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Katha Pollitt: 'Learning to Drive' in Public

Political columnist Katha Pollitt gets personal in a new collection of essays. Learning To Drive and Other Life Stories covers a range of topics, from Web-stalking a cheating boyfriend to what she learned about her parents using the Freedom of Information Act.


Other segments from the episode on November 8, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 8, 2007: Interview with Katha Pollitt; Review of the film "Threepenny Opera."


DATE November 8, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Columnist Katha Pollitt on her new collection of
essays, "Learning to Drive"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Katha Pollitt, is best known for her political columns written from
a feminist perspective in The Nation. Her new collection of personal essays
starts with a couple of confessions. When she was writing this book, she
suspected she was the only 52-year-old feminist who couldn't drive.
Confession two: The man she'd lived with for seven years had secret
girlfriends and, when their relationship ended, she stalked him on the
Internet. Pollitt's new collection of essays is called "Learning to Drive."

Let's start with a reading from the chapter "Web Stalker." This passage takes
place just after her ex has moved out. I'll let Pollitt set up the rest.

Katha Pollitt, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to read an excerpt of your
essay "Web Stalker." But just set this excerpt up for us.

Ms. KATHA POLLITT: Well, in this passage, I'm looking around the empty walls
of my apartment, wondering which of the pictures that are now no longer there
were painted by women that my ex-boyfriend has slept with. And one of the
pictures he had left, and this is about that.

(Reading) "I called her up and told her I had belatedly come to conclude that
my boyfriend had had affairs during our years together and I didn't want to
keep her picture if she had slept with him. `I never saw his genitals,' she
said cheerfully. She just mooned around with him in coffee shops. He had
told her that I accepted his need for other women, so it didn't seem fair to
hate her. Besides, she turned him down. I left her picture up in the
bathroom, next to the towel rack.

"Still, it astonished me that she believed that business about my permitting
his philandering. The only people who seem to know such women firsthand are
the men who are cheating on them. You never hear a woman say, `Whatever
George wants is fine with me. I just want him to be happy.' No woman has ever
passed onto another the riveting news that Miriam understands that Joe needs
variety. It's only men who seem to profess this bit of intimate knowledge,
which apparently is so instantly credible, so obviously true, that no one ever
asks the woman herself about it.

"What was it about me, I wondered, that made people accept this story?
Perhaps I emitted a sort of wan victim aura, like someone sitting alone in a
Greek diner. Or perhaps people just couldn't believe I was so oblivious.
After all, I was intelligent. I was a New Yorker. I was alive. But then,
how well does anyone really know anyone else?"

GROSS: And that's Katha Pollitt reading an excerpt of her new series of
personal essays.

Did this kind of scare you or make you wonder how well do you know anybody you

Ms. POLLITT: Well, yes. Don't you wonder that all the time?

GROSS: I do. I do.

Ms. POLLITT: Yes. In fact, one of the themes in this book is not knowing
people that you think you know. For example, my mother was a secret drinker,
and I didn't realize that when I was growing up. So I think I do have a sense
that people are very mysterious, including myself.

GROSS: Now, it's really interesting that you decided to write these personal
essays, particularly ones like the one you just excerpted, which is about
finding our your boyfriend was cheating on you with several other women, and
then Web stalking him, you know, going to every Web site, using every search
engine you could think of to search out information about him that you might
not have already known. And I think some women thought, like, `Well, how
could this be? Katha Pollitt is a well known feminist. So how can her life
have an imperfection like this? How can a feminist like she not have realized
that her boyfriend was doing this?' So did you have any reservations about
writing this personally about a really difficult period of your life where you
were kind of going to extremes to figure out what happened?

Ms. POLLITT: I did have a lot of trepidations about publishing this because
it was personal, because various friends of mine told me that I would, you
know, be attacked for it. But, you know, if you're a writer, you want people
to see what you write, and I found it so interesting and exciting to do this
work that I, in the end, decided that I wanted the world to see it. And there
was another reason, too, which is this story that I tell is a very common
story. It's not so unusual for women--or, for that matter, men--to find that
they have been living a relationship they didn't know they were in. And I
thought, well this is interesting. This can be sort of, you know, helpful and
useful to people to see that we're all...(unintelligible)...human beings and
we all mess up a lot, and you can make a story out of it, you can go on. I
thought it was good.

GROSS: Yeah. You know, the story about you have a boyfriend cheating on your
is a kind of staple of a certain type of women's literature and women's
magazine and so on. How did you figure out what kind of tone you wanted to
tell your version of it? Because, I mean...

Ms. POLLITT: Well, you know...

GROSS: You weren't writing in that language, you know, `how to keep your

Ms. POLLITT: The typical structure for a women's magazine story is a
recovery narrative. And in American literature now, you can tell the most
horrible things about yourself, right? Either you're a heroin addict, you're
a sex worker--not that those things are so horrible, but let's just say--as
long as the arc of the story is `I used to be bad and now I'm good; I used to
be sick and now I'm well.' But what you can't do is really present, in a kind
of full, detailed, emotional way, what it feels like to be in a ordinary but
not good, loser situation and just tell what it was like. There has to be a
moral in American literature. This is one of the big problems with it. And,
you know, because in that story it didn't say, `And then I suddenly became
stronger than ever and more determined to go out and fight for all women,'
that was attacked.

And I think also that the story is written in a very intense style. It begins
by saying, you know, `For a while, I went a little crazy.' Now, I didn't go
crazy. That was a way of talking about the intensity of this time, but I was
never non compos mentis just for a second. But some people who, you know, if
you don't get the tone of the story and the humor of the story, they would now
think, `Oh, my goodness. Now Katha Pollitt is describing how she really lost

GROSS: Well, you know, you say early on in your relationship, your
now-ex-boyfriend said `Maybe I'm not cut out for monogamy.' Now, how many
women have heard that from men?


GROSS: And how many famous songs sing about that, you know? That's such a
staple of American popular culture, you know? The rambler, man who can't be
tied down, who's heels are a-wandering, and so on. So how did you respond to

Ms. POLLITT: I said, `Oh, well, you know, fidelity is very important to me,
and I can understand if that's not the way you want to live, but that's the
way I have to live. And the person I live with will have to live like that,
blah, blah, blah.' You know? And the fact is that if somebody ever says, you
know, `Sometimes I feel I'm not cut out for monogamy,' you should believe
them. You should believe them.

But, you know, women have this thing--I don't like to speak in generalizations
about men and women, although I do it as we all do--but I do think women have
this penchant for ramblers and rovers. A lot of women do. And I've thought a
lot about this and I write about this in one of the stories, that part of it
is you think you can tame them, and that would be so great. That would show
how wonderful you are and also how intense the love must be that could conquer
that, right? But I came to the conclusion that there's another reason, and
that's that you want to be them. You want to be that person. You want to be
that rambler and rover, but, for various reasons, you don't let yourself do
that, you repress that part of yourself. But if you can be with a person
who's like that, that's, in a way, a way of acquiring that characteristic. So
I think that women who are attracted to men like that often have that side of
themselves that they've suppressed.

GROSS: Are you describing yourself?

Ms. POLLITT: Maybe. I don't know. I'll have to find out as life goes on.
I'm married again, so I'd better not have that quality.

GROSS: One of the things that's become, like, a little controversial in
reviews is that you really Web stalked your ex-boyfriend and some of the women
he had affairs with. And you used all the search engines, you say you tried
to break into this e-mail. Would you describe the kind of searches that you
did and some of the more surprising things that you came up with?

Ms. POLLITT: Well, you know, I sometimes say that if I had called this story
"Googling My Ex-Boyfriend," nobody would talk about it. It's the word "Web
stalker" that does sound so ominous and science fiction-y, right? And

GROSS: And obsessive and out of control.

Ms. POLLITT: And obsessive and all like that. But actually all I do in this
story is sit at my computer and google, which is not a very threatening thing
to do. The part about breaking into this e-mail, it's sort of like me saying,
you know, `Well, I tried to break into his apartment.' I mean, I would have no
idea how to do those things, and I have no idea how to break into somebody's

But I did find out--you know, you find out all these things, that, for
example, you can look back at academic conferences going back for 10 years,
and you can see who's on the panel with the person that you're interested in,
and I think, `Oh, yeah. And there's that best friend he had. And now, she
taught English, and this was a philosophy conference. What was she doing
there?' You know? Things that, at the time, they go right by you, but when
there's something, at least for a writer, when you see things written down,
sometimes they can be more real.

GROSS: My guest is Katha Pollitt. She writes about politics and
gender-related issues in her column in The Nation. Her new book is a
collection of personal essays called "Learning to Drive." We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Katha Pollitt. She's a
columnist for The Nation and has a new collection of personal essays called
"Learning to Drive."

One of your essays is about becoming a mother, which was how many years ago?

Ms. POLLITT: My daughter is 20 now.

GROSS: And you say you went from being a writer who worked at home to being a
stay-at-home wife. Was that an identity crisis for you?

Ms. POLLITT: Yes. Yes, it was. I was not prepared for the isolation of
being at home all the time. And I was not prepared for the way that mothers
are kind of pushed off to the side, you know? Like, I talk about going to be
post office with the stroller, and there was a sign in the post office that
says, `No strollers allowed.' I think, `What? The government doesn't want me
to get my mail?'

And the flipside of the post office was the playground, which was a lovely
little playground, and it's all the moms, and, of course, all the baby
sitters, and really no men at all. It was like mommy Purdah. And then on the
weekends, Terry, the fathers would come in and they would just be bustling
about like anything, trying to prove how devoted and fatherly they were. But
the tip-off would come at the end when they had to gather up the toys and
they'd be saying things like, `Now, Justin, is this pail yours? This yellow
pail?' You know? And the mothers would be looking at them with cut eyes,
saying, `Ah, yeah, faker. What a phony.'

GROSS: You write that "Motherhood was such an intense experience. It was so
important, so necessary. It places you at the hot center of life, like a coal
in fire. At the same time, it marginalized you totally." How did it make you
feel marginalized?

Ms. POLLITT: Well, in the ways I've been describing, but also, you know, I
found that people didn't ask me what I was working on anymore because, of
course, being a mother is enough work for anybody, but also what if you
weren't working on something? That might be sort of an embarrassing question
to ask.

GROSS: Well, it's really...

Ms. POLLITT: So better not to go there.

GROSS: It's really kind of hard to know which the right thing to do is.

Ms. POLLITT: Yes. No, I think it's a very fraught time in the lives of a
lot of women. I do talk in the piece about gender republicanism, which is
something I think isn't discussed enough, which is that you can along as a
childless couple and you feel that the relationship is very equal. And it is.
But the reason that it's equal is because it's not stressed. There's lots of
time. There's enough money. There isn't a fight for who gets their work
done, who gets to go to the store for cat food and get out of the house for
half an hour.

But when you have a baby, a lot of the unintentional paths you've taken to
where you are become visible, and then it turns out to matter whose job has
the health insurance. Who's the freelancer? Who's the free spirit? Who
wants to try something new? And who is the person who just wants to keep
pretty much doing what they were doing before? All those things can turn out
to be very important, and they push people toward a more conventional marriage
that can feel inevitable. But what they really mean is not that it's
inevitable, but it's overdetermined. It's sort of like World War I. There
are so many things pushing the woman to be the one who stays home, pushing the
man to be the one who pours on steam at work, that it can seem like there's no
other choice. But if you look back, you've kind of put yourself there. And
society has put you there.

GROSS: You know, you say in your book that you never would have had your
daughter if it hadn't been for the women's movement. You say, "From what I
saw growing up, becoming a mother was the dead end of being yourself." And I
thought that's really interesting because the stereotype a lot of people have
of feminism is that it turns women away from becoming mothers, that fewer
women became mothers because of feminism. So how did feminism work the
opposite way for you and make you want to have a child?

Ms. POLLITT: Well, what I saw when I was growing up was a lot of women on my
little street in Brooklyn who were seething with unused energy. I would put
my mother in that category. My mother wanted to be a writer, and she had me
when she was 24. She'd gone to law school, she'd dropped out right after she
got married. She had a lot of potential that, because of the time she lived
in, remained unexpressed. And she was a working woman, too. She sold real
estate in Brooklyn. But that street was full of angry women who were going a
little bit crazier every year, and that's my memory of the '50s and the early
'60s. And I think we've forgotten all that. There was a reason why Betty
Friedan's book was so successful.

But what feminism says is you don't have to do it like everybody else. You
know? You and your husband can work out your own--or your not husband, you
and whoever, or you and just yourself, can make up your own way of being a
mother. It doesn't have to all be scripted by society. And you can keep
working, you can write, you know, you can throw away the script and make your
own life. That's what feminism said to me. And I had to see a lot of my
friends doing that before I even believed it. I had Sophie when I was 37.
Most of my friends had already had their children, and I had to watch them.
So yes, they still had a good relationship with their husband. They're not
going all the cooking and cleaning. They're continuing to be doctors and
editors and all the things they were doing before. And maybe I can do that,

GROSS: You know, as I mentioned, one of your essays is about becoming a
mother. Another of the essays in your new book, "Learning to Drive," is about
your parents and finding out that they were communists, and what all the
implications of that were. And, you know, your parents had belonged to the
Communist Party, they subscribed to The Daily Worker. Your father was a
lawyer, and you say about him, "Like a lot of lawyers in the party, my father
combined uncritical devotion to the imaginary Soviet Union in his head with a
passion for the rights and the Constitution straight out of the ACLU charter."
Can you talk a little bit more about the contradictions that you thought your
parents embodied in their embrace of the Communist Party?

Ms. POLLITT: Well, it was a contradiction, and it was--their minds ran on
parallel tracks. And I say, you know, some people might say it was cynical,
because my father was not the only party lawyer, that the party was full of
brilliant lawyers who did wonderful work for civil liberties and civil rights
and for the First Amendment and helped make our country more free, something
Stalin would not have approved of. But what I say is that they're a bit like
Christians who believe in miracles and surgery. Their minds run on parallel
tracks. They believe what they believe while they're believing it. And I
think they were utterly sincere in both halves of their mental world.

GROSS: You were in college when you found out your parents had belonged to
the Communist Party. Was that a surprise to you?

Ms. POLLITT: Well, actually, no, I had always known. It's just there are
things you know without anybody saying the words. And I grew up in the
McCarthy era, and you were pretty careful about the language you used. In
fact, it was only recently that I've been able to say that about my own
parents, you know, who are dead, just because you do grow up in this way, and,
well, you know, you don't want to put that out there. But when I got my
parents' FBI files, that was a very revelatory moment in different ways for
each of them.

What I saw about my father was really how brave he was, and that he had really
chosen his path. You know, he was blacklisted. He came from a family of
lawyers who had worked for the government, and he couldn't do that. You know,
he told me once, `I would've loved to have been just like uncle George and
worked for the Department of the Interior.' He couldn't do that. He ended up
in solo practice. But what I saw in his file was that he had chosen his path.
There were key moments where he didn't give information, he refused to tell on
people. And that had consequences. And what I also learned, Terry, is how
early the FBI was--talk about stalking--they were stalking him from high
school on. It's pretty amazing.

GROSS: So what are some of the things that you learned about your mother from
her Freedom of Information Act FBI file?

Ms. POLLITT: Well, the big thing I learned was that my mother had had an
illegal abortion when I was about 11 years old. This was something I had had
no inkling of. And...

GROSS: It's kind of amazing finding out something really personal about your
family like that from an FBI file.

Ms. POLLITT: Well, it is. And when I confronted my father with this, he
said, `I wonder which of her women friends informed on her.'

GROSS: Katha Pollitt is a columnist for The Nation. Her new collection of
personal essays is called "Learning to Drive." She'll be back in the second
half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Katha Pollitt. She
writes a political column from the feminist perspective in The Nation. Her
new book is a collection of personal essays called "Learning to Drive and
Other Life Stories."

You know, we talked earlier about what it was like for you when you became a
mother. Your daughter's now 20. This may or may not be too personal, and I
don't know how comfortable you are talking about your daughter, but do you
think that there are generational differences between you and your daughter
when it comes to women's issues?

Ms. POLLITT: Well, my daughter told me that in her freshman sociology
class--she goes to Wesleyan--the professor asked the feminists to raise their
hands, and my daughter was one of two students who did. And that's kind of
interesting because Wesleyan is a very liberal, progressive school. They're
very into gay liberation, issues of transsexuality, issues of sexuality in
general. So I think for a lot of women that age, they're sort of caught
between feminism as a completed project--it won, they can do anything, they
can be anything--and all those issues, those body image issues, the eating
disorder issues, the intense pressure to be hot 24/7 that I think some of them
don't quite identify as a feminist issue. But it is a feminist issue.

GROSS: And why do you see that as a feminist issue?

Ms. POLLITT: Well, because if you spend all your energy looking hot 24/7,
first of all, you're spending an awful lot of time on that that you could be
using to do a lot of things that are more productive. I mean, at 18 or 19 or
20, you look hot whatever you do. You know, you look hot in a paper bag.
And, you know, you don't see the guys doing this. You know, you go on
Facebook, Terry, and it's amazing because what you see is the girls look very
fancified. They look sort of like call girls almost, and they're very proud
to look very sexual. And the boys look like these sort of drunken morons, you
know, with their underwear hanging out, and they're holding these cups of
beer. And you just think, `How are these people ever going to get together?'
You know? But they will.

GROSS: You write, "These days, feminism's motto is, `You go, girl.' Anything
is feminist as long as you, quote, `choose' it." Why do you have choose in
quotation marks?

Ms. POLLITT: Because we make our choices in a social matrix that we may not
always acknowledge. For example, let's say you choose to have breast implants
and your reason is that it will boost your self esteem. Well, why does having
bigger breasts boost your self esteem? Why, in particular, does getting big
plastic breasts boost your self esteem more than, say, learning a foreign
language, taking a trip to an exotic place, raising money for a worthy cause,
finding out by reading the newspaper what's going on in the world, etc.?
You've invested yourself in your breasts, but you could have invested yourself
in something else. And the reason you chose breasts rather than something
else is not a choice that fell from the sky. It came from the society you see
around you, what you see women getting attention and praise for.

GROSS: Well, this leads to a perplexing subject which you address in the
book, which is that some women who you know who are serious about their
feminist, you know, their feminist beliefs and everything have had cosmetic
surgery. And I think a lot of women have very mixed feelings about all of
this. And would you just think out loud for us a little bit about what
plastic surgery and the other kind of self-conscious issues about having your
body age in a visible way, what that means to you and how you see it.

Ms. POLLITT: Well, I've sort of decided to become an old...(unintelligible).
I think I'm making pretty good progress on that. I think that I would be very
careful about doing something that--anything that was painful, anything that
had a risk of serious harm or death. I mean, remember Olivia Goldsmith,
author of "The First Wives Club" and many other quite amusing, popular novels,
and she had plastic surgery and she died. And if you see pictures of her, she
looked fine. She was only in her early 50s. So I feel like if people--people
should do what they want and people should be happy, but maybe if we could
just sort of think a little more about why the things that they think make
them happy are those things instead of something else.

And I find, too, if you see people who have a lot of plastic surgery, they
look like people who've had a lot of plastic surgery, don't they? And to me
they--I just, I don't know, I'm sort of nature girl. I like the way people
look when the lines of their lives and feelings are in their faces.

GROSS: Now, I should mention here, as you say in your book, you put on 25
pounds during the seven years you were with the now-ex-boyfriend...

Ms. POLLITT: He was a great cook.

GROSS: ...who cheated on you.

Ms. POLLITT: He was a fantastic cook.

GROSS: And have you kept that weight or taken it off?

Ms. POLLITT: Oh, it comes and goes. It's going to go. But, you know, my
aversion to exercise probably doesn't help matters. I've never been able to
get into that. I always think, `Oh, no, exercise. I could be reading a book.
I could be e-mailng my friends. I could be googling something, learning
something.' So probably I'm never going to be pencil thin and elegant.

GROSS: Well, here's my question. During that period when you put on the 25
pounds, did you intellectually decide not to care about that, and did your
real feelings match what you thought you should be feeling?

Ms. POLLITT: I intellectually decided not to care about it most of the time,
but what was really happening was I was becoming depressed. I was becoming
depressed, because if you're in a relationship that has a lot of deception in
it, you don't know--you may not know that at any level, but there are things
about it that are down-putting of you. And that kind of percolates in at a
subconscious level. And I think I was quite unhappy and had given up on
certain areas of myself. But, you know, the minute I was alone again, it all
came back, and that was what was really great.

GROSS: My guest is Katha Pollitt. She writes about politics and
gender-related issues in her column in The Nation. Her new book is a
collection of personal essays called "Learning to Drive." We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Katha Pollitt. She's a columnist for The Nation. Her new
book is a collection of personal essays called "Learning to Drive."

I'm going to quote you again. You write, "The old style feminism could be a
real joy killer. Once you say the personal is political--which it is--it's
hard to find a stopping place on the slippery slope that ends in Birkenstocks
and vegan lo mein."

So where do you draw the line for yourself?

Ms. POLLITT: Well, I'm very carnivorous, although I feel sorry for animals.
And maybe someday I'll be a better person and not be so carnivorous, but my
grandfather was a butcher and I grew up eating steak every night. And I like
pretty clothes. I mean, I like some feminine things. I don't think that
being a feminist means you have to give that up. But, you know, for me, I
guess the way I get out of this is that feminism is about changing society.
It's not really a self-help program. It's not really a diet program or a
fashion guide. It's really about making a world in which women have more
freedom, have more power and have more choice and opportunity, and in which
men join them in equality rather than having the advantages of some of the
advantages they now have.

GROSS: Has your idea of what feminism is and how you should live your life as
a feminist changed a lot since the '60s?

Ms. POLLITT: Well, you know, in the '60s I was mostly a...(unintelligible).
I don't know that I even--feminism came along a little later. I remember,
though, I went to a consciousness-raising group exactly once, and it was held
in a church basement by an organization--wonderful organization called Bread
and Roses. And I guess I was a little younger than some of the other women
there, and they started talked about their sex lives and their marriages. I
was so horrified. I was a virgin. I ran. I ran as soon as I could and I
never went back. But I do think one of the things that feminism did for me
was it opened up certain kinds of conversations with other women I don't think
I ever would have had having to do with sex and love and very personal things.
But now it's very ordinary for women to talk about those things, but take it
from me, it was not ordinary in the '60s to talk about those things.

GROSS: Well, we've left a little bit of time so we could talk about your
chapter about the period of your life where you were a proofreader and copy
editor at a publishing house that published pornography. And this is a very
entertaining chapter. What did they publish and what was your job?

Ms. POLLITT: Well, this is what happens if you don't have good career plan
after you graduate from college. This was Bee-Line Books, which, back when
pornography was something you read--which does sound like it was all taking
place in a garret in the 19th century--published book after book after book
with titles like "Mistress of Mischief" and "The Orgy on the 23rd Floor" and
"Mandy's Climax." And, difficult as it may be to believe this, they actually
copy edited and proofread their manuscripts. The manuscripts were terrible!
They were the worst writing that you could possibly imagine. They were the
kind of writing that I say, you know, an engineering student would turn out in
a weekend if he wanted to go to Cancun for spring break. And there I was, the
earnest proofreader, you know, taking out this comma and changing the spelling
of this word. And it was it an interesting experience.

GROSS: Yeah. You say, "The authors of Bee-Line never complained if you fixed
up their prose a bit. They never said things like, `I used thrusting 10 times
in two pages on purpose. It's part of my rhythm.'"

Ms. POLLITT: Right. And I was a copy editor at Esquire while I was doing
this, and the contrast between the writers at Esquire, who were quite pleased
with themselves, shall we say, and these very humble porn writers was quite

GROSS: What were some of the most cliched phrases that you'd come across over
and over again, ones that you can actually say on the radio?

Ms. POLLITT: "His cylindrical redness." "Her teeming honeypot." And the
characters all had names like Brad and Chad, Tawny, Dawn, Linda; and they
would sort of forget--you know, the writers would be in this frenzy of typing
through the night--and they would sort of forget what organ was going in what
orifice. And you'd be reading along and saying, `Oh, no, wasn't Tammy called
Linda a few pages ago?' And then you'd have to go back. And it was very--it
was a lot of work, actually.

GROSS: Now, this is a period when some people and some women embraced
pornography as being sexually liberating and other women really opposed
pornography as being always demeaning to women. Did you have a political
stand on pornography when you were briefly working in the industry?

Ms. POLLITT: No, I didn't. This was a little before these debates started,
and it was still possible then to just see it as silly and a little bit
shameful and smutty, but just not very important. And Bee-Line, I should
stress, was very--it was sort of like the porn version of Harlequin romances.
They actually had rules that, you know, you couldn't have any little children,
you couldn't have any rape, you couldn't have any sadomasochism, you couldn't
be racist. And every book, I loved this, had to have characters, a location
and a plot. Which tells you something about the other pornography that didn't
have to have those things.

So while I was doing it, I didn't regard it as a bad thing to do.

GROSS: Did you find the books arousing? And if you did, did that make you
uncomfortable? Was that like OK with you? Or were they too badly written for
it to even to be an issue?

Ms. POLLITT: Well, you know, well, the remarkable thing about pornography is
that it is arousing. It's arousing even if you don't approve of it because
there's that very animal part of our minds, right, and our systems that just
is really interested in sex. So, yeah, you'd be reading this stuff and it was
really terrible, and then you'd think, `Oh, my God, that sounds great. Wait a
minute!' I mean, that's why people read pornography; they read it to become

GROSS: The opening essay in your new book is the title essay. It's called
"Learning to Drive" and it's about how, even in your 50s, you failed at
learning to drive. So are you still not driving?

Ms. POLLITT: No, I succeeded in learning to drive.

GROSS: You succeeded in learning to drive.

Ms. POLLITT: I passed it. I did. I did. I found a wonderful teacher and I
learned to observe. I mean, that's a story of female triumph--at a rather
late age, true--but I did pass my test with only 13 points off, and that was a
number of years ago, and I've been driving ever since.

GROSS: Do you drive a lot?


GROSS: You live in Manhattan, right?

Ms. POLLITT: Right. You don't really need a car in Manhattan. But I have
my license and that is what counts.

GROSS: So why did it have such symbolic value to you to actually learn how to

Ms. POLLITT: Because--and this was something that some feminists held
against me for revealing about myself and showing my feet of clay--I had
managed to spend an entire life--mostly living in Manhattan, where it doesn't
come up, but also in other places for the summer--getting men to drive me
around. First my husband drove me around, then my boyfriend drove me around.
And it was only, in fact, when I became involved with my current husband, who
can't drive because his eyesight is problematic, that it was finally, `OK,
Katha, it's you or nobody.' And then I had to grapple with any number of
fears, because the longer you take learning to drive the more realistic your
sense of the danger of it is. I mean, when you learn when you're 16, you feel
immortal, but by the time you're 50 you don't feel so immortal. So there was

And then I'm very mechanical-phobic in all kinds of ways that don't reflect
well on me as a feminist, right, because I should know how to do all these
things. But it also--you know, when you have to do something, you can usually
do it. And I finally had to do it, and I did it.

GROSS: OK. So your story on our interview ends with a message of

Ms. POLLITT: A message of empowerment, there you are. You go, girl.

GROSS: Because as you were saying before, you know, that the problem with
American literature now--you could have any problem you want to as long as in
the end you succeed and there's a message of empowerment. And it looks like
we've ended with one. I didn't plan it that way.

Ms. POLLITT: Oh, dear. I'll have to write another book where I dis-empower

GROSS: Well, I'm glad you can drive. That's a good, helpful thing.

Ms. POLLITT: I'll drive you anywhere you want to go, Terry.

GROSS: Thanks, but I got a car.


GROSS: Katha Pollitt, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Ms. POLLITT: Thank you so much, Terry, for having me.

GROSS: Katha Pollitt is a columnist for The Nation. Her new collection of
personal essays is called "Learning to Drive."

The groundbreaking Brecht-Weill musical "The Threepenny Opera" was made into a
film in 1931, and that film has just come out on DVD. Coming up, Lloyd
Schwartz reviews it. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Lloyd Schwartz on "The Threepenny Opera" DVD release

"The Threepenny Opera" revolutionized musical theater. Playwright and
lyricist Bertolt Brecht, composer Kurt Weill and actress Lotte Lenya created a
sensation when their show opened in Berlin in 1928. A couple of years later,
the great German director G.W. Pabst turned it into a movie, and Criterion
has now released it on DVD. Classical musical critic Lloyd Schwartz says
works as diverse as...(unintelligible)..."Lulu" and Stephen Sondheim's
"Sweeney Todd" would be inconceivable without it. Here's Lloyd's review.

(Soundbite of "The Threepenny Opera")

(Soundbite of singing in German)

Mr. LLOYD SCHWARTZ: "The Threepenny Opera" is an extraordinary mixture of
savage satire with some of the prettiest, most memorable tunes ever written.
Like Mozart's joke-y drama "Don Giovanni," the central character, Macheath,
known as "Mack the Knife," is also a kind of Don Juan, a sexual libertine who
can't resist any woman and whom no woman can resist. But instead of Mozart's
elegant aristocrat, Mackie is lord of the Soho underworld at the time of Queen
Victoria's coronation. He's got even the chief of police in his power.

He makes one big mistake, though: Instead of merely flirting with lovely
Polly Peachum, he marries her. And her father, who runs the powerful
syndicate of London street beggars, would rather his daughter were just
sleeping with this low-life than married to him, at least not until he becomes
a bank director, which is what finally happens to Macheath at the end of G.W.
Pabst's 1931 movie version.

The film includes some historically important performances. Polly is played
by the bewitching Carola Neher, who was supposed to be in the 1928 stage
premiere of "Threepenny Opera" but had to leave the cast to take care of her
tubercular husband. She died in 1942 at the age of 42 in a Soviet prison
camp. This is her only sound film.

Here she is in the song Polly performs on her wedding night, in a warehouse
for Mack's seedy henchmen. "A woman," she sings, "wants to be courted by
nice, successful men who don't smoke and have clean collars. But she should
go only just so far. And yet, some cigar-smoking no goodnik might come a
long, and suddenly she can't say no."

(Soundbite of "The Threepenny Opera")

(Soundbite of singing in German)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Pabst's film also preserves one of the most legendary
performances in theatrical history. Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill's wife, created
the role of Jenny, the prostitute who loves Macheath, betrays him to the
police, then helps him escape. Her great song is the chilling and
heartbreaking "Pirate Jenny," her nightmare fantasy of power. She dreams
she's commanding a battleship that comes into the harbor and fires on the
city. "Who should we kill?" her crew asks her. And she replies, succinctly,

(Soundbite of "Pirate Jenny")

Ms. LOTTE LENYA: (Singing in German)

(End of soundbite)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Almost every shot in the film is indelible, like the moment
when Macheath is trying to escape the police and passes a hooker. Their eyes
meet, but they continue in opposite directions. Pabst keeps the camera
focused on the empty street corner. A second later, they both return to that
corner and go off together. Pabst retains barely half an hour of Weill's
complete score, and yet what he keeps is so powerfully conceived we don't
really miss what's missing.

Criterion has done a splendid job restoring the original print. The two-disc
set also includes Pabst's even rarer French version, which, as often happened
in the early days of sound movies, was shot simultaneously but with a
different cast. The tone is very different: cheekier, more like a musical
comedy. Then it's fascinating to compare it to the German version with its
darker humor and performers who allow you to experience the full danger of
this unforgettable underworld.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and
teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed G.W.
Pabst's 1931 film version of "The Threepenny Opera," which has just been
released on DVD.

You can download podcasts of our show by going to our Web site,


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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