Susan Bordo might be the least academically identifiable scholar to have ever held a chair at a research university, but it is a distinction she is proud of. Within academia, she is known for the clarity of her writing, for her shedding of the technical jargon that scholars so often use to both impress and ostracize others. Born in Newark, New Jersey during the post-War “baby boom,” Susan’s rejection of this academic posturing can be traced back to her early years. Her Jewish immigrant parents greatly valued books, writing, and wit. But her father, whose own desire to be a journalist had been thwarted by the Depression, and her mother, who suffered from anxiety, were often, as Susan puts it, “sunk under the weight of their own sadness and anger.” From the age of six, writing—journals, poems, book and movie reviews--became her solace and her bliss.
But becoming a writer wasn’t a straight and solid path for Susan. As a child, she craved “just being normal,” and longed for the acceptance of other children:
“When I was eight, overweight and shy, I loved putting words together in poems. By ten, the teachers had discovered I had ‘talent’ and began making me read my work out loud to a snickering class. So of course, I gave it up. Instead, like a samurai in training, I methodically transformed myself, body and soul, into a normal kid, abandoning my Tchaikovsky records for Fabian and Ed “Kookie” Byrnes, and Louisa May Alcott for Annette Funicello. The only writing I did, beyond school assignments, was in my ‘diet journal,’ where I recorded every lean beef patty, every scoop of cottage cheese. Today, I think of those as the years that “I” went underground, while a perky pre-teen took my place to do what was required.”
Later, when she entered the University of Chicago on scholarship, she expected to find a different kind of life. Instead,
“I encountered many mini-clubs whose rules I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) abide by. I was given a D on my first critical essay, because I ‘dared’ (as my teacher wrote on my piece) to liken King Lear to my own father. In my first women’s studies course, my professor wrote ‘This is good, but not as good as you obviously believe it to be,’ because I had the arrogance to suggest that I was offering something new and important in arguing that Freud’s ‘penis envy’ was best understood as envy of male power. A few years later, similar ideas were all the rage among feminist theorists. But in putting them forth before I’d paid my dues as an apprentice, I’d defied the hierarchy and had to be slapped. Humiliated and depressed, I dropped out of school, got married, and almost immediately had a nervous breakdown.
It was 1968. My first therapist zeroed in on my ‘inability to accept my feminine role’ now that I was married. The second--the only woman I saw—had only one question: ‘Do you have orgasms?’ The third was a psychiatrist; a cold, dark-suited rail of a man who prescribed a regimen of anti-psychotic drugs that made my tongue thick and my brain feel like it was stuffed with cotton. The fourth, bless him, did a truly surprising thing. When I mentioned that I used to write, he asked if he could see some of my writing. I picked my ‘penis envy’ paper, another on Sartre’s concept of The Look, and a review of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ that I’d done just for fun.
The session after he read the pieces, my therapist came into the waiting room, took my two hands in his own, and looked into my eyes like a parent about to deliver a lecture to a disobedient but adored child. He said my name two times, shook his head, then: ‘You’re a writer. We’ve got to get you writing again.’ My recovery began at that moment.”
Life, however, was not destined to hand-deliver Susan to The New Yorker, where her idol Pauline Kael wrote her movie reviews. She had no money, so a more financially secure plan than free-lancing as a movie reviewer was necessary: finishing her degree, and then Graduate School, where she “learned how to talk the talk” of an academic. But neither her iconoclastic nature nor her love of writing would stand for that for very long. “I’d experienced the costs of going underground,” she says, “and wasn’t about to let it happen again.”
This time around, Susan had allies. Her second husband, Edward Lee, was “fiercely supportive” of her intellectual and creative development. And in the Philosophy Department at State University of New York at Stony Brook, known for its pluralistic, interdisciplinary approach, she grew under the guidance of Patrick Hill, who treated his students with respect, endowed their musings with significance, and encouraged them to explore outside their academic comfort zones. Susan credits Hill for inspiring her versatility as an academic.
In addition to Hill’s guidance, Susan came of age in a cultural moment where scholars, and particularly feminist scholars, realized that there was much that had been left unexplored in academia. Along with her cohorts, Susan delved into unexplored material with relish, culminating in her PhD dissertation and first book, The Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and Culture, which has become a classic of feminist philosophy.
Susan’s first full-time teaching position was at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit college in Syracuse, New York. As a small, liberal arts institution, LeMoyne offered great opportunities for interdisciplinary conversation and collaboration with other teachers. It also allowed her to create courses that were personally relevant and fun for her students. But a heavy teaching schedule, often with several sections of the same course, was frustrating to her desire to “make connection” with her students. To help this happen, she encouraged them to keep journals that she regularly read and responded to. Students shared their experiences, and Susan shared hers. And eventually, this mutual process of discovery fed into Susan’s writing.
The turning point came in 1983 when Susan assigned her “Gender, Culture, and Experience” class at Le Moyne to read Chernin’s The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness. While discussing the book, Susan was shocked to realize that, “beautiful slim, fit young people actually hated their bodies as much as I had hated myself as a chubby, frizzy-haired child…I knew that I had grown up with a lot of shame about my body, but I thought of this as connected to the fact I was so outside the cultural norms.” Realizing that our culture had turned some kind of crucial corner with respect to the “perfection” of the body, Susan began to search for its sources in history, pop culture, consumerism, and attitudes toward race, class, and gender. The result was Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (1993), a book that is still widely read and assigned in classes today.
Unbearable Weight gave Susan her first experience of making contact, as a writer, with a large and diverse readership who were personally affected by her writing. Most of those who wrote to her were women, but this was to change dramatically with her next book. From guest lectures she gave on Unbearable Weight, she encountered many young men who asked, “What about us?” The result was The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private (1999). Both books were highly praised by reviewers, with Unbearable Weight being named a 1993 Notable Book by The New York Times and The Male Body featured in major outlets such as Mademoiselle, Elle, Vanity Fair, NPR, and MSNBC. Both books have been translated into many languages, and individual chapters, many of which have become classics of cultural criticism and lucid writing, are frequently re-printed in collections and writing textbooks. It’s the latter that gives Susan the greatest joy. “When I find my work presented to students as an example of persuasive but accessible writing, I feel as though my life has come full circle.”
In the midst of this professional success, Susan’s personal life was to be dramatically transformed when she and her husband Edward adopted a child in 1999. Susan writes, in one of her published essays on the experience:
“I am one of those baby-boomers who “forgot to have children” until my early forties. Once we began trying, I was amazed, then distraught, when pregnancy didn’t happen as it had, unplanned, when I was thirty: the very first time the birth control barrier was down. Susan Sarandon, exactly my age, was radiantly pregnant; in fact, it seemed that every movie star of my generation was. People magazine was celebrating: “it’s never too late!” So I was startled when my doctor sternly put a damper on my enthusiasm. “It’s going to be an uphill battle,” he warned, writing out a prescription I was sure I didn’t need.
We tried, it didn’t happen, and I was grief-stricken. Adoption never occurred to me; my fantasies of being a mother were completely entangled with the desires to be pregnant, give birth, and reproduce our flawed but precious family line. So I let it go—or so I thought. Ten years later I was appalled to realize, for the second time, that I had forgotten to have children. This time, however, a paradigm-shift had taken place in my psyche, and biological connection felt utterly superfluous, and adoption wonderfully right. And, if it was to happen, quite urgent---I was 52.
My husband Edward, seven years older than I and perfectly happy with our lives as they were, balked. A dedicated teacher of college Russian and a brilliant pianist, his lap was already occupied, either with student assignments to grade or with his silent practice keyboard, which came with us everywhere. But I was in terrier mode and wouldn’t let go. I gnawed and nipped at his heels, and eventually wore him down. He has never regretted it. I know it’s a cliché, but now neither of us can imagine a life without Cassie. And I am immensely grateful that I wasn’t able to get pregnant!”
Susan and Edward’s adoption of their daughter Cassie is an “open” adoption—a term that is used to cover a continuum of practices ranging from exchange of identifying information before birth to ongoing communication, even regular visits between adoptive and birth families. For Susan, whose own growing-up had been filled with secrets and lies, only full, open, and regular communication was acceptable—a decision and experience that she has described in several published pieces. Distance has made it difficult—Cassie’s birth family lives in Texas—but they get together whenever possible, and Cassie proudly refers to the children that Amy later gave birth to as her brother and sister.
Susan’s own sisters, Marilyn (Mickey) Silverman and Binnie Klein, are “an immensely important part of my life. We talk all the time, and the closeness I feel with them is unlike any other.” Mickey and Binnie both have thriving careers as therapists. But “somehow, we all developed a passion for writing. Maybe it comes from the fact that my father, despite his depression, was such a wordsmith and raconteur.” Binnie has published a highly praised memoir, Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind, and hosts a weekly music and interview radio show. Mickey is editor of a professional newsletter, writes poetry, and is in the process of writing about clinical issues.
Today, with an endowed interdisciplinary chair at the University of Kentucky, Susan has been able to pursue her writing and public speaking more freely than ever before. But she is still a dedicated teacher, as well as a mom, and often has to squeeze out her writing times from the early hours of morning. “As tired as I am later in the day,” she writes, “it is always a privilege and a pleasure to wake up early to write. I may resist a bit, relishing the yieldingness of my soft, old pillow as the first ticklings of ideas, sentences, images play with my grogginess. Sometimes, having slow-simmered during the night while I’ve been asleep, they come to me so ready for action that I have no choice but to get up and join them. Sometimes, they are more elusive, and I have to chase them down. However the ideas, words, sentences come to me, I am so grateful to find them there, so grateful to be able to have my morning coffee with them, so grateful to be able to go wherever they lead me.”
The Creation of Anne Boleyn seems to be a natural next step for the woman who cannot be pinned down academically. It features an intriguing queen and a captivated 500-year-old audience. But for Susan, Anne is also a silenced, misunderstood young woman who everyone has something to say about, but who was denied her own voice. She is every student who has come into her office or emailed her, struggling with the contradictory demands of being female in complex times. And to tell Anne’s story requires “exploring all angles, without being bound by any one discipline.” Is it any wonder that Susan finds Anne a worthwhile subject to study? “Anne was just begging to be adopted by me!” Susan says. A metaphor, perhaps—but one that makes for a warm, passionate connection between author and subject.
US edition available in both hardcover and paperback!
Here's what two great Annes have to say about The Creation of Anne Boleyn:
"Thank you so much for your book... It's beautiful, intelligent, and true." - Genevieve Bujold
"Thank you so very much for encapsulating my journey in playing Anne with such eloquence and generosity in your strong, discerning book." - Natalie Dormer