Susan Estrich is a nationally syndicated columnist, political commentator for Fox News, professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California, practicing attorney, and path-breaker. She was the first female president of the Harvard Law Review, the youngest woman to receive tenure at Harvard Law School and the first woman to head a national presidential campaign when she took the helm for Governor Michael S. Dukakis. The author of eight books, Estrich made her mark on the legal landscape 20 years ago with her first publication, Real Rape: How the Legal System Victimizes Women Who Say No, which is still assigned in law schools as the authoritative text on rape law. Estrich’s other books include Getting Away With Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System, The Case for Hillary Clinton and Sex and Power.
Estrich lives in Los Angeles and is mother to teenagers Isabel and James. Teacher and freelance writer Cynthia Dobbs sat down with Estrich to discuss the power of narrative, how motherhood informs her writing and what it takes to write well.
Cynthia Dobbs: Your decision to start your book Real Rape with the story of your own rape when you were 20 was risky at the time, but so powerful. When did you first have the sense of the power of that personal narrative?
Susan Estrich: The story itself has power. I will never say that being raped was a gift. It was a horrible, horrible burden. When I started to practice criminal law, I was taken seriously because I had these fancy credentials, but I knew that I could win any argument with anybody about rape because I understood it better, and I was willing to tell my story. The first time I told it to Judge J. Skelly Wright of the U.S. Court of Appeals was in 1977 when I was clerking for him. He had agreed to hear U.S. of America v. Herman Sheppard, which was a case appealing a conviction for rape based on the fact that the victim had no corroborating witness testimony. At the time this was required to prosecute a rape and by telling my story and pointing out the absurdity of requiring a witness for this particular crime, I helped to get rid of the corroboration requirement in the D.C. circuit. It was like, “Wow. I did that. It is three years after I got raped, and I am making change happen.” That gave me an incredible sense of power. Between me and the bastard, in the long run, I won.
CD: You have had a remarkable career and I know you are a devoted mother of two. Would you talk about how your decision to become a mother has shaped your career? For example, I know you were married when you were running Dukakis’s campaign (in 1988), but I imagine that motherhood would have been difficult to handle while flying through swing states. How did you time everything?
SE: I really moved to Los Angeles, gave up tenure at Harvard, didn’t work on the Clinton campaign or in his administration, to have kids. My daughter was born in 1990; my son was born less than a month after Clinton was inaugurated. Even though Clinton was and is a good friend, my biological clock was in the alarm mode, and it was then or never. I had already gotten tenure at Harvard, run a campaign, etc., but I knew in 1989 that there were two paths — staying on the fast escalator, or trying to invent some other route.
CD: So motherhood took you out of direct engagement with politics and kept you committed to the legal and academic professions. Did it slow you down or change you as a writer?
SE: Motherhood didn’t influence my writing as much as it did everything else. When my kids were young, I did very little travel. I didn’t want to be away from them. I turned down hosting opportunities in radio and television which, frankly, don’t come back ten or fifteen years later. You can’t have it all at once. The reality is, you have to make your peace with your choices. At the time I turned many things down, I thought they would come back. Most don’t.
CD: How did motherhood change you as a writer?
SE: Motherhood gave me a different perspective. I gained a much broader perspective about the future — and all of the sudden you have a stake in that future even if you’re not going to be there for it — and also an understanding: that you’ve got to fight for your children, not just the girls, but the boys too. Having a son helps me look at rape, for example, not only from the perspective of the victim (the woman, usually), but to also understand what it’s like to be a young boy, a young man, facing this complicated, crazy world.
Part of the challenge of being a writing mother is that motherhood is so central to our lives, and our children are so central to our lives, but just because as writers we’re willing to put ourselves out there doesn’t mean our kids want to be out there with us. I’ve had to be very careful, because I’m very open about my own life, but my kids don’t want to be in my story. Every once in a while I’ll write a column which mentions my kids in one way or another, and generally they get mad at me. Finding that balance between the freedom to talk about my own life and respecting their rights not to be in the story is very difficult.
CD: I want to ask you about a section of the “Motherhood is Destiny” chapter of Sex and Power: “It may be true that mothers work fewer hours than men while their children are young, but they also drink less, commit fewer crimes, live longer, have fewer heart attacks, get into fewer fights at work, are less driven to make costly business decisions for the sake of ego, are less likely to get sued for sexual harassment, or to quit for a better job. Whether women cost more than men, even under the most traditional analysis depends on which costs you choose to consider.”
SE: It is absolutely true that between someone who’s got responsibilities at home and someone who doesn’t, probably the person with no responsibilities at home can put in more hours at work. But that’s only one factor to consider, right? Are they going to be more loyal? Are they going to do a better job? Are they going to handle difficult situations without ego so involving itself? What is a qualification? Qualifications are rarely gender-neutral. I joke with my students all the time that no one ever says, “Motherhood. Now there’s good training for a high-level job.”
CD: When in fact it’s great training for a high-level job!
SE: It gives you so much perspective. I always say I’ve learned to deal with irrational people screaming at me because I raised two of them. Why would I lose it at work? If I was going to lose it, I would’ve lost it years ago on the playground, but no one gives you credit for that.
When we consider the costs of employing women versus men, we very rarely look at the fact that statistically it is absolutely true that women switch jobs less frequently than men. You give a woman a situation where she can maintain her responsibilities at home, earn a good living, do good work, and she’ll stay forever. My problem with a lot of women is that sometimes in order to advance, you do need to leave and come back and leave and come back. If anything, I find career women less willing to betray their employer, as it were, or put themselves first. That doesn’t end up getting calculated in.
CD. You do so many kinds of writing (legal briefs, columns, books). Can you talk a little about your writing process?
SE: Twice a week, I write 750 words for my syndicated column. That’s a certain kind of writing, column writing or op-ed writing, that I’ve been doing for almost 20 years. When you’re doing an op-ed piece, you basically have a central point that you drive through. It’s just a style of writing.
I use a lot of stories because, in most of my work, I find that stories are an extremely effective way of getting people inside an argument that they would never go to if you were hitting them with numbers and factoids. So when I’m writing from a certain point of view, I always like to have a story in there somewhere, something personal, and then drive the argument using my story.
CD: What about your professional legal writing?
SE: When I’m writing briefs, I try to be simple. A lot of people forget how to write in English when they go to law school. They develop this style of writing that is what I call bad legalese. Every sentence begins with “therefore” and “thus” and “for example, therefore.” It’s terrible! It’s unreadable. If you have to say “therefore,” it means you haven’t got it — and saying “therefore” is not going to give it to you.
CD: How did you learn to avoid bad legalese?
SE: [Supreme Court] Justice [John Paul] Stevens, whom I clerked for, actually taught me how to write. He was a very clean, clear, simple writer. In a sense, I learned to write like him, because when you’re clerking for someone, you’re writing for them. When I went to work for Justice Stevens, I immediately picked up on his style and I’ve stuck with it ever since. His belief was that legal writing should be in English, not a foreign language.
The third kind of writing I do is serious academic writing. There again I believe it should be in English and I always use stories. I think it takes a while for academics to develop enough self-confidence about what they’re saying to know that they don’t need to make their writing unintelligible to make it sound intelligent. I do believe that you can write simultaneously for intelligent readers who don’t happen to be academics as well as to academics. That’s why I stopped writing books for academic presses and started writing the same types of books, like Sex and Power, for trade presses. I wanted to reach out to that broader audience.
CD: What is your next project?
SE: If I ever get the time, I would like to do a new rape book. Trying to figure out what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong is no easy business. I keep saying I’ll do Real Rape, Revisited but having too many jobs makes it difficult. I’ve decided that for this one what I want to do is use real-life stories, cases and what happened on those cases, to illustrate what I see as the obstacles to real change. Rather than writing detailed legal analysis, which I had to do the first time around to publish for tenure, what I need to do is capture people’s imaginations, and writing about the real stories is the way to do that.