Barbara Riddle remembers Barbara Ehrenreich, August 26, 1941-September 1, 2022
Oh, what college housemates know. The obits omit you, coming into our kitchen at 11 pm on a Saturday night after a few solitary hours chain-smoking in your room, doing extra physics problems for the sheer fun of it—your single, thick blond braid swinging across your narrow back as you impatiently made popcorn in your everyday outfit of white sweatshirt hoodie and white Levi’s.
Maybe your motorcycle-riding math genius boyfriend would show up, maybe not. You loved men; you despised (and brutally mocked) mansplainers. They had the wounds to show for it. At the time—and still—you were the smartest, wittiest person I had ever met. (Think Rosalind Franklin smart; Elaine May funny.) I doubt if either of us spent a nickel on mascara or lipstick during the early Sixties. Our Influencers back then were basically Marie Curie and her daughter.
Fast forward a few years—you and I embraced the freedom of flat shoes and miniskirts, and let’s just say, Barbara, you knew how to give a good party, where a guest hiding in the corner might well be lefty publisher Marty Peretz. Back then being Left did not mean being boring. I believe he was a major influence on your political evolution but I never see him mentioned anywhere. With him there was most likely a romantic crush—or more— in the mix, as well.
Unlike many at Reed College, you were also kind more often than not. During one of our few ill-conceived experiments with legal mind-altering substances (Romilar, anyone?) who brought me a blanket when we were both dazed and freezing in our attic apartment? Possibly crawling on your knees? No Mt. Everest Sherpa rescue could have been more dramatic. Who volunteered to forego the pleasures of her commute to campus by 10-speed racing bike so she could drive me to campus the year I had mononucleosis and could barely get out of bed each day? A born-and-raised New Yorker, of course I couldn’t drive—but you were a pro. (I mean, you were from Butte, Montana!) Never mind that the vintage navy blue Cadillac coupe (bought for around $200 gifted by my dad) dropped its transmission with a thud a month later. We abandoned it by the side of the road, laughing hysterically.
After lending me the money I needed to fly up to the “secret” Reed College connection in Seattle a week before classes in September 1962 for a very illegal abortion, your divorced mom somehow met my divorced dad down in Pasadena and they started dating. (I know—what are the odds?) He died by suicide in July 1963; your mother also a probable suicide, years later. Both of us shared that eggshell defensive wariness that children of alcoholics can never shake. (I learned a long time afterwards that my dad had probably heard from your mother about my abortion. Was it a factor in his suicide? I don’t know.)
You and I lived together off-campus in funky Portland apartments two years in a row during our time at Reed; McDonald’s fries were 11 cents a bag and we lived on pork steaks, peanut butter and mac n’ cheese for about $7 a week each. Our groceries were hauled home in the rear baskets of our bicycles. We were both chemistry majors, you a year ahead. And light years ahead academically. You were of course, the Valedictorian of your year (1963) while I barely managed to graduate in ’64. We both went on to obtain our PhDs, and both quickly realized the lab bench was not where our hearts lay. I threw in my lot with the world of creative writing as an outsider, not nurtured by mentors in an MFA program; you gradually became a major force in feminist health politics and the world of leftist journalism/activism.
In spite of your growing fame, you were always willing to help me, if often bemused. “Sure, I’ll write you a reference letter for the MacDowell Colony, but why can’t you just write at home?” (I made the waiting list.) Whenever I compared myself to you, I always came off as frivolous and shallow, although I was pretty sure I wasn’t. It’s just that you were so disciplined and intellectually rigorous that being your friend was daunting. Anything you decided to do, you did with skill and flair: ocean kayaking, solo, off the coast of your beloved house in Key West! (I never made it there, although invited.) Double mastectomy ? No big deal. You just powered through it and wrote a needed book about the infantilizing (and profitable) treatment of breast cancer victims, while living and writing to the max another 20 years plus.
It sometimes seemed that no matter where I poked, your name would pop up. An unapologetic atheist (as were you) I once spent a dispirited midnight hour searching the Web for some kind of nonreligious affinity group that shared my values, and chanced on the American Humanist Association. And there you were, Humanist of the Year in 1995. (Not to mention my famously atheistic great uncle, the biologist Dr. Oscar Riddle, similarly honored in 1957.) For more of your many awards and the astonishing list of publications, I’ll have to refer people to your Wikipedia page; one could grow old and gray reading it. Did you ever sleep?
Probably I’ve read more (though not all) of your books than any other single individual on the planet, except maybe your two brilliant offspring, Ben and Rosa. Favorites? “Witches, Midwives and Nurses,” (with Deidre English), an absolutely groundbreaking analysis of how female health care has been co-opted and monetized by men. And still basically is. I adored “The Hearts of Men,” which ripped into the road-buddy macho myths that underlie performative American masculinity to this day. Your only novel, “Kipper’s Game,” shocked me with its awkward dialogue and hokey plot twists. ( Nevertheless, I own a first edition; all my copies of your books are hardback first editions.) You almost certainly could have become a brilliant novelist—an American Doris Lessing—if you had decided to work at the craft. (I do think it was a secret, guilty fantasy of yours.) If only you had written the kind of dialogue that in reality rolled effortlessly from your lips! Nora Ephron, move over. But you didn’t have much patience for the ambiguities of “fiction;” I was shocked when you once told me you couldn’t abide the theater. “People pretending. Why?”
I didn’t find some of your glib one-liners about politics amusing, as in a March 21, 2020 New Yorker interview with Jia Tolentino when you mused that you might be a Maoist, just below the surface. (You asked her not to print that in The New Yorker, but she did.) You never could resist a zingy one-liner. More than once you were inexplicably tone-deaf, in my opinion. Sometimes I think you just enjoyed shocking people, getting a laugh. I don’t really know and don’t care to enumerate. Those who are familiar with the wide range of your writing will know what I mean.
I was saddened by your memoir, Living with a Wild God—I had not known how terribly unhappy you were most of your life. Your joking demeanor and fierce politics cleverly hid your confusion and misery. You were not one to wallow, that’s for sure. But looking at a gallery of images on Google since your death, I’m haunted by the deep sadness in your eyes in so many of the photographs.
Female solidarity? For sure! You gave me a boost whenever possible. I’m so grateful for the those gestures. Interviewed for “O” Magazine about long-lasting female friendships, you mentioned me and my novel, “The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke.” Reviewing J.D. Watson’s self-serving memoir, “Girls, Genes and Gamow” in the February 24, 2002 NY Times Book Review (wittily titled “Double Helix, Single Guy”), you cited my “fine, autobiographical novel” as a depiction of how some researchers in Watson’s circle callously created a sexist, hostile environment for young women struggling to be taken seriously as scientists. You cannot imagine how surprised and pleased I was at the mention.
Most grateful am I for the blurb you gave my book for its first edition; an analysis that unfortunately is as relevant today as when you wrote it in 2000; I felt seen, and heard.
Barbara Riddle has given us a sharp, funny glimpse into a little-explored moment in women’s recent history. The year is 1963, the same year Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. Brave young women were heading out to college looking for lives very different from those their mothers had lived. My excitement about “The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke” stems in part from the fact that I was there—heading for graduate school in science in 1963. I recognize Riddle’s heroine Bronwen for her spirit of adventure as well as her sometimes crippling self-doubts (carefully nourished by the all-too-realistic boyfriend-from-hell). Today’s 20-somethings will recognize her as a woman struggling, like themselves, for personal coherence in a world that still has difficulty seeing us as complete and entire human beings.”
Thank you, Barbara. Thank you for 59 years of unwavering female friendship, even as we were sometimes puzzled by each other’s meandering paths, opinions or habits.
I was a bit afraid of you. I desperately wanted your approval. I loved you. It’s unbearable knowing you are not still out there somewhere, taking no prisoners and cracking people up.
So—I’m just going to pretend you have returned to your room to solve another fun quantum mechanics problem set, your long blonde braid swinging behind your back. Your spectacular and wholly unpredictable life is lying in wait for you.
Photo courtesy of the author.