Rebecca Solnit is a brilliant writer whose essay Men Explain Things to Me sparked the discourse about "mansplaining" and whose 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell is one of the best history books I've ever read — so why do so many interviewers want to talk to her about the fact that she chose not to have babies?
In her latest Easy Chair column for Harper's, Solnit describes several incidents in which interviewers insisted on drilling her on the topic, and notes that the phenomenon isn't limited to her alone: during the Q&A on a talk she gave about Virginia Woolf, the audience were fascinated by the question of why Woolf chose not to become a mother. This is curious, Solnit notes, because "many people have children; only one made To the Lighthouse and The Waves, and we were discussing Woolf because of the books, not the babies."
Solnit investigates the phenomenon with her characteristic brilliance, linking it to pop philosophical notions of happiness, and noting that discussion of Snowden's actions were dominated by the question of why someone would leave a good job and a nice home in Hawaii and a relationship with a smart, beautiful woman to reveal the criminality of the US government and its partners.
There is a paradox at the heart of the happiness question. Todd Kashdan, a psychology professor at George Mason University, reported a few years ago on studies that concluded that people who think being happy is important are more likely to become depressed: "Organizing your life around trying to become happier, making happiness the primary objective of life, gets in the way of actually becoming happy."
I did finally have my rabbinical moment in Britain. After the jet lag was over, I was interviewed onstage by a woman with a plummy, fluting accent. "So," she trilled, "you've been wounded by humanity and fled to the landscape for refuge." The implication was clear: I was an exceptionally sorry specimen on display, an outlier in the herd. I turned to the audience and asked, "Have any of you ever been wounded by humanity?" They laughed with me; in that moment, we knew that we were all weird, all in this together, and that addressing our own suffering, while learning not to inflict it on others, is part of the work we're all here to do. So is love, which comes in so many forms and can be directed at so many things. There are many questions in life worth asking, but perhaps if we're wise we can understand that not every question needs an answer.
The Mother of All Questions [Rebecca Solnit/Harpers]