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Coming of Age in Northern Ireland.

Poet, editor, and novelist Seamus Deane. His first novel, Reading in the Dark," (Knopf) came out earlier this year, a chronicle of a boy growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1950's. Deane recounts the story of a family haunted by a missing uncle and his tie to the greater Troubles surrounding them all. "Reading in the Dark" was short-listed for the United Kingdom's esteemed literary prize, the Booker. Deane is the editor of the Norton "Field Day Anthology," the definitive collection of Irish literature.

32:22

Other segments from the episode on September 23, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 23, 1997: Interview with Seamus Deane; Interview with Joan Jacobs Brumberg.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: SEPTEMBER 23, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 092301np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Reading in the Dark
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Seamus Deane's novel "Reading in the Dark" shares something with the bestseller "Angela's Ashes." They both are about a boy's coming of age in Ireland. But Seamus Deane's book is more political, based on his own experiences growing up in Northern Ireland, where the political conflict was mirrored in family conflict.

At the heart of the novel is the disappearance years ago of the boy's paternal uncle Eddie, a member of the IRA. Did Eddie sail away to America? Or, was he executed for being a police informer? The story haunts the boy and his family. As the boy learns more, he has to keep the truth a secret because he knows more than his father does, and the knowledge would likely destroy his parents' marriage.

For the benefit of future readers, we'll keep the secret too.

Reading in the Dark was short-listed for England's Booker Prize. Seamus Deane was born in Derry in 1940. He's a scholar of Irish literature and the editor of the "Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing." He currently teaches at the University of Notre Dame.

Let's start with a passage from Reading in the Dark. In this scene, the boy has to hide the family gun. I'll let Seamus Deane explain.

SEAMUS DEANE, POET, AUTHOR, "READING IN THE DARK": He has discovered the gun, or a gun, in the house, which had been given to his father at the end of the war by a German prisoner in the city of Derry. But he is a member of a family that has traditionally been associated with the IRA. And foolishly, although of course he's only a young boy, he takes the gun out to show it to his friends in the back field outside his house, where he is seen by an informer and this is going to be reported to the police.

And it's an extremely foolish action on his part because young as he was, he should have known better given his family's history and the fact that members of his family have already served prison terms.

(RECITING FROM READING IN THE DARK)

"I waited 10 minutes and then brought the gun out again, wrapped in an old newspaper, and buried it in one of the stone trenches up the field. I was so sure that was enough that I had forgotten about it, even before I went to sleep. But now here were the police, and the house was being splintered open.

The linoleum was being ripped off. The floorboards crow-barred up. The water lying face down in the middle of the floor. And the slashed wallpaper was hanging down in ribbons.

We were huddled downstairs and held in the center of the room when the kitchen was searched. One policeman opened a tin of Australian peaches and poured the yellow scimitar slices and the sugar (Unintelligible) syrup all over the floor. Another went out to the yard and split open a bag of cement in his ransack of the shed. He came walking through in a white cloud -- his boots sticking to the slimy linyl and the cement falling from him in white flecks.

I was still in the silence. Objects seem to be floating free of gravity all over the room. Everybody had sweat or tears on their faces. Then my father, Liam and I were in the police cars, and the morning light had already reached the rooftops as a polished gleam in the slits, but fled as we turned the corner of the street towards the police barracks no more than a few hundred yards away.

Where was the gun? I had had it. I'd been seen with it. Where was it? Policemen with huge faces bent down to ask me quietly at first, then more and more loudly. They made my father sit at a table and then lean over it with his arms outspread. Then they beat him on the neck and shoulders with rubber truncheons. Short, engorged red in color, he told them, but they didn't believe him so they beat us too, Liam and me, across the table from him.

I remember the sweat and rage on his face as he looked. When they pushed my chin down on the table for a moment, I was looking up at him. Did he wink at me? Or, were there tears in his eyes? Then my head bounced so hard on the table at the blows that I big hard on my tongue. For long after, I would come away from the small hours of the morning sweating, asking myself over and over: where is the gun? Where is it? Where is the gun?

I would rub the sleep and fear that lay like a cobweb across my face. If a light flickered from the street beyond, the image of the police car would reappear and my hair would feel starched and my hands sweaty.
The police smell took the oxygen out of the air and left me sitting there with my chest heaving.

GROSS: That's Seamus Deane reading from his novel Reading in the Dark. Seamus Deane, did a similar incident happen to you?

DEANE: Yeah, more or less -- that incident with one or two very small variations. But that and a good deal in the novel is based on my own family history, yeah.

GROSS: So did you talk? Or were you able to withstand the questioning?

DEANE: Well, my father had already told them that -- the story about where he got the gun. I didn't say where I'd hidden it, no. But my father didn't even know that so -- nor did Liam, so I was pretty sure that if I said nothing, nobody could contradict me.

GROSS: And had you had any run-ins with the police before that? Was this your first big encounter with them?

DEANE: That was the first, what would one say, intimate encounter with them, yeah.

GROSS: What impact did it have on how you saw the police?

DEANE: Well, it simply confirmed what I had known about them and what I had been told about them -- that they were dangerous; that they were sectarian; that they were unjust; and violent. And their record since then has manifested that to be true.

GROSS: What were your thoughts about the IRA as a boy growing up in a conflict that was probably kind of hard to completely understand?

DEANE: Well the -- the IRA regarded, really, as the only defense between us, and an unjust legal and political system. And of course, remember at that time when the state was founded and for 20, 30 years afterwards, the Catholic minority in the north felt that they had been abandoned, both by the south, the republic as it now is, and by anyone who cared about community or political justice.

We were simply trapped there, discriminated against, several times, you know, beaten up and so -- to jail and so forth. And no one, not the newspapers or anyone else, paid a blank bit of notice. It was only when the television cameras arrived in the late '60s that people actually woke up to what was going on there.

GROSS: The story in the your novel Reading in the Dark pivots around an uncle who was in the IRA, but was executed by his own people because they believed that he was an informer.

DEANE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And there's a lot of secrets and possible deception that ties around the story. And without me kind of unraveling the whole story here, I know that this is based at least in part on something that happened in your family, tell us, if you could, about secrets that you had and that you kept -- kept perhaps until writing this book.

DEANE: Well, there were some -- I mean I wouldn't tell -- I won't tell all of it, but I would say this much: that the discovery or the discoveries that I made by constant and aggressive questioning of various people of the older generation led me to the point where I decided that this knowledge which I had longed to gain and acquire -- this knowledge actually was a worse poison than the ignorance that had preceded it because I couldn't tell anyone; precisely because telling someone would have incriminated and would have interfered with the relationship between my parents.

So that for their sake, I couldn't say anything. And even not saying it had a damaging effect, but my belief was that saying it would have put a more damaging effect. So, I was between a rock and a hard place.

GROSS: There's another scene in your novel that I want to ask you about. The boy is being punished by his parents for something that he's done, and he's sent up to his room. And his father's really angry with him. But the father assumes the boy is sleeping, and goes up to the room to tuck the boy in and kiss him goodnight, but the boy really is still kind of awake. And he knows his father has done this.

And I'm wondering if that had happened to you and what it made you think about your father as a man and a father?

DEANE: Well, something like that happened to me. This happens after the young boy had destroyed the father's rose garden, which I, alas, have to confess I did do. Well, there were two things -- two things I'd say about that incident. One is that in one sense, the father wanted to forgive the boy; wanted to tell him that he understood. But he couldn't tell him. He couldn't tell him directly.

And the second thing is that the father then, when he concreted the yard and never grew a rosebush again, the boy understood that as an act of cruelty; as an act of repression; as the father saying: "look, I'm going to bury the roses as I've buried the secrets that you wanted to weasel out of me, and I'm going to bury them so deep and so firmly, that they'll never come through again."

And the concrete, it was like, you know, a sealing of the lips. And yet, in some way the father was, you know, disturbed by this. So, his secret kiss to the boy was his clumsy way of expressing that guilt. But of course, the boy -- the boy knew the whole point of that episode is that father thought he was asleep. The boy was awake. So the father didn't mean the boy to know that he forgave him, therefore it wasn't forgiveness.

So, the boy was actually caught between two things. He knew what the father's internal -- or one aspect of the father's internal feeling about it was different from another aspect, and that he wasn't supposed to know about the one that had been expressed in the goodnight kiss.

GROSS: I'm wondering what kind of toll you think it took on you to have to keep really important secrets, not only from everybody, but from your own parents when you were a boy. In the novel, the mother is basically driven mad by the secret.

DEANE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So, what toll did it take on you in your life?

DEANE: Well, it's very hard for me to estimate, but I would say the toll was probably -- is probably considerable. And I suppose in some ways it's just like a very slow explosion, you know, like a slow-motion explosion detonating over the years. It's like an inner noise that, you know, won't fade.

GROSS: How did you decide as a boy that it was your responsibility? That it was necessary to keep this a secret? That you couldn't tell?

DEANE: When I saw my mother's reaction to the truth. And when I saw the way she hated me knowing it. I guess it was that -- that recognition that I knew something, she knew something, my father didn't know, and that it would have been lethal for, in her view, for him to know.

And bad enough her keeping the secret from him, but also her having shared the secret with me and never having, of course, the kind of confidence in someone else keeping the secret that's vital to yourself. So...

GROSS: Right.

DEANE: I don't know, you know, at what instant I knew. It sort of was a realization that dawned very coldly on me over a number of days, but once it had dawned, it stayed. It stayed there.

GROSS: That's a kind of strange education for someone who became a scholar. You know, you became a -- like a seeker of knowledge...

DEANE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ... when your childhood experience told you that knowledge could actually be a really, well, harmful thing to have if it was a secret.

DEANE: Yeah, but you see, the problem about secret knowledge, especially a secret knowledge that involves, as this kind of knowledge did, that involves a betrayal is that it has -- it has two effects. One is: if there is a betrayal that throws everything that you know in a new light, your first reaction is, you know, a kind of disbelief. You feel everything that was solid has become phantasmal, ghost-like. Everything has lost its solidity.

Then in the second place, it's that sort of ghost-like world that you've suddenly entered that you have to tell yourself is the real one -- the really real world. So, it's a very strange situation when something that actually provokes in you disbelief, at the same time turns out to be what is truly actual.

And that can sort of melt the borders between what you -- certainly what you feel is the official version of -- either of the official version of events or the official version of existence and the actuality.

The actuality is sometimes so fearful that you're prepared to think of it as merely phantasmal, as merely ghost-like.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Seamus Deane, and his new semi-autobiographical novel is called Reading in the Dark. And it's about growing up in Derry in Northern Ireland in the '50s and '60s.

Seamus Deane is now a professor of Literature at Notre Dame University.

Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

DEANE: OK.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Seamus Deane, and his new book is an autobiographical novel called Reading in the Dark. That's about coming of age in Northern Ireland in the '50s and '60s.

You know, the impression I get from your novel Reading in the Dark is that there were so many aspects of just daily life in Derry when you were coming of age that was colored by the conflict in Northern Ireland. Certainly, your relationship with the police; your relationship with the church; and you were getting educated by the church.

DEANE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Your relationship within the whole family -- 'cause members of the family belonged to the IRA and there was this big kind of secret about the IRA and betrayal and counter-betrayal within the family. So I mean, it must have just colored everything.

DEANE: Well it did, but I mean it's something that's more visible in an oppressive situation like that; that the political systems of authority that are in place, you know, penetrate into the deepest recesses of the private life.

But I think that's true of any society. It's just better disguised in some than in others. When a society is in trouble, that's -- that relationship, that degree of penetration is simply the more exposed. But the problem always is, or always was and I suppose in some ways still is in Northern Ireland, that you don't mind the disguise that is necessary, because if you're talking about a power system, most people when they -- if they give assent to the power system, then the power system becomes a system of authority.

And in other words, you don't need a gun in order to exert it. When it isn't given the consent or assent of the people, then it's merely a power system and always needs violence and force in order to sustain and maintain itself.

And that was what in this novel I was saying about both the governments and to a lesser degree the church, though the education wasn't directly a church education. That is to say, that there were -- there were lay people as well as priests involved in the education process.

GROSS: Your new novel is called Reading in the Dark, and I'd like you to talk a little bit about what role books played in your life growing up in the middle of this conflict, in a neighborhood that was poor; that was often fighting with the police.

DEANE: Well, the first thing, there were very few books available at home because books were -- would have been a luxury to buy. But there was a great blessing of a public library system. And there was a public library near me, and I simply, you know, attended that library as though it were a sort of a second school.

And I at first read indiscriminately, and then I began to read at least with a degree of, oh what would one say, some kind of pattern to the reading. But in the first -- the first novels I read were almost all American. The library had quite good holdings of people like Hemingway, Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, Dos Passos.

So I was reading my way through all these American novels, having my only acquaintance with America at that time had been the brief acquaintance of when I was a very young child of seeing American soldiers and sailors coming into Derry towards the end of the Second War. And looking in amazement at these people who seemed to me first very, very large; second, to always seem to be chewing gum or smoking cigarettes, which had this lovely smell of toasted tobacco about them.

And then of course, there was the other amazing fact that some of these Americans were black, and of course I'd never seen a black man before.

So, my acquaintance with America wasn't exactly intimate. So I, you know, my first impressions of the states were formed them. But also I suppose I had this sort of self-consciousness which must have been a bit boring to those who we were fortunate enough to meet it in me, and self-conscious that I was reading stuff that was, you know, literature with a capital "L."

And so I went on from there to English novels and of course, it being Northern Ireland, you know there were scarcely any Irish novels there. But it turned out then that there were many other, well at least quite a few other people in my -- at my school who had a similar literary bent. One of whom, for instance, was Seamus Heaney (ph), who of course, is the Nobel Prize winner.

GROSS: You went to school together?

DEANE: Yeah, we were in the same class. And...

GROSS: Were you good friends? Did you chat a lot about books?

DEANE: Oh yeah. Yeah, we've been friends since we were 10 years old -- of age. Heaney gets a quick cameo moment in this novel, in the math class episode.

And the -- so yeah, it was then that was him and one or two others that I began to recognize that reading books wasn't really such a strange avocation.

GROSS: Did you parents, who had to leave school when they were about 12, think that reading literature was going to get you anywhere?

DEANE: Oh yeah. I mean, their attitude towards books was that they were, oh what, they were almost sacred. My father, when the new legislation allowing for free education came out, he said more or less to all of us -- it was one of the few occasions when he made a kind of family declaration -- he said: "you're all going to avail of this education, and this is the way that you can destroy this -- the political state here," he said, "by becoming educated and working against it. And this would be more valuable than any other kind of action."

So they -- yeah, they had a great respect for learning and they also recognized the political importance of that legislation, because in fact it did educate the Catholic minority and that did lead, 20 years later, to the beginning of the downfall of the state.

GROSS: Seamus Deane, his novel is called Reading in the Dark. He's currently teaching at the University of Notre Dame. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Seamus Deane, author of the novel Reading in the Dark, based on his own experiences growing up in Northern Ireland. It's his first novel, but he was already known in Ireland as a scholar of Irish literature. He edited the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing.

Why did you decide to write your own story after being more of the literary scholar?

DEANE: Well, the truth is it was forced out of me. It was forced out of me by an editor, you know, the literary editor of the New Yorker, a man called Bill Buford (ph). And he was then working for -- he was editor then of Granta magazine in Cambridge in England.

And to cut a very long story short, somebody heard me -- this actually initially happened at Seamus Haney's house in Dublin. We were sitting there telling stories and this English poet was there. And after I told a story, I had discovered somewhat to my horror that he was weeping.

And first I thought he was drunk, but it turned out he, you know, he was moved by the story and he said to me: "I'm going to find someone who will make you write this. You must write this."

And I dismissed this. Anyway, Buford got onto me, and he harassed me for a long time to write just 3,000 words that he would publish in Granta. I very reluctantly did, having written the 3,000 words, I promptly forgot about it, but he kept coming back at me. So there was a long, a long period of three or four years when I would write 3,000 words, send it off, and hope that would shut Buford up for a while, you know?

But then he told me what was obviously true. He said, you know: "you're reluctant to write this not because you're so busy doing other things that you're always telling me you are." He said: "but because there's a deep inner reluctance in you to tell the story which you should face."

And I reckoned as this was true, so I also recognized I couldn't publish it when my mother was alive. My father was already dead. And indeed, when some other people were alive. So anyway, my mother and two others, members of the older generation, died in quick succession, and I felt then, well, I should face this and now I can publish it without hurting her.

So I got to work on it, and then it was, you know, it became -- it was painful to write in some ways, but since it was a novel, not a memoir, you know, I crafted it in a particular way so that the reader would find that she or he, like the young boy, you know was being assailed by a series of fragmentary episodes that at first seem to make no sense, but then, you know, gradually tightened and tightened into a narrative that did make at least some kind of sense.

GROSS: I'm wondering if the popularity of Frank McCord's (ph), you know, number one bestselling memoir Angela's Ashes is affecting how people read your book? For example, I was telling somebody about your book and they said -- someone who had read Angela's Ashes -- and they said to me: "oh, did Seamus Deane grow up poor, too? Are there stories about that?"

LAUGHTER

DEANE: I don't know. I suppose it must in some ways. Angela's Ashes strikes me as -- in some ways both an Irish and an American memoir. And it's much more, I suppose in some ways, it obviously has a much more popular appeal and since it was in the market earlier, I suppose in some ways my book might seem to be, you know, a lagging repetition or duplication in some ways of what McCord writes about.

But I think McCord's novel is -- because it's politically less charged and because it's about victimage in a particular way, then it's immediately more recognizable, not just as an Irish novel, but as a novel about, you know, about poverty and the struggle to overcome all sorts of disadvantages, and therefore has more -- because it doesn't have that geographic or political specificity that I think mine has, it maybe immediately has a wider appeal.

GROSS: You know, as the writer of this book, you're really kind of excavating a lot of secrets and betrayals and trying to understand what that means in the life of a family and in the life of a country. Yet I don't think you're saying: "it's terrible if you keep a secret. We should always just tell the truth about everything and reveal each other's innermost thoughts and emotions and actions."

DEANE: Oh no. No, I'm not a believer in the talking cure. I'm not a believer in the fact that if there is some trauma, that the best way to deal with it is to haul it out into the open. And one of the reasons for that is that when the trauma is hauled out into the open years afterwards, the context is so changed that, you know, it's not the original thing that has been hauled out at all. It's something quite other.

It's dangerous to keep secrets. It's dangerous to keep especially critical, crucial secrets that resonate through the life of large numbers of people, and especially over the generations. It's dangerous, but it's sometimes -- it's sometimes necessary. And it's sometimes the only way in which secrets can be dealt with.

I mean, one of the things the young boy does not understand about the stories he hears -- you know, the ghost stories, the Aunt Katy (ph) story, that sort of thing. All these stories that are supposed to be about ghosts and fairies and such -- he did not understand until too late.

But these actually are -- are ways that the older generation had of dealing with trauma. You know, just the same as a standard thing in Ireland is to tell stories about children who were stolen by the fairies. That actually was a way of dealing with infanticide -- the killing of unwanted children. But it was a coded way of dealing with it. It was a way which belonged to a different culture -- a culture which in effect said, you know, life is a mysterious thing.

This young kid, because of education, grows up in a culture where life is not a mystery, but a problem; where the attitude towards things is more secular, rather than more sacred; where a crafted code of ghost and fairy stories and so forth are dismissed as so much superstition, and he seeks to replace them with, you know, a so-called "factual" account of events.

And had he only learned the tact; had he only learned the maneuvers of the old way of storytelling, he might have actually dealt with the uncovered secrets better than he did.

GROSS: Do you still have a lot of secrets that you have to carry?

DEANE: Not too many left. There are some, but those that I have left, they're certainly sealed under concrete, as much as the rose garden was, yeah.

GROSS: Right. Well I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

DEANE: Not at all. My pleasure entirely.

GROSS: Seamus Deane's novel is called Reading in the Dark.

Coming up, girls' obsession with body image. This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Seamus Deane
High: Poet, editor, and novelist Seamus Deane. His first novel, "Reading in the Dark," came out earlier this year, a chronicle of a boy growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1950s. Deane recounts the story of a family haunted by a missing uncle and his tie to the IRA. "Reading in the Dark" was short-listed for the United Kingdom's esteemed literary prize, the Booker. Deane is the editor of the Norton "Field Day Anthology," the definitive collection of Irish literature.
Spec: Books; Authors; Europe; Ireland; Seamus Deane
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Reading in the Dark
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: SEPTEMBER 23, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 092302np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: The Body Project
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:35

TERRY GROSS, HOST: When an American woman dislikes her thighs, says Joan Jacobs Brumberg, she's unlikely to like herself. Brumberg writes about girls and self-image in the new book "The Body Project." She says that many girls today base their individual identities on the shape and appearance of their bodies.

As the emphasis on looks has intensified, the ideal body has become more impossible to achieve. As part of her research, Brumberg compared the diaries of girls today with the diaries of girls since 1830. Her previous book, "Fasting Girls," was a history of anorexia nervosa.

Brumberg teaches Women's History and Women's Studies at Cornell University. One day, she was talking with her students about the corsets women wore in earlier eras. The students were appalled, but then they started sharing their own body grooming habits. I asked Brumberg to tell us about the conversation they had.

JOAN JACOBS BRUMBERG, HISTORIAN, AUTHOR, "THE BODY PROJECT": Well, in the course of talking about grooming today and the ways in which they cope with their bodies today, they started telling me about the bikini line area, which was a euphemism of course for genitals, and that fact that they either pluck pubic hair or use some kind of cream or waxing procedure to get rid of it.

And I posed to them and to myself the question of whether or not this represented progress -- or what did it represent, to be this involved in care and grooming of the body? So it seemed to me that although my students were very upset about corsets and understood all the cultural constraints that the corset represented, they hadn't really thought about the kinds of constraints that they operated under.

GROSS: And you've concluded that today's beauty imperatives are in some ways more constraining than old corsets were.

BRUMBERG: Well, I think in many ways they are because they've moved really, if you think about it, from the external to the internal. In the 19th century, most young women were very focused on their internal character and how it was reflected in their outward behavior.

In the 20th century, the emphasis is on developing internal controls, you know, such as dieting or body sculpting -- all of it to shape our outward appearance. And I believe that in the course of the 20th century, the pressures on the body have escalated rather than declined, and that that has particular consequence for young girls in the process of development.

GROSS: And related to that, you concluded that body image is more wrapped up in personal identity than ever before.

BRUMBERG: Yes.

GROSS: We are how we look.

BRUMBERG: Absolutely. And I think you can really hear it in the voices of girls in their adolescent diaries as they change over time.

GROSS: And a lot of your research is based on diaries that you've collected of adolescent girls from the 1830s to the 1990s. And in fact, there's a couple of journal excerpts I want you to read -- one from the 1800s and one from the 1980s that offers a terrific contrast.

BRUMBERG: Well the first one is a adolescent diarist in the 1890s. Interestingly enough, these are both new years resolutions. New years resolutions give historians like me a wonderful opportunity to see what's on the mind of girls.

This girl said: "resolved, not to talk about myself or feelings; to think before speaking; to work seriously; to be self-restrained in conversation and actions; not to let my thoughts wander; to be dignified; interest myself more in others."

The contrasting resolution, written in 1982, really captures the transition that I'm writing about. And this diarist, who was actually a student a Stuyvesant High School in New York City, wrote: "I will try to make myself better in any way I possibly can, with the help of my budget and babysitting money. I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got new haircut, good makeup, new clothes, and accessories."

So, I think the contrast between the two really captures how girls today feel about themselves.

GROSS: Yeah, so what did these two journal entries say to you?

BRUMBERG: Well, they're very distinct, I think, in terms again of this -- in this change between character and looks. What I -- I've called it the change from good looks -- I'm sorry -- from good works to good looks. And today, the body is at the center of a girl's developmental process. The body is something to be managed and maintained. Girls give special attention to its exterior surfaces -- skin, hair, contours -- more so than ever before.

And the body has become the source of identity, and if you notice in the second quotation, the upkeep of the body through purchases played out in the marketplace are very critical to this young woman's sense of herself.

GROSS: From your reading of diaries of girls from the 18th -- from the 19th and 20th centuries and from your research into advertising over the years, when do you see dieting and you know, being slim becoming an obsession?

BRUMBERG: Well, I dealt with this a little bit in an earlier book of mine, and I think it would be fair to say that at the end of the 19th century, there was a certain very small, elite set of girls who wanted to be slim for spiritual purposes. In other words, having a thin body meant that you were not connected to any carnal desires, such as eating or sexuality.

But dieting as we know it -- dieting by women and girls, what used to -- what was called initially "slimming" -- is really the -- a development of the late teens and early 1920s. And in my book, I've got a wonderful diary by a woman by the name of Yvonne Blue (ph) growing up in Chicago in the 1920s, and it's quite interesting because no one in her family understood what a calorie was.

LAUGHTER

That concept was new.

GROSS: But the discovery was pretty new, huh?

BRUMBERG: Yeah. And in addition, they didn't have a home scale. Most people didn't have home scales. I mean, you know, before home scales, women's lives were quite different. Yvonne Blue had to go to the University of Chicago or to a local drug store to weigh herself, and she and one of her girl friends got into a little contest about who was going to lose the most weight.

And of course, this is the '20s and they want to wear a slinky little chemise dress. They bob their hair. They want to look different than their Victorian mothers. And dieting really becomes a feature of female cultures, women's culture, in the '20s.

And also you begin to see in the '20s some of the major newspapers like the Chicago Tribune have a editor who includes dieting information now under the rubric of beauty culture.

GROSS: So, we have the discovery of the calorie. We have the availability of home scales to weigh yourself on.

BRUMBERG: Right.

GROSS: And clothes that are more revealing of the body shape.

BRUMBERG: Absolutely. And one of the other things that I'm interested in is increasing opportunities for self-scrutiny across the 20th century. One of the things that I talk about and I've thought about a lot is the introduction of mirrors. But you know, in the 19th century, a looking glass was a luxury item in the homes, really, of only the wealthiest people.

At the end of the 19th century, by the 1880s, 1890s, you can see in the Sears and Roebuck Catalog, for example, the availability of mass-produced hand mirrors. You begin to see in the early department stores opportunities for young girls to look at themselves on department store counters and in dressing rooms.

And of course, movies have an enormous impact on young women because movie stars are not only role models, but the film process itself suggests that the image, one's image, is malleable. So if a young woman went to the movies in the 1920s and saw the same film star, somebody like Betty Bronson (ph), one day she's Peter Pan. A week later, she's a pirate. A week later, she's an Indian princess. They begin to think about the possibility of changing their own image as well.

And I think the ultimate expression or symbol of the popularization or the acceptability of self-scrutiny is something like the compact. You know, that little mirror -- you know what I'm talking about. It was held...

GROSS: Right, the hand-held mirror that accompanies a lot of makeup like blush-on...

BRUMBERG: Exactly.

GROSS: ... or a powder base.

BRUMBERG: Exactly. Well, those were popularized in the 1920s. And by the end of the '20s, Ladies Home Journal has a picture of a young woman applying makeup using a compact on the street. Well 30 years before, this would not have been something that a nice woman would have done. Number one, worn makeup; but number two been so invested in her appearance in public.

So, there is a connection between self-scrutiny and also this notion that femininity, modern femininity, requires a certain kind of vanity.

GROSS: Well, I'm very interested in your research into the mirror, because I know for instance when I'm staying at a hotel I tend to become much more self-conscious because usually the bathroom in a hotel is lined with mirrors...

BRUMBERG: I know.

GROSS: You're waiting for the elevator, there's a big mirror on the outside of the elevator, then the inside of the elevator's a big mirror, too. There's another mirror waiting for you in the lobby. And you're constantly staring at yourself and noticing things about your teeth you never knew existed before, and so on.

You know, it's just a very self-conscious kind of experience.

BRUMBERG: Well, I think from a historical perspective, that's what's happened over the course of the 20th century.

GROSS: Right.

BRUMBERG: If you think about it, I mean we've moved from -- because of new hygienic concerns -- we are concerned about our teeth. We are concerned about our odors -- menstrual odors, body odors. We're concerned about the size and shape of our bodies. We -- and many of these concerns are now merged with health concerns.

So, middle class parenting in the 20th century has required greater investments in girls -- in dermatology offices; in orthodonture; contact lenses. I could go on -- weight-loss camps; maybe now even liposuction.

GROSS: My guest is Joan Jacobs Brumberg. She teacher Women's History and Women's Studies at Cornell, and she's author of the new book The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls.

Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Joan Jacobs Brumberg. She teaches Women's History and Women's Studies at Cornell and is the author of the new book The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls. Her previous book was on eating disorders.

In looking at the history of girls' feelings about their bodies and self-image, you spend a lot of time talking about the onset of menstruation. And one of the points you make is that menstruation, on the average, begins a few years earlier for girls today than it did, say, 100 years ago.

How does that figure in, do you think, to self-image?

BRUMBERG: Well, I think it's a very important part of the problem today with self-image. Earlier sexual maturation is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. In fact, it's a symbol of our affluence. It has to do with, you know, improved nutrition and the decline of infectious diseases.

But if you have earlier sexual maturation without a parallel escalation in cognitive and emotional development, then the kind of culture in which these early-maturing girls find themselves becomes very important.

And if in fact the culture offers them no particular supports or any particular kind of nurturance, then I think these girls find themselves in some difficulty, particularly in a culture that exacerbates adolescent self-consciousness and encourages precocious sexuality, like ours.

GROSS: There have historically been a lot of restraints on young girls and women in that period between the onset of menstruation and marriage -- constraints to make sure that the girl was chaste.

BRUMBERG: Right. Chastity belts.

GROSS: Yeah, chastity belts and then after that chaperones and curfews...

BRUMBERG: Right.

GROSS: ... and very strict parents and you know, social taboos and so on, and a lot of that is gone now, and I'm sure you'd say that that's a good thing, you know. I mean, who wants the chastity belts or -- and in many cases the chaperones.

OK, so, but with a lot of freedom has become, you know, I guess we've gotten a lot of problems too. Talk to us a little bit about some of the tradeoffs you think that girls coming of age face today between, you know, having new freedom, but also having increased responsibility and difficulty?

BRUMBERG: Well, I think you've said it very well. I mean, there are tradeoffs. This is not simple. Sexual liberalism has consequences for adolescent girls, and sexual liberalism without a feminist base, can be dangerous for girls. And that's something that feminists like myself need to come to terms with -- that the -- that sexual expression in adolescence, which I support and many people support, is not an end-all and be-all. It is not the ultimate value in adolescence.

I can think of other rights that I think are equally essential for adolescent girls, such as the right to be heard in school. In other words, I think that we have to prepare girls better for the full range of sexual pressures and sexual choices that are available in the 1990s. I mean, at the end of the 20th century, most of our girls get sexual information either from popular culture -- I call that the "entertainment" model of sex education -- or they get lectured about abstinence; "just say no" -- that model.

I don't go for either one of them. I think we've got to really start talking between the generations about something that I'm going to call "sexual ethics." And by that I mean some kind of real discussion about what's fair and equitable in the realm of the intimate for girls -- putting an emphasis on safety, on reciprocity, on responsibility.

GROSS: Let me ask you, it seems to me we all assume that it's adolescent girls and young women who have the real body image problems in America; that they're obsessed with their bodies; that their identity comes from, you know, cosmetic things. I think that this is not something that you necessarily outgrow, and I'm wondering if you're interested in looking at middle-aged women?

BRUMBERG: Well, I...

GROSS: I mean, they're self-consciousness...

BRUMBERG: Why do you think I got into this?

GROSS: Oh, OK.

LAUGHTER

BRUMBERG: Of course. I don't think that we outgrow this kind of socialization. There's a lot of evidence around that American women suffer from something that's called by some therapists "bad body fever." In other words, this continuous internal commentary on the body that constitutes a rather powerful form of self-punishment.

A lot of psychologists use tests now of body esteem and body dissatisfaction as measures of women's mental health. I think it's an extraordinary brain drain. I've written about it in my earlier book, Fasting Girls, which was a history of anorexia nervosa. I've tried to make the case in that book that, you know, this kind of attention to beauty is a bad long-term investment.

But what I've realized now in the case of adolescent girls is that bad body fever, or this distaste for one's own body, really empowers male desire. Girls who don't feel good about themselves are more susceptible to flattery, to manipulation, even to abuse. You know, if you want to be wanted so much, then you are vulnerable.

And I think that kind of problem continues with women throughout their lifetime.

GROSS: Joan Jacobs Brumberg is the author of The Body Project. She teaches Women's Studies and Women's History at Cornell University.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Joan Jacobs Brumberg
High: Author and historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg. Her new book, "The Body Project," attempts to trace back through the century to discover why young women report unhappiness with their bodies now more than ever. Working with girls' diaries from the 1830s up to the present day, Brumberg outlines the shifting pressures that have altered the way females define themselves.
Spec: Books; Women; History; Health and Medicine
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Body Project
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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