As the decade began, there were reasons to be optimistic: America had elected its first black president, and despite a global recession just two years earlier, the world hadn’t cascaded into total financial collapse. Obamacare, for all its flaws, was passed, and then came the Iran deal and the Paris climate accords. Sure, there were danger signs: the anger of the tea party, the slow hollowing out of legacy news media, a troubling sense that somehow the bankers got away with it. But then maybe the immediacy of social media gave some hope, at least if you listened to the chatter of the bright young kids in the Bay Area trying to build a new kind of unmediated citizenship. Maybe everyday celebrity, post-gatekeeper, would change the world for the better. Some of that happened. But we also ended up with the alt-right and Donald Trump, inequality, impeachment, and debilitating FOMO. How did we get here? Throughout this week, we will be publishing long talks with six people who helped shape the decade — and were shaped by it — to hear what they’ve learned. Read them all here.
Lady Oracle is both the title of a Margaret Atwood novel (1976, very funny) and the author’s unofficial epithet. Crack open a news source today and you’ll find something that Atwood speculated about a decade or three ago in one of her novels: lab-grown meat, environmental catastrophe, state surveillance, the diminishment of reproductive autonomy, antimicrobial clothes. Atwood isn’t thrilled about her reputation as a cheerful eschatologist and has pointed out that it rests on a misunderstanding of dystopian fiction, which, she argues, isn’t a prediction of the future, dummies, it’s an interpretation of the present. In other words, If you’re not seeing what I’m seeing, you’re not paying attention. Just as she squirms away from the mantle of prophesy, Atwood rejects ideological labels, most institutional affiliations, and the idea that a writer is necessarily a moral agent. Some labels that do safely apply to her include poet, woodswoman (she grew up in rural northern Quebec), troublemaker, palm reader, student of history, inventor (look up LongPen), stickler for precision, and — on a frigid Monday morning at a hotel with “weird 1970s décor,” in her words — wearer of earrings shaped like mini-ducks.
Earlier this year, Kylie Jenner threw a birthday party with a Handmaid’s Tale theme.
Oh, Kylie Jenner. I had to look up who Kylie Jenner was, I’m so old.
What, if anything, did you make of that?
My readers deal with those things. They notice them before I do. I expect that Kylie Jenner heard from some of them along the lines of “We appreciate the thought, but you kind of missed it.” There were some themed tequila. People often do this in a very well-meaning way; they’re not trying to be unpleasant. It has been the occasion when I’ve been speaking somewhere and I will be greeted with Handmaid’s Tale cupcakes because the person doing the catering is such a fan. Will I turn up my nose at such cupcakes? No, I will not. I will not do that.
Will you eat the cupcake?
That depends on my relationship to sugar at the moment. If I were in a sugar-eating moment, I would certainly eat the cupcake. I have a collection of artifacts: I have LEGO handmaids and commanders made by the children of one of the publicists in London. I’ve got some knitted chickens from a pro-choice outfit in Texas that knits chickens for charity. She made me some themed knitted chickens. First one is called “the Henmaid’s Tale.” It has an outfit. I have a piece of honey-point embroidery done before the embroiderer had read The Testaments or even knew about it. It says F*CK AUNT LYDIA. So there are these things that appear, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s people playing in the sandbox. I’m happy to have people playing in the sandbox, although sometimes they get a little off, but that is to be expected. There are people right now writing military histories of Gilead, and I look forward to reading them because I’m not going to do that.
The event of this decade that strikes me as most Gileadean is the Jeffrey Epstein case. A powerful man with government connections inveigling women into a ring of sexual slavery. I can picture Commander Epstein in the pages of Handmaid.
Epstein is more of a ’90s story. So in the ’90s, Cold War ends in ’89, and then we’re told, “End of history, and the world is going to go shopping because global capitalism has triumphed.” I think Epstein is more of a Playboy type of story. Whereas Gilead is much more virtuous, puritanical leaders. They know what’s good for you, but behind the scenes, you have this other thing going on, which generally is the case with those kinds of setups.
I have to imagine that there were at least one or two commanders who didn’t subscribe to the lofty ideals.
No, that’s why they have Jezebels. But it’s a behind-the-scenes type of thing. So you quite frequently have, in totalitarianism, [situations] like that. These rules are for everybody else, but we can have our dacha, our imported French wine, we can have our orgies, we can have whatever we want.
It’s just that other people can’t; they have to live virtuously and obey our command. The popes were notorious in the Renaissance, of course. Virtue for everybody else, but they were quite lavish and had mistresses and children they then appointed to church positions. We’d call it abuse of power.
I’ve heard of it. Upon its publication, some readers saw The Handmaid’s Tale as ominous, and some absorbed it as more fantastical. I don’t know what the ratio was.
It’s divvied up by country. The English basically went, “Jolly-good yarn,” because they couldn’t see this as a possibility for themselves. They had their religious civil war in the 17th century. It’s not that they won’t have a civil war, but it won’t be about that. Canada, in its nervous way, said, “Could it happen here?,” which Canada is always saying about just about everything. The States split in two, with some of them saying, “Don’t be silly. It could never happen here,” and others, particularly on the West Coast, saying, “How long have we got?,” and spray-painting the Venice Beach Wall with THE HANDMAID’S TALE IS ALREADY HERE. So it’s split like that, and guess who won? But we’re not there yet, or you and I would not be having this conversation.
Of course. Following 9/11, The Handmaid’s Tale began to be more generally accepted as augural and you as clairvoyant. Is that a rewarding kind of recognition?
Not particularly. 9/11, but also the 2008 financial meltdown. When people are scared and they think things are falling apart, they get more conservative, and they’re willing to trade civil liberties for somebody taking control. That’s usually how these people get in. They want Mr. Fix-It, and Mr. Fix-It comes with a price. What isn’t rewarding is to have been “right.” If I could trade, I would trade it. But I cannot trade. It’s a false choice. Since I can’t have unchallenged liberal democracy at the moment —
Sort of an “I told you so” with a tear running down your face.
Well, I don’t even go “I told you so,” because it’s not prophecy. It’s a what-if story. That’s what all those kinds of books are. So here’s a blueprint of a house. You have to see the blueprint before you move into the house. Is this the house you want to live in? Take a look around. Are there enough bathrooms? Do you like the wallpaper? But you can change it. It’s still just a blueprint. There’s a very good book by Madeleine Albright called Fascism: A Warning. By “fascism,” she has a pretty broad definition. What she really means is totalitarianism. But she kind of lays it out on a plate. Here’s the warning signs, here’s what you should be watching for, and here’s what they all do.
And does she prescribe a course of action?
Well, the courses of action are kind of like detour signs: “DON’T GO HERE.” So what I say to people when they say, wringing their hands, “What can we do?,” I say, “How about voting next time?” They guiltily applaud because they didn’t. They were too pure to vote. They didn’t like either of the candidates.
For young people, one indicator of whether they vote is whether their parents voted.
Oh really? So like, “Voting isn’t a thing we do in this family”?
Right. They don’t identify as a voter, or their parents are people who came from countries where voting was dangerous.
Well, then that takes a lot of door-to-door, which is how they won in Pennsylvania. A lot of on-the-ground door-to-door. Back in the olden days, the really olden days, this is really olden —
How olden are we talking?
1961. You took the Census manually, so it was a good student job. You signed up to take the Census, and you had this questionnaire and you went door-to-door. And one of my areas was high immigration. And people were afraid of me. They thought that I was going to report them for some unknown, unsuspected thing. You just had to explain to them very carefully, “This has nothing to do with politics. It’s just how many people. And nobody’s going to arrest you for living in this house.” I did get chased out of one house by an old lady with a cleaver. She had been cutting up some chicken in the kitchen. She was angry because I wanted to know her age. Very impertinent question. “Get out! You don’t need to know my age!”
Have you heard from readers of The Handmaid’s Tale or The Testaments who have lived in or are currently living in one of the world’s existing theocracies?
You betcha. Particularly people who have moved to this country or to Canada and are from families who made it out of those seats, so just anyone caught. “Handmaid’s Tale was the life of my mother and her sisters in Iran during the early days of that takeover.”
Is there a Handmaid’s Tale in Saudi Arabia?
Yep, there is, oddly enough.
In Yemen, in Sudan?
I can’t tell you about Yemen. It goes by language. So Arabic, yes. Farsi, yes. So yes, it is, but since I don’t read the languages, I cannot do a comparative rating of it, and I can’t tell you what, if anything, got changed or left out, because that can happen too. Oddly enough, it was translated into Russian in the days before they had signed the Berne Convention, which means they didn’t tell me about it, nor did they pay me anything. But suddenly up pops this Russian translation. But of course they were keen on it because they thought it said, “U.S. bad.” But that’s not actually what it said. “You see what they do? You see how bad religion is for you?”
Did you receive feedback from readers who said, “You got something wrong about repressive regimes — it was actually like this,” or “My experience was different in this way?”
No, not particularly. The thing about repressive regimes is that they all have their different outfits, and they may have different manifestations. For instance, in the USSR, abortion was the birth-control method of choice because they didn’t seem to have others. But they all have a view. I mean, some of them have; if you read the laws of some of them, they sound pretty good. It’s just that they aren’t implemented.
Was there anything you learned about repressive regimes after you finished Handmaid that you then worked into The Testaments?
I’m constantly learning. One of the things that we don’t go into in The Testaments is what would it be like for people to grow up thinking this is the way life is. And that would cover people such as children who are members of the Hitler Youth and grew up within it, children who were born after the USSR took over.
What was life like for them, and you can get a pretty good view of it in various people’s memoirs and this quite excellent book called The House of Government. It’s the biography of an apartment building in Moscow that was built by the Bolsheviks after they won. They built it on a piece of land called “the swamp,” which they had to drain. So building it was called “draining the swamp.”
They move into it. They start accumulating bourgeois artifacts and pianos and doilies, and then Stalin starts purging. And he purges the heads of government, and that is called “draining the swamp.” Does this sound in any way familiar?
The book is a very good account of what a moral panic looks like. Why millenarian ideologies usually end up having Armageddons and purges. You get an idea of what it was like for the children of the Bolsheviks, who didn’t grow up wanting to cut the throats of capitalists. They grew up reading French novels and taking piano lessons, and then their parents get sent to the Gulag. What happens to them then? So the idea that the totalitarian regime is terror all day, every day, for everybody isn’t true. It’s that that terror is always there. It could happen to anybody, but the rest of your life, you may be leading what appears to be a somewhat normal life. I recommend also The Death of Stalin.
The Death of Stalin the movie, with particular attention to the people who think they’re going to be arrested and shot at any moment. And also the Julian Barnes novel called The Noise of Time, which is about the Russian composer Shostakovich and what his life was like. Because he was one of those people who had a suitcase packed and waited by the elevator every night so that when they came to arrest him and shoot him, it wouldn’t disturb his family. And you know about Anna Akhmatova. So yes, lots of reading. I could do a shelfie if you like.
Another question about the swamps: In retrospect, the late Toronto mayor Rob Ford looks like a harbinger of normalized public corruption. Should Americans have paid more attention to the example he set?
It’s very hard to tell people what they should or shouldn’t have done because hindsight is 20/20. A lot of times, you just don’t see it coming. And the thing about him was he was so disorganized that he would not have been capable of organizing a coup, a takeover of democracy, anything on that scale. He was an addict. My theory is that he had to have fetal alcohol syndrome.
What makes you think that?
All of the symptoms. Look up fetal alcohol syndrome and then look up Crazy Town.
The first big feminist pop-culture moment of the decade was Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which blended feminism into a corporate-consumerist smoothie. Was that a positive contribution to women’s lives?
I do not know, because I’m sorry to say that I didn’t read it. I’m not the target market, because blending my corporate self into anything doesn’t apply. I don’t own any business suits, Molly. Not a one. Nor do I go to hairdressers, for obvious reasons. I do it myself and get the same effect.
What do you make of the high-profile women of the Trump administration?
I guess I would say, “What else is new?” It’s the old story. Hierarchies are hierarchies, so that at the top of the hierarchy [you] may have male commanders, but a woman affiliated with somebody at the top of the hierarchy is going to have more power, influence, money, and stuff than a man at the bottom. Who had more money and stuff: Queen Elizabeth I or a Tudor male ditchdigger? If that’s the train that’s got all the Champagne on it, a lot of people would prefer to be on that train.
I think many women —
Women are people.
Many women have an emotional response of revulsion, a kind of “gender traitor” response. Is that a naïve reaction to someone like Ivanka Trump or Kellyanne Conway?
What is naïve? Going back in time, looking around at Hitler’s entourage, there were a lot of women in it. Of people who participate, there are usually three motives. The first is they’re a true believer; No. 2, opportunists — this is the only game in town; therefore, we’re going to play this game because that’s the only hope of advancement. And the third is fear: “If I don’t do this, I will be punished in some way. I will be excluded, I will be killed, I will be jailed, I will be disappeared.”
In really thoroughgoing totalitarianism, fear is a big factor. In the America of today, it’s a factor but not as large a one. I don’t think we’re poisoning people with radioactive tea, but you would lose your job, be unable to get another one. You’d be blacklisted. That has certainly happened in this country. Those things are not to be discounted or sneered at, because they motivate a lot of people. And you don’t know what you would do until those are the choices offered to you. So are they wrong to be disapproving? No. Are they consigning these people to the category of nonhuman? That would be a mistake. Because this is human behavior. Usually it’s a bell curve, like everything else. Somebody who became an instrument of the totalitarian regime, had that opportunity not been offered, would probably have been an insurance salesman or running a vegetable store or something like that.
There’s four kinds of stories: extraordinary people in extraordinary times, extraordinary people in ordinary times, ordinary people in ordinary times, and ordinary people in extraordinary times. And if you wanted peace for life, you should vote for ordinary people in ordinary times. Handmaid’s Tale is ordinary people in extraordinary times. The book is. The television series is turning that ordinary person into an extraordinary person. And that too has happened. For instance, history of the French Resistance. There were two of those instances. One was called the Alliance. The Alliance was run by a woman who never got caught. It’s a pretty cliffhanging story. A number of her friends did, and they were killed. They almost got this woman, but, due to her size, she wiggled out through the bars of a window, ran away, and hid out.
For much of the generation younger than mine, President Trump’s election was the first time they’d witnessed the implosion of a seemingly robust and functioning Establishment. For my generation, it was 9/11. You were born during World War II, so you would have been quite young during the war. What was the first time you had a lived experience of social chaos?
We didn’t have a lot of social chaos during the war in Canada. In fact, we had a lot of fairly organized war stuff going on. Everybody had a Victory garden, everybody had rationing stamps — very fascinating to children because you could get a little book and stick them in. They had rationing stamps in the States, too. An old beau of mine got into deep trouble because he took all the rationing stamps as a child and licked them and stuck them onto the wall. There goes your sugar, milk, and butter. So social chaos, I think probably social chaos would have been the civil-rights movement and the assassination of John Kennedy. The Cuban Missile Crisis, when we all thought we were going to be blown to smithereens, in 1962. It didn’t create chaos, but it was a sort of scary event. I was living in Boston at the time. Boston, New York, and Washington, those were the places that we thought would get hit should those missiles go off. But the shocker was the assassination of Kennedy. It was, again, not social chaos, but it was a shocking event that signaled some sort of underlying weird something going on. I would say the civil-rights marches, the murders of people, murders in the South of civil-rights activists, that was very shocking. By social chaos, what I mean is Berlin being bombed. That was social chaos. The Blitz in London. But again, people were very organized. It’s astonishing how organized they were and how little social chaos there was. How much more you might have expected.
In 2018, a man killed ten people by driving a van down a busy street in Toronto. He identified as an incel — a word that sounds straight out of a Margaret Atwood novel.
Doesn’t it. Oh yes, this was not a phenomenon with which I was familiar, but I read up on it. It seems to have kind of petered away or what?
I think it’s still going strong.
4chan, is it?
Yes, among others.
Have you gone there, Molly?
What a brave girl you are.
“Incel” gives a name to something that has always existed, which is the old “women won’t have sex with me” complaint. The word allows these guys to form an ideology around it and to do horrific things ostensibly to advance that ideology.
I mean, if they wanted to have sex, there’s lots of it available, but they don’t want just any old sex. They want — what do they call them? It’s a woman’s name that’s supposed to mean sort of a model.
They only want pictures out of magazines to have sex with. They don’t seem to want actual people.
And you haven’t gone on 8chan and investigated.
Is it 8chan or 4chan?
I have not.
A piece of vintage technology that figures in The Testaments is the encoded microdot, which I became curious about and tried to purchase on eBay.
Did you want the dot, or did you want the camera?
I wanted the dot. I just wanted to see how small it was.
Very, very small.
All I could find were bolts of fabric printed with small dots, and then rifle sights, which are also called microdots, I guess. Did you get your hands on an actual microdot or camera?
No, but there’s pictures of them on the net if you go to Wikipedia, your friend and mine. We should all donate to it. Currently, only two and a half percent of people actually donate to it.
You donate to it.
How did you know that? They’ve got a list of donors to Wikipedia? Internet knows everything. I think if you use it, you should donate to it.
Have you ever edited a Wikipedia page?
No. I don’t think I would know how, quite frankly.
It’s pretty easy.
Maybe you can show me and I can go in and mess up the pages of people I don’t like.
It seems that we’re at the stage of the Me Too movement when a problem has been surfaced and recognized and its parameters debated. And the question is how or whether —
What is the problem?
Male sexual aggression.
Oh, that problem.
The question is how or whether this will translate into structural protections for women.
So here’s the two organizations that I support. One of them is called After Me Too. It proposes to supply an online resource telling you everything you need to know and identifying what you can do and that will be available to everyone, because a lot of the problem is unseen in that it happens to people who are not famous, and the people doing it don’t have a pedestal from which they can be toppled. I think a lot of people of high profile are now keeping their hands in their pockets. But if you don’t have that to lose, what then? What then for women who are not well paid, who need the job, who are in a position of really considerable weakness in that respect? The other one is called Equality Now, an international organization that works on changing the law, particularly in, well, in a lot of countries, really. Now changing the laws is not the only thing, but it is my belief that changing laws does change somewhat social attitudes because it sets the parameter of what people are entitled to as citizens. That kind of work is hard. It’s drudgery. It can take years to change these laws. You often have to go at it multiple times. You have to have the buy-in — not only women, but you have to have the buy-in of a certain number of men, enough men to swing it. So for instance, in Ireland, where I just was, they managed to change the law. They got this really repressive Eight Amendment repealed, and when I met some people doing that, they went very hard at that for years and years on multiple fronts. Part of the reason they were able to get it changed was the revelations that came out about these mother-and-baby homes with all these dead babies buried in the cistern. The other thing that changed it was this woman dentist who had pregnancy complications, knew she had them, and they didn’t do anything, and she died. 830 women a day die of childbirth complications. In Argentina, they had an almost successful bill — it was passed at the equivalent of the lower house here. Last year in December, I was in Argentina so I met with the people’s movement called Ni Una Menos, “not one less,” which was the huge movement there, and also in Brazil, protesting the murder of women at the hands of jealous boyfriends, etc. So I met with them, and I got to know them and have kept in touch with them. And there was a case in Argentina involving a woman, whose pseudonym was Belen, B-E-L-E-N, and she got put in jail. She had a miscarriage; she didn’t even know she was pregnant. She went to the hospital, she had a miscarriage. And the hospital staff called the police, and they arrested her for having an abortion and put her in jail. And it took two years of concerted activity by the women in the Ni Una Menos movement to get her out.
More than three-quarters of Americans would like Roe v. Wade to be upheld, yet 19 states have introduced restrictions or near-total bans on abortion this year. Was there a turning point when legislation began to diverge from public sentiment?
I think Republicans worked very hard at, No. 1, controlling education textbooks and, No. 2, getting in [to office] at the municipal and state levels.
Do you think it was possible to avert this turning point, or was it inevitable?
Hard to say, but nothing is inevitable. In my world, nothing is inevitable.
I don’t believe in predestination.
Do you think the Me Too movement has adequately galvanized people to turn to the drudgery of changing the law?
I think this has probably helped them. I would say that this was the making public of something that had been talked about for a long time with people not knowing really quite what to do. So it’s a wake-up call. But if all you have is a wake-up call, that’s it, the moment passes, the media loses interest, moves on. Something else becomes then the hot topic of the day. However, everything’s connected. There’s a really obvious connection between the welfare of women and girls and the climate crisis, for instance. It goes like this: climate crisis, famines, droughts, hurricanes, rising sea levels, less food, civil unrest, social unrest, wars, resource wars, water wars. Wars are terrible for women and girls.
The pink pussy hat from the Women’s March and the handmaid’s uniform offer two different ideas of visual protest. One is that we assert our femininity by wearing pink vaginas on our heads, and the other is that we demonstrate, symbolically, how bad it could get. Which do you think is a more effective tool of protest?
I have zero idea because we can only measure effectiveness by results. Let’s say that they’re both very visual and they both make their point. So why rule out one or the other? Going back a couple of elections, some people were knitting little cervixes and sending them to politicians.
Did you knit a cervix?
I did not knit a cervix. My knitting skills are a little bit rusty.
Protesters in handmaid cloaks appeared at the Brett Kavanaugh hearing. Did you watch the hearing?
Some of it.
What did you make of it?
I made of it the following: These kinds of stories are not unknown; these kinds of stories happen to young women. I’ve got news for you, Molly, it doesn’t happen to me anymore. There’s a bright light at the end of the tunnel. I’m never going to be aggressed by a drunken Brett Kavanaugh. I thought Congress missed their chance. I thought they should have asked him more about the drinking, because that was obviously untrue, but they were not allowed to go there. And the FBI investigation was very curtailed. They were directed basically not to talk to certain people. So to me — do you know what a stitch-up is, Molly?
All right, something for you to look up. It’s an English term. It means you’ve been framed, or that it’s been fixed. The fix was in. You know that saying “The fix was in”? Yes? Okay.
And the drinking should have been looked into because it was —
The question is, did this person lie to Congress? That was carefully tiptoed around. As soon as somebody asked him about his drinking, he had this explosion: “I like a beer.” That wasn’t the question. Were you ever blackout drunk? So one theory — and everything is theoretical because he has not nearly delved into that — one theory is that he was blackout drunk. So he may have been telling the truth when he said he couldn’t remember doing such a thing. It’s very possible he couldn’t. But why? And if you read this interesting book called Talking to Strangers by you-know-who —
Yes. He has a thing about excessive drinking and what it actually does to the brain. You can be walking around and not remember a thing because, after a certain amount of alcohol, your short-term memory retention kicks out, so you really cannot remember what happened. And if you’ve ever known any blackout drunks, as I have, that’s what they tell you.
Gladwell, in Talking to Strangers, is discussing the effect of alcohol in relation to the Brock Turner case.
Yeah. In other words, you are not this person that you think you are when you’re drunk. You’re not the person you think you were when you’re sober.
You’re a different person.
And two recollections of reality can be both true and conflicting.
It’s the same with religious visions. It’s true that that’s what you saw, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that thing was there. People that delve into psychedelic drugs and consciousness-altering drugs will tell you in great detail what they saw. It’s often quite boring to you but not to them.
Have you ever experimented with a consciousness-altering drug?
Of course. What do you take me for, Molly?
Care to share any epiphanies?
It was kind of boring, I’m sorry to say. Maybe I had the wrong trip-taking partner, who talked all the time about his relatives.
What did you talk about?
He was taking up all the airtime. But I had some interesting experiences with the carpet.
Was the carpet responsive?
No, it didn’t reply. But it was quite three-dimensional. Molly, don’t do this at home. There are some things that, if I were younger, I would probably do that I haven’t done.
I don’t know why I’m telling you all these awful things. Mr. Peyote Button is apparently lots of fun.
It makes you throw up, though.
Oh, that’s ayahuasca. I don’t think peyote causes you to vomit.
No. I’m not into the vomiting either. I have a friend who just is dying to have me do this ayahuasca thing. The universe will become clear to me. But I say, “I don’t like throwing up. I just really don’t like it.” Maybe I’ll have a coach.
Somebody to hold the bucket.
I think probably at my age it’s best not to mess around with the remaining brain. That has bad consequences.
In your novel Oryx and Crake, shortages of meat have led to the invention of a chickenlike substance called ChickieNobs. Have you tried an Impossible Burger — the lab-grown beeflike substance?
Yes, I have. I thought they did a pretty good job. I had them at a very nice wedding reception, and they were passed around as little sliders. I thought they were yummy.
A convincing simulacrum?
Well, I thought so, but I’m old.
That doesn’t have anything to do with it.
It might have. Maybe my taste buds are fading away.
In 2016, you faced some backlash for calling upon the University of British Columbia to apply due process in the case of a professor accused of sexual assault. Did you anticipate the reaction you received from some readers?
I know so much about that we could talk for thousands of hours. But let me just say at this point that it is a defamation suit, not brought by me. It is brought by the person who kept being called a rapist even though he’d been exonerated by two lengthy processes of investigation, which, however, did not allow the documents in the case to be released to the public. What I am against, basically, is people judging the thing before they have any evidence at all at their disposal. So this is not the Brett Kavanaugh case. We know what he was accused of. And it is not the Harvey Weinstein case. They have the documents, they did the investigation. This thing happened to this person before there was any investigation and before anybody knew anything. So what I’m against is me pointing at you, Molly, and accusing you of something but nobody else is allowed to know what it is. “Molly, you’re guilty.”
“What am I guilty of?”
“I can’t tell you.”
Is it surprising that you had to put up an apologia for due process?
That was surprising to me. Why are false rape accusations good for women? They’re actually not. And so say the authors of She Said. So says Robyn Doolittle, who wrote a book called Had It Coming. And so says Ronan Farrow. This stuff is not good for women. The call for an investigation into what the University of British Columbia had actually done, which is what we called for, came a year after all of these events. After there had been an investigation. And after the judge who did the investigation said she didn’t think there had been a sexual assault.
By then the damage had —
The accusers just kept on accusing. They really paid no attention to that.
They had dug themselves in by that time, and it had become true believers over here and evil bad people such as me over there. But that is wending its way through the courts, and what is happening at this very moment is that the people who are the defendants in this case are trying to block access to documents. What does that tell you? What’s in those documents, Molly? I would really like to know.
Has anything over the past decade truly thrown you for a loop? Anything that really shocked you?
I think surprise is different from shock. Of course, there are always surprises. You think, Who knew that?, or, Well, that explained something. But How can any human being do such a terrible thing? That kind of shock? Not anymore.
So not drone warfare or kids in cages?
Seen it before. Well, what do you mean by shock? “This is appalling”? Yes, This is appalling. “I am shocked because I never could have imagined such a thing”? Not that kind of shock. We’ve seen it before, we’ve seen worse. We’ve seen it on a mass scale. But what I don’t like is the reprise. I don’t like it that it’s so much like those other things. It ought to be better than that. It ought to be living up to the best version of itself.
Maybe there’s still hope.
Oh yeah, there is. I’m quite hopeful. For instance, Virginia just went Democrat, which means that the Equal Rights Amendment might finally be ratified.
You’ve just turned 80. Happy birthday. Do you have any plans?
The plans have been made for me, Molly. I have plans whether I like it or not. So you’re a Scorpio?
I am a Scorpio. Are you an astrology person?
It goes way back, Molly. Once upon a time, you had to know this stuff to study English literature, because in the Renaissance, that was the science of the day. And if you go to Italy and look at Pilatos, there’s always going to be an astrology scene and different planets and gods and what have you. Astrology and palmistry, they’re related. And I learned mine from an art historian from Holland in 1969 who was studying Hieronymus Bosch, and she came up with a theory, now validated, that a lot of the things in his paintings are astrological, because why would they not be? If you’re arranging stars in the sky in [a painting] called The Last Judgment, you would make sure that the planet of Calamity was in opposition to planet of Fortune, and you would arrange your sky to reflect this calamitous event that was happening.
I wonder what sign Hieronymus Bosch was.
That would be interesting to know.
No, no, no. Something much more devious. He was probably a Scorpio. Molly, it’s a good profession for you — investigative reporter. What’s underneath? What’s in the sewer system? Scorpios are interested in plumbing. Plumbing, underwear. That’s why, of course, I’m so interested in Prior Attire. Have you seen it? It’s a YouTube channel. She’s a historical-costume-maker; she makes historically correctly sewn costumes. On her YouTube, she shows you all of the articles that you would put on in any given period, and she puts them on. One of my favorite is the late-19th century, with a bustle that sticks out the back. I always thought that was a bolster. It’s not. It’s a flexible, articulated cage. When you sat down, it actually folded up. Otherwise, you would have been sitting on this big lump of wool, I guess. She puts everything on. She comes out looking absolutely authentic. It starts with the underwear, which is the hardest thing to research if you’re writing a historical [novel].
Have you read Anne Hollander’s Seeing Through Clothes? She’s a fashion historian. She has a theory that in nudes, which have been largely painted by men, the figure of the nude is a reflection of how the body looked clothed in the fashion of that era.
That would not surprise me at all.
The examples are quite convincing.
I would certainly be interested in that, and I’ll obtain it and add it to my little clothing corner in my library. I wish we could do a palm reading.
You wish what?
Just a quick one. [Takes interviewer’s hand.] Sometimes you have to work at holding it together emotionally, Molly.
You do, or you will. You’re right-handed?
Okay. Heavy artistic interest on the right hand but, oddly enough, not on the left one.
What’s the bad news?
You’re quite stubborn. You don’t care about wallpaper, Molly. Just not as much interest to you.
Outside influences like the weather, what’s around you, things like that.
Pretty focused on your main drive, which is your quite strongly marked career line. We could go into great details, such as your fingerprints, if I had a magnifying glass. How long before you take over the world, Molly?
*A version of this article appears in the November 25, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!