Katie Roiphe, Cultural Sociopath
In the same year Anita Hill testified before snaky senators about a soon-to-be-confirmed Supreme Court Justice who had sexually harassed her, a twenty-three-year-old from privileged stock desperately sought attention.
Katie Roiphe tapped the sticky tendrils of her inherited web and wrote a New York Times article arguing that date rape was little more than a hysterical fantasy. “More than just a polemic against rape,” wrote Roiphe of this form of sexual assault, “it reveals a desire for dates.” Claiming that date rape pamphlets share common qualities with mid-19th century etiquette guides, Roiphe declared, without citing any specific sources, that the feminist movement then in bloom “peddle[d] an image of gender relations that denies female desire and infantilizes women.”
There was no vacancy in Roiphe’s article for feelings of trauma, shame, physical violation, or any emotion approximating empathy. But there was plentiful room for regressive rhetoric about “subject[ing] our male friends to scrutiny,” as if acquaintance rape was some inconvenience comparable to a chiropractor calling in the middle of dinner to schedule a followup appointment.
The piece received enough controversy for Little, Brown to enlist Roiphe to build these half-considered murmurs into a bigger townhouse — an even more ill-considered tome called The Morning After — where the Gray Lady-sanctioned paralogia pushed harder against the drab confines of Roiphe’s dim and unfurnished mind. “The guerrilla feminists were effective in their purpose,” read one of Roiphe’s typically subtle magnifications, “they successfully planted the fear of rape in the minds of prospective students before they even reached the Wesleyan campus.”
In tracking down some of Roiphe’s sources, Katha Pollitt discovered that Roiphe had used data in a misleading manner. Roiphe misrepresented a court case. Roiphe claimed anti-rape activists had manipulated statistics, yet fudged and ignored the research with a zealot’s predictably mad and sadly delusional touch.
Yet somehow Roiphe’s inexorable knack for inaccuracy and her reliance upon risible self-delusion to articulate a provocative point had escaped the pitchforks that had rightly driven Jennifer Toth out of town. Roiphe continued with her dutiful op-ed claptrap, turning out an essay collection (Last Night in Paradise) dripping with manufactured horror. To cite just one offense, Roiphe was so cruel that she went out of her way to ridicule Alison Gertz, the young woman who contracted HIV during her first sexual encounter and spoke around the country about safe sex before she died. Roiphe called Gertz “sweeter and blander” with each new wave of media attention. Then there was Still She Haunts Me, in which Roiphe expelled violet-tinted doggerel passing as a novel (“She was the oyster, the sun, the walrus,” reads one of the tome’s turgid sentences).
Who was this cultural Ann Coulter? Was she really serious? In 2007, when the surprisingly more restrained Uncommon Arrangements was published, I made an attempt to answer these two questions. I met Roiphe in-person for an interview, theorizing — wrongly as it turned out — that her viewpoints were part of an act or that she might be misunderstood. But Roiphe proved so belligerent that even the friendly woman at the Cobble Hill cafe asked what the problem had been shortly after Roiphe stormed out like a toddler in want of a pacifier. Not only was Roiphe in denial about a passage that she had written, which I had asked her to clarify, but she proved unwilling to talk about any of her other books. She hung on hard to gender generalizations, such as her idea that all women in their thirties long to be married, which I challenged. Above all, she claimed a devotion to the obstinate and inflexible viewpoint that refused to adjust, even as new evidence and new experience presented itself:
Roiphe: I’m actually interested in talking about this book and not my previous work. But, yes, I stand by everything that I said at the time that I wrote that book.
Correspondent: Okay. I mean, you know, don’t you — doesn’t your ideology change in any manner?
Roiphe: As I say, I stand by everything I wrote in this book and I’m right now interested in talking about Uncommon Arrangements.
“I often hear people refer to other single mothers I know as ‘crazy,’ and I assume that when I am not standing right there they refer to me that way too.” — Katie Roiphe, “The Alchemy of Quiet Malice”
In 1930, the psychiatrist George Everett Partridge introduced the word “sociopath” to the lexicon. Attempting to address the quotidian dilemma of people who went out of their way to be callous or who were unable to understand the concerns of others, Partridge identified a sociopath as someone motivated by supreme egocentricity, an inability to feel or comprehend remorse or contrition, and an almost total lack of empathy. The term sought to distinguish this troubled breed from a “psychopath,” who is driven by mental illness.
From the very first essay of her latest collection, In Praise of Messy Lives, Roiphe is a veritable Partridge exemplar. When friends extend help and sympathy after Roiphe’s divorce, she sarcastically writes, “I am touched by their concern,” and a page later, “At no other point in my life have so many people tried so hard to convince me of how miserable I am.” She complains that her friends aren’t hearing her, but refuses to consider that what they observe may contain a kernel of truth. It’s a strange early tone to establish, especially when Roiphe proudly notes how she “once wrote an entire book about one shouldn’t reach for easy feminist interpretations of the world.” It also makes one wonder why anybody would ever want to be Roiphe’s friend. Bring a cup of homemade chicken soup to Katie when she’s sick and you may very well be charged with a malefactory motive.
Roiphe believes in “things that can’t be measured and quantified in studies.” But her purported observational acumen, on display in “Unquiet Americans,” doesn’t reveal anything terribly sophisticated while traveling with her husband in Hanoi:
I had begun to see that everywhere we went there were a million minor transactions taking place beneath the surface. At first I was oblivious to these transactions, but slowly I began to recognize them: if a driver takes you to his friend’s hotel, he is getting a cut; if a waiter sells you an expensive dish, he is getting a cut; if a guide takes you to a silk shop, he is getting a cut; and there are bound to be other people getting cuts of his cut.
Beyond the crass suggestion that all in Hanoi are primarily motivated by a financial opportunism indistinguishable from the American middle class, there’s an alarming failure here to comprehend that these so-called “cuts” may be essential to Vietnamese survival or that American wealth, even with recent inflation, permits one to live like a relative king. Two peddlers approach Roiphe and her husband and our hapless heroes eventually give in. But Roiphe’s takeaway has little to do with the peddlers’ souls or any especial concern for their inner lives, which may even be messier than hers. She seeks craven capitalist comforts:
The only thing that is familiar, the only thing that moors us to our regular lives, is the green face of our former president.
Roiphe retreats from the green of money to the Greene of literature and her journey through Southeast Asia becomes as soaked in cliché as a graham cracker softened by milk as she notes the “tiny and immaculate” guide in Cambodia, maintaining a superficial and impenetrable response to what she sees as the “alien.” Unfortunately, this upper-crust white cracker jive becomes more lucid back on home turf.
In the essay “Beautiful Boy, Warm Night,” Roiphe reveals that a concern for others that is clearly alien to her arguably soulless and judgmental nature. “I remember her being from a trailer park,” writes Roiphe about a former college friend named Stella just before revealing that she secretly slept with her confidant’s boyfriend. And if this is a harbinger of the “praise” for messiness, it’s a decidedly cold and self-absorbed defense:
…people didn’t belong as absolutely to other people then. There was a kind of fluidity to our world. The barriers that in adult life seem so solid and fixed, literal walls defining your apartment, your bedroom, did not exist at that age. You listened, for instance, to your roommate having sex; you slept easily and deeply on someone else’s couch; you ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner with everyone you knew. And somehow nothing was quite real unless it was shared, talked about, rehashed with friends, fretted about and analyzed, every single thing that happened, every minute gradation of emotion, more high-level gossip in the process of being told than events in and of themselves.
This passage is about the closest Roiphe gets to confessing about how she relates to other people. Aside from the creepy idea that listening with care to the ways in which your roommate fucks the young man she loves is comparable to talking over a meal (let alone the cowardly act of stealing a lover in secret), the clear distinction here is how Roiphe infers what other people say about life as opposed to learning valuable lessons through living, even living as a mess. It’s telling how Roiphe states that she remembers almost nothing at all about the actual incident. And when Roiphe concludes her essay by imagining Stella, who aborted her friendship with Roiphe, returning years later about how Roiphe has once again failed to consider anyone outside herself, Roiphe writes, “She would be right, of course: I am stealing the boy all over again.”
And with this last sentence in the section devoted to Roiphe’s life, the sociopath clambers up to the surface: the same empty and unchanging monster demanding your scrutiny as she did eighteen years earlier, but without really much to say.
There’s her infamous and ill-informed essay about how today’s male novelists are too timid to write about sex. But Roiphe, who clearly hasn’t read much outside the mainstream literary canon, cherry picks a few convenient examples to uphold her thesis (Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, and Benjamin Kunkel), while completely ignoring the considerable volumes of literature (written by men and women; indeed, why should gender matter in a generational argument?) that have tackled daring or even absurd sexual topics.
Roiphe’s failure to mention the Bad Sex Award in an essay that purports to probe into how fictional sex is now received by the public reveals how clearly she has not done her homework. An essay that purports to deal with how “the heirs apparent have repudiated the aggressive virility of their predecessors” should probably consider how readers and critics perceive literature. Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, which took home a recent Bad Sex Award, featured ridiculous sexual description, but I don’t think Littell’s “jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg” could be called, in all seriousness, a repudiation — given how that little episode went on for pages near the book’s finale.
If your reading tastes don’t steer to the vanilla, as Roiphe’s clearly do (despite her self-satisfied caterwauling about Fifty Shades of Grey), one can find plentiful contemporary novelists who still take chances with sexuality. Three years ago, Brian Evenson’s Last Days included a scene in which a mutilated woman stripped before a self-mutilated clique. And the disturbing and absurd qualities of this tableau, the rare literary moment striking an array of disparate emotions, revealed much about the way we objectify sex, even while hitting a more surrealist Portnoyesque moment. Earlier this year, Samuel R. Delany’s Through the Valley of the Next of Spiders was saturated with sex, which was used as a way to represent aging and being an outsider. Have the unsettling moments in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho become so quickly forgotten? What of the comic sexual embarrassment frequently found within Jonathan Ames’s work? Or the uncomfortable sexuality explored in Rupert Thomson’s The Book of Revelations? Or the disturbing sex often found within Iain Banks’s work? (Or do we disqualify Thomson and Banks because they’re British? I don’t follow Roiphe’s logic. Do we conveniently elide certain nationalities to fit this essay’s sudoku-like approach so that the numbers line up in this predetermined puzzle?)
Roiphe’s hysterical ignorance bristles through this essay like an insensitive investment banker running away from a vagrant, especially when she lumps David Foster Wallace into the “often repelled and uncomfortable when faced with a sexual situation” category. Hardly. You don’t have to scratch Wallace’s oeuvre too hard to find fearless sexual representation. Unless, like Roiphe, the only fucking thing you’ve read of Wallace is Infinite Jest. Consider the title story of The Girl with Curious Hair, which features a young woman who allows a yuppie to set off matches on her skin (incidentally, teaching this story lost Jan Richman her job eight years ago). And what of the unsettling sexual feelings contained within Brief Interviews with Hideous Men?
That all of this uninformed folderol passed without a single editor looking into any of this, and was printed in the ostensible Paper of Record and a book published by The Dial Press, reaffirms the crepuscular state of American cultural journalism, which has not seen vibrant daylight for some time. Katie Roiphe easily fits into this onyx nexus because the medium is populated by vampires who cling to their jobs like passengers on the Titanic and who turn any remotely fresh or original talent into ground chuck. These thugs aren’t interested in thoughtful pieces. They’re interested in names and phony controversy. And the hilarious thing is that Katie Roiphe, a vitiated dunce more noxious and sociopathic and backwards than her fellow XX misogynist Caitlin Flanagan, is still considered a name by some of these people, who haven’t had a handle on things since about 1991.
It’s evident later in the book that this is more about Roiphe holding on to her op-ed perch rather than articulating anything of substance. Roiphe reveals herself as a fabulously scabrous hypocrite who views herself above the angry commenter (“Is it possible, though, that there is just more bitterness out there than we realized before the Internet brought us closer to people’s rawest, quickest, uncensored thoughts.”) and condemns Emily Gould for seeking a blurb after her hostile Gawker post:
If you are pumping out autopilot schadenfreude all day long, maybe there is nothing personal in it. The rage, the dissociated nastiness, floats through the ether and attaches itself fleetingly to a subject, but really, taking it personally is like being annoyed at the wind for messing up your hair.
This from a figure who pines for the days where sixteen-month-old children recognize the smell of Scotch on other people’s breaths and who kvetches about the political predictability of incest scenes in fiction.
To afford Roiphe some credit, she does include a somewhat intelligible essay on how Joan Didion’s style creates the illusion of personal revelation. But when Roiphe writes about Didion “[giving] writers a way to write about their favorite topic (themselves) while seeming to pursue a more noble subject (the culture),” one can’t help but think of Martin Amis’s more cogent critique about Didion’s “reflexive cross-hatching” in an essay contained in The Moronic Inferno — especially because Roiphe cribs the very same passage from The White Album (“does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968″) that Amis used.
It’s no wonder she would try to pinpoint the value of messy lives, even if the best she can do is remark upon how “the tameness of contemporary sins” is a little disheartening. Maybe what Roiphe longs for are the days when messy essayists could get away with poorly considered arguments in the newspapers.
Like many rotting fountains throughout America, Katie Roiphe rose up the ranks with a cold and ungainly stream of stinging reductionist views, but has since fallen into permanent ratiocinative disrepair. Like a third-rate polemicist tossing poorly mixed Molotovs with a limp-wristed aim, she does not await the ballistics expert to fix her locking mechanism. She would rather rust with pride. So long as the New York clime will tolerate her peculiarly accepted form of trolling, Roiphe will be quite happy to douse you with a sticky brownish taint. This is not something to celebrate. It is something to pity.
(Editor’s Note: This essay contains some reworked material originally published as a Metafilter comment.)