Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 377 pages, $30
Naomi Wolf’s long, ludicrous career has followed a simple formula. She audits herself for some speck of dissatisfaction, arrives at an epiphany — one that might contravene any number of natural laws — and then extrapolates a set of rules and recommendations for all women. Predictable controversy ensues; grouchy reviews and much attention. Over the years her batty claims have included that a woman’s brain can allow her to become pregnant if she so desires, even if she is using birth control; that women’s intellects and creativity are dependent on their sexual fulfillment and, specifically, the skillful ministrations of a “virile man”; and that writing a letter to a breech baby will induce it to turn right side up.
That her advice can contradict itself from book to book doesn’t appear to distress her (she fluctuates between regarding women as all-powerful sorceresses and abjectly dependent). The method has worked too efficiently, and at every stage of her life — as a young woman protesting beauty standards (The Beauty Myth) through motherhood (Misconceptions) and, later, the aging of her parents (The Treehouse), as she has grappled with her ambition (Fire With Fire) and her sex life (Vagina). Always the books are lit by a strange messianic energy, shored up by dubious data and structured around a moment of crisis and revelation as some long-held notion falls away.
Recently, we had the opportunity to witness such a revelation in real time. Wolf was a guest on a BBC radio program, publicizing her new book, Outrages, a study of the criminalization of same-sex relationships in the Victorian era. She spoke passionately about discovering “several dozen executions” of men accused of having sex with other men.
“Several dozen executions? I don’t think you’re right about this,” the host, Matthew Sweet, said, very politely filleting one of Wolf’s central claims. What Wolf regarded as evidence of executions — the notation of “death recorded” on court records — indicated, in fact, the opposite, that the judge had recommended a pardon from the death sentence. Sweet said he could find no evidence that anyone had ever been executed for sodomy in Victorian Britain, and furthermore, that Wolf mistakenly regarded sodomy in the court records as referring exclusively to homosexuality when, in fact, it was also used for child abuse. “I can’t find any evidence that any of the relationships you describe were consensual,” he pointed out.
It was a surprisingly cordial interaction, however. Wolf took the news on the chin and later expressed her gratitude: “It’s such an important story, and I welcome the chance to correct these two out of hundreds of citations and make it perfect.” Her publishers regretted the error but stated they believed the overall thesis still held.
Does it? In a very general sense. The book grew out of Wolf’s 2015 doctoral dissertation at Oxford, on poet John Addington Symonds. She argues that 1857, the year Symonds turned 17, was one of the pivotal years of history, when a confluence of social factors — ideas about disease and contagion, a nascent women’s rights movement — whipped up a storm of “hysterical moral aversion” to homosexuality, culminating in the state’s encroachment on private life, those executions Sweet contested.
Symonds, a lifelong invalid, wrote relentlessly about the naturalness of same-sex desire. He circulated explicit poems among his friends, corresponded with Walt Whitman, collaborated with sexologist Havelock Ellis, and wrote a memoir that he left to be published posthumously. He was a great reformer, according to Henry James, and, to Wolf, one of the first modern gay activists.
They matter because although there are stretches of the book that I enjoyed, I don’t trust it. My woman’s brain might be capable of such wonders as turning a rogue breech baby right side up, but it can’t quite overlook Wolf’s distinguished career of playing loose with facts and the historical record.
Her first, career-making book, The Beauty Myth, is well-known for exaggerating the number of women who died of anorexia (Wolf stated that anorexia kills 150,000 women annually; the actual figure at the time, in the mid-1990s, was said to be closer to 50 or 60). One academic paper found that fully 18 of the 23 statistics about anorexia in the book were inaccurate and coined a term — WOLF (Wolf’s Overdo and Lie Factor) — to determine the degree to which Wolf was wrong: “On average, a statistic on anorexia by Naomi Wolf should be divided by eight to get close to the real figure.”
Reviews of her book on fascism argued, as one put it, that she “consistently mutilated the truth with selective and ultimately deceptive use of her sources.” And Vagina so profoundly misrepresented the working of the brain, I’m not sure science writers have recovered. “This is a very troubling interpretation of science. I can’t find the data behind her claims,” Beverly Whipple, the scientist who discovered the G-spot, said. “Is this fiction or nonfiction?”
This is to say nothing of Wolf’s unhinged public pronouncements. She has alleged the U.S. military is importing Ebola from Africa with an intention of spreading it at home, that Edward Snowden might be a government plant, and that she has seen the figure of Jesus while she was (inexplicably) in the form of a 13-year-old boy. She appeared on Alex Jones’ show, and accused the government of intercepting and reading her daughter’s mail.
Throughout it all, she remains impervious to criticism. “I’m lucky,” she said in a recent profile in The Guardian. “I had a good education. I know my books are true.”
Not accurate or factual, but true. This is a key to understanding why charges of sloppiness or misrepresentation don’t seem to stymie, or even embarrass, writers like Wolf (or Jared Diamond and Annie Jacobsen, who have both been involved in similar scandals in recent weeks, facing them with the same blithe indifference). The issue isn’t simply that publishers don’t spring for fact-checking and leave writers vulnerable to making such errors. These writers see themselves in service of something larger than grubby reporting. “The important thing is that these stories are told,” Wolf recently told The Times of London. They are the emissaries of great stories, suppressed stories, and if they take liberties or eschew careful research — as consistently as Wolf has done — it is because they believe they have a right to them, that the story, the cause, somehow sanctions it.
As one of the scientists whom Wolf consulted for Vagina protested on her behalf: “Can’t we allow an accomplished writer and social critic a little poetic leeway to make a point?” As a bonus, there is a neat defense built into this line of thinking. Any criticism can be dismissed as an attempt to repress vital, challenging new knowledge.
When Symonds was a young man and fearful of his desires, he called his homosexuality “the wolf” and struggled to contain it. Of course, there was nothing to contain, nothing to dread — as he later rejoiced, in his sonnets, pamphlets, and fantastically frank memoirs.
If there is a different wolf at the door, the consolation will be that Symonds’ work will find new readers anyway; it will continue, in the words of his great friend Whitman, “to tell the secret of my nights and days, / to celebrate the need of comrades.”
— Parul Sehgal/The New York Times