MEMOIRS OF AN EX-PROM QUEEN
Features a new preface by the author and an introduction by Jennifer Baumgardner.
Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex–Prom Queen created a profound impact on the cultural landscape when it was originally published in 1972. A sardonic portrayal of one white, middle-class, Midwestern girl’s coming-of-age, the novel takes a wry and prescient look at a range of experiences treated at the time as taboo but which were ultimately accepted as matters of major political significance: sexual harassment, job discrimination, the sexual double standard, rape, abortion restrictions, the double binds of marriage and motherhood,
Features a new preface by the author and an introduction by Jennifer Baumgardner.
Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex–Prom Queen created a profound impact on the cultural landscape when it was originally published in 1972. A sardonic portrayal of one white, middle-class, Midwestern girl’s coming-of-age, the novel takes a wry and prescient look at a range of experiences treated at the time as taboo but which were ultimately accepted as matters of major political significance: sexual harassment, job discrimination, the sexual double standard, rape, abortion restrictions, the double binds of marriage and motherhood, and the frantic quest for beauty.
The book went on to sell more than a million copies and is regarded today as a classic, one of the first and best pieces of fiction born of the women’s liberation movement. With many of its concerns still with us today, this witty and devastating novel continues to resonate with readers, and Sasha Davis has proved herself a prom queen for the ages.
- October 2019
- 304 Pages
“Furious, fiercely funny, provocative, sexy, and wise—a must-read!” — Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance
“A vicious little gem of a novel.” —Cosmopolitan
“Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen is a vivid reminder of just how much—and sometimes, how little—has changed for women in the last 35 years. Typing prowess and wedding-night virginity may no longer be expected, but Shulman’s tale of Sasha Davis’s struggle to find herself amid conflicting cultural messages about beauty, brains, and sex will be resonant for many more years to come.” —Andi Zeisler, editorial/creative director of Bitch magazine
“An extraordinary novel… Sad and witty, expertly conceived and executed… Important.” —Peter Prescott, Newsweek
“One of the more fun (explicitly) feminist novels ever written. It’s replete with dirty losses of virginity in parking lots and sexy snorkeling, and I highly recommend.” —Lizzie Skurnick, Jezebel
Conducted by Charlotte Templin for The Missouri Review.
Interviewer: When did you make the decision to be a writer?
Shulman: I did not intend to be a writer. I first wanted to be a lawyer, like my father. Then I got bit by the bug of philosophy and wanted to be a philosophy professor. I went to graduate school and quickly discovered it was impossible for a woman in those days—this was the early fifties—to be a philosopher, so I gave that up. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but then when I became a feminist, when the movement started in the late sixties, I started writing because I had some-thing urgent to say. My first novel, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, is the product of that urgency. I knew that there was another view of women’s experience that hadn’t been expressed in fiction, or hardly ever, a view that was just beginning to take hold in this country. I wanted to dramatize it. And I knew that there was an audience who needed to hear it. I wasn’t sure if I could reach them, or whether I could do it well. But I knew we had to come together somehow. That was why I became a writer.
Interviewer: In your recent memoir, A Good Enough Daughter, you focus on the place and importance of family, something you were not so concerned with in your first novel.
Shulman: When I wrote Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen in the early seventies, an era of great social upheaval, I was far more interested in the invisible social forces that mold family than in family influences. I drew heavily on my own life, in part because I was writing my first novel, and I was not sure how much fictionalizing I could get away with. But in the novel I was not trying to portray myself; rather I wanted to portray a certain white, middle-class, Midwestern suburban girl of that era, subject to all the forces of sexism that had yet to be articulated in fiction. In A Good Enough Daughter, I set out to accomplish something different. With the knowledge of sixty-some years behind me, realizing that family—the subject of the book—is far more important in shaping a life than I admitted in my youth, I tried to explore the meaning to me of my family, a subject absent from the forward-looking Prom Queen. My other books have all recounted journeys. In this one, I’m going home.
Interviewer: A Good Enough Daughter is a very honest account of your life as a daughter. Was it difficult to be so truthful?
Shulman: It’s always difficult to write honestly of one’s deepest feelings, particularly without the protective veil of fiction. But the more difficult, the more rewarding if one succeeds. Rewarding not only to the work but to one’s peace of mind. Once I get past the initial inhibitions, honesty is both exhilarating and soothing.
Interviewer: How did it feel to go back to the home you had been so eager to escape in your younger years?
Shulman: For many decades my relations with my parents constituted unfinished business. I had dealt with them through sheer avoidance and guilt. When the opportunity to expiate my nagging guilt and reverse my lifelong laxity was thrust upon me, it came as a great healing force in my life. I shall always be grateful that I had the chance to make things right at the end and to reconnect with my childhood.
Interviewer: How did the experience affect your outlook on aging?
Shulman: When you witness the end of a life up close day by day, you begin to understand time and mortality in profound ways. You see time’s relativity, death’s necessity. For two years I watched my parents’ lives wind to a close. This made me aware of old age (they were eighty-nine and ninety-five when they died) as but one stage—the final one—of a long journey. Seeing how my parents remained utterly themselves to the end, their spirits and feelings intact despite reduced circumstances, waning energy, one’s dementia, the other’s heart failure, I came to see old age not as something to hide from or dread (though there is much to oppose in the usual treatment of the old) but rather as some-thing to embrace as the natural and inevitable end. It was a bracing, enlightening experience for me.
Interviewer: My students recently read On the Stroll. They were fascinated by the book and had all kinds of questions about how you knew about prostitution, pimps, bag ladies, etc. Did you frequent the shelters?
Shulman: It wasn’t just frequenting the shelters. A friend and I ran a coffee hour for bag ladies in the Times Square area in the basement of a very seedy hotel. We did it for a group of Franciscan nuns who ran a homeless shelter called the Dwelling Place, as part of an outreach pro-gram that provided doughnuts and coffee in the basement of a hotel. So we would sit and talk with the women for hours every single week—a core group plus those who came occasionally. It was marvelous as a resource, but also I became really engaged in it. I got to know a lot of stories.
Interviewer: Is that where you got the idea for Owl, the bag lady in the novel?
Shulman: Actually, I had already thought of Owl’s character before I hooked up with this program, but everything that I had intuited was confirmed by the women whom I got to know, and I used various lines and stories inspired by them. At that time, the late seventies, very little was known about homeless women, although quite a lot was known about men—hobos from the thirties, denizens of the Bowery flop-houses and so on. It was at the very moment when bag ladies or home-less women became an evident phenomenon in the city. Many feminists harbored the thought, “That is going to happen to me” because the traditional support system for women—marriage and so on-had already started falling apart, and many feminists didn’t have that system in their future. It was during a transition period, before women were so massively in the labor force. That was one of the reasons I wanted to write about such a character. I wanted to find out the truth of the lives of homeless women and demythologize the subject. I was fascinated and terrified by the subject myself until I started to really study it. I did discover that many of the women we met had been middle-class women. They became homeless because of divorce, because they lost a job or were ill and went into the hospital for a while and in the process lost an apartment. Most of the people I met were not really able to negotiate the welfare system, and they became quickly marginalized. And once they were homeless, they deteriorated very quickly. Husbands, on the other hand, find another woman and go on; they have all the earning power. I think the situation is representative of a lot of people. It’s not unique.
Interviewer: What about the runaways and the prostitutes?
Shulman: There was a lot to read about that. There were scandals at the time. One involved people getting women from Minnesota—young blond girls—and bringing them to the city. There had been some government investigations and the transcripts were available, so I could base Robin somewhat on them. Also, placing her childhood in Maine gave me a setting I knew, and I understood her earlier life. And then there was this runaway squad the police set up in the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I hung out there a lot. They would pick up young girls and bring them in to interview, and I was permitted to talk to them too. I could convince a lot of the girls that I wasn’t with the police, so they’d talk to me. They were happy to have anybody seemingly on their side to talk to. I didn’t know pimps; I expected that part to be the hardest to write. But then I met a sociologist at the City University graduate center who had done a Ph.D. dissertation on pimping, and he and I became friends. He knew that life backwards and forwards, and he took me to pimp bars and answered all my questions. He was a great resource. The sociological study Black Players, which I acknowledge at the end of the novel, also told me a lot about that life.
Interviewer: I understand you went out to the place called “the Stroll” and observed.
Shulman: The Stroll is just a stretch of Eighth Avenue where the prostitutes ply their trade. Now that whole area has been “Disneyfied.” The Times Square area has been “cleaned up” and made into a Disney wonderland. The Stroll is harder to see now because the prostitution trade moved someplace else in town.
Interviewer: Do you start a book with the desire to tell the story of a certain type of person?
Shulman: Often. I’m much more theme-driven than plot-driven in my novels. In On the Stroll I wanted to explore homelessness: the old homeless woman and the young girl. There was a big runaway movement during the sixties. I saw posters all over the city picturing young girls who hadn’t been seen in a long time. I had this idea of putting the three main characters together before I knew what kind of a plot I was going to come up with.
Interviewer: I remember reading in one of your articles about a conference that gave you the idea to write about a prostitute.
Shulman: It was a conference in New York sponsored by a group called New York Radical Feminists, which I belonged to at the time. They wanted to have a conference on prostitution and invited a bunch of prostitutes to come and give testimony. Some of the women in the audience started yelling at them: “Why don’t you stop being prostitutes and start being file clerks or get some ordinary job?” I thought that was absurd and arrogant. What did they know about those people’s lives? I don’t really think myself that sex work is necessarily more demeaning than other kinds of demeaning work. I got very exercised about that. In the meeting we had at my apartment after the conference, I quit the New York Radical Feminists. And I decided someday I was going to write about prostitution from as far inside as I could get. Another inspiration for me was Emma Goldman, whom I had written about earlier. As one of my first pieces of writing, I had done a biography of her and collected her papers. She had a smashing essay on prostitution and always spoke of prostitutes as the victims, not the victimizers. She saw them as exploited workers, and I got my attitude initially from her. On one occasion she even tried to turn a trick herself. She didn’t think there was anything demeaning about that (although in fact she was a failure at it). You’ve gotta make a living, right?
Interviewer: I thought the plot of that novel was wonderful. It was a real page-turner.
Shulman: It was my first novel that wasn’t in first person, so to me it was an interesting challenge.
Interviewer: One of your achievements in On the Stroll is to have succeeded in making us sympathetic to all the characters, even Prince, the pimp-though you don’t spare him.
Shulman: I spared him in one small way. The violence he commits against Robin is pretty mild. He just throws ice over her, humiliates her, whereas he might have done something worse.
Interviewer: The women are all victims. I’m sure you were criticized.
Shulman: Though both Robin and Owl eventually take their lives in their hands and act. In that sense they’re not entirely victims. But I am a feminist, after all. I’m trying to show the relationships between men and women, always—the structural relations, not individual villains. I’d never make a husband a villain. I try very hard in my work not to—because if I made one man a villain, the rest would be off the hook. I’m interested in the system of oppression.
Interviewer: Another great achievement is to make us care deeply about the old woman. She’s mentally ill. Did you find that homelessness is precipitated by mental illness?
Shulman: I’m not sure which is the precipitating factor. I think you get mentally ill being on the street. I’m not sure which comes first, but most of the bag ladies wind up mentally ill pretty quickly—what people would call paranoid—because they are in such danger. I don’t know if it’s really paranoia because they are in great danger. Terrible things happen to them, and they lose everything. How could they not become at the very least severely depressed?
Interviewer: In the novel Owl’s fears are palpable.
Shulman: I was trying to get inside her, and, of course, I went through the hotels that women like Owl lived in. I saw what was going on in them. There were horror stories in the paper every day. They were called SRO hotels, single-room occupancy. During the eighties those hotels were gentrified. That’s a part of why there were so many homeless people. At least they had a room to stay in when there were a lot of SRO hotels. And then the hotels were gentrified. Now the government sees they have to get housing for homeless people, so SROs are coming back. But those in the Times Square area were so dangerous. They were beautiful old nineteenth-century buildings once. The stairwells were filled from the bottom to the top with garbage. And they were filled with junkies who would, of course, break into any room and take anything they could. That was all real. tried to portray the situation realistically, though my characters were made up.
Interviewer: You give us some hope at the end of the novel. Owl rescues Robin, and she sets off to start over in California.
Shulman: I wanted to make the characters, the mother and the daugher, move toward each other. I knew the ending was going to be that. is bonding among women is the solution. That’s my feminist outook. Also, I meant the ending to be a little ironic. Some people read it at way; some people didn’t. The idea that you can go to California id live on the beach on oranges that you pick is as much a fantasy as e one that lured Robin to New York from Maine in the first place. So e don’t have any idea what’s going to happen to her when she goes est. At least she got away from Prince.
Interviewer: You are not only a novelist who chronicled the women’s ovement but you have had a role in the movement from its earliest days. How did you get your first information about the women’s movement?
Shulman: From the radio, actually. Some women announced their meeting on the air, and I went with my friend. It was a very early women’s liberation group, one of several small, nameless spinoffs of the large New York Radical Women. Immediately I thought, “This is important. This is going to give an explanation for the various aspects of my misery that will enable me to change it.” I understood for the first time that things did not have to be the way they were, that they could be changed. A lot of us felt that way, and that’s how the movement started. It was a thrilling thing to be alive and to be there at that moment. It changed my life.
Interviewer: You said in A Good Enough Daughter that when you were a young adult the want ads were separated into male and female positions. It is hard for my students to imagine a world like that.
Shulman: You couldn’t apply for any job listed for men. I know it’s hard to believe now.
Interviewer: Burning Questions commemorates the early days of the women’s movement. How did your impulses to create fiction and to preserve history go together?
Shulman: Usually, ordinary histories don’t get the emotional feel of a period. That’s what a novel can do. The movement for women’s liberation was about an emotional transformation, an explosion, a feeling all over the country that things must be different, and ideas about how they should be. I think fiction can capture that kind of thing better than other genres because in fiction you can explore the feelings of your characters—the before and the after. Maybe a scholar could do that in biography, but then the feelings would just be one person’s. Fiction is ideally suited to re-creating the important emotional aspects of history. One important part of historical recording is to get people of another generation to understand the feelings, the passion that went into social transformation. That’s why oral history is so valuable.
Interviewer: The impulse to get it right is not at odds with the creative muse.
Shulman: Not at all. I think it’s a well-trod path of fiction writers. Think of Dickens with A Tale of Two Cities, about the French Revolution. By historical novel I don’t mean historical romance. I mean novels that try to portray a moment in time. George Eliot, in Middlemarch, does that. Nowadays nobody disputes that much fiction is based in autobiography, on things that really happened to the writer. So, if that’s true for the psychological novelist, a social novelist like me or Eliot or Thackeray is going to be fictionalizing a historical time or a social milieu. I don’t think there’s any kind of contradiction involved.
Interviewer: Is the part of Burning Questions that deals with the FBI historical?
Shulman: The FBI was infiltrating the women’s movement all along. The World Split Open, by Ruth Rosen, has a whole chapter about the CIA and the FBI, the infiltration and the spies. There was a big FBI file on the movement that the feminists got hold of through the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI file of Zane, the character in Burning Questions, is sort of based on mine.
Interviewer: You had an FBI file?
Shulman: Oh, yeah. Everybody who was involved in any kind of sixties left movement had an FBI file. I certainly did. It consisted mostly of reviews of my books. I mean, they hadn’t a clue.
Interviewer: The history of the movement that you portray in the novel is very accurate. For example, you describe the demonstrations at the Miss America Pageant. There were demonstrations inside and outside. Alice Echols mentions in Daring to Be Bad that you bought the tickets for those who went inside.
Shulman: Yes, I did. I was married, and my husband and I had a joint checking account. But I didn’t earn any money; he earned all of the money. I had earned money before I had children, but then I left my job. This was prefeminism, pre-women’s movement, and things were very different. I didn’t feel I had permission to use money from our joint checking account for anything that my husband didn’t approve of-certainly not something subversive like women’s liberation—so buying those tickets was one of my first great gestures of independence.
Interviewer: Did you go inside?
Shulman: I was outside. We marched around, and we shouted our slogans, and we threw all these accoutrements of “women’s oppression,” like high-heeled shoes, Playboy magazines, brooms, girdles and curlers, into a freedom trashcan. There were many different actions on the boardwalk. Interestingly, the inspiration for Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen came to me on the boardwalk. I suddenly could see my life in terms of our junior high and high school beauty focus. I was never a prom queen myself, but I knew that milieu very well. I actually had planned to open Prom Queen at the Miss America demonstration, do a bunch of flashbacks through Sasha’s life and end at the Miss America demonstration, so the frame would be that twenty-four-hour period. But as I thought about it, it seemed like a deus ex machina. In 1972 not many people knew about the women’s movement. I quickly dropped that part of Prom Queen, but I saved my idea and also some of the material I was working on to use in my next novel, Burning Questions.
Interviewer: Was the device of the fictional memoirist there from the beginning?
Shulman: Yes. I wanted the novel to seem like the next in a long line of revolutionary memoirs. I had used Emma Goldman’s memoir, a revolutionary autobiography—Living My Life. And in writing my book about her I became interested in the whole genre. I did an introduction for a book called Five Sisters, which was an anthology of the autobiographical writings of five Russian pre-Revolutionary women who sacrificed their lives, some of them, to overthrow the czar. And each one wrote a memoir of revolution. And then I found a number of other similar memoirs, and I had the idea of making my novel a part of that genre of revolutionary memoirs. That was the conceit that I used, and I tried to refer to all of those other women and quote from them all the way through my novel. I included a bibliography at the end of the novel, and it ends with “Z,” Zane, the name of my protagonist. That gave me pleasure. I wanted people to know about all of these books (which were all real books except the last one) because Zane would have wanted that. Zane was writing her memoir in order to teach and to continue the tradition of rebellion, for the same kind of audience that all of those women had written for.
Interviewer: Was the novel also about self-discovery?
Shulman: It’s about self-discovery in the sense that women’s liberation drew for its power on the self-discovery of each of its participants. You could call it collective self-discovery. That has to be part of Zane’s story because that is the story of women’s liberation.
Interviewer: What kind of response did the novel get from the other feminist pioneers?
Shulman: Feminists were all very, very supportive of it. The novel was trashed by the New York Times by a notorious antifeminist. One of the very first projects of a group called the Feminist Writers’ Guild was to protest the treatment of Burning Questions by the Times, which gave the review a full page and said, “This novel will set back the cause of women fifty years.”
Interviewer: Many reviewers were baffled by women’s liberation at the time. They often said that feminist novelists were harming the cause of women. Here’s a review of Prom Queen from the Christian Science Monitor, for example, that criticizes Sasha’s attitudes and choices and notes that the first wave of suffragettes seems to have been forgotten.
Shulman: Yes, don’t we wish that suffragettes had been remembered? Things might have been different for Sasha’s generation. It’s clear that those reviewers didn’t know what we were talking about. When I first wrote Prom Queen, I thought the only people who would get it (because I meant it to be funny) would be the ten women in my women’s group. I was writing it for them. And then a lot of people got it.
Interviewer: It sold very well.
Shulman: The way it got to be a big seller was that it was handed around in the publishing houses before it was in paperback. All of the secretaries, as they were called then—now they would be editorial assistants—said, “Look at this.” The publishing houses were largely run by men, and they didn’t have any idea why all the “girls” were so excited about my book, but they knew the book had an appeal, so at the paperback auction they all bid on it.
Interviewer: How did the book first find a publisher?
Shulman: I knew an editor at Harper, and he had read and liked a story of mine that appeared in Aphra, the feminist literary journal. Then I saw him at a party. I hadn’t seen him in a dozen years. In a previous life we had played chess together. Now he said, “If you ever write a novel, come see me.” I thought, “Oh, right,” ” and I went home, conceived the novel, wrote a couple of chapters and showed it to him. He said, “I’ll take a risk on this.” And he offered me $5,000. I said $10,000. He said $7,500. That was the contract. It was a combination of my having some-thing I passionately needed to write about, the ambition that enabled me to go home and do it, and the opportunity of serendipitously bumping into this guy at a party. I like to think that if I hadn’t bumped into him and I had done the novel, or maybe outlined the chapters, I would have gotten someone else to publish it. But I don’t think I had the know-how or the confidence to do that without that contact.
Interviewer: The paperback auction was a success.
Shulman: It was the highest amount any first novel had ever sold for in paperback till then, though not much money by today’s standards. I was very naive and didn’t know a thing about publishing. I was just very lucky that happened.
Interviewer: And the success made it easier to publish your second novel, Burning Questions.
Shulman: And it got trashed—not universally but in the New York Times, which is the make-or-break publication. But it went into paper-back and was sold all over Europe. It had a nice life.
Interviewer: Do you know any sales figures?
Shulman: Not for Burning Questions. I know that Prom Queen sold over one million copies in paperback. Maybe thirty-five thousand in hardcover. And people passed it around. It had a lot of readers. People often say to me now, “Your work changed my life.” I’m sure that’s an exaggeration, but they say it had a big effect on them and enabled them to change. I’m not sure I believe that a book will cause someone to change. It was the movement that did that, but maybe the book put them in contact with the movement. Or maybe the book made them think about things they hadn’t before, and then there was a movement there for those ready for it.
Interviewer: Many women writers, both white and ethnic, have remarked that their writing was made possible by just knowing that there was a woman who wrote a book.
Shulman: In my case, I also had that feeling, but it was a male writer who came to live with us for a few months who helped me realize that I could write. My husband invited him to come to live with us without exactly consulting me, and he was a well-known writer. I grew up in Cleveland and didn’t know many writers. While he lived with us I emptied his wastebasket. I would see the crumpled pages—I saw what he was doing, and I thought, “I can do that.” He was just a human being, fallible, writer’s block, the whole thing.
Interviewer: As a novelist you’re focused on culture and on the structures of society.
Shulman: Definitely. I am not a psychological novelist, and I try very hard not to allow the reader to see the plight or circumstances of the characters as individual psychological plights. That’s my preference; still, a lot of people do read my novels as psychological studies, and they’re right to read them that way too, if that’s what they mean to them. A psychotherapist who was in a seminar with me gave me a paper she had written in graduate school on Prom Queen. It was a psychoanalytical view of Sasha, and it amazed me. Not that her view isn’t as valid as any other, but my idea is always to explore social context and social forces.
Interviewer: Can we talk about Drinking the Rain? I know that you and your family had been going to the island off the coast of Maine to spend summer holidays at the family cabin, and that you decided at age fifty to spend the entire summer there by yourself. Did you anticipate writing a book like Drinking the Rain?
Shulman: No, I never intended to write about my island experience (and at that point had no such experience to write about). I planned to work on the novel that became In Every Woman’s Life. . . . But as I experienced life on the island, without electricity, plumbing or telephone, I thought it was important to show that people can live as I did without dying or falling apart. I wanted people to understand that we don’t need everything that our culture tells us we have to have to be satisfied.
Interviewer: I love the passages about your discovery of the food that was everywhere around you on the island. Things we consider weeds were staples of your diet.
Shulman: Our society has very much limited our choices, even regarding the food we think acceptable. A lot of those weeds that I gather on the island used to be common foods, but when farming became a corporate venture, and the distribution of food became corporate, the variety of foods that were considered good diminished greatly. I know that there’s a lot of misconception about this, that people think we have more food variety than ever before, but, in fact, if you read any of the studies, you’ll find we have fewer foods than before. I wanted to express my own discovery that the world is abundant with food for us, and with everything we need, if only we just open our eyes. There’s so much food that gets thrown out or never harvested, like all those apricots that are decorative trees in Santa Fe, which I mention in the book. The town is covered with apricots; you can find them everywhere. Of course, you must be careful. Don’t harvest dandelions near trafficked roads or anything from trees that have been sprayed. It’s true that we can no longer just eat freely whatever is available. We have to pay attention to our food supply. I’m suggesting the possible freedom that we could have if we chose to pay attention.
Interviewer: Food is important in your books. I love the story in Drinking the Rain about how you became a cook.
Shulman: Long before it was common, I put recipes in my novels. In Prom Queen, I wanted to put in recipes and diapers and rub readers’ noses in it. The recipes happen to be good ones. I wouldn’t want to mislead. Similarly, in the self-induced abortion scene I put in a line that said, “Only later did I discover that this could be fatal.” I didn’t want someone to follow that “recipe” without knowing that it was dangerous.
Interviewer: The food is part of the celebration of life. In Drinking the Rain, another thing that struck me was that you learned how to be natural, you learned how to—
Shulman: How to interact with the environment, to take from the environment what it offers.
Interviewer: To follow your impulses.
Shulman: Yes—which is what we do in the absence of social judgment.
Interviewer: Could you comment on the organization of the book in three sections: “The Island,” “The Mainland,” “The World”?
Shulman: Part of the reason was to illustrate that everything is connected. When I first went there, I really thought that the island was separate and different from everywhere else and that only there could I have such a unified, spiritual life. But as my friend Margaret, who is in the book, taught me, whatever you learn, truly learn, and take into yourself, is with you forever and everywhere. I didn’t know that in Part I, but when I went back to New York City, and then out to Colorado, I found that the strengths I was able to develop on the island stayed. In Part III, it becomes clear that everything is connected. There is no such thing as an island, especially in our world today—you know, global village, the whole thing. Pollution from way across the ocean circulates in the air.
Interviewer: You go back there every year, I know. How much have things changed since you started going?
Shulman: The basics remain the same, though things have also changed. I now have solar energy, and I’m thinking of getting a cell phone for emergencies. I’m older now. The book opens in ’82, when I was fifty; this is almost twenty years later. Another thing that’s changed is after I wrote Drinking the Rain, I became known on the island. Now I’m the writer of the island. I do readings at the library. Sometimes people point out my cabin to guests.
Interviewer: In Drinking the Rain, you seem to suggest that solitude is a natural state, even an empowering experience.
Shulman: Ever since Freud, being alone has been considered something of a psychological failure. The point, according to Freudian theory, is to be able to love and connect. But I don’t believe that at all. I think that being alone and being coupled and being in a group are all natural states in which people can thrive. Solitude offers a lot that being coupled or being in a group does not. It helps us learn what we are capable of. Many people spend the ends of their lives alone, and probably a lot of years in the middle of their lives, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience the rewards of solitude. Being alone for a woman is probably much more scary than for a man. I’m all for getting over our fears by facing them head-on.
Interviewer: What is the state of the women’s movement right now?
Shulman: I think that everything remains to be done. Not that we haven’t accomplished a great deal; we certainly have. But we need to go further. There is still nothing like equality in jobs, in family. There’s just an awareness that inequality is not acceptable, and that’s good. In the early seventies, it was considered perfectly proper that the want ads should be segregated “Help wanted: men/Help wanted: women,” and that men should get three times as much money as women. That isn’t any longer considered acceptable, but pay is still not anywhere near equal. There is a lot of gender segregation. You still have many poor women who work in women-only jobs. In the family, in most cases, only women have the double job of working outside the home and taking care of the family. Of course, sexual violence is still ram-pant. And abortion rights, without which there can be no equality, are always being chipped away. I don’t think there’s any area of our lives where we can say, “Okay, let’s move on. Everything’s fine. Let’s look for another area.” In the last decade or so, the greatest advances have been made internationally. In some ways, I think the situation here is worse now. The gap between rich and poor has widened since the sixties, and the greatest number of poor people are women and children. The beauty standards are so much more stringent than they were twenty or thirty years ago. Models are on average ten pounds slimmer than they were a decade ago. Bulimia and anorexia are going on in junior high school. In the advertising industry, the sexual exploitation of female images is worse than it was. Not that I’m in favor of any kind of censorship. I’m only in favor of people becoming more and more aware, so they will demand change.