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'New Yorker' Writer Fears We're Fooling Ourselves In The Internet's 'Trick Mirror'

When she was growing up, <em>New Yorker</em> culture writer Jia Tolentino attended a Houston megachurch with her family. "The population was extremely white and wealthy, which my family was not," Tolentino says. "It was the kind of place where you had a daily Bible class from first grade 'till senior year."
C. Elena Mudd
When she was growing up, New Yorker culture writer Jia Tolentino attended a Houston megachurch with her family. "The population was extremely white and wealthy, which my family was not," Tolentino says. "It was the kind of place where you had a daily Bible class from first grade 'till senior year."

Jia Tolentino's strict Christian upbringing backfired.

"I am sure that you don't send your kid to Christian school for 12 years and hope that they'll do what I did: Which is have The New Yorker publish 7,000 words about how the church led me to love doing MDMA and love rap music," she says.

The New Yorker culture writer was brought up in a Southern Baptist megachurch in Houston. She says the "lasting legacy" of that upbringing is a lifelong desire to replicate the ecstatic feelings she had experienced in the religion — which she sought out via hallucinogenic mushrooms and the drug MDMA, or Molly.

In her new book of essays, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, Tolentino writes about how social media shapes identity, public discourse and political engagement, particularly for millennials such as herself. "The Internet has obviously been an incredible ground for social movements being organized," she says. "You saw the Parkland kids did it, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo ..."

But she warns that expressing opinions online can feel misleadingly meaningful. "It's always a starting place, it can never be an ending place," she says.

Interview Highlights

On her belief that opinion doesn't necessarily translate into action

We will have a mass shooting in America and people will get online and express their very true anguish, and people express their anger and their righteousness, and this formidable undeniable moral narratives about how children should not be dying in the U.S. like this — and then nothing happens.

And so the gun control debate is just a continual reminder to me: An opinion doesn't necessarily translate to action. Moral clarity, these days, it means a lot less than I would like it to mean. ... As someone whose job is to write down what I think, it's something that I have to remind myself — that it doesn't really matter when I say what I think. You can't just talk about it, you've got to be about it. ...

I don't know how much a hashtag is worth compared to millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars from the NRA. I think the Internet has a way of making the representation of something seem equal to if not more important than the thing itself. And so it's sort of the signal of our desire for change and for accountability.

On the lessons she took from the Bible

I think that the Bible itself led me to a leftist point of view. I would read the Gospels and think: These are books about economic redistribution and helping the hungry and the sick. I was drawn to that, and I was drawn to the purity of devotion that faith contains.

And then what I would hear in church was much more often the "prosperity gospel," which is that wealth is almost a sign of divine favor, and God wants us to be wealthy. ... If you're wealthy that means you're blessed and kind of implicitly it means you're worth more to God — or certainly to your country. The flip side of that is if you don't have any money, then that's also God's will, and I found that unbearable and so cruel. And that was one of the first things that made me think I would not be religious ... for very long.

On how she connects the religious ecstatic tradition of her church with her later drug use

One tradition within Christianity and within religion in general that I've always been drawn to is the ecstatic tradition. It's this idea that through attaining an ecstatic state you reach a sort of union with God. I found traces of that in my megachurch. ... The lights would be down, and everyone would have their hands up and the music would be so loud, and I would feel ... completely overwhelmed with a sense of ecstasy, and sort of nameless powerful connection with the people around me and with something mysterious beyond me. And I loved that feeling.

My sort of inherent desire to reach for that feeling persisted long after my actual sense of religion, or adherence to it, or belief in it, belief in God, even, after that went away. I grew up in Houston in the early 2000s and that was a period where Houston rap was a world unto its own, and ... I started to access that feeling in different dark rooms ... when everyone had their hands up and everyone seemed sort of transported and out of their minds. ... I don't know whether it was because of this ecstatic tendency that I have in me that I believed in God in the first place, or if the ecstatic tendency that persists as a sign that I still believe after all of this.

On being stationed in Kyrgyzstan with the the Peace Corps — and leaving after a year

It was devastating. I think of this time in the Peace Corps as the great failure of my life in a lot of ways. ... The women I knew were so strong and ... domestic violence was endemic. It was everywhere and I was harassed constantly. ...

I've always been inclined to think about the world in terms of systems and our tiny, tiny place in them, but there it was the first time that I'd understood how tiny I was within this network of global power and economic history. ...

I was devastated to have more power than the women around me, and I also felt so powerless, and I couldn't process it. It was tough and it was incredibly instructive, and it was probably the hardest time in my life and also like one of the most important to me.

On being a feminist writer who is sometimes critical of other women

For a few years I worked in women's media, and for a couple of years, I was an editor at the feminist site Jezebel. And often we would report on something like, let's say the inadequacy of the idea of "leaning in," or we would report on business practices by some female entrepreneur, and the immediate response we would get — not the only response, but one we would get consistently every time we did that — was: Isn't the job of a feminist to build women up, not tear them down? And that seemed to me to be a misuse of the freedom that we have to be critical and to treat women with respect, which means reporting on them like any other human.

I think over the last 10 years, feminism has become — very wonderfully so — a more mainstream point of view. I think we saw it in the#MeToomovement, this idea that women's stories were important and to be given credence and to be centered became more of the default, which was incredible to see. And as feminism has become more mainstream over the last 10 years, part of that has been: We've gotten good as a culture in general at sussing out sexism. When a woman is criticized for being "shrill" or "crazy," we know that those words are code for "unlikable because you're a woman and you spoke for 30 seconds longer than I'd like you to." We've gotten great at protecting women against unfair criticism.

And then, a couple of years ago — I just started to notice this idea — this sort of well-meaning protective impulse get twisted and co-opted and sort of stretched beyond any use or meaning. So, for example, when Melania Trump went to go visit the kids at the border wearing that Zara jacket that said ["I REALLY DON'T CARE, DO U?"] on the back and people very rightfully called her out for that being just an absolutely monstrous thing to do. ... And then the White House and conservative media sort of mounted what would nominally be a feminist defense which is "a woman has a right to wear whatever she wants." It's like, "Don't talk about her looks or her clothing choices," and then the discourse gets swallowed into three days of talking about whether or not it was sexist to criticize her clothes.

On the origin of the idea that criticizing women isn't feminist

I've tried to think about what freedoms I have that women 10, 20, 30, 40 years older than me didn't when they were my age. And one of them is to not be threatened by disagreement and not be threatened by someone thinking that I'm wrong.

Male power has had such an intense, strong stranglehold on America that I think there's reason to think that this coalition of people that believe that women are equal is constantly under threat, to the point that we must present a united front. But ... I'm 30. I feel lucky to have been born at a time when I took it for granted as a kid that I could be what I wanted. I've tried to think about what freedoms I have that women 10, 20, 30, 40 years older than me didn't when they were my age. And one of them is to not be threatened by disagreement and not be threatened by someone thinking that I'm wrong. I think that it's another thing that the Internet sort of exacerbates is this idea that ... it's really important to have everyone agree with you, that means something. And for me, criticism coming from a sincere place is a really important thing.

On wishing for body neutrality versus body positivity

I think the body acceptance movement, in a lot of ways, and the diversification of the beauty ideal to not just be like a stick-thin, white, blond supermodel etc., in a lot of ways that's obviously, obviously very great. [More] people are able to [see] themselves as beautiful than ever before. At the same time ... what I would prefer is for beauty to be less important, to not need to say, "all women are beautiful," but to be able to say that it doesn't matter, that you don't need to be beautiful, to de-escalate the importance of beauty. ... I've often wished for, like, a body neutrality movement, or I just don't need [to] think of myself as beautiful and that's totally fine.

Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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