five books with her students, has written The Birth of Pleasure, which is, she says, the “culmination of a trajectory” begun with In a Different Voice. Where Gilligan previously called for a different voice, now she’s writing in a different voice. She draws on her research with adolescent girls and also her work with young boys and adult couples in therapy to highlight a path of resistance to the losses of voice and relationship that she documented in her previous work. With the Psyche and Cupid myth, which she uses to frame her discussion, and a range of plays and novels, poems and diaries, she places evidence drawn from contemporary research in a broad cultural and historical context to explore the psychology of love and the relationship of tragic love stories to patriarchal cultures. Again, she’s working in the tradition of clinical analysis and narrative research, rather than statistical analysis of numerical data. In joining research evidence and literary examples, The Birth of Pleasure is cut from the same cloth as In a Different Voice, even if the weave is more intricate, the structure more complex, the design more sweeping.
So, why is it that critics seem either to love or hate this book? There’s been virtually no neutral response. University of Cambridge psychologist Terri Apter in the Times Literary Supplement describes the book as a “thrilling new paradigm.” Robert Coles chose to run a long excerpt from the book in Doubletake under the title “A Radical Geography of Love.” In the Boston Globe, columnist Ellen Goodman calls it a “bold and boundary-breaking book.” Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, says that “Gilligan’s book does no less than reconfigure what it might mean to love and be loved, a revolutionary act in itself.”
And yet, other reviewers seem to be taking part in a public stoning, attacking her book with the ferocious glee of the Taliban cornering a heretic. “The Birth of Pleasure fails on nearly every level . . . a sticky paste of unproven assertion, anecdote-as-data and swaths of memoir,” writes journalist Emily Nussbaum in The New York Times. Reviewer Judith Warner of The Washington Post found the book “horribly dated. . . . It rambles . . . it meanders. . . . It is solipsistic . . . . I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.” “Smudgy thinking . . . poetic obscurantism . . . psychology gives way to mystagogy,” writes Margaret Talbot in The New Republic.
Controversy is one thing, and by no means a bad thing, for a writer with a history of challenging received opinion. But, the reaction to The Birth of Pleasure seems extreme, often veering from criticism to outright contempt. Catharine Stimpson, dean of graduate students at New York University, wonders in a recent article for the New York Observer (titled “Who’s Afraid of Carol Gilligan?”) why reviewers of The Birth of Pleasure, itself a “hopeful vision of happiness and love,” appear to be taking part in a “cultural blood sport,” whipping up “some of the most disparaging reviews I’ve ever seen.” What’s this orgy of journalistic abuse all about? Is the book really so terrible? Or is there something about the message in The Birth of Pleasure that makes it even more disturbing than In a Different Voice or Meeting at the Crossroads—both of which were also attacked, although not with the same venom. Or are we living in a different era in which the kind of feminism that Gilligan represents now seems out of synch with what today’s tough-minded, presumably long-since-liberated women want to read?
IN A DIFFERENT VOICE challenged theories of psychological development—based on studies of men and boys only—that, since the time of Aristotle, had assumed women were inferior to men in their capacity for moral reasoning and lacked a clear sense of self. Gilligan showed how women’s voices, once heard in their own right and with their own integrity, change the conversation by drawing attention to aspects of human experience that previously were dismissed or silenced. The different voice was a relational voice. In contrast to an ethic of justice linked to ideals of autonomy, independence, and self-sufficiency, Gilligan described an ethic of care linked to realities of relationship and enjoining responsiveness, responsibility, and carefulness rather than carelessness toward oneself and others. It was an ethic based on a more psychological understanding of the human world.
After the social explosiveness of ’70s feminism, Gilligan’s book didn’t initially seem all that radical. Low-key and nonpolemical, In a Different Voice didn’t catalog outrages against women or attack men or male supremacy. Yet it effectively challenged the supremacy of an intellectual tradition built on the idea that, literally, psychology is the study of man. The book struck an emotionally-resonant chord in a whole generation of women, who recognized themselves in its pages—their own vague and undefined sense of not being heard, of learning to put on their own “pretend” voices. “Gilligan’s book changed my view of feminism,” says Carol Hekman, professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington, who had already written her own book about feminism. “She challenged the idea that there is one, singular and absolute path to either philosophical or moral truth. In fact, her view of feminism challenges the entire Western tradition—you can’t get more revolutionary than that.”
The claim doesn’t seem entirely exaggerated. Gilligan’s work inspired a flood tide of research and scholarship in fields ranging from psychology to ethics, literature to law. Gilligan’s research with girls following the publication of In a Different Voice similarly led to a wide range of educational, artistic, and cultural projects designed to encourage girls’ voices and build on their psychological strengths. Primary and secondary schools throughout the country responded to Gilligan’s call to help girls resist conventions of femininity that were psychologically and intellectually costly (conventions that required girls to be nice, to silence an honest voice, and suppress vital parts of themselves) by developing more girl-friendly curricula and teaching methods. She’s often credited with being the spirit behind the 1994 Gender Equity in Education Act, which banned sex-role stereotyping and gender discrimination in the classroom. Her work also gave a big boost to the study of differences in the way men and women communicate, resulting in both serious scholarship and pop-psychology sensations like Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand and John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.
Not surprisingly, as one of the few academics who also has become a popular superstar, Gilligan has come in for numerous honors. The first Graham Professor of Gender Studies at Harvard and a recipient of the prestigious Heinz award for her contributions to understanding the human condition, she also was named “Woman of the Year by Ms. Magazine in 1984, and one of “America’s most influential people” by Time Magazine in 1996. In fact, Hollywood superstar Jane Fonda was so taken by Gilligan’s work that she donated $12.5 million to Harvard in Gilligan’s honor to create the Harvard Center for Gender and Education. The coauthor and editor of a series of books on gender and development over the past two decades, Gilligan initiated the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development, a program called Strengthening Healthy Resistance and Courage in Girls, and retreats for women educators and therapists called “Women Teaching Girls/Girls Teaching Women.” She also became artistic codirector of an all-woman theater company, The Company of Women, and founded the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology, Boys’ Development and the Culture of Manhood. Recently, after nearly 35 years at Harvard, Gilligan moved to New York to become University Professor at New York University, where she’s affiliated with the law school, the graduate school of arts and sciences, and the school of education.
In The Birth of Pleasure, her first solo-authored book since In a Different Voice, Gilligan shows how the tragic love story reflects a process of cultural initiation and is tied to an ancient agenda (think Abraham and Isaac, Agamemnon and Iphigenia) that even now is played out in the fears of connection that shadow the lives of men and women. Why, Gilligan asks—and sets out to answer—do we keep reliving this old story, generation after generation; why do we reinstate the contradiction between democracy and patriarchy that dates back to 5th-century Athens? Why are so many couples afraid to truly open themselves to each other? Why are there such walls of silence between men and women? Why do boys, at 4 or 5, begin to hide their vulnerability and cover up their feelings in order to become “real” boys? Why do girls, at 12 or 13, begin to conceal what they’re really thinking, stop “seeing what they see, knowing what they know,” and begin second-guessing themselves?
The short answer is that emotional truths and the ability to “say what we see, know what we know” go underground in the interests of the long-standing patriarchal order we call civilization. Gilligan defines feminism as the movement to end the age-old contradiction between democracy and patriarchy. Patriarchy, in her view, isn’t a battle between the sexes but a system that constrains both men and women; literally, it means a rule of fathers, separating some men from other men, fathers from sons, men from women, thus “introducing hierarchy in the midst of our most intimate relationships, between parents and children, between lovers.” The stifling constraints of patriarchy are passed on, generation to generation, and compromise our psychological development from early childhood, hobbling love, making pleasure dangerous, and enforcing taboos against truth-telling.
The Birth of Pleasure is reminiscent of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents—but with one striking difference. Where Freud sees tragedy as inescapable (symbolized for him by the Oedipus myth), Gilligan sees a history of psychologically driven resistance, as manifested in the myth of Psyche and Cupid—a myth that ends with the birth of a daughter named Pleasure. She observes that as patriarchy forces a break in intimate relationships, thus inhibiting love, so love holds the power to uproot patriarchy. People can, and do, resist society’s iron framework; they can find a true voice within themselves and heed what they know through experience.
The Birth of Pleasure isn’t an easy read. It’s a complex, idiosyncratic, many-chambered labyrinth of a book. The style is often elliptical, with sections linked together more by association than logical sequence. In fact, it may be that the book’s critical reception—both positive and negative—stems as much from its medium as its message. Catharine Stimpson suggests that Gilligan is bucking a literary trend; these days, people have grown suspicious of bold, intellectual leaps, preferring straightforward, linear argument, written in plain, muscular prose, and backed up with scads of numbers. The Birth of Pleasure is clearly not that kind of book.
Despite the initial hailstorm of attack, The Birth of Pleasure may well be considered, as the positive response suggests, as much a classic in the realm of psychology and social commentary as In a Different Voice. Though it’s too soon to have hard sales data, the book appears to be selling well—perhaps as well, or better, than In a Different Voice, when it first came out, and Vintage Press will soon publish a paperback version. Networker readers will have an opportunity to gauge their own response to Gilligan’s message when she delivers a keynote address based on The Birth of Pleasure at our annual Symposium next March in Washington, D.C.
In a recent conversation, Gilligan, no stranger to public controversy, seemed cheerfully philosophical about the polarized response to her new book. Looking elegant and youthful—with her long skirt slit up the side and silver bracelets—she seems to have more affinity with the world of art and theater than social science. She laughs often as she speaks and has a way of drawing out the people around her, inviting confidences that makes it only too easy for the interviewer to want to tell her about his own life story. In the following interview with Networker editor Richard Simon, she talks about some of the connections between her life and work that she hasn’t discussed in print before and offers her view of the historical transformation she believes we’re now undergoing. Throughout. she projects a calm certainty, seeing her work as part of “a quiet revolution in the human sciences” that holds the potential of changing our view of ourselves and our lives.
—Mary Sykes Wylie
Psychotherapy Networker: Here I’m sitting with the Tiger Woods of interviewing. Can you give me some pointers. How do you approach the people you interview in your own research?
Carol Gilligan: I approach them with a desire to learn from them or to discover with them what they know. Research is very different from therapy, in that therapy starts when someone arrives with a problem, a desire for help, a wish to sort out something. Research begins with the researcher’s question. So I begin by asking a question and then I listen—and the way of listening is key. How do you listen when you want to discover another person’s inner world, as opposed to figuring out where someone falls on your map of the world? In the research leading to In a Different Voice, I wanted to discover how people speak to themselves about themselves and about morality at a time when they’re facing an actual choice, meaning one in which they’ll have to live with the consequences of their decision. I was going to interview Harvard students—men facing the Vietnam draft—but then the draft ended and the Supreme Court legalized abortion, so I interviewed a diverse group of pregnant women who were considering abortion.
In the kind of discovery research I do, the relationship is critical. A woman once said to me: “Do you want to know what I think, or do you want to know what I really think?” How do you approach someone when you want to know what they really think? I think I have a good ear for the rehearsed story, and then I listen for the story under that story. I find that when I tell someone, “Here’s my question, this is why I’m here, this is what I’m interested in learning from this conversation,” and then listen as best I can to what they’re saying, I can ask almost anything in pursuing my question because the lines of the relationship are clear. The more I speak for myself, I think, the more they’re likely to do the same.
Here’s a good example. At the end of a five-year research project, I met with the girls who had participated to ask them how they wanted to be involved, publically, now that we were presenting our findings at conferences and preparing to publish a book. I was meeting with the girls in 9th grade, who had first been interviewed when they were 9. Their first response was, “We want you to tell them everything we said and we want our names in the book.” But then Tracey, imagining encountering her 9-year-old self in a book, says, “When we were 9, we were stupid.”
There are many things I could have said at that point; I could have paraphrased what she said, or repeated it back, or tried to reassure her by saying, “No, you weren’t stupid.” Instead, I said what I was thinking: “You know, it would never have occurred to me to use the word ‘stupid’ because what struck me most about you when you were 9 was how much you knew.” At which point, Tracey said: “I mean, when we were 9, we were honest.”
I’ve found that if I say what I’m really thinking and feeling, people are more likely to say what they really think and feel. The conversation becomes a real conversation.
PN: Isn’t trusting your own reactions in that way tricky for a researcher? How do you make sure that your own biases and assumptions don’t color the answers you get?
CG: That’s a good question, and it goes to the heart of how I think about research. I think of research as a relationship. If you stick to your list of questions no matter what the response, if you cover your own thoughts and reactions, then how will this kind of nonresponsive relationship color the answers you get? I don’t think there’s a psychologically or culturally neutral situation. If you say nothing, you leave prevailing cultural biases and assumptions in force, and the people you’re studying will have their own biases and assumptions about what you’re after. You could try to fool them by deceiving them, but I think people are pretty savvy in reading the human world. So I try to negotiate my relationship with people and for myself; I strive for a kind of Zenlike innocence, where I work from a genuine position of not knowing.
In The Birth of Pleasure, I write about a couple in which the husband is obsessed with whether his wife has had an affair. He says that his “ultimate nightmare” is “her in the arms of another man.” Now, I know the culture of male honor, and in this sense, I understand what he’s saying, but I also can think of worse nightmares. So I say: “Why is this the ultimate nightmare?” And he says, “I guess the ultimate nightmare, really, for me, was to never have the opportunity to show her how I really feel and to be a family man, to open my heart, and to love her.” I was taken completely by surprise. I never imagined this response, but it’s the moment that interests me most, when a gap opens between the “I” and the culture. The moment when a voice that has been held in silence suddenly speaks. What’s key here is that my question was a genuine question.
PN: What do you mean by a genuine question?
CG: Something I’m genuinely curious about, so in that sense it’s a real question, something I don’t know the answer to or even the range of possible responses—because I never would have anticipated the husband’s response. Sometimes, one question builds on another. Once I discovered how astutely girls can read the human world, I wondered can’t boys do this, too?
PN: Reading the hostile reviews of The Birth of Pleasure, you’d think that feminism isn’t only dead but has become almost a dirty word. One critic dismissed the kind of feminism you represent as “horribly dated,” and others have taken you to task for laying all our social ills at the feet of patriarchy.
CG: To me, it’s ironic to pronounce feminism dead at the point in history when women’s votes are determining the outcome of elections, when most American families no longer resemble the Dick-and-Jane patriarchal family, when more women are gaining an economic foothold, when feminism has opened a new conversation about domestic violence and sexual abuse, and when so many women worldwide have no effective voice and are living in poverty. I define feminism as the movement to end the contradiction between democracy and patriarchy, and I see us now as being in the midst of this struggle. Patriarchy means a hierarchy, a rule of priests in which the priest or hieros is father. It separates some men from other men, fathers from sons, and all men from women. Patriarchy isn’t dead—look at who runs the Fortune 500 companies and Congress—but it’s in trouble. Look at Enron and WorldCom, and the scandal in the Catholic Church and the FBI and CIA.
I say in my book that the most volatile moment in therapy is when people begin to envision the new. Then it’s very tempting to turn back, because at least the old is familiar, “I love my neurosis, I know the whole script.” So, given all the remarkable changes that began with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and have led to social and cultural shifts that are on the scale of the Protestant Reformation, it doesn’t surprise me that we’re now seeing something akin to the Counter-Reformation, and even the Inquisition.
PN: Let’s go back 20 years to the publication of In a Different Voice, which was for many people a landmark book that brought a feminist voice into the social sciences. How did it occur to you to write that book?
CG: At the time, I was in my thirties, had finished my Ph.D., and had no intention of going on in psychology. I was the mother of three small children, a member of a modern-dance troupe, an activist in the Civil Rights and the anti-war movements. My husband was a psychiatric resident and I taught part-time to make some money so I could have some help in the house. I had the opportunity to teach with Erik Erikson at Harvard in his course on the life cycle and then with Lawrence Kohlberg in his course on moral and political choice. In the course of teaching, I became interested in how people respond to actual situations of conflict and choice, and I started doing some research with a few graduate students, focusing on turning points in people’s lives, times when the “I” surfaces around the question of “What do I want to do?” and morality comes into play around the question “What should I do?” I interviewed people and I listened for a first-person voice and also for moral language, words like should and ought and good and bad and right and wrong.
In 1975, we moved from Newton to Brookline, and I stayed home that year to help my three young sons settle into a new school and neighborhood. I was interviewing pregnant women who were considering abortion, and I remember sitting at my kitchen table reading over the interview transcripts and suddenly hearing a difference between the terms of the public abortion debate (right to life vs. right to choice) and the women’s concerns about acting responsibly in relationships, because for many women, the abortion dilemma was a dilemma of relationship. Listening to these women, I heard a conception of self and of morality that differed from Erikson’s and Kohlberg’s theories.
I remember my friend Dora came in and I said to her, “I can see why these women don’t fit into Erikson’s or Kohlberg’s stages—they’re starting from connectedness rather than separateness. And Dora said, “That’s really interesting. Why don’t you write about it?” So I did. It was the first time I wrote something that wasn’t for school. The essay, “In a Different Voice: Women’s Conceptions of Self and of Morality” was published in the Harvard Educational Review in 1977. In a Different Voice came out in 1982.
PN: When did it first dawn on you that this book was going to have the sort of impact that it’s had?
CG: On the day I went to pick up the retyped manuscript from a woman who lived in a working-class neighborhood in Somerville. Harvard press had sent it to her, and when I arrived, she said that she hoped I didn’t mind, but she’d given it to her cousin upstairs to read and her cousin wanted to meet me. It was at that moment that it occurred to me that the audience for the book might be much wider than I had ever imagined.
What many people don’t know is that when the book first came out, it got very mixed reviews. Kirkus Reviews said, in effect, “Nothing new here.” The Times reviewed it, which was great, but the review was mostly lukewarm, except for one very strong, positive sentence, which then was widely quoted. Arthur Rosenthal, the director of Harvard University Press, made a brilliant publishing decision to bring it out very quickly in paperback and price it low so it could be a second course adoption. An editor at the press told me that what I wanted was slow, steady sales, which is what happened.
And then people I didn’t know began talking to me about the book. A woman working in a local store asked me, “Are you the woman who wrote that book?” and then said that I had explained her marriage; a Globe reporter stopped me on the street and said that I had explained his divorce. Many women have told me they remember where they were when they read the book, and how they felt suddenly that what they really thought or felt about things made sense. The book spoke to and also about a voice inside them that told them they were wrong or stupid or crazy; it challenged the legitimacy of that voice. So many women felt heard and able to speak in a new way. And the book also legitimized for men a voice that had been associated with what were seen as women’s weaknesses, but which I identified with human strengths.
PN: So what was it like to become revered suddenly as this feminist icon?
CG: I don’t see myself as an icon. I was very moved by the response to my book; it brought me into relationship with many people whom I otherwise would not have met. I also discovered that in becoming a public figure, I became a focus for all kinds of projections that had little to do with me. And then I became a focus of political attack, because In a Different Voice was seen as encouraging women to listen to their own voices—like the Soccer Moms in the 1996 election who didn’t vote with their Republican husbands.
What many people don’t know is that at each step along the way, my work has been both celebrated and contested. After In a Different Voice came out, a symposium was held at the next meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. Three leading women psychologists were on a panel organized to criticize my work. There was no voice of support, and I was to respond to my critics. The symposium was held in the ballroom. I felt I was being invited to the Star Chamber. After Meeting at the Crossroads, the book I wrote with Lyn Mikel Brown about our research with girls, I was attacked in cover stories in The Nation, The New Republic, and The Atlantic, two of which were entitled “Gilligan’s Island,” as if in working with girls, I had separated myself from reality.
PN: What were the main criticisms and how did you answer them?
CG: They had to do with my use of the word “different” and also with questions of method. I had said very clearly in In a Different Voice, that the “different voice I describe is identified not by gender but by theme.” My point was that including women changed the voice of the conversation, leading both women and men to hear themselves and one another differently. Including women shifted the paradigm—this was what I demonstrated in my book. Just as the girls’ research revealed girls’ resistance to an initiation into ways of seeing and speaking that made it hard for them to say what they saw or know what they knew through experience.
I think the response to my work was due to the fact that so much of what I said rang true. I remember Catherine McKinnon saying to me, “What I hate most about your work is that it’s true,” meaning women often do speak in the way I describe, which she saw as the result of women’s oppression. Psychologists criticized my research because I didn’t do statistical analysis, but my questions weren’t statistical questions—how much, how often, how many. As a colleague who studies language pointed out, to illustrate a difference, all you really need is one example.
My question was, given that the major theories of psychological development had been written on the assumption that man=human, what difference does it make to include women? What can be learned by listening to women and girls? And my writing offered an answer to those questions. But it was a little crazy-making for me to hear people describing the differences I heard and then arguing that there were no differences. Eleanor Maccoby subsequently apologized to me for this, but I remember her introducing the panel at SCRD by saying “A colleague, male of course, stopped me on the way to the ballroom and said ‘I’ll see you at the shoot-out at the OK Corral,'” which got a big laugh, and then she proceeded to read her paper, which basically said there were no sex differences.
PN: So that was the intellectual side of the controversy. But emotionally, how did you handle all this hubbub?
CG: You have to remember, I had been active in Civil Rights, in the anti-war protests, and in the women’s movement. I was a Swarthmore College graduate with a deep appreciation of the Quaker tradition of simplicity and a suspicion of conventional markers of success. I saw the controversy over my research in political terms, as a fight about a paradigm shift that had widespread implications. I also was embedded in relationships that sheltered me from the controversies of the academic world. I spent a lot of time with my children, my husband, and my parents, who were still alive at the time. It was a very different time. In June, when school got out, I’d take my kids and go to Martha’s Vineyard for the summer. I never worked in the summers. My identity didn’t center on my position at Harvard, which was very part-time for many years. I wasn’t invested in becoming a member of the Profession of Psychology. But psychology, small p, fascinates me—understanding the human world and how it works.
PN: In a Different Voice was a direct challenge to two extremely distinguished academics with whom you had worked very closely, Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg. How did they respond to having their work called into question.
CG: You want to know how the “fathers” responded? I had taught with each of them after finishing my PH.D. I respected their work enormously and learned from them—about the importance of placing life-history in history, about the necessity of talking about questions of value. I didn’t see myself as challenging them but challenging the paradigm or theoretical frame. This is where they didn’t agree with me. Larry and I taught together after In a Different Voice, and taught explicitly around our disagreement as to whether the differences introduced by women’s voices could be accommodated within his theoretical framework, or whether they implied a paradigm shift.
I used to tell women graduate students, half-seriously, that the role of slightly rebellious daughter was one of the better roles for women living in patriarchy. And as I loved my father, I felt very warmly toward both Erik and Larry. Larry wrote a blurb for my book. But if I had to paraphrase what they thought, I’d say: “I like her, she’s bright, she writes well, she’s fun to be with, and it’s important for women to study women. But change my theory—you’ve got to be kidding.”
And then, because my work implied a change in theory, there was a concerted effort to discount or refute that challenge, which Larry Kohlberg and his supporters were involved in. I remember hearing after the meeting of my tenure committee that Larry had represented the psychologists’ response to my work as entirely negative, which wasn’t true. He ignored the strongly positive review of In a Different Voice in Contemporary Psychology and the journal articles supporting my findings. To get tenure, you had to do work that changed the field and, clearly, I had done that. So I confronted Larry and, using his language, said it wasn’t fair—that I had done as much as he had done when he was tenured. He asked me what I wanted him to do (by this point, the dean had taken him off the review committee) and I said I wanted him to write a letter saying this and supporting my tenure, which he did. I think he had become too identified with his theory.
PN: In The Birth of Pleasure, you describe discovering your memories of pleasure with your mother and also some of the difficulties in your relationship at the time of your own adolescence. She seemed to be the primary bearer of cultural messages about femininity.
CG: My discovery that Anne Frank, when she edited her diary, omitted her descriptions of pleasure with her mother led me to ask myself how I had edited my memories of my relationship with my mother. What surprised me was how accessible my memories of pleasure with her were, once I found the key. It was a Proustian experience.
For Proust, the lost time that he recovered was a time in early childhood. For me, it was early adolescence. These are times of heightened risk in boys’ and girls’ development, and through my research, I came to connect this risk with the initiation into patriarchal gender codes that occurs earlier for boys than for girls. Proust saw his mother as carrying the burden for this initiation, and I saw my mother as doing the same.
Once I recalled my memories of pleasure with my mother, I could understand better the confusion I experienced when she’d shift from being in relationship with me to teaching me what I needed to do in order to have “relationships” in the world at large. There was one incident around In a Different Voice, when she spent an entire day reading galley proofs with me, which was so meaningful to me, especially given the substance of that book. We sat on the red sofa in my living room together, and then after we finished, she picked up one of the pillows and said, “You have to remember to fluff up these down pillows,” which I heard as a criticism of my housekeeping. So there it was, both sides of our relationship.
PN. So much of your work has been about voice and the psychological costs of feeling silenced. You’ve just described people taking issue with your voice. What was it like to have your own voice challenged in that way?
CG: The hardest times for me were not when people challenged what I said, but when I felt my voice was not heard. When people talk about me or my work in ways that have little or nothing to do with me or with what I’ve written, or when they speak about me as though I don’t know the first thing about research, I wonder what’s going on. For example, In a Different Voice isn’t a book about how all men differ from all women—I give examples of men using the “different voice” and of women speaking about rights and justice, and say clearly that I’m contrasting two ways of imagining self and relationship that leads to different ways of speaking about moral problems. My title is In a Different Voice, not “In a Woman’s Voice”—the question is different from what, and I contrasted women’s voices with what was then the voice of psychological theories. The danger, for me, lies in starting to doubt my own writing. Virginia Woolf writes about this danger for women writers, when the infection enters the sentence and you begin within your sentences to double-think yourself in anticipation of not being heard.
PN: Critics have either loved or hated The Birth of Pleasure. How do you understand the intensity of the reaction?
CG: Well, I’m writing about pleasure and also about leaving patriarchy, which are two fraught subjects. I link tragic love stories with the initiation into patriarchy and then show how the findings of contemporary research provide us with a map showing points of resistance and ways leading out of destructive cycles. It isn’t surprising to me that people might disagree with me or argue that the evidence I present doesn’t support my interpretation. What surprised me was the vehemence and the personal nature of the attacks, which had little to do with the argument of the book, but more with my past work or with the structure of the book, which was incomprehensible to some readers. But I was writing about dissociation, how to break through a wall that separates you from what you know, and I followed an associative method, because you can’t argue your way out of dissociation. The structure of the book is orchestral, or like a tapestry with different threads woven together to show a pattern. I wanted to recreate for the reader the journey I had taken in coming to see what I saw. My title, The Birth of Pleasure, reflects the importance of the research I did with girls in leading me to these insights (the Psyche myth that frames the book ends with the birth of a daughter named Pleasure) and also announces a paradigm shift—from a paradigm grounded in experiences of loss (The Birth of Tragedy) to one grounded in experiences of pleasure. One colleague speaking of her own experience in reading the book, said: “This book unsettles an adaptation,” which is what I intended.
PN: Over the past 20 years, lots of thinkers and practitioners have been trying to bring a feminist perspective to bear on therapy. What are you saying in The Birth of Pleasure that hasn’t been said before?
CG: What I can add to this very important conversation about therapy are findings from developmental research. What I think is especially relevant is the discovery that voices that can be clearly heard among young boys and preadolescent girls then become covered by other voices, so it’s difficult to remember accurately without actually hearing the voice that’s become dissociated from oneself or that’s being held in silence. The remembered voice is very different from the actual voice of times before dissociation sets in. A second contribution has to do with realizing the extent to which psychologists have read culture as nature, so that adaptations to patriarchal structures are taken as inevitable facts of human existence. Here my research is instructive because it highlights a resistance that isn’t ideologically driven but is like the immune system, a force for psychological health.
PN: You end The Birth of Pleasure by saying: “We have a map. We know the way.” What does that way look like?
CG: It’s a way of staying in relationship with the different parts of oneself, with others, and with the world. It means not giving up relationship, which is part of our birthright, for the sake of having “relationships.”And the key here is pleasure. It’s hard to fake pleasure, although perhaps for this reason, pleasure has gotten something of a bad name, becoming associated with license or irresponsibility rather than with joy and with freedom. Pursuit of happiness. It’s part of the Declaration of Independence. The loss of a voice grounded in experience, including experiences of pleasure, compromises love, but it also compromises democracy.
PN: I know that The Birth of Pleasure isn’t a clinical book, but is there any advice you’d offer therapists that might be helpful to their work with clients?
CG: I’d encourage them to listen for the untold story, which is often a story about pleasure. When I joined Terry Real as a cotherapist working with couples, I was struck by how often a story about pleasure lies underneath a story about loss. Anger at mothers—which is crucial to hear and respond to—is often closer to the surface; what often goes unnoticed are memories of pleasure. A man I call Dan was coruscating in his descriptions of his mother’s intrusive behavior, and it would have been easy to overlook his saying, almost in passing, “My mother and I were buddies, we were pals.”
I’d tell therapists to pay attention to resonance, because voice depends on resonance. We’re surrounded by cultural resonances that affect what can and can’t be said and heard. If a therapist wants to hear a voice that’s been ignored or discredited, he or she will have to create a resonance that signals the possibility of this voice being heard. We know this now with respect to trauma. The Birth of Pleasure does this for love.
PN: What’s particularly interesting for those of us who identify you with your research with girls and women is how much of your new book is about boys and men. I was especially struck by your statement, “Within a patriarchal society and culture, mother and son are a potentially revolutionary couple.”
CG: I speak from experience, as the mother of three sons. What’s revolutionary is this relationship. If sons stay in connection with mothers and mothers with sons, the patriarchal plot cannot go forward, because it depends on breaking this relationship. I know how often I felt pressured in the name of psychology or for the sake of my sons’ masculinity to separate myself from them or them from me, as if our knowing each other would stand in the way of their becoming men. It would stand in the way of their seeing the world through a patriarchal lens, which loses the interiority or subjectivity of women. Olga Silverstein has written very powerfully about the courage it takes to raise good men. And many of us have now done this, and the implications are revolutionary, calling for new ways of structuring both work and family life.
PN: So here’s my final question. How does The Birth of Pleasure reflect your own experience of marriage?
CG: I knew you’d get around to that. I write about my own dreams in the book because if something is true psychologically, it’s true for me, too. And the same is true with pleasure. Like many people of my generation, meaning those of us who married before all the rules changed, I’ve been in many marriages with the same person. When I think about marriage I think of the infant research, showing that relationships follow a tidal rhythm—finding and losing and finding again. So Jim and I will lose our experience of pleasure with each other, and then we’ll find it again, and it’s the finding that’s crucial. What’s important is not to get stuck in the loss, to resist the pull of tragic love stories. And then sometimes pleasure comes in unexpected ways. I remember Jim showing me the opening of his first book and my intense pleasure in reading it. He was describing his experience as a boy growing up in Nebraska, looking up at the night sky and seeing the Milky Way, and the writing was so exquisite and naked and emotionally true, it was the voice of the man I had fallen in love with, a voice I find irresistible. And there it was on the page in front of me.
“I see The Birth of Pleasure as a hopeful book. I hope it’s not foolishly optimistic. I wanted to encourage people to listen for the voice of pleasure in themselves and in others, to stay with the vulnerability of joy, and to cast a skeptical eye on tragic love stories.” Richard Simon
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.