Much discussion today of Rebecca Walker’s piece in the Daily Mail: How My Mother’s Fanatical Feminist Views Tore us Apart. Rebecca, daughter of Alice Walker (of the “Color Purple” and many other important feminist works) excoriates her mother in the Mail interview, done to promote (of course) her new book.
…my mother regards herself as a hugely maternal woman. Believing that women are suppressed, she has campaigned for their rights around the world and set up organisations to aid women abandoned in Africa – offering herself up as a mother figure.
But, while she has taken care of daughters all over the world and is hugely revered for her public work and service, my childhood tells a very different story. I came very low down in her priorities – after work, political integrity, self-fulfilment, friendships, spiritual life, fame and travel.
The publishing industry regularly proves right Freud’s theory about children’s murderous desires towards their parents. We have ooodles and ooodles of “tell-all” books written by the kids of the famous, in which they invariably “shatter the illusion” of the (usually same-sex) parent’s marvelous public persona. Folks never tire of buying the latest in the “Everyone-thought-Mum-was-God-but-to-me-and-my-pet-rabbit-she-was-Satan” genre, and Rebecca Walker offers us her version this spring. The hook, of course, is that Rebecca doesn’t just blame Alice — she blames feminism.
One of the standard tropes of what might be called “serpent’s tooth publishing” is to blame Mom or Dad’s poor parenting on an addiction. That addiction might be an eating disorder, or alcoholism, but it’s often an “addiction” to religion or ideology. Lots of kids of fundamentalist Christian parents have written of how their parents placed the church before the well-being of their children (Jesus Land is especially good). One likes to imagine the great book deal that Isaac would have gotten: “My Dad loved Yahweh More than Me, and Almost Stabbed Me to Prove It!” Publishers who have an axe to grind with the church (or Marxism, feminism, Hollywood, etc.) are always delighted to publish books that connect a parent’s failure to their misguided theological or ideological commitments.
From a psychological standpoint, it’s understandable why an adult child of an abusive or absent parent would choose to lay the blame on faith or politics. Every child, after all, likes to imagine that deep down inside their Mom or Dad really does adore them. When evidence for that adoration is lacking, it’s too painful to admit that yeah, Mom and/or Dad really weren’t very nice people or very competent parents. It’s much more soothing to imagine Mom or Dad as well-intentioned, but hopelessly captivated by a destructive worldview that dragged them away from the kiddies. It’s a neat way of displacing some of the anger that ought to be directed towards an individual onto a larger movement. Any child, after all, is going to hate whatever it is that they imagine has taken Mommy or Daddy away. And any adult child, even the not terribly bright ones, can figure out that attacking Mommy or Daddy’s belief system is the surest way to wound them. It’s an old story, and it’s publishing gold.
Those already pre-disposed against feminism will happily quote the younger Walker’s anti-feminist screeds as “evidence” that feminism destroys families. I have no intention of defending Alice Walker’s poor parenting; assuming her daughters’ charges are true (and that may be a big assumption), the elder Walker was a failure on multiple counts. But what both Walkers may be guilty of is the classic sin of explaining poor personal choices as the inevitable consequence of ideological commitments. It is not inherent in feminism that women ought to abandon their children; it is not anathema to feminist commitments to reproduce and be a devoted parent. I’m the son of a feminist Mom, and I’m roughly of Rebecca Walker’s generation. I too was born in the late Sixties and grew up in the Seventies. And my feminist Mom raised me with love and care and responsibility — and she has two devotedly feminist sons today. Countless others in my generation, raised by parents of Alice Walker’s generation, can attest to the marvelous parenting skills of those who embraced a commitment to radical egalitarianism!
Walker the younger’s sweeping generalizations are both infuriating and heartbreaking; infuriating for their stunning inaccuracy, heartbreaking because they reflect less a clear understanding of feminism and more the anguish of a neglected child still crying to be held.
The ease with which people can get divorced these days doesn’t take into account the toll on children. That’s all part of the unfinished business of feminism.
Then there is the issue of not having children. Even now, I meet women in their 30s who are ambivalent about having a family. They say things like: ‘I’d like a child. If it happens, it happens.’ I tell them: ‘Go home and get on with it because your window of opportunity is very small.’ As I know only too well.
Then I meet women in their 40s who are devastated because they spent two decades working on a PhD or becoming a partner in a law firm, and they missed out on having a family. Thanks to the feminist movement, they discounted their biological clocks. They’ve missed the opportunity and they’re bereft.
Feminism has betrayed an entire generation of women into childlessness. It is devastating.
Rebecca Walker is not married to her son’s father, so her proclamations about marriage and the ease of divorce seem rich. It’s very easy for the never-married to worry that divorce is too easy. And if we’re going to play warring anecdotes, I know plenty of women in their forties who haven’t had children, aren’t trying for children, and — hold on to your seats — don’t want children. Not everyone is called to breed; for some folks, service to the world and the community is genuinely as satisfying as passing on DNA to another future consumer. I don’t dispute that being a mom is immensely fulfilling to Rebecca Walker; I do dispute her implication that because she has never known a joy comparable to motherhood, no other woman could either.
If Rebecca Walker’s allegations about her mother are true, then Alice made some poor parenting decisions. Lots of people make bad decisions about child-rearing. Many have abused their children in the name of one particular ideology or faith. If Alice Walker used feminism to justify her poor treatment of Rebecca, that is no more an indictment of feminism than the physical abuse of a child by fundamentalist parents who misunderstood the whole “spare the rod” line is an indictment of all of Christianity.
I am grateful for my feminist mother, and have said so here. I am sorry that Rebecca Walker isn’t grateful for hers. But I understand why she feels she must blame feminism more than her mother. In doing so, she holds out hope that someday, someway, her mama will “see the light” and turn away from the beliefs that, in her daughter’s eyes, tore her away from what was her truest responsibility. There’s something terribly sad in Rebecca Walker’s piece, filled as it is with a mix of self-righteous rage and childish pain. But she has chosen to profit from that pain, and chosen to confuse her mother’s private betrayal with her mother’s public commitments. And though the younger Walker may deserve pity and sympathy, her wild and silly claims about feminism ought also elicit exasperation and firm rebuke.