Joelle Fraser is a memiorist and (soon to be) novelist. She has been published by Random House and Counterpoint Press to critical acclaim. She is also my editor. This interview will cover her first book, “The Territory of Men.” The Territory of Men follows a young Joelle as her mother bounces from man to man to man. On the surface, this is her mother’s search for enlightenment and equality but, in my opinion, it is also the story of a woman looking for a man to impose identity on her. The book plays on the tensions between women’s lib, the appeal of bad men and childhood.
I mean this in the most positive possible way, but reading your book disquieted me. The reason, I think, why your book had this effect on me has to do with my continuing and, as yet largely unsuccessful, quest to figure out what second wave feminism means. Perhaps even more fundamentally, it disturbed me because I think your memoir was a lot more honest than is customary in the gender relations discussion.
Second wave feminism, the women’s lib to which your mother subscribed, strikes me as a type of advocacy rather than a philosophical system. That’s not an attack. Indeed, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, even the ancient movement to replace divine right of kings with rule of law – all of these wonderful things, for all their virtues, prioritized reaching a certain conclusion over objectively searching for truth. So, while advocacy is not bad, and is often good, it is not really what I want to discuss. What I found so interesting about your book is that you seemed to recognize this and prioritize truth over what you “should” believe. This honesty is why I decided to send a letter.
I feel like I have a firm grasp on first wave feminism. I get the suffragettes, I get the equal pay for equal work movement, but I can’t honestly say I understand what’s been happening in the feminist movement since the late 60’s. The first question in your memoir’s index was whether or not your mother was a liberated woman. On one hand, she walked around naked, did hippy things and left her man whenever things got too bad. On the other hand, I always had the feeling that your mother didn’t really have her own, independent identity, that your dads were attempts to impose an outside identity on her and, to a lesser extent, you as well. Is that liberation? I honestly don’t know.
Then there’s the sexuality. I know that there are many good reasons to assume male and female sexuality are the same. I know that equal treatment is desirable, but what I don’t know is that there isn’t a set of fundamental differences between men and women. Second wave feminism’s silence on this matter confuses the living hell out of me. Your book brought a lot of these unaswered questions to the fore in my mind. When you saw the flasher in the park, when your step dad inappropriately rubbed you while you stood on jungle-gym bars – these experiences were clearly very unpleasant for you. I suspect the vast majority of women would feel the same. However, flip the genders and things get very … different. A man pops out of the woods and shows you his wang, that’s scary. A woman pops out of the woods and shows me her bush, I either laugh or start looking for the candid cameras. A man groping a teenaged girl on the parallel bars is shame wrapped in disgrace wrapped in terror. A woman gropes a teenaged boy on the parallel bars and, at least some of the time, that’s the braggiest cafeteria gossip of the school year.
How much of this difference is socialization? The fact that young women are brought up to believe male initiated sexuality is dirty? How much of it is the fact that young men are brought up to believe female initiated sexuality is clean? How much is the virgin-whore dichotomy? How much is the biology? How much simply boils down to the fact that a man making a baby with a woman he doesn’t like takes 15 nearly risk-free minutes while a woman making a baby with a man she doesn’t like requires 9 months of much more dangerous physical transformation? I know how the answers feel to me, but I don’t know how they feel to you. What I really don’t know, what I’m really hoping to learn, is what the answers to these questions mean for gender relations.
I don’t know how much this is tied up in my gender, but I probably spend more time thinking about, managing and grabbing for power than any other social activity. I don’t mean this in the sense of dominating people – at least, not usually. I do mean it in the sense of always wanting to matter as much as I can. My books and this blog are attempts to extend my reach. My job is a means toward greater independence and more respect. My friendships are at least partially about building a mutually beneficial influence network. When I have nightmares, the monster is usually my own weakness. When I daydream, I imagine reaching far and wide, using my influence to change lives. If you want to make me squirm, put me at the bottom of a totem pole and make sure nobody overhead ever listens.
It doesn’t seem to work that way for you. In your book, you describe wanting to be carried away. You describe wanting a man to bend you to his will. You describe the feeling of emptiness that comes over your family home when there’s not a man around to impose his personality on the place. These things you describe wanting, they sound like hell to me. What is the appeal? Perhaps more pertinent, what do you hope to avoid by ceding power to men?
Towards the end of “The Territory of Men,” you described a young man in Hawaii. He’s got a fresh tattoo and recently gave his girlfriend a fat lip. He smokes a lot of weed. He has no future. You find him irresistible and have what seems like, from the description, some pretty awful sex. Later in the book you described a rich man with lots of women on the side. You predict he will be casting you aside when you become inconvenient. You never expect him to open up, to trust you. You find him irresistible and have what seems like, from the description, significantly better sex. Neither of these men were up to any good, and yet you seemed magnetically drawn to them.
I wonder why.
There’s a personality cluster called the Dark Triad – psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavelliansim. Dark Triad people tend to be difficult to work with, anti-social and, when male, very well sexed. I thought of this when I read about your attraction to guys who have fresh tattoos, might hit you, smoke weed and aren’t going anywhere in life. I read this and connected it with two different parts of the book. First, where you described stepping out of safety and into an all-male prison riot. Second, where your cousin Karyn stayed with the man who ultimately killed her. This desire to feel power, to feel taken away. This allure, I don’t understand.
I ask as a man who has seen this tendency in action more times than I can count. If I’m comforting and respectful right off the bat to a woman I like, I’m 100% going to get friend zoned. However, if I give the impression I might knock her up and then flee to Bolivia, suddenly I’m intriguing. If I hold doors and put her mind at ease, she’s going to assume I’m willing to support her while she looks for her next boyfriend. If I humiliate her a little bit and act disinterested, I’m probably going to get some tongue when I drop her off at home. Asking and observing my guy friends, I’m far from the only one who has this experience. So what is it? Why do women, during the initial stages of attraction, seemingly want to be treated like shit? It makes me wonder if the Dark Triad’s power isn’t some sort of death wish.
As someone who knows the attractive power of danger, violence and heavily tattooed beach stoners, how does this process feel to you? More the the point, how do you want your son to deal with the Dark Triad when he gets old enough to date? How should he contend with the death wish?