Judith Wax reads from and discusses her book "Starting in the Middle"
BROADCAST: Apr. 16, 1979 | DURATION: 00:58:12
Reflections on Judith Wax's life are part of her book, "Starting in the Middle." Ms. Wax talks about being the perfect wife and mother, when she always secretly wanted to be a writer. Being an ignored female guest at dinner parties was always interesting, too, as male guests would often ask her, "What does your husband do?"
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel You know, Judith Wax who writes in Chicago, "writes" is the word, has been described as rueful, funny, honest, and canny. I think these adjectives I would use: I would refer to her, I think, as vulnerable but delightfully undaunted. You may recall she first came to our notice, notice of American readers of magazines and of newspapers with her marvelous mock Chaucerian poem concerning Watergate, "The Waterbury Tales". Since then she has written for "The New York Times Magazine" section, for "Harper's", for "New Republic", for a variety of publications. But her, what's fascinating as well as, oh, "Cosmopolitan" and "Seventeen", but aside from all that. her book, her first book is a collection of her essays called "Starting in the Middle". She is known as a late bloomer and Holt, Rinehart--Holt, Winston and Rinehart (sic) are the publishers of the book. So I thought we'd have just a conversation with Judith Wax and her reflections on middle age, the woman, family, parents, in short, life in the last part of the 20th century. In a moment Judy Wax is my guest after this message.
Judith Wax I've chosen to use a mock Chaucerian introduction to my book because it was Chaucer as Studs said who launched me in the first place. So I'm going to lean on him now and put a little Middle English on it, and this is the introduction to my book. "Whan that forty with his hot pursuite, play happy birthday to yow on his floote, and even they who marathon hath wonne can no the moving calendar outronne, when heads that hadde blacke hayr, and blondys, discovyr in ther midst some straunge strondes, whan dimplyn' folks flesshe with cellulyte, and troubyl creepin' in on smal crowe's feete, whan Mothyr Bell hath print her book too smalle, whan movying hands writ HOT FLASSH on youre walle, than starts the pilgrimage thru middle ages, a tryp the OLDE WYFE tel in these pagys. A wife was there beside Mayor Daley's Loope. She think her place were makin' chicken soupe and trouble on her door will fear to knocke if well she learn the doctor of Espocke. Quote she, 'A good wyfe stay at home all daye and Betty Crocker winketh on yea.' But though she study well the best advices, she catch the plague eclept the midlife crisis. So when her children from the neste flowne, she's sitting down to play the Smith Corona and chant her merry tales with some sad pagys of pilgrims' travels through the middle ages, of folk who well could ride the straighte course and folk like her that fallen off their horse. Of marriages full virtuous and sounde and pilgrims, truth to tell, that fool arounde. Of children bringin' honor to their mommies and other kids that bringin' home their swamis. Of mothers and of daughteryn and all suche, of guilt the knight of Erhard nay could touche, of folk I meet and how it seemed to me of which they wern and of what degree. The journey hade laughs and its travailes. For them I beg to tel you in these tales and of the time of life we folk been ine with olde marriage will I begine."
Studs Terkel Judy Wax, and that prologue, you did Chaucer proud, Dorothy Parker proud, and Simone de Beauvoir proud.
Judith Wax Oh, my dear. I'm overe-whelmed.
Studs Terkel In a way, this middle English poem you've got is really autobiographical.
Studs Terkel Isn't
Judith Wax I am the olde wife who lived beside Mayor Daley's Loope, and I made my quantity of chicken soupe.
Studs Terkel And you have two kidse, two childrene.
Studs Terkel And grown one for a time, Krishna-esque.
Studs Terkel Another college-esque.
Judith Wax That one has finished college.
Studs Terkel And also at a certain time you begin to write. Time long past what would be considered the conventional time to write, which is youth, and so we come to Judith Wax and this collection "Starting in the Middle". And where do we start? We'll start in the beginning. The very beginning you speak of "A funny thing had"--the very first sentence, introduction, "A funny thing happened to me on my way to menopause. A lot of funny things." And in the way you're describing, aren't you, your reflections and observations as well as your own experiences? The woman of a certain age begin to write about a woman of a certain age. So I'm thinking that the very beginning we have--you watch a certain TV show and the interlocutor, the emcee is saying to this woman who is in her 40s, "What did you do in your lifetime?" Is that an actual quote? "What did you do in your lifetime?"
Judith Wax Yeah. It was to an elderly person, actually. I was saying when I used that example that I mind my age and I mind that I mind, and sometimes I thought that it's because I am of Hungarian parentage and I thought it was the too much [Hungarian] in the bloodstream. You know, the Hungarian affliction, "Zsa-Zsa syndrome" you could call it. But you don't have to have Hungarian genes to suffer from it. We live in a country where a TV host asked an elderly contestant, "What did you do in your lifetime?" as though to be past certified prime or to be past life itself.
Studs Terkel Because you are answering the, in a way this is a rebuttal and a very witty one and I thought, I think an incisive one, too, of that which is the commercial of our time, the cult of youth.
Judith Wax Yes.
Studs Terkel Continuously.
Judith Wax Yes.
Studs Terkel But also we live in a time of so many changes. You refer to these, what's happened to the family, and in your case, you speak of marriage and the humor of it and the various problems faced, and you quote Auden, "The Challenge", in page 15. There's an Auden quote that I think is beautiful.
Judith Wax Yeah. I love that quote. "Like everything which is not the involuntary result of fleeting emotion but the creation of time and will, any marriage, happy or unhappy, is infinitely more interesting and significant than any romance, however passionate."
Studs Terkel I guess we're talking about challenge, aren't we, here? The challenge, isn't it?
Judith Wax Indeed. We're--I, you know, I also said that there are probably people who are flexible enough or tricky enough to juggle both worlds, the marriage and the affair, however passionate, and who's to say which one is delivering flowers that the marriage didn't and headaches that
Studs Terkel By the way, the thing about you is you do not sermonize in the book. There are no sermons. You simply observe and comment.
Judith Wax Well, later on in the book, if you remember, I used a Houseman quote which is "I, uncertain and afraid, in a world I never made." If I'd had answers I would have done things according to some all-purpose rule, but I never found the great answers.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking of the 20-year itch, the sequence, and you remember, you speak of "Helen Trent", the soap operas.
Studs Terkel And I was in "Helen Trent" as a gangster, and the subtitle, you know the subtitle of "Helen Trent" was, you recall the announcer said, "Helen Trent," we hear the organ music, and the sub--"Can a woman find love after 35?"
Judith Wax Right.
Studs Terkel An academic question these days. And so we're talking about changing mores, aren't we, and "Slouching Toward Bettelheim". Now here we have "Slouching Toward Bettelheim", here's your pun, this is your takeoff, and now it's a question of bringing up baby. And here you have Spock and Spock revised. And I think it'd be worth talking about something that happened to you on this theme. You mentioned your mother, the Hungarian beauty. That's an interesting subject, you and your mother throughout here, and this town, Quakertown, and the contrast is--suppose you, because you recount this in the book very movingly. The small town, seemingly unaffected and righteous, and something happened.
Judith Wax Yes. During the '60s when the trouble began exploding in Chicago, I went back to my little hometown in Pennsylvania, the place I grew up, where people were as sure of the eternal verities as they'd ever been and I went to a class reunion and I was told by my former classmates, let's see, that was our 20th year reunion. I was told by my former classmates that boys were not permitted to wear sideburns more than a quarter of an inch long, and in that year of the miniskirt, girls were not allowed to wear skirts above the knee, and there was--
Studs Terkel Now you're talking now after the Chicago convention--
Judith Wax After the Chicago convention, while things were exploding here, and kids were openly dealing their wares on the streets, and I was the mother of one young teenager and one coming up and I was very, very shaken by the events that I saw around me, and my former classmates told me that there were no drugs and no trouble and no proselytizing against the war and there never would be and God was in his Pennsylvania Dutch heaven, and I was reluctant to admit that my son was one of those longhairs and he had begun to alarm us with silences at the kitchen table, and that my husband had marched with the demonstrators because he thought that business-suited people, those who looked square, had to stand up and be counted too. And though I told my friends in Chicago that that was wrong, those people weren't committed, in my heart I wanted to sneak back to that sanctuary where things were the same as they had always been, but then when I went back five years later on a story assignment, as a matter of fact, the troubles had come. The troubles, the '70s had backed into even Quakertown. I found farm boys as long-haired as anything and talking about uppers and downers in the classroom and as wild-haired and wild-eyed as anything Chicago had produced. Chicago by that time was going through a barbering renaissance. But everything that we'd seen five years earlier had simply stalked across the country, and there were no sanctuaries.
Studs Terkel There were no sanctuaries and there are no sanctuaries. And what happened? What were the comments of the people? Your colleagues, your peers of five years before who were proud of Quakertown being free from the illnesses of our day. What were their comments five years later?
Judith Wax Well, they said I was lucky to be in a city where the police knew what to do with the longhairs.
Studs Terkel That was five years when you
Judith Wax That was when I first went
Studs Terkel And what were their comments five years later when?
Judith Wax Five years later there was a sort of public denial and private expression of bewilderment not very different from the things that I had heard from my own friends who were no more prepared for it when it came to us than they, those people were, and had no more historical framework in which, with which to deal.
Studs Terkel They had no historical framework. That's interesting. So that maybe there was a misin--do you know Mark Twain's "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg"?
Judith Wax No.
Studs Terkel That short story.
Studs Terkel It's a town that is very righteous and even though there seems to be bewilderment in the rest of the world in other cities and corruption, this town they're so smug and proud of themselves, and there's a story about a gambler who one day was mistreated by someone of the town, he [leaves?] a big bag of gold. He writes them six different people "Thank you for helping me out," and all the righteousness have claimed they helped him out, but they didn't, for the money. And of course an exposure. And suddenly they realize they are like everybody else. And so the original slogan was "Lead us into temptation," it was changed to "Lead us not into temptation," but the righteousness of the town was destroyed, that they were human and vulnerable as anyone else was, so in a way that's almost your Quakertown experience,
Judith Wax Yeah. As I said, Quakertown backed into the '70s, that small, bucolic Pennsylvania Dutch town and the troubles didn't even say "I beg thy pardon."
Studs Terkel Yeah. No. And by the way, there's a marvelous joke that you have in here. I heard it as a Cajun joke, I'm sure it's universal, about what finally happened to these good sweet little kids. And on page 55, you speak of the five-year-old child whose parents were wild with anxiety because their adored firstborn never uttered a word. Remember that? Why don't you read that
Judith Wax Well, I told that joke because it was something that was told to me during the time that we ourselves were having trouble and were bewildered by the events in our own house, and I would have accepted anybody's theory, we were running from expert to expert and I would have accepted anybody's theory about where we'd gone wrong and then I would've corrected it or accepted the blame and then have some advice custom-tailored for us. But I didn't hear anything that was just, that I could take home and do something about. However, one social worker told us this story I liked, whether or not it fitted our own case, and it was about a five-year-old kid who had never uttered a word, an adored firstborn, had never said a word until one morning at breakfast the kid said, "These eggs are cold." And "Darling!" his mother exclaimed, "My darling, why haven't you ever said anything before?" "Up 'til now," the kid said, "Everything was okay." And I went on to say that in the lounge of the hospital where our son spent part of his 16th year, parents of our general description were sizing up other parents, and the unspoken question was "How did it happen at your house? If you aren't monsters and you don't, funny you don't look it, maybe we aren't either." But I couldn't help wondering whether their kids, coddled beyond coping with the world's cold eggs, fit that social worker's description.
Studs Terkel Of course, we're talking, aren't we, about generations in a certain moment in history, and--
Judith Wax Yeah.
Studs Terkel My son--do you want to talk about that or should we skip that? The--
Judith Wax You can talk about whatever you
Studs Terkel Well, it was--as many families, many parents I'm sure have children involved with certain religious ersatz or true religious movements, we know this tremendous trend, we see at the airports everywhere or on the streets and so, your son brilliant at school, somewhere along the line is disillusioned and seeks something else and leaps toward the East.
Judith Wax Yes. And you want to know my reaction to that, our reaction to that, really. First of all, I want to stress, Studs, that when I talk about our feelings about our son at that time nearly six years ago and now and throughout the period that he has been a member of the Hari Krishna movement, I am speaking about one boy, one son, and one family, and one family's reaction. I don't have any more all-purpose answers for that than I do for anything else, and I also have to make it clear that he came to this after a great period of pain, after drug usage, after the hallucinogenic experience, after a hospital experience, so as I said in the book, how you react depends where you've been. For us, though those kids standing on the corner chanting looked frankly very sappy to me, they embarrassed me with that glaze in their eyes, I wasn't ready for beatitude on State Street, in short. If our own kid could find some purpose, if our own child could find something to hold himself on to the world when he looked like he was falling off the world, then though this was hardly our first choice religion for our first-born son, the struggle at that time was for him to get from birthday to birthday. Incidentally I do want to say this, I have struggled with what is all right to say about the people close to you. What can you use? What's, what is private provence as you would
Studs Terkel By the way, that's why I hesitated asking that, because we come to one of these "no man's" and "no woman's" land areas right now.
Judith Wax Right.
Studs Terkel As to what is literature, what is journalism, and what is private.
Judith Wax Right. And you don't want to, you don't want to betray private things, you don't want to expose another person's private life, but I want to say that that during the time when there were many newspaper stories about deprogramming and kidnapping, my son asked me, he wrote to me and asked me if I would write my own feelings about it, and so he asked me for quite a while to write my feelings, and I couldn't do it. It was too painful. But then "The New York Times", for whom I had written a number of articles, called me and said, "Would you tell what you feel?" They knew that my son was in the movement and I thought the time was ripe to try. And I discovered in writing it that I thought about a lot of these things and that, again, this was one family's experience. And I was going to try to share it. And I began to learn more by actually living with them. I went to Texas and lived at their temple school there when I was on an assignment for another magazine, for "Harper's" magazine. And I began to know other people's children: the dropouts and the druggies and the casualties and the straights and the distinguished ones and the troubled ones, and I began to listen without bringing emotional heat to it. And it was never an easy acceptance. I winced at the thought of looking at him with a shaved head and the Indian dress and acceptance was never a snap. As I said in my book, though I went to the temple and I tried to understand and I even tried to do their chanting, the chant that went in my own head was "Hari Rama, I'm the mama."
Studs Terkel I'm thinking as you're saying this, a ritual seemingly strange and alien as it is, but how different is it, I think you imply it somewhere, from rituals we practice without even thinking about it, some rituals in our daily life that seem absolutely incredible we accept. You know, that we see in TV commercials, for example, or are we accepting--I'm talking about the very nature--maybe--I'm asking you this question, you be the best judge. Your son is brilliant, I know, and in the conventional sense, too. So many--it isn't your son alone thereof, "All My Sons", as Arthur Miller would say in an earlier play.
Studs Terkel Somehow watching or seeing what's happened to the world and the hypocrisy and the brutishness that is accepted, look for some other way since that seems to be rational, look for something others might call not quite rational or mystic, so it's almost a natural event, wasn't it? A natural phenomenon. What happened.
Judith Wax As I say, I don't have the answers. I did see this, I did see one kid's experience which was coming out of the hallucinogenic experience, and I don't think that many people who have done that get up the next morning and say, "Well, folks, today I think I'll go to Yale. That's all over." I think that they search for something else, and sometimes the cosmic view of an Eastern religion is a comfort, a safety, a structure. I did see with him that from a bewildered person with low self-esteem he over the years taught himself Sanskrit and learned to teach it, studied this religion that has its basis in ancient Hindu culture, began to be able to sit in front of crowds and talk and lecture so that, in a sense, I felt that he was he was gaining a confidence that he didn't have before. If I could have manipulated his life, I would have. If I could have changed things, I would have. But as you said earlier, I had begun to stop beating myself up. Even a self-flagellant's arm can get tired.
Judith Wax And I began to write instead.
Studs Terkel So the writing--by the way, did writing come out of this experience?
Judith Wax Partly.
Studs Terkel That's interesting.
Judith Wax Partly.
Studs Terkel By the way, you said if you tried to manipulate.
Judith Wax Yes.
Studs Terkel Now that's the word, isn't it?
Judith Wax Yes.
Studs Terkel You didn't manipulate.
Judith Wax I would have if I could. I mean, I have to be honest and say that. I would have done anything to change things. But we were down to, "Let this kid survive. Anything else is a nice"--
Studs Terkel To keep the record straight--
Judith Wax Yeah.
Studs Terkel Now.
Judith Wax Yeah.
Studs Terkel There's another, I think there's another phase or stage now, isn't there, now?
Judith Wax There is a new phase after almost six years. Our door has always been open. As I said, we have been a family throughout this. We're not the Waltons. We've been a very fragile family. But the contact has stayed. Even the grandparents. And for them it was, I was very moved by them, because it was harder for them to accept. After all, their frame of reference is, they lived at a time where you told your kids what to do and they did it. And here was this kid they used to take to the duck pond who now was talking and acting and dressing as though he'd grown up along the Ganges, but they were refraining from asking him if he really had enough protein. They were greeting him with a snappy "Hari Krishna" when they saw him, they were keeping up the contact, and through that open door he walked in again. And first he stayed with us for a little while, we had a vegetarian Thanksgiving this year. But as his sister said, "I'd rather have my brother than a turkey," and it was our first time in six years we'd sat around a table eating vegetable spaghetti, and now he has come home again and he's applying to colleges.
Studs Terkel Well then, isn't it possible that it is, was a transition period? But I know as a journalist I admire very much, you know him, he's, I think of him as the best in the country, his daughter, brilliant writer that wrote about him and the family for "Esquire" once, joined a [unintelligible] movement.
Studs Terkel And I think she said something earlier when I saw her at the time, that she thinks as though she were aware, this is a period that is a transition. So perhaps that's what it is on the part of a great many.
Judith Wax That may be. I have had people say to me, people whose children have met tragedy, in a few cases kids who have killed themselves. I've had parents say to me, "If only my kid had found a safe place for a while." Not that I don't, not that I know about all so-called cults, all so-called religions. I don't. I know this one that does not, incidentally, worship a man but a god, a god who does not live.
Studs Terkel You know that in this chapter about your son and, for that matter, all sons, all daughters, too. You quote Doris Lessing and it's not accidental, 'cause Doris Lessing who I know whose life has gone through various stages, at the moment has reached a certain moment in her life in which she doesn't quite trust what others call rational, in "The Four-Gated City" you quote her. Suppose, you say, "Well, how do you get a fix on the precise moment a bad time began?" Why don't you read your quote of Lessing?
Judith Wax Yeah. Doris Lessing said this in "The Four-Gated City": "It was a bad time in our life. We were in the bad time," and I was very struck by this particular passage: "When a bad times starts, it is as if on a smooth green lawn a toad appears, as if a clear river suddenly floats down a corpse. Before the appearance of the toad, the corpse, one could not imagine the lawn as anything but delightful. The river is fresh, but lawns can always admit toads, and rivers, corpses." And I said, Studs, that maybe the toad had been squatting on our lawn on our crabgrass for a long time and the corpse was floating in that suburban wading pool way back in the split-level days where, that we had one time. Maybe our neighbors had long been holding their noses and pointing, but we never noticed. We thought everything was OK, and I would have told everybody that I was perfect. My children were perfect. My life was perfect. Thank you very much. Don't ask any questions.
Studs Terkel By the way, all this, as you're saying this, that this particular being discombobulated.
Judith Wax Yes.
Studs Terkel All were factors in your beginning to write. We have to come back to
Studs Terkel At a certain age, you're now 40.
Studs Terkel Forty-two. And here you are, at a--you were--how would you've described yourself before you began writing?
Judith Wax As someone hot after perfection. I'd read about it in the child-rearing books and in the women's magazines and I thought that my role was to be this wonderful mother who raised her children in a particular way by the books and it would pay off in these perfect untroubled children. And that was my--nobody imposed that on me. That was my own perception of what my role was supposed to be, and a wonderful housekeeper and a terrific dinner-party thrower, a stuffer of mushrooms, an arranger of parsley platters, a carrot curler, and I was sort of compulsive about that, and I don't feel angry about it. That was my time in history. What I wanted to do and couldn't admit was, I wanted to write, but that seemed very dangerous. I could admire writers, I could be awed by them. I was so awed, in fact, I was the kind of woman who would have gone into a phone booth and would have scrawled, "Anton Chekhov, for a good time call Judy. 585-3305." A literary groupie, but I couldn't risk putting a word down on paper. But then I had this spectacular public failure. Everybody knew what happened in our family, and it didn't seem such a terrible risk to risk failure at the Smith Corona either. I'd had other failures, it was okay, not that I'm coveting them. Not that I wish my first book to be a failure. It scares me. But I'm, I was ready to risk it and then I was lucky enough to see those other spectacular failures on television. They were named [Tulasiewicz?] and Haldeman and Ehrlichman and Dean, and it had seemed to me they'd done at least as badly as I had. So I sat down and wrote that Chaucerian parody "Waterbury Tales" that got me launched.
Studs Terkel You know, as you say this, before we take a break and ask about that Jewish princess, your mother, the Quakertown princess and a certain kind of mother and daughter and guilt transferred, projected, and also dealing with the woman, the older woman on her own after the guy has gone, there's some incredible themes here. And the housewife; what was I going to ask you? Oh, I know. Failure. The fear of failure. I guess to fail is the great crime in an acquisitive society. To
Judith Wax fail. To fail or to succeed. You know Matina Horner's studies that she as we know is the president, is a psychologist and the president of Radcliffe, and she has done a number of studies about fear of success.
Studs Terkel That is, a woman's fear of success.
Judith Wax A woman's fear of success.
Studs Terkel We better make that
Judith Wax Now I have to also say, and I would feel very dishonest if I didn't, what we may have had in my case was spectacular laziness. I'd be the world's biggest case of laziness hiding behind a lot of other things. I'm not going to make
Studs Terkel I remember when you said earlier that'd be the perfect homemaker for want of a better phrase, the perfect mother, homemaker. Perfect writer, too, not to fear anything that somebody may not like or that quite and then you see, hey, failure is part of a very life itself or corruption is, too, for that matter, since you [talk?] of "Waterbury Tales". And, so, it's a very exciting moment for you and I think an exciting moment for people who want to express themselves and are afraid to because they're afraid they might look foolish. Very often, by the way, when we're talking somewhere, when there are questions and answers, or any, it doesn't matter, you know, you may or, you may think your question is foolish because you may look silly, and you're going to realize about 20 different people say, "I wish I'd asked that question. I'm thinking of the same thing." The fear. Of looking not quite Einsteinish.
Studs Terkel That's what it's about. Anyway, the book "Starting in the Middle", a collection of essays and reflections by Judith Wax is very witty and very pertinent indeed, and it's available now in the bookstores, Holt, Rinehart and Winston the publishers, and we'll resume the conversation with Judith Wax, writer, essayist after this word. And, so, resuming the conversation with Judith Wax, we're starting in the middle, there's a secret. Gill, gilt, gilt-edged, [guilt-edged?] insecurities, and this deals with daughters and mothers. Why don't we be--your mother, the--way back, someone is saying, "Hey, what'd you"--a friend of yours calls you up, an old beau from Quakertown.
Judith Wax Yeah.
Studs Terkel "Haven't seen you in 30 years. How do you look?" We come to that, and you said you could look like your mother, who I take it is a beauty.
Judith Wax Was, was a beauty. Yes. I don't like to call her spoiled, Studs. My father--
Studs Terkel I
Judith Wax My father adores my mother and she will always be 19 and gorgeous as far as he's concerned. And there is something very, very touching about that lifelong adoration that he's had. My mother had a very traumatic thing happen in her childhood. Her parents and her sister left her in Hungary in the middle of the night when she was five years old and they came to America. And she woke up the next morning and her family was gone, and she was left with very tyrannical grandparents who locked her clothes up in the closet if she misbehaved, and she described running through the house screaming for her parents, screaming for her sister, finding a pleated skirt under a bed and realizing it was her sister's pleated skirt, and all the other clothes were missing from the house. And to this day my mother can't look at a pleated skirt without feeling that rush of pain again. She didn't hear from them for five years because that was in 1914 and the war broke out and they were only intending to visit cousins in America and they didn't want to alarm this little girl by saying they were going away. But she thought she'd been deserted and she didn't see her family again for seven years. And my mother grew up with the feeling that the people you love can walk out at any time. And so I think it was perfectly natural that my mother had certain fears and reticences that, in a sense, crippled her life. And my mother is a natural writer, she writes dangerously witty letters. She spent half her time locked in her bedroom reading Chekhov and reading the lives of the kings of England, but she couldn't drive a car, and she couldn't make out a check. And when her sister said to her, "For God's sake, Lily, can't you even put on your own wristwatch without Milton helping you?" And she says--my father--and my mother said, "What? Do you expect me to do it with one hand?" I that my--it is my father's pleasure to indulge her. But it really was not her fault. I think she, too, was an accident of her time in history and a life and a father who said to her when she wanted to go to college, "A pretty girl doesn't need an education. Why would a beauty like you
Studs Terkel So in a way, though she's literate and, you know, and is aware of things, she's caught by that, so when you were younger, did dance with you? See you, here you are, threatened--I can skip around and about if you want in the book, in the, after Judith Wax had been written, has written articles that have appeared in national magazines, fine, but metaphorically, did the publisher dance with you?
Judith Wax Well, well, what I said was, shall I read this little bit from my book about Mother?
Studs Terkel Sure.
Judith Wax Well, it's about my own late entry. I said I didn't know whether it was an advanced case of foot-dragging or what exactly the causes were, but my own career evasions had always struck me as a fear of trying, fear of failure rather than of success. But there's a good chance that my laziness, as I said, my reticence as I said before, was spectacular laziness and maybe I ought to take one of those fear of success classes that are springing up all over the country. Okay. Here's what I said about that and my mother: "But if I took a course like that, I guess I'd have to tell the teacher about my mother the Hungarian who, when I was ten, greeted my return from every social occasion with the four questions. Particularly appropriate since we've just had Passover in the four questions. 'Were you popular? Are you considered witty? Did they like your dress?' And the real biggie, 'Did anyone ask you to dance?'" Maybe--then I said, "Nearly three decades later, things hadn't changed much, because I'd been writing for a year or so when I told her that my first cover story for "The New York Times Magazine", a parody of New York, articles in "Harper's", "Playboy" and some Chicago publications would all appear within the week, and she said, 'That's nice, dear. But what else?' Maybe there's a clue in such things as to why it took me so many years to risk rejection slips and maybe a tiny hint of where the fear of success factor comes into it. Suppose as wild hypothesis I had succeeded. Beyond probability, fantasy, and all the way to Pulitzerhood. I mean, what could I have told my mother if none of the judges asked me to dance?"
Studs Terkel Yeah. That's it. Here again, though, the idea of the girl being pretty and accepted by the guys. This in a way she was caught by that.
Studs Terkel But in the same chapter, some very, I think, perceptive stuff. Gilt, [guilt-edged?] securities how the child, you're talking about someone named Shirley.
Judith Wax Yeah.
Studs Terkel How the child who was abused, in a sense battered, by the parent feels guilty and wants that--somehow feels that he or she is responsible.
Judith Wax Right.
Studs Terkel And that's an incredible scene. If I could just be autobiographical for a moment. My mother was at times a hardworking woman, an entrepreneur, and a virago at times and I was very well-treated. I was the pet. My two older brothers had a horrible time with her. I was the observer and the one who was most abused by her was the one who felt most guilty about it.
Judith Wax Yeah.
Studs Terkel The latter days of her life.
Judith Wax Yeah.
Studs Terkel And he wanted very much, he felt it was his fault, and he took this abuse continuously, feeling that it was his--so this I thought of Shirley, I thought of him when--why don't you recount Shirley's and read part of it, Shirley and her mother.
Judith Wax Yeah, well, I said about Shirley and her mother that though the kids of my generation were raised not to feel guilt even in times when maybe they should have felt terribly guilty, they were missing out on such people as my friend Shirley in their lives. They'd never know this wonderful guilty woman because she was an endangered species in herself. "Shirley at 51 is considerably younger than the giant sloth, another extinct creature. In fact, she could be called a battered child. Not that she was ever physically beaten, but her id and soul had been bruised beyond recognition by a mother who, to steal a Saki description, was as full of herself as an egg. It didn't leave any room for her only child Shirley, who, through a dismal adolescence, two cursed marriages, and various financial disasters always could count on her mother's refusal to lift a finger in aid. She probably couldn't lift them. The woman's hands were nearly paralyzed by diamonds. Battered children often show excessive concern for the well-being of the very parent who brutalizes them. It's probably a "keep the beast happy" survival technique, and Shirley, too, is obsessed with winning the approval of her brutalizing parent." I want to say here, Studs, I did not have a brutalizing parent, this is Shirley's parent. The old lady, a famous beauty, had landscaped her life with millionaire husbands in successive bloom, but her most impressive achievement was the amount of guilt she'd planted in poor Shirley. One day Mama was zapped in her Roman bath by a sudden and mysterious affliction. She was rushed to intensive care and diagnosed as beyond the help of medical science or even Tiffany's. Shirley went wild. She glued herself to her unconscious mother's bedside keeping around-the-clock vigil. What really kept her there, she told her friends later, was the desperate hope that the dying woman would wipe out a lifetime's coldness and injustice with one gorgeous gesture of graveside remorse, so naturally Shirley was pretty excited when at last Mama flicked an eye open and painfully signaled her need to convey a terminal sentiment. 'Pencil,' she gasped. 'Paper.' Then she struggled heroically to scratch out what Shirley knew would be one last, in fact, one first loving maternal message. 'Shirley,' the note said, 'Were you here yesterday?'"
Studs Terkel And toward the end when Shirley is in the hospital, her mother has gone off now with a Dolly Parton wig--
Judith Wax Yes.
Studs Terkel Shirley's in a bed of pain, you write this, and Shirley "d like your opinion as a friend," Shirley asks you from her bed of pain. "How do you think I
Judith Wax Yeah. Right. Right. Right.
Judith Wax Shirley's mother recovered, Shirley never will.
Studs Terkel Aren't we talking about the projection like you--the scene involving your mother-in-law. That is, I'll do your husband Shel talking to the woman in Florida. Set the scene and then we'll do the dialogue on page 70. It's very brief. This is Mike and Elaine. If ever it were Mike and Elaine, this is it. Suppose you set the scene.
Judith Wax Well, you know, I said in this, this was a long-distance exchange I'd promised never to repeat. So we call the person, even though my husband's name is Shel, we call the other person an unidentified Floridian.
Studs Terkel Okay, so he, the son is calling this unidentified Floridian.
Judith Wax Right. The son is calling this Floridian.
Studs Terkel "How are you, mother?"
Studs Terkel "What's the trouble?"
Judith Wax "Well, I have these terrible pains in my back."
Studs Terkel "Gee, that's too bad, Mom. When did they start?"
Judith Wax "When you were born, Sheldon." He's 51, by the way.
Studs Terkel And then I put that "Long Day's Journey Into the Night". It could be Irish and Catholic and Protestant. O'Neill, you remember in "Long Day's Journey", the mother's taking all that dope ever since that kid, Eugene himself, Edmond was born.
Judith Wax Right.
Studs Terkel So there is a sense of guilt that O'Neill had felt all that time, too. Norman, tell about Norman the academic, this has got to be Mike and Elaine, but it's true.
Judith Wax This is a true story. Norman is 54 and he's a very distinguished academic. But he wouldn't know it was Sunday unless his widowed mother recounted her day of rest specialty. See, childbirth is a terrific guilt, is prime guilt grist, and his mother's day of rest specialty is to tell Normy how he broke her pelvis on his rude way into the world, and another way he learns it Sunday is because he picks up his mother every Sunday and brings her home in the afternoon to watch him typing up his scholarly notes. And one recent Sunday morning he phoned her at 11 as usual, and his standard "I'll come by for you at 12:30, Mother" was met by a troubling silence. "Mother, did you hear me?" said Norman. "Mother, are you there?" A faint voice finally advised him to hold on while she tracked down a pencil. "I'd better write the time down, Normy. It's so long from now."
Studs Terkel I'm thinking of the various sequences in the book. Judith Wax, the mothers, children, older women. So now we come to someone, oh, this is an old story, of course, they haven't--you do, they call it doing your own grief work. We come
Studs Terkel The widow. The middle-aged woman who is now the widow.
Judith Wax Yes.
Studs Terkel And there she is. For a time these old friends were there, and if she thought that she was co-equal in being a member of the circle--
Studs Terkel And suddenly there is ostracism, isn't there? That moment, isn't there? The guy--it's okay with the guy. I wasn't thinking chapter, I think it is in that one, but that aspect of a sudden--
Judith Wax Sudden freeze-out.
Studs Terkel Banishment. Sudden
Judith Wax Sudden denial. It's almost in some cases women are shunned as though--as the terminally ill are sometimes shunned. People are afraid of catching it. They can catch your illness. They can catch your widowhood. And I, one friend said, the woman you're talking about, said that she suffers firsthand from freeze-out and what she calls it is "widow's quarantine," and she said it's interesting to guess the psychological reasons of why some of your friends drop you, except it hurts too much to be clinical about. And she said, and I'm quoting from her, "When Jack was alive, we were invited out so often that I imagined all those people thought I was special. Now I know I was only half special. I guess it's childish of me, but when somebody whose life is pretty much intact comes on smug to me, I really have to fight the temptation to growl at her, "Watch it, lady."
Studs Terkel You know what occurs to me, you said the fear of catching it.
Judith Wax Yeah.
Studs Terkel That fear is in every aspect of our lives. But it's so clear in this. The hockey player, Eric Nesterenko--
Studs Terkel Speaks, yeah but he speaks of, if a guy gets hurt, the other players will shun him, they will stay away from them because of fear that it might be me. And so if this woman is bereft and no more husband, even though she's as articulate as he was, out. So this aspect we have, isn't it? By the way, you quote Maggie Kuhn somewhere along here.
Judith Wax Yeah.
Judith Wax Yeah.
Studs Terkel We're speaking of age, aren't we? The most discriminated-against aspect of a group of people may be old
Studs Terkel But perhaps old women more than old men. I'm not sure, but--
Judith Wax Old women are really put on the--like the Eskimos. We put our old people psychically on an ice floe. We put them--
Studs Terkel Or in retirement homes.
Judith Wax Or--we warehouse.
Studs Terkel You describe those as in a way even the better ones, too, their retirement villages, many of them are like camps.
Judith Wax Well, yeah, I mean, it is not that there is one all-purpose answer to where people should go or how people should live. I once wrote about a group of elderly women who lived together communally in Evanston and helped each other and each had a communal part, and they had trouble getting government grants for those places because they wouldn't have a 24-hour nurse and doctor on the premises because the whole idea was if you see a doctor or a nurse there, you think, "Uh-oh, I'm supposed to be ill." These people were interdependent. They were still part of the larger community, but it didn't go with our bureaucratic ideas of what or how people should
Studs Terkel This is one of a big investigation now taking place in nursing homes. I'm thinking of something else. The reservoir of so much of our knowledge, the, you know, the flesh and blood reservoirs are some of these old people and women. There's a story told by a man named Hobman, a British social worker, and involved old woman and several living by themselves independent with help now and then from, so these two young girls come to help this old woman, and to help her, see. The wind-up is, of course, she's helping them. They help her clean and sweep the joint, but she's helping them with advice. One of them was distraught about something and so as she spills out her problems to the old woman, the woman starts talking about life and experience and the kid came back tremendously rewarded, she was helped, you see.
Judith Wax Yes.
Studs Terkel And so we come to that aspect. Again, the cult of the planned obsolescence of humans as well as things.
Judith Wax Yes. I at one point in my early career; early career, that was five years ago. I was traveling around the country on various article assignments. And what struck me was that I was interviewing elderly women for an article in "The New York Times" and for another article called "Sex And The Single Grandparent" for "New Times" magazine. But at the same time I was interviewing college women about their attitudes toward life and their sexual attitudes, for "Playboy", and I was also interviewing 17-year-olds for "Seventeen" magazine. So I was talking to women on either side of me. And what struck me about the elderly women with whom I spoke, and it would be cruel to romanticize them because that would make them just one person, a monolith of people, and that's unfair. But they were the liveliest interviews I had. We belong--we've come--we're part of that decade with all those ululations about openness, let's be open. And those elderly women really were open and direct, but we're always shutting them up and out. So that we don't get to hear and
Studs Terkel we On that we don't talk cross-generationally across genders, too, we come to a chapter called "Late Entry", we can't--Judith Wax is my guest and we're talking--these are reflections on her book, "Starting in the Middle". These very marvelous essays. Holt Rinehart Winston the publishers. Now, we read the opening paragraph we'll take off from there, from one of your later chapters, "Late Entry".
Judith Wax Yeah. "'What do you do?' says the dinner partner on my left. He's asking the man on my right, though, not me. Then he asks it again, this time skipping the woman beginning her gazpacho on his other side. She and I have bright fixed smiles. In another second my gums will probably bleed. The other nonperson is also in her 40s, and I can tell this has happened to her, it turns out she's a designer, as often as to me. But this time I hear my voice break through the masculine exchange of job data. 'Glad you asked,' I shrill. 'I'm a topless nuclear physicist.'"
Studs Terkel So this happens, doesn't it?
Judith Wax Yeah. I've heard more women my age, women everywhere, complain about both aspects of that. If you're not asked what you do, the implication is that you probably spend your day as some guy's darling bouncing through the stores. There's no chance that you might do something. If you are asked what you do, I resent it as much as my unemployed friends if the implication is you have to be salaried to be interesting.
Studs Terkel "What do I do about what?"
Judith Wax One woman said, "What do I do about what?"
Studs Terkel By the way, no, the other question is, I was guilty of this not too long ago and I can't [figure?] what made me do it, so the chauvinist pig is in every guy, no matter how aware he may
Judith Wax Well, yours has a very little squeal,
Studs Terkel But there it was, and then the question. It's a nightmare as I think about it. I'm, could justify it saying I was drunk or something, but that's not--I says, I said to this woman sitting next to me, I says, "What does your husband do?" "What does your husband do?" She happened to be a doctor.
Judith Wax Right.
Studs Terkel As it turned out. Even if she weren't.
Judith Wax Yeah.
Studs Terkel "What does your husband do?"
Judith Wax Yeah.
Judith Wax You cute little thing, how would you know
Studs Terkel You know, and she laughed, you see. "What does your husband do" I'm thinking about this table conversation.
Judith Wax Yeah.
Studs Terkel They were talking across the women.
Judith Wax Right.
Studs Terkel These men were talking across them.
Judith Wax Exactly.
Studs Terkel And discussing important things, and then, by the way, what do you do, little girl?
Judith Wax Yeah. He started by saying, "Well, now let's all, let's get to know each other. Let's all tell what we do," and then he called on all of the men at the table while the women sat there sort of slack-jawed, and later when I said, "Hey, just a minute" and did my little bit about the topless nuclear physicist, we did ask the--he said, "Oh, I'm sorry." And we asked the women, and it turned out that every woman at that table did, in fact, do something, and in a lot of cases it was something a little more challenging than those men who were ignoring.
Studs Terkel While we're at, on that subject of doing something, suppose she said, "I keep house. I'm a housewife," you see. And, so, somewhere along the line, I think it's a widow looking for a job or a woman who's looking for a job, and the guy says, "When did you first start working?"
Judith Wax Yeah. He said--this woman was applying for her first Social Security card. And this young clerk looked at her and he said, "Do you mean you've never worked before in your whole life?" "The hell I didn't!" she said, "I just never got paid for it." And just you know, despite all the lip service we give today about it's okay to be a homemaker, we really put our homemakers down. We really don't permit those choices. We still look on the middle-aged woman as we did when she was younger as a monolith of moms.
Studs Terkel But see, she doesn't get paid money.
Judith Wax Right.
Studs Terkel Unless you put your hands on it. So someone has suggested that, perhaps housewives should receive salaries.
Judith Wax Absolutely. And one real tragedy of this is that volunteerism, which is, which has made some of the largest contributions that we've seen in America, use of people's talents has become not quite respectable any more. These women have done marvelous things. Why should a woman who uses her talents and energies in satisfying ways by volunteering them feel that she's inferior because no one's giving her a salary
Studs Terkel On that subject, volunteerism, there's something else happening. Papers don't cover it, of course. Among older people, particularly when Maggie Kuhn we mentioned, is head of the Gray Panthers, not head, she's a convener of them, there's no head--
Studs Terkel She say that older people, men and women, are full of life and vit--much do, and a lot of their work is, I'll use the word "political," in short dealing with social issues, and the vitality of people sometimes becomes even greater when they're concerned with issues beyond themselves, too. Even more than what you might call, what we call volunteers in generally charitable work, which is good. But something involving changing a society or altering it. Terribly exciting.
Judith Wax When what you find out with a message you get from the world your interest in the world is more interesting to you than what the mirror is telling you every day. The erosion of the mirror.
Studs Terkel And the other thing is, you said, just a housewife.
Judith Wax Just
Studs Terkel Suppose we hear part of a song.
Judith Wax Yeah.
Studs Terkel Part of a song about a housewife. [pause in recording] In fading out on this song, precisely that there--I'm thinking of all the work that's involved, the work, the actual physical labor aside from dealing with other human beings and watching their children watching them grow and develop and playing some role. The aspect of it there. So I'm thinking, talking to Judith Wax and your reflection. We haven't talked about fear of success on the part of women. You know the, you have a chapter on that. "The World of Our Mothers".
Judith Wax Yeah.
Studs Terkel And the fear of success, that comes elsewhere, another chapter there. In "Late Entry". The fear of--you know, it's still a--there's less of it now, of course, with the feminist movement. There's less of it now. That is, the fear of a woman seeming too intelligent.
Judith Wax Yeah. The catch-22 situation for women my age is that we belonged to that generation that was told by the experts and, incidentally, the experts carpet-bombed us over the years with changing advice. They kept changing it all the time, and being an expert means that if you're wrong you never have to say "I'm sorry." But we were told that if you didn't have to bring home a paycheck, your place was home taking care of the children. As I said, we were looked upon as a monolith of moms and there was no distinction made for temperament and inclination and a doctrine changed about 10 years ago saying that children tend to do best according to studies when a woman's sense of herself is expressed, the child is well-cared-for, it's hard cheese for those of us who went by the book when the book had a different message. But the ironic part of it is that now that we are what's called "empty nest" mothers, we're told that we ought to be employed. But those same experts don't tell us that how we get into the job market now when we were not permitted to do our, put our foot in the door beforehand. Those women I know who have been given a chance, who have been allowed to, as you would say, vamp 'til ready, and I don't mean flirt, I mean learn the vocabulary, learn how to say all those little tricky things like "show me the bottom line" and "cost-effective analysis," they are successful. They are remarkably successful. It's getting your start in the first
Studs Terkel You've raised a point. I just, it's just coincidental, turned to page 180 on this very subject
Judith Wax Right.
Studs Terkel Women and the job market. And we hear a great deal of talk about women getting equal pay, we don't need ERA, everything's okay, the fact that a woman particularly of a certain age or a certain talent that hasn't been used for
Judith Wax Right.
Studs Terkel Applies for a job. Recount that story.
Judith Wax Right. Are you talking about the women's own feelings?
Studs Terkel I'm talking about that woman who applied for a job as an editor.
Judith Wax About, oh yeah. Yeah. A very talented woman I know who was, oh, most promise--voted most promising, class of '51, she was offered a job for $50 a week to do a full-time editorial job for which by talent and education she is eminently qualified. "Listen," said the young woman making this munificent offer on behalf of a small local magazine, "I can get any number of other suburban housewives who haven't worked in 20 years to do it for free." The awful thing is that despite the minimum wage law, she probably can. At least my friend had the dignity to say, "Well, you can't get me, tootsie." Of course, the story would be a lot better if the capper were an inspiring today she has her dream job. The capper is a crusher she doesn't have any.
Studs Terkel Wait, we're talking about something. This is economics. We're talking about something interesting called employment. The fact is, because of the nature of things, and women not being equally, in many cases, [unintelligible], there is, there are a great many women such as yourself, that is, who were homemakers. Perhaps they don't have your talent, who want to write, and they'll do it for free. You know, we're talking about what you're talking about here. As a result of which the guys--guys primarily, it could be women, too, do the hiring, can get a woman for less than she could.
Judith Wax Which that I can get another housewife like you, suburban housewife, and that was, she meant that in the most derogatory way. The things that you're not allowed to say anymore, thank goodness, that have to do with racism, ageism, sexism, you still can say about the middle-aged woman, and if you can stick suburban in front of it, boy, then you've really given them the needle. That's still permitted, and I've heard people say it who didn't have half the talent of the people they were knocking.
Studs Terkel We're talking to Judith Wax and in the very cursory fashion we've touched on her book "Starting in the Middle", Holt, Rinehart Winston the publishers and it's available and it's a very incisive--it's good out-loud reading, too. Now remember we opened and you're seeing your Chaucerian approach to middle age, or to not middle age, reaching a certain moment of awareness, I should say--
Judith Wax Right.
Studs Terkel A certain moment of maturity. And so you have a four-liner on page two-oh-three. Again you come back to Chaucer, and about, I guess,, the best is yet to be, said Rabbi Ben Ezra. And so here we are.
Judith Wax Rabbi Ben Ezra, I guess, didn't say it in Middle English, but I said that since I was a little embarrassed that I hadn't given any hardcore advice in here, but after all, the world is full of experts, so they let you in if you're a non-expert and sort of stand around scratching and saying, "I don't know." I felt a little guilty about not adding my how-to to a world full of how-tos and are full of "one size fits all" advice. So I had another mock Chaucerian quatrain instead of advice. "I tel yow that ripeness is the beste. I vow that midlyfe's better than the reste. I swear young folke have not on middle agers. I swear also unfair a Fawcett-Majors."
Studs Terkel And so we open as we close, Middle English but very much idiomatic and very eloquent kind of English, too. With Judith Wax my guest, "Starting in the Middle", Holt, Rinehart and Winston the publishers, and thank you very much.