Thanks, PC. I'm no fan of any kind of dogma or censorship either!
Her name change is explained in this excerpt from the New Yorker (2020):
Shriver is relentlessly contrarian, not only in her political positions—she is a pro-Brexit, anti-woke, #MeToo-skeptical Democrat—but in most aspects of life. She eats only one meal a day: dinner, usually around midnight, often featuring “burn your face off” quantities of chili pepper. She dislikes babies. Before moving to England, in 1999, she elected to live in Belfast for a dozen years during the Troubles. She and Williams leave London every summer, but not for the beach: they have a place in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, with no air-conditioning. She rarely uses the subway or taxis, preferring to ride a bicycle, no matter the distance, the weather, or the time of day. She is a woman with a man’s name that she chose for herself at the age of fifteen. Shriver has always been constitutionally inclined toward defiance.
Growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina, Shriver was known as Margaret Ann, and not known as a troublemaker. She remembers being raised in a “real top-down family—a nineteen-fifties family in the nineteen-sixties.” Her mother, Peggy, stayed home with the kids when they were young, and her father, Donald, was a Presbyterian minister and an academic. Though he was politically progressive—active in the antiwar and civil-rights movements—Shriver describes him as a “natural autocrat.”
From early on, Shriver’s older brother, Gregory, who had a genius I.Q. and a larger-than-life charisma, was engaged in a power struggle with their parents. It culminated in his dropping out of school and leaving home when he was fourteen, to live with two women with whom he’d become involved. “He was the one who stood up to my parents—he stood up to everyone,” Shriver told me. “I really admired him. He didn’t do what he was told. And I guess I’ve been copying him ever since.”
“There was a kind of mythology that my parents built up around him,” Shriver’s younger brother, Tim, a peach farmer in Iowa, told me. “They had a favorite phrase, that Gregory was ‘too smart for his own good’—which is kind of a weird construction. Lionel and I did not act up, and it could sometimes feel like by behaving well we were not as smart as he was.” On the British radio program “My Teenage Diary,” Shriver read from a journal entry she’d written at age twelve, describing her resentment at being eclipsed by her older brother. “Everywhere I go: ‘Are you Gregory’s sister?’ ” she wrote. She wanted to be known as herself—or, rather, as Tony Shriver, one of many pseudonyms she tried on. “I was already drawn to a male nomenclature,” she said, “inclined toward a masculine identity.” It was only logical, she suggested: “I grew up between two brothers. And it was very clear to me in my family that my father had the better deal.”
Her given name, Margaret Ann, represented everything that she despised about being a girl. “From childhood, I experienced being female as an imposition,” Shriver wrote, in a piece called “Gender—Good for Nothing.” “Periods were hideous. Did my brothers get puffy once a month, suffer terrible back aches and go back to wearing smelly de facto diapers? I was the one, too, who had the fear of God put in her about getting pregnant. In comparison to their sons, my parents clearly had reduced expectations for my career prospects. Ruefully, at eighty-seven, my father finally conceded last year: ‘You know, we may have underestimated you.’ He still hasn’t quite brought himself to admit why: I was the girl.”
The family moved to Atlanta when Shriver was fifteen, and she entered her new high school as Lionel. “I just liked the sound of it,” she said. “It was kind of arbitrary and out of the air.” (Shriver seems to employ a similar strategy for naming her characters: Serenata Terpsichore, Nollie Mandible, Goog Stackhouse, Mordecai McCrea.) Donald Shriver, who is now ninety-two, believes that his daughter was making a career move. She had announced her decision to become a writer when she was seven. “I think she chose a first name that might give readers some question as to whether she was a man or a woman,” he told me.
After high school, Shriver attended Emory University for a year, and then transferred to Barnard, in New York. Her parents had recently moved to the city, when Donald was hired as the president of Union Theological Seminary. The Shrivers still live on the Upper West Side, in a big, crowded apartment near the Hudson. When I went to see them, last spring, a photograph of Lionel at twenty-five sat on a table: she had the same intense, assured, faintly smug look that she has in many of her author photos, but the effect is different on a very young woman. (“The thing about being that age,” Shriver told me, “you’re just so . . . penetrable.”)
Donald sat in a leather chair. Peggy, who suffered a stroke a few years ago, sat next to him, silently holding his hand. “Peggy and I met in a church organization, so we have a great debt to them; we’ll be married sixty-seven years on August the ninth,” Donald said, and his wife gave a little smile. “She’s from the Midwest, and one of the trials of moving from Iowa to Virginia was having to adjust to Southern race relations. I marched in Selma with Martin Luther King, and I was grateful for that, because it gave me a touch of what the movement was about. My father and I had big conflicts over the civil-rights movement. I’m sure Lionel is conscious of that. The fact that I marched for voting rights—I could’ve lost my job as a university pastor.”
Shriver and her siblings turned away from the church; like the rest of their cohort, they were challenging orthodoxies. On a more personal level, they felt that the humility their father preached was at odds with his true nature: ambitious, individualistic, and self-regarding. Shriver told me, “I grew up in a household that believed it was just mind-blowingly altruistic. And that’s a formula for being cynical about altruism.”
In one of her early novels, “Game Control,” an American do-gooder goes to Kenya to promote family planning among the poor. She falls in love with a misanthropic demographer, who chides her: “Your dowdy sympathy is not helping them, and it is certainly not helping you.” (The character was informed by the photographer Peter Beard, whom Shriver got to know during a year she spent in Nairobi. In her thirties, she thought that she’d move from country to country, exploring settings for her novels—looking for cultures to appropriate, as it were. But when she got to Belfast she didn’t want to leave.) In some ways, the demographer is Shriver’s proxy: only too eager to scandalize earnest colleagues with his hard-heartedness. “Why are we still trying to reduce infant mortality?” he asks at a conference. “We keep more children alive to starve and suffer.” Shriver told me, “The trouble with fake altruism is that it doesn’t necessarily do good, because it’s designed to draw attention to the do-gooder. I don’t think I believe in the possibility of real altruism.”
She contemplated charity, self-interest, and resentment in her novel “A Perfectly Good Family,” about a young woman from the South who moves to London to become an artist, then returns home to settle affairs with her two brothers after her parents die. Their late father was a grandiose civil-rights lawyer who was overly proud of his progressiveness. “My brothers may have resented their father’s staking claim to the big liberal issues not just because these were used to bludgeon the boys into submission, but because so little largesse was left for them,” the protagonist says. Their mother is also judged insufficiently authentic. “If the stagy fakery that invaded my mother’s behaviour had been restricted to her ‘telephone voice,’ ” Shriver wrote, “and that fossilized smile for strangers, I could have forgiven her as a socially formal woman covering for the fact that she was shy. But it was in private she was at her most false.”
Shriver dedicated the book to her parents. When they read it, they were furious. “I was threatened with basically being ejected from the family,” Shriver said. The portraits were both unmistakable and unflattering; along with the insincere parents, the younger brother is fastidious and tightly wound. “There was plenty to be upset about, and it was perplexing to us sometimes why she didn’t understand that,” Tim told me. He conceded that her depiction of their mother was dead-on: “She had a formal way of speaking, and you hungered for something to come out off the cuff, straight out of her gut.”
The only family member who liked the book was Gregory. The older brother in the novel, Mordecai, is wily, selfish, self-made, and self-destructive—a magnetic figure who, after years of hard drinking, gets in a motorcycle accident and ends up in a wheelchair, cared for by his siblings. Shriver’s novel proved prophetic: Gregory, too, drank heavily, and years after it was published he got T-boned on his moped and became reliant on painkillers. “That’s when he started eating too much,” Shriver said. He became obese and dependent on his parents, in a way that he’d rejected as a fourteen-year-old. He died of heart failure at the age of fifty-five.
On the radio, Shriver read a letter that she’d written to her younger self: “Gregory will cease to overshadow you. At length, you will overshadow him to a degree that makes you embarrassed, until you yearn to give him some of your spare limelight to illuminate his cheerless evenings.” She wrote about their relationship in “Big Brother,” which hovers around an investigation of duty. When the protagonist, Pandora, goes to pick up her sibling at the airport, he has grown so large that she does not recognize him. “Looking at that man was like falling into a hole,” Shriver writes, “and I had to look away because it was rude to stare, and even ruder to cry.” This helpless agony suffuses the book, as Pandora nearly destroys her marriage trying to save her brother from himself.
“She’s not a devotee of happy endings,” Donald Shriver told me. “Sometimes I think her skepticism is too deep. I wish she’d write about some people where you could say at the end, ‘I think she truly admired those characters.’ ”
One night in October, an m.c. stood onstage at Central Hall Westminster and recounted the building’s history. The U.N. General Assembly first sat there. Past speakers had included Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Winston Churchill—all of whom, the host said, were “fitting warmup acts for tonight.”
Shriver walked onstage with a jaunty, jockish swagger, accompanied by Douglas Murray, the author of “The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity.” The house was sold out, some two thousand seats filled with people eager for some live iconoclasm. “We’re here to talk about identity politics,” Shriver said. “If you know anything about our work, you know we’re here to talk about what’s wrong with it.”
“Or leave now,” Murray said, and got a big laugh.
Shriver inherited some of her father’s gift for leading the faithful down familiar ideological pathways. She described a culture engaged in an Olympics of victimhood—“categories of people who are implicitly pitted against each other for your sympathy”—and the crowd broke into applause. “It is not about becoming powerful. It’s about seeing your powerlessness as your power,” she went on. “We are encouraging people to embrace their own fragility and their own difficulties as the source of their very identity.”
Murray said, “I don’t disagree,” and Shriver replied, “I don’t imagine we’re going to disagree on anything.”
Cartoon by Bruce Eric Kaplan
They had a friendly exchange about activism. “The worst thing that can happen to any liberation movement is getting what it wants,” Shriver said.
“There was a time when gay-rights groups, civil-rights groups in America, and so on, had a point,” Murray, who is gay, added. “Now what is the point of these entities?”
But then Murray suggested that the real agenda behind identity politics is the overthrow of capitalism. “They’re using trans as a battering ram,” he posited, with the goal of “smuggling in Marxism.”
Shriver looked pained—triggered, you might say. “The way you keep talking about ‘they,’ I don’t know who you’re talking about,” she said. The audience laughed, but she wasn’t joking. Here, among her most devoted fans, Shriver found the only conceivable way to be contrary: she defended her antagonists. “Most of the people who have got caught up in this way of thinking, they’re not malign,” she said. “They’re responding to a natural human need for purpose, for meaning, and even for justice.” For a moment, Shriver the novelist, the lover of complexity, emerged. The people on the other side of the argument suggest that you come “pre-made,” she said. “And that is not my experience of being a person. My experience—and I don’t want to go too New Age on you—but it is a continual act of becoming, of creation. If nothing else, you continually have to be another day older. . . . To instead focus on the things that are never going to change—from the day that you are born—is like locking yourself in a room.”
Windsor Terrace, on the southern edge of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, is so verdant and leafy in August that it feels almost bucolic. One night, Shriver and Williams sat on their front porch with the door and all the windows open, hanging out with Tony Sarowitz, Shriver’s best friend. Sarowitz, who has longish, grayish hair and lives part time in Woodstock, recently completed a science-fiction novel and writes financial copy as a day job. He and Shriver met in the seventies, as students in Columbia’s M.F.A. program. “It’s the main thing I got out of it,” Shriver said. “Which, I have to say, is a lot. They have yet to invite me to teach there, by the way. I hate teaching creative writing, but . . .”
“It’s a little odd that they haven’t asked you,” Sarowitz finished for her.
“I get the best of both worlds,” Shriver said. “I don’t have to teach creative writing, and I can be resentful!”
Shriver and Sarowitz play tennis three times a week during the summer—one of the main reasons that she comes to Brooklyn. (They don’t keep score; they’re too competitive to handle losing.) Shriver’s knees have been giving her trouble, though, and she is terrified of having surgery, because she won’t be able to exercise during the recovery period. “My father’s been saying, for the last ten years, he’s a little bit worried he’s not going to be able to play tennis anymore,” Shriver said. “That just pains me. I am genuinely sympathetic with the travails of being ninety-two years old.” (In “The Motion of the Body Through Space,” Shriver writes, “How much kinder it would have been, to turn off, like an appliance. The gradual, drawn-out corruption of the body while its host was still trapped inside was a torture of a sort they would have contrived at Guantanamo, or Bergen-Belsen. Every old age was an Edgar Allan Poe story.”)
“You’re going to be the same way, man,” Williams said.
“Except you’ll still be playing,” Sarowitz added. “You’ll have a stroke. You’ll lose an arm, but you’ll still be playing.”
As the men talked about music and books, Shriver watched them and puffed on her blowtorch. She has known Sarowitz since they were young, but she met Williams when they were well into middle age. “I missed the absolute prime, which I feel annoyed by,” she told me. “When you really know someone, you keep in your perception who they have been, and you’re able to see them in a fuller sense, but that also means a blurring of the present. I like concentrating sometimes on Jeff’s younger visage.” She exhaled vapor. “Fucking good-looking guy,” she said, in a tone that you don’t often hear women use to talk about their husbands: more wolf whistle than reminiscence.
Williams brought her back into the conversation. “You resent being a woman,” he said.
“I hate being a woman,” Shriver corrected. “What’s to like?”
“But you get to enjoy it for a few extra years,” Sarowitz said.
Much of Shriver’s value system revolves around tough-mindedness. Stop borrowing money you can’t pay back—and stop lending it, too, while you’re at it. Don’t dwell on your traumas, recover from them. Rejoice in your power, not in your oppression, and never, ever start a sentence with “As a . . .” Shriver has changed her name, her country, her accent, her religious affiliation, and the definition of “female” that she was raised to embody, in order to become a self-created, self-interested oddity, distinct from the mores of literary society. But you can’t outwit everything. The body inevitably gets the last word, forcing us all to accept an identity that there’s no escaping: mortal.
I FaceTimed with Shriver on a chilly morning in May, the day after she finished the first draft of a new novel. It’s about a couple who decide in middle age that they’ll kill themselves when they turn eighty; they’ll have a quick, clean death, skip all the suffering, turn off like appliances. Shriver was in no mood to celebrate its completion. “One of the gross things about the tranquillity and the comparative silence outside the window is that, at the same time, horrible things are happening, and we can’t hear them,” she told me, sitting in her red-walled study, wearing a thick, black faux-shearling jacket against the cold. “If failing businesses happened in a physical realm, like a building falling down, then it would be deafening out there. And we’re not just talking about greedy fat cats. It’s regular people who are losing their jobs.”
Long before the pandemic, I had asked Shriver if she felt that it was her job as a columnist to propose antidotes to the world’s ills. “Solutions are no fun,” she replied. “Problems are really fun and apocalyptic, and they have a kind of gorgeousness—there’s a wallowing there in the awfulness. These prissy little solutions don’t get me going.” This problem, though, was not so gorgeous. For the moment, she didn’t even want to fight about it.
“I would love to be wrong—it would be wonderful,” Shriver said. “We can talk a year or two from now and you can make fun of me.” She gave a half smile. “We can get together in fancy restaurants and talk about how stupid I am. That would be brilliant.” ♦