Interview with Norman Mailer and his family
Norman Mailer visited the Ransom Center for the 2006 Flair Symposium, The Sense of Our Time: Norman Mailer and America in Conflict.
During Mailer's visit, Robert Fulton, the Ransom Center's former Curator of Academic Affairs, interviewed Norman Mailer, his son John Buffalo Mailer, and Norman Mailer's sister, Barbara Mailer Wasserman.
NORMAN MAILER: American religion, I find, I can't pretend I don't find it odious, organized religion, because it encourages the "stultification" of minds. And it's in a set of absurdities, you know, even if the fundamentalist view should be basically correct, which I don't think at all, but all right. It's just my opinion, but if they're basically correct, I can't conceive that God, unless he has a diabolically low sense of humor, would present this notion that that text written by committee are his divine words, and you've got to believe every one of those words, even when they lead you into total contradictions. It's just so senseless in terms of logic that I really—since I also believe there's a devil in human affairs as well as a God, both of them quite creative in their own way—I believe that organized religion is a development and a mechanism developed by the devil. God's a creator.
Mailer the writer vs. Norman Mailer the reader
ROBERT FULTON: You as Norman Mailer have various identities—you are Norman Mailer the writer, then when you speak about yourself as Norman or Mailer in your writings in sort of the third person, and then you're Norman Mailer the reader. Which one of those is stronger for you?
NORMAN MAILER: It almost depends on my mood. If I'm reading aloud, I'll be the person I'm pretending to be, at that point I'll be Norman Mailer the reader. I do think we have a certain separation from ourselves. In other words, when I'm talking about myself at the age of 28, and I'm saying "Norman"—he exists in my mind almost like a relative. In other words I don't feel the individual umbilical cord stretching right out to him so I can yank on him and bring him in. He's there; he is what he was and so on. And I think that's true of all of us. We bear an odd relation to our own past that is beyond my powers to explore, but they may get into that sort of thing.
Philosophy on raising children
NORMAN MAILER: Very often, the child will show the way. Just talk about it in a roundabout fashion: At one point, years ago, I was going to direct a play. I was at an actor's studio talking to Elia Kazan who was there at the time. And we were reasonably friendly, and I said to him, "You know I have a lot of trouble moving actors around the stage." And he said, "Well, you don't have to do it. The actor usually has a better sense of where they want to move than you do." So I think the problem always with children is to be on the [watch] for what their motive can be. Very often they want to do something that is terribly important to them, and there's a tendency among parents [if] they don't know what the child is up to, to stop the child because it makes you nervous. Very often it will be something that can legitimately make them nervous, like a child getting up on a chair when they can barely stand, and then tottering on the chair a little. I think at a very early age they go through some of the physical dares that we present to ourselves when we're older. So for the child, the thought of standing on that chair is terribly important, and it has a sense it can fall. It isn't innocent about that, but it feels it has to do it. And the burden of the parent, the reason you can get scared, is you really have to make existential decisions on a child—like do I step in here, knowing that the child is going to burst into tears, if you pull them off the chair? On the other hand, if he falls and hurts himself, you've got your wife on your hands.
Relationship with large family
NORMAN MAILER: When you have 9 children, it's very hard to get away with a skin game. It's very hard to fool all of them all of the time. [Laughing] "Come on, Dad!" are three words I know very well and "Oh for God's sake, Dad!" So the result is that you come to recognize that whenever you open your mouth, it's 50-50 whether you're improving or downgrading the ears of the person that's listening to you. And I think that tends to make for a natural modesty.
Growing up in his mother's household
NORMAN MAILER: We grew up in a household where my mother particularly was a woman who had, I don't know how to, you may have better words for it [motions to Barbara], but she was a natural egalitarian. In other words, she felt that she was as good as anyone. On the other hand, she was modest, oddly enough. She knew that she was nothing tremendously important in the scheme of things. What was important to her were her children, and her family life, and her sisters. So growing up with this sense of family that she gave us, which was intense. My mother, I've often made a joke about Mom, which was that she was like a "Mafia Mother," to which she had circles of loyalty, and she was very easy to understand for that reason. First came her children: Barbara and myself. Then came her sisters. She adored her sisters, and they adored her. Then came her husband. Then came a few cousins and relatives and so forth, and after that were a few people that she might be friends with. You really couldn't trust the outside world. Now I've had the opposite of that, because my life is so complicated, that I think, looking back on it, at a certain point, I made a decision that I'll never be able to keep up with everyone, because my acquaintance of people would be large. Naturally, through the success of The Naked and the Dead, and also because, as a novelist I really am interested in all sorts of people, I want to know many people. And I realized that I could not afford to develop a literary personality.
Barbara Mailer Wasserman on growing up as the sister of Norman Mailer
BARBARA MAILER WASSERMAN: Once he got over the shock of my being there, it was great.
NORMAN MAILER: A tremendous shock! It's very hard to go from being the center of the universe, the son of it all, to becoming a small moon that's traveling around the new sun. So, as I said before, until she was about 2 years old, I had one dream, and that was to hit my sister as hard as I could and get away with it. But, of course, I never touched her, I didn't dare, but about the time you were 4, we started to become friends.
BARBARA MAILER WASSERMAN: Somewhere around there.
NORMAN MAILER: I was 8, you were 4, yes?
BARBARA MAILER WASSERMAN: Probably, you remember it better than I do! I think actually, I so impressed you when I walked the pea across the floor.
NORMAN MAILER: Yes, I was timid as a boy and not really very competitive. I hated to lose and wasn't very good at winning, so I stayed out of many things. And there was a contest where a bunch of kids, about 20 kids there at least, and all ages, from 3 to 10, it was a contest where you had to walk across a long room with a Dixie cup spoon, one of those flat spoons, one of those small spoons, with a pea on it, and Barbara won the contest.
ROBERT FULTON: So it all changed after that.
NORMAN MAILER: She walked across, she was so cool. She was absolutely unflappable; she just walked from one end and then came back. And of course, she had those peculiar curls. What were they called?
BARBARA MAILER WASSERMAN: Oh, sausage curls, I think.
NORMAN MAILER: Sausage curls, but it was the "Shirley Temple" curl. Shirley Temple used to have them. And, of course, a great many mothers with good looking daughters were imitating Shirley Temple with their children, and so you used to have a Shirley Temple look.
BARBARA MAILER WASSERMAN: But anyway, I really didn't appreciate him until I was much older. I mean, I didn't appreciate what a great brother he was, as I sort of took it for granted. But I realized, talking to women when I was an adult, that not every brother was that good. He really, he not only included me when I was 10 years old in games with his friends, but when I was an adolescent he was, to use the word, marvelously supportive. But at a time where I was feeling terribly awkward and unattractive, he kept telling me how pretty and smart I was, and since I believed every word he said, though I didn't feel this way, he must be right.
John Buffalo Mailer on being Norman Mailer's son
JOHN BUFFALO MAILER: There's definitely a responsibility, I think you're born with when you're born a Mailer. I think it's largely due to the fact that all eight of my brothers and sisters and myself were raised with a sense of social conscience and a sense of the complexity of the nuance of life. And, a large advantage, too, is that, like it or not, you have a voice, and there will be people out there that will be curious to hear what you have to say. Now granted, they'll be coming at it with a certain bias having nothing to do with you aside from your last name. But I've come to the conclusion that the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages, but one must do something with that. Or, I pray, I can't speak for my brothers and sisters, but I personally feel the responsibility to do something with that, to do everything in my power to try to leave this world a slightly better place than when I entered it. However that might be. The other advantage that I was given that is rarely mentioned is I grew up with both my parents who were very attentive and there. And that is an advantage I think that unfortunately these days, people don't grow up with. And the certain level of confidence that I have because of that aside from who Norman Mailer is just as a father, being there.
Mailer's reaction to criticism from feminist groups
NORMAN MAILER: I was startled when everyone was going around saying, "Oh he's such a hater of women," because I happened to grow up in a family which was essentially a family of females. My father was a charming man, but he was very much off in his own universe. So he was not a prominent figure in our upbringing. My mother was a huge figure, and our loyalty toward each other comes from her because it would have been impossible even for her to conceive for a moment that we should ever be at odds, the two of us.
And we just picked that up comfortably, and I think, she wasn't fierce about it, she was loving about it; we take the two for granted. But the fact is I had four aunts who were my mother's sisters, who were lovely women. And I loved them. And then I had an aunt on my father's side who had no children, and so she was like a surrogate mother and very loving. So I grew up with so much love from women that I tended to take it for granted, and so I went around making ridiculous remarks for a few years. Like, "Oh women, women should be kept in a cage." Which I said once on Orson Well's show.
BARBARA MAILER WASSERMAN: You never expected to be taken seriously.
NORMAN MAILER: I never assumed for one moment I'd be taken seriously. You know? And instead, it became emblazoned: "Mailer wants us in cages."
Barbara Mailer Wasserman on the role of women in her mother's cultural background
BARBARA MAILER WASSERMAN: I think you really couldn't take the women's movement all that seriously because you never thought of women as being...
NORMAN MAILER: I never thought of them as inferior.
BARBARA MAILER WASSERMAN: as weak. I mean, first of all, there was our mother, and our mother came from the tradition of the eastern-European, Jewish culture.
ROBERT FULTON: From where?
BARBARA MAILER WASSERMAN: Well, what is now Lithuania, which was Russia then. The men were considered sort of delicate flowers that have got to be nurtured, particularly if they were scholars. And the women were the ones who ran the show. And so she just had assumed that role herself, so by osmosis, we saw that in her.