05: Eileen Pollack
professor and science writer

photos by Heather Hazzan

Eileen Pollack is a writer whose novel, Breaking and Entering, was awarded the Grub Street National Book Prize and named a New York Times Editor’s Choice selection. She also is the author of novels Paradise, New York and A Perfect Life, and two collections of short fiction, In the Mouth and The Rabbi in the Attic, as well as a work of creative nonfiction called Woman Walking Ahead: In Search of Catherine Weldon and Sitting Bull and two innovative textbooks, Creative Nonfiction and Creative Composition. This interview was constructed with specific consideration of her 2015 nonfiction/memoir The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is Still a Boys' Club. She teaches on the faculty of the Helen Zell MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan.

Heather Hazzan is a Brooklyn-based photographer and a model with Wilhelmina NY. She is also a co-creator of The Virago Journal, which features photography and written content from diverse women across the fashion and entertainment industries.

This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on August 8, 2016, in Eileen's Manhattan apartment. Heather Hazzan photographed and witnessed the conversation.


SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.

 

EILEEN: My experience of girlhood was not feeling like a girl. Like so many of us even today, I grew up feeling...if that's a girl, then I'm not a girl. So I was a tomboy, that's what it boils down to, that's what it was called in those days. My mother despaired of the way I acted. She was a 50s mom even though it was the 60s, and kept trying to dress me up in these very uncomfortable dresses and slips and things, and I just wanted to climb trees and run around with the boys and fight and play whatever games the boys in the neighborhood were playing. I just felt like I had so much energy. Like I could power an entire town [with it]. But there were no sports for girls in those days; it was before Title IX. A girl competing in sports was really looked down on. I was always ripping my clothes and getting them dirty, and my mother was always getting mad at me. When I was in third grade she thought I wasn't graceful or feminine enough so she signed me up for figure skating lessons, which I was terrible at, but after the figure skating lessons the boys would come out to come out to play hockey and speed race and I'd take off with them. That's what I wanted to do, not kind of...twirl around.

At school, what can I say? I did well at school, you know? I was smart. And I liked school, and I did have one or two teachers who liked that in me, but most of them didn’t, so I always felt like, what's wrong here? This is school, you're supposed to do well in it, and I'm doing well and that seems to get me enemies instead of friends. Once I got older and my girlfriends started turning against me —it was mean girls, seventh grade— and I started understanding why, and why the boys wouldn't ask me out, I rethought everything about myself. Some of that rethinking was for the better. I realized I was hurtful to other people. If there were kids who weren't as smart or weren't as good at something as I was, I was kind of scornful of them. I was not considerate of other people's feelings, and now that I was being hurt I saw what that was like, and I tried to become a nice person, and tried to care about other people. I tried to think before I said things...Psychologists have written about this. That's the moment that girls lose their power and their spontaneity and they worry so much about people not liking them and saying and doing the wrong thing that they're just all tied up in knots. I retained a lot of the energy and the power I had, but it was just so overlaid with all this triple-thinking of everything that I was doing, and wanting to be popular in ways that you just can't be if you're not a certain type of person in high school. It was a very confusing time. There were really very few places you could turn to for guidance in those days because nobody was writing the psychology books they do now, women weren’t writing memoirs, there were no guidance counselors who thought about these things, or older women role models. I still felt I had all this power, but the power was not bringing good things to me [laughs]. So I became very rebellious…In seventh grade, a big turning point was when I found out I hadn't been allowed to take the advanced science and math courses because I was a girl.

 

HEATHER: [gasps]

 

EILEEN: Yeah.

 

SOPHIA: [laughs]

 

EILEEN: I know, SHOCK! So there was this kind of dawning anger about the reason that I felt so frustrated. So I started staying home from school and trying to teach myself the things I wanted to learn. I acted out against the teachers and administrators that I thought were being jerks, and I was very lucky because I did find some people who understood what was going on. I had an English teacher who was also the debate coach, so even though I couldn't have cared less about debate for its own sake, I really went into that because hanging around with those guys and that teacher really saved my life, and it was a place where you could be strong and smart, and get approval. Everybody was a nerd, you know? If you were a female nerd, it was even worse, but no one in debate minded. That English teacher—who at the time I didn't realize was gay because you could just not be out —we just loved each other in many, many ways, and he just really saved my life. He kind of gave me hope about what life would be like when I got out.

 

SOPHIA: ‘Cause obviously you were kind of a "tomboy," did you feel isolated in relation to your peers? Or were there other girls who you thought were feeling the same thing? Did you find any sort of female communion or friendship, or was it really not that way?

 

EILEEN: Well, it's interesting, there was this one girl that I really, really loved, that I felt close to, and she moved away. And then there were girls there that I could've really bonded to, but something made me want to be with the popular girls, and those were not the girls who wanted to be with me, and I kept trying to be accepted by the girls who were never going to accept me. There were other girls who weren't stereotypical popular girls, so I was just too stupid to say, "Screw this! Who wants to hang out with the popular girls? Here are these other girls that I'd really have something in common with." But I think I found my real camaraderie in the debate club with the nerdy guys and with the gay teacher. I didn't really trust women because the girls who hurt me hurt me so badly when they turned on me that I just thought girls couldn't be trusted. And then I went to Yale, where female friendship was also kind of problematic. I mean, I trusted my roommate, but most of the girls were so competitive —society screwed them up in so many ways, too. We were all just looking for male approval in ways that were probably not very healthy. I didn't really have female friendships until I lived in England after I graduated. It was late in life that I really started to find women I trusted and realized, oh my god, this is amazing to have women friends. This is what I needed. And even now though, it's so funny how seventh grade like, shapes your whole life. I'm always sure that one of my female friends is going to say, "I don't really like you."

 

SOPHIA: [laughs]

 

EILEEN: I kept expecting my friends to say: “We're all talking about you, and you're this and you're that, and you don't hold your books the right way. You hold your books like a boy.” There were whole clubs planning how to make me feel bad about myself, and somehow I’m just expecting that to happen. So even though I have such close female friends, women that I couldn't live without, women who would never hurt me, there's that imprinting of like, really, can I trust other women?

So when I did research for The Only Woman in the Room, I thought women your age, Sophia, would tell me how much it had changed. But you'd be shocked how many stories I heard that made me think that in some ways it was worse. The images of femininity that I think you guys grew up with, and that are still pervasive, are much more over the top. You have to be very sexy and do your nails and get your hair done and wear makeup and high-heeled shoes. My generation ... we were rebelling against the 50s. You see, I grew up in the 60s and 70s, when you were trying not to be like the 50s women who were so matchy-matchy, with their styled hair and makeup. In those days, your mother was always after you to get your hair cut and styled and off your face and wear makeup and dress up. But we just wore jeans and a tee shirt and shitkickers. You didn't wear makeup, and you just wore your hair long and straight, and you weren't going to have a fancy wedding…

 

SOPHIA AND HEATHER: [laugh]
 

It’s so funny how seventh grade like, shapes your whole life. I’m always sure that one of my female friends is going to say, ‘I don’t really like you.’


EILEEN: You might not even get married! You wouldn't change your name…The society wasn't quite so sexualized. Everybody didn't have access to pornography, and you couldn't pose women on the cover of the magazine with their tits hanging out, so I think I grew up with a smaller gap between how I actually felt and what I thought a girl had to be [in order] to be a girl than I think is true today. There were a couple of women's magazines, but it was more like they were goody-goody than that they were so sexualized. You got these little booklets, I remember…I had an older sister who was six years older, and she had a drawer full of these booklets from when it was starting to be the time when you might get your period —and they were corny, you know? They were, like, this is how you take care of a sweater, and how you keep smelling fresh when you have your period, and if you walk this way, boys will think you’re feminine. But you kinda knew that was goofy and it was something left over from the 50s.

 

SOPHIA: I read that thing you wrote about the book, what was it called?

 

EILEEN: Oh my god, where did you find that? If I weren’t wired I would show you the book. Yeah, Being Born.

 

SOPHIA: Really? We should definitely photograph it. Ok, sorry, go on.

There was a long period where I thought, wow I must be gay because I just don’t feel in my body the way those photos show you’re supposed to feel as a woman.


EILEEN: It's funny, I knew I really liked boys. I mean there was a long period where I thought, wow I must be gay because I just don't feel in my body the way those photos show you're supposed to feel as a woman. I mean, which is crazy. How do you know from a photo how you're supposed to feel inside? When I was older and figured out that there were lesbians, I thought, well I must be a lesbian. But I wasn't, I wanted men! But there just didn't seem to be any category for that.

 

SOPHIA: So what were the differences between your mother's ideas and expressions of womanhood, yours, and your sister’s? Like, what were the dynamics of the very closely positioned feminine energies in your household?

 

EILEEN: My sister was much older, and she almost feels to me like she belonged to the previous generation, because we were just on each side of the sort of 60s, everything just exploding. In some ways she's much more traditionally female in the way she dresses or the way she acts. She's much more private than I am. But she got a degree in math and she was one of the first women to get her MBA at Wharton, and she was one of the first female executives of a major insurance company, so she had her own battles to fight. She always wanted me to straighten my hair and wanted me to wear more makeup and things like that.

And our mother was even more traditional. But my mother was a very smart woman, and she was a bundle of contradictions. She had no self-confidence, yet she went to college in her forties even though we lived in a small town and only my aunt had done it. My mother graduated valedictorian of her class and gave the speech, and she could've done amazing things, but she didn't have the confidence, and my father talked her out of it, so she taught elementary school after that. But I think she got what I wanted to do and the ways in which I was different, and was in favor of it, but was also sort of…afraid that it would open me up —maybe open her up and the family to criticism, to danger. And I think she didn't want me to be disappointed. She would say this: that both her daughters priced themselves out of the marriage market, that if you were too smart and accomplished, nobody would want to marry you, because men want to marry down. Of course my sister and I did get married. My sister’s husband passed away, and I'm divorced, but parents don't want their kids to be alone. And if you're a woman and you're getting a physics degree, back in the day that didn't seem as if you were setting yourself up to be happily married and have kids and live near your parents.

My parents were also worried that I'd go off and do all these things on my own, I'd travel on my own, when I was a reporter I'd go off and do all these dangerous stories, and they were afraid I’d get hurt. I really resented that. I thought it was really sexist. But that's something we need to speak the truth about, too! I think the way we need to raise young women is to say "you could do anything, you should do anything, but it is more dangerous out there, and here are the ways you protect yourself, and if anything happens, here's what you do, and you come home and tell me and I'll support you.” But I think my mother's response was fear. And she wasn't entirely wrong. But I don't think the fear is the reason to not do the dangerous thing. The world shouldn't be more dangerous for women, but sadly….

Both her daughters priced themselves out of the marriage market, that if you were too smart and accomplished, nobody would want to marry you, because men want to marry down.

 

SOPHIA: When you were younger and you were feeling distinctly "not a girl," what really got to me was reading your list: "How to be more Denise-y.” I really deeply sympathize with that. Like someday you wake up and like everyone's hair is braided around you and no one ever taught you how to braid.

 

[all laugh]

 

SOPHIA: And you're in like, serious jeopardy. You're like wow what did I—

 

EILEEN: —What did I miss?

 

SOPHIA: And you obviously had this moment in which you chose to, or were forced to reimagine what [girl/womanhood] was going to mean for you, and that was a particularly visceral experience. Do you have any others that stand out to you?

 

EILEEN: Oh my god, I have a thousand! I think I put the biggest ones in the book, but it was just every day! I mean, stuff like that happened every time you went to lunch. Every time you raised your hand in class you realized you were doing something wrong. I still feel that way half the time. When you live in New York, you walk down the street and you see a woman who looks more like she's the woman that you want to be than you are, and you think you're doing it wrong. You know. Fashion week.

 

[all laugh]

 

EILEEN: But I think [these thoughts occur] in every woman's life. And those [fashion week] women probably even more, 'cause it's their profession to be like, “professionally women.” I have a lot of male students, and they write their memoir-y things, and it's no picnic for them either. Growing up trying to think about how you're supposed to be a man, an American man, if you don't feel fully American or male…you don’t understand what’s going on with the girls…There are so many pressures.
 


SOPHIA: When you visited your old high school, both the girls and administrators basically had this attitude as though we lived in some post-feminist society. What are your thoughts about how one should respond to that, or how women can respond to that, and then also, based on what you just said, how that ideology of post-feminism interacts with the coupled hypersexuality that you just talked about?

 

EILEEN: Well, you know, if you grow up in what you think is a post-feminist world, maybe that inoculates you against certain ideas that you can't do things or that you shouldn't have confidence. But when there are sexist things coming at you, you have fewer defenses against it, and you don't even know it's happening, let alone that it's really undermining you. A lot of college-aged women that come to my talks are just sitting there looking at me, and I can't quite read what they're thinking, and I think they're going like, “she doesn't seem crazy, but I've never in my experience…[encountered this sexism].”

But then I worry for them, because I think when they get into graduate school or when they get out in the world, they're not going to really know how there are [hidden biases] working against them. So when you're negotiating your salary, if you think you're being offered what the guy is being offered, and you don't negotiate or you don't check salaries or something because you think the bias isn’t there…But I also think these images just work at such a subliminal level.

I wrote a piece for the Times about how these images really do have a big effect on women not staying in or not going into the sciences. For example, if you're thinking about being a physicist and you look at the way most physicists dress, and you see that to be taken seriously you cannot be seen as really attractive or to care how much how you dress because that is equated in most physicists' minds in America with not being smart, not being passionate about science, or not being the right kind of person to be a physicist. So you have to dress down, have to dress in a way that isn't overtly feminine. You also don't want to be hit on, right? And I was trying to get that across to the editors and there were young women editors at the Times that were saying "That's ridiculous, no woman would let that affect her, and it makes women seem shallow." And I thought, "But it's true!”

I hung up the phone from talking to the editors, and I was trying to think about what to do, and I went to the Duane Reade on the corner, and I was waiting in line for like forever, and I realized that for ten minutes I had been staring at a magazine rack, and it had four magazines vertically placed, and on the top was Steven Jobs, and he looks just like…that’s the way computer entrepreneurs should look, right?”

 

SOPHIA: [laughs]

 

If you grow up in what you think is a post-feminist world, maybe that inoculates you against certain ideas...But when there are sexist things coming at you...you don’t even know it’s happening, let alone that it’s really undermining you

EILEEN: Below there was a woman's magazine, and it was a woman in some kind of lingerie leaning forward so her breasts would show, and then there was Mark Zuckerberg on the cover of the next magazine, and then there was another young woman in her underwear! I had been staring at that for ten minutes, and if I had a daughter, she would've been staring at it for ten minutes, and how could you think you live in a post-feminist society when those are the images we take in every day? And so much of why women and minorities don't do as well on these tests or don't keep going has to do with confidence and encouragement. It's huge. If you don't think you can do it, if you don't have real courage and chutzpah and confidence in yourself, you can't do anything, but you especially can't do these really tough things. And those images, you know, all that…the kind of comments people make, the stuff you pick up from tv shows and movies —it really influences you, and people want to feel like they belong, you know? If you feel like you don't dress in the right way or you don't look the right way or you don't have the same sense of humor or you don't like the same movies or whatever, you think something's wrong with you, you don't fit in, this isn't how you're going to want to spend your life, and you just…

 

SOPHIA: About female physicists caring about their appearance...about two fifths of the way into your book, you talk about being the only woman in the room as a definitively erotic experience —going so far as to write "My attraction to my professors kept me working to please them long after I might otherwise have given up.” It was bold of you to include that point of view, and I'm sure that you've received a lot of negative feedback in response to the choice to include that. And it's obviously complicated because it includes an element of fetishization that I think men and women that are working in the sciences would like to avoid, and then also people like, seeing the element of desire as something that's unstable and will fudge your lab results [laughs]. So could you speak further about your decision to include this, and then can you speak about the way we ought to be treating sexual desire in the conversations specifically about women in STEM and the sciences as a whole?


EILEEN: Yeah, obviously I thought about that, but it was such a huge part of my experience at all levels, I couldn’t leave that out. I had had an enormous crush on my English teacher in high school who made such a big difference, and then in college the way that worked, and when I got out in the world, and the way I sort of fetishized my bosses…and I realized where that came from. All these novels I had grown up reading and movies where that's the script, right? And falling in love with your professors became something you weren't supposed to do, but I could tell many young women still did it, it was still a powerful motif in our culture, and the men were being chastised for sexualizing, for carrying on those erotics in the classroom, but I felt like women weren't necessarily being honest about their part in it.

I supervised a lot of graduate students who were teaching for the first time when I ran the program at Michigan, and I started having a special session where we talked about all the stuff you're not supposed to talk about, and what you wear, and the erotics of the classroom. And people would giggle and everybody would be tense, and then they'd come back later and say “Thank you. We thought you were crazy but it turns out it's true! My students have crushes on me, I have crushes on them…” And I just feel like if you try to pretend it's not there, then you can't talk about it, and you can't figure out what should really be done about it. Like, ok these attractions happen. What do you do when they happen? I don't think all of those [relationships] should be off-limits, but some of them should be, and how you handle it can affect the whole rest of your life, so I just wanted to be honest about it, and get people talking about it in ways that were more productive. And I could do it because I left the profession. The women who are still working in the lab or the physics department can't admit these things because then they'll be looked at sideways. But I can, so...

 

SOPHIA: How did becoming a mother change the way that you feel about being a woman?

 

EILEEN: It made all the difference. I didn't grow up wanting to be a mother. I didn't like playing with dolls, I didn't care about babies, it was not something where I was like "Oh my god my clock is ticking." I'm not even sure why I had a kid. And I had a terrible pregnancy. But then there was this baby, and everything I felt, and the way I cared for him...just made me think...Oh! I really must be a woman because I'm feeling all these things, I'm doing these things that are really only...only a woman would be nursing her baby and feeling this joy of doing it, and I found that I was good at being a mother, and I loved doing it. You know, within the bounds of I wanted him to be at daycare most of the day and I wasn't about to give up my career or my sense of self. But that was the moment when I felt like I could write —not only that I could write, but that I could write for other women and not just as some "other kind" of woman. Maybe I could write about motherhood, and other mothers would say "yeah, that's what it's like, cause we're mothers, too." The one thing I really resent was that it just always felt that when I was out with the stroller, that you become invisible as anything but a mother. People just expect that you don't have a brain or a career or anything, and I'd have to drop in the fact that I had this physics degree in order for somebody not to write me off as an idiot because obviously if you're a mother you couldn't really have a brain.

 

[all laugh]

 

SOPHIA: I've never thought about that and that totally speaks to my age.
 

People just expect that you don’t have a brain or a career or anything, and I’d have to drop in the fact that I had this physics degree in order for somebody not to write me off as an idiot because obviously if you’re a mother you couldn’t really have a brain.


EILEEN: Well, when you're at a playground —it used to be that it was all moms because the dads were not staying home— you have a bunch of moms, you all look grubby, the kids are in the sand, you're standing there talking about mom things, and a guy goes by, and you think, "What is that guy seeing?" He's just seeing a bunch of moms with kids, like we don't have any identity. He doesn't know who I am. He doesn't think of me as a person in my own right. And that would really bother me. I don't know that it should —who cares what he thinks— but if you went to a party and you were trying to have a conversation with a man, and what do you do, and do you have a kid, you always have to drop something into the conversation to let them know that you're not just a mother as if that would mean that you're just some automaton or lesser form of life.

 

SOPHIA: Who have been some of the most personally compelling female authors that you've encountered in your lifetime?

 

EILEEN: I think the first one who was really important was Grace Paley. My writing teacher gave me Grace’s stories and she sounded like people I knew. She sounded like me. And I was fortunate enough to meet her later in my life, which was really...she was such a good person, and the way she was politically active and she clearly had a life deeply impressed me. She had sexual partners, she had kids, you know? And a writer named Lynne Sharon Shwartz, who lives just up the block, who was my teacher at Iowa...I love her work, but she also just was a role model when there were very few. And she still is. And Joan Didion?

 

SOPHIA: Yeah...

 

EILEEN: I tend to forget how important Didion was to me in terms of her nonfiction. How a woman could write, the voice I wanted to sound like. Alice Munro and Lore Segal. A writer named Rosellen Brown. So these are people who are alive and walking the earth...Deborah Eisenberg...who I just really respect. I respect their intelligence, I respect their writing...Lorrie Moore...you know, the fight they've put up in the world, their teaching, the way they try to do some good in the world. And now Elena Ferrante. Great stuff.

 

SOPHIA: What do you feel that women in the world need from each other, or can do for each other presently?

 

EILEEN: This is the least original answer I could give, but I'm not going to make something up that I don't think is true. I really think it is women being kind to each other, and really looking out for each other. And not judging each other. And trying to give each other the kind of confidence and encouragement that the rest of the world may not be giving them. The one maybe slightly newer part that I can add to that is I think awareness of the stuff that's going on is most of the battle. That if you know that those magazine covers are going to be out there, or that people are going to say certain things or that they're not going to encourage you, to make sure you call it out. Laugh about it. Your reaction doesn't always have to be protest and anger. Sometimes it does. Right? So if the policy is bad, you gotta band together, or if somebody's sexually harassing everybody in the department, you gotta all get together and say we're all going to go on the record and get this guy; he's not going to be able to keep doing this. But a lot of it is laughter, and saying "what is this shit?"

I think one of the best stories I heard is these women, post-docs in the Physics department at Yale, or they were astrophysics post grads, and they said that when they were grad students, two of them were lab partners, and two guys were lab partners that didn't understand the format about how you were supposed to write up the results of your lab, so they borrowed the women's write-up and just put their results in. But they had the same results, the same format —they were basically identical lab results because the guys had copied from the women. The guys got an A and the women got a C. So the women go to the professor, and say, "look, they're the same! You gave them the A, you gave us the C, they copied from us, they're willing to admit it. How do you justify this?" It was an old guy and he was just like stuttering and stammering, and they just laughed. They felt sorry for the poor guy. And he said "oh all right I'll give you the A" and it was like, see, not everything has to be a federal case, because you lose a lot of energy that way. And the poor guy's not going to change —whatever. But because the women had each other, they could say "you're not crazy." It's when you're alone and that happens, and you don't know, and you're like "am I nuts?" But when you have somebody else…

I'm thinking of those seventh grade girls, and when you're in seventh grade you make so many decisions about yourself and what you can and can't do, based on stuff you're not aware of yet that's not really healthy and not going to be important in the long run. You make decisions that influence the whole rest of your life, and who you think you are, and what you're good at. I wish there were some way to get girls at that age on each other's side and not criticizing each other, not tormenting each other, but also saying, "Well no, you are good at math, take that course, or let’s all take that course.” And I still think that's the age to really focus on. That the older women, the teachers, their mothers, the guys, the fathers —that that's the age at which girls' psyches, I think, are shaped. And if you can really work with girls at that age to get them really conscious of the nonsense that's shaping their psyches, then that, I think, would have this effect for the rest of everybody's lives.


If you enjoyed this interview and think the work we do is important, please consider donating to Mythos, and most importantly, share the magazine with the women in your life. That’s why we do what we do, and it’s 100% free.

Donate