Saving the World: A Book Review
While I love to review hot-off-the-press books about gender and parenting, sometimes it is even more rewarding to review an older book. And in today's case, we're talking quite old...as in, dead-author old. Yes, I've finally finished reading The Mermaid and The Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise by Dorothy Dinnerstein, first published in 1976. It was my 'assignment' from Gloria Steinem, who highly recommended it in her wonderfully supportive comments to us.
Mermaid was a hard book to read for several reasons. The author's writing style is elusive and I ended up re-reading many sentences in order to follow her train of thought and catch the subtle points. I felt a bit like I was back in college, struggling through an assigned text for an advanced Gender Studies class. She also tends to write in the abstract, describing an idea that begs a clear-cut example or two, and then not including even a trace of an example. And the book is meant to shake up the reader - scare her or him on a deep level. But beyond these few difficulties, I found myself a changed person as I got to the final page.
The basic premise behind The Mermaid and The Minotaur is that our culture's predominantly woman-centric childraising (especially in the very early months of a baby's life) has an enormous ripple effect on how we view and treat men and women in our world. That the world would be a changed place - for the immense good of both sexes - if men shared in this responsibility...to the level of a chance at world peace and ecological sustainability for our planet. And that if we, collectively, cannot move in this direction soon (and remember, the book was written in the 1970's, so 'soon' is even sooner now), we face eventual planetary destruction and the end of our species.
In other words, early ESP is the key to saving humanity and our world.
This may sound a tad alarmist, you could say. And I can't begin to do justice to her argument, which is laid out carefully in stepwise fashion throughout the book. But I'm not being lighthearted in my comments above. Dr. Dinnerstein calls on the works of Freud, Ashe, Marx and others, and then adds to their analyses, as she exposes societal behaviors that no longer fit our species - and the harm that they are doing by their continued practice.
For example, Dinnerstein says that babies who are primarily mothered come to see the female parent early on as the "other" - meaning that when they have that scary realization that they are not actually one-and-the-same with their caregivers, they react emotionally to this understanding, and deep down inside for the rest of their lives they think of their mothers as the perpetrators who destroyed that closeness they first thought was the case. Their fathers, however, tend to come into their lives more distantly and later, when the infants have already realized the truth - so they don't have that same tearing-away experience with men. This unevenness plays out throughout the rest of a baby's life, says Dinnerstein, and manifests globally in a fear and loathing of women - in a need to punish women for the initial separation.
This is heavy psychology, of course, but not to be dismissed only for this reason. A full 288 pages of thick text describe the thesis, and my few words cannot do so well. I have come to believe, crystallized by my reading of Mermaid, that our society is gendered because each of its individuals start out seeing life that way, and that the ramifications of this early beginning are vast, wide and deep.
One point I found very interesting was Dinnerstein's description of how our society views childbearing and birth compared to how it views the man's part in this miracle (i.e., a simple sperm deposit). She says: "Once fatherhood, like motherhood, means early physical intimacy, man's procreativity will seem in its own way as concretely miraculous, as fraught with everyday magic, as woman's. For man's body will carry for us as intense an emotional charge, a charge as pervaded with primitive pre-verbal feeling, as woman's." She goes on to explain that all the sexual parts of a man's body should be seen as equally sacred to those of women, even though our culture practically deifies women's reproductive organs (or, to the contrast, considers birth through them to be dirty and obscene). She ends this by saying: "The fragility of his tie to the seed that he buries for so many months in the dark center of another, independent, body balances the fragility of her claim on him to help take responsibility for the child she carries. His life-extending biological link with the past and future rests with her. If he cares about this link, he can be betrayed, just as she can be betrayed if she relies on him to act as a parent to the child. We are aware of this potential emotional balance, but we do not live by it. If we did, woman would seem no dirtier and no more sacred than man, man no more a human authority than woman."
Dinnerstein also describes the differences between men and women in their initial tie to childcare after a baby's birth. Because it is the woman who must bear the child, it is she who would need to be more callous that he to "escape experiencing the impact of parenthood" once the baby is born. Experiencing this impact, Dinnerstein asserts, is a primitive and intimate way to feel what it means to be human - and so in becoming a parent, "humanness is more firmly forced on woman than on man." But yet, she continues, "if [a father] does allow himself to feel the impact of parenthood, he (since he does so under less direct, bodily, duress) is more surely bound than she is to recognize that he has done so voluntarily." Life pushes men more directly than women into "clear awareness that on balance one chooses - prefers - to be human." The more contact a father has early on with his baby, the smaller this difference becomes.
I could write many more paragraphs of insights from The Mermaid and The Minotaur (perhaps I'll do so in a future post), but I'll leave you with the author's central argument for ESP: Once we can share early childcare between the genders, we can give up woman's lone dominion over babydom and all of the world's negative, fearful, scapegoat/idol behaviors against women will fall away. This can be scary, since we're so used to running the world by our old ways. To let go means to begin to reconcile and live out more directly, our relationships to each other as equal humans - to come to terms with life, death, and how we are caring for each other and our planet in between. Male and female will become complementary, with a mutual awareness of feeling based on an imaginative, reflective, purposefully procreative approach to life together. To do this, males and females much join together as "unequivocally equal collaborators."
ESP feels more like a calling than ever before, with Dorothy Dinnerstein cheering us on from beyond the grave. Together, we're all turning the time course of humanity.