“I like seeing motherhood as a journey toward yourself”: an interview with literary biographer Julie Phillips

Julie Phillips by Chris van Houts

In her new book, The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem, literary biographer Julie Phillips searches for a theory of creative motherhood by investigating the lives of twentieth century artists and writers. She devotes in-depth chapters to painter Alice Neel and writers Doris Lessing, Ursula K. Le Guin, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker and Angela Carter, and sprinkles in shorter examinations of the mothering lives of Penelope Fitzgerald, Louise Bourgeois, Susan Sontag, and Elizabeth Smart. Phillips weaves together these eleven women’s lives and provides glimpses into her own life as a mother and literary biographer in this unique exploration of motherhood as an intellectual experience. This ambitious book reimagines the trope of the hero’s journey and applies it to motherhood—not as a journey of self-sacrifice, which is how motherhood has been framed traditionally, but as one of self-discovery.

The title comes from an apocryphal story from the life of Alice Neel, whose in-laws accused the artist of letting her young daughter wander off onto the fire escape of their New York City apartment while she was painting. Neel was faced with an impossible choice—should she devote herself to her art or to motherhood?—and broke down. Like all the women in the book Neel had periods of depression and failure in her search for self.

Phillips is based in Amsterdam. I spoke to her last summer when she was in Eugene, Oregon, working on a biography of Ursula K. Le Guin.

How did you pick this group of writers and artists to write about? Had you researched their lives before?

Some of them I’ve been interested in before, like Angela Carter, and I’m working on a biography of Ursula Le Guin. I was fascinated by Alice Neel, because I had read her biography and a monograph about her, and I just love her voice so much, that defensive bravado and the vulnerability underneath and the brilliance. I really fell in love with Doris Lessing—she also has that defensiveness.

I tried to balance the women’s careers out over time—from 1900 when Alice Neel was born to 1944 when Alice Walker was born. I tried to have a range of experiences from gay to straight and in between, from poor to well off, and to include people of color. I ended up with two African American women. Their inclusion made the book take a lot longer than it would have, partly because I needed to do a lot of reading before I could even begin to understand, or think I had anything to say, about Black motherhood, which is a very large and very sensitive subject. And partly because it was harder to find information about Black women’s experiences.

I tried to look at women who had already had a biography or had written a lot about motherhood, so I wouldn’t have to do the work from scratch. Both Audrey Lorde and Alice Walker have excellent biographies, but that’s not always the case. I think biographers working on Black women just don’t get the financial support or support in the sense of time off from an academic institution that they need to do that work. If that work hasn’t been done, it makes it that much harder for somebody like me to come along. I just felt like, that’s not an excuse. I can’t say, “Okay, that’s not there so I’m just going to skip over this part.” I felt like I had a responsibility to do that extra work. But it made me see how lack of diversity in the past makes lack of diversity in the present and in the future more difficult—that it perpetuates itself.

The temptation to try to read everything about motherhood and try to account for everything was enormous. It’s such a huge topic. I had to read and sift through so much to find those very abstract ideas that I was looking for, when these women were asking questions: “What is this experience? What does it look like?” Not, “Ooh, I changed a diaper today.” I was interested in their relationship to care or what the division between the caring self and the writing self looks like and whether it’s possible to bridge that gap. Lots of accounts of motherhood are very much embedded in day-to-day experience. I was trying to take a step back from that.

In the first chapter of your book, I appreciate your attempts to find a theory around motherhood and putting that rigor to a subject not theorized about much.

People ask me, “So what’s the thesis of your book? What’s it about?” I think it’s about motherhood as a hero’s journey. But then people look at me funny. I just read a really nice essay by Jessi Klein, who wrote in New York Magazine about motherhood as a hero’s journey a couple of weeks ago [an excerpt from her book I’ll Show Myself Out: Essays on Motherhood and Midlife]. Now I know that I’m not the only person who sees motherhood this way.

I appreciate you writing that motherhood changed your whole worldview. At the end of the book, you say that you started this book when your kids were little and ended it when they were off to college.

It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. In some ways, I approached it not thinking about motherhood so much as thinking about biography, which is something that I’ve written before and that I like. I was interested in looking at motherhood as the thread to hold together some of these women’s lives.

When I started working on the book, I ran up against the problem of not knowing what the narrative is of a mother’s life. There’s a clear narrative line when we talk about artistic careers, but the idea that there is a narrative line about motherhood is more difficult. Motherhood is not something you get better at through practice, necessarily. You keep having to learn to do it all over again because your kids change, they need new things from you, they demand things that maybe you hadn’t been called upon to provide before. It took me a long time to start thinking about motherhood as having a narrative line and not being just an accumulation of incidents, events, anecdotes, and moments of intense feeling. Parenting changes you. You change in response to it. You get lost and you find yourself and you go down into the underworld in a certain sense—night waking could qualify as an underworld all by itself. You come out of it with new knowledge and a new understanding of yourself. It keeps changing as your kids get older, as your circumstances change. You keep changing. You keep going back into the woods and coming out of it again.

Motherhood is not static, contrary to what Freud thought. It is often represented that way. The truth is altogether different. Being a mother is dynamic, and the dynamism of motherhood lends itself to narrative. I didn’t realize there was a story to be told about motherhood itself, apart from individuals’ experience of it, until I tried to write biography, and found I had no idea how. I didn’t know what the storyline of a mother’s life is. Sometimes I say this and people ask, “What are you talking about? What’s missing? I don’t see the problem.” Sometimes I think maybe I made up the problem, but is it clear to you?

Yes, it’s clear to me since I’m a writer who is a mother. I’ve never thought about theorizing motherhood. There are so many reasons why it’s not written about in that way—a lot of it is related to patriarchy. I wish someone like Maggie Nelson would write a book about it.

One of the things that made me think about theory was reading her memoir The Argonauts, which is a book I love. There is so much valuable thought in there about gender and sexuality. I was waiting for the theories about motherhood and the equally deep reflections on the experience of motherhood to appear in her book. Instead, I found a kind of protected space around motherhood—of treating it as an emotional experience and not an intellectual one.

Maybe it’s because she was in the throes of raising a child and didn’t have the distance to look at it in an intellectual way. There’s also that primal urge to protect your child.

Absolutely. There are a lot of different social forces that conspire to keep motherhood unexamined. I think that we have too much invested in motherhood as the thing that is carrying society forward. Our society has so much invested in making sure that people parent and particularly making sure that mothering happens. There’s still a lot of pressure on it, there’s a need to see it as natural.

I started reading your book when the news came out about Roe v. Wade possibly being repealed. Knowing how central contraception and reproductive freedom are to all the women you describe in your book, it seems so newsworthy, especially since we are in the moment where we are going backwards in terms of reproductive justice.

I felt like I had to talk about reproductive choices to give people more sympathy with the choices of people like Doris Lessing and Alice Neel, who became mothers without really wanting to. And the notions of reproductive choice, timing, and motherhood played such enormous roles in all the lives of all the women I wrote about. Trying to have some control over when you would become a mother and how many children was such a massive part of their lives. We’ve still got a long way to go with reproductive justice, but at least we have some control over fertility now.

I’d like to go back to what you said about Alice Neel and Doris Lessing, who could be characterized as “bad mothers” by some.

I’m curious how people will respond to the different women I write about. Some of them made choices I have a really difficult time with. I had a hard time with the women I wrote about who didn’t have an authentic relationship to their children and weren’t able to be their authentic self in relationship to their children. I think their children suffered.

In the case of Alice Neel, her daughter was being raised by her ex-husband’s family. They had an interest in casting themselves as the good guys and Alice Neel as the bad guy, so they told her daughter, “Your mother is a terrible mother because she‘s not taking care of you.” Of course, in the 1950s when she’s a teenager, the whole culture conspires to say that women who are working alongside their mothering are bad mothers. It’s not like kids don’t absorb that. They hear that and think, my mother is a bad mother, I’m not getting what I should from my mother. Alice’s daughter wanted a mother who wasn’t a painter. That was too much to ask.

You do a great job distilling people’s lives into discrete chapters. I was wondering about your process. I’m sure you have hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes. From a process point of view, how did you approached crafting the chapters?

I hadn’t written biographical essays before and I found it a difficult form, partly because I was talking about two different storylines—one of which I didn’t understand in the beginning. I’m not good at structuring something in advance. I read and I reread and my eye gets caught by some pretty quote or I come up with a new idea. Eventually, I managed to structure them into sections, where I think the turning points are—when they go down to the underworld and come back, realize something about themselves, have to remake themselves. Those were often the beginning points of new sections. It took me a while to figure that out.

I would think that the weight of the material would be so hard to get out from under.

It was like writing six or seven biographies. The other thing about writing about somebody as a mother as opposed to writing about their career is that you have to go deep into their intimate life to find the places where they’re writing about this. Some people are more open about it than others. Alice Walker was open about her experience as a mother. I spent a week in Audre Lorde’s archives, looking for traces of her motherhood in her letters. One of the things I like best in the book is Andre Lorde’s relationship with her friend Diane di Prima. They exchanged poems and Diane di Prima published Audrey Lorde’s first book of poetry. Audrey Lorde sent her baby clothes. She was present at the birth of her child. This intense relationship encompassed both care and intellectual exchange. I wanted that to be a model for all kinds of friendships between mother writers.

I wanted to ask about the passages in italics where you insert your own voice into the book, not necessarily as a narrator but as a framing voice.

I should have done more of that. It would have made the book a little more recognizable. It would have been in a genre that everyone acknowledges as important. Bookstores would have known where to put it. It’s been ending up in different places. I would have said that it was literary biography, but nobody else seems to think it fits there. I’m swimming against the stream as usual. I went into two Barnes & Noble stores in New York City. One had it in the Parenting section and the other had it in Current Affairs. Sometimes it gets on the Feminism shelf, the Women’s Studies shelf, which isn’t a bad place for it.

Current Affairs, that’s interesting.

Eternal Affairs, motherhood is Eternal Affairs. [Laughs.] Audre Lorde called motherhood “a long and sometimes arduous journey towards self-possession.” That’s a good way of thinking about it. I like seeing motherhood as a journey toward yourself.


Margaret Juhae Lee is the author of Starry Field: A Memoir of Lost History, forthcoming from Melville House in 2024. She received a Bunting Fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and Korean Studies Fellowship from the Korea Foundation in support of her book. She was an editor at The Nation and has published articles in The Nation, Newsday, Elle, ARTnews, The Rumpus and Ploughshares. She lives in Oakland with her family and Brownie, a rescue dog from Korea.

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