Naomi Wolf's sacred feminine.

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APRIL 17, 2006

Naomi Wolf's sacred feminine.

It was to be Torcuil Crichton's journalistic transfiguration. Around
noon on January 17, Crichton, a lowly reporter for Glasgow's Sunday
Herald, a small Scottish newsweekly, entered the Covent Garden
Hotel in London. The hotel's quintessentially English touches make
it a favorite among visiting celebrities, and Crichton had gone
there to interview the American feminist author Naomi Wolf, on tour
for her new book, The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on
How to Live, Love, and See. Wolf had started the day with a radio
interview that included a bruising encounter with feminist icon
Germaine Greer, and Crichton was, by his reckoning, about the
fifteenth of Wolf's 15 British book-tour interviews. So, sitting
down with her in the hotel's faux- Edwardian library, Crichton
anticipated a weary, canned session; predictably, they chatted
about Scotland, her past work, and her book. Hoping to draw her out
on her recent divorce, he spouted about his own breakups, a tactic
that only yielded cliched sympathy. As his time drew to a close,
Crichton remembered Wolf's radio appearance, and he asked if any of
Greer's insults had wounded her. Staring off into the distance,
Wolf replied that critics' barbs no longer mattered, because now
she answered to a higher authority."Are we talking about God?" Crichton asked.

"Yeah, God," Wolf said. She elaborated: "I actually had this vision
of--of Jesus." And that, needless to say, is when the interview
really began.

Wolf's story went like this: Several years ago, while in therapy for
writer's block, Wolf was asked to try a classic deep relaxation
technique, where she imagined walking down a flight of stairs. When
she reached the bottom and opened the door, there he was: Jesus,
with a holy light radiating out of him, the light of absolute
perfection and powerful love. In the vision, Wolf wasn't her usual
zaftig, constantly commented-upon physical self, but rather a
13-year-old boy. The vision taught Wolf several lessons: that God
cares about each and every one of us; that we are born with
knowledge of our own soul, which, like Plato once taught, we forget
and have to re-remember in order to realize our life's mission (in
her case, to spread the gospel of feminism). That we can all, if we
try, be like Jesus--radiant, loving, perfect. The revelation made
tears run down her face, she confessed to Crichton.

Crichton left the Covent Garden believing he had the scoop of his
career. A famously ultra-liberal Jewish feminist turning to
Jesus--and that delicious 13- year-old-boy part! "This latest
confessional ... will be the icing on the cake, plunging her into
fresh controversy over her beliefs and her integrity as a
feminist," he wrote, breathlessly, in the Sunday Herald. Though Wolf
apparently remains a Jew, at least by her own reckoning, Crichton
predicted that her admission might even "trigger a theological
battle between the American Christian right and the Jewish lobby
over the ownership of her soul."

But, disappointingly, although it was picked up in some British and
Australian papers, Crichton's bombshell didn't make much of a splash
in the States. The whole episode, he explains on the phone, remains
a sort of unsolved mystery: Why did Wolf select him to deliver the
news of her revelation? And why didn't Americans care? Most
inscrutable is the vision itself. In her 1991 breakout book, The
Beauty Myth, Wolf was a traditional, rigorously academic, angry
feminist polemicist. Now she is a bar mitzvah-age boy visiting with
Jesus. What the hell happened?

When I contacted Wolf to find out, she seemed a little
uncomfortable, in the manner of one trying desperately to stave off
a p.r. disaster: She sweetly declined to chat, because she was
"swamped with deadlines"; then, under increasing pressure, she
fired off a two-sentence statement on the strictly ecumenical
nature of her vision. Then, like Jesus himself, she left me with
only her works. But, as I looked back at her books, a hint emerged,
a little mustard seed of an answer. And, far from representing the
slow onset of total lunacy, this seed is a parable of feminism.

Naomi Wolf, as she tells it in The Treehouse, grew up in hippie San
Francisco with a powerful belief in the magic of things like God,
poetry, romance, and beauty. As a student at Yale, she began to
develop as a poet (enough, she alleges, to elicit some now-famous
heavy breathing from Harold Bloom). But, while at Oxford on a
Rhodes, she writes, she became "radicalized," or persuaded to scorn
touchy-feely, literary fluff for the harsh realities of the world:
injustice, exploitation, the oppression of women. Poetry was just
the kind of girly, inward-looking, powerless activity that men
wanted women to pursue, and she decided then and there that she
wanted to use words in a more polemical way to effect real change.

Shortly after leaving Oxford, Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth. That debut
book-- which raged against the male power structure that enslaved
women to an unattainable beauty standard--became a runaway
best-seller. When it was published, critics and enthusiasts alike
read it as a statistics-based screed, pumped full of dense feminist
theory. And, for the most part, it is. But there are also hints of
an interest in the theological. She diagnoses modern women, for
example, as suffering from a case of unquenched "spiritual hunger."
This hunger manifests itself through an obsession with appearance
(particularly skin care) that is exploited by the beauty-industrial
complex--or, as Wolf calls it, the "Church of Beauty"--whose strict
commands "crudely imitate medieval Catholicism." The Beauty Myth
wants to destroy this false doctrine, because it harms women's
sense of "self," a word that appears on nearly half the pages in
the book. "[W]e can imagine, to save ourselves, a life in the body
that is not value-laden," Wolf writes. But she is a little fuzzy on
how to feed one's spiritual hunger once the Lancime gods are dead.

Wading through Wolf's prolific writings after The Beauty Myth, it
becomes clear that she envisioned her particular mission as
fighting not for women's rights, but for a more vaporous notion of
their selves. Mostly, this took common forms, such as praising the
virtues of self-esteem, but she continued to flirt with the
spiritual. (A friend of Wolf's who shared an office with her in the
early '90s reports that she professed to see his aura.) In
Promiscuities, she once again identifies a spiritual void in
women's lives; this time, she attributes it to society's terror of
the female libido. "[T]here is a terrible spiritual and emotional
hunger among many women, including myself, for social behavior and
ritual that respect and even worship female sexuality," she writes.

But soon, Wolf started experimenting with a slightly more religious
paradigm: Instead of saving selves, she would save souls. In a
controversial 1995 New Republic article, she opined that, by
failing to understand that abortion was a tragic act, liberal women
were "in danger of losing something more important than votes; we
stand in jeopardy of losing what can only be called our souls." She
counseled women who have had an abortion to undertake "acts of
redemption"--or what the "Jewish mystical tradition calls tikkun."
These acts could be inspired by a variety of spiritual traditions:
making "offerings to the fetus to help it rest in peace," as is the
Shinto practice; or perhaps erecting "statues of the spirit
guardian of children to honor aborted fetuses," as the Buddhists
once did.

Over the years, Wolf's brand of feminism has become increasingly
hard to pin down. She's reversed her opinions to coincide with the
feminist fads of the moment, from "victim feminism," to "power
feminism," to a sort of New Age feminism: By 2000, she was helping
to run an institute that hosts retreats on compassionate leadership
and advising Al Gore, for

$15,000 a month, to wear "earth tones" to better exude his steaming
inner manliness. But, throughout this peripatetic journey, Wolf
maintained--and nourished--her mystical bent, her interest in
liberating not only women's bodies, minds, and paychecks, but also
that final frontier for feminist transformation: their souls.

By the time Wolf sat down to write The Treehouse, she had
experienced fame, wealth, and social and political influence. And
yet, she writes, during all those wildly successful years,
something had been terribly wrong. The Treehouse is ostensibly a
book about Wolf's father, a lovable, nutty poetry teacher who owns
20 old typewriters and instruments once used to scrape out a
caliph's earwax. But, more fundamentally, it's about a cryptically
described midlife crisis, whose ghostly, nameless presence hangs
heavily over the book. "[My father] was eighty; and I was now
forty; and for many reasons, I knew I had taken a wrong turn," she
writes. This unspecified crisis, she goes on to explain, made her
realize that, during all those years spent effecting change as an
activist, she'd been neglecting her spirit. Or, as Jesus once put
it, "For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole
world and lose his own soul?"

But is it really so surprising that Naomi Wolf arrived at this
question? Or that feminism has? As Germaine Greer informed me, in a
surly e-mail message responding to repeated inquiries, "Feminism
has always treated the personal as political and vice versa." In
the '60s, to build momentum for their movement, feminists worked to
persuade their constituents that their unhappiness had a political
cause, and thus a political redemption. But, since happiness isn't
ultimately a political problem, it backfired and splintered the
movement during the '90s, when it seemed the achievement of many of
feminism's political goals simply hadn't made women as fulfilled as
they expected. But Naomi Wolf really believed the goal of feminism
could be inner happiness and satisfaction. And so she barreled on,
right through to the end of the story, from selves to souls to her
own soul to, well, Jesus.

Wolf's vision is a little out there, but it has confirmed her
mission in life, which, as she told Crichton, is to help women
"remember what's sacred about them or what's sacred about
femininity." That may have been an epiphany for Wolf, but it wasn't
such a hot news scoop for Crichton. The American public didn't much
notice. After all, what's less mysterious here than finding
religion?

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