Ever since she published “Fear of Flying” in 1973, Erica Jong has been associated with the philosophies of the free love movement from that era. The irony is that Jong’s book is a satire. She was never a proponent of casual sexuality.
“A lot of people missed the comedy of that,” Jong said via telephone from her apartment in New York. “When the book first came out, people were so amazed at the language — the four-letter words for the female organ and so on — and they didn’t look at the fact that it was a satire, in many cases, on free sexuality. We had been told at that time that the answer to everything in life was to be freer with our sexuality, but I never believed it was.”
True, there is a lot of sex in “Fear of Flying.” The story of Isadora Wing’s quandary over whether she’ll leave her psychiatrist husband for an impotent academic is set against scenarios from her rich fantasy life. A woman speaking unabashedly about sex in very frank terms was groundbreaking for the times.
But behind all that lusty language, what Jong was really doing was showing how difficult it can be for women to remain true to themselves and satisfy their own needs — both inside the bedroom and out — while meeting the wants of husbands, lovers, children, et al. It’s a universal theme as relevant today as it was then.
And those same themes resurface in Jong’s new book, “Fear of Dying,” only this time they’re from the perspective of an older woman. Isadora Wing’s 60-year-old friend Vanessa Wonderman has been happily married for 15 years to an older man. But just as she begins to feel neglected in the boudoir, her husband develops serious health issues as her parents approach the end of their lives. Between tending to the sick and dying, she distracts herself with the possibilities proffered by a dating site for romance-free hookups. But ultimately the story is about how easy it is for women to lose themselves in their caregiving roles.
Jong, 73, is a feminist with a capital F, but she defies the old-school stereotype of the strident, ‘70s-era bra-burner. For one thing, her books are hilarious. For the other, she clearly loves men.
“I’ve always been with men. I’ve always had men in my life,” she said. “But I’ve never wanted to let them define me. You know, in the ‘50s, we all married the first man we went to bed with. In the ‘60s, we were encouraged to go out and try other men. I don’t think that any of those things are the solution. I think we are searching for connections, closeness, love. And sometimes it’s very hard to find that. But I don’t believe that any of these great societal solutions can be taken without many grains of salt.”
Jong has witnessed a lot of advances in women’s rights, but she’s seen a lot of things that haven’t changed, too, like the ghetto of “chick lit” to which many women’s books are relegated.
“When marriage and family are discussed endlessly by writers like Jonathan Franzen in a female persona, people think of him as a great American novelist. When a woman writes in a female persona, everyone just thinks, ‘Oh, she’s spilling her guts.’ There is a double standard.”
And she’s concerned by what she calls “a desire to go backward” in our government.
“There are people who resent the phrase ‘war on women,’ but how can you say that when they’re trying to defeat Planned Parenthood, which provides many services women don’t have otherwise, not abortion services, but Pap smears, breast exams, etc.?” she asked. “I mean, who would take those things away from women? It’s basic health care. It’s shocking to me that we’re having this argument.”
But she’s encouraged by the legalization of gay marriage and a growing understanding of transgender issues.
“Marriage equality is a good thing,” Jong said. “I also think … understanding (transgender) struggles is a good thing. Whether we want to do it by reality TV or not, God knows.”
Having empathy for others is the key to change, Jong said, and nothing helps foster that more than books.
“Lately there have been a number of new books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book (‘Between the World and Me’) about what black men feel inside a culture that discriminates against them. That is a riveting book,” she said. “I thought I was very open to civil rights … but I learned things from that book I didn’t know.”
“She’s a very good writer, and she tells us things about being a Haitian-American woman in America that I didn’t know, and I’m happy to know,” Jong said.
“I think that if books can stimulate empathy in groups that we didn’t know from the inside, then that’s a good thing. And you’ll notice that the two authors I’ve spoken of — Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay — neither one is putting down the white world. Both of them are saying, ‘No, look deeper at our struggles. You may not understand.’ And I find that very hopeful.
“I do think those of us who thought we understood black-white interaction have to look deeper. And it’s authors that make us do that. Because if writers can’t teach us about lives we didn’t know anything about, then nobody can.”
Jong is doing her part to foster empathy for the struggles of women in her work. She acknowledged that her work is cut out for her.
“I think it’s amazing that we have marriage equality before we have equal rights for women. Sometimes I think we’ll have a gay president before we’ll have a woman president. There’s such fear of women’s power. That seems to be taking a very long time to go away.”
Does she ever get discouraged?
“I think we have to understand that change takes time and people are very frightened of change,” Jong said. “We’ve had a year in which we’ve realized how little change has taken place in law enforcement, in criminal justice, in women’s rights. I mean, we could be despairing about it, not just cynical, but really despairing. But my job is to be a communicator, whether it’s speaking or writing or whatever, and I have to believe that if we communicate better, we will make society better.”