The Wolf of the Left
By: Catherine Seipp
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, March 03, 2004
Naomi Wolf says she can no longer keep silent about why she turns down speaking invitations from Yale, her alma mater. The reason, she explains in a March 1 New York magazine cover story, is that 20 years ago when she was a student, Professor Harold Bloom put his hand on her thigh, and that although she never complained about it at the time, "the institution is not accountable when it comes to the equality of women." She doesn't claim to have been actually harassed, or even traumatized. But the incident precipitated what Wolf describes as a "moral crisis" and "spiritual discomfort." Also, her "educational experience was corrupted."
So what happened, exactly? Let's cut through several thousand words of Wolf's tremulous prose and get to the money shot:
Bloom, whose class Wolf was auditing, suggested he talk to her about her poetry "over a glass of Amontillado." So he came over for dinner with Wolf, her roommate and the roommate's boyfriend. Afterwards, Bloom put his "heavy, boneless hand" on Wolf's thigh as she was standing in her kitchen. She promptly turned around and threw up into the sink. Bloom collected his coat and bottle of sherry, announced, "You are a deeply troubled girl," and went home.
You know, I can't help but think there may have been another way of handling this situation - other than writing a magazine story about it two decades later, that is. Vomiting is one obviously effective option, but not everyone can manage that on cue. Whatever happened to, say, escorting the tipsy professor to the door with a polite but firm, "Here's your hat, what's your hurry?"
And who knows if Wolf's story really happened the way she says it did? Bloom calls Wolf's accusation "a vicious lie," and although it's true that's what he would say, it's also true that Wolf is a world-class overreactor. I wonder if her latest screed isn't a rather desperate attempt to recover some of the capital she lost when her latest book "Misconceptions," a mesmerizingly nutty 2001 polemic about "the hidden truths behind giving birth in America today," was roundly panned.
Overwrought as Wolf's tone is about that long ago incident - the professor's hand on her thigh "devastated my sense of being valuable to Yale as a student, rather than as a pawn of powerful men," she writes, even though Bloom gave her a B in the class and recommended her for the Rhodes scholarship she subsequently got - it's nothing compared to Wolf's literal hysterics about giving birth, from which she apparently has never quite recovered.
Her theme these days is the world's refusal to take her personal concerns with the same massive seriousness that she herself does. An exasperated Yale dean explains, despite Wolf's consternation and repeated questioning, that he's not going to talk to Harold Bloom about a thigh-groping incident 20 years after the fact. An annoyed obstetrician in "Misconceptions," fed up with Wolf's lectures that episiotomies are less necessary in other countries because Third World midwives massage the perineal area with warm oil, finally loses patience.
The doctor, who we know is a meanie from Wolf's description of her "tennis-toned figure" and "perfectly coifed suburban hair," finally snaps that episiotomies are minor surgical cuts that prevent ragged tearing: "Some tears extend all the way from the vagina into...the anus." "That did, indeed, shut me up," writes Wolf. But not for long. In a chapter filled with tortured complaints about how her husband gets to go to work while she's stuck at home with an infant and "a woman my mother's age from Venezuala," Wolf describes how frustrated she felt one day while she and the nanny were together washing the baby: "This scene was not what I wanted. What I wanted was a revolution."
Is there a tired mother who can read that passage without puzzlement? If someone else is watching the baby, that's time to get some work done or take a nap. Why on earth were Wolf and the Venezualan both crouched over that bathtub?
And why did she wait 20 years to complain about that "sexual encroachment?" Because until now she wasn't "brave enough." She feared she wouldn't be taken seriously, as "there was an atmosphere at Yale in which female students were expected to be sociable with male professors." If Yale indeed has that atmosphere, it's not generally known to the wider world. Even out here in un-Ivy-covered L.A. we know that, say, Dartmouth has a reputation for drinking and Smith for comfortable shoe-wearing. But is Yale really particuarly known for thigh-groping? I thought it was just Skull & Bones and boolah-boolah.
What's remarkable about Wolf's screeds is their constant "Eek, a mouse!" tone of girlish fright - a tone that has seeped from feminist rhetoric into the general rhetoric of the left. This became particularly evident after Sept. 11, when various commentators immediately began fretting that Bush's America/John Ashcroft/Red State Crushing of Dissent etc. filled them with more terror than actual terrorists.
There used to be something unseemly about constantly quaking in your boots, but no longer, and to read Wolf is to be reminded where this attitude comes from. For the New York piece, she interviewed her old roommate to confirm how "anxious" she seemed to everyone after the groping incident. But the roommate (now an editor) didn't want to be named: "I'm still terrified." How, exactly, a 73-year-old college professor in failing health fills an editor with terror is never explained.
Reading Wolf's latest article, I was also reminded of some thigh-groping lore from my own family. When my grandmother was around 12, she told her mother that during Friday evening family dinners she no longer wanted to sit next to Uncle Max, who was married to my great-grandmother's sister Auntie Malka. This was because under the tablecloth, Uncle Max had begun sliding his hand up my grandmother's thigh.
My great-grandmother promised to fix the situation, which she did, by telling her sister. The next week Uncle Max showed up at dinner with two black eyes, courtesy of Auntie Malka. End of problem. These situations aren't always solved so simply, of course, but sometimes they can be. Maybe the key is to keep Naomi Wolf out of it.
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