Kaminer, Wendy 1950(?)-
KAMINER, Wendy 1950(?)-
PERSONAL: Born c. 1950. Education: Smith College, B.A. (cum laude), 1971; Boston University Law School, J.D., 1975.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Beacon Press, 25 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02108-2892.
CAREER: Author, attorney, social critic. Legal Aid Society, Criminal Defense Division, Brooklyn, NY, staff attorney, 1977-78; Office of the Mayor, City of New York, Midtown Enforcement Project, staff attorney, 1978-80, 42nd Street Development Project, consultant, 1980-81; Loft Board, New York, consultant, 1983-84; Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA, visiting scholar, 1987-99; Tufts University, Boston, MA, lecturer in English, 1988-90; Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, affiliated scholar, 1999-2001; American Prospect, senior correspondent, 1999—; former commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.
AWARDS, HONORS: Guggenheim fellowship, 1993; Extraordinary Merit Media Award, National Women's Political Caucus, 1993; Smith College medal, 1998.
Women Volunteering: The Pleasure, Pain, and Politics of Unpaid Work from 1830 to the Present, Anchor Press (Garden City, NY), 1984.
A Fearful Freedom: Women's Flight from Equality, Addison-Wesley, (Reading, MA), 1990.
I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions, Addison-Wesley (Reading, MA), 1992.
It's All the Rage: Crime and Culture, Addison-Wesley (Reading, MA), 1995.
True Love Waits: Essays and Criticism, Addison-Wesley (Reading, MA), 1996.
Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Free for All: Defending Liberty in America Today, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2002.
Contributing editor, Atlantic Monthly, 1991—; IntellectualCapital.com, columnist, 1997-2001; Free Inquiry, columnist, 2000—; contributor of articles and reviews to periodicals and Web sites, including the New York Times, Village Voice, Mirabella, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Examiner, Nation, Dissent, Wall Street Journal, New Republic, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, and Slate.com.
SIDELIGHTS: In her nonfiction works, author and social critic Wendy Kaminer has tackled a variety of subjects, including the feminist movement, the self-help industry, and the U.S. criminal justice system. Yet, regardless of the topic, similar themes emerge, including victimhood and personal accountability. Described by Toronto Sun writer Heather Bird as "one of the freshest feminist voices around," Kaminer has been praised for her no-nonsense approach and provocative arguments. Some critics, however, cite the lack of recommendations for change in her works as a cause for concern. Her response, as given in an America Online interview, is: "I'm better at criticism than social engineering, so I always have a hard time answering good practical questions like 'what can the average person do?' . . . I'm best at knowing what I can do personally, which is write and think about issues like these. . . . I've always felt that my part of the job was to analyze and criticize in the hope that other people might use my work to forge solutions."
Women Volunteering: The Pleasure, Pain, and Politics of Unpaid Work from 1830 to the Present, Kaminer's first book, outlines women's volunteering efforts from 1830 through the 1980s. The nonfiction work contains interviews with female volunteers who cross various social and economic strata, as well as those of different ages. The book outlines the evolution in history of female volunteers from members of the social elite in the late 1800s to the modern career woman who volunteers. Feminism was the catalyst for this change, according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Wanda Urbanska wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that Women Volunteering is "a revisionist, feminist look at the tradition of 'public housewivery.'" Ellen McDermott noted in Library Journal that Kaminer writes of the satisfaction women derived from volunteering that they did not experience at home or in their careers.
Kaminer gained significant critical recognition with her next nonfiction work, Fearful Freedom: Women's Flight from Equality, in which she explores issues such as abortion, pornography, divorce, and child custody. Susan Jacoby of Washington Post Book World called the book a "cogently reasoned, impassioned history of protectionist versus egalitarian feminism in the United States." As defined by Jacoby, the two divergent schools of feminist thought are "special protection based on presumed differences between the sexes" versus "equal opportunity for women," with feminists of the 1990s, according to Kaminer, preferring the former. Kaminer, who advocates the egalitarian model, claims that protective laws reinforce the stereotype of the weak, passive, and dependent woman. Instead, she favors laws and policies that have an equal standard for both men and women.
One of the issues Kaminer discusses in Fearful Freedom is the debate during the late 1980s over the legality of banning women of childbearing age from working at jobs that involved exposure to toxins that could effect their reproductive ability. The author points out the bias toward protecting women and their fetuses while ignoring the possible harm to men's reproductive systems. She suggests a more equitable, yet possibly more expensive, solution: that workplace improvements be instituted to protect workers of both sexes. Kaminer also criticizes the special workplace considerations for working mothers that have been tagged the "mommy track." She prefers solutions that address the responsibilities of both parents, including those such as parental leave policies and on-site daycare. In an America Online interview posted on the Web site of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Kaminer summed up her stance: "My notions of justice require that we treat people as individuals and that we don't use sex as a predictor of character or behavior any more than we use race."
In a review for Publishers Weekly, Genevieve Stuttaford commended Kaminer for her "compelling scholarship" in Fearful Freedom. Library Journal's Christy Zlatos called Kaminer's arguments "strong." Jacoby concluded her review by saying that "protectionism, in the author's opinion, has always reflected 'an essentially tragic view of relations between the sexes . . . founded on a view of women as perennial victims.'"
Kaminer's best-selling I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions (a parody of psychiatrist Thomas Harris's 1969 title I'm OK, You're OK) serves as "a stinging critique of the national infatuation with recovery and self-help—and the billion-dollar industry it has spawned," commented People contributor Sue Avery Brown. Nora Underwood wrote in MacLean's that the book "attacks the premise that everyone is a victim of something." Kaminer's research involved reading numerous self-help books and attending meetings of various support groups that generally followed the twelve-step format introduced by Alcoholics Anonymous. In her book, she carefully distinguishes between pure support groups—for example a gathering of cancer sufferers—and self-help organizations that promote an ideology. Kaminer dislikes the idea of surrendering one's will, whether to a charismatic leader, a system, or a higher power (as defined by religious faith). She believes that the trend toward encouraging people to follow the methods of so-called experts wrongly relieves individuals of personal accountability and presents them with the message that they are incapable of controlling their behavior. She writes: "What were once billed as bad habits and dilemmas . . . are now considered addictions, or reaction to the addictions of others, or both." "Programs that address such problems, Kaminer says, are based on self-pity," noted Underwood.
Kaminer explained to Brown that "the recovery movement is based on the notion that we are all diseased." Michael Vincent Miller wrote in the New York Times Book Review, that this means we are all either "in recovery" or "in denial" of our problems. In I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional Kaminer explores "the ominous effect of all this institutionalized whining on our culture and politics," wrote Beryl Lieff Benderly in Washington Post Book World. The author points out that the recovery and self-help industries have spawned their own words, such as "reparent," "inner child," "codependent," and, of course, "dysfunctional," which have become almost meaningless due to excessive use. She argues that the recovery movement has furthered the notion that problems can unfailingly be traced to the fact that one did not enjoy the unconditional love allegedly required to have sufficient self-esteem. According to Miller, Kaminer contends that the philosophy behind the self-help movement "tends to trivialize suffering by melodramatically refusing to distinguish among levels of suffering or victimization." Miller called Kaminer's work "an extremely witty, if sometimes harsh, appraisal" of the movement, while acknowledging that she "has a real gift for honing her anger to an epigrammatic edge." Underwood further commented that Kaminer "criticizes the self-help movement for encouraging simplistic beliefs."
In It's All the Rage: Crime and Culture, Kaminer takes issue with the American public's irrational viewpoint on crime. While people are outraged at the sheer volume of violent or unlawful acts, they are often sympathetic to individual criminals. As an example, she suggests that some of the same people who supported California Governor Pete Wilson's tough stance on crime may also have preached sympathy for murder suspect O. J. Simpson. In her book she writes, "It was easy to imagine a demonstrator holding a sign saying 'Three strikes you're out' in one hand and 'Free the Juice' in the other." Another issue upon which the author focuses is the death penalty. Although polls suggest that more than seventy-five percent of the American public favors the death penalty, Kaminer remains vehemently opposed to capital punishment. She maintains that the death penalty does not deter crime, that it has resulted in the execution of innocent people, and, ultimately, that it cannot be administered fairly in a society with racial and socioeconomic biases.
David J. Garrow argued in the New York Times Book Review that despite "occasionally provocative observations," the author "fails to develop any sustained critique or analysis of the American criminal justice system." Suzanne Gordon, writing in Washington Post Book World, deemed Kaminer's work a "sometimes unstructured but always interesting reflection on the problem of crime and punishment in America." Gordon wrote, "Whether or not one agrees with all of Kaminer's arguments, this provocative book certainly accomplishes what it intended—to make readers scrutinize a web of cultural contradictions and reflect on their own and society's vicious cycle of rage and far too shallow repentance." In a Reason Online review, Cathy Young described All the Rage as "fascinating at times," but noted that because "Kaminer is more interested in questions than in answers
. . . it gives the book a tentative quality that can become frustrating." Lorrin Anderson wrote in National Review that "her meditations on the politics of crime, on liberal and conservative perspectives, are occasionally stimulating, not always predictable, and frequently on target."
True Love Waits: Essays and Criticism, is a collection of essays and book reviews that Kaminer wrote over the course of sixteen years. The writings cover topics such as the premarital chastity movement for teenagers, gun control, gender roles, and criminal justice. A Kirkus Reviews writer who called Kaminer "smart and judicious," summed up the work as "an acerbic, witty, and commonsensical collection of essays on feminism, crime, and pop psychology." Bird wrote that Kaminer "quickly dispenses with nonsense and issues a gettough order. Stop your bellyaching she says. That will clear the path to true equality. The endless whining and constant taking of offence simply make women look weak." In an article for Women's Review of Books, Tricia Rose wrote that the author "takes up various feminist debates, navigating a rather independent, sometimes inconsistent path." Pamela R. Daubenspeck commented in Library Journal, that the work is a "thought-provoking collection."
In reviewing Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety for Knowledge Technology and Policy, David Clarke wrote that Kaminer "is a self-professed skeptic, skewering Bible Belters from the outré point of view of a religious minority member brought up to not believe a word of it. She doesn't see much difference between believing that the Holy Ghost, angels, or Martians are moving among us—they are all someone else's invisible little friends to her." Kaminer does appreciate the moral codes common to the major religions, but she favors the choices one makes for him or herself, rather than those made based on unproven beliefs.
Robert L. Park wrote in Issues in Science and Technology that Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials "is fun, but it is also deeply troubling. In an age of science, we are reminded, irrationalism is raging out of control. Kaminer quotes from polls showing that almost all Americans profess a belief in God, with seventy-six percent picturing God as a heavenly figure that pays attention to their prayers. Society honors faith. Belief in that which reason denies is associated with steadfastness and courage, where skepticism is often identified with cynicism and weak character. That's pretty hard to fit into a scientific worldview, but few scientists are willing to say so publicly. Kaminer writes: 'In this climate of faith in the most ridiculous propositions—with belief in guardian angels commonplace—mocking religion is like burning a flag in an American Legion hall.'"
Caroline Knapp wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Kaminer "focuses on the results of irrationality (the behaviors) rather than its more complex sources (the feelings that lead to the behaviors), which diverts her from what might have been more probing speculation about spiritual yearning, about the reasons we choose particular paths at particular points in history." Salon.com reviewer Andrew O'Hehir felt that Kaminer "is right, of course, that a lot of people are ready to swallow any far-fetched notion that makes the painful and lonely business of living and dying more tolerable. But in an era when the secular authorities of science and government have so often proved corrupt, almost everyone feels the need to look elsewhere, at least sometimes, for absolute verities." Kaminer covers other subjects in addition to religion, including New Age, spiritualism, pop psychology, junk science, cyberspace, satanic rituals, and false memories of sexual abuse.
An avowed civil libertarian, Kaminer is open about her mistrust of government, particularly when it seeks to limit or revoke the liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Most of the essays of Free for All: Defending Liberty in America Today also were original to American Prospect, Dissent, Free Inquiry, and other periodicals. She puts forth her views on a number of issues, all of which involve personal freedom. They include flag burning, pornography, gay marriage, victim's rights, identity politics, witchcraft, and other subjects. She contends that Americans have sacrificed their freedom because of fear, and that this has resulted in the derailing of necessary reforms, including the issues of the death penalty and immigration reform.
Kaminer expresses her concern about a growing police state in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, including the proposed use of national identification cards and other invasive security measures. Kaminer sees the restriction of liberty in domestic surveillance, military trials, and refusal to allow dissent or protest by the American people. A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that Kaminer "aims her crisp writing, clear thinking, and deflating humor equally on all who would challenge liberties, from antipornography feminists to prosurveillance attorneys general."
Kaminer cites specific cases, including that of a man suffering with AIDS who was unable to use medical marijuana while awaiting trial for possession. He died before sentencing, asphyxiated by his own vomit. Her skewering of government interference in this man's choice, assisted suicide, and drug and HMO policy are found in the essay titled "When Congress Plays Doctor."
Nan Levinson wrote in Women's Review of Books that "to be a civil libertarian is to be hyperbolic occasionally and paranoid often; freedom is usually under attack in some way, and measures that undermine it are like a computer virus, worming their way into the system, draining off resources and proving very hard to dislodge once in place. To combat this tendency, Kaminer puts her faith in good evidence, intellectual and legal consistency, and fair processes." Levinson spelled out Kaminer's principles, that "people should be free to speak their minds," that "government should neither interfere with nor promote religion," that "everyone is entitled to due process in judicial proceedings, and the law must be clear about what it prohibits," that "people should not be found guilty for the company they keep," that "just because some people abuse a right, it shouldn't be denied to all people," and lastly that "all Americans have the same rights." Levinson wrote that Kaminer "deserves credit for taking on the hard parts of freedom and for refusing to reduce the debate to partisan politics. Free for All is smart, tart, sensible, and feisty."
Reason contributor Sara Rimensnyder interviewed Kaminer, asking her if we have seen the worst of the trends she writes of. Kaminer said, "I don't think so. . . . I doubt very much that we have seen the worst of it."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Kaminer, Wendy, I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions, Addison-Wesley (Reading, MA), 1992.
Kaminer, Wendy, It's All the Rage: Crime and Culture, Addison-Wesley (Reading, MA), 1995.
Free Inquiry, fall, 1999, Erika Hedberg, interview with Kaminer, p. 44.
Issues in Science and Technology, spring, 2000, Robert L. Park, review of Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety, p. 91.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1996, review of True Love Waits: Essays and Criticism, pp. 198-199; August 1, 2002, review of Free for All: Defending Liberty in America Today, p. 1097.
Knowledge Technology and Policy, spring, 2000, David Clarke, review of Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials, p. 106.
Library Journal, October 15, 1984, Ellen McDermott, review of Women Volunteering: The Pleasure, Pain, and Politics of Unpaid Work from 1830 to the Present, p. 1955; April 15, 1990, Christy Zlatos, review of Fearful Freedom: Women's Flight from Equality, p. 108; April 1, 1996, Pamela R. Daubenspeck, review of True Love Waits, p. 104.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 20, 1985, Wanda Urbanska, review of Women Volunteering, p. 8.
Maclean's, July 13, 1992, Nora Underwood, review of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions, p. 43.
Mother Jones, March-April, 1998, Maria Tapp, interview with Kaminer, p. 61.
National Review, June 12, 1995, Lorrin Anderson, review of It's All the Rage: Crime and Culture, pp. 66-67; November 22, 1999, Norah Vincent, review of Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials, p. 52.
New York Times Book Review, May 17, 1992, Michael Vincent Miller, review of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, pp. 1, 43-44; April 23, 1995, David J. Garrow, review of It's All the Rage, p. 33; October 24, 1999, Caroline Knapp, review of Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials, p. 18; October 6, 2002, Paula Friedman, review of Free for All, p. 33.
People, June 22, 1992, Sue Avery Brown, review of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, pp. 57-58.
Progressive, March, 2000, Linda Falkenstein, review of Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials, p. 44.
Publishers Weekly, October 5, 1984, review of Women Volunteering, p. 80; March 30, 1990, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Fearful Freedom, p. 47; August 12, 2002, review of Free for All, p. 290.
Reason, December, 2002, Sara Rimensnyder, interview with Kaminer, p. 17.
Skeptical Inquirer, Jim Sullivan, review of Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials, p. 52.
Toronto Sun, April 14, 1996, Heather Bird, review of True Love Waits.
Washington Post Book World, May 27, 1990, Susan Jacoby, review of Fearful Freedom, p. 5; July 5, 1992, Beryl Lieff Benderly, review of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, p. 6; June 25, 1995, Suzanne Gordon, review of It's All the Rage, pp. 3, 13.
Women's Review of Books, September, 1996, Tricia Rose, review of True Love Waits, pp. 17-18; February, 2003, Nan Levinson, review of Free for All, p. 1.
American Civil Liberties Union Online,http://archive.aclu.org/ (June 24, 1995), America Online interview.
Reason Online,http://www.reason.com/ (May, 1995), Cathy Young, review of It's All the Rage.
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com (November 17, 1999), Andrew O'Hehir, review of Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials.*