Feminist’s Novel Bends Experience to Fit Theory

waldman carolgilligan1h Feminist’s Novel Bends Experience to Fit Theory KYRA
By Carol Gilligan
Random House, 241 pages, $25

Carol Gilligan is one of the most influential feminist social theorists of her time. She’s also one of the least rigorous. Now she’s written a novel. It makes perfect sense: Why bother with real people whose experience may not conform to your theories when you can just make up characters who fit precisely? (Well, perhaps because it doesn’t make for good art—but that’s a secondary concern to someone who feels she’s unearthed the essential truth of the human condition and is on a mission to disseminate it.)

Ms. Gilligan leapt to fame in 1982 with the publication of In a Different Voice, in which she argued that women reason out moral questions differently from men. Women, she claimed, are less concerned with abstract rights and more concerned with maintaining relationships, or “the activity of care.” This difference has traditionally been construed—wrongly, according to Ms. Gilligan—as a sign of intellectual inferiority or immaturity, rather than a different but equally valid system of values.

Not everybody is comfortable with the notion of distinct masculine and feminine moralities—I, for one, am not—but, apparently, a good many people liked what they read. In 1996, Time named Ms. Gilligan as one of the 25 most influential people. Jane Fonda was so enamored of Ms. Gilligan that the actress gave Harvard University, where Ms. Gilligan taught for many years, $12.5 million to create a center on gender and development (including an endowed chair named for you know who).

Never mind that Ms. Gilligan favors language more appropriate to a self-help guru than a social scientist. For example, in In a Different Voice, a book purportedly based on hard research, she writes, “The myth of Persephone … [reminds us] … that the fertility of the earth is tied in some mysterious way to the continuation of the mother-daughter relationship.”

In recent years, she’s moved further away from traditional social science. The Birth of Pleasure (2002) was a meditation on romantic love in which Ms. Gilligan expounded her theories largely through anecdotes and literary analysis. Her point: Children, particularly girls, know certain essentials truths about relationships that adults have buried in order to survive in a patriarchal society; our denial of these truths, as we grow up, causes internal disassociation, which in fact is the root of tragedy.

Ms. Gilligan is extremely confident of her analysis, writing, for example, that “what allowed me to open the door and see into love was my experience of finding in girls an honesty that I remembered and learned to dismiss.” See into love? That’s quite an achievement, especially for an academic. She even compares her “discoveries” to those of Charles Darwin: “Adolescent girls became the Galapagos on my journey,” she writes.

 

KYRA IS LESS a novel than an illustration of what she learned on that journey; Ms. Gilligan’s characters are her handmaidens, eager to spread her theories. The plot was laid out in The Birth of Pleasure, in which Ms. Gilligan describes a story she says she’s heard “over and over again” from real people: A woman falls in love, the man leaves. “She had picked up the chemistry, felt the connection, experienced the joy of love, and then it was as if it had never happened, as if she was deluded or crazy,” writes Ms. Gilligan. The world thinks the woman is pathetic for not letting go, but not Ms. Gilligan, who has the wisdom (acquired from girls) to believe in the woman. “I suspected that it was the very intensity of the connection that was responsible for his leaving,” she concludes.

And that’s exactly what happens in Kyra.

Kyra is the woman scorned, Andreas the lover who decamps. But he comes back, eventually—sounding as if he’d undergone serious indoctrination at a re-eduction camp designed by Carol Gilligan. “I had pulled back,” reflects Andreas, “driven by an urgency I had not questioned. My passion for [Kyra] felt like an obstacle.” He’s repentant, and now, when he makes love to Kyra, it feels “holy.” Because he’s learned his lesson, he feels “committed” to “opening” himself.

Andreas has become Ms. Gilligan’s idea of the model man, one who’s learned to listen to women. In fact, he’s learned to listen closely and repeat: He got that holiness bit from Kyra, who, a few pages earlier, described being with Andreas “as holiness entering the room.”