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Dederer's Monsters

24 June 2024

Dederer's Monsters

At this, what might be the tail end of a mental health crisis, it feels like my brain has turned to mush, and I am aware that my thoughts are muddled and imprecise—that it’s taking me exceptional effort to grasp paragraphs as I read them, even when they are written quite simply. Therefore, I enter this book review with much self-doubt, much insecurity. There were moments Dederer lapsed into paragraphs that were elaborative, illustrative, but perhaps superfluous to her point, when my eyes went crossy and I just—skipped ahead. For my brain’s sake. It doesn’t help that I read another author’s review of this book yesterday, and it was just so glowing that I began to second-guess my own criticisms.


Well, ok.


Claire Dederer is a memoirist and writer for The New York Times. She is also mother to an adult daughter and son (like me, soon). What I think is interesting and telling about her biography (yes, why not go there, Dederer, since it’s apropos to the book’s subject matter) is that she has an ex-husband but never seems to have remarried.


Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma explores the question of how to feel about the art we love, when we know that the artist was a monster. In almost all cases throughout the book, such monstrosity is attributable to men. Even when that monstrosity is attributable to women, Dederer proposes that it’s because those women were acting in the moment like men (and she almost whispers, under her breath, “badass,” as she points this out).


I tried so hard, especially after reading the other reviewer’s take, to shake from my muddled brain the feeling that Dederer’s book (let’s not accuse her directly) is misandrist. Indeed, Dederer proclaims, early and often, her feminism. And there’s nothing at all wrong with that, if you ask me: I am a feminist too. Still, throughout the book, I felt Dederer laying this blanket generalization across all men, especially in a patriarchal society that reinforces it, for sort of innate and accepted monstrous behaviors. It’s the same ick I got from the broad generalizations I perceived in the #MeToo movement (which she references throughout the book, as it was written during that timeframe). This gave the book a profound liberal political leaning, and frankly that turned me off. It might’ve contributed to my skipping paragraphs. Our current politics, and its associated divisiveness, I avoid deliberately on behalf of my anxiety. I recognize many will find this decision monstrous in itself; it is each person’s duty to participate, right? Well. The potency of Dederer’s politics and misandry in this book were distasteful to me, as an independent.


Ultimately, though, Dederer does achieve the perspective that I, as someone who recognizes the monstrous in myself and therefore refuse judge others, would hope:

That is: Love is not reliant on judgment, but on a decision to set judgment aside. Love is anarchy. Love is chaos. We don’t love the deserving; we love flawed and imperfect human beings, in an emotional logic that belongs to an entirely different weather system than the chilly climate of reason. (257)

Her thesis, then, is to love whatever art you love, and see the artist as a whole, flawed, monstrous human capable of creating beauty. I love this message, and I’m glad it was the book’s takeaway. It is the same impulse that I have when approaching new friends. It has always bothered me when the people I encounter hide the monstrous parts of themselves. If a person cannot meet their own monstrosity with eyes wide open, how can I trust them to be true with me? Yes, Dederer. Nicely handled.


Dederer’s examples of monstrosity fascinated. Nearly a generation older than me at 15 years my senior, her cultural influences diverge from mine. Therefore, the beginning of each new chapter sent me furiously Googling artists’ names, some of whom I was familiar with, some I’d heard of before but didn’t know well, and others I’ve never known.


One such artist was Woody Allen. To my horror, I realized that for the past 30-odd years I had conflated Woody Harrelson and Woody Allen in my mind. Anyway, once I learned Dederer was such a fan of Allen’s, I suggested to my daughter that we watch Annie Hall together. Before I started the movie, I read to her about the atrocity Allen committed with his stepdaughter. The movie was, as Dederer insists, stained in the light of Allen’s biography. Every time Allen appeared with a younger and still younger woman in the movie, my daughter’s head snapped to look at me with wide, knowing eyes: “How old is that one?” When Rob talks about being with 16-year-old twins as he and Alvy hop into that yellow convertible in Hollywood, we both bokked like chickens, our hands flying to our faces in horror. Dederer is right about stains.


And, necessarily, everyone will see these stains differently based on their own worldviews and the atrocities they’ve encountered. Dederer freely admits this—and rightly so.


For example, Dederer spends a lot of time—like, a lot of time—badgering both Picasso and Hemingway. But in the back of my mind, perhaps because I have so little background knowledge of both men’s crimes, I balked at Dederer’s heavy-handedness in this. Sure, Picasso was a womanizer scumbag, but how can Dederer fail to mention the political and social impact of his work, Guernica, which I myself have witnessed thrice in Madrid’s Reina Sofia, where you must wade through a crowd five deep to approach the stanchion and see it unimpeded? Dederer gave Valerie Solanas half a chapter, even though she wasn’t technically an artist, precisely because of her political impact. Why overlook Picasso’s?


And as for Hemingway, Dederer comes so close—so close—to compassion. She even all but mentions his untreated mental illness. Yet she still implies the man was devoid of any virtue in a way that feels judgy, black-and-white, harshly critical, and unempathetic. I dunno. I see in a lot of Hemingway’s stuff a man who was deeply vulnerable and terrified of that vulnerability, so he created and maintained a façade. I see nothing in Hemingway but suffering and the violence that stems from suffering. That does not excuse his behavior; it explains it. Humanity is not pretty.


At moments, I wished there were more monstrous women in the book. For example, Dederer includes Virginia Woolf for her antisemitism—and while I agree that antisemitism is a problem, Dederer does not provide any textual evidence of Woolf’s antisemitism. Considering Woolf was married to Leonard Woolf, a Jewish man, I was startled to learn of Woolf’s antisemitism. I wished for evidence. But because Dederer did not provide it, I must now go hunt for it myself. In the meantime, my fuzzy brain does not want that extra homework, and so I cannot help but doubt Dederer. How many times have I jockeyed and joked with my friends who come from different countries, different ethnicities, out of love, not hate? How many times do I even jest with gay friends about their sexuality? I can’t help but wonder if Woolf’s antisemitism was misunderstood in some way…specifically because I do not know the context that surrounds it and I love Woolf too much to believe it.


And what about Anaïs Nin? Dederer admits that anyone reading the book would choose different artists to evaluate: that’s true. But if she’s going to align the title of monster with despicable men’s behavior, then why not apply that same behavior to women and attribute the same label? Nin had a husband on each coast. They did not know about one another. She lived in the fictional story of some monstrous man, secretly marrying twice, having two families, engaging in affairs. I suspect she even contracted HPV then died of cervical cancer. Is she exempt because she was so lovable? It sounds like her husband, when learning of her infidelity, forgave her because he loved her so deeply. Does being a total darling wipe clean the slate of monstrosity? Ultimately, Nin represents precisely Dederer’s final point: this woman was deeply loved despite (or perhaps even because of) her monstrosity.


On the subject of women’s representation by Dederer, I must add that hidden deep in the center of the book is a chapter about motherhood and monstrosity—a chapter that I adored because Dederer aligns it with her calling (my calling) as a writer. Dederer claims that the way women become monsters is by abandoning our children. I felt that. But then she tries to qualify abandonment, and things get a little hairy. Where do we draw the line when it comes to maternal abandonment? If I choose to be a stay-at-home mom and relinquish writing altogether, for my children, but am so unhappy that I become alcoholic, is that not still abandonment? Honestly, this section validated the time I spent reading the rest of the book. It was honest, true, hard, and real. Dederer speaks to me when she writes,

Art is often seen as voluntary, an item on a list of choices you’re making, a task that can be prioritized or dispensed with, depending on available resources at the time. An item to be balanced against the exigencies of family. But. If you are an artist and you always, always put your children’s needs first, eventually your own need will make itself heard and you will wonder, What would I have made in those lost years? You will wonder, Am I too late? (191)

But then, considering my decision to mother first, I rail at her, when she follows with this:

And you might be. Too late. You might have needed those years, when your kids were small. Just the way other works—lawyers, professors—also need those years if they are to have a career. And the way sill other workers need those years if they are to make a living. (192)

God, that made me so mad—so furious! I nearly threw my book. I hated Dederer for saying the thing that I know to be true because I’ve experienced it. I close my eyes and shake my head: it must still be worthwhile to try, right?


I don’t know how to end this. I wish I could leave it with that final question of the last paragraph, but that’s not an ending, it’s just a full stop. The truth I think we must take from this book is that we are all monsters; so who are we to judge the person that created the art? If you love the art, love the art! Just do it. Love it with your whole being. Learn from the artist, but dammit, let the art guide you to transcendence. Perhaps even to the sublime.

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