Social Critic, Journalist, Author, Activist
I was born in Butte, Montana, in 1941, when Butte was still a bustling, brawling, blue collar mining town. My father was a miner, and the other men in my family were either miners or railroad workers (the women were homemakers.) What distinguished my father is that he managed to get a degree from the Butte School of Mines and thus embark on the career that took us from Butte to Pittsburgh PA, New York, various places in Massachusetts and finally Los Angeles. We moved so often that I can hardly claim any geographical roots — except for Butte, which is today a sadly under-populated, woefully polluted, EPA superfund site, thanks to the mining companies.
By the time I was in my mid-teens my family had achieved middle class status and I was able to go to the college of my choice (actually my second choice, Radcliffe being too expensive), which was Reed College in Portland, Oregon. I started out majoring in chemistry but after a couple of years decided I would only get to the bottom of things with physics. I did well enough to get into grad school at Rockefeller University in theoretical physics. But within a year I realized I was gravely under-prepared and switched to molecular biology, and from that to cell biology.
Meanwhile, I’d gotten caught up in the anti-Vietnam war movement and was beginning to question whether I wanted to spend my life “at the bench,” the laboratory bench, that is. Looking back, I don’t think I was especially well-suited for a life of lab research: I’m too impatient and, well, sloppy. I got my PhD in cell biology, then gravitated into activism, joining a tiny nonprofit in New York City that advocated for better health care for the city’s poor. One of things we did was put out a monthly bulletin and I found myself enjoying doing investigative stories for it. There was no decision to become a writer; that was just something I started doing.
What prepared me for writing? Probably the main thing was that I’ve always been a big reader. By reading “the classics” while I was growing up and good fiction ever since, I developed an ear for the language and what can be done with it. Then, too, science played a role: One thing I learned in my dilettantish bopping around from one scientific discipline to another is that I can learn almost anything if I try hard enough. So I’ve never been afraid to take on any assignment that came my way.
With the birth of my first child in 1970, I underwent a political, as well as a personal, transformation. I’d never thought much about my gender, but the prenatal care I received at a hospital clinic showed me that PhD’s were not immune from the vilest forms of sexism. Bit by bit, I got involved with what we then called the “women’s health movement,” advocating for better health care for women and greater access to health information than we had at that time. This new concern led to the “underground bestseller,” a little pamphlet called Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, co-authored with my friend Deirdre English.
A couple of years later I made the rash decision to quit my teaching job at the State University of NY, Old Westbury — where I didn’t expect to get tenure anyway — and become a full-time writer. Financially rough times followed. My partner at the time was a blue collar worker making about $6/hour (though he rose within a few years to become a union organizer) and I was lucky to earn a few hundred dollars for an article. My big break was a feature story for Ms. magazine on the myth that feminism causes heart disease — a subject well suited to my science background. It became a cover story, and more assignments followed. In the eighties I had columns in Ms. and Mother Jones, which provided some small, but reliable, income between assignments.
My work life settled into three tracks, which continue to this day: (1) Journalism, generally essays and opinion pieces, now blogs. (2) Book-length projects on subjects which may not make any money but fascinate me and give my life some intellectual continuity. Before Nickel and Dimed, my books included For Her Own Good: 200 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women (with Deirdre English), The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, Kipper’s Game (a science fiction novel), and Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. (3) Activism on such issues as health care, peace, women’s rights, and economic justice.
People sometimes ask how one can be an objective journalist as well as an activist, but most of the writing I have done has been of the opinionated variety anyway. Besides, I can’t imagine getting involved in a problem as a journalist and not wanting to do something about it, whether that means marching, picketing, leafleting, or helping build an organization for social change. Besides, a lot of my inspiration as a journalist comes from what I experience as an activist — the people I meet on union picket lines, for example.
In 1998, I veered off from essay-writing for the reporting that led to the book Nickel and Dimed. This was a totally new experience for me as a writer, and I don’t just mean the manual labor involved in the jobs I took. I had never done much reporting before, and certainly not in the first person. But I found I loved that kind of writing, at least enough to do a second reported book, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, based on my experiences as an undercover white-collar job seeker.
Each of these books changed my life in important and unexpected ways. Nickel and Dimed plunged me into the nascent living wage movement, traveling to union rallies, picket lines and organizing meetings around the country. Once terrified of public speaking, I became comfortable addressing crowds through a bull horn, with no notes at all. I got arrested at a protest with Yale workers; I joined picket lines with hotel workers in Santa Monica and janitors in Miami; I leafleted for a living wage in Charlottesville and marched with ACORN in Michigan.
Bait and Switch inspired me to do something totally new: try to build an organization for unemployed, underemployed, and anxiously employed white collar workers. My research on the book showed me that college-educated workers are extremely vulnerable to downward mobility, and often end up in the kinds of low-wage jobs I had done for Nickel and Dimed. With some help from the Service Employees International Union, a group of people I met while on my book tour launched United Professionals in 2006, and we can be found at unitedprofessionals.org. We’re still small and struggling, but hoping to build a response to the “war on the middle class” that is undermining so many lives.
Meanwhile, curiosity has kept pulling me in different directions. I’ve just published Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, a scholarly book that I began many months before I started the research for Nickel and Dimed. It’s a sweeping book about festivities and ecstatic rituals: their roots in human evolution and the history of their repression by elites from ancient times to the present. I’m now researching for a book on what I call “the cult of cheerfulness,” which requires Americans to “think positively” rather than to take positive action for change.
I cannot imagine doing anything other than what I do. Sure, I could have had more stability and financial security if I’d stuck to science or teaching. But I chose adventure and I’ve never for a moment regretted it.