The year before I went to grad school, I moved in with my former professor and her much-older husband. He’d also been my professor, but — more importantly — he was a Great Man. This is not my subjective opinion but that of the Swedish Academy, which gave him a Nobel Prize in literature.
He was famed for his novels about roguish boys who grew up to be brilliant men, characters that did whatever they wanted in pursuit of their art regardless of other people’s feelings. And they were ultimately rewarded, just like their author, for the world loves a smart, charming, ambitious man.
As a child, I’d mostly read fantasy novels. My favorites featured girls who learn they’re magical and end up saving the world. But by high school, as a “serious” English student, I gravitated toward what was then considered to be “real literature.” These were books mostly by and for white men. My favorite English teacher referred to these authors and those who’d canonized them as “The Pale Penis People” with a slightly defeated smirk.
That said, I would later read the shit out of works like Portnoy’s Complaint and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man not only because they were filthy but also because their heroes, although male, were relatable to me: ravenous for life; barely contained; believing themselves at once too much and too little; and eager to experience everything they could see, touch, feel, and think.
As if to compete with these characters, I’d spent the first semester of freshman year going down the snake hole of nonstop partying and embarking on a side gig as a nightclub promoter. Tottering around on platform heels, I’d flirted, uneasily, with the kinds of men who flock to venues that let in 18-year-old girls. My experiences that semester were a grab bag of excitement and disgust but also a lot of boredom. The dudes weren’t very interesting — that’s why they liked women who couldn’t even buy themselves drinks. When the nights all started to run together, I finally realized I needed a change.
Being a brilliant woman wasn’t an oxymoron.
My sophomore year, I met the professor who first gave me direction. She didn’t appear to be much older than me. But whereas I felt (and probably looked) like a ragged, quivering mophead, she was confident — and without being brash, which was the only version of confidence I could pull off at that age. She was also unapologetically smart. My mother’s uncle had told my mother that “only ugly girls go to college,” which pissed her off so much she got a master’s degree, but it also meant she never left the house without lipstick. So while my mom was an amazing role model in many ways, her family left me well aware that being a girl meant one could be deemed “too smart” and therefore too masculine and threatening. At 19, I’d only recently learned I could push my cute into sexy. Did I want to give all that up by going full nerd?
This professor helped me answer that question by showing me that being a brilliant woman wasn’t an oxymoron. She was so feminine — gentle, empathetic, and kind — even if she didn’t always wear lipstick and could quote Beyond Good and Evil. I also noticed that the boy I had a crush on clearly had a crush on her. I’m ashamed to admit this, but at that time, having been surrounded my entire life by female relatives obsessed with weight and physical beauty, it was a revelation that maybe I shouldn’t want to be attractive to all men but only to the kind of men who liked women with both brains and bookcases. This epiphany was only further validated when I first learned that my brilliant professor was married to not just any man but a famous author.
Soon after this discovery, my mentor invited me and another student over for dinner. To be singled out like this made me feel incredible, and, if I’m honest, I was also excited to meet an actual Nobel laureate. Upon arriving, however, I learned that her husband wasn’t just “older,” as I’d thought, but really old, with a mind-boggling age gap of over 40 years between them.
Sitting at dinner, however, I got it. Her husband was entirely charismatic, and he filled his own space with absolute assurance. He was a man who did not doubt himself or his contributions to society; he knew he was a Great Man. Under that shrunken frame crackled the same energy that was so famously mesmerizing in his youth. I could see in him echoes of the characters I adored — this was someone who had drank life to the lees. No wonder he looked a bit battered around the edges.
My mentor also clearly cherished her husband, not only for the life they had in that beautiful house but also for the man she’d met twenty-odd years earlier, a disturbingly sexy sexagenarian who smiled from photos of the two of them in exotic locations all over the world.
If I was uncomfortable with their age difference, I suppressed my misgivings with the fierce loyalty of an unquestioning novitiate.
I first became a part of the household in my last year of college after they had a baby girl. My mentor was overwhelmed; my job was to cook. Later, I took on a new role: caretaker to the Great Man himself.
Mornings, when my mentor was busy with their toddler, I’d make the Great Man coffee — he insisted on it being cold-brewed using a Chemex and then heated in a water bath, the way Ralph Ellison had taught him. Later, I’d make lunch, and he’d often invite me to eat with him while he read the paper and I read something grim but important that my mentor had recommended. Oftentimes there’d be guests — other Great Men like Oliver Sacks and Philip Roth. They’d linger over lunch and into dinner, switching from water to wine as the evening encroached.
Needless to say, it was quite an education, and everyone in that house, especially my elderly charge, treated me with both courtesy and generosity. And yet, despite his kindness, I was beginning to suspect that in marrying a Great Man, my mentor had hitched her wagon to one of those impressive granite stallions rearing, majestic yet stationary, on a park plinth.
This hit home to me when, one morning, my Great Man looked at me very seriously and said, “You are full of unconscious knowledge.” At the time, I was thrilled. Later, however, I started to wonder about the layers of sexism he’d managed to smuggle into that would-be compliment.
I keep coming back to one particular memory. I was transcribing taped interviews between my Great Man and one of his equally great counterparts, Philip Roth, which could be subtitled Old Men Wistfully Remembering Behaving Badly. My multiply married Great Man was recounting his surprising faithfulness to my mentor’s predecessor, a woman who was, by all accounts, as brilliant, complicated, and passionate as he was. And yet, he credited this marital integrity not to respect for their partnership or devotion to her but to the fact he was too old at that point to cheat. In the tapes, Roth laughed uproariously at this admission, a laugh I’d come to know well and a laugh that is still that of his famous character Mickey Sabbath in my imagination. It was a laugh of commiseration, and Roth said something about knowing the feeling.
What does it mean that my mentor — a woman with intellectual gifts of her own — wound up devoting her life to a Great Man?
Later, I would write about Roth for my doctoral thesis. I knew women weren’t supposed to enjoy his fiction and indeed still aren’t. I didn’t care. I’d never seen myself in his admittedly problematic female figures. I lived through the protagonists: people who grabbed the candle of their own lives firmly in the middle so they could light both ends ablaze.
Through my studies, I began to understand that there were, indeed, traces of misogyny laced through these books. But one of the reasons I was still so drawn to them when much of literary culture had moved on was that I could learn so much about the soil from which these biases against women were grown.
For me, these books illuminate how Great Men are part of a system that places masculinity and whiteness at the center of a universe in which the rest of us can only be orbiting planets, exaggerating their magnificence with our own diminutive size and clockwork revolutions. No wonder my mentor’s husband, a man whose brilliance cannot be denied and who was himself an immigrant and a religious minority, could also remain entirely confused by feminism and once famously asked whether Africa had produced any truly great artists.
These worst tendencies sat alongside his genius, his generosity, and his remarkable imagination because they all grew from the same soil. In that soil, immigrant energy and the empathy of an outsider mixed, chaotically, with patriarchal religious traditions and a culturally accepted racism so endemic that even those who’d experienced prejudice couldn’t help but absorb their own bigotries. In other words, the environment that fed his imagination also curtailed that very same imagination with demarcations blindingly obvious to those he dismissed and yet completely invisible to his own eyes.
What does it mean that my mentor — a woman with intellectual gifts of her own — wound up devoting her life to a Great Man? That she channeled so much of her own creative energy into setting up a magnificent space that revolved around his needs, stuffed with people waiting on him, physically, emotionally, and intellectually? And that those people included me? I told myself that my purpose in keeping him fed and watered and distracted wasn’t to serve him; I was doing it for her — so that she could take a nap or go to yoga or take their daughter for a walk.
And maybe I was also hoping I could somehow carve out enough space for her to be the brilliant individual I still looked up to rather than an irascible old man’s wife.
Immediately after finishing my doctorate — and right before I, too, became a professor — I began writing my own books. To do so, I turned away from literature and back to popular fiction. My books are never going to win a Nobel Prize. They’re fantasy novels, and they’re about women. Women who think they’re average until they are tested and realize they’re extraordinary, magical even, and they save the world.
My genre (specifically, urban fantasy) often features a vampire love interest, and my first books are no exception. If you’ve read Twilight, you know the trope: centuries-old man falls for a woman who is comparatively a zygote in age. She’s overwhelmed by his knowledge, his aristocratic good looks, and the stock portfolio he’s had actual human lifetimes to build.
Problematically, he also literally feeds off his girlfriend.
When my character Jane’s own vampire tries to force her into abandoning her life, which he considers small, she finally confronts what it means to be with a man who assumes he is more important than she is.
Most vampire romances end with (spoiler alert) the female character happily abandoning her human existence. But my protagonist rejects her suitor’s ultimatum. “I couldn’t give him my whole life,” she explains to a friend, “and that’s what he wanted from me. He wanted everything, and I wanted him to love me for what I had already offered.”
After this book was published, people close to me gently pointed out that maybe I was working through my own feelings about my experience living with a Great Man and my one-time mentor, who had sublimated so much of herself into her marriage.
I denied it at first. My mentor, after all, doesn’t deserve my judgment. Who was I to second-guess her life? Then again, maybe the Great Man was on to something after all.
Maybe I am full of unconscious knowledge.