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Apocalypse Mom

The horror of Anna Quindlen.


Posted Monday, July 2, 2001

        Newsweek's Anna Quindlen gets it from both Andrew Sullivan and USA Today's Amy Holmes, who each take issue with Quindlen's column on Texas killer mom Andrea Yates. Quindlen's piece, billed self-parodyingly on Newsweek's cover--"Anna Quindlen on Every Mother's Struggle"--pivots on this uncheckable (but not necessarily dishonest!) passage:

Every mother I've asked about the Yates case has the same reaction. She's appalled; she's aghast. And then she gets this look. And the looks says that at some forbidden level she understands.
Sullivan (whose own mother suffered from postpartum depression) sees this as "glib posturing" and moral inanity, while Holmes spots the beginning of a "liberal feminist" attempt to turn Yates into "a casualty in the psychological war of modern motherhood."

        Was this really one of Quindlen's worst columns, as Sullivan contends? I'd say no. True, Quindlen's Yates effort was suffused with a preening, smugly democratic compassion--in this case, self-compassion, as if Quindlen deserves our support because she's successfully endured the struggles of being a happily married suburban woman with several children. But hey, it's an Anna Quindlen column! Here, at least, she has a small, if banal, point to make, which is that being a mother can really be a gigantic pain. The Yates tragedy is surely an appropriate moment to remember this truth! (Quindlen, characteristically, asks us to appreciate her humdrum apercu as if it were a rich, subversive irony.)

        Quindlen goes further, of course, casting blame on the way today's mothers are cut off (in sociologist Jessie Bernard's words) "from the easy help of others in an isolated household." This isn't a fatuous point either--evolutionary psychologists, for example, also argue that women, whose brains evolved in a more communal hunter-gatherer setting, tend to get depressed in today's isolated households. Again, the Yates case may not be the best example, since something else was clearly going on there. (Holmes also argues that Yates was, in fact, "surrounded by close relatives.")

        But Quindlen goes even further, blaming what she calls an "insidious cult of motherhood," supposedly "summed up" by a sampler Quindlen once saw on a doctor's wall. (It read: "God could not be everywhere so he made mothers.")

        This really is fatuous. After all, what's more prevalent in today's culture--syrupy sampler sentiments or movies like Erin Brockovich (and columns like Anna Quindlen's ) that sympathetically portray the gritty, diaper-changing reality of motherhood? Even if the samplers were plastered everywhere, it's pretty absurd to think that Yates did what she did as a protest against the "hideous sugarcoating" of motherhood. The "insidious cult" is mainly a prop designed to let Quindlen finish her column and cash her paycheck.

        More problematic is Quindlen's trademark I'm-a-mother-and-you're-not pose. If you don't share those secret "forbidden" looks in the maternal sorority, Quindlen implies, you just don't understand the "horror":

Yap, yap, yap, the world says. How could anyone do that to her children?
Motherhood is to Quindlen what Vietnam is to Sen. Bob Kerrey's defenders. If you haven't been there--Motherhood is hell!--you can't really comprehend the actions of anyone who has.

        Hmmm. I don't think this argument can just be dismissed. I accept that there are life experiences that fundamentally alter one's perspective in ways that even the most empathetic outsider can't fully understand. War is presumably one of them; so is having a close friend or relative die. Motherhood may be another. I've argued that many writers--e.g., female writers--get things wrong because they don't understand what it's like to be a normal, sex-addled man, so I can't very well deny Quindlen her argument that some people (e.g., men) don't understand what it's like to be a mom. And Quindlen (unlike Kerrey's defenders) doesn't really argue that outsiders are incapable of reaching any valid moral judgment about Yates' actions.

        Three points, though:

        1) Quindlen is too much a feminist sampler-embroiderer to get into the real horror of suburban motherhood, which surely isn't the oppression of having to answer the phone when the baby is barfing, but rather the twisted emotional investments and manipulations undertaken in this confining hothouse by both mothers and children.

        2) It's OK to whine about suburban isolation, but foolish to pretend that the old arrangements didn't have their dark side too. If Quindlen thinks that today "occasionally you lock yourself in the bathroom just to be alone," she's lucky she didn't experience the oppressive nosiness of the old-style extended-family household.

        3) One imagines how Quindlen would react to a man who made the equivalent I've-been-there argument, in, say, a newsmagazine's coverage of the O.J. Simpson case. Here's Chris Rock on Every Divorced Man's Struggle!

You got to think about O.J.'s situation: $25,000 a month [in alimony], another man driving around in his car, fucking his wife, in a house he's still paying the mortgage on! Now, I'm not saying he should have killed her. But I understand.
The difference, of course, is that Rock's schtick (which I found offensive when I first heard it) is a good deal more apposite than Quindlen's. Nicole Brown Simpson was pretty obviously the victim of unmediated jealous male rage of the sort Rock describes, while Andrea Yates' kids were clearly not in anything but a tangential sense the victims of maternal overwork. The O.J. case isn't incomprehensible, or a mystery. The Yates case is both.

        Note to Quindlen: Don't worry, your kids wanted to kill you too!

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Copyright 2001 Mickey Kaus.

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