What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal by E. Jean Carroll

Like many Goodread reviewers confess, I had never heard of E. Jean Carroll before picking up What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal, but turns out she’s famous. She’s been a “somebody” in one fashion or another since college. Most famously, she is the advice columnist at Elle magazine and has been since 1993. In her feminist take on Jonathan Swift’s satire A Modest Proposal, Carroll produces the most straight-shooting yet lost-in-the-woods book I’ve ever read.

With a Prius full of organic beans and her dog, E. Jean Carroll sets out across America to ask women, “What Do We Need Men For?” This question is a trick, of this I am convinced. On the one hand, other people, animals, and technology can completely replace what men provide women. On the other hand, I would need to seek out an identical version of my husband, but as a woman. And where do trans and non-binary people fit into this? Because it’s a satire, you should never take Carroll’s book too seriously. Don’t get hung up on the question.

In fact, our advice columnist admits to sexually harassing men herself. She also has a list of men (including the wonderful writer Tom Robbins) who make the “honorary women” roster. She’s not actually crafting a theory and testing it, nor is she making a larger point that I can identify. Thus, my claim that this book is “lost in the woods,” so to speak. Between listing all her favorite motel beds that she’s slept on in her 75 years and the unidentifiable (to me) outfits she wore, my brain twirled around and wondered if I was a child in the grocery store whose mom had been right there just a moment ago.

Those outfits. Never in my life have I heard of the color “lava-gray.” It’s easy to feel like you’re swimming in a pile of unidentifiable clothing, including a “jaunty Korean driving cap, Stewart hunting-plaid kilt, and the giant grosgrain bows on [her] three-tone saddle shoes.” This is one outfit, but the way. And to put on a shirt and a Chinese wrap and a vest and a cheerleading sweater and something with fringe — I mean, I can’t even picture this abominable snowman she must have transferred herself into with all those layers. The clothes are ridiculous and largely unidentifiable to those who wear such dull numbers “shirts” and “pants.”

Then, Carroll describes what happened after she was raped in a department store very directly and proceeds to state the facts of what occurred to the best of her memory. It’s all so direct, with no gray areas or room for interpretation, that getting caught up in her favorite beds and silly outfits felt like a fake left as the writer threw right hook. Every so often, a story — of an attempted rape (there are a few), of a hand shoved up a skirt (there are a few), of a man later convicted as a serial killer who tried to enter Carroll’s house but her dog stopped him (happened just once, thankfully) — sneaks out of the basement, shouts its existence, and runs back down the stairs, slamming the door behind its reeking memory.

The result is a book that left me feeling in the middle. Sometimes I was befuddled, other times wanting to hear a more complete story of what happened that one time with the likes of Hunter S. Thompson or a famous actress. The stories of assault were scattered, but in many cases E. Jean Carroll explains that before writing the book (and she writes as if she’s directly talking to us, as if she’s calling up for a chat), she’d never told anyone what happened to her, so it’s understandable that this book was a process of sorts that was published as such.

17 comments

  1. I’ve idly noticed this book being talked about, without paying much attention. But as you describe it it is maybe an early step in dealing with trauma – plopping the important bits down in the middle of the pop psychology (or sociology, both subjects I’ve spent my life avoiding) and weird dress sense.

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    • The author is already famous, so this book may be an auto-buy for some readers. As a result, she could likely write anything she wanted. I was both sad about her experiences and disappointed that the book didn’t come together as a coherent work.

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  2. Gosh, that does sound a bit of a shocking muddle and something that maybe should have stayed in the therapist’s office. i will admit to never having heard of her. Lava-grey can describe a few of my clothes, though!

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  3. Sooo my local writers fest just finished up, and they had E Jean, and I went to two of her events. She is quite the force, and I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of her before, until I saw her accusation on twitter of Donald Trump raping her. She’s scattered, like you say, and her outfits are quite outrageous. But her main ‘message’ in her events was the importance of women speaking up, and how different it was back in her day. She also spoke quite a bit about dealing with trauma, and how she simply moves forward, because she was criticized about how she spoke about the Trump rape, she didn’t seem upset enough about it, etc. All very fascinating stuff, but to be honest, I didn’t have a strong desire to read her book, just continue to listen to her speak haha

    FYI-she wore an orange jumpsuit in ‘honour’ of all the women who spoke out about being assaulted, and nothing ever happened. She jokes that she’s keeping the orange suit warm for Trump when he goes to jail 🙂

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    • That’s a good joke 😀

      Wow, what good timing that you saw her! It’s interesting that her in real life is basically her on the page. Some stuff she wrote was really funny, but it also sounds like reading her book would give you more of seeing her in person. She didn’t talk much (it was more like insinuating) about Trump, but there were other men she totally named, and I know that many women won’t name names for fear of repercussions. In that sense, she’s brave and I look up to her for speaking out. She did mention that after this one man raped her in a department store she did not have any strong emotional reaction; however, she also did not have any physical relationships with men ever again. That was over 20 years ago.

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  4. Great review! This sounds like such a mix of highs and lows, and I’m not sure it would work for me, but I’m grateful for the introduction. I hadn’t heard of E. Jean Carroll either, but I appreciate women having the opportunity to share their stories in a public way if they wish, and it does sound like she’s taken a step toward processing what’s happened to her.

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    • She’s an older woman, and I wonder if she feels like she will no longer face the kinds of repercussions that a younger woman might have, either today or when she was young. I mean, once Rose McGowan came out against Weinstein, that’s all anyone seems to remember her for — which is great for women, but not great for her career.

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  5. There is nothing that causes me to lose my train of thought quicker in a book than a list of clothing – I’m just so uninterested, and like you say, it can sometimes get to be a bit of a muddle. I think I will skip this one (but I enjoyed your review a lot)!

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