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A Family of 'Vows': Reform by Marriage

Bill Manseau 's wife, Mary, left the convent in the late 1960s. But Bill Manseau believed then, as he does today, that he was called to be a married priest -- and his actions might help to end the requirement of celibacy. The church felt otherwise.

21:32

Other segments from the episode on October 24, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 24, 2005: Interview with Bill Manseau and Mary Manseau; Interview with Peter Manseau; Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich; Review of remastered set of Fred Astaire…

Transcript

DATE October 24, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Priest Bill Manseau and his wife Mary, a former nun,
talk about their lives in the church and about their son's new
book, "Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

As improbable as it may seem, Peter Manseau is the son of a priest, Bill
Manseau, and a former nun, Mary Manseau. You're probably wondering how Bill
can be a priest if he's married. Well, the church wanted Bill to resign when
he got married, but he says renouncing his vows would have been an
acknowledgement that he was unfit for the priesthood and had made a mistake in
seeking ordination. And he didn't believe he'd made a mistake. Bill Manseau
thinks it's time for the church to allow priests to marry, but the first Synod
of Bishops under Pope Benedict--which ended its meetings on Saturday--decided
not to change its celibacy rules.

Peter Manseau has written a new memoir called "Vows" about his parents and how
their religious lives affected his life. Peter is also the founding editor of
the online publication about religion called killingthebuddha.com. We'll hear
from Peter Manseau a little later in the show after we hear from his parents.
Bill Manseau was excommunicated when he got married. Then as a result of a
change in church rules, his official status became `priest under penalty of
censure.'

Bill Manseau, could you describe, in your words, why you refused to leave the
priesthood when you got married.

Father BILL MANSEAU: Well, because I believed that I had a vocation from God
to be a married Catholic priest. I was ordained in 1961, and in the course of
my ministry of eight years, I had come to believe that in order for a priest
to really have an effective ministry, most priests should have a participation
in the kind of life that the average person lived, which was to be married and
have children, and to live life as the ordinary person lived it, not in an
excluded, solitary fashion, which is what the celibate ministry calls for.

GROSS: What led you to the conclusion that priest should not be living a life
outside of the culture surrounding them, and that they should have the chance
to marry, as well? Did you feel that way before you became a priest, or did
you reach that conclusion after becoming one?

Fr. MANSEAU: Actually, it was a gradual transformation of consciousness for
me as a result of my academic studies while in the seminary, and then
following my ordination, I became involved with a Roman Catholic lay apostolic
community in which the leadership were married men and most of the people who
were part of the community were married people. And as far as I could see,
they were living lives every bit as ministerial as the priests in the
rectories around me. So I--and when I looked at the New Testament, they
appeared to be living lives more in conformity with the Gospel as it was lived
out in the second--as it was lived out in the acts of the apostles than the
church around me.

GROSS: What does it mean to you to remain a priest even though you can't
practice and even though the church doesn't recognize you as a priest?

Fr. MANSEAU: Well, first, Terry, the church does recognize me as a priest, as
my classification as a priest is a priest under suspension. That's the
penalty that I have because I have married without permission of the Vatican.
And I'm simply one of 100,000 men throughout the world, Roman Catholic
priests, who have married in the last 30 years. Here in the United States,
I'm one of about 25,000 married Roman Catholic priests. So I definitely am
not a solitary person in this endeavor.

GROSS: So what does it mean to you to be a priest even though you can't
practice, so to speak, within the church, you know, practice being a priest?

Fr. MANSEAU: Well, actually, one of the models that I have for what I do, the
way I go at life, is the worker priests in France. And that was a mission of
the Roman Catholic Church in France during the '40s and the '50s in which
priests actually worked in the factories and--in order to forge better bonds
with the average layperson and to understand the conditions in which the
average layperson lived. So I see myself as a pioneer worker priest,
following the model of these priests in France in the '40s and the '50s.

GROSS: Mary Manseau, how--Mary, did you meet your husband?

Mrs. MARY MANSEAU: Well, I had been in the Sisters of St. Joseph for about 10
years, and that's a community that really served the Archdiocese of Boston in
a couple of mission areas. And my last assignment was in the city, in
Roxbury, and I think my experience there had sort of broadened my view of the
world and of the kinds of things that I wanted to do. And when it came time
to think about, `Well, am I going to be able to stay in the city, or will I
have to leave and go back to some other convent? You know, will my assignment
change?'--because we didn't have control over that--I began to think about
that and I felt that I would rather not do that, that I would step out of the
community and then see where life brought me.

I didn't meet Bill--he had a storefront center, Catholic Messengers of the
Bible, down on Charman Avenue(ph) in Roxbury, and he was stationed in another
parish in Roxbury. And I did meet him there at an evening Bible session, or
just on an afternoon when people would come into the center for some support
and a place to sit down and things like that. So I did meet Bill. I didn't
have any intention of marrying Bill when I met him or even when I was still in
the convent. When I left the convent, I didn't know--up to a certain point
just before I left the convent, I really didn't know that Bill had been
considering making a move, you know, from the priesthood to his vision of
priesthood. It was only after we started going out and those kinds of things
developed.

GROSS: Mary Manseau, why did you decide to leave your religious order and
stop being a nun?

Mrs. MANSEAU: Well, of course, those days in the late '60s, there was a lot
of turmoil, there was a lot of change that was happening in people's thinking,
especially after Vatican II. And a lot of the sisters in the community were
reaching out to do other ministries. We were basically teachers. We taught
in the parochial schools of Boston, but many of the sisters were looking at
other areas where they could minister. And they wanted to be able to do that
more out in the world, so to speak. Some of them wanted to go and live in
apartments in the parishes. And in the early days of the--you know, maybe
around '66, '67, '68 or so, those permissions were not granted. And some of
those sisters then decided to leave and they formed their own little
communities with the support of a pastor in other parishes, especially in the
city.

So those sisters were leaving the very convent that I was also in and I had an
opportunity to go to do that with them, but decided that I would just as
soon--I would go home and see what, you know, life would bring to me by doing
that. And I think it was basically just that my mind had opened up a little
bit more. I had different experiences in the city, became more aware of the
needs of people in the city. We had more contact in the city with just the
regular people that lived around us, more so than we did in some of the other
parish schools.

GROSS: My guests are Mary and Bill Manseau. Their son Peter has written a
new memoir called "Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun and Their Son." We'll
hear from Peter later in the show. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Peter Manseau's new book "Vows" is about his parents' religious and
married lives. His mother Mary is a former nun. His father Bill is a priest
who refused to resign when he married. The book also reveals that both Bill
and Mary were sexually abused by their church mentors.

Now it turns out, Bill and Mary Manseau, that you both had some history of
being abused in your background. And though you might think the word `abuse'
is perhaps a little too strong--I don't know what word you'd like to use--but
would you tell us briefly what happened between you and the priest who was
your mentor when you were an altar boy?

Mr. MANSEAU: Well, Terry, I think that the word `abuse' is probably not too
strong, because what happened to me initiated me into something I had no
anticipation of. And that was that I was 15, 16 years old when I was
befriended by a local--my local parish priest, who was a really wonderful man,
and the priest asked me to begin driving for him because he had high blood
pressure, and it was a way of helping him. So I agreed to that. And so I
grew close to him and at the end of an evening, say when I had driven him
someplace, we were--this particular evening we were sitting in his car in
front of my parents' home and he put his arm around me and held my hand and
then he kissed me and he kissed me on the lips. And this was something that I
certainly had not anticipated. And I really didn't know what to do with it
except that I recognized that he was showing me affection and I certainly had
a feeling of affection for him. But it was a disturbing experience.

And it was not simply that one time, but that continued. And I found out
later on that my father had looked out the window and saw us sitting in the
car and remonstrated with my mother that I should be coming in the house. And
my mother said, `No, never mind, you know. He's OK. He's with the priest.'
And to this day, I have a regret that my mother suggested that to my father.
And it--what it did to me was it raised within me, you know, subsequently a
fear that I might be homosexual, and it was something that I had to deal with
for years afterwards in terms of my own interior life.

GROSS: Did you ever talk to the priest about this after the fact?

Mr. MANSEAU: No, I did not, and as it turned out, he became quite ill with
his hypertension and was confined to--first to the hospital, then to his home
and, in point of fact, he died the day I went into the seminary. I was 17
years old. He died...

GROSS: And he was the person most responsible for getting you into the
seminary?

Mr. MANSEAU: Yes.

GROSS: He's the one who encouraged you to do it.

Mr. MANSEAU: That's right.

GROSS: What's your reaction now, knowing that it wasn't only this priest but
so many priests who had, you know, abusive, inappropriate relationships with
altar boys and other young boys in the church and that nothing was done about
it, that some of these priests were just moved from one parish to another
while at the same time it's considered absolutely wrong and inappropriate and
impossible, you know, for a priest to be married and continue to function
actively in that role in the church?

Mr. MANSEAU: Right. There's a great deal of distortion and deception within
the Roman Catholic church, at least there was, and the reason for it was to
protect the reputation of the institution. And in point of fact, I went with
this priest once to the home of a young girl. I drove him there and he went
in and talked with the--she was a young woman, she was probably in her
middle--late teens, I would think--and she had been impregnated by another
priest. And he went--and so the priest that I was with went there to talk the
family into keeping quiet and for the young woman to have her baby and put her
up for adoption, that sort of thing. So these things were always dealt with
quietly and secretly. And that is part of the problematic, and that's--one of
the reasons why I have chosen to live as I have, publicly as a married
Catholic priest, is to engender a public discussion about these issues so that
people will be able to rectify this fundamental problem.

GROSS: Mary Manseau, you were abused repeatedly by a priest who had taken you
under his wing and then some. Tell us a little bit about what happened to
you.

Mrs. MANSEAU: Well, basically I was a senior in high school. I was 16,
would be turning 17 in the spring, and I was very close with some of the
sisters, one in particular, and they were a different community than the one I
finally entered. But I was going--I had decided, as some of my other friends
did, to go to that community. It was in Halifax. And so my mind had been
made up to do that and then this priest came to the parish in the late winter
of '58 and just started, you know, paying more attention to me than to a lot
of the other kids. I was very involved in the CYO. Like, we had dances and
we--in the summertime, we would go to the beaches and he would take kids, you
know, here and there around the city.

And so during those times there was sort of this hidden sexual abuse going on,
hidden from the others, and then at other times, he would have--take me down
to the cape and things like that, and it was a very alarming time in the sense
that it kept going on and I don't even think I felt anything. I think I was
just in this haze, and I don't even know at that time that I would think to
have called it abuse except that it was always something that I did and
something that I was ashamed of.

GROSS: Well, he not only touched you inappropriately; you were worried you
were pregnant.

Mrs. MANSEAU: Yes, and I think that comes out of an incident when we
went--he took me down to the cape and I have the memory of going into a
cottage and the memory of him coming near me and telling me that, oh, there's
a bed in the other room. And the only other memory that I have is that we
were leaving. I'm not saying I have repressed memory or--you know, and I
don't really remember what happened, maybe nothing happened, but through that
whole experience, my own, I suppose, lack of knowledge and education,
pregnancy things and intercourse and things were kind of vague to me in those
days. And so I did have that fear, because I wasn't quite sure how things
happened, which sounds kind of silly now but that's the way it was in a girls
high school, at least for me.

GROSS: What was it like for you to be a nun, having taken a vow of chastity
and supposedly being a virgin, knowing that, whether you actually had
intercourse with this priest or not, you felt violated by him? You felt
impure and you're supposed to be, you know, in a, quote, "pure" state...

Mrs. MANSEAU: Right.

GROSS: ...when you're becoming a nun.

Mrs. MANSEAU: Yeah. Well, I think probably my biggest fear was my own
perception that, oh, some of these nuns who are in charge of us, like a novice
mistress and people like that, they knew--that somehow they knew that
something had happened, you know. That was always something that was more on
my mind. I mean, certainly I was always very guilty and that type of thing
and never shared it with anybody and not until, like, 1995. And--so I...

GROSS: Now even with your husband?

Mrs. MANSEAU: No, I never told Bill until after I had confronted that priest
in--I think it was 1995.

GROSS: I'm just curious. You know, so many people have made the case that
the church should not allow homosexual priests because homosexuality in the
priesthood leads to the kind of sexual abuse against boys that we've seen.
You were a woman sexually abused by a heterosexual priest.

Mrs. MANSEAU: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So, you know...

Mrs. MANSEAU: Right. Yeah, I'm not...

GROSS: What do you have to say about that?

Mrs. MANSEAU: I'm not so sure about his orientation, only because of a remark
that he made when he called the diocese himself and was very angry and told
them that he should have just killed me. He had a notorious reputation for
having a gun and being homicidal, which I found out years later. But I don't
believe that all the troubles in the church come because some priests may be
homosexuals. When the boys are mistreated and they're young, they're
pedophiles. And a homosexual person, they can have relationships but they're
adult relationships. But there are many, many women--I couldn't even guess a
number--who have never come forward--some have and told their stories, but
there are many more who have never come forward and talked about the abuse
that they received at the hands of some priests. And I always have to throw
in, I feel, because of my love for the church and we have many good friends,
that there are many, many good and dedicated priests who work very hard and
who are very well-adjusted in life and they're out there working. And it is
very sad that these other men have really blackened their name.

GROSS: So now that all of this is out in the open to each other and publicly
as well, is it easier to put that part of your past behind you and move on?

Mrs. MANSEAU: Yes. Yes. I feel as though a big weight is off my shoulders
and now with Peter's book coming out also, it's been something that I've been
able to share with my friends, people that I'm very close to and--although
when Peter was writing his book I did say, `Oh, when the book comes out, I'm
going into hiding. That's it. You're not going to find me around.' The
exact opposite has happened, and it was a real relief to sit at school with my
friends and to watch and to talk about--after they read the book, to talk with
them about this.

GROSS: Bill Manseau, do you think there's a connection between the
requirement of being celibate for priests and the amount of sexual abuse on
the part of priests that we now know has happened?

Mr. MANSEAU: Absolutely, and let me just say very quickly that celibacy, as
a gift from God, is a gift from God, and so consequently it's not something
which can be legislated by human authority. So the requirement that priests
be celibate as a mandatory law is an unjust law, and it is not something that
really can be followed. And because it is forced on priests, it is a crime
that cries to heaven for resolution. They only accept because they feel
called by God to the priesthood and so they want to serve and they hope that
they will be able to serve well. But they don't, in their heart of hearts,
believe that they have the gift of celibacy. They believe they have the call
to priesthood but not celibacy. But they do it, trying to do the best they
can.

GROSS: Bill and Mary Manseau, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mrs. MANSEAU: Thank you very much for having us. We enjoyed talking with
you.

Mr. MANSEAU: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Bill and Mary Manseau. Their son Peter has written a memoir called
"Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son." We'll talk with Peter
in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up: Peter Manseau talks about being the son of a priest and a
former nun.

Barbara Ehrenreich describes the futile job search she embarked on as part of
her research for her latest book "Bait and Switch." It's about white-collar
unemployment.

And Lloyd Schwartz watches a new set of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers DVDs.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Peter Manseau discusses his new book, "Vows"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In his new book "Vows," Peter Manseau writes about his parents' religious
lives and how they affected his life. His mother, Mary, is a former nun. His
father, Bill, is a priest who refused to resign when he got married. His
status is now `priest under penalty of censure.' Peter Manseau's book also
reveals that both of his parents were sexually abused by their mentors in the
house.

Peter, I'm assuming that you knew about the sex abuse in both of your parents'
lives before you started to write this book about them?

Mr. PETER MANSEAU (Author, "Vows"): No. In fact, I thought I had enough
material with just the fact that my father had been a priest and my mother was
a nun. And so that's a book that I decided to write. And it was only as I
learned their stories that then I learned the full story. In fact, when it
first occurred to me to write about my parents--this is about 10 years ago--I
was still in college, and I had to write a graduating thesis. I studied
religion, so I thought, `I'll tell my parents' stories.' And I approached
them about it, and I asked them, and at the time they said, `Oh, no, that
doesn't sound like a good idea.' And I know now it's because--that was in
1996--my mother was just beginning her court case. My father knew about it,
my mother knew about it. I didn't know about it, and neither did my brother
or my sister.

So it was a--not only was it a secret of my mother's life for 40 years; it was
a secret in the family for 10 years after that. It was only after I started
writing the book that they decided that they would tell me, that the would
share this with me.

GROSS: What was your reaction?

Mr. MANSEAU: Oh, I was surprised, I was stunned, and I was heartbroken for
them. But the more I thought about it, it began to make sense. There had
always growing up some signs of depression on my mother's part, and I didn't
quite understand it as a child. I don't know if a child can really understand
when their parent seems that way, but I didn't understand it. And so it
explained a lot to me about who my mother was and what she had been through.
And, also, just in terms of someone who thinks and writes about the church,
having seen such pervasive abuse from--in so many different corners all around
the country, that it had not hit home in my family would have been odd, if it
had not. So to learn how close my family was to it made perfect sense, after
learning just how widespread the problem is.

GROSS: A story that your mother did not have time to tell--but I'll ask you
to tell--is that the priest who sexually abused her was also responsible for a
major medical issue that has changed her life physically.

Mr. MANSEAU: Yes.

GROSS: Would you tell what happened?

Mr. MANSEAU: Well, I only know this from my mother. It's,
unfortunately--well, this other priest has died, and so there was no talking
to him to hear his side of the story. But as my mother understands it, when
she was being abused by this priest when she was 16, 17 years old and she
began to speak up about it and to make noises that she was going to not stand
for it, was going to say something, he more and more wanted her to be on her
way, off to the convent. And simultaneous with that, my mother happened to
come down with a toothache. And as it was then, when you would enter a
religious community, they did not want you to bring your health problems in
with you, so you needed to have all of that settled beforehand. One of the
requirements of entering the Sisters of St. Joseph Nirvizion(ph), in fact,
was a very thorough health exam.

So with my mother's bad tooth, she went--she happened to mention to this
priest that she was having this problem, and she--it might delay her entrance
into the religious community. Well, he told her to go not to her own family
dentist but to a dentist he knew, and he would take care of it for her. And
this dentist--his prescription was to remove all of her top teeth. And as I
understand it, she had a toothache, so it was a bit drastic, this decision.
So 17 years old, my mother had all of her top teeth removed on the eve of her
entrance into the convent.

GROSS: What did you think of the church growing up? You know, your mother
had been a nun; your father, a priest.

Mr. MANSEAU: Early on I loved it. It was so much a part of who we were. We
went to church every Sunday, but we also had church at home all the time. As
I said, we grew up in this community of married priests and former nuns, and
they would come over, and we would have Mass. And that was--those were our
kinds of family parties. I mean, we would have Mass and then have a backyard
barbecue. That's what they did for their leader time. That's how they
socialized. There was often a liturgical element to even those kinds of
casual gatherings.

And I loved it, and I loved church. I loved the music, and I loved the
smells. And slowly, though, I started to realize that what--we weren't like
other Catholic families. In my CCD, Catholic education classes, I would learn
that priests never married, for example. And if I raised my hand and tried to
say, `Well, sometimes they do get married,' it caused a lot of problems. I
mean, we had--as a family, we had questions that regular church-goers couldn't
answer. And when we raised them, when we mentioned these facts about our
parents' lives, we would feel that there was this wrongdoing; there was a sin
in our family. And so I think as a result of that, I moved further and
further away from the church.

GROSS: But eventually you thought you might have a spiritual vocation, and
you entered the seminary. What was the change?

Mr. MANSEAU: Well, I didn't enter seminary, I should say. I was studying
religion as an undergraduate, and I was particularly interested in medieval
Catholicism and church history. And so I spent some time in a Trappist
monastery and was really drawn to the life, to this all-encompassing idea
of a life ordered by God, ordered by ritual. But I think that as I
investigated that, I ran into a lot of the same questions and issues that my
father had when he was my age or a little older--is just there is a tension
between the idea--the hope of being connected, being close to God and
tradition and keeping you from something fundamental in life, from marriage,
from family, from sex. And it just--ultimately, as I grew up, I grew out of
my romantic feelings and saw that, at least for now, you can't have it both
ways in the Catholic Church.

GROSS: You write, `For all the beauty of the abbey and the sincere efforts of
the men I had met there, it rested on divisions born of the idea that this
world is nothing but a waiting room.'

Mr. MANSEAU: Yes. That's what I think is really at issue with celibacy.
It's a lot more than whether or not priests can marry. It has to do
fundamentally with the way the church thinks about sex, the way the church
thinks about the body, the way that the church thinks about women. There is
nothing defensible in the church's position that women cannot be ordained as
priests. It is only, as far as I'm concerned, a remnant of a medieval fear of
sex, of the feminine. And until the church can come to terms with that, can
ask itself hard questions about where these beliefs came from and what to do
about them, I don't think that even allowing priests to marry--I don't think
that will be enough.

GROSS: I think--is it fair to describe you now as somebody who's interested
in telling stories about faith?

Mr. MANSEAU: Yes, I think so. I think that's really how I've come to
understand belief. When I was investigating it for myself, I didn't
understand it. The idea of believing was what kept me separate from the monks
I met. And I admired their lives, and yet they had this thing, this belief,
that I couldn't really penetrate because deep down I didn't share it. And so
now it's become my practice of faith to learn other people's stories of how
they live their own.

GROSS: Do you understand your parents' abiding faith in the Roman Catholic
Church, and do they understand your approach to religion?

Mr. MANSEAU: I think so. I think so. I've been--through the process of
writing the book, it's sort of come together quite a bit. Now I've been
surprised by the response some of my parents' friends have been sending them
about the book. They think it's part of the mission, and I meant to tell my
parents' story. I didn't mean to contribute to the mission so much. And--but
I can see that it is because sometimes just telling a true story and showing
it in all its complexity can do a world of good, can show what changes need to
be made.

GROSS: Peter Manseau, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. MANSEAU: Thank you, Terry. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Peter Manseau is the author of the new book "Vows: The Story of a
Priest, a Nun and Their Son." He's also the founding editor of the online
publication about religion, killingthebuddha.com. You can read an excerpt
from his book "Vows" on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, Barbara Ehrenreich talks about her new book, "Bait and Switch," a
look at white color and employment." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Barbara Ehrenreich discusses her new book, "Bait and
Switch"
TERRY GROSS, host:

For journalist Barbara Ehrenreich's best-selling book "Nickel and Dimed," she
went under cover, so to speak, and got a number of low-paying jobs. She
worked as a server in a chain restaurant, a cleaning person and a Wal-Mart
associate to see firsthand the difficulties of living on the wages these jobs
paid. For her latest book, "Bait and Switch," Ehrenreich went under cover
again to understand what white-collar workers are up against after they've
been downsized out of a job. And she looked at the industry that sells people
in the job market: makeovers, resume assistants and employment counseling.

What were the rules that you laid out for yourself for this book in looking
for a job?

Ms. BARBARA EHRENREICH (Author, "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of
the American Dream"): OK, I wanted to get a white-collar corporate job. I
faked a resume, but there's nothing in it that I couldn't actually do. I
presented myself as a PR person, which is--you know, goes along with being a
writer and journalist. And so that was me; that was my persona. And my rules
were that I had to do everything possible to get a job.

GROSS: One of the jobs that you declined was at an insurance company. What
was the job like? Why was it something you didn't even think about accepting?

Ms. EHRENREICH: Well, first, I have to say I was kind of thrilled because it
was the first legitimate bit of interest that popped into my `in' box, you
know, in--What?--nine months or something. And they said, `We're really
excited about your resume. We think you'll, you know, fit well in our
company.' It was a sales job. And I wrote back and said, `I'm not interested
in sales, but, however, I can manage your sales force.' (Laughs) And they
said, `Oh, come on over.' Well, all it was was, in fact, sales, and you're
basically on your own. All you have--you're given is the right to go out and
sell their product, and then you make some money off, you know, as many of
these policies as you can sell: no benefits, no salaries, no office even to
work out of.

So--but, you know, that kind of so-called job, where you're really on your own
making commissions, you know, is an increasing thing that people turn to,
especially those people who've been ejected from the corporate world, people
who have been white collar, who have, you know, organizational skills and so
forth. It's very insecure, very scare.

GROSS: And the other job you were offered was similar, except it's selling
cosmetics instead of selling insurance.

Ms. EHRENREICH: Yes. Now this is what you would have to say, knowing me,
objectively was not a good fit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. EHRENREICH: But I was looking a little more--you know, I really
transformed myself for this job search. I had makeup, you know. And so I
caught the eye of a woman who was trying to recruit people. Again, you only
make whatever money you can from selling the product. And in both of these
cases, this kind, you know, of annoying or scary thing is you've got to put up
some money to get into it. For the cosmetics job, my calculation I think was
I would have needed $1,900 for my initial inventory. And for the insurance
job, I would have had to put out about that much for the--you know, to get
licensed and to do all these things to even get my foot in the door. So you
had to make this up-front investment, and then you don't know if you're going
to make any money.

GROSS: Now you're a professional writer and have been for many years. What
did you learn about resume writing by actually going to a professional?

Ms. EHRENREICH: Well, you know, my resume was fake, but I got the sense that
everybody's a little bit fake. You know--Surprise--I said, `I'm a little
worried about my age; that I'm--you know, that I don't want that working
against me.' And the coach just said, `Well, how would anybody know your
age?' And I said, `Well, because obviously I have all this experience, and it
tells when I graduated from college.' She said, `No way. You don't tell when
you graduated from college, and you got to hack off--remove any experience
that comes, you know, from 10 or 15 years ago max.' So you've already
condensed yourself into this seemingly younger person.

And another strange thing about the resume-writing: One coach, you know,
advised me to--you know, she got--after looking at the results of my
personality test, which I must say was pretty good; she thought I had a
wonderful personality--she said I could now claim to have all these qualities
in my resume, like `takes charge easily situations.' She said that's one of
my personality traits. And I said, `Well, so, you know'--she said, `So put it
in your resume.' I said, `No, I can't do that. You know, that's just based
on your test?' So I thought all of that was kind of, you know, borderline
dishonest.

GROSS: When your process was over and you realized, you know, your time was
up and you weren't getting a job, you ended up contacting some of the job
seekers that you'd met at the beginning of the process to see: How did they
do? What kind of jobs, if any, did they find? What are some of the things
that you learned about the job seekers that you met?

Ms. EHRENREICH: Well, so this is people who have been looking for many
months and or over a year in some cases, and, you know, it's a pretty grim
trajectory. The first thing people always talk about doing is cutting back
expenses--you know, obvious things: no more cable TV, no more movies and
things like that. Then they may downsize their living quarters. Then they
may auction off possessions on eBay. If there was a non-working spouse in the
picture, he or she gets whatever job he or she can get. And, you know, what
happens, if it's a single person, they often talk about going back to live
with their parents. If it's a family or a lot of single people, they take a
so-called survival job, and that's what white-collar people call them. And
these are just the ordinary jobs that blue-collar people have.

You know, one woman--oh, one woman was cleaning toilets, and this was a
marketing person in information technology. One man talked about working at
Circuit City. Another man was driving an airport limo. And they'd like to
think that these jobs will be short term. The trouble is, you know, the
longer you're unemployed in the white-collar sense, the less likely you ever
are to get a job because you can't put that on your resume. Right? How do
you explain the last year if you have been stocking inventory at Wal-Mart?

GROSS: Now in order to find a job, you changed your name. I mean, Barbara
Ehrenreich is a pretty well-known name right now; "Nickel and Dimed" has been
such a successful book. So you change your name from Ehrenreich, which is the
name of your first husband, to Alexander, which is your maiden name. You got
a new Social Security card for your name as Barbara Alexander. Is that a
change you ever would have made in your name, had it not been for the book?

Ms. EHRENREICH: No, I don't think so. I thought about it when John
Ehrenreich and I were divorced, but, you know, my kids have the name of
Ehrenreich, and so I, you know, wanted to stay with it. I'll tell you,
Alexander is a lot easier to spell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Do you use it now? I mean, you actually changed it legally. So how
much...

Ms. EHRENREICH: Yeah.

GROSS: ...of your identity is now as Barbara Alexander, and how often do you
actually use that name?

Ms. EHRENREICH: No, I still use Ehrenreich.

GROSS: So does that mean...

Ms. EHRENREICH: But this was under cover, Terry. This was really under
cover. When you change your name--I don't think I was totally under cover in
"Nickel and Dimed" because I was using my own name. And here, I was
definitely--I certainly did not want to be identified because I'm sure some
employer would have--you know, might have read some of the things I've written
and decided I have a bad attitude.

GROSS: Barbara Ehrenreich, thanks so much for talking with us.

Ms. EHRENREICH: Oh, my pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Barbara Ehrenreich's latest book is called "Bait and Switch: The
(Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream."

Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new DVD collection of Fred Astaire and
Ginger Rogers musicals. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: First volume of remastered set of Fred Astaire-Ginger
Rogers films on DVD
TERRY GROSS, host:

Among the most beloved and popular movie musicals ever made were the 10 films
that teamed Fred Astaire with Ginger Rogers. A few of them were available for
a short time when DVDs first appeared but then went out of circulation. Now
Warner Bros. Home Video has released the first volume of a completely
remastered set of Astaire-Rogers films, films that music critic Lloyd Schwartz
says have been worth waiting for.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. GINGER ROGERS: (Singing) Nothing's impossible, I have found, when my chin
is on the ground. I pick myself up, dust myself off, start all over again.
Don't lose your confidence...

LLOYD SCHWARTZ reporting:

If one function of art is to give us a deeper insight into the nature of
reality, isn't it ironic that some of the greatest art seems to be so
artificial, the formulaic plots and brilliant dialogue of Jane Austen or
Raymond Chandler, the formal perfection of a veneer painting or a Mozart
opera? What could be less natural than when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers,
in the marvelous films they made in the 1930s, suddenly erupt into dance? Yet
what feels more right? Their songs, by some of the 20th century's greatest
songwriters, are often about dancing. And like opera arias, the dances lift
what their characters are feeling to a higher plain, even beyond words.

What could be more expressive of giving in to love than Rogers' swooning
backbends? What could express greater joy in life than Astaire's buoyant and
dazzling footwork? Could anything represent a successful relationship better
than the intricate grace of their partnership? Their feet read each other's
minds.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ROGERS: Well, if Madge doesn't care, I certainly don't.

Mr. FRED ASTAIRE: Neither do I. All I know is that it's (singing) heaven.
I'm in heaven. And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak. And I seem to
find the happiness I seek when we're out together dancing cheek to cheek.
Heaven...

SCHWARTZ: Their dances are a sort of porchit ritual(ph), which also includes
the fun of courtship, as in such goofy numbers as Irving Berlin's "I'm Putting
All My Eggs in One Basket" or George and Ira Gershwin's slippery exploration
of how language itself can affect a relationship, a tricky number that
actually takes place on roller-skates.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. ASTAIRE: (Singing) You say either (pronounced eether) and I say either
(pronounced ither). You say neither (pronounced neether). I say neither
(pronounced nither). Either, either, neither, neither--let's call the whole
thing off. You like potato (pronounced potato), and I like potato
(pronounced potota). You like tomato (pronounced tomato) and I like tomato
(pronounced tomota). Potato, potota, tomato, tomato--oh, let's call the whole
thing off 'cause, oh, if we call the whole thing off, then we must part. And,
oh, if we're apart, then that would break my heart. So if you like pajamas
and I like...

SCHWARTZ: Some of the Astaire-Rogers dances have a more serious cast, like
Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance" from "Follow the Fleet," which both
encourages us to escape from the Depression and the shadows of war and also
reminds us of the bleak future we're trying to avoid.

Maybe their most moving dance, their darkest and most beautiful, is to the
Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields song "Never Gonna Dance" from "Swing Time." If
dancing represents the joy of their lives together, then their dance of
parting must also be a farewell to dancing itself.

(Soundbite of "Never Gonna Dance")

Mr. ASTAIRE: (Singing) I'll put my shoes on beautiful trees. I'll give my
rhythm back to the breeze. My dinner clothes may dine where they please, for
all I really want is you. And to Groucho Marx, I give my cravat. To Harpo
goes my shiny silk hat. And to heaven I give a vow to adore you. I'm
starting now to be much more positive. That's though I'm left without my
Penny. The wolf was not smart. He left me my heart. And so I cannot go for
anything but the la belle, la perfectly swell romance. Never gonna dance,
never gonna dance. Only gonna love you. Never gonna dance.

SCHWARTZ: One thing that makes the artifice of the musical numbers work so
well is that the dances are embedded in silly, comic plots that are already
artificial. I'm actually very fond of these farcical situations, of
concealment and mistaken identity, partly because the teamwork of the
supporting actors is so delightful. But these are also the perfect films for
DVD because if you're not in the mood for the story, it's easy to skip from
one breathtaking musical number to the next. You can create your own orgy of
great songs and dances. I can hardly wait for volume two

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches English at the University of Massachusetts,
Boston, and is classical music editor of The Boston Phoenix. He reviewed the
"Astaire and Rogers Collection, Volume One," on Warner Home Video.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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