Fierce Detachments

The Power Notebooks BY Katie Roiphe. New York: Free Press. 256 pages. $27.

The cover of The Power Notebooks

Katie Roiphe is someone who, by her own account, writes prose as if heading into combat: She describes her preferred authorial voice as “a vehicle, a tank.” But a while back she began to feel something lacking. “My usual ways of being in the world were no longer working,” she writes at the beginning of her new memoir, The Power Notebooks. “My theories and interpretations were wrong or inadequate.” She was used to building arguments and taking stands, but she wanted to try something different—something looser, more fragmentary, more vulnerable. She began keeping a notebook where she collected thoughts on her own life, her marriage and divorce, and the lives of writers like Mary McCarthy and Simone de Beauvoir. It was a way to explore the subject of “women and power.” By “power,” however, Roiphe means something specific, as she warns in her author’s note:

Please note that when I use the word “power” in these pages I don’t mean geopolitical power, or socioeconomic power or electoral power, or power in the broad Foucauldian sense. This is not a book about the vast inequalities and violence of the world we live in. It focuses on little things: the dynamics between people (friends, strangers, intimates) in a room. These dynamics reflect larger power relations, to be sure, but those are not my subject here.

This is the opposite of consciousness-raising. Yes, Roiphe says, sure, the personal is political, but let’s not bother with all that.

I read this as a preemptive strike on critics who might take Roiphe to task for her privilege. Yet the maneuver backfires: It makes you wonder what her subject actually is. As a reader, as a writer, I like “little things”—“the dynamics between people”—a lot; I might not even call them little. Still, making those things add up to a book generally requires a larger project—the illumination of analysis, research, or reporting; the narrative sweep of a novel or memoir. You might say that Roiphe is using “power” as a claim on our attention while dodging the hard part: actually writing about power. Or perhaps Roiphe’s author’s note is misdirection. Throughout the book, she sidles up to “power” in all those senses she says aren’t her subject; she gets close to it, considers it, seems prepared to engage, then retreats.

Roiphe began the book some two years ago. This was “a time of upheaval,” she writes, and it seems to date roughly to the early days of #MeToo. She started waking up early, mulling over episodes from her past, recording “stray observations, unresolved obsessions, passages from books I was reading.” The results, to her, “feel like nothing else I have ever written.”

Readers may find the form somewhat more familiar: Essentially, this is Katie Roiphe’s Tumblr. She muses about exes identified by first initials or nicknames only. (“This was during a brief period when D. and I had broken up and were conducting some sort of tortured friendship, which included depressing dinners.”) She blows her own mind a little reading I Love Dick. (“I find it riveting but also sort of repulsive.”) She shares unexpected photos of literary idols (de Beauvoir nude). It is like Katie Roiphe has a Tumblr, and also like Katie Roiphe believes she has invented having a Tumblr.

In the notebooks, Roiphe finds herself “experimenting, following possibly disturbing tangents, pursuing diverging lines of thought.” Much of what her experimentation produces lies within the realm of commonplace pop-feminism. For example: “It sometimes seemed to me that we like the idea of powerful women, but we don’t like powerful women themselves.” Or: “A woman writer writing about herself is basically guilty until proven innocent. We think, Why can’t she stop talking about herself?” If the familiarity is exasperating rather than just a little dull, it’s because Roiphe seems to hold herself aloof from the audience for those insights. I’m thinking of people like her NYU students, who (she reports) annoy her by using the word relatable to praise Roxane Gay and Leslie Jamison. “They know all of my objections to the word, but they can’t stop themselves from using it in class,” Roiphe writes, and—fair enough! Being annoyed by the word relatable is a highly relatable complaint.

Roiphe writes that the particulars of her life “are no more or less interesting than anyone else’s.” Still, she doesn’t seem entirely convinced. Other women, she tells us, write to be liked; Roiphe writes to fight. Other mothers wear practical shoes; Roiphe wears pink suede platform heels. “Wow, you really do whatever you want,” a male colleague tells her (and she tells us) when she’s single and pregnant with her second child. It’s a moment she also included in her book In Praise of Messy Lives, and it seems to capture the self-image she prefers.

Roiphe, to her credit, acknowledges the romance she finds in the role of contrarian. “The impulse to say something most people don’t want to hear may have less to do with bravery and more to do with desire. To be outside, to live in a little shack on the beach away from everyone else, to be exiled.” Faced with circumstances that might render her ordinary, Roiphe sometimes defaults to a posture of jaded uninterest. At one point she describes her intermittent involvement with a glamorous older man, someone whose inherited wealth permits him to remain staunchly unconventional. They part ways for good after she takes a magazine assignment he feels is beneath her; in an email, she writes, “I was thinking there is almost a class divide between us, in that I have to write for a living, & have no other money: I can’t afford some of the aesthetic positions you take. It’s just a boring, practical difference between us.”

There’s an echo of that sentiment at the end of Roiphe’s 2018 Harper’s Magazine essay on #MeToo, a piece in which she discussed the “other whisper network” of “deeply anonymous” #MeToo skeptics among her friends. After enumerating her reservations about “Twitter feminists”—their methods, their worldview—Roiphe concludes:

There is, of course, sexism, which looms and shadows us in all kinds of complicated and unmappable ways, but is it the totalizing force, the central organizing narrative, of our lives? This is where the movement veers from important and exhilarating correction into implausibility and rationalization. (One of the deeply anonymous says, “This seems like such a boring way to look at your life.”)

Paying too much attention to systems and structures would mean casting her lot with everyone else. It would mean identifying herself with a group larger than de Beauvoir, McCarthy, and Janet Malcolm. Roiphe concedes there’s an overarching power structure; she just finds focusing on it to be tiresome, beside the point—“boring.”

Yet certain of Roiphe’s autobiographical sketches succeed in capturing, with uncomfortable immediacy, the experience of confronting something larger and genuinely unresolved. Early in the book, she relates an episode to which she returns, circling, throughout the pages that follow. It takes place during her first marriage, to a man she calls H. The couple have been enjoying an afternoon with friends while their baby daughter grows cranky. When they leave, the baby doesn’t want to be buckled into her car seat; they drive off, and the baby begins to scream.

He says, icy calm, “Why can’t you control her?” He drives, the baby wails. The car coughs and rattles. I think he may hit another car as he swerves lanes. Then he stops, the brakes shrieking impressively. “Get out.” I wait. He says again, “Get out.” I take the baby, who is amazed into silence. I have no stroller. I have no money.

Roiphe walks more than a mile home. (“The baby,” she notes, “has probably never witnessed such an effective display of her own power.”) So why did she get out? What kind of power (besides the baby’s) was at work? Years have passed, that baby is now a teen, and Roiphe is still trying to make sense of her own behavior. “Why didn’t you just say no?” friends ask. Roiphe doesn’t know how to reply.

We learn a bit more about H. During their marriage, he’s prone to raging over offenses like a knife left the wrong way on the dish rack; his screaming is so loud that neighbors call the landlord. He’s six-four, and although Roiphe says she never “consciously” worried about violence, she acknowledges a “latent physical threat.” Also, he makes all the money: He has “an actual job,” she’s a freelance writer, and once they move in together, he pays the bills and rent. They become happy co-parents only after they’re divorced.

Understanding this story as representative of something beyond Roiphe and her ex—something about “women” and “power” in general—would seem to require thinking about “power” in some of the senses that Roiphe has declared off-limits. And near the end of The Power Notebooks, Roiphe contemplates taking that leap. She has a conversation with a woman who calmly calls her own ex-husband “abusive,” and is struck by that word. “At another point in my life I would probably have called a word like this too ‘simple’ for an incredibly intricate human situation, but it is not simple,” she writes. “I would have called it ‘inadequate,’ which may be closer. But now I can see that it also has its uses. It might mark the point at which someone says, too much.”

And yet, thinking about her own life, Roiphe stops short. To call what she went through “abuse,” she explains, would mean admitting the power H. had over her; it would mean acknowledging her own fear. Vulnerability and victimhood are what she believes the world wants from women, and she doesn’t want to give in. A moment like this could be an opening: an occasion to advance into new territory and explore the ambivalence that might lie behind stories she had previously dismissed. Perhaps other women share her resistance to victimhood; perhaps they’d also rather see themselves as free agents who do what they want, say no, stay in the car.

Instead: “The word abusive strikes me as impossible,” Roiphe writes, “not just because of what it says about H. but because of what it says about me.”

Molly Fischer is a writer and editor in New York.