Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement
by sue ellen browder
ignatius, 232 pages, $22.95
Subverted recounts the untold history of how the feminist and pro-abortion movements became allied. Part exposé, part conversion memoir, Browder’s book defies easy categorization, but by the end, I understood her approach. Browder’s honest account of her personal life—including her choice to have an abortion, despite being in a loving marriage—highlights the contradictions between reality and the flashy fantasy of the sexually liberated woman that she fabricated and peddled as a writer for Cosmopolitan during the heyday of the sexual revolution.
A particularly fascinating thread in the book is Browder’s nuanced profile of Betty Friedan. She was initially ambivalent about legalizing abortion; the issue of “reproductive rights” was conspicuously absent from the first edition of The Feminine Mystique. By the 1980s, she was blaming the “failure” of the women’s movement on “our blind spot about the family.” As Browder reveals, the pro-abortion movement—led by Larry Lader, the central villain of the book—was decidedly male until successfully wooing the National Organization for Women in 1967.
Browder does not demonize feminism altogether, nor does she romanticize the situation of women in America prior to the activism of Friedan and others. Browder herself was fired for being pregnant; legal protections for pregnant working women did not exist until 1978. (Tellingly, the legal right for women to get rid of pregnancies came years before the right to keep them without losing one’s job.)
In the latter half of the book, the focus shifts toward Browder’s personal journey into the Catholic Church, where she discovered, as I have, a more compelling vision of sexuality and womanhood.
—Abigail Rine Favale is an associate professor in the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University.
When Breath Becomes Air
by paul kalanithi
random house, 256 pages, $25
Paul Kalanithi was a Stanford neurosurgery resident who at age thirty-six was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. “I had mapped out this whole forty-year career for myself—the first twenty as a surgeon-scientist, and the last twenty as a writer.” Terminal cancer moved the writing forward on his calendar. At age thirty-seven, in March 2015, he died, leaving a wife (also a doctor), an eight-month-old daughter, and this book, which was published in January 2016.
One first hears the voice of the neurosurgeon: “I tacked back the dura with small stitches to keep it out of the way of the main surgery. The brain gently pulsed and glistened. . . .
The familiar peach convolutions of the brain beckoned.” Then there is his voice as a patient with a terminal diagnosis: “Standing at the crossroads where I should have been able to see and follow the footprints of the countless patients I had treated over the years, I instead saw only a blank, a harsh, vacant, gleaming white desert, as if a sandstorm had erased all trace of familiarity.”
Finally, there is the voice of a Christian believer:
Although I had been raised in a devout Christian family, where prayer and Scripture readings were a nightly ritual, I, like most scientific types, came to believe in the possibility of a material conception of reality. . . . The problem, however, eventually became evident: to make science the arbiter of metaphysics is to banish not only God from the world but also love, hate, meaning—to consider a world that is self-evidently not the world we live in.
Kalanithi closes with a word for his infant daughter: “You filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied.”
—J. A. Gray is the author of the novel Mr. Prynne.
The Gentle Traditionalist: A Catholic Fairy-tale from Ireland
by roger buck
angelico, 194 pages, $14.95
Part Maistrean dialogue, part Chestertonian farce, The Gentle Traditionalist features Geoffrey, a burnt-out recovering devotee of the New Age who travels to Ireland in pursuit of Anna, the lost love of his English undergraduate years. His awkward, stumbling proclamation of love is met by her worried rejection of him in favor of a vocation at a French traditionalist nunnery. In the resulting confusion, Geoffrey comes across a mysterious and mirthful man named Gilbert—the “gentle traditionalist” of the title.
The English author of this “Catholic fairy-tale from Ireland” devoted twenty years of his life to the dead end of New Age spirituality, and Buck displays a love for his adopted land and faith as only a foreigner and a convert can. This is a pleasant, rollicking, and weird journey, as any Catholic fairy tale from Ireland should be.
—Andrew Cusack writes from London.
by felix mitterer
translated by gregor thuswaldner with robert dassanowsky
university of new orleans, 144 pages, $13.95
Franz Jägerstätter, born in 1907, led a wild youth in Austria, turned to God after fearing he had killed another man in a fight, and settled down with a wife to run a farm and father children. In 1943, he refused the draft out of a conviction that a Catholic could not fight for Nazism. Defying the entreaties of mother, neighbors, priest, and bishop, he went to the guillotine. Even after the war, Jägerstätter’s countrymen called him a traitor and denied his widow, Franziska, and their three daughters any aid. Only in 2007 was Jägerstätter beatified by Benedict XVI.
This play by Felix Mitterer tells his story. The complicity of the Austrian people is represented by a chorus that chants slogans and curses at Jägerstätter before the play ends with a (repentant?) “Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, pray for us.”
Mitterer bans productions of the play from using Third Reich regalia. In his author’s note, he stipulates no swastika flags, no Nazi paraphernalia, and no Nazi uniforms. Jägerstätter’s non-compliance would seem too natural to us when set off against symbols that have become shorthand for evil. He’s more radical when his tempters (like the bishop who blesses the Catholics fighting for the Reich as “heroes” defending the homeland) aren’t decked out in Nazi apparel, but instead look and sound familiar to us. Mitterer does, however, invite a heavy-handed moralism when he asks that the play end with projected “scenes of recent wars and of cruelty.”
A quibble with the copy on the book’s back cover: It says, “Mitterer depicts Franz . . . as a courageous but struggling and insecure human being—and not at all as a saint.” But Jägerstätter in the play turns from sin and receives the grace to imitate Christ in a world hostile to him, dying to himself and inspiring other Christians like his wife—very much like a saint, indeed.
—Alexi Sargeant is a junior fellow at First Things.