|'I don't feel like my husband's from Mars and I'm from Venus, and men just don't get it.'|
When you pet a cat, the cat purrs. When you pet an octopus, the octopus pets you back,' Natalie Angier, the Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, wrote in the New York Times last August. 'Okay, maybe it d sn't quite pet. It loops a limb around your hand, and it explores you. And at first you jump, and then you laugh, and then you practically yodel with joy, for the sensation of an octopus fondle is unlike anything you have sensated before. Its flesh is slippery and silky, like the inside of your cheek, or a spoonful of flan.'
This is vintage Angier. Whereas it's enough for many science writers just to get their facts straight, Angier has pushed the bounds of science writing. Tackling unusual, sometimes even repugnant topics in vivid, playful and acrobatic prose, she has developed a style and an approach to stories that are distinctly hers. Gifted with a voracious and wide-ranging curiosity, she is always on the watch for exotic and sometimes whimsical subjects, from the nouveau spelling of children's names to the genitalia of male insects. Although her editor, friends and scientists suggest topics to her, at least half of Angier's stories spring from her own fascinations.
In Woman: An Intimate Geography, out in April from Houghton Mifflin -- a book already featured by Barbara Ehrenreich in the Time magazine cover story 'The Real Truth about the Female Body' -- Angier investigates another of these fascinations, women and their biology. The book is a rollicking celebration of womanhood, from the egg to the organs to the hormonal and neural systems. She addresses questions that may seem self-evident (what are breasts for?); questions that some writers would avoid (why does the vagina have the odors it does?) and many that have received little attention (why are women's fiercest aggressions against each other?). Once again pushing the boundaries of her writing, going beyond clear explanations of diverse facts and ideas, Angier subverts popular theories, for instance, that testosterone is the 'hormone of aggression' and libido; that women prefer older men because age is a sign the man will be a better provider; that women are the default sex, the sex any mammalian fetus becomes unless primed by male hormones.
None of this is dry, and much of it is personal. Angier d sn't shy away from using her own experiences, revealing that all the women in her immediate family 'learned to climax by smoking grass' and describing a moment of crystalline clarity she once felt on the first day of her period. As Angier puts it, she approaches her subject 'idiosyncratically, with my biases, impressions and desires flapping out like the tongue of an untucked blouse.'
Angier makes her reasons for writing Woman perfectly plain in the book: she was tired of all 'the old canards' about women-that they desire sex less than men and prefer monogamy more, that they're inert rather than active, that they don't care to achieve and are bad in math -- canards that have cropped up in such recent books as Robert Wright's The Moral Animal and David Buss's The Evolution of Desire. But her reasons seemed far more personal during an interview with PW in the quiet living room of her lilac-colored Victorian home in a small town in Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.
An athletic woman, Angier is trim, muscular and petite. Her posture is as strong as a dancer's, and she sits erect in a dark-red wing chair as she speaks. 'Back in the early '80s,' she says, 'a lot of books written in anthropology and archeology talked about women's contribution to human evolution. And then all of a sudden in the '90s, everything you read about women was kind of depressing.'
Little of what she read felt true to her. 'I don't feel like my husband's from Mars and I'm from Venus, and men just don't get it. Everybody's different from me,' male or female, 'and everybody's disturbingly the same as me.' Angier herself kept coming across all sorts of interesting science that she thought was getting short shrift -- DNA studies that showed that despite the bullying and sexual possessiveness of male chimpanzees, female chimps were indeed getting around; Meredith Small's work on the effect of female choice on evolution and Barbara Smuts's work on male aggression. Yet none of this research was earning much attention. 'I would have preferred it if some scientist had written my book,' Angier says. But as far as she knew, no scientist was at work on a project like hers.
'I have a daughter now,' Angier adds, referring to Katherine, to whom the book is dedicated, her daughter with her husband, the science writer Rick Weiss. 'She's two and a half, and I want her to grow up to feel just as free as she can possibly be.' Angier's voice is emphatic and expressive. 'I don't want my daughter to think, 'Oh, from a Darwinian point of view I really don't care as much about status, so therefore I'm not going to try to be a high achiever.' '
Angier found her vocation early in life. The third of four siblings, born in the Bronx in 1958 to a working-class, left-leaning family (her parents met in the Communist Youth Party), Angier enrolled at the University of Michigan at age 16; she later transferred to Barnard College. Well before cross-disciplinary majors were de rigueur, Angier combined studies in literature, physics and astronomy in ways that made even her teachers balk. She outraged one professor when she told him she wanted to do a computer concordance of Ezra Pound's p try. ('The difficulty of Ezra Pound's p try is at least equivalent to that of molecular biology,' Angier says with a laugh.)
It was in college that she had the first glimmer of her future. In the physics library, she spotted a British magazine, the New Scientist. Unlike most American science magazines, 'it had humor in it. It was meant for this kind of wide-ranging curious mind,' Angier says. 'So I thought I would start up a magazine like that when I got out of college.'
After taking her B.A. in 1978, Angier spent a couple of years doing graduate work in medieval literature. She took her first writing job at Texas Instruments as a technical writer. The division folded just when Time Inc. was launching Discover, a magazine that sounded like the magazine Angier had dreamed of starting. She landed a job as a researcher at Discover in 1980, and the magazine's editor, Leon Jaroff, quickly promoted her to writer. At Discover, Angier fell into writing about biology -- evolutionary biology and animal behavior, in particular. In 1984, after a stint at a women's magazine, Time hired her as its science writer.
It wasn't long before Angier began nurturing an idea for a book. While vacationing in Italy in 1984, she met an architect and his wife, a scientist at the Salk Institute, who told Angier of her work on oncogenes, the genes that, when healthy, regulate cell growth and tell cells to divide and, when defective, tell cells to divide perpetually, ultimately leading to cancer. Fascinated, Angier proposed a book on the subject to Peter Davison at Houghton Mifflin. Instead of examining a scientific breakthrough, her book would look at science as it's practiced, with all its false starts. What Angier proposed amounted to living in a basic research laboratory, and Davison bought the idea, suggesting she focus on Robert Weinberg and his laboratory at the Whitehead Institute, a biomedical research institute affiliated with MIT.
Angier was soon spending her days and nights shadowing scientists and listening to their stories of rivalry and frustration. Although some scientists initially objected to her presence in the lab, they came to rely on her as a live-in therapist, for she made a point of staying through the wee hours, when so many experiments are done. They gossiped, told her about the competition for bench space and for authorship of papers. Moreover, she was present for a bona fide scientific breakthrough, the isolation of the gene for retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eye that usually strikes in early childhood.
Beginning her research in 1985, Angier spent about seven months in Weinberg's laboratory and in a competing one, Michael Wigler's lab at Cold Spring Harbor. In 1988, Houghton published Natural Obsessions: The Search for the Oncogene (it will be rereleased in paperback this April with a new subtitle, Striving to Unlock the Deepest Secrets of the Cancer Cell).
Steeped as Angier was in molecular biology and the politics of research, she was the perfect candidate for the job at the New York Times that opened when its longtime molecular biology writer, Harold Schmeck, retired. Angier welcomed the headlong pace of work at the Times. 'Book writing really gives you a serious case of fear of copy,' Angier says. 'You can get bogged down in every single bit of punctuation.' There's no time for that on a daily paper. 'You just write,' Angier says. In The Beauty of the Beastly: New Views on the Nature of Life (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), a collection of Times articles she 'substantially revised and personalized,' Angier takes on nature's oxymorons, writing about the beauty hidden in the ugly and the unexpected ugliness of the beautiful, a theme that has intrigued her throughout her career. Although her subjects can be as dangerous as scorpions and as unappealing as dung beetles, Angier manages to make each enticing, perhaps because she conveys her own wild delight in nature's perversities.
In 1991, only a year after starting at the Times, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her science writing, and she's since received a raft of other prizes, including a 1992 Science Journalism Award, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It's probably the most important award to her because, Angier explains, 'It's judged by both scientists and journalists, so they know.'
At Houghton Mifflin, Angier has enjoyed a productive working relationship with Davison, under whose imprint her new book is appearing. 'Peter's a p t and loves language,' Angier says. Davison, who retired late in 1998 after 48 years in the business, has said of Woman that he's 'never encountered a manuscript better written, wittier, more informative, more pungent.' Laura van Dam, formerly of Technology Review and now a senior editor at Houghton, has enthusiastically picked up where Davison left off.
Woman -- which Ehrenreich described in Time as 'a delicious cocktail of estrogen and amphetamine designed to pump up the ovaries as well as the cerebral cortex' -- was for Angier 'a very personal odyssey.' Although born too late to join consciousness-raising groups, Angier grew up reading Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer and observed her mother's early involvement in feminism. In 1970, her family moved to a small town in the southwest corner of Michigan, an experience that left her marooned in a place where the mores of the Eisenhower '50s still thrived. While her mother taught her to be smart and use birth control, outside her home she was told 'good' girls just say no. 'I really resented the double standard,' Angier says. 'And to see it come back again with a biological kind of imprimatur. I don't want my daughter to learn this stuff! There were times when I was despairing during the process of writing this book, and my husband would remind me that I'm doing it for her, so I couldn't quit.'
Woman is a missive to her daughter, a letter to be opened in the next century, she says. In the closing chapter, Angier writes of Katherine, 'She knows she's a girl but she d sn't yet care about it, or realize what it means. Maybe it should mean nothing. Maybe that's what I want for her: that she will not think about being a girl, or a woman, in any categorical way.' And wouldn't that be something.
Darby writes for the cancer research newsletter Cancer Outlook and is the author of The Orphan Game, to be published by William Morrow in May.