In “The Wolf Raises a Daughter,” originally published in Best Life a decade ago but today more relevant than ever, best-selling novelist Jay McInerney tries to reconcile his tawdry past with his tamer present while composing a warning to his 11-year-old daughter about the wiles of men. “I tried to write it in a way that, if Maisie just waits a year or so, it would probably be appropriate, or even helpful, for her to read it,” says the author. Wonder if she did.
Recently, my 11-year-old daughter logged on to Google and punched in my name. Among the many hits, she found a gossip item that had appeared in New York magazine a few years back and which detailed a somewhat sordid episode from my past. The article told how I’d been dating two women at the same time without telling either about the other; how each had discovered the other’s existence through a misdirected e-mail; and how they had met up to compare notes and eventually set up a sting.
They got together one night, and each called me in quick succession and elicited pledges of my undying love while the other listened on the extension. I was at a friend’s house after a dinner party, and I’d had a surfeit of excellent Bordeaux. I was buzzed and feeling amorous. I was hoping to locate one or the other and get lucky. I told one that I didn’t love the other, and vice versa. The next day they confronted me. And there really wasn’t anything I could say in my own defense. I was mortified—even before the story hit the press.
Fortunately, my daughter was so pleased with the sight of my name in boldface that she told me about it before she’d read beyond the first paragraph of the story.
I dodged a bullet that day by gingerly steering her toward some more innocuous links, but Maisie and I are headed for an anxiety-inducing chapter in our relationship—at least for one of us. Soon it will become harder and harder for me to compartmentalize my dual roles as a lover of women and as a loving father. While the lover of women may keep himself warm on a cold winter night by remembering a bygone conquest, the father would be horrified if someone were to perpetrate such an act on his child. A tale involving mink-lined handcuffs is racy. If the fur-loving dominatrix is your own flesh and blood, it’s sordid. Forget Madonna-Whore; I am on the cusp of a whole new psychosis. Call it the Priapic Pater Complex.
Sitting here in my study in New York City and looking at pictures of Maisie, who is in music class 100 miles away, I wonder what I would have done differently in the years before she was born had I known that one day I’d find myself the father of a girl on the brink of adolescence. As recently as 3 or 4 years ago, I was able to avoid this question. I somehow dodged it while managing to get divorced from her mother and throwing myself back into the chase. Maisie was only 4 or 5 then. As she gets older and becomes more curious about love, it will be harder for me to keep my roles as a father and serial boyfriend separate.
In the last couple of weeks, she has been entertaining the offers of several admirers who wish to escort her to her first school dance. She’s far too sweet and sensitive to the feelings of others to realize that men need to be treated with a certain degree of suspicion and skepticism. I find myself wanting to advise her to avoid the boys who resemble her father. If I were to answer the door someday soon and encounter my younger self calling on my daughter for a date, I probably wouldn’t let myself in. And neither, for that matter, do I want her reading my novels, most of which depict a fair amount of bad behavior on the part of their male characters and none of which would earn a PG rating. The only one to reach the screen so far was rated R.
It’s not that I think I’m the worst example of my sex. I genuinely love the company of women, unlike certain misogynistic Lotharios of my acquaintance. And I have had my heart broken nearly as often as I have been the heartbreaker. (My first wife went off to Milan for fashion week, fell in love with a photographer, and never returned.) It’s just that in certain ways, I’m representative of what’s wrong with all of us. And I feel obliged to warn my daughter against us without necessarily scaring her away from the joys of love and lust.
I have all kinds of paradoxical ambitions for her. I want her to be cautious and suspicious, without losing the ability to trust. I want her to understand how lustful and selfish and driven men are without entirely losing her respect for the sex. I want her to experience the joy of being desired, but I don’t want her to be objectified. I want her to know that if some guy pays her way to St. Tropez or St. Barts, he inevitably expects more than holding hands on the beach, no matter how often he claims that she can have her own room. On the other hand, I want her to have adventures. Not too many or too wild. But I have enjoyed my adventures too much to be a complete hypocrite and wish to deprive her of her own.
Of course, I am dreading her fall from innocence. I have even tried to deal with that fear and anxiety by writing about it in my latest novel. The protagonist walks in on his 14-year-old daughter engaged in a sex act with a strange boy, a sort of horrible reversal of the Oedipal scenario. And, of course, he wants to kill the little bastard. Maybe I wrote it so I wouldn’t have to live it? Since I finished the book, I have watched with trepidation and wonder as Maisie has begun to attract male admirers. When I picked her up from her first school dance, she was strangely subdued and even shaken. It turned out that she’d been the object of so much attention that she had to hide in the girls’ room to get a breather. One boy in particular pursued her relentlessly and tried to slow dance with her through every song, when all she really wanted to do was hang out with her girlfriends. So it’s begun.
I have sometimes worried that my frequent absence since the divorce would make her more needy and less discriminating, but in fact she is naturally diffident and sensible—temperamentally the opposite of her father. Thoughtful and socially astute, she’s not frivolous in any regard. Like her mother, with whom I remain very close, she alternately teases and chastises me when she catches me ogling a woman onscreen or on the street, or at least when she thinks that she has. I like to think that I am inadvertently teaching her something about men by setting a somewhat dubious example. Sometimes I wish her mom would lighten up on the Dad-is-a ladies-man routine, even though it’s ostensibly good-humored.
To educate Maisie and genuinely help her understand men, I would have to tell her some of the stories that I am most ashamed to tell. If, in the future, she were to ask me what men want and how they think, I would have some sobering advice for her. I would tell her that men have shorter attention spans than women, particularly after they have made their conquest. That we try to leave our options open as long as possible. That we often have trouble telling the truth. We want always (and at all times) to separate a girl from her clothes and conquer her flesh, and men will tell her almost anything they think she wants to hear in order to do so, and they may lose interest in her after achieving their goal. It seems obvious enough, but I have observed over and over how many women fail to grasp this basic truth, in part because of their own insecurities about their appearance. Even some of the most beautiful women of my acquaintance imagine that their toes or their elbows or their breasts are in some way unattractive, and this low self-esteem makes them easy prey.
The fact is, as I would tell Maisie, that there will always be a man who will want to sleep with you, especially if you are as beautiful as my daughter is becoming. I would tell her to assume that virtually every man you meet will want to sleep with you—and with your best friend and her sister. And they will resort to ruses and deception and flattery and alcohol to get you out of your clothes. They will play on guilt. It’s not necessarily calculated or malicious. It’s simply biology. Sometimes we’re not even aware of what we’re doing. To say that we can’t help it is, of course, a cop-out. We can—but many of us don’t.
If I were to tell my daughter how to make the best of this situation—the tragic and chronic and insatiable desire of the male—I suppose I would tell her that the old-fashioned pieties are based on sound empirical observation accumulated over the centuries. All those sexist clichés are clichés for a reason. At the risk of betraying my own sex and my own nature, here are some of the things of which I am certain:
- In order to sustain interest and build suspense, she should delay male gratification as long as possible.
- Generally speaking, men are predatory, which means that they prefer to pursue rather than to be pursued.
- If a man asks a woman if he can come upstairs for a coffee, he means can he come up for sex, and if she says yes, he will assume he’s been waved across the finish line. Same thing when he invites her to St. Barts.
- Men are inclined to crave variety and novelty. A woman must be aware of this tendency—and sexy and crafty and unpredictable enough to counteract it.
I have not always set a good example, but the fact is, men are capable of love and even fidelity. I’ve been in love and I have been faithful, and that is my greatest aspiration and desire even now. Especially now. In fact, I seem to find myself falling in love at this very moment. I think I may have finally learned enough to be worthy of it and of the woman in question.
If my daughter is lucky, she will find a man who will be worthy of her. But she shouldn’t take it for granted, and she shouldn’t wish for it to happen too quickly or with the first man who quickens her heart. I wish I could tell her how to avoid pain and heartbreak without giving up on the idea of romance entirely. I’m hoping she will be smart enough to see through the most obvious masculine deficiencies, noble enough to forgive them, and fortunate enough to find a man who loves her the way she deserves to be loved.
Jay McInerney is the author of Bright Lights, Big City, Story of My Life and his latest, Bright, Precious Days.