Wendy Lower (The Bat Segundo Show #526)

Wendy Lower is most recently the author of Hitler’s Furies, a nonfiction finalist for this year’s National Book Awards, which will be awarded on Wednesday night.

Author: Wendy Lower

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Subjects Discussed: Marriage and genocide, the hausfrau who shot at Jews from the balcony, Liesel Willhaus, Hitler’s “baby machine” speech in 1934, Nazi ideology and gender roles, Volksgemeinschaft, Erna Petri, societal cues and massacring children, the fluidity of women’s personality in 1930s Germany, women in higher education restricted from participation, women who advanced up the social ladder, the League of German Girls, upward mobility among German women existing before the Nazi regime, Michael Wildt, looking at history through mundane everyday activities, Leni Riefenstahl’s rally footage, organized marches as rituals, looking at the motives for people who participated in these marches, concentrating on the half million women in the Eastern territories where communities of violence flourished, the Red Swastika Sisters, women serving as nurses, Annette Schücking, women listening to men boasting of massacres and being forced to comfort them, Nazis socializing by looking down at the inferior to affirm their superiority, Claudia Koonz’s Mothers in the Fatherland, women’s complicity in Nazi crimes, secretaries and bosses organizing massacres together, complicity in the workplace, shooting people from balconies, differing ideas about Vera Wohlauf, Christopher Browning’s claim of men feeling uncomfortable by Wohlauf’s presence because it made them feel shameful, Goldhagen’s ideas of men proud of their acts, genocide as men’s work, Browning’s Ordinary Men, German women using their pregnant condition to reduce their perceived culpability, the question of whether being close to the Miedzyrzec Aktion makes you an accomplice to atrocities, terrorizing by attendance, defining women’s culpability in relation to men, Gertrude Segel and Felix Landau, why it’s taken so long to consider women as part of the Nazi regime, how focusing on killing centers shifts the dialogue away from exploring violence within the general population during the Holocaust, how the German and Austrian courts excluded witness testimony after the war, how many women committing atrocities were allowed to return to regular life, cruelty focused on eroticized forms by the courts, the 500 women vs. the 20,00 men who stood trial after the war, low conviction rates, the Lemberg Trial, appearance stereotypes, the curious case of Johanna Altvater Zelle (aka Fräulein Hanna), how masculine appearances of women “explained” barbaric behavior, the natural Germanic ideal and its role in Nazi crimes (and subsequent exoneration), Nazi cowgirl types, Karl May, Nazi ideas of the wild west, German women telling journalists, scholars, and historians exactly what they wanted to hear (and how scholars have sorted out the truth from the hyperbole), the choices that women had under the Nazi regime, euthanasia programs, duty prevailing over morality, executed women, Nazi Empire Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine, resistance figure Maria Kondratenko, women who took advantage of the Nazi idea that women were intellectually inferior, why gender matters in looking at the Holocaust, the Black Misha, how secretaries were responsible for the administrative part of the Holocaust, workplace relationships and Nazi socialization, Nazi consumer culture, German women who were raped, and questioning the narrative of innocence.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Let’s discuss the idea of genocide as men’s work under the Nazi regime. There was this duty to serve the Reich and anyone who was considered work-shy was sent to a concentration camp, of course, to be reeducated. Men were expected to go out and perform an Aktion, which meant of course massacring Jews. You have this idea of marriage, where a woman had to be fulfilled with domestic work while she was simultaneously subordinate to her husband. But then you have people like Liesel Willhaus. She would often shoot at Jewish slaves working on her villa from her second story balcony for the sport of it. So I’m wondering. To what degree were figures like Willhaus responding to Nazi societal cues and to what degree were they reacting to these gender roles that were associated with work?

Lower: You know, in a speech that Hitler gave in 1934 at one of the rallies, he was very explicit. He said that women are supposed to serve their Reich to propagate the race. As baby machines, as it were. He didn’t use that term. But that’s kind of how we’ve come to understand it. But he also mentioned using the term “fellow combatants,” which I refer to in my book. And I do that deliberately to show that there were two strands of thinking in Nazi ideology vis-à–vis women and gender roles. One was obviously predominantly racial: the drive to expand the German race. But that drive to expand the German race was about survival. And survival was about militarized operations and it was expansion of the living space and building of the empire. So you have women in the role of the expansion of the German population to fulfill these megalomaniac global ambitions of Hitler’s and also serving as fellow combatants. There you see this paradox, where you see the kind of femininity of the hausfrau, of the mother, of the wife. But they also are mobilized in these campaigns. And the uniform culture, for instance, that is very a clear theme in my book, when these young women like Liesel Willhaus aspire to seek careers through the party and better themselves. They’re swept up in this fervor when they’re mobilized to go to the Eastern territories. She was sent to the Ukraine in this case. So there’s social mobility that is possible in the Volksgemeinschaft. But it has both this traditional feminine role as well as this very militaristic revolutionary experiment.

Correspondent: I guess what I’m trying to unravel here — I mean, I looked also to Erna Petri. She comes to the East in June 1942, observing her husband Horst beating and sexually assaulting servants shortly after arriving in Thuringia. By the summer of 1943, she’s already not only an accomplished hausfrau hostess, but she invites six starving Jewish children in and she shoots them in the back of the head. She had heard other Nazis saying that this was the best way to dispose of them. And the thing that fascinates me, and I’m hoping to hear you unravel, is how this kind of societal cue of “This is the best way to shoot a child” — how is that tied into what it was to be a hausfrau hostess or be this woman who, as you put it earlier, Hitler called a baby machine?

Lower: Yeah. The Nazi experiment tested all kinds of boundaries of matrimony, femininity, child rearing. These are all coming out, I think, in these individual cases that I delve into in a way, in which I’m putting faces on this lost generation of women and straightening out these different examples of those who went east. And you’ve focused on the worst cases. And the killer Erna Petri is probably the most extreme case in the book that really is the most shocking. But we see even in her case that she starts out as an ordinary farmgirl, a farmer’s daughter from a town near Erfurt, near Weimar, and attaches herself to a rising star in the SS movement, is then sent east with him to one of these plantations. And they’re kind of lording over this estate. So they have a lot of unsupervised power over the laborers on the estate. And you mentioned Jewish boys who fled the boxcar that was headed to Sobibor in ’43. And she slipped in and out of multiple roles at any given moment. She was both self-aware of being part of this revolution and wanting to assert herself, to prove herself. But then she had been socialized in traditional ways of how one should behave as a hausfrau, as a mother. And these are coming together. There’s a perversion that takes place here of these gender roles that are instrumentalized in the genocide. So you have a lot of tension in this history between racial ideals, gendered stereotypes, and this extreme violence that comes together. In the Eastern territories in particular.

Correspondent: But would you say that a particular gender role encouraged, “Hey, since this is the best way to dispose of a Jewish child, I will quite naturally fall into this because of the state.” I’ll later get into the fascinating postwar trials, in which a lot of these women got away. But I am curious, first and foremost, how many of these roles amalgamated into something where — is it even possible to unravel? It is even possible to isolate what could cause someone in one year to go to this state of being a hausfrau hostess who thinks nothing of shooting a child in the back of the head?

Lower: I think that these transformations were not — it’s a very fluid situation. They’re kind of moving back and forth. And this is after some intense socialization in the ’30s. So Erna Petri is born in 1920. In the 1920s, she was very young. But this was kind of the heyday of the explosion of women’s activity in politics. They gained the vote. So you have the politicization of women. And then boom. She’s coming of age in the ’30s in that kind of atmosphere. But it’s being shaped by this genocidal Nazi regime, which is highly ideological. And she said even in her testimony that the indoctrination of the ’30s was her motive, that she had been taught to hate Jews. And so she’s learning things along the way as well. And there’s a lot of leeway. There’s a lot of room for maneuvering too that we see in her behavior and many women like her, which was exciting for them and empowering. They were acting out. They didn’t assume that this regime was going to come to a screeching halt and be defeated. They just saw career tracks opening up. Bright futures in front of them. And especially someone like Petri and some of the wives of these SS men. They had entered into this new nobility under Himmler. And that was another level of being part of a community. And their actions, of course, because of the emphasis on this racial community. Volksgemeinschaft is a German term. People’s community. One could act out individually, but also understand one’s actions within this society. So later on for instance, not to jump too far ahead, someone like Erna Petri and many male perpetrators who find in their testimony these kinds of defense rationales in the courtroom, I don’t know how deep they went in terms of their own psychology, in which they literally state, “I feel myself.” They use the reflexive case in German. “I don’t feel myself to be guilty.” They don’t appreciate the individual responsibility and culpability because of the pervasiveness of this social experiment, being part of a national revolution and how unity and duty were so heavily stressed more than, say, morality.

Correspondent: Hitler, as you say — this whole “baby machine.” I want to go with this further. Basically, he said that a mother of multiple children was more beneficial to the Nazi regime than a woman lawyer. There were quotas in place preventing women from obtaining these degrees in higher education and political office. You point to upward mobility in this book as one of the big reasons why these women left villages and they saw jobs. Vera Wohlauf, she advanced up the social ladder through this office encounter and by marrying this wealthy merchant. So you didn’t have a lot of choices. But there were ways around this. How much of these ambitions emerged from, say, the League of German Girls, which was the girl answer to the Hitler Youth, and how did disregarding and humiliating Jews in the pre-Kristallnacht period lead to this alternative empowerment for women? It’s extraordinarily strange and I’m just trying to isolate certain aspects of this.

Lower: When I talk about the socialization during the Nazi regime, let me break that down. So, for instance, the League of German Girls was compulsory after the mid-’30s. So anyone — and with the boys as well obviously — after the age of ten, they had to be part of these youth movements. And they predominated and swallowed up all the other activities. I mean, the Nazi Party was really clever, insidiously so, in mobilizing the youth. They didn’t need to shut down the churches as such. They would just hold a lot of party meetings in these youth programs on Sunday morning. So people couldn’t go to church. Or they, of course, infiltrated the entire education system. The textbooks were completely rewritten. So each of these professional groups were somehow restructured along party lines as a one party system. Now in the beginning, thousands of German women — ordinary German women; Jewish women among them — who had been very active politically in the 1920s in the Communist movement, in the Social Democratic Party, the Catholic Center Party, other parties that the Nazis were destroying basically in ’33 as they consolidated their dictatorship — these women, especially the Communists, were sought out, arrested, and many were killed. And German women were also victims of sterilization policies. About 200,000. So within the German female population, already an early part of the ’30s, those who might be resistant to these policies are being weeded out, terrorized, incarcerated, and so forth. And so some like the individuals in my book — Erna Petri, Vera — they’re not part of that. They’ve survived that and they’ve triumphed. And now they’ve got this bright future ahead of them. And they can get out of there. Liesel Willhaus was the daughter of a foreman in a czar land. Worked on a chicken farm. And those who were not the killers in my book — the witnesses and bystanders — were similar demographics. They didn’t have educations beyond grammar school. They had secretarial training or nursing. Obviously nursing training was essential for the war effort. That particular career path was opened up. So this is how the socialization happens and what it means in terms of how women’s lives and their futures shift into these different directions under the regime.

The Bat Segundo Show #526: Wendy Lower (Download MP3)

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Lynn Povich (The Bat Segundo Show)

Lynn Povich is most recently the author of The Good Girls Revolt.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why mysterious men are packing him off to Paris.

Author: Lynn Povich

Subjects Discussed: The Henry Luce “tradition” of men working as writers and women working as researchers, well-educated women being exploited in a two-tier system, Janet Flanner, the influence of the Civil Rights Act, the old boys’ network, the contrast between Oz Elliott’s civil rights conscience and Newsweek‘s treatment of women, Anna Quindlen, Otto Freidrich’s 1964 ridicule of the fact checker (and Friedrich’s condescending description of women), “office maidens,” the importance and accountability of fact checkers, how people viewed women reporters in the 1960s, Businessweek hiring women straight out of college, Reader’s Digest‘s paternalistic form of “respect” towards women, Flora Lewis in The New York Times, whether Kay Graham and The Washington Post‘s support of the lawsuit was sufficiently commensurate at the time, women reporters not being invited to lunch meetings, the second Newsweek lawsuit, Gloria Steinem vs. Graham, being a feminist vs. being a businesswoman, Eleanor Holmes Norton and the importance of having the right attorney, Harriet Rabb, Margo Jefferson, black reporters who didn’t organize at Newsweek, inquiry into efforts to unite black and women reporters, income disparity, why the journalism industry is a good medium to examine income inequity, women and education, journalism school, Povich’s editorship at Working Woman, women managers, tryout sessions for women and writer training programs, office affairs and rampant recreational sex within newsrooms, Hanna Rosin’s recent claims about hookup culture being empowering, how women didn’t get ahead even when promiscuous, sexist stereotypes in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, Sorkin’s “silent bearers of sexism,” the 2011 Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media, the American inability to consider work vs. family balance, why it’s important to worry about men, and men as stay-at-home dads.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: When Oz Elliott, the Newsweek editor-in-chief, initially responded to the lawsuit that you filed against Newsweek — and this is sort of my question to get you to talk about that lawsuit, but let’s go ahead and get the background first — he said in his statement that the reason that most of the researchers at Newsweek were women and virtually all of the writers were men was, in his words, “because of a newsmagazine tradition going back almost fifty years.” Now he said this, despite what you describe later in the book as “a WASPY social conscience.” So why was this tradition, which originated from Henry Luce and Brit Hadden, tolerated for so long? Especially when you had some women who had to settle for this second-tier treatment and often give the best years of their lives? Let’s talk about the origins of this problem.

Povich: Well, yes, in fact, when Henry Luce created this system of all of the researchers being women, and all of the writers and reporters being men, Oz, who worked at Time Magazine at the time, said this was great for women because it got them out of the steno category and they could actually do editorial work. So at that point, which was in ’29 I think, it was considered more liberating than being a secretary. And Newsweek copied Time. However, by 1960, it was pretty clear that well-educated women coming out of the same schools as men with perhaps no prior experience, as many men did not have, and some prior experience, as some men had, were hired into this entry level category and couldn’t be promoted out of it. And women who really wanted to be journalists that young and knew it, like Nora Ephron and Jane Bryant Quinn and Ellen Goodman and Susan Brownmiller, they saw the lay of the land pretty quickly and they left. And the rest of us “good girls,” as I call us, were probably, first, happy to get a job. Especially in a place that was so interesting, about the news, working on the matters that really were important and having this special pipeline to the truth. As one of the writers said, we were all blind in many ways. I mean, the women bought into it. The men certainly bought into it. Until one day we didn’t. And I think the fact that the women’s movement happened as many of us in the mid-’60s were coming into the workforce helped us realized, certainly helped me realize. I was reporting and writing at the time. I was a junior writer. And I started covering the women’s movement. And I suddenly realized this isn’t just about those women. Hey, there’s something wrong with this picture for us at Newsweek. And that’s when a bunch of us started organizing.

Correspondent: Were there any other efforts at organization before yours that fizzled out? That you were aware of when you were organizing with your fellow women reporters or women researchers at Newsweek, aspiring of course to be reporters? I mean, were you aware of any other cues or efforts to rebel against this? I mean, I’m really curious as to why such a “tradition” lasted for so long and why good old Oz actually upheld that for a while, who was eventually forced to turn back. What was the impulse to, number one, cause him to change? And, number two, the other question is is: Why weren’t women revolting against this?

Povich: It’s a good question. Well, first of all, during World War II, there were women writers, as there were in many professions, where women took over men’s jobs. But by the early ’60s, they had all left. And there was one women who managed to get out of research and into writing in the early ’60s and was promoted to being a correspondent in Paris. So she was already writing in Paris when we were back in New York.

Correspondent: This is at Newsweek.

Povich: At Newsweek. There were still no women writing.

Correspondent: It’s interesting. They sent the women from New York. Just like Janet Flanner at the New Yorker.

Povich: (laughs) Right. Exactly. Paris.

Correspondent: Somehow women could understand Paris, right?

Povich: And she was a brilliant write and reporter. She was fabulous. She just didn’t happen to be there when most of us were hired. She had left to go to Paris. So we were presented with this situation of all of us being researchers and the guys being our bosses. It’s interesting. Because even though the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, when the person who actually first started our revolt, Judy Gingold, who was a Marshall Scholar, who came back from England and could not find a job. Except as a fact checker at Newsweek. When she was talking to a lawyer, who told her that our situation was illegal, she couldn’t believe it. And she said, “Well, you know, I don’t think the guys know it’s illegal. I think we should just tell the guys.” And the lawyer said, “Call the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and you’ll find out.” And so she called them. They said, “Yes, this is illegal.” And she said, “Well, shouldn’t we just tell the men?” And the women at the other end of the line said, “Are you crazy? People in power don’t want to give up power. If you tell them, they will promote two women, co-opt your movement, and it will be finished. You have a clear-cut case and you have to sue.” So my feeling is that they didn’t know it was illegal or realized it was illegal. Because it had been accepted as a woman’s job for so long. It had been a tradition. And, of course, it benefited men. And their circles were men. I mean, they hired guys right off the Harvard Crimson and the Yale Daily. Because that’s where they were from. And their circle, as we know, in corporate America still — if it’s a boy’s club at the top, your sources are guys.

Correspondent: Do you think these men were conscious of the fact that they were playing into this sexism? Or that this was an automatic power structure that they fell into? I mean, we were talking about Oz Elliott changing his mind. How difficult was it to get other men who were in positions of power to change their mind? Even before you filed a lawsuit. Or was it fairly steeped in the culture?

Povich: I mean, I have to say that many of the men at Newsweek were supporters of ours. Certainly the writers we worked with and who knew how smart and talented many of the women were, they supported us from the very beginning. And Oz Elliott, as you said, got it right away. He told me that Monday he realized we were right. Now this is a man who put Newsweek on the map because of his civil rights coverage. And they were very proud of their progressive views on civil rights and Black Americans.

Correspondent: A great irony.

Povich: Yes. And at the same time, they hadn’t realized that in front of their noses, there was this horrible injustice happening to the women who worked for them. Oz Elliott also has three daughters. And my pet theory is that men with daughters are far more open and respectful of what women can do. But like all organizations, or many organizations, the actual discrimination came in middle management. For us, it was the senior editors and the top couple of editors under Oz. That happens a lot in corporate America. And many of those guys were against affirmative action. Anna Quindlen has a wonderful quote she told me. I always say I’m an affirmative action baby and I’m proud of it. I wouldn’t have gotten where I was without it. And she feels the same way. And she says when people look at her strangely about that, she says, “If you think affirmative action is promoting a second-rate talent just because they’re female or black, you’re looking at one.” And so I do think a lot of people were against affirmative action. They thought that this was not a good idea. And they also didn’t look at women, frankly, as capable professionally. Either because of their own backgrounds, because of power. Whatever it was. But I was told that promoting me was one of the worst decisions that the editor ever took at the time. We were told when we filed the suit — one of the top editor said, “Why don’t we just fire them all? We don’t need them.” It’s complicated. I call it our little Rosa Parks moment. Everybody went to the back of the bus until one day you didn’t. And one day, we didn’t.

The Bat Segundo Show #484: Lynn Povich (Download MP3)

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Paula Bomer (The Bat Segundo Show)

Paula Bomer is most recently the author of Nine Months. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #375

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for the mother who stole the car keys.

Author: Paula Bomer

Subjects Discussed: Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives, similarities between exploring women’s issues in fiction and hyperbolic op-ed journalists, how emotional candor and candid language reveals issues about women and motherhood, people who use children as an excuse not to write or so what they need to do, J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand, agents who pester writers for new novels, empty nest syndrome, judging other people’s reactions in relation to children, writing about raw experience, the tendency for young writers to write about everything, the relationship between nostalgia and experience, “writing pregnancy like a man,” responding to Alison Mercer’s claims that there aren’t enough birth scenes in fiction, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, people who viewed the first chapter of Nine Months (describing birth) as disgusting, Sylvia Plath’s journals, Elizabeth Jane Howard, when the visual and the emotional becomes frightening when conveyed through language, death and rape getting better representation in fiction than birth, the animal nature of birth, how birth was portrayed in the 1930s, being scared of things that have multiple names, Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, human memory and birth, how notions of motherhood change in various parts of America, New York having an impact on the parenting industry far more than it should, South Bend, Indiana, how childhood greatly affects perception of New York parenting, doping kids up on Adderall as a solution to poor grades and to compete with others, public-sphere competition involving kids in metropolitan areas, considering the Venn diagram between work and motherhood, much ado about Marissa Mayer being a pregnant CEO, breast milk vs. formula, the Bloomberg assault on formula, Baby Einstein tests, why contemporary writers wish to avoid writing about mothers smoking pot and having sex with strangers, satire vs. farce, the need to rebel as a writer, facing the uncomfortable through humor, shifting from short stories to novels, deviating from outlines, Phillip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater, Jonathan Franzen, Amazon reviews, the importance of not looking at reviews, Michiko Kakutani, Jonathan Lethem’s needless complaints about James Wood, Mailer vs. Vidal, when rivals in literary feuds are actually secret friends (and the needless “all or nothing” nature of most of today’s literary relationships), Alice Hoffman’s posting a reviewer’s phone number, William Giraldi’s review of Alix Ohlin, when bad reviews actually sell books, writing persuasive sex scenes, the Bad Sex Award in Fiction, graphic language, Mary Gaitskill’s views on smugness, the use of “smug” in Nine Months, writing fan letters to writers, dealing with disappointment, snobbery and hierarchies, elitism and egalitarianism, occupying unknown circles, being inspired by men’s magazines, the need for magazines to require an “angle” when writing about something cool, and the demolition derby as art installation.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: By a curious coincidence, I read your book concurrently with Katie Roiphe’s latest essay collection, In Praise of Messy Lives. And what was interesting, and I’m sure it wasn’t the fact that I read them close together, was that the tone of both were actually quite similar. Sonia’s voice and Katie Roiphe’s voice were actually very, very close. And I wanted to ask you about this. I mean, they both wish to wear their messy lives on their sleeves as a badge of honor. They both don’t always understand the impact of their behavior on other people, on their families, and so forth. But what’s interesting is that the chief difference is that Sonia actually does have some sort of emotional intuition. She is capable of discerning empathy and so forth from others, even if she doesn’t necessarily choose to respond to it. And so my question to you — well, there’s two. One, I’m wondering if you had any op-ed writers along the lines of Katie Roiphe or other Double X people in mind when you were working on this book. And, two, do you feel that candor or straightforward emotion allows us to deal with these more unpleasant feelings about what it is to be a woman, what it is to be a mother, and so forth?

Bomer: To answer your first question, I didn’t have anybody else in mind. Sonia just became a character in her own right. And I’ve actually never read an article by Katie Roiphe. I don’t read a lot of journalism. I read a few things by, say, Caitlin Flanagan five years ago and now I steer clear…

Correspondent: (laughs)

Bomer: …from most hyperbolic journalism.

Correspondent: It’s just ire-inducing. Too much of that.

Bomer: Yeah. Life’s too short. So that’s interesting that the voices are similar: obviously, not purposefully.

Correspondent: I don’t know if I should have told you. But this answers why. (laughs)

Bomer: I was a little shocked.

Correspondent: You did give me this look of like “Oh my god, really?”

Bomer: (laughs) But it’s all good. And then I’m sorry. Your second question was in regard to…I forgot.

Correspondent: Emotional candor, straightforward language, how it allows us to grapple with these particular emotions dealing with motherhood and womanhood. And also while we’re on the subject, whether fiction is better at doing this than say journalism or op-eddy kind of stuff.

Bomer: I don’t think fiction is better for it, but it’s better for me. I think that fiction is a place where I’m much more comfortable writing. A lot of people ask how autobiographical this novel is. And, no, I never left my family for months. I never had an accidental third pregnancy. And one of the main differences between the character and me is that I never stopped writing when my children were little. And Sonia stops being able to paint and feels that her children disrupt her ability to be creative. And I actually had an epiphany when my son was given to me. My first son was born and he was handed to me and one of the first thoughts — first of all, “Oh my god! My beautiful baby!” And my second thought was “I’m never going to blame him for anything in my life. I’m never going to use my kids as a scapegoat.” I think my mother did a little bit. By the way, only a little bit. She accomplished so much in her life. But I never wanted my children to be the reason why I didn’t do what I wanted to do outside of family. My family was always a huge priority. I got pregnant at 27, which is unheard of in New York. But I never wanted to not write. So other people go into the gym or you have lunch with friends. And I would hit the computer. And it took me a long time to get published. But I was always writing. And for Sonia, her children really get in the way. And for me, there was a lot of “Okay. Alright. They’re taking a nap. Here, I’m going to write two paragraphs. Woo hoo!” So it wasn’t that it wasn’t a struggle at times, but never, not to her extent, where she just can’t manage both identities.

Correspondent: You know, J. Robert Lennon wrote Pieces for the Left Hand the same way. The kids were there for a nap. He would write like a few paragraphs. So this is a very common thing for writers who are also taking care of kids and so forth. The path not taken. That’s what I’m getting here with Sonia.

Bomer: Exactly. That’s a good way to look at it.

Correspondent: So I’m wondering. Did you — I mean, this is probably getting into personal territory, but did you harbor any anxieties over the idea of having a third kid?

Bomer: Definitely. This book was written when I was thinking of having a third kid. It was kind of a book talking myself out of it.

Correspondent: (laughs) Really? You had to write a piece of fiction to talk yourself out of family planning? (laughs)

Bomer: You know, I’m just trying to be funny here. But there’s some truth to it.

Correspondent: I figured there was!

Bomer: I hadn’t sold my story collection yet. But my stories had gotten some attention by agents and everybody wants to know, “Gee, do you have a novel? Do you have a novel?” And I’d say, “Okay, I’m working on this novel.” And then I really started working very hard on it. It still took ten years later before it got published. But, yeah, it’s a hard thing to let go of having babies. Babies are a little addictive. That’s why you see families with ten children who aren’t Catholic. I think I hit on it also a lot in one story. In “The Second Son,” in my collection, I have this woman who just keeps saying, “New baby’s full of possibility!” Whereas the older children start to disappoint slightly. And having children, besides infancy being incredibly exhausting and time-consuming, it’s the most intense love affair. And you love your children. I love my 13-year-old. And I love my 16-year-old. But my 16-year-old’s off all day long with girlfriends. It’s just not the same thing as holding this infant who’s still almost part of your body. And that intensity, it’s a hard thing to say, “I’m never going to do that again.” And everybody does it a different time. I have respect for people who have no children, one child, five children, whatever your thing is. No one should judge. And this book deals with a lot of judging. “I had a lot. You’re not having a third?” And three was this group of women, they were all having their third and I just was saying, “No. My boys. I have my left and my right arm. I’m not missing anybody. Nobody’s missing here.”

Correspondent: But the emotional intensity you allude to becomes, as the kids grow up — this is also another issue which I didn’t intend to talk with you about, but since you brought it up. There was a blog post I read off of Metafilter — as a matter of fact, the other day — where this woman wrote about the absolute emotional devastation she felt at that moment where she finally had to say goodbye to her kid when the kid when off to college.

Bomer: Yeah. Empty nest syndrome!

Correspondent: The empty nest syndrome.

Bomer: Oh my god. It’s not a joke.

Correspondent: And the complete emotional breakdown she had. And what was interesting about the thread — and I sort of sympathize with a number of different points, but a lot of people said, “Wow. This is really hyperbolic. A woman would not have this extreme emotion.” Then a part of me was saying, “Well, actually she would.” Or maybe there’s just something in the translation of words that forces something to become more intense than the actual feelings that you’re feeling or perhaps less intense.

Bomer: Also, everybody’s different.

Correspondent: Yes.

Bomer: That’s the plain thing. Everybody feels differently about certain junctures in their life. For instance, I was really happy to graduate from high school. And other people pined for those high school days when they were the big quarterback or whatever. So I think I’m going to have a really hard time with empty nest. I’m having a hard time just dealing with the fact that they don’t come home for dinner every night. But I remember talking with two older women up in Binghamton, where I used to spend my summers, and one at the age of 45, she had three boys. Two were almost all out of the house. She had a baby. Because she just couldn’t deal. So she just had a big baby like ten years later after her other three kids. And another woman was like, “When I was dropping my son off at college, and we were walking up the stairs and down the stairs, and up the stairs with the chair and the desk, and then finally I was like, ‘Good riddance.’ There was no problem. It was time.” So everybody’s different.

Correspondent: Well, the question I had, which I was going to get to — although this is all fantastic and I love the rambling. The notion of facing an empty nest reality vs. looking back to your own life as Paula for Sonia to how you felt when the kids were just becoming presences and who kept you up at all hours and so forth. I’m curious, first of all, if you see any parallels between looking ahead that might actually help you in looking behind. How much space do you need to go back to certain tangible feelings? Or does the idea of the path not taken allow for all sorts of emotional possibilities that you never would have anticipated being there as you’re sitting there, getting those precious paragraphs between spare moments?

Bomer: I would say both. In particular, in regard to this book, a lot of it was written when my children were still quite small. Ten years ago. So ten years ago, I had a three-year-old and a six-year-old. And that was the first draft, and the whole path not taken, and just having a lot of fun, although it was also hard work. Don’t get me wrong. But fun in imagining someone doing this. Running you off. Doing wild things. And then the other thing is perspective. Because I revised and I revised. And then ten years later, certain revisions, the fact that I’m looking back at that time with some nostalgia definitely affects certain aspects of the novel.

Correspondent: How so? Maybe you can elaborate on this. How does that nostalgia — is that altogether a beneficial thing? Could it be a harmful feeling?

Bomer: Well, perspective and nostalgia can be interchangeable. And mostly I write from perspective. The parts of Nine Months where I’m writing about the rawness of the experience, that’s rare. Although it’s not a bad thing to do. Generally, I need a few years or even longer. My next book that I’m working on, all the characters are between the ages of twelve and twenty-two. And it’s really interesting to write about junior high when you’re 40. Probably not so interesting when you are 12. And that’s where nostalgia and perspective are actually vital and why one of my problems — a lot of people are asking, “What do you think about all these young people in the small press world? And all these 22-year-olds?” And I kind of think if they had waited ten more years, what would their work have been like? Would it have been better instead of that new style of just saying whatever pops into their heads. Which I guess is a little harsh. Sorry.

Correspondent: No, no, no. It make sense. There’s kind of a tradeoff with time though. The further you are from something, you have perhaps more bravery to approach the truth. On the other hand, you realize that perhaps there are lingering wounds there or lingering pain that you never would have anticipated. You thought you had actually put it away. Did you face this problem at all?

Bomer: Definitely.

Correspondent: What did you do to confront something like that?

Bomer: Well, you suffer as a person and then you try and capture it some way and work it into the narrative, if that’s a possibility. Remorse. I think you’re talking about remorse.

Correspondent: Or things that you did that you wish you couldn’t have done.

Bomer: Your regret.

Correspondent: Genuine contrition, yeah.

Bomer: There’s a lot of that. I’m someone who — every day, I do something that I regret.

Correspondent: Don’t we all? (laughs)

Bomer: Well, some people don’t. Maybe some people more than others.

Correspondent: Well, what’s an example? What do you regret doing today?

Bomer: Well….(pause)

Correspondent: (laughs) Or can you share?

Bomer: (laughs) I don’t want to get into the specifics.

Correspondent: I don’t know. We were on the subject. (laughs)

The Bat Segundo Show #481: Paula Bomer II (Download MP3)

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Rosebud 2.0

undress.jpgI lean into my computer screen chin on fist, eyes leveled. Before me, a woman lies face down on an unremarkable bed. A man moves the woman’s hands behind her back. The woman waits patiently as he ties her hands together securely but comfortably with a simple rope. His wedding ring gleams as he pushes up her cotton frock and takes his time easing her panties down over her thighs. For the next several minutes, he fondles her. His caresses move from the swells of her buttocks to the folds of her genitals. She undulates and rears up against his hands. His fingers disappear inside her. She exhales pure desire in this otherwise quiet scene. At one point the man clutches the woman’s hand in a silent, tender communication. Then he reaches for something off screen. Shuffling noises ensue. A twisted tube of lubricant and vibrator appear. The play becomes more aggressive, as do the woman’s reactions. She strains to open her legs against the binding panties around her knees and another rope around her ankles.

I swallow hard.

Three quarters of the way through Amateur Bondage Video, I abort my research efforts. A few minutes after that, my jeans are a jumble on the floor and I am smoky-eyed on my own bed, basking in the aftermath.

The perfect pornographic experience? Not entirely. Sure, the end result was enthusiastic enough, but I had to swim through a dangerous ocean of flesh to get here, proving that nothing is easy.

egyptfellatio.jpgPeople often assume that women dislike pornography or that they don’t like it as much as men. That’s an oversimplification. I want to like porn. But professional videos are less concerned with what feels good for a woman and more hard pressed on what is visually arousing for men — fellatio for instance. I’m not knocking it. It’s a wonderful erotic act that men love to watch, but that only gets me so far. On the flip side, pro porn constantly depicts cunnilingus as if it were a lollipop-licking contest with a misplaced emphasis on the visual. I always roll my eyes at that and think: Too bad. If he were doing it right most of the pink stuff wouldn’t be viewable.

And the subtleties: barely audible breathing escalating to a wide-eyed moan, finger strokes that tighten into a desperate clutch, the widening eyes of climax. Ideal porn would show all of this without the ridiculous staging, faux boobs and silly plots involving pool boys and “nurses.” But the professional efforts are all about those things, which is why I gave up on them years ago. One could argue that the actors love the work and the camera, but I doubt Jenna Jameson ever works for free. Pro porn stems from the exchange of money. Successful sex is about the exchange of desire.

So when XTube.com went live nearly two years ago with the option of user-generated adult content, it was a revelation–a naked YouTube, without the snarky comments. The idea seemed flawless: finally, a free-of-charge amateur alternative to the Internet’s bogus claims of 100 percent free XXX! The parade of copycat sites followed — PornoTube, YouPorn, Megarotic. The list gets longer every day. There’s a healthy dose of desire splattered on these sites. The Web 2.0 actors and directors are doing this because they want to and they want me to watch. I’m not paying to attend this soiree. I’ve been invited.

leek.jpgThe initial orgy was a blast. The woman sashaying nude down a busy street with a cigarette in one hand and a swinging purse in the other was so funny that I posted the clip on my blog and titled the entry “Confidence.” I assigned pithy quips to my discoveries and emailed the links. I asked, “Got vichyssoise?” of a huge leek being used as a dildo. “Her lips are sealed” was my commentary on the woman matter-of-factly tying her labia into a knot. These weren’t about arousal, but fun. If the people posting them were doing it to bolster their self-esteems, judging by the hit counts, they had to puff up like peacocks. I might have watched on with bewilderment, but why shouldn’t Super KnotGirl be proud of herself?

Things got cagier when I searched for something to arouse me. I passed over the male-concentric thumbnails that dominate these sites and clicked on images or titles that might have something for 42-year-old housewife and mother in Cleveland, Ohio. My five foot one stature earned Petite Amateur Keeps Fucking a click. It featured the reverse cowgirl position, which showcased the woman’s body beautifully, but her clitoris was a mile away from the action. Even 38 seconds of that was too long — I was out in 10. The thumbnail for Mature Wife And Her Special Friend looked promising with a lush sex toy and lacy stockings, but it went south when a loud radio jock’s voice suddenly plugged an event “sponsored by new Heineken Premium Light, the first light beer worth the name Heineken!”

Ugh.

I hated it when that deer-in-the-headlights thing overcame me during mediocre or bad footage. I’d push the fast forward bar along and think: will he ever take that thing out of her mouth? If he did, but only in order to ejaculate all over her face, it was an emotional pinch for me. Amateur porn is real sex, not someone’s job. I don’t want to be treated that way. How did the woman on the screen feel? I’m not judging her sexual experience, but when it comes to watching sex, I’m selfish. I can’t help but project what I see on the screen onto my own paradigm. Someone else might be doing it, but it’s still all about me. Hence, I quickly found that no matter how graphic and banal the footage, it was almost always complex.

A click here, another over there. My eyes frenetically scanned screen after screen of thumbnails. The search, with all its primal stimuli, became tiresome, even annoying. There was very little that was sexy to me. The endless surfing was the zenith of frustration particularly when I was unsuccessful. Who wants to waste an hour looking at porn that doesn’t turn them on?

I admit there are gems and high-riding waves among the online porn like Amateur Bondage Video. And I love it that 47-year-old Doris from accounting, brought up on the mantra Good Girls Don’t Do Certain Things, can slip into the den and furiously rub off while watching Lonely Housewife Fucking Her Vacuum after a lifetime of guilty curiosity. One big surprise was the relief I felt at finally seeing what other women’s genitals look like and how women touch themselves. Men have been comparison checking ever since the locker room. Board members often have nowhere to hide. Vaginas are different. Unless you’re a gynecologist or a gay woman, you don’t see them. The pink panther stays under wraps until we open it up. Even to view my own, I have to fold up like a pretzel on the bathroom floor with all the lights on and get tricky with a mirror. Playboy is no help. Hefner’s minions either Photoshop out any indication of an orifice or leave a tiny hairless line that peeps, “I’m a very well-behaved little muff.”

Double ugh.

But the online amateurs are fleshy beauties, lush with folds and colors from pink to brown to dusky rose. These are the childbearing workhorses of human sexuality, unapologetic and closed five days a month, thank you very much. They roar, “I am pussy!” and get my unconditional support.

Then there was this: the image of a man buried between a woman’s thighs moved me to click through to Female POV 3. The man was handsome and muscled. The woman was filming the action. “It’s taking too long,” he said as he looked up and revealed his flaccid penis. Next was a failed attempt at intercourse. Then the woman bent over and fingered herself to provide a visual. The man stared into her, his face vulnerable and desperate, his right hand furiously stroking. “The camera and stuff just makes me a little bit nervous,” he said. She urged him to ignore it. Nothing worked. The man collected his clothes from the floor and left. “Hey,” said the woman, whose face remained hidden, “Close the door, please.”

I blinked back tears. I was furious over the woman’s indifference. But at the same time, I waxed protective — even feeling maternal — for the man. Women complain about sexual objectivity all the time. This was the same sort of sexual abuse made worse by the unavoidable evidence, all of which was recorded by that obnoxious little broad’s camera. I wanted to reach into the screen and grab her by the neck, plop her down and say, “Think you’re such hot shit? Don’t forget that all your shaved sweetness did nothing for that man. Everything here failed, including you.”

And that is how XTube, self-billed as “the greatest thing since the orgasm,” managed a total eclipse of my arousal for the rest of the day.

I later realized that the clip was not a failure, but the most evocative footage I’d seen, hands down. It had every right to be online and then some. So it goes when you sail the sea of free online sex. Every adjective applies. It’s funny and sad and sexy and messy and arousing and painful and infuriating and, well, a lot like real sex.

But we’ve been recording real sex forever. What’s different about Porn 2.0? This new porn frontier is thriving because the logistics that heretofore governed adult content are stripped away. To procure the new sex, all I have to do is step into my home office and fire up the Mac, which is miles away from the seedy “Adult” stores on the other side of town. Once online, I’ll find all the amateur footage I want compliments of high-speed Internet and inexpensive digital cameras. The broadcasts come from across the globe.

It can be overwhelming.

The sheer volume and range of content makes me feel as though I am standing with my nose one inch away from a fifty-foot billboard that is glaring and blaring a million different sexual messages. Thus far, Web 2.0’s John Q. Public editor might be dealing aces over at Wikipedia, but not here. In fact, the more he gets his paws into online sex, the more raucous it becomes. After all, honest sex doesn’t come with six-pack abs and good lighting. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the public editors of Wiki have spent the past two years making that world look like a real reference site and making XTube look like real sex.

But do I really want Editor 2.0 to clean this sex up?

I don’t think so. Despite my quibbles, I’m rooting for all this diverse new unbridled sex with all of its imperfect beauty. And even though I don’t drop in that often, I’ll be checking in once in a while to see how things are (ahem) coming along.

Visit the 1/11/08 entry of O’Brien’s blog for pertinent links.