Phyllis Chesler: Psychoanalyst, Feminist, Fearless Spitfire

I want everybody to know who Phyllis Chesler is. I want everyone to read her books, to be made uneasy by her tenacity, to be counseled by her warm, deep voice over the phone. Basically, I want everyone to get to interview Phyllis Chesler, because it is an honor to do so.

I doubt everyone agrees with everything Phyllis Chesler has to say, but I don't think everyone has to. I don't think Phyllis thinks everyone has to, either, and that is such an important lesson. We like to agree with each other, which is a natural, even noble, human want. But we, especially we liberals, can get in the habit of demanding an agreement, of not knowing quite what to do when one cannot be reached. It is not a problem in our community that we like to talk about — definitely not one that I, a woman who would gladly spoon out each individual pinto bean from my Chipotle order rather than correct the person behind the counter who forgot my request that they be left out, like to talk about. But it is an issue that we should talk about, this need to agree with each other that sometimes supersedes our need to think deeply about issues that are so important to us. Luckily, Phyllis Chesler has mastered the method of ruffling every feather in the room while still being as thoughtful and empathetic as I've ever seen another person be.

There's a lot to tell about who Phyllis is, but I'll try to keep it brief: She is a Jewish feminist psychoanalyst who was once held captive in Afghanistan by her then-husband's family. She's written a bunch of really good books, including a memoir of her captivity, and you should read all of them. From what I have seen in her many interviews and public appearances, she has impeccable taste in the ethereal flowing caftans I consider Official Serious Writer Lady Clothing. And she is probably one of my favorite people I have ever spoken to. 

You never shy from talking about things that other people do not want to talk about. For instance, you're currently doing work in talking about women committing honor killings. What is it about subjects like that even in feminism are considered a bit taboo that you find compelling?

Especially in feminism.


Women have been judged unfairly, stereotypically, with double standards, and have been accused of wrong-doings that were not true. Once we realized that as a group in the late '60s, we didn't want to ever do that again. The pendulum swung and the myth was that women are better than men, women are more compassionate than men, and morally superior to men, the greatest intimates — friends — that women could want, and indeed, it's true to some extent.

So, this was a great investment in the Carol Gilligan thesis, that women are different and better. If you read her research, which I did very carefully, even she understands that the reason that girls conform and smile — when inside they're angry — is because they don't want to be shunned. They don't want to then be outed and socially shunned if they disagree with the alpha female, or with the alpha male. It doesn't help us become strong, independent individuals.

There was an investment in seeing women and being the champions of women who either were better than men — despite oppression — or who were pure and noble victims. Totally, that was it.

Which is not helpful, because you're just going from one limited narrative of women to another one.

Precisely, and I think that the denial of how women internalize sexism, and how women are supposed to be competitive — mainly with other women — is what completely grounded our movement psychologically. That means second-wave feminism. Because we were all sisters, and sisterhood was powerful, and nobody ever did anything bad to anybody else. If you did, you don't mention it in public. Except, even there there were some attempts — including by myself — to write about the trashing phenomenon. Some other early feminists knew that something was really wrong that we weren't talking about, and it was bad.

But nobody began treating it in the way we would treat racism: Everyone is a racist; we've all internalized it; we have to work against it every day, every hour. Women feminists didn't say the same about feminism. Women, like men, are as close to the apes as to the angels, and therefore we have to understand that we can't expect more from other women. We have to cut them a break when they really make big mistakes, the same way we do for men. That because a woman gets angry and frightens us, it doesn't mean she's the evil stepmother. On and on.

The denial about honor killing has totally blown my mind. This is femicide. That phrase was coined by Diana Russell in the mid-'70s. She's a sociologist who actually coordinated the first tribunal internationally of crimes against women. It was in Brussels. It was such an unsettling and inspiring concept very early on. We're talking about intimate family femicide. Both fathers, mothers, grandparents, sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts, conspire in the slaughter — the horror killing — of usually a young girl. From the average, 15-18 is the main classical kind of honor killing. Or a young woman in her 20s. Feminists don't want to hear about it because they are afraid they'll be called racists if they talk about it.

I've actually done a study comparing Hindu and Muslim honor killings, and Hindus do commit honor killings — gruesome honor killings — but only in India. Indians who come to the west don't perpetrate honor killings. But, indeed, Muslims — and to a much lesser extent, Sikhs — do bring that tribal custom with them into the west. Honor killings are a shame- and honor-based tribal custom. If we don't really understand what it is, we won't be able to help girls escape. We won't be able to take the signs seriously. There's a deep denial because there's a fear it will be seen as Islamophobic. "All cultures are equal. All cultures therefore are deserving of respect. Who are we — the great sinners who once had slaves — who are we to criticize another culture?" It's all coming from that academic, intellectual, politically-correct place.

Even with that need for respect, we have to acknowledge that all cultures commit atrocities. We can't only look at our atrocities, we have to look at everybody's.

Correct. That's huge, what you just said, because Islam has a very long history of slavery and of gender and religious apartheid, and of conversion by the sword, and imperialism and colonialism beyond belief. And anti-black racism, by the way. But we never talk about that not in the academies, not in the media, not in women's studies absolutely not. What we focus on only is: America once owned slaves. Europe was an imperial-colonial power. That kind of focus is so unbalanced. That's so suicidal.

I discovered ultimately to my shock and horror that leftists, and that includes feminists, are very intolerant. They view themselves as absolutely the most tolerant people on the planet and are blinded to their not just prejudices, because everyone is human and everyone has prejudices, or biases but if you disagree within a hair's breadth on a particular issue, then you become the enemy. Then you get disappeared and then you get censored and then you don't count or you get attacked on the Internet. You have to be absolutely the same, and this is horrible. This is not the diversity that we presumably have as an ideal in Western civilization.

I definitely try to not get into that fear, or become ruled by a culture of consensus, of everyone agreeing with each other in the right way. But I still found myself reading your memoir and getting uncomfortable. I was just like, "I'm being forced to really think about this and to really approach this in a nuanced way." And that's what you do. You talk about things that a lot of people either don’t like to discuss, or like to discuss in a very hateful, shallow way. But you still approach these issues with so much complexity and from so many different angles. I'm sure that it takes so much time and reading and energy to look at something from, and acknowledge something with, the complexity that you do. How did you come to think about people in that way and to write about people in that way?

You're quite right. I work very, very hard. I read all the time and I think all the time and I write all the time. I knew I would be a writer, but I therefore understood I had to get a serious day job. This is the equivalent of Virginia Woolf's "Every woman needs a room of her own." Every woman needs a career or a profession or an income of her own, at the beginning. To start with.

I'm an intellectual. I'm an intellectual who's not an ideologue. I'm open to changing my mind on things that are very important. I became religious. Something that I had rebelled against — for good reason — but in a way that's very profound. Depending on who you talk to, this is foolish or unwise, or stupendous. Depends who you talk to.                                      

That’s a very huge way to change your mind. You have to be quite open.

If we're alive, then we should be evolving, but still making sure to hold on to the things we find are very important or very valuable — it's not just one of the two — it's both. Some people only do one of those things.

What was it that drew you to psychology as a study and as a profession?

I was a comparative language and literature major in college. I was on campus with a college mate of mine, we were talking, and I said, "I don't know how I'm gonna really make a living." And he said, "Well, you should become a Viennese witch doctor." I said, "And what is that?" "Well, a psychoanalyst." And it clicked.

I said, "You know, that's true." Psychoanalytic thinking is something that has fascinated me since I was about 13. I was reading Freud when I was 13, and I was amazed by his brilliance — as much as a 13-year-old could be. I thought, "Well, then you see patients at home, and you can write for half the day, and earn a living for the other half." And I said, "Makes sense."

Then I went to grad school in psychology, but I became newly fascinated by science. I had a very late in life romance with science. I studied physiological psychology. I started working in a brain research lab. My dissertation was in a brain research lab. I got a fellowship to medical school — the brain research lab was in a medical school. But I then decided I would never make an original contribution in science, and I didn't like the cadaver, and I was too much of a poet. I said, "Not for me." And I was close to finishing the PhD, so I did...I did an internship on a psychiatric ward and a drug-addiction ward at a hospital in New York City. And then studied at a psycho-therapeutic institute.

Then, clearly, it became clearer and clearer that all of these helpers were harming women, and were viewing women in very gendered ways, and very biased ways, and very negative ways. There are exceptions, of course. Karen Horney took Freud on, and was very smart in how she understood female psychology and male psychology.

Regarding women in mental health, There's a lot of talk about  the rate of diagnosis for depression and things like that with women, that it's at a much higher rate. I’ve read a lot about it, and I think that when women go into a doctor, to say, "I'm feeling sad. I've lost motivation," it seems that the doctor considers it a problem much more often than were a man to go in and say that.

That's totally correct. Here's one way to look at it that's useful. If a person in oppressed, if a person lives, psychologically speaking, in a war zone — if a person is always second or third best, is the least favored child because of her gender within a family, if a woman is genuinely oppressed, traumatized; if she's an incest victim, if she’s been a rape victim, if she's a victim of domestic violence — a normal human response to any of these war crimes — if you will — or to these traumas is to become depressed, or to become an insomniac, or to have anxiety.

Women are off the charts in relation to the petty humiliations and indignities of a daily life, and if women are prostituted women, if women are abused children, then the stigmatization is even greater. Women were falsely diagnosed in a way that was not helpful, in a way that stigmatized them. But at the same there are many women who, in reality, are responding to wretched circumstances in their life, which are normalized. Which are not seen as a big deal.

I know you’re working a lot on documenting and analyzing honor killings right now, but what are some of your other interests in regards to feminism?

Among the issues that I cherish is that of motherhood and its importance to women. That's an area where I didn't part company — it wasn't a fight — but the majority of major feminists did not understand the importance of motherhood and were far more, understandably, invested in the freedom not to be a mother against your will than in what it means to be a mother and what it means to then, for example, have your motherhood challenged in a custody battle. I continued learning about female psychology. I began from the daughter's perspective, so to speak in Women and Madness — I call that the Amazon perspective — but I then became a mother and began to have a mother's perspective.

That's definitely important. Whenever I talk to my lovely, lovely grandmother about feminism and women's rights –– she's very traditionally Mormon, comes from pioneers who walked across the country –– she always tells me about when she was a mother in the late '60s and early '70s, when The Feminine Mystique was a big deal. She'll tell me that she felt very isolated and judged by feminism, she'd say, "When all the women were feminists when I was a mother I felt terrible. I felt so guilty for being a mother."

Feminists were just not ready yet, or didn't have the power to see more than one side at a time.

I wanted to ask you also about something that I noticed most prominently in your memoir. You've already told me you read a lot. But in the memoir, it was your escape. There's this scene where your sisters-in-law are coming in and you're just like, "I'm just trying to read War and Peace!" Has reading always been like that for you?

Oh, books were the magic carpet ride. They were the way to escape my childhood reality, which I found restrictive. This is a very American story. Because, when you come from a family where you're the first one who goes to college — and that's the case with me — then books, which are so fascinating and so powerful, take you away from your family of origin. You can never really go back. You become different. Books liberated me from the narrow confines of my childhood, or my family, or the female condition even. But, books also then turned me into a traveler with no easy home.

You also talk about how books allowed you, after you came back from Afghanistan, to go back there without the dangers of being in Afghanistan as a woman. You talked a lot about amassing this library of literature all about this place that was very important to you.

When I came back to America, I kissed the ground — as I wrote — and I said, "I'm back home in the land of liberty and libraries." No libraries in Kabul or in the other cities I visited. Also, in that book — which is only a memoir of that time, it's not a memoir of my life — it's about that time and that place. I made it a point to find, over the years, the travel memoirs over a number of centuries written by women that are fabulous. Many of the earliest travelers to the east were British women who were high adventurers, and tended to be either royalty or wealthy. They've written some amazing things.

These were...I won't say they were role models, because I also read the memoirs of other women like myself who were trapped, who were betrayed, who made peace with it in a way that I never could, or who got out eventually, as well. The "Wild, Wild East" has a certain charm. Women don't have to wrestle with: What does it mean to be free? What does it mean to become myself? No, no. You're a woman. You're a wife, you're a daughter, you're a mother, that's it. That's who you are. That's all you are. And you are never alone, you never have to be lonely, you don't have to create a life, you just have to fulfill those roles. And yes, it's true, you could be honor killed. You could be beaten. You could be mistreated and treated like a servant — beneath contempt, though — but you knew your place, and you had a place. When women are attracted to the wild, wild east, I think — including some of the women today who convert to Islam, and perhaps even those who join ISIS — they are fleeing freedom, which is a great burden.

Photo from Native Icon

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