There's a famous Joan Didion quote that's been calligraphically deployed by many a Bookstagram user over the years: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." Devoid of context, it's possible to believe that Didion was earnestly promoting the importance of art — of writing — as a method of giving life meaning. But, as Eula Biss points out in her excellent new book of essays, Having and Being Had, Didion was instead being rather withering in her assessment of the ways in which we lie to ourselves in order to maintain our status in the world. Biss doesn't disagree with Didion's sentiment, but instead of using it as a dismissal, she uses it as a jumping off point, writing, “The lies we want to believe tell us something about ourselves." And there is perhaps no bigger lie in America right now than the idea that capitalism is a functioning system, and no more troubling reveal than what our continued hyper-reliance on capitalism means about who we are, and where we're headed.
In prior books, Biss has explored such thorny topics as whiteness and vaccinations, and now with Having and Being Had she tackles capitalism, money, art, gender, and, to a lesser extent, race. These are big topics, to be sure, but they are also small — they are the things that underpin every aspect of our daily lives. Biss is unflinching when broaching these often taboo subjects, and approaches them through a personal lens, writing about her own experience with home-ownership, gentrification, marital equality, motherhood, and being a working artist.
Below, Biss and I spoke about her book, the ambiguity of the term "middle class," and why retirement has become merely a dream for all but the wealthiest Americans.
There’s a point toward the end of Having and Being Had where you write that you weren’t sure how to end it — that there’s no resolution, really. But I wanted to start off by asking you to talk about how you began the book, and what made you inclined to approach such a complicated topic from such a personal place.
I think that the earliest seed for this book was actually planted by a passage that I wrote in my last book, On Immunity, where I was writing about vaccinations. Specifically, there was a very short passage that dealt with people who resist vaccinations for reasons that are anti-capitalist — or at least are imagined to be anti-capitalist. These are people who feel uncomfortable with big pharmaceutical companies and feel mistrust about vaccines, because they’re produced by these companies under a system that seems to privilege profits over the safety of consumers. And as I was writing, I realised that there was a much bigger subject there, the psychological effects of capitalism on our everyday lives and the way that interactions with all sorts of people — not just doctors or nurses or the people who invent and produce vaccines, but everyone around us — are influenced and coloured by the logic and value system of capitalism. The thing I was especially concerned with is where capitalism is damaging to relationships. When I was writing about vaccinations, it was clear to me that capitalism affects our ability to trust other people. If you believe that other people are solely motivated by profit, it is going to be difficult to trust them. [laughs]
To say the least! [laughs]
When that book came out, it was the same time I bought a house, and buying a house really opened a lot of questions and discomforts for me. What’s interesting to me, looking back, is that buying a house also made me significantly more comfortable in small and large ways. So even as I was enjoying these new comforts, I was also feeling really uncomfortable with my class position and with having something that I was aware that not everyone could have or did have. So there was kind of a contradiction there between enjoying these comforts and feeling uncomfortable with the comforts.
I feel like that dissonance, that constant paradoxical tension, is something that so many people feel living in America, and it’s something that’s only been amplified lately as we’ve been unable to deny that not only is nothing “normal” right now, but that the whole idea of “normal” was always a myth, or at least, very, very complicated.
I think one of the challenges of writing this book, initially, was I had just made this move into this lifestyle that I think is considered mainstream or normal — a middle-class lifestyle. But to me, it wasn’t normal compared to what I’d been living. So, all the things I was writing about were kind of extraordinary and strange and new to me, in my adult life. But one of the problems I ran into in the first draft was that, to some readers, that wasn’t showing up. It was just looking like an account of an average middle-class existence, which I think we’ve been trained — even if we don’t have that existence — to see it as “normal,” and not unusual. Even though home ownership is statistically not the norm, we’re supposed to see it as the norm through media and movies and TV shows. I feel like every interior I see in a TV show is an upper-middle-class interior. It’s not the way most people live, but we’re quietly being told that it is the normal way to be in America.
So part of the challenge in the book was to denormalise it, I guess? [laughs] Or find ways of exposing that this way of life is strange or excessive or predatory or complicit in inequality, because it’s deeply unjust. I often feel like we let the middle class of the hook when we talk about inequality — we talk about it being a problem of the very rich and the very poor and middle-class people are innocent bystanders. [laughs] I do not believe we’re innocent bystanders! We’re entirely complicit in this system.
Oh, absolutely. Even the idea of there being “a” middle class when “middle class” means different things based on income and location and race and ethnicity and other markers of social status that translate directly into capital into a way we often refuse to acknowledge. “Middle class” really means nothing, and yet we can all picture it — which is a real mind-fuck. But its power is in its ambiguity. Which is why it feels so subversive in the book that you make a real effort to be specific when talking about money — still a very taboo thing to do. Was it hard to write about everything so plainly?
It was excruciating. Totally excruciating. And I was surprised. I was taken aback by how excruciating it was, because I have written about a lot difficult subject matters, and things that people would be considered private or taboo; I’ve written about my own body, I’ve written in graphic detail about my experience with childbirth, I’ve written about my family, I’ve written about my love affairs, I’ve written about my racial identity, my own complicity with whiteness — really difficult subject matters. But I don’t think I’ve ever actually swerved as much as I swerved when I put the actual sums of money up on the page. And it did not become any easier to do that.
Very early in the book I made a rule for myself that I had to do that, and I don’t know that I would have had I not been following my own rule. The reason I made the rule is I saw myself trying to avoid it. There’s a section there where I’m talking to my sister on the phone, and I’m joking about the fact that I bought a house, and what I really bought was a $400,000 container for my washing machine, and the real impact on my life is having a washing machine, not the house. But I caught myself in that moment, rounding down the price of the house to my own sister. This is my own sister who knows very well what I make! And I had to ask myself in that moment, Why would you do that? Why would you lie to your own sister about the price of the house?
I realised that I wasn’t even really ready to be honest with myself about where I was financially and what my real class status was. And that’s how I ended up writing my salary on the page, and how much my father paid for my college tuition. And I found every single one of those moments excruciating, difficult, and embarrassing. And I still have mixed feelings about some of those things right now. I was honest about my salary when I wrote the book, but it’s changed since then. So, I was being open and transparent in the moment when I was writing the book, but now it feels like a lie. [laughs]
When getting into specifics about numbers, which seem like they’re so absolute, but are actually so mercurial, it’s hard not to be reminded of how made up all of this is, but also how much all of it still matters. And yet, extracting yourself from these constructs is so difficult, if not impossible, because it means denying yourself the ability to participate in so much else. It feels really hard for artists, as they constantly have to negotiate assigning value to what they do, and determine worthiness. These are topics you grapple with in the book, and they are big questions, really philosophical ones, but they’re also very quotidian. They come up all the time. When writing about that dissonance, did anything get clarified for you? Did you find answers or, like, peace?
Yes, yes! Doing the work of writing this book really did change my life in major ways, and affected a lot of big decisions for me. I think one of the consequences of the fact that I was more or less lying to myself about my own class status was that I believed myself to be more financially strained than I actually was. Before I started writing this book, I saw myself as more on the struggling end of the middle class, and that was because I felt stressed about paying the mortgage, and that worry coloured my sense of where I was economically. But I’m not on the struggling end of the middle class, statistically speaking — even when you look at local numbers, but especially when you look at national numbers, I’m firmly upper middle class, I’m on the comfortable end of the upper middle class, and so that actually surprised me. I’m kind of embarrassed to say that now [laughs], but I was a little surprised — more than a little bit — to discover that I’m on the rich end of the middle class, because I was so focused on the financial stress and strain of my life. I think many of us are, but those stresses and strains are more real for some people than they are for others. What I realised is they weren’t as real for me as I was making them.
One of the consequences of making these realisations and thinking about my own priorities in a new way, was that I went down to part-time in my job and took a major pay cut to do that, and so I’m making less in my salary, but I was able to make a big book contract. I realised that I really had a lot when it came to money, and what I was lacking in my life was time, to spend doing what I cared about, like art-making and parenting, and that I needed to re-adjust my life. And so I decided to take a lower salary.
But that’s one of the ironies of this book, that’s all about me wrangling decisions not to make as much money as I was making and to spend more time on writing… selling this book actually resulted in me making more money off my work and depending less on this salaried position. There was a real change in my relationship with precarity, too. My teaching position is less secure because I made that decision. I lost my access to health insurance. I get mine through my husband, but before I would have been entitled to my own. In thinking through some of the questions surrounding precarity in this book, I decided to accept a greater degree of precarity in my life, because I believe that in writing this book I realised I was sacrificing too much to security.
But, I say that as someone who is already secure. One of the things that shocked and upset me through this research is that you have to be essentially rich in this country to have some basic kinds of security. So health security, retirement security, educational security… it took me having a fairly high two-earner household income to also have two retirement accounts, a college savings account, health insurance, and a buffer in case something goes wrong. I was able to make some tough decisions about stepping away from my employment and spend more time with my art-making because of this privileged position, and that’s really enraging to me that the vast majority of people don’t have the luxury to make that decision, because they don’t have basic security.
All these things seem like they should be regular middle-class comforts, but even having access to good public education is a provenance of the wealthy. And, retirement? What’s that? [laughs]
Especially as a journalist or as a writer!
Being white is its own form of capital. You’ve written a lot about whiteness before, but how was it to explore it again through this book and its framework, in which you explore things like home-ownership and gentrification?
In this book, it was really interesting and in some ways revealing that my primary mode of entry [into a discussion of capitalism] was class or home ownership, because either way race comes up. In this country, I don’t think race is entirely distinct from class — we have a racialised class system. That’s part of what [Isabelle Wilkerson’s] book, Caste, is talking about; it’s akin to a caste system in some ways. Race is intrinsically tied up with our social system. There are moments where I had to make the call: Is this conversation about race? Or is it really about class? It’s something I really wrestled with as I was writing the book, where and when and how race enters into the conversation about class. And I think the answer is: It’s always there, it’s always relevant. And I just had to make a series of difficult decisions about when and how to bring it up.
Gender’s relationship to capitalism, especially as it pertains to being a working woman, is a key part of what you explore, particularly the way in which, as a woman artist, you need to work to make money, but you need money in order to work. What was the impetus behind exploring how being women of certain means informed the work of writers like Emily Dickinson and VIrginia Woolf and Joan Didion?
One of the ideas I was playing with and working with in this book — similar to the possibility that race in this country is a kind of class or caste system — was the possibility that gender was a class situation, and maybe even more like a caste or a social station that one is not released from by making a higher income. It’s part of what comes up in this comparison of race to caste, which is even when Black people are making an enormous amount of money or are middle or upper class, they’re still subject to this class system. You can’t buy your way out of it, right?
I was interested in looking at the ways in which I could and couldn’t buy my way out of my social status as a woman. And I’m particularly interested in that because I earn significantly more than my husband, and I have throughout our relationship. I’m actually the earner in my household, and so I’m in a different sort of position than many women in that regard, but I don’t feel like I’ve been released from the pressures and the limitations of misogyny and sexism by accessing a higher income. I have a fairly egalitarian marriage; like, I am the earner, but we divide household and childcare responsibilities fairly evenly. But even so I don’t feel like I have social equality with my husband in the sense that, for instance, I feel the pressures of motherhood in a way that's very different than how he experiences the pressures of fatherhood. And that’s not because of him or his attitude toward me, but it’s what Adrienne Rich would call the “institution of motherhood.” I feel the institution of motherhood bearing down on me.
Negotiating that institution has been a real draw on my energy and what I can do and have done as an artist. And, I have a kind of rage around that situation that my husband doesn’t have, He doesn’t feel that around parenthood, because he’s not subject to that institution.
Throughout this book I was really interested in every angle of what it meant to be in the middle. In this Marxist conception of the middle class that was somewhat clarifying to me, the middle class is subject to the control and power of the capitalists, but also has control and power over the proletariat. So the middle class is controlling and controlled simultaneously. And, as a white woman, I felt like being a white woman is another kind of middle class, in that there’s a social power I can leverage through being white and privileged, and then I’m subject to power and control because I’m a woman. It’s a contradictory and tricky and sometimes really confusing position to be in, to have certain kinds of access and be denied other sorts of access.
Some of it is also about my job as a teacher, where I’m feeling the pressures of sexism and misogyny in my everyday workplace, and those pressures are not lessened by me making a good salary. And I guess that explains why the ambitions of certain waves of feminism have been to achieve income equality, because once that’s achieved we’ll have a different kind of social equality. And I’m really not seeing that to be the case. [laughs]
Income equality is just one piece of the puzzle, and income equality will never even be real as long as all the work that traditionally is women’s work remains unpaid within the system. So, that’s one of the ways in which anyone who is simultaneously mothering and working in gained employment is automatically paid less in real wages, because there’s all this uncompensated work happening outside the workplace. I do think it’s not impossible to imagine a system in which we can find ways to compensate for this labor.
It’s interesting, though, because since we know that making more money at your job as a woman, particularly as a mother, does not alleviate many of the burdens placed on you, when you start to think about getting more compensation, you have to wonder where it all ends. Like, is all we’re doing just monetising every aspect of our lives? Maybe the right solution is just to decompensate everything. Because simply amassing more and more isn’t the answer — it can’t be. Because some people, most people, will always be left behind.
It’s like running through a labyrinth and hitting dead end after dead end. It’s like, yes, I don’t want to do all this uncompensated labor. But, no, I don’t want my work as a mother to be monetised. Nor do I particularly want my work as an artist to be monetised. I do think that one of the gifts of doing work that is uncompensated or under-compensated is knowing that you aren’t entirely owned by capitalism. Even though this book revealed to me the ways in which I am invested and complicit in this system, I also know that the vast majority of my time goes to non-earning activities, including mothering and art making. And that’s part of what makes me feel human — and free.