So many words not in the dictionary:
An interview with Nancy K. Miller
September 26, 2023
I first discovered Nancy’s work through her 2019 memoir My Brilliant Friends, a rare, richly detailed, and intensely captivating retrospective of what she describes as her lifesaving friendships with three fellow scholars: Carolyn Heilbrun, Diane Middlebrook, and Naomi Schor.
Her book found me in a time of need. It was early in the pandemic, and I was reeling from having had to uproot my life in Montreal where, at McGill, I’d forged some of the strongest forms of intellectual community I’d ever known. It was the friendships and mentorships I’d developed with other women, in particular, that had grown to be the most enduring gifts of my time in the city, yet after I left I was surprised to find that there was little in the way of work that, like Miller’s, could speak to those kinds of relationships. Shouldn’t more people be talking about this?, I thought. Isn’t there so much to say?
Like many others before me, I considered it a treasure in the truest sense of the word when I learned that Nancy had written so extensively across it and all manner of related topics. For those who haven’t previously encountered her work, I’m certain you’ll feel pulled to after reading this interview.
Jana M. Perkins, Founder of Women of Letters
Nancy K. Miller is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center (CUNY), where she teaches life writing and cultural criticism. Among her books dealing with questions about women, letters, feminism, and memoir are Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiographical Acts (1991), Bequest and Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent’s Death (1996), and But Enough About Me: Why We Read Other People’s Lives (2002). Her most recent work, My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism (2019), is a hybrid genre that interweaves autobiography, literary criticism, and feminist history. Miller has also published two memoirs, What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past (2011) and Breathless: An American Girl in Paris (2013). Current and newish work combines comics, clinical and autobiographical narrative, and personal cartoons within the emerging field of Medical Humanities. Last but definitely not least, with Tahneer Oksman, writer, critic, and former mentee, she has co-edited Feminists Reclaim Mentorship: An Anthology (2023).
How did your childhood shape your ideas about what work looked like and what was possible for you?
Nancy K. Miller: I came of age in the 1950s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In the world I knew, men worked, women, mostly (if they, like my mother, were white and middle class, of course) did not.
My father, a lawyer, took the subway downtown to his office on Wall Street every morning, carrying a briefcase. Except for the presence of yellow legal pads in the apartment, my sister and I had no idea what he did. But we knew it had to be important since we couldn’t have dinner until he returned home for dinner, still carrying the briefcase. That, as later promoted on television programs, was the model.
It’s not strictly true that my mother didn’t work, more that work didn’t define her. My mother’s idea for herself was to become, in her words, “a woman of leisure,” which mainly entailed playing tennis (a lot) and entertaining her friends at dinner parties (also a lot). Sadly, in her view, my father’s allowance did not quite satisfy that ambition, and so for a few years she worked as a substitute teacher at a local elementary school. True, teaching was work, but in no way a career; it was a specific means to an economic end (I also believe this was true for me until I went to graduate school and entered the profession). Only with feminism did I think it odd that my mother received an allowance from my father, just as we had received an allowance as kids.
By the time I went to college in 1957, the life goal my parents (both first-generation college-educated children of immigrants) imagined for me after graduation was to “marry someone nice.” Presumably, that someone would be the proverbial breadwinner, would have a profession and support the family. But if, unfortunately, he was “to fall on hard times,” it was important for me, the wife, “to have something to fall back on.” Since in college I had majored in French, that meant teaching French. But only if I had to help my husband through a difficult period. Falling.
In college, at Barnard, most of the women (girls, then) I knew had no specific goal for what their lives might be after graduation. I had only one friend with career ambitions. The daughter of a doctor, Nora planned to become a doctor. My father had only scorn for “lady lawyers.” I had no desire to go to law school.
Fast-forward to today. How did the path to what you’re doing now unfold?
When I graduated from college in 1961 (which was not yet the ’60s), I did not think I was following any kind of path. I never pictured myself as an academic, certainly not a successful one with a PhD (a degree, I thought, reserved for men). I was resigned to teaching French and so, desperate to leave home, I went to Paris for a master’s degree. Once there, I found myself teaching English. I also fell in love with and married an Irish American ex-pat, who had created a commercial language school (teaching English to French businessmen who needed the language to advance in their jobs), and embraced his plan to remain in France permanently. I studied for yet another degree to qualify for teaching master’s-level English (actually, American Studies) to French students who hoped to become English teachers.
Let’s say that though I rather quickly accumulated academic degrees, going to school was primarily a pragmatic response to the need to earn my living. I did not see work, however enjoyable at times, as a good or an end itself, but rather a necessity. When the marriage failed and I returned to New York six years later, I continued pursuing degrees. To what end? I spent one miserable year teaching high school French (my mother’s career path for me), hated that, and realized that if I wanted to teach “college French,” as the phrase went, I had to get a PhD. In my mind, however, I wasn’t pursuing a career. I was providing for myself; work meant income.
Feminism changed all that.
Did you have any mentors along the way?
NKM: Yes and no.
In graduate school, I was rescued from my limbo by the head of the French department at Columbia. He directed my dissertation and in public referred to me as his little star. He championed me while my PhD advisor, but not as my career progressed, my mentor. In fact, the concept of mentorship in the early 1970s, as an act of continued support and care, was not at the time part of my discourse, nor, for that matter, the institution’s; nor was sexual harassment, whose episodes, including my advisor’s, were ignored, or trivialized.
That said, graduate school was transformative: I discovered writing. I was finally good at something. I was good at being a graduate student!
As the ’70s morphed into the early ’80s, while an assistant professor of French I encountered the person at Columbia, Carolyn Heilbrun, a well-known feminist critic, fifteen years my senior and a very senior colleague in the English department, who would become my mentor — though, to be sure, we did not think of ourselves in that language or model. Carolyn quickly and heroically supported me in terms of professional advancement as a good mentor would — we taught together, we founded a book series together — but she framed our relationship as one of friendship between an older and a younger woman, in our case enacted and consolidated over dinner every week for 20 years. Friendship between women, whatever their differences, was made possible by feminism. That was a bedrock belief.
I think now that our relationship resembled the model Italian feminists at the time imagined and idealized: entrustment (affidamento), the relationship between a younger and older woman that would not be mired in hierarchy and could not only tolerate but would thrive on conflict. (I would not say that thriving on conflict was key to ours, but we survived our few serious disagreements without catastrophe.)
Long after Carolyn’s death from suicide in 2003, mentorship became a big subject for me — in fact, I co-edited book about the importance of feminist mentorship in 2023, which made me realize that while over the years, Carolyn had indeed been my great friend, she had, all along, also been my mentor. And that now I had become one, too, to graduate students of my own.
How would you describe what you do to a general audience?
NKM: How does anyone describe teaching literature in an English department?
At least when I taught French my function was immediately clear and concrete, though it often generated gripes. No one seemed to have liked their high school French teacher very much. Now when I’m asked what I do, I become more specific and say, when asked what I teach, memoir, or women’s studies, or feminism.
What was one of the first big aha moments of your career?
NKM: In 1977, I spoke on a panel at Barnard College’s annual ‘Scholar and Feminist’ conference. The theme that year was ‘Creating Feminist Work.’ Since the ‘Scholar’ in the title typically meant an academic, and ‘Feminist’ meant activist, I was the academic — even though, of course, I considered myself a feminist. The two other speakers were Harmony Hammond (artist and activist), one member of the newly created and radical Heresies collective, and Eve Merriam, a poet who taught occasionally though considered herself not so much an academic, a feminist radical, outside institutions.
The event was held in the Barnard gym. Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s famous essay, I described my creative practice through a description of my apartment, specifically the bedroom. I had divided the room in two with a bookcase: desk on one side, bed on the other, vertical and horizontal Nancy. As I began to read my piece, which I had imagined as the poignant representation of a beginning assistant professor’s life of alternating hope and despair, the audience began to laugh.
As laughter continued to fill the gym, I panicked. My self-portrait was not meant to entertain. But I quickly shifted emotional gears, embracing the laughter. I was stunned to discover that one could give a serious academic presentation that would also be funny and autobiographical. My mother, who three years earlier had proofread and complained about my dissertation (why so many words not in the dictionary?), had come to the event. On her way out, she stopped to say, “Why don’t you write like that more often? You could write for the New York Times.” As if.
It would be at least another decade before I reappeared in the first person in critical writing, always secretly thrilled when a remark, especially about me, sparked laughter. The talk is the first essay in my 1991 book, Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiographical Acts.
What task(s) do you start your day with?
NKM: Typically, after breakfast (and opening the New York Times), email, Amazon, laundry. Check out the cacti. Delay the inevitable yet feel virtuous.
Outside of your work, what’s something you feel you’ve thought about a lot more deeply than most other people?
NKM: Cancer and chronic illness. I was diagnosed with 3B lung cancer in 2012 — “incurable but treatable,” as the phrase goes. I did not expect to live as long as I have, and I’ve since made cancer a subject in my writing. My cancer inexplicably led me to drawing cartoons, through which I dealt with my shock and fear at having cancer and, at the same time, rage at the medical world, which I found even more hierarchical than the university.
Here, as in my earlier feminist work, I’ve tried to integrate the personal and political domains, this time with a focus on the hospital and medical care from the perspective of the patient. I’ve been sustained in that project through the newly created entity “Graphic Medicine,” which also describes a visual mode: comics. With that organization, the question of illness, not simply my own, but the role of illness, and notably chronic illness, as a social phenomenon has become for me a central preoccupation for writing and drawing. (I guess you might say this was another aha moment.)
Tell us about a time when you had to take a big risk in order to move forward. What did that experience teach you about how to navigate difficult circumstances?
NKM: In the fall semester of 1987, while running the Women’s Studies program at Barnard — which I had been doing since 1981 and where I had tenure — I received an offer to come to CUNY as a Distinguished Professor of English. The new position involved a joint appointment between the CUNY Graduate Center and Lehman College, one of the several CUNY campus colleges, this one located in the Bronx.
Changing jobs without having to move cities, but only subway stops, I recognize, hardly constitutes a case of difficult circumstances, or a circumstance in which I took a very big risk. Nor, on the other hand, did I see the new job necessarily as moving forward. Each position had drawbacks as well as advantages. While I loved the Barnard undergraduates, for example, I liked less my role as an administrator with a substantial teaching load, assigned to me, as far as I could see, on a permanent basis. Thanks to the complex, often unfair, institutional arrangements between Barnard and Columbia, I still worked with graduate students across the street in the French department, but as a non-voting faculty member, always feeling like an outsider (not to say still a student) among my former teachers.
To stay was to stay with what I had lived. Barnard and Columbia were the only institutions I knew. True, I wasn’t perfectly happy, but then when was I ever perfectly happy? I felt lured by the ethos of the Graduate Center, as a place for interdisciplinary work, and by the prospect of graduate teaching in a place where I was wanted. CUNY offered more money and a lighter teaching load; Barnard/Columbia more prestige. My father, who had himself gone to City College, could not fathom my leaving Barnard and Columbia for CUNY. Wasn’t that moving in the backwards, he demurred. In the end, I went to CUNY, without being sure I was doing the right thing.
Compared to the situation of my students on the job market today, moving institutions in the same city is a luxury they are unlikely to enjoy, at least in the immediate future. Nonetheless, I experienced the decision as taking a risk. You can’t know exactly, of course, what you risk losing. Nor can you know what you may be gaining. You come to know the outcome only when you’ve lived it.
The risk was worth it. But not immediately.
As I feared, except for the night classes, attended mainly by older women who needed the credential for their professional advancement (or as some put it, for their “self-satisfaction”), I did not enjoy undergraduate teaching at Lehman; I lacked the proper training and was ill-equipped to serve the needs of the badly prepared students. More disturbing was the way the administration treated the small group of Distinguished Professors at the college (there were seven of us, several truly distinguished in their fields), as though we didn’t deserve the working conditions that our rank provided. After ten years of frustrating teaching and dealing with hostility from above, I decided to look for another job — as it turned out, a job in academic administration in another city. I was determined to leave, even if it meant leaving teaching, which I loved, and take that risk, and even though I hadn’t loved being an administrator.
At this point, the navigation, to use your word, became complicated. The outcome, moreover, was unexpected. When it was clear that I had become a finalist for the new position at a fancy institution, the powers that be plucked me out of Lehman and plunked me down full time at the Graduate Center. This unusual reassignment (long story) meant teaching only graduate students, and for over 20 years that is what I’ve done. Happily. So happily, in fact, that even though I’m well beyond retirement age, I can’t bring myself to leave the profession that has sustained me.
What question(s) are you currently wrestling with?
NKM: Leaving academia.
I’m finding it difficult to imagine my life without teaching, without my seminars and the wonderful graduate students who take them. Will I still be moved to write once out of the world in which my writing made sense, had a value, however limited, to the feminist community to which I belong? Who would I be? This is a risk I’m terrified of taking. I’m waiting for a sign.
When you think of women who have inspired or influenced you, who comes to mind?
NKM: Carolyn Heilbrun, my friend and, yes, mentor. Carolyn shared with me her admiration for the kind of writing the poet Marianne Moore recommended: to write in a language “that cats and dogs can read.” And she modeled feminist resistance to institutional injustice.
My friend, the biographer Diane Middlebrook — my glamorous contemporary, who lived the brief time of our friendship all the while heroically dealing with an insidious cancer. She kept writing to the very end, while still in pain, and kept me writing with her until her death. The writing each of us did in those years was intimately intertwined with the friendship itself.
I lost several great women friends in the first decade of the 21st century. As I’ve outlived each of them, I’ve become increasingly aware of how bereft I feel, without their conversation, their encouragement, their example (except, sadly, for Carolyn’s suicide that still haunts me twenty years later), and their wit. My Brilliant Friends, my last book, is an attempt to come to terms with the loss of their company and to acknowledge how important — essential, really — friendship has meant not only to me, but to my generation of women.
What keeps you going?
NKM: I miss those women, but I’ve been lucky in the friendships that have developed with some of my graduate students. Several, from the years at Columbia, became teachers themselves and are now retiring. It feels shocking to watch them leave the profession, since I helped them begin their careers. The reward for me, though, is admiring their academic success. I feel grateful for their friendship and lucky, too.
There are also newer friendships with still much younger friends who have worked with me at the Graduate Center, and with whom I often collaborate on editorial projects. I’m especially gratified by the fact that they in turn mentor another generation of students, not to mention, on many occasions, me.
That said, I find it very scary, not to say terrifying, to be old and at the end of my career. It feels like staring into an abyss.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
NKM: I hope some of my books will remain meaningful to the feminist project, or at least a useful part of its history. I confess to getting a little thrill when a young critic discovers the essays in Getting Personal, or when readers write to tell me how moved they were by the friendship book, for example.
Is there a project, initiative, or cause you’d like to highlight?
NKM: The Pembroke Center’s Feminist Theory Archive, at Brown University. And, more generally, the mentorship of young women.
The Feminist Theory Archive, an impressive twenty-first century artifact, collects the papers of feminist scholars. What seems important to me is their mission to document scholarship, to preserve the history, and to create a record of the many scholars who have contributed to these past decades of feminist work, not least classroom syllabi and conference talks. I am honored to belong to this community and am grateful that my papers, such as they are, will have a home.
Where can our readers find you?
NKM: On my website, NancyKMiller.com, where my cancer cartoons are located, and in this archive.
We corresponded with Nancy over email in July. The text of our exchange has been edited for clarity.
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