I wanted to like "The Surrendered Wife," Laura Doyle's best-selling (and, in some quarters, highly controversial) self-help book. In the 285 pages tucked between pastel pink covers--the front one illustrated with the single long-stemmed red rose that is the mass-paperback symbol of chivalric male attention--Doyle promises that wives can obtain "romance, harmony, and the intimacy they crave" from their marriages if they quit nagging and let their husbands run the show.
First of all, I'm a surrendered wife myself, a surrendered wife manqué, you might say, mostly because I'm lazy. For example, Doyle advises: "Let your husband handle the finances." I've been doing that for years, as I can't add or subtract. The last time I even tried to balance my checkbook was in 1989. Let him take the wheel of the car, Doyle admonishes, and "don't correct him by telling him where to turn." Fine by me--I hate to drive, and I'd rather look at the scenery than keep track of a bunch of damn street signs. Doyle says you should say, "I need the help of a big strong man," when you want him to lift something large and heavy that you don't feel like lifting. Got a problem with that, Betty Friedan? I don't. "Make yourself available at least once a week" for marital sex, even if you don't feel like it. What? Only once a week?
Second, you've got to love anything that ticks off so many fellow females of the chattering classes. "The Surrendered Wife" calls to mind Marabel Morgan's 1973 suburban classic, "The Total Woman," which bunched the drawers of an entire generation of libbers by advising wives to put the sizzle back into their marriage by cooking hubby a gourmet meal and serving it naked. Morgan was the anti-Kate Millett. The furor over Doyle's book also calls to mind the outrage when the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution in 1998 that wives should "submit graciously" to their husbands--a pronouncement that again caused feminists around the world to shiver with righteous indignation and former president Jimmy Carter to quit the denomination.
"Haven't we all evolved beyond high-school tricks?" was how one resolutely un-surrendered Manhattan wife vented when New York Times reporter Julie Iovine queried her about her reaction to Doyle's book. "Simple answers," sniffed a frosty Jean Baker Miller, director of training at the Wellesley Center for Women at Wellesley College. In the same article, Iovine described her own relentlessly egalitarian postmodern marriage: "It's so even steven we practically keep score cards. I know that if I go out on the town with my girlfriends, he's clocking the hours for when it's his turn. And if he goes grocery shopping and makes dinner, I'm in for a full week of dish washing. It's only fair."
Maybe so, Julie, but when my husband schleps for a steak and then grills it for me with an ice-cold martini on the side, I'd rather follow Doyle's advice in Chapter Seven of "The Surrendered Wife": "Smile and say, 'Thank you.'" And then sit back and let him wash up the plates and glasses. As Doyle puts it, "You deserve to have sweet, beautiful, luxurious things in your life, and your man deserves the pleasure of giving them to you."
So what's wrong with a book whose basic message is: You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar? And: It never hurts to stroke a man's ego? Isn't it less aggravating than keeping "score cards" listing which spouse owes what by way of household chores? Isn't marriage more pleasant when you're not fighting? Isn't it nice when your guy opens the door for you and slides the Cabernet Sauvignon into your balloon glass? If you can't stand backseat drivers, why would you want to be one? Do you really want to tell your spouse what to wear, the way a lot of wives do, as though he were your five-year-old son? Doyle is on to something profound and true about what women really want from a husband--and it's not an "even steven" marriage.
The problem I had with Doyle's book is that I've been reading Shakespeare too long. Ever since I was a teenager, one of my favorites among his plays has been his now-politically incorrect "The Taming of the Shrew." When I was growing up and fighting with my parents and sassing my teachers, I identified with the heroine, Katharina, the headstrong, tart-tongued "shrew" who doesn't want to be demure and flirty and find herself shackled to that nice dolt in the next palazzo. She even has a passive-aggressive goody-two-shoes of a younger sister, Bianca, whom she can't stand--just like the adolescent me. Katharina needs "taming," all right--she needs to find a man who is her true match, someone good enough for her, someone smart and funny and above all, tough enough to take charge.
As an adult, I spent years in the love-market pining for that elusive combination of testosterone and brains. One night I would be wrapped around the leather-clad back of a semi-literate brute on a Harley-Davidson. The next, I would be trying to feign interest in a pallid budding pathologist and the fey 17th-century print he had given me. Fortunately, just before I reached my statistically determined sell-by date, I met a blue-collar guy who'd gone to an Ivy League college.
In "The Taming of the Shrew," Katharina meets and marries Petruchio. The dynamics of their relationship have been best summed up by, of all people, the ur-feminist Germaine Greer. As a social theorist, Greer is out there orbiting planet Marx, but as a Shakespeare critic she's tops, the Harold Bloom of the Greenham Common set. Bucking reams of predictable academic gobbledygook about the play's "patriarchal master narrative," Greer pointed out in her very first book, "The Female Eunuch," that Petruchio "is man enough to know what he wants and how to get it. He wants her spirit and energy because he wants a wife worth keeping. He tames her as he might a hawk or a high-mettled horse, and she rewards him with strong sexual love and fierce loyalty. The submission of a woman like Kate is genuine and exciting, because she has something to lay down, her virgin pride and individuality."
At the end of the play, Katharina carols a gorgeous paean to wifely obedience that is not craven but triumphant, saturated with passionate regard for the man who has chosen her, of all women, to befriend and protect, and who is thus supremely worthy of her fiat: "Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper--one that cares for thee and for thy maintenance commits his body to painful labor while thou liest warm at home, secure and safe." You go, girl!
The problem with "The Surrendered Wife" is that Doyle, although she uses the vocabulary of Katharina--Doyle describes herself as a "former shrew"--actually comes across as Bianca, laboring tirelessly to manipulate both her spouse and, even more important, the hoped-for female consumers of her book and an entire line of "Surrendered Wife" products (counseling sessions, seminars) for sale on her pink-and-lavender "Surrendered Wife" website (www.surrenderedwife.com). What Doyle advocates for wives often doesn't seem so much surrendering as Higher Nagging, a way to get what you want by using a more effective strategy. "Instead of saying 'we need to get the kids piano lessons' or 'we need new mini-blinds,' try to say 'I want to get the kids piano lessons' and 'I want new mini-blinds,'" she advises in various ways over and over. "If you don't admit you want something, you won't get it."
In the background of Doyle's book lurks her husband of 11 years, John, an affable hunk or lunk, if his picture on the Internet is to be believed. Both Doyles have told the press that John has never read past the first chapter of "The Surrendered Wife"--and it's a good thing, too, because the rest of the chapters reveal that Laura, underneath her veneer of surrendered sweetness, holds him in thinly veiled contempt. Or held him in thinly veiled contempt until he managed at last to make himself useful by helping her self-publish "The Surrendered Wife," which first emerged in 1999 from the St. Monday Press that the Doyles set up in their home in Costa Mesa, California. (Laura, who has a marketing background, shrewdly pitched her theories to newspapers and talk shows, persuading a major publisher, Simon & Schuster, to pick up the book this year, and sex-role theorist John "Men Are From Mars" Gray to write a cautious blurb touting her book as a "practical and valuable tool.")
Before then, as Laura frequently informs us, John was a walking catalogue of husbandly couch potato-hood: He lacked ambition; he didn't earn as much as his wife (a sore point in the money-fixated Doyle marriage); he didn't save for his retirement; he didn't pay the bills on time (the couple once had its electricity turned off); he couldn't drive very well; he didn't maintain the car very well; he didn't pick up after himself; he watched television for hours on end; and he wasn't very romantic. "For so long, I thought John needed to take more initiative and stop letting people walk all over him," she states, for the third or fourth time, in Chapter Eighteen, one of those chapters John mercifully hasn't read. All this is supposedly in the interest of dramatizing how "controlling" Laura used to be, but underneath it all, the dissatisfaction shows through, and you can't help wondering if her new tactic of "surrendering" to her husband isn't just a more subtle way to light a fire underneath his slow-moving behind.
In fact, on one level, "The Surrendered Wife" is a mordant, Joan Didion-esque saga of marriage a la mode in Southern California, with grandiosity (hers) on a collision course with inertia (his) and the joint bank account that is never quite flush enough to support the desired marital lifestyle, at least until now. From the book and its related media stories, we learn about the business that Laura started soon after her marriage and abandoned under a mountain of debt, the credit-card binging, the credit-rating nosedive, the condo she insisted on buying for the two of them, the sale of that same condo for less than she paid for it, the sessions in Debtors Anonymous.
Writing "The Surrendered Wife," a pastiche of ideas resembling those of Gray and a Southern California marriage-therapy rival named Patricia Allen, who promises her clients "a lifetime of love" if they "ask for what they want," enabled Doyle finally to hit the jackpot she had dreamed of. There's a huge and lucrative market nowadays for how-to manuals on wifely submission, many of them geared to Southern Baptists and other evangelical Christians who take seriously the apostle Paul's admonitions to that effect in his New Testament letters. Like Doyle's, these books, with titles like "Me? Obey Him?" and "Liberated Through Submission," feature icky pastel, floral-decorated jackets. (One top seller, Martha Peace's "Becoming a Titus 2 Woman"--a reference to one of Paul's epistles--displays a photograph of a porcelain coffee set on its cover, as though the apostle supported himself not as a tentmaker but as manager of the wedding-gift registry at Bloomingdale's.) Although Doyle herself professes belief in some sort of higher-power "Spirit," she has geared her book to an even larger secular market. In fact, some of the rewards she promises from becoming a surrendered wife are crassly material, such as "the miracle of greater prosperity." She offers some case-study examples: "Theresa's husband, Steve, got a $20,000-a-year-raise just a few months after she adopted the principles of a surrendered wife. Elizabeth's husband won a sales contest, made a huge bonus and got an all-expenses-paid trip just a month after she started surrendering."
Reading that, or visiting Doyle's website, with its pitches for $59-an-hour telephone sessions with her, or the setting up of Surrendered Circles for talking about "The Surrendered Wife," you start to suspect that Doyle is still the same old control freak that she describes in its pages. Only this time around, the object of all that controlling is you, the surrendered consumer.
I offer a cheaper alternative for saving your marriage through wifely submission. Read and ponder this review carefully--it tells you everything that's in Doyle's book, minus the $13 price tag and all the repetitions. Then go spend $3.99 for a copy of the Folger Library edition of "The Taming of the Shrew," in which Shakespeare says it all better than either Doyle or I can. Use the difference to treat yourself to a bottle of bubble bath. As Laura Doyle herself would be the first to say, you deserve it.