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.