Let me begin with a word of affirmation: I think it’s perfectly fine that Charlotte Kaufman washed her daughter’s poopy diapers in her sailboat’s galley sink. As users of cloth diapers (mostly), my wife and I have rinsed them out pretty much everywhere. We have hosed them down on the deck, and we have stuffed them in assorted pockets. And for what it’s worth, sometimes I put the detachable high-chair tray on the floor to let the dogs lick it clean, then reattach it to feed our nine-month-old.
So if I’m going to judge Kaufman, whose mission to sail the South Pacific with her husband and two very-young daughters was aborted after less than two weeks, it won’t be for lax standards of cleanliness.
Commenters on Kaufman’s blog, in addition to condemning her high-seas housekeeping, found plenty more to assail—foremost that the Coast Guard was called to the rescue, presumably at taxpayer expense. “Hard to say anything nice to two complete idiots,” read one comment. “You better be covering the costs of the freaking rescue mission your selfish trip required!” Others were more concerned for the safety of one-year-old Lyra—who, the New York Times reported, "was covered in a rash and had a fever"—and three-year-old Cora. “You not only put your kids lives in danger but the people rescuing you,” wrote one critic. “I saw a picture of you in a car and you were holding her. No car seat. Irresponsible all the way.”
To use a creative term deployed by one of the Kaufmans’ defenders in a comments section, there were plenty of “cruel-negative-closeminded-turdnibblers” bobbing in the blog’s comments sections.
At the risk of being a turdnibbler, I’d like to offer a different critique of the Kaufmans. The problem is not, as many have suggested, that they set sail into the great, lonely, dangerous unknown, too far from civilization to get help for their children, should they need it (just weeks after Lyra was treated for salmonella, no less). Rather, what I find bizarre is how the Kaufmans made a show of such a go-it-alone adventure, while consciously remaining in the bosom of an extended community of thousands of supporters. I’m more alone if I forget my iPhone on a drive from New Haven to Boston than the Kaufmans were en route from Mexico to New Zealand.
Both Charlotte and her husband, Eric, were blogging the entire way—on separate blogs—on their website, the Rebel Heart. It’s named for their boat, which tells you something about how they perceived themselves. They also updated a Rebel Heart Facebook page (3,854 "likes"). Eric is on Twitter (237 followers). Several year’s worth of Eric’s snapshots are online, for the whole public to see. And a quick read of the comments on Rebel Heart reveals that the Kaufmans were deeply embedded in the community of “cruisers,” or long-distance sailers, many of whom had been following their journey through the couples’ blogs and in online forums.
In short, the Kaufmans weren’t seeking isolation. For every second of their trip, they were connected to, and performing for, thousands of people. “First ‘met’ you on Cruiser's Forum and decided to follow your adventure with blogs and Facebook,” wrote one admirer. “I was so thrilled for your adventure and now this devastating event. We are praying for your safety, a good outcome for Lyra and so hope there is a way to save [Rebel Heart] too. We are thinking of you and wishing the best and please ignore mean people giving you lectures.” (The sailboat was "sunk on purpose," according to the Times.)
Now, those of us who write about our children for money should be wary about casting aspersions. My critique is not so much of the Kaufmans, who have every right to sail where they wish, and blog as they wish. What rankles me is the sense, propagated as much by the Kaufmans’ fans as by the couple itself, that there is something rebellious about their trip, something off-the-grid, countercultural.
A close read of Charlotte Kaufman’s cliché-filled blog is in fact proof that she is the most conventional of thinkers. Her first post at sea, on March 21, reads, “I insisted that having kids would not impede on our dreams … And here’s to wishing for a more balanced day, for all of us, tomorrow.” Over a week later, her penultimate post begins, “Thirteen days at sea. For some people thirteen is unlucky. I was born on the 13th (of June) and have always considered it a number for good luck.” Her last post, on April 1, is a single sentence: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
Kaufman thinks no differently from the rest of us; it’s just that she can afford to do her thinking on a 36-foot boat, from which she essays into cyberspace about yoga pants, getting her period, and “the range of emotions” she feels at sea, “anger, joy, sickness, exhaustion, exhilaration, wonder, awe, contentment, peace.” And she receives well-wishing from a large, far-flung, loosely organized community of women and men who, too, can afford to buy large boats and forgo paychecks in pursuit of months-long adventures.
Charlotte and Eric Kaufman, contra their admirers, are not courageous parents who have embraced some kind of radical freedom. Rather, they are depressingly similar to the rest of us: yet another modern couple who can’t go a day without Facebook, even on the high seas.
Mark Oppenheimer is the author of three books, including a memoir of high school debate and a travelogue about crashing bar mitzvahs, and the e-book “The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side.” He writes a religion column for The New York Times and is on Twitter @markopp1.