It’s disturbing to be writing about E. Jean Carroll’s 2019 memoir What Do We Need Men For?: A Modest Proposal the same weekend we attended a romantic family wedding. It was discomfiting reading the book in the Austin hotel room where we stayed, curled up in a chair during intervals between the rehearsal dinner, neighborhood explorations, and the wedding itself.
As Carroll’s title suggests, she is questioning the need for men and employing Jonathan Swift’s “modest proposal” idea (melting them all down for their chemical content) as an alternative to keeping them around. Carroll, now 79, hearkens back to the gutsy career girls of the 60s, 70s, and beyond. A beauty queen (pace Trump’s “not my type”), she was accustomed to fighting men off at every turn.
That’s why it’s hard to know whether to recommend the book and to whom. If you’re like me and obsessively following the New York defamation case against Donald Trump, fingers crossed for Carroll, you might want to read it. But be forewarned by author Dani Shapiro’s blurb on the front cover: “The most bitterly funny, fantastically furious book to explode out of the #metoo movement.” Funny and fantastic, but don’t forget the bitter fury.
Carroll organizes the book around the twenty-one most hideous men in her life (Trump is #20) and a tour of the country, visiting towns named after women. She cheekily asks people she meets what we need men for. Their answers are inconclusive.
Though she likes many men very, very much, Carroll shares some truly terrible experiences. She was abused by a babysitter and camp counselor, almost raped as a teen, molested by various famous men, and attacked by her then husband, yet she maintains a jarringly breezy style: the book is a very weird mix. Describing an ugly alleged encounter with Les Moonves, then CBS head, she admits she’s making herself sick. You’ll feel the same at times.
For all of her sprightly cynicism, however, E. Jean is a romantic at heart, as you can see from perusing her charming advice columns, which ran for twenty-six years in Elle magazine. An Elle editor called her “modern, quirky, and cheeky.” Her quirky book jerks you from jokey anecdotes about her sweet dog, who came along for the ride, to ugly stories about the exploitation of women by (some) powerful men. It’s sui generis.
Consider this a recommendation and a trigger warning in equal measure.