An Interview with Diane Middlebrook

Bob: I found the lack of judgmentalness in your biography of Sexton both wonderful and unnerving. You present Sexton in any number of situations — where she cracks, or does something awful -- vividly depicting the temptations that got her into trouble. But, without any censoriousness on your part, the situations you described in these passages came off as tempting to *me*. This kind of discomfort would probably have pleased Sexton. With the subject of your new biography, on the other hand . . . . it is not as certain that Billy Tipton would have been so delighted to have someone like you picking into *her* life. As a biographer, do you have any moral qualms about "outing" Billy Tipton — or causing embarrassment to his family?

Diane: I'm not sure about that. My take on the moral question is that the dead cannot be shamed. They have been removed from their social sphere where all of their defenses — let's say their unconscious or sideways ways of not being known — those are over. And their secrets are now useless to them.

A living person can feel shame being exposed to curiosity, manipulation, and possibly even violation — but certainly exposed to the passing stranger. That is a terrible thing to do to a living human being. But dead — in a sense, the problem with being dead is that people ignore you ! It is a lot of trouble to gather the materials of someone's life. I regard a biographer�s work as a pretty big compliment.

B: What if they want to take their secrets to the grave?

D: . . . but not beyond the grave. Billy did take them *to* the grave — and *good for her*. Her death was very well timed. It was clear that she was not going to be able to protect herself much longer than she did. At the time of her death, no one had said "aha!" to her, nobody had outed her. Anyone who had figured things out either blackmailed her or kept it to themselves. There was no public spectacle made of Billy during her lifetime, which was lucky. Her death was almost like the closing act of a drama, and that is how I decided to depict it in the book

B: And you weren't the first to expose her - the local papers did... but your book exposes her on a much grander scale. Might that not bring shame to family members?

D: You have to be very tough-minded if you a biographer. You have to avoid casually exposing people. The people around Billy deserve their "penumbra of privacy" — a legal ruling made in the 80s --I love this concept. A penumbra is *almost* a shadow*. A biographer ought to preserve that space of shadow, maintain a certain amount of darkness around people who are involved with someone in the public realm, though not the public figures themselves. But it is the penumbra of their *own* privacy. Friends or relatives cannot censor the life of somebody else, just because they don't find certain information very agreeable. You have to be able to agree that somebody else's life is somebody else's life, and the biographer is writing about that, and your proximity to it is just something you are going to have to deal with. As a human being you have to accept the ethical position is that *it ain't your life* --if you feel invaded, that's *your* problem.

B: With Anne Sexton, you found tons of documentation, including tapes her psychiatrist made during their sessions. With Tipton, facts were much harder to come by, let alone material reflecting her own voice. How far did you let yourself go in imagining her inner life and those of her associates?

D: I was very inhibited for a very long time from writing about Tipton because I kept expecting that I was going to learn more. I did not want to project things too soon, because I might miss something.

For example, one big gap was a missing wife named June, Billy's wife in Joplin Missouri from 1943 to 1947.

B - Ever find her?

D - No, but I did find more and more hints and leads, and photographs of her, so that I could write a chapter that *sounds* as though I found her. But she herself has eluded detection. And I will say that *had* I found her, after I had formulated her and made her a character, and used the gap in information as a place to fill with imaginative narrative stuff — making a silk purse — I would have been confronted with a big ethical problem: outing her. That is, I don't think I could have used my material without her permission if I had actually been able to ask her. But since nobody I'd talked to had remembered her family name--everybody thought of her as June Tipton --

B - She lucked out.

D — Yes, I suppose. I assume what I've done would pass ethical muster, if biography can, because there are some things that I didn't put in that I could have, which would have made it easier for somebody *else* to find her.


B - Your academic career began rather conventionally - as a critic of poetry. How do you go from studying Wallace Stevens and Walt Whitman to writing a biography of a second-rate singer/piano-player who ended up in ice-swept, out-of-the-way Spokane, Washington. That is, what happened to you?

D — I wanted to be a writer. And my previous critical writing was tedious and dull, I think. The book I made out of my dissertation is truly unreadable — it's an embarrassment to me. That's not to say that I didn't learn a lot by writing it; I just hope now that nobody's reading it. What to do after getting tenure really stymied me. I did write some poetry ["Gin Considered as a Demon" — ed.], then found the limitations of myself as a poet. Real poets think in poetry, and I was *acting* as though I was thinking in poetry.

B-There are some wonderful poems in "Gin."

D — But I've written all the poems that I have to write, unless I get another influx of access . . . which is doubtful.

B - In your career as a professor, you expanded your expertise from poetry to include feminist and gender studies. Why?

D — I'm interested in sex and gender as one of the things that we now study that we didn't used to study.

B — You're not telling me that you only became interested when it became an object of study, are you?

D — Well, everybody's interested in sex — whatever that is.

B — Gender roles?

D — Well . . . . yes . . . *now* the name is "gender roles," but for a long time there was just this kind of discovery which we now have language for, "the fallacy of the universal subject." When I was a girl in college — a "college girl" was the term at the time — I used to write papers about literature in which the person, the reader was always masculine. "He" was the convention. This is really a banal example, and therefore a very telling one. I would write about the reader as "he," but the reader was ME. It was not until about 1970 that even the social scientists , linguists specifically, got to work and discovered that if you see a masculine pronoun, you think that it is referring to a man. *laugh* But what we were learning was that "he" was the name of everybody. Though it had a kind of benign -seeming generosity about it, as everybody is supposedly included, it was actually very socially specific in ways that could be studied, analyzed, described, deconstructed, and made into politics. That was a horizon of revolution, from my point of view.

It is only when you have "he" and "she" split off like that, then gender becomes the name for it and the study of gender discovers that *men* have gender as well as women. *laugh* That's the evolution.

B - Living through the establishment of gender studies in an academic environment, I can tell you personally, could be — *cough* — a little bit difficult. Like early feminism, early psychoanalysis, early all sorts of different humanities studies, there was a crudeness and a dogmatism and that swift succession of theoretical so-called revolutions. I remember one three-year period around the turn of the decade where to be a bisexual was despicable, then accepted, then the best thing since low-fat doughnuts. The changing moral/social passions were less hard on men, I have to admit, because men tend to cut themselves a lot of slack when it comes to sex, especially homosexual men. Nonetheless, it was a rough life! If you were accepted one week by the people who made the pronouncements on these things, your status the next was still always in trouble.

D — This is going to sound pretty middle-aged, but I think you're talking about peer pressure; you are not talking about any kind of policy stuff.

B — I disagree.

D — Peer pressure in the formation of sexual identity, though, is a *constant*. Here is my "theory of everything." There is always in the world the same amount of everything, but it keeps changing labels --first you aggregate it one way, then you aggregate it another. Because we think in teleological terms, we want to believe that we have something new, when we don�t, actually.

When I was in college there were virgins and nonvirgins — that was the sexual difference. I didn't even know that men had erections until I was nineteen years old. My parents didn't tell me anything about sex, of course, except that I shouldn't have it.

B — Nineteen. Hmmmmm. That's really amazing.

D — And true, and it is what helped me understand Billy Tipton's story. When I was working on this biography, I learned almost immediately about a person in his life named Non Earl [sic], and knew she was important. One of the people I asked about her was Billy's brother --also named Billy Tipton — who said Non Earl was Billy's "first girl." After I'd found Billy and Non Earl in a city directory Oklahoma city, I said, "Did you think that Billy and she were lovers?" No, he said, it was just "a roommate situation." So I wanted to know - was Non Earl a cover, or were the two lovers? I asked musicians who worked with Tipton: "Did you think Billy and Non Earl were lesbians?" Each time they'd look at me and say no, or that it was none of their damn business.

Eventually, I was talking to an elderly lady who was the sister of one of the people Billy played with. Sarah had these scrapbooks from the career of her sister. (She was also really glad, by the way, that she'd gotten out of the music business and married a salesman, which was, she told me, much better. "Everybody else you're asking me about is dead," she told me. "You see that — I settled down and had a life!")

B — *laugh*

D — At one point I was looking at her scrapbook and said, "Sarah, I've been asking people whether Billy and Non Earl were lesbians and everybody is saying that they weren't." And she said, "Well honey, we didn't have that word. Nobody thought anybody was a lesbian. Now if you'd said, "Did you think Billy and Non Earl were 'romantically involved,' " well everybody would have said, 'Sure, everybody knew *that*."

The point is, Billy Tipton dwelt in an environment where the question of gender identity had not been formulated the way it has been today. Categories like lesbian did not exist as constraints or social nodes of consciousness, so to speak.

B — Social constructions were looser back then — it took a lot of daring and verve for Tipton to pull off his cross-dressing/lesbian life, but one of the reasons he was able to pull it off was because he was nowhere near the Stanford campus — or other college campuses — of today, which demand a specific gender declaration on an annual basis.

D — You're being ahistorical.

B — Well, yeah.

D — The entire culture has changed in that way. Take anyplace — look at MTV or the Kansas City Star — people talk about gender as if it were something to debate and discuss, construct, change, disapprove of — but the consciousness simply wasn't there during most of Billy's public lifetime. It is a mass culture change, not just an intellectual change. It is part of the information society that there are not even just two sexes. Roles have been muddled, so people are desperately attempting to position themselves in some advantageous way toward their own sexuality. As usual.


B - I've been wanting to ask you about Camille Paglia's view of the university. She says that the do-gooders are taking the life out of an entire generation of white college-age females. That kind of stuff makes me want to stand up and applaud sometimes. I remember how in graduate school my colleagues used to laugh at my wife — because she was (a) married, (b) a nurse (a traditional feminine profession), and (c) had a child in her midtwenties, when she was supposed to be working on her career (which she in fact was). In my wife's mind, she was a feminist, but in the minds of my academic colleagues who met her, she was a reactionary.

And now I see many other of my friends and former colleagues desperate to be in her position, married with children. There's this one great quote from Paglia: "The universities have given every option to white young women but their natural right to early motherhood." It is a tragedy, I believe, in their lives. These women are paying for adhering to the coarse, academic certainty of a not-so-recent period of feminism, aren't they? You were a part of this environment — head of the feminist studies department at Stanford for awhile — and you've seen hundreds of these women. Now that so many of them are at this point of crisis, what do you say to them? Were you wrong?

D — Let's get a couple of things straight about the feminist studies program: The people who thought that it was mainly lesbians back in the eighties were right, I will say that now -- and more power to them, because they were women who had consigned the notion of the natural right to early reproduction — they saw it as a *technological* problem. They were an early warning system in a way. They said, "Well, we'll get to that later with a turkey baster, when we find a partner with an adequate income."

B — *groan* They were creating theory out of their own needs, to be sure, but how did that help the straight women who took these classes or read their work?

D — I think that the lesbian instructors and professors felt that they were studing things that might prove useful to themselves, as most people at universities are. The truth is, though, that the students circulated their own wisdom, as they always do about this stuff. And the women who stayed away from feminist studies didn't want to be thought of lesbians, a lot of them — though a lot of those who ventured in thought it was pretty interesting to be among lesbians who were shaking things up. Paglia's complaint, I think, comes from investing too much in good looks . . .

B — I don't see the connection.

D — The lesbian stereotype of the eighties was someone who didn't conform to, lets say, glamour images of femininity — they wore overalls — a leftover from the seventies — wore combat boots — you know what I'm talking about. The idea that women have to be good-looking is very strong in Paglia's whole schtick, and that fascinates me. I think she has a wonderful mind, and she's very good as a satirist, until she gets into her Miss Jean Brodie mode. She wants to improve all the girls, wants them to look like pagan voluptuaries.

B — Her accusation is that the great universities of the United States are turning out a generation of female automatons.

D — And I think she measures them by being boring-looking. Paglia is a satirist, as I said, and she is interested in targets to pillory. I don't think we can rely on her for deep probing of the mind of the successful graduate of a top university. And come on, Bob — did *you* find that Paglia's descriptions applied to your own students?

B — Well, not really. Certainly not totally. Uh, probably sometimes. In *any* case, satirists exaggerate, and in order for their writing to work, there must be something there to begin with. And she's accusing universities of promulgating ideology instead of curiosity.

D — She's full of hot air on that one. One problem with satirists is that they have a deadly earnestness driving them, and she has become pretty predictable. I don't think you can find much more than a kind of malice in her at this point — she's not really interested in where change might come from. Her intellectual style today is not the one that informs her book "Sexual Personae," which I found to be a very good, extremely intelligent and deep - and beautifully written. Her writing today? Well, invective and complaint have their limits as rhetoric, I think.


B - The Internet presents a big threat to humanities departments. One no longer needs to be near huge libraries to do research, wait years to get articles published, or get invited to conferences to know the right people. Writers and thinkers are no longer at the mercy of academic hierarchies. If your ezine is brilliant, you become important. If your newsgroup posts are original, you win respect, and perhaps a book contract. You don't have to wait for some committee's imprimatur to make or break your career.

D — That's a savvy view of yours. The movement in humanities right now is into �the root directories� -- the study of genres more than the study of historical periods — to examine the great codes of secular literature. And that sense of what makes one genre different from another, what the boundaries are, where the flow takes place, and why they form and why they are replicated is a great subject.

B - This sounds as though you are making an organized retreat, that the professoriate is not fleeing in anarchy from the inevitable loss of the university's status as a leader of culture. I mean, it is simply grand that universities are now allowing pop and fringe culture and hip new "genres," as you say, into their departments as appropriate things to study. Big deal. We can now talk and write about Tupac Shakur at Berkeley and Yale. But the brilliant talking and writing about Tupac Shakur started coming out a good while ago and outside the academic firmament — and I'll bet that the better writing on him and other major figures in American culture, for the most part, still will.

D — If your point is that humanities departments are destined to disappear because they really have no function . . . we'll see. They --we--will probably have to redefine what our function is. If you think about what it is that you are can learn in a university that you are not likely to learn on the Internet, or even by spending a lot of time in serious discussion with people across cyberspace about very fine points of one thing or another, it is the sustained attention to big picture stuff — the history of rhetoric, the history of the creation of genre, and how to edit yourself. These are things that are learned from other people directly, in the same place, in a sustained dimension, systematic and informed. The problem with trying to be hip in a university is that the University is not a hip place.

B — It used to be hip . . .

D — On rare occasions — with people like Lionel Trilling in the fifties, let's say, or Leslie Fiedler in the sixties and seventies. But basically universities have always been very conservative institutions. What we are good at are *basics* — and this will be reflected in the next revolution of undergraduate curricula, I think, here at Stanford and probably elsewhere.


B - I want to return to something we were talking about earlier, about how women were told that bearing children in their twenties would harmtheir careers and would be therefore inappropriate, and so we have anentire generation . . . . — uh, that's an exaggeration, of course --but there are a lot of women who now regret that they waited too long,and that now bearing children is impossible for them. What responsibilities do universities have for the dilemma so many pushing-middle-age women now have?

D — The reproductive issue is really the big one, but I think the answer is going to be provided by science (according to my husband anyway [Carl Djerassi, famed organic chemist, art collector, philanthropist, and inventor of *The Pill*--Ed.]): In the future, women will go to the university clinic the minute they arrive and have a large number of their eggs washed out. You are born with your supply, so you can have them removed, and frozen. Then when you are ready to use them, you have nice young eggs that are your very own and you can have them inseminated with the sperm of choice. You can choose your genetic partner, who does not have to have any obligations after that. The social contract of parenting is split off from reproduction, as is the experience of sexual pleasure, so that this solution may very well be technological, for there is no particular reason for women to waste their precious youth taking care of their ovaries.

B — *cough* "Wasting their precious youth"?

D — Sitting on their ova, so to speak. The continuity of professional life is an extremely important goal for women to achieve.

B — You've told me before that if women had their babies at age 16 they would be less likely to suffer breast cancer. Early pregnancies are better as far as women's hormonal health is concerned. Doesn't this make the freeze-and-wait solution flawed?

D — All I'm saying is that women need more options, and I suspect technological solutions will be important to women. Certainly the idea that women should shut up and be youthful and sexy — or mouthy and sexy, in Paglia's paradigm — is not the way to go.

B — Will we look back in fifty years and see a class of people who write about their childlessness, and the mistake they made, ideologically driven and suggested by university educations? As we are now beginning to see that in the eighties and nineties the United States has criminalized an entire generation of black men? Will we wonder: Why in hell did we do that?

D — The idea that every woman should have a baby is questionable, I think.

B — But every woman who wants to . . .

D — But why do they want to? Sometimes what they *really* want is to be pregnant. Being a mother is something a lot of people are not very well qualified to do. People want biological replication, but I don't feel tremendously touched by the desire for women to have babies at age 39. I think they need to interrogate themselves carefully to see what it is they really don't like about their situation. And probably, it is getting old — it's ageing; it is not great to be over forty if you're female.


B — What's your next project?

D — I was thinking of writing a book about the Roman poet Ovid, maybe a biography. The persona that you can find in "Metamorphoses" is consistent with itself in the way God is consistent with Himself in the Bible. While the actual person, Ovid, did not leave the kind of documents a biographer is used to putting into a biography, he did write an autobiography, which sketches his educational class status.

B — People wrote *about* him, though.

D — A little bit, and you also know his address in Rome, and that he had a garden, and you can begin to then find out what the life of a poet was. You *could* make a book out of it, with these kinds of things.

B — You think that Ovid speaks to us today in a way that Virgil, say, doesn't.

D — Yes, because Ovid is the original "decentered guy," the guy who *gets it* — that everything changes, especially if you live in an age of complete, disgusting affluence, where you speak the language that everybody is supposed to speak, and you can have anything you want if you have enough money (and you do), you are educated so ridiculously well, and so what, and you've had an emperor who has decided that his worst behavior should now become illegal for everybody else to do. Adultery illegal in Rome? So much of it is like the USA in the age post Cold War. It's just very familiar, though I think the Romans knew even more about sex than Susie Bright.

Write "Ellavon" at ellavon@ellavon.com.
Editor: Robert Basil. Special thanks to June Denbigh, Ray Szeto, and the Raylock Design Group.
Copyright retained by all contributors.

Released: March 1, 1998