You know...very surprising.
Everyone's been so nice. Actually, I'm sort of concerned. Because I think it's good for something to be controversial. I think it's good for people to have an argument with you. I want people to question themselves, and feel something uncomfortable in response. I mean to be provocative, so I'm never surprised when people have a difficult time with things I write. So it's been interesting that everyone has been very positive about this, and I was trying to figure out why that is.
I think there's a few things. It is just an amazing story. There's no getting away from that.
My response to the situation is I'm surprisingly not angry about it. I didn't write this five minutes after it happened. I've had some time to work it out. It's not a negative response to a really difficult situation. There was somebody on Twitter who said that it was about "feminism and forgiveness" - and I think that's right.
And I think that might be the thing that people like. We're living in very angry times. And it isn't an angry piece of writing.
Have other people reached out to you about that subject and shared their stories?
Not really. A little bit - on Twitter, some people have replied that something like that has happened to them.
Behavioral biologists call what happened to me "extra paternal parenting." EPP for short.
It happens 2% of the time. Which I imagine people think "Oh, this must happen 15% of the time!" I think people feel this must happen all the time. I think that at the point where something is an epidemic is around 2% - one in fifty people. But truthfully, it is considered rare. 2% is a constant throughout history and throughout cultures, because it's considered really risky for women to have extramarital sex. It's a risky behavior. That's why when women do this, they keep it a secret. There have been a few other stories - there was another story like this that I believe TIME magazine ran it, and the writer Danny Schapiro, this kind of thing happened to her. But the song "ALIVE" by Pearl Jam is about this.
In terms of somebody waiting 50 years to talk about this - Eddie Vedder was younger when he found out. How does it go?
Son, she said
Have I got a little story for you
What you thought was your daddy
Was nothin' but a
While you were sittin'
Home alone at age thirteen
Your real daddy was dyin'
Sorry you didn't see him
But I'm glad we talked...
Everybody thinks of it as such a rock anthem. Nobody thought about it as being about anything else at all besides the feeling of being alive.
I forget who pointed it out to me, that that's what that song is about. It was a while ago.
But I think it's not just the story. There's more to it than that. I think what's important is that I've been made whole by it.
It's important that the stories we tell aren't just thrill-seeking. You want to live in a moral universe. Because we really don't live in a moral universe right now, we're living in the "season of scam."
The boogey man of feminism is that being a mother and being a father are very different things. I think it's improved. I think it's getting better. But they say that in the best of circumstances that mothers are telling fathers what tasks they need to do, that mothers make "to-do" lists...It's that essential thing that it takes men nine seconds to do what it takes women nine months to do. It's never going to be the same for men. This is the thing. The one thing you can do is just insist. It's different to be a mother than to be a father. In my experience, fathers don't care the way mothers care. I had two fathers who didn't care nearly as much as my mother cared. I think we've told men that they have to care as much, and there are men who realize that's how it goes, but it's never going to be the same.
It's so difficult to be alive. As soon as you accept that, that life is very hard - people who are expecting it to be easy are in big trouble! It's ALL difficult.
You’ve always been at the forefront of the conversation. Whether it was talking about mental health before it was accepted, or talking about addiction before it was accepted, or talking about aging before it was accepted (and most likely it’s still not seen as accepted) - what do you think are the new topics at the leading edge?
Well, I've noticed that people don't understand cancer very well.
The truth is, there are so many people living with cancer.
There are certain kinds of cancer that they are at a loss for, like pancreatic cancer, or stomach cancers. But with breast cancer, for instance, they are pretty good on. I have advanced breast cancer, and I'm not worried about myself. I'm really not.
I follow this kind of thing, and every week they have a new cure for a kind of lymphoma, or some blood cancer. It used to be that you would think of leukemia as "you're gonna die next week." And it's not like that.
I'm not saying I recommend it. But I think a lot of people who have cancer feel it's an experience that they learned from, that has made them a stronger, braver person. And I think - indeed, it can kill people, there are lots of things that happen. I'm not saying it's always good, and you have to have good health insurance, people should have health insurance because you just don't know what will happen.
If you're a healthy person, there's no need to know about this kind of thing. My breast cancer - the only place it's shown up lately is in a bone, as breast cancer. If you're healthy, you don't understand that, you think it's bone cancer. But in my case, when it spreads, it's only ever breast cancer.
The thing about having cancer is you learn so much about the health care system, you learn about health, how hospitals work, about how doctors work - I've learnt a lot about a lot of different things. It's been interesting. It's been an adventure. And definitely I could have lived without it.
I wrote something about how I hate hearing people say "I'm sorry" when they hear I have cancer. I think the right thing to say to someone who has cancer is "How are you doing?" Because they might be okay. They might be fine. The person might be enjoying themselves, or having a great life. You just don't know. But it's really amazing how far they've come with this, and they are getting better at it all the time.
But I think it's incredible how many people - I'll be sitting there, and I'll say something or other, and the person will respond with "Oh, I had cancer too, and they did this, and now I'm good" and I'll be so surprised.
It's amazing how many people have had a brush with cancer, and are doing well.
Joe Biden said that he wanted there to be a "moonshot with curing cancer," and that's a bit of a naive perspective. I don't know if it's something that lends itself to being cured. Cancer is overproduction of cells. It's a lot like health. It's very similar. It's like cells getting very excited about things. It's like cells having a wild party.
With my breast cancer being actuated by estrogen - if they can figure out what it is that makes the cancer happen, whether it's estrogen or something else, they can do something about it, coming at it sideways. With different cancers, it's different things. They can get to the cancer in a different way. But it's not just one thing. It's really amazing: with immunotherapy, they've given people shots of things like the AIDS virus or the Polio virus to cure cancer.
You think of the highest forms of virtue as curing cancer.
But you don't meet people who cure cancer unless you have cancer.
I sent you the recent (and extremely long) Buzzfeed article on Millennial Burnout. There’s been more written on the subject since then. Back in 2013, when your essay for the Daily Beast was seen as a critique of Millennials - do you feel differently with this discussion of the massive amount of curation, suppression, aspiration and frustration swirling around and within what-is-generally-referred-to-as-Millennials?
I just think everybody has problems. I don't think this is specific to Millennials.
It's always been difficult to be 27. It's also always been difficult to be 25. And 24.
When I was 25, I was visiting a friend in Vermont. We were at his grandfather's house there, and I was in a messed-up relationship, with a guy who was drunk and awful. The same thing as ever. And I was crying on the floor, upset, thinking would he call, I couldn't get my book finished, I had 3 bags of unopened mail... garbage bags. Which, by the way, Napoleon said to wait 3 weeks about mail, and if nobody bothered you about it, to throw it out. That was Napoleon's approach. So basically I throw out all my mail, and I feel like if they need me, they can email me, and if they need me, they can scream and yell. But really if you're sending it to me by mail, you can't be serious. THAT's how you're getting my attention?
But back when people actually did send mail, I would put my mail in garbage bags, and mostly end up throwing it out. And it was amazing.
So I was 25 on the floor, upset, couldn't get my book done, in a terrible relationship, with 3 garbage bags full of mail, and I said "Will I EVER get out of my twenties?!" and my friend said "Yes, in five years."
There were bad things now, and then. There was a bad recession then. It was really oppressive, being alive under 12 years of Reagan / Bush. There's always something.
Can you imagine how people must have felt when electricity arrived? They couldn't just go to sleep because it went dark. Can you imagine the shock of inventing the doorbell, of people ringing your door? The interruption, the shock, of people calling you by phone when they phone was invented. If you think the internet is astonishing, progress is astonishing in general.
Nobody likes progress. Ever.
To think that there's something going on now that's never happened before is rather ridiculous. There have been crazy scam artists. In 1929, there was the Great Depression, and people jumped out of windows, they say...It could be that lots of people did, it could be that very few did.
The Great Gatsby is about scams. Fyre Festival is just the new approach to it.
Obviously they had a captive audience of people on Instagram.
The Theranos thing is amazing. I mean, James Mattis was on the Board of Theranos. A beautiful woman convinced a bunch of men that she could do something that she couldn't do. And that's what happened! It simply didn't work. And I think she was very promising, and it's possible she could have eventually gotten to where she needed to get to, that this kind of thing could eventually happen with patience and hard work and the right scientists. The idea is not a bad one. But it's the kind of thing where a bunch of these pinprick tests were sent to Theranos from a major pharmacy chain, and none of the samples were tested.
They were sending fake results back to people.
And in the meantime, a whole bunch of super-prominent men - way more serious than Fyre Festival, that's why the Wall Street Journal did this investigation - all you could say is that every one of these men was a sucker for a pretty face. They should all just admit that.
Everyone is gullible.
When I'm walking down the street with my dog Alistair, people will try to pet him, and he pulls away; sometimes he snaps at them. He's just not friendly. And people will give him many chances to be friendly. People think he's smart. I'm not saying he is, or he isn't. But people will invest in him. People will say he's nice. Or sweet. And that's definitely not the case. People will see all kinds of qualities in him. The only thing you can definitely say about him is that he's beautiful.
And it's made me realize that people are really caught in that. It's kind of shocking. It's particularly striking because my dog before Alistair was a beautiful dog - and she really WAS friendly and charming, and people really responded to her - but nothing like how it is with him.
And I realized - wow. It's incredible how superficial people are. The Theranos thing is such a clear representation of that. The Fyre Festival thing is such a clear representation of that. It makes me realize the things we do to maintain our beauty. We're not crazy.
The things I've learnt from having this dog... it's been so stark. He really wants nothing to do with people when we walk down the street. He's really not friendly. But people want to be friends with him.
I see it. And I realize - supposedly, if you have blue eyes by the way, you'll be considered more beautiful just by virtue of having blue eyes versus brown eyes. It "ups the ante" on your looks, someone told me, and I tend to believe it.
But it's amazing. And I don't know what we do about this. How we get people to pay attention to something. We have all these senses, but our eyes do most of the work. We can smell, we can taste, we can hear - but mostly, we see.
In the same article, you also bring up something else that’s very much in the cultural zeitgeist nowadays - the idea of reimbursing and supporting creators who inspire, because it’s so darn necessary. How do you feel about the new ways that we’re trying to figure out how to support creators, artists, writers - through subscriptions, crowdfunding, apps?
You know, I think whatever it is you can do. All these companies screwed up. The Washington Post could have had a 10% stake in Facebook when Facebook was a long time ago, I can't remember what went wrong with that, they had a handshake deal between Don Graham and Mark Zuckerberg, and Don let it go.
I think there's this term "platform" that is really kind of this bullshit thing. It's gotta stop. I mean Facebook has to start realizing it's a publisher. I suppose Uber needs to realize it's not a platform, it's responsible. A "platform" sort of says "we're not responsible." There's a case that everybody does in law school, it's an old West case, and there's a wall, and there's not much that the people who have the wall can do about the stupid signs people post on the wall. They can take the signs down, but if the people put the signs up, what can you do? You can only do so much. You can keep taking the signs down. But that's it. We're just a wall. And that's sort of the idea of a platform. It's the old West. We're just a kiosk. People post signs on the kiosk, and sometimes the signs say "WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE" and it's the wrong man that they want.
You can take the sign down, you can put another sign on top of it, but we're not responsible for whatever.
And I think it's just bullshit.
This Facebook platform is really benefitting from being a platform. They have to start realizing they have skin in the game.
So I think that's kind of the thing about the internet. It's all these websites that have a million ways of saying "it's not our problem." And it's really amazing - I noticed the Washington Post has that famous "in/out" list. "In" this year is "Delete Instagram." "Out" is "Delete Facebook." Either way, the in thing to do is to delete a social media account owned by the same company. I read the Times on the app every day, and yesterday there were two different articles about what your life was like if you just got rid of your Facebook account. It's like a slow thing. I think people like Instagram, but I think people less and less like Facebook. Having a Facebook account is a default kind of thing.
They could go the way of Friendster. It could happen. The whole thing could fall apart. Who knows?
I think that really - I've subscribed to the NY Times and it's the best way to get the news and everybody should do that. And I like getting the New Yorker in print. There are things that are just better to read that way. I think it's difficult.
Apparently people still like books. I still buy CDs. I like listening to music on a good stereo. I still buy vinyl. I think I'm supporting the headphone industry really well also, as I buy great headphones and then lose them.
Popup shops, pop culture, the Museum of Selfies (yes, it’s a real place). What jumps out at you as we start to wind down the 2010’s? (Besides people’s obsession with 2020 as a year and symbolic benchmark)
The Museum of Selfies sounds so interesting!
A lot of the 2010's was Barack Obama's presidency, which was very meaningful. But it's been discovering the underbelly of sexism, racism, but also of activism. And of people asking "can I kick it? Yes you can." As I have written on my wall.
I went to Montgomery, Alabama, and it was such a positive experience, because people there are right in the midst of - well, there's a statue of Jefferson Davis right next to where Martin Luther King had his church. That's a place that was majority slaves at one point, a big slave trade place. But they have a lynching memorial there now. And in Montgomery, you have two of the biggest civil rights organizations based there. They're where the pain is. And Alabama elected a Democratic senator this year, because they couldn't elect Roy Moore, even though Donald Trump went down there and campaigned for them. Anywhere you go that there's cities, they're liberal. And I think that's the thing that makes me really hopeful. Cities, anywhere, are liberal. Urban people are amazing. I would go sit in this coffee place in Montgomery, and talk to people, and they were just like "We have one Democratic Senator, and we're going to have two."
They believed that. They believed in a better future for Alabama. And that was really something. It really made me hopeful.
I was in Italy recently, but I don't think I enjoyed Rome as much as I enjoyed Montgomery, because going to Montgomery really made me feel positive about this country.
There are amazing people everywhere. There are people who are excited about life everywhere, including in Montgomery.
So I would say that this decade has been the worst of us and the best of us.
We're at the crossroads between Love and Hate. It's like the guy with the knuckle tattoos of "hate" and "love." Hate is coming out there, it's pushing really hard, it looks like it's doing well, hate has tough stuff. It's unbelievable that people are excited about building a wall. Imagine. Ridiculous.
But then look at this, there goes Love.
The most amazing thing is not that Secretariat won at the Belmont by 31 lengths. It's that Secretariat won at the Kentucky Derby from behind. I think the idea is not to look behind. It doesn't matter what is going on behind you. Don't look down, don't look back.
Steve Prefontaine was an amazing runner. That saying is attributed to him. He was badly affected by the 1972 Olympics. There's a wonderful documentary about it, called "One Day in September." It's on Amazon Prime.
What are you looking forward to tackling in this new book at the intersection of data, genetics, family, and identify?
I think more of the same. You know, I feel like I've mostly spoken to my mother. And there are so many people to talk to. There are people who knew my father. His best friend was Roy Lichtenstein. There are all these wonderful Civil Rights photos he took.
Martin Luther King.
Coretta Scott King.
The first women's march.
So he took all these great photos. He knew the art world. There are all these art world people I need to speak to. And some Civil Rights people I need to speak to. And I need to talk to people about my father who wasn't actually my father.
I have this whole new family. And there's stuff to say about cancer. There's stuff to say about marriage (because I got married, and I hope I'll still be married, but it's difficult to be married). And there's a lot to say about how challenging it is to be alive. A lot of the things that have happened to me with all of this, I feel like this seems like an extraordinary story, but I don't feel like it's more challenging than a lot of people's lives. I do think it's difficult to be alive. I don't think the things I deal with are so much more difficult than what other people deal with who have things going on. We're just trying to get through the day. Some people might find that equally challenging.
I don't think it takes much to get overwhelmed. All this stuff, I've managed, and it's been a whole new layer of complicated now that I just have to make coffee in the morning.