Sarah tells Mike about the real-life conspiracy written between the lines of a 1970s horror novel. Digressions include "Rosemary's Baby (again), Disney World (of course), a brief history of the American pharmaceutical industry and a long recipe for stew.
Subscribe on Patreon
Donate on Paypal
Buy cute merch
Sarah: Why is it mother's little helper? It's because mother needs to be tranquilized.
Mike: Welcome to You're Wrong About, the podcast that tells you about real moral panics and occasionally the fake housewives that inspired them.
Sarah: Ooh, huh? Well, that's not the direction I'm going in, but I appreciate your trying to anticipate it.
Mike: I have no idea what this episode is about. I was flailing.
Sarah: I find it interesting that you think the Stepford Wives inspired a moral panic.
Mike: Oh yeah. Because I guess it's the other way around. I don't know what we're talking about.
Sarah: We'll get there. Welcome to You're Wrong About, the show where Mike tries to do a tagline summarizing the reveal of the episode before he has heard the episode. Because he likes to play on hard mode.
Mike: Yeah. I am Michael Hobbes. I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post.
Sarah: I'm Sarah Marshall. I'm working on a book about the Satanic Panic.
Mike: And if you want the show, we are on Patreon at patreon.com/yourewrongabout, and PayPal, and lots of other places. And we are taking questions for our next, “Ask us anything” which comes out next month.
Sarah: And Mike, you have also kind of been like setting me up for a need for like a mega episode. Like, I feel like we're having a like Beach Boys Pet Sounds and like Beatles.
Mike: We've done a bunch of EPs.
Sarah: Because he did the murder episode and you're like, this will just be a mini-sode and then we were recording and I was like, this is a normal-sode though, like this is a full sode.
Mike: It’s the feeling that I'm the kind of person who will corner you at a party and be like, just one quick thing. And then 45 minutes later, you're like, why is this person still talking?
Sarah: I don’t think you’re rude I just think you're thorough. But I just feel like what, what size of sode what are people going to come to expect? I don't know where he's going to see how long this thing turns out. I don't know what kind of sode this'll be.
Mike: So yeah. Start us off. Where are we? What are we, what are we diving into this week?
Sarah: We are talking about the Stepford wives. And my contention is that the Stepford wives, one of the great horror novels of mid-century America, is also a true story. And that's the journey I want to take you on today. What do you know about the Stepford Wives?
Mike: God, I was so afraid that you were going to ask me this. I mean, I knew you were asking this.
Sarah: Of course I was going to ask you this!
Mike: I know that it's a novel that was published in, I think the fifties and it's a bunch of like rich white, like country club-type families. And in the book, it turns out all of the Housewives are either robots or aliens. I can never remember, but they become these like, sort of like fem-bot evil versions of Housewives. Yeah. I saw the trailer of, I think it was like the Nicole Kidman version and like, that is where my knowledge begins and ends.
Sarah: Yeah. There's also a 1975 film adaptation of the Stepford Wives and the book was published in 1972. The author is Ira Levin who also wrote Rosemary's Baby. So, but I'm going to tell you the story of the Stepford Wives, and we're going to go through the book and at a certain point, we're going to start talking about the actual history that I think is informing the story and what it's telling us about the America in which it was created. And, uh, yeah, you're going to hear the real story of the real Stepford Wives.
Mike: Let's do it. Take, take my hand to guide me down the path.
Sarah: Okay. So first of all, I'm going to start by telling you a little bit about our author, Ira Levin, who I find really interesting. So Ira Levin’s ancestors were Russian immigrants and he started off writing for television when he was a student. He entered a CBS screenwriting contest and became a runner up. And so that helps him to get started with his career. And so he then actually had some success as a playwright because in 1956, he did an adaptation of a novel called No Time for Sergeants that started Andy Griffith. And that did very well. And then he had one of the legendary Broadway flops. Which is a musical called Drat! The Cat! which ran for eight shows in 1965. And I would love to see this musical. It stared Leslie Ann Warren as a cat burglar and Elliot Gould as a cop who's trying to track her down and they fall in love, obviously.
Sarah: And one of the pieces of Ira Levin ephemera that I love is that he wrote the lyrics to the songs as well as the book for the musical. And he did a song called, She Touched Me and Elliot Gould who sang that song ended up being Barbara Streisand's husband. And so Barbara Streisand rewrote the lyrics a little bit and had a hit called, He touched me.
Mike: No way. He's working toward his EGOT.
Sarah: After his defeat with Drat! The Cat!, he wrote a book called Rosemary's baby. You know, basically the premise is that a young woman gets pregnant. Her neighbors are being really controlling and like trying to get her to eat certain foods. Her husband is like taking their side and they're choosing which doctor she goes to and ignoring the fact that she's in pain. And in the end, it turns out that her neighbors obviously summoned Satan and had them impregnate her. And use her as a breeder for the antichrist, I guess.
Mike: I watched this movie because you kept mentioning it on the show. I got so curious about it because you kept saying about how it was a metaphor for the way that women were not in control of their bodies and that there's all these people that are weirdly invested in her pregnancy and she's like not in control of it at all. And it's really good until the last 45 seconds where they're just like, say 10 and it just becomes really cartoony and you're like, Oh, okay.
Sarah: Yeah. And if you don't want to watch Rosemary's Baby, because you're uncomfortable with watching the work of Roman Polanski, read the book because it is exactly the same. That is the most faithful movie adaptation of a book that has maybe ever been made in the United States.
Sarah: I think he did one of the best jobs that any male writer I can think of has done of observing what life was like for American women and be like, you're right. Like things are really bad. I'm sure that Rosemary's Baby was successful partly because people who were very, very careful about the patriarchy could watch it and not think of it as a movie where the horror came from the fact that Rosemary's husband only needed the neighbors to talk to him two times before he was like, yeah, let's drug her and let's Satan rape her in order for me to improve my theatrical career. They could watch it and be like, this movie is scary because Satan is scary and you're allowed to kind of absorb that lesson without realizing it, which I think is one of the things that horror can do for us. So I'm just going to take you through the Stepford wives and read you some quotes as we go. So the Stepford wives opens with Joanna Eberhardt, our main character, being introduced to the town of Stepford, Connecticut, where she and her husband and their two kids have just moved by the welcome wagon lady, who is taking down facts about Joanna so she can write a little piece about her in the local paper. And Joanna says, “I play tennis whenever I get the chance. And I'm a semi-professional photographer. ‘Oh?’ The welcome wagon lady said, writing. Joanna smiled. And I'm interested in politics and in the women's liberation movement. And so is my husband. ‘He is?’ The welcome wagon lady looked at her. ‘Yes.’ Joanna said, ‘Lots of men are’.” And so immediately after this scene, we learned that Walter has decided to join the men's association, which is this local group where the men in town get together. They have this old Gothic house that they go to and they have meetings, and they are men together.
Mike: Like Elks Club type thing.
Sarah: Yes. And Walter says, “But the only way to change it is from the inside”. Joana says, “Organizations can be changed from the outside. You get up petitions, you pick-it. But it's easier from the inside” Walter said.” Walter is a lawyer. So they've moved to step for, they have their 2.2 acres. They have little kids that are school age.
Mike: 2.2 kids.
Sarah: 2.2 kids, a matchbox of their own, offensive real chain link. And so they're making the exodus that a lot of families and a lot of women are making with their families at the time. And so it's the experience of your identity becoming subsumed by wifehood, and motherhood, and also leaving the life that you had before and the community that you had before.
Mike: It’s also Interesting to think about the context that the Fair Housing Act passed in 1968. This was the time when you could no longer just straight up say we don't want black people in this neighborhood. So this was when we started getting the shift to using like zoning codes to achieve the same thing, because you can't say we don't want black people here anymore. So you say, Oh, we only want houses that are larger than 2000 square feet, or every house must have a lawn of these dimensions. And so you basically start passing these codes that on their face look technical and neutral, but what they're really doing is they're banning any dense housing, any small housing, any housing that would be affordable to lower-class people, AKA black people.
Sarah: Right. And the Eberhardt's have bought a 2.2 acre property. So like, I think we can assume that that's happening in Stepford. Hansel Stepford. And so she's standing in the yard, she's making her like star light star bright wish. And then she looks over and she sees that one of her neighbors, Carol Van Sant is cleaning in her house. And so, and it goes over and tries to talk to her because she's trying to make a friend. And so this is the scene we get. “She had to speak loud. Carol had stayed by her doorway, still too far away for comfortable conversation, even though she herself was now at the flower bed, edging the split rail fence. ‘When you got the kids down, why don't you come over and have a cup of coffee with me?’ ‘Thanks. I'd like to,’ Carol said, ‘but I have to wax the family room floor.’ ‘Tonight?’ ‘Night is the only time to do it until school starts.’ ‘Well can't wait? it's only three more days.’ Carol shook her head. ‘No, I've put it off too long as it is.’ She said ‘It's all over scuff marks. And besides Ted will be going to the men's association later on.’ ‘Does he go every night?’ ‘Just about’. Joanna things, dear God. ‘And you stay home and do housework?’ ‘There's always something or other that has to be done.’ Carol said, ‘You know how it is. I have to finish the kitchen now. Good night.’
Sarah: Was it the voice I did that gave it away? And then she attempts to sort of make friends with other women and gets the same response. And specifically, like they're never able to socialize because they always have more housework to do. Walter goes out to the first men's association meeting and she's like, Fine. Walter can have his things. I'm being a sport. She falls asleep and wakes up and realizes that Walter is in bed masturbating next to her. And she's like, Walter, you've never done this before. This is weird. And he's like, what? Nothing, let's have sex. I love you. My human wife. He doesn't say that. because Ira Levin is better at keeping a cat in a bag than I am.
And then she meets a friend. She gets a call from a woman named Bobby who introduces herself. And so she's been living here in Ajax County for five weeks and Bobby has a personality and Joanne is overjoyed. And she and Bobby decided, wouldn't it be a great idea to start a National Organization for Women chapter. So they go and talk to some of the other women. Joanna tries to talk to Carol van Sant again, and Charles says, “Gee, no Joanna. That doesn't sound like the sort of thing that would interest me. Thanks for asking me though.” She was cleaning the plastic divider and Stacey and Allison's room wiping a span of its accordion folds with firm down strokes of a large yellow sponge”. So Joanna can't find anyone who wants to join. And Bobby finds one woman who wants to join who's an 85 year old widow. The first movie adaptation was written by William Goldman. And he actually does add some scenes that are very fun and sort of make the thing more cinematic. And so he does write a scene where Joanna kind of leans on the men and they humor her and get their wives to come to her consciousness raising meeting. And there's a beautiful scene where basically, instead of talking about their feelings or women's lib, or anything like that, they all start recommending different household cleaning products to each other. So Walter decides to have the men's association come meet at the house and the most kind of assertive, like kind of leader of the pack guy, is this guy, whoever when calls Diz, and Joanna says, why do they call you Diz? He says, ‘I used to work at Disneyland. Don't you believe me?’ ‘No’, she said. ‘Why not?’ He said, ‘Tell me’. To hell with him, she would, ‘You don't look like someone who enjoys making people happy.’ He looked at her disparagingly, ‘How little you know, he said’.”
Mike: I am fun, you witch!
Sarah: Joana makes a shocking discovery while she's looking at old newspapers that she finds in the house from the previous owner, which is that there used to be a women's club in Stepford. There was one just a few years ago, there were 50 members, Betty Friedan spoke. She's like, Hmm. So Bobby and Joanna go out to a neighboring town to go to McDonald's, I'm imagining because like Stepford can't have McDonald's because it would ruin the, what is the thing? The character.
Mike: Neighborhood character.
Sarah: So they go to get McDonald's and Bobby starts theorizing. And this is something that for a long time, I thought was made up for the book. But this is actually something that was in the news at around this time and continues to be off and on. So Bobby says there was a thing in time, a few weeks ago, they have a very low crime rate in El Paso, Texas. And the reason is there's a chemical in the ground that gets into the water and it tranquilizes everybody and eases the tension.
Mike: Wait this was an actual like theory in real life at the time?
Sarah: Yeah. What turns out to be the case is that there is a small amount of lithium in the water and El Paso. And I researched this a little bit. I didn't like chase this fully down the rabbit hole, but it appears to be inconclusive. Like, it seems like the city of El Paso website is like, there's a little bit of lithium in the water, but you would have to drink 600 glasses of water to get a clinical dose of lithium. So like, don't worry about it, which is like, I don't know, I'm not a lithium scientist. Like maybe that makes sense. Or maybe like you accrue tiny amounts of lithium over time, like mercury or maybe you don't. I don't know. It is interesting though.
Mike: Yeah. Although typically in these cases where there's these sorts of exotic explanations for societal trends, there's usually like a more proximate explanation for that. Like they spend twice as much on schools or like, their police department is like much larger or much smaller or something. Like usually it's like we search for these exotic explanations and there's something much more boring and obvious, like sitting right there.
Sarah: Right. But Bobby thinks it’s the Lithium so.
Mike: Sure. Okay. Maybe it is the lithium who knows. Okay. Good for El Paso though.
Sarah: Good for El Paso. Yeah. And so anyway, Joanna says, “‘I think I remember’, and Bobby says, ‘Joanna, I think there's something here in Stepford. It's possible, isn't it? All those fancy plants on route nine, electronics, computers, aerospace junk with Stafford Creek running right behind them’. Joanna frowned. ‘You think it's because of a chemical?’ Bobby nodded. ‘There's something,’ Bobby said. ‘In the ground, in the water, in the air. Who knows what chemicals can do. Nobel prize winners don't even really know yet. Maybe it's some kind of hormone thing. That would explain the fantastic boobs.”
Mike: Oh my God.
Sarah: Yeah. All the separate wives have huge boobs, too. “There's something here, Joanna. I'm not kidding. This is Zombieville. I wanted a Norwood to get my hair done for your party. I saw a dozen women who were rushed and sloppy and irritated and alive. I wanted to hug every one of them.”
Mike: Rushed and sloppy and irritated and alive is a really good, it's a much more interesting goal than trying to be perfect all the time.
Sarah: It really is. Yeah. I'm really a big subscriber to the Bobby Marco school of thought. Like let's be rushed, sloppy, irritated, and alive. So they have this McDonald's meeting and then they drove up East Bridge Road and turned onto Route 9. “They passed the shopping mall and the antique stores and came to the industrial plants. ‘Poisoners Row,’ Bobby said. Uhlets Optics, where Herb Sunderson worked, and Computex fixed Stavros, or was he with Instrutron? And Stephenson Biochemical, and Haigdarlin Computers, and Burnmassey Microtech, and Instatron, and Reid and Saunders, Phil McCormick. How was Marge? and VZ Electronics and American Willis.”
Mike: The names are great.
Sarah: So what do you think about all that? Like, I feel like this connects with some recent topics of ours.
Mike: Disco? Are you going to bring disco into this? Tell me where you’re going.
Sarah: Lead. Bobby says in the ground, in the water, in the air. Like what is in the air in 1972? Like Bobby is not wrong, is she?
Mike: Yeah. And also ,we also had Silent Spring come out, I believe in 1962.
Sarah: Can you talk about Silent Spring, just a little bit?
Mike: I mean, some of the information that has now been debunked, but the amount of just poison that was being pumped into the water and the air and the ground during the 1950s and 1960s was unfathomable. And also just a total lack of accountability for corporations that were doing it. Like people just didn't see it as a problem that like, we're just going to dump poison into this river forever and that's our business model. And like, we don't even really pay like higher taxes for the privilege of doing that.
Sarah: It seems like that's the problem of the guy who lives farther down this river.
Mike: Exactly. Like this is my fifties nostalgia bugs me so much is because it's literally nostalgia for a country that didn't exist.
Sarah: Yeah. It's nostalgia for like the period when we were putting poison into the environment in massive quantities, but like, we hadn't yet seen the damage that that would inevitably wreak, and so terrible things were happening. But the chickens weren't coming home to roost yet. Like that's what the nostalgia is also for. So Bobby's right!
Mike: Team Bobby.
Sarah: And so after this, this very troubling outing with Bobby, Joanna comes home and she's cleaning and she looks over and sees her kids, Pete and Kim on the floor watching TV, President Kennedy and President Johnson, surprisingly. “No, figures of them. She watched for a moment and went back to the sink and scraped the last few dishes”. So what do you think Joanna is watching?
Mike: So she's seeing President Kennedy on TV as if he's alive. That's weird and bad. He's a robot, run.
Sarah: Pete and Kim are watching the wonderful world of Disney. Do you know the Disney audio animatronics? Have you experienced them at all?
Mike: As like an eight year old or something, last time I was there, but not as like a real person.
Sarah: They're very charming. Like they're one of my favorite things in Disney parks and my favorite audio animatronic attraction is the carousel of progress where it's in Tomorrowland and you sit and they have like the standard American family, two parents, and then a boy and a girl, and the father sits and tells you about all the great technology they have today. And he's like, why you can keep ice in a freezer now. And you know, it comes down to all different kinds of conveniences and exciting things, but like, what is the mom talking about? She's able to do more housework. She's able to wash more clothes and iron more clothes and like keep up with her family better, theoretically. Like thanks to progress the technology of housework is improving.
Mike: So it is the vibe of like, she's just served dinner and he's lighting up the cigar and he's telling you stories while she quietly, just sort of putters around in the background, doing all of these menial tasks.
Sarah: Yes. Like this reminds me of the best point I've ever heard anyone make about Stanley Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey, which was made by my ninth grade English teacher, who said, ‘isn't it weird that in a future where we can go to Jupiter, women still only can work in space as stewardesses.’ And I think one of the most fascinating things about gender roles in America is that we like to hang on to them by saying that they are timeless, and they are necessary and there's like, no escape and things have been this way forever. When really, they've been this way for like 60 years. You know, one of the trends that we see in housework and the activities that we come to see housework, and that are outlined in a book that I've been reading his research for this episode called More Work for Mother by Ruth Schwartz Cowen, thanks to progress, men seem to be able to stop doing the forums of housework and household labor that they have done historically. And women are the ones whose time ends up still being kept by the home.
Mike: It is actually interesting, because some of the biggest efficiency gains in the home are in things like cooking and cleaning, right. That you have like, the electric stove, the washing machine, the dishwasher, all of these things should have ended up freeing up a lot of time for women to do other things, but it seems like what they've done is they've ended up freeing up all this time that just gets shunted into more housework.
Sarah: Stop spoiling my episodes. And so another great example of this and one that Ruth Schwartz Cowen talks about a lot, she tells us “Housewives where the spouses of husbands and husband as the compound character of the name implies, were people whose work was also focused on the house, who says the older spelling of our house, to which they were bonded. Houses that they either rented or owned houses that were in some socially identifiable sense, their own.” And so it's interesting to me that maybe it's because of an accident of etymology, like we have retained this literal understanding of the housewife as someone who is, is very literally bonded to the house, if there is one. We think of that pretty literally, but the husband, I guess, because like he dropped an O and an E over the centuries, can just like come and go as he pleases for the most part. I mean, if we just look at American history, if we look at the first people who, in one way or another, are able to set up a household in the land that will become this country, what we see as a pretty equal division of labor between men and women, husbands and wives.
I'm going to read you a passage from More Work from Mother, so we are being told to imagine the household of a theoretical couple in 18th century Connecticut, and she's going to break down the household labor that this couple is doing. And so we're talking about this couple making dinner. And so obviously they're having stew. “To butcher the animal from which the meat was to come, the husband would have used a set of knives made of wood and iron. The water to be used in preparation and cleaning would likely have come from a nearby stream. The housewife would have put the meat and water into a large iron kettle. The fuel for the fire would be hard with logs, cut, hauled, chopped, and stacked by her husband. If the housewife had been following standard practice on these matters, the herbs and vegetables that were added to the stew would have come from a kitchen garden that she had planted and tended herself. The grain that went into the stew for the thickening might've been corn or wheat. And unlike the herbs and vegetables, would have been the product of male, rather than female labor. The husband would have superintended the growing of it, as well as its subsequent processing. Had it been corn, he would have husked it and scraped the colonels from the ear. If wheat, he would have supervised the cutting, threshing, and winnowing. If they had a hand mill made of stone for either form of grain, he would have pushed it or managed the draft animals doing the pushing. And if the grain was to be taken to a local watermill to be ground, which would have been the most likely choice in Connecticut in this period, he would have hauled it in a cart drawn by the same draft animals.”
Mike: This sounds like one of those YouTube channels where millennials have to do impossible challenges. You have to grow the corn, you have to make a fire. It takes a month to make dinner.
Sarah: Wouldn’t you love to watch, just like a Netflix reality show that's just like stew. You just have to make stew. One of the themes that comes up repeatedly in More Work for Mother, and also in American history is that once we get a piece of technology, then we start to have higher expectations. So one of the other examples in More work for Mother is the industrialization of flour. How basically flour goes from something that the entire household has to contribute some labor to, and which men are responsible for taking the grain to the mill, taking it back, you know, doing this all on a horse and buggy. Suddenly, you can buy flour and men don't have to be putting labor into the obtaining or supervision of flour, except in that they are doing work that is allowing them to earn a wage that can purchase flour.
Mike: This is how I'm going to feel when I find a software that can automatically remove ‘ums’.
Sarah: But, you know, as we do with every piece of technology, we develop a belief system about status. And so before families, because they were also cooking with coarser grains, you were seeing a lot of quick breads, a lot of like baking that centered, not on wheat flour, but on corn meal, which is a lot easier to bake with. You don't have to have bread rising a quick round that rises through soda rather than yeast is a much lower maintenance form of starch. And that's what most families were making before suddenly highly refined, storable, white flour becomes the standard. Now, suddenly everyone has to make bread that rises and that you have to supervise and stay home and watch. Some of this labor was just invented as an excuse to find new ways to have women constantly laboring because that's an important status symbol. Like if you can show that your wife is laboring on your behalf, like great. The argument that Ruth Schwartz Cowen has is that cakes become a status symbol during this time because they require a lot of effort. So sugar is sold and loaves. So it had to be beaten before it could be combined with other ingredients. Eggs and butter had to be worked by hand or with a spoon until they had reached the necessary state of aeration. Even the most energetic of cooks could well have been exhausted after making, for example, this simple cake and then the recipe: take eight eggs yolks and whites beat and strain them and put to them a pound of sugar, beaten and sifted. Beat it three quarters of an hour together.
Mike: Jesus Christ.
Sarah: And then Ruth Schwartz Cowen says “The egg beater, which was invented and marketed during the middle decades of the century,” which is the 19 “may have eased the burden of this work somewhat. But unfortunately the popularity of the beater was accompanied by the popularity of angel food cakes. In which eggs are the only leavening and yolks and whites were beaten separately. Thus doubling the work.”
Mike: So that's like the perfect metaphor for the way that every time you have a labor saving device, you just do more fucking labor.
Sarah: Yes. Like that should be called the egg beater effect. But I feel like what we see in the carousel of progress and in the Stepford Wives is the idea that women have been told over and over again, that technology will free them. Technology will save you time. And I think what we're seeing self-aware really, and the Stepford Wives and not so self-aware really, in the carousel of progress is this idea that women aren't being freed by technology, women are a technology. Like the housewife is the best technology. So all that's to say that here we are in the nuclear age and Joanna is thinking about, you know, we're living in this town where there's all this tech, there's all these chemicals, there's all these men working for computer companies.
There's a guy who runs the men's association who used to work at Disneyland. And so one of the men from the men's association asks Joanna to help him with this linguistics project that he is doing. What he says he's doing is that he is going to get her to write down a list of every place she's lived. And then she's going to say various words into a recording so that he can study her accent because he's interested in regional accent variations. And so she starts doing this project for him, where she's just going through this very long alphabetical list of words.
And so the book is divided into two parts and that section ends with the scene where she went to the desk and sat down and moved the pen she had left as a place mark on the typed page. She listened for a moment to the silence from upstairs and switched the recorder on. With a finger to the page she leaned toward the microphone, ‘Taker, takes, taking.’ She said, ‘talcum, talent, talented, talk, talkative.’
Mike: So he's obviously getting her to record all of this so that he can make a little tape and play it once she's a robot. Boom. I have read books.
Sarah: So we're going to leave Joanna for a moment. And we're going to talk a little bit about pharmaceutical history. So I'm going to send you an image now, what do you see?
Mike: Okay, so it's an advertisement and the headline-ish on the advertisement is “Syndromes of the sixties, the Battered Parent Syndrome”.
Sarah: Which we can do a whole episode on unpacking that phrase.
Mike: Battered parents, man. It's a picture of a mom and she's on the phone and she's holding one kid. And then another kid is like in a highchair and he's reaching for her. And there's like another random kid in the background, like climbing on stuff. So I guess she's just like a harried mother who's just pulled in a million different directions.
Sarah: Yeah. She's irritable and anxious and alive.
Mike: Yeah. And it appears to be an advertisement for some sort of pill called Milltown, (Meprobamate). And then the tagline is, “when reassurance is not enough”.
Sarah: Can you read us some of the wonderful copies?
Mike: “Some, say it unrealistic to educate a woman and then expect her to be content with the Cub Scouts as an intellectual outlet or to grant that she is socially, politically and culturally equal while continuing to demand domestic and biological subservience. Whatever the cause, the consequences, anxiety, tension, insomnia, functional disorders, fill waiting rooms. Sometimes it helps to add Miltown to her treatment to help her relax, both emotional and muscular tension. It's no substitute for a week in Bermuda or for emotional readjustment,” oh God, “but it will often make the latter easier for her as well as for the physician.”
Sarah: What do you think of that, Mike? I just think this is one of the most interesting things I've ever seen in my whole life.
Mike: I mean, as we see with so many of these like capitalistic cannibalization of emotional issues, it's sort of, it's diagnosing like the correct problem. That the expectations of women are massively expanding during this time. And a lot of people, understandably, don't feel like they can really handle it, but then after correctly diagnosing the problem, we then are trying to solve it with pharmaceuticals. People who use medication to treat their depression, anxiety thing is completely fine, but we also have a problem with these pills over promising something. And also trying to distract you from the actual things that are stressing you out, which is the underlying social conditions, or like maybe your crappy husband. I don't know.
Sarah: Yeah, maybe your crappy yeah, husband. I think that's a very interesting direction for this conversation to start going in. And I welcome it with open arms. If I could run across a beach and into the arms of that idea, I would. Yeah. I also think, interestingly, that like other ads will be targeted at working women, but I think this Miltown ad is at least implying that this woman is just in the home and that one of her problems is that she has been educated and that society has deemed her the equal of man. And yet her life is still boring, and she has no one to talk to all day. Except little kids.
Mike: That actually sounds like a huge challenge. But what is this? What is this, is this a real pill?
Sarah: Yes. Milltown is the pre Valium.
Mike: Oh, really?
Sarah: So now we're going to learn about Milltown from a book called the Age of Anxiety by Auden. “Miltown, the first of the so-called minor tranquilizers, was discovered in 1950 and approved for sale by the FDA in 1955. It quickly became a national phenomenon. By 1956 an astounding 1 in 20 Americans had tried it, no drug in the United States had ever been in such demand. Given the drug's blockbuster status, its historical obscurity is curious. For most of us tranquilizers mean Valium or Xanax. Miltown is the tranquilizer we tend to forget. Yet the little white pill left an indelible imprint on modern medicine and psychopharmacology. The drug's popularity and efficacy challenged Freudian ideas about the etiology and treatment of neurosis. It bolstered the claims of a new biological psychiatry that attributed mental disorders to imbalances of the brain, and it rendered anxiety and the words of psychiatrist and historian Tom Ban accessible to scientific scrutiny.”
Mike: And it's less pseudo-scientific than Freud. For fucks sake. That's some form of progress, I suppose.
Sarah: That line of thinking takes us hopefully away from the idea that some people's brains do bad things because the people made bad moral choices.
Mike: Right. It seems much more positive to think of this as something that is a disease that you cannot control. That seems like a more productive message than the idea that like, oops, you wanted to have sex with your mom.
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah. As someone also who like experiences a lot of anxiety, I do think that the idea that anxiety is something that comes from something in your brain that can be noodled with in a way that is helpful to you, that's a good thing. I'm glad that progress got us that far. And I think the problem comes with, how do we utilize that technology and who has the power to use it and to decide how we refine it and what we try to do with it. So this is an ad that is aimed at doctors. This is aimed at people who are in a position to prescribe medication, but you know, very significantly the problems of living the life of an American housewife are explicitly described as something that Miltown can remedy.
Mike: Right. It's also amazing to me that the only warning in this ad is it says, “Contraindications, previous allergic or idiosyncratic reactions to meprobamate”, which is like this weird circular thing of like, don't prescribe it if you've already prescribed it and she had a reaction.
Sarah: Like, be careful with this like steel shish kabob skewer if you have already pierced the back of your throat with it. It's like, well, I think that that is the one person who doesn't need to be told to be careful. So like, what is the purpose of this? Yeah. And so I feel like the question that we get into with things like the Milltown ad, which should be in a museum, is it the question of like, so you're being told that your brain is going to be made to work better, but who's it for? The thing that the Stepford wives say, every time, every time someone is replaced with a Stepford robot, what the robot replacement says is that she stopped doing all these things he used to do, you know, organizing feminist group meetings, pursuing work outside the home, anything, is that she realized that it wasn't a good use of her time. So the, you know, the Miltown ad kind of is, is focused on the idea of like, things are hard for Housewives because they just are, and nothing can be different. So we must adapt the woman to the situation rather than adapting the situation to the woman.
Mike: In 1950s America, the doctor prescribes you.
Sarah: That's really good. Yeah. And so to me, you know, it's this question of, it's a great big, beautiful tomorrow. We have all this amazing technology. What are we using it for? Is it being used for the happiness and health of all humans or have the women become the best technology in the mid-century home. Rosemary's Baby is dark, but I think the Stepford Wives is darker, because when you get replaced with a Stepford Wife, they murder you. And you're just replaced with an identical robot replacement of you with like bigger boobs who just is sort of like calm and just does housework calmly all day long. And the new Stepford Wives are like, they zoom around, they have very exaggerated kind of superhuman movements. Like they're very visibly not human. The women in the book, the Stepford Wives, and also in the 1975 film adaptation, are defined by these serene, slow, almost human movements. They are just slowly, constantly, working. And I love how whenever you watch Joanna interacting with one of the Stepford wives or watching them, you just are watching her, noticing the way that they do with task and the way the tasks are described is always like, she was wiping the divider with, you know, from down strokes with a big yellow sponge. And like, can you see that in your head? Because I definitely can. You know, just like this divider is the only thing that matters, you know, and Joanna is just noticing that everyone around her is just content to be what her husband wants her to be.
And I think the real, to me, like the darkest part of that story, and the way that I feel like Ira Levin is saying to American women, like you're not crazy, is the implication that men don't care if their wives have personalities or if they have intimacy or if they love each other, if they like comfort them, when things are difficult or can share their thoughts or their secrets or their dreams. It’s like, no, your wife just exists for you to fuck her and to clean everything all the time. And the kids don't care either. They're just like, this is great, Mom makes hot breakfast now.
Mike: Yeah. It's a weird self-own by the men. Finally, someone who just does the housework and has no personality whatsoever and is not fun to hang out with at all.
Sarah: And who I can literally program. And he's just this Disneyland version of like my right hand.
Mike: Yeah. It's like a living flesh jack, that vacuums.
Sarah: Yeah. And so this is Ira Levin being like you're right. There is something horribly wrong with us and with the institution of marriage and like run!
Mike: Why did we switch from Middletown to Valium? Did Milltown turn out to have like weird side effects or something?
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah. So there's a lot of side effects that Miltown causes. There's a period during which Miltown is marketed to pregnant women promising that it will make their pregnancy quote “a happier experience”.
Mike: Yeah, I fucking bet it will.
Sarah: And what that means is that it created birth defects and also got into the breast milk. So women who were taking Miltown while breastfeeding, even if they hadn't taken it while pregnant, were also passing on dangerous things to their babies. And then it becomes a drug where if you try to go off it, you have potentially tremendous and debilitating withdrawal symptoms, which are like, not just physical, but mental. People had hallucinations. It's just a hard thing to go off anything like that, no matter what.
Mike: I mean it’s interesting. This is a hard thing to talk about. We know people who take anti-depression, anti-anxiety drugs, various other medications, and have had really good experiences. And so it's just difficult to talk about like these broader systemic things, with the kinds of drugs that get approved. When for any one of these drugs, you will find people who really like them. And I mean, a lot of people have had their lives measurably improved through pharmaceutical interventions and like trying to take that away from somebody is extremely ugly.
Sarah: Yes. And I think it comes down to how we wield the power of pharmaceuticals because it is a big, heavy sword. And in the sixties, in mid sanctuary America, really, I would say in like all of American history, let's be real, it has just been flopping around in the hands of people with thin little wrists who just want to make as much money as they can, as fast as they can. And so Milltown and Valium are things where, you know, there wasn't very much testing before they were put on the market. The implications of potential dependency issues. People taking them consistently would also have to keep upping their dosage inevitably for it to keep working because of the ways that it acted on them. And I also think that it's really never appropriate to invent a drug and then no matter how well you've tested it and how sure you are of its effects to just spray it across the population and market it to everybody.
Mike: Right? Like the produce section of the supermarket, there's that little like thunder sound. And then it just like sprays all the broccoli.
Sarah: That's FDA approval, the thunder sound is FDA approval. And then America like bell peppers.
Mike: Yeah, because I mean, I guess it comes down to like with great power comes great responsibility, right?
Sarah: It's a Spider-Man world.
Mike: These pharmaceuticals have extremely great powers and that they need to be wielded with a lot of care and humility, and we need to be clear about sort of who can benefit from them under what circumstances, we need to be really clear in the way that they're marketed to people.
Sarah: Yes. All right. So this is another passage from the Age of Anxiety. So after the success of Milltown “Firms caught off guard by Carter Wallace’s success and eager to claim a slice of the fantastically profitable tranquilizer market, ordered company scientists to invent a pill that would outsell the nation's mood altering wonder drug. As reports about Miltown’s, habit forming potential began to surface in the late 1950s, Hoffman Laroche won FDA approval to market Librium in 1960. Valium followed in 1963.” So it's interesting to me that Valium was born directly out of the desire to compete with Milltown and to find something that would undermine Milltown’s profits.
Mike: Right. It's not like we need to help people, this isn't delivering on the promises. It's like, no, this is wildly profitable, so we need to make another one. It's like how all those, like female centered comedies came out after bridesmaids. They're like the women see movies. We can make money off these.
Sarah: We never knew! Yeah, and it's not out of the sense of like, oh my goodness, this Miltown is habit forming. Like we must synthesize a new drug and rigorously test it so that we can find something that can offer people relief from anxiety, without giving them dependency issues and horrible physical and mental side effects. No, obviously we don't care about that. Like we just need a better hula hoop. Yeah. And then Valium is approved by the FDA in 1963, it's marketed to quote, reduce psychic tension and it becomes the first drug to reach a billion dollars in sales. Valium is a benzodiazepine, which means that it very quickly acts upon the brain to trigger a rush from a neurotransmitter that makes you feel calm and cool, and like things aren't so stressful.
Mike: Sounds dope.
Sarah: By 1979, Valium is the country's most prescribed tranquilizer. And according to People Magazine, ranks number one in drug-related hospital emergency room cases. And in 1978, it killed 50 Americans. So the valium backlash, I believe, truly begins in 1979 when a filmmaker named Barbara Gordon publishes a memoir of going on Valium and then getting off Valium called I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can. She was first prescribed it to relieve muscle spasms. And then seven years later, she had an anxiety attack, and she says, the psychiatrist I was seeing said, Oh, that's anxiety that you're feeling now. And I'm going to give you this pill called Valium. It's not addictive and you don't have to worry about it.
And so here's the People Magazine intro. The interviewer says, “Was there any problem getting the pills?” She says, “My psychiatrist has prescribed me 100 every two weeks. The last three years, I'd just go to him for the prescription.” There was no therapy going on. What made you decide to quit? It was morning. I had just finished a film about a cancer victim who died before she could screen it. And I was depressed. I was getting ready to take two pills because I was then taking them even in anticipation of attacks. But instead I called my shrink and said, no more pills. It was an impulse toward health. My doctor said, “Then do it right, Barbara. Don't take one, no matter what happens. Don't even have a sip of wine. I was a docile patient and ended up in a mental hospital
Mike: That’s weird that he's telling her to go cold turkey.
Sarah: Yes, she's she describes it as I became a hysterical, disoriented little girl. The interviewer says, are you anti psychiatry? And she says, no, but the profession needs a Ralph Nader. Safeguards ought to require that patients question why they may be going for 10 years to a doctor and taking more and more pills. Patients could say, no, I don't wish to be sedated. I would rather face my demon and then mask it.
Mike: I'm not wild about constructing taking medication as quote unquote, masking the demon. I mean, some people have real chemical imbalances that they need medication for, but she's also right that there's just an inherent information and expertise imbalanced between you and a doctor. And so as somebody who doesn't know medicine, that makes you vulnerable to someone saying, I know medicine, do this, and then you'll do whatever they tell you to, because you don't know, like by definition, that's the doctor patient relationship. So she's right. But I questioned her vocabulary.
Sarah: Yeah. I mean, this is a very 1970s way of putting things I think, and one of the things she also says here, the interviewer said, should valium be and be taken off the market? And she says, no, it can be an adjunct to therapy. But what I was doing in a silent conspiracy with the psychiatrist, was replacing therapy with pills for that I am as accountable as he, but he should have known better. He's a doctor. If you have a patient and you're like, I'm going to give you valium and I don't need to see you anymore and I don't really, really care very much about talking to you because this drug is going to make you all better and like, if you need to do anything else so that your husband talks to you or whatever, then like, fuck right off. Because like you were making it look like progress isn't capable of fixing whatever grievances you have with your wonderful situation, with your, you know, big freezer that he gave you. Like, how dare you. I was reading the Stepford Wives last spring, and I was also reading about Miltown and stuff. And like Joanna being like Diz, he's called that because he worked at Disneyland and the kids are watching these Presidents on TV and they seem human, but Kennedy is dead, and the women used to have a women's lib organization here and then it just all ended suddenly. And now they just sort of slowly mechanically do housework slowly, all day long. And you know, and she's like, they're robots. And I was like, yeah, the Stepford Wives is true! So let's go back to our friend Joanna, are you scared? I'm scared.
Mike: We're back at summer camp. You've got the flashlight to your face. We’re under the blanket. You're telling me the way this story ends.
Sarah: And so start with part two, Bobby and her husband go away for a weekend of kind of a mini honeymoon. And Bobby comes home and is different. What she thinks is that, you know, that Bobby was right and whatever pollutant was causing this, got to her. And then it takes four months to change because Bobby's family has been there for four months. So she starts trying to get Walter to move and he's like, why would we move and uproot the kids? Like, if you really want to move, we can do it next summer. And she says, “I won't be me next summer.”
Throughout the book there's just all these little references to like, they put up storm windows and she made Pete's Halloween costume. And you just get sort of the rhythm of daily life. There's a lot of moments where Joanna is like on the point of maybe realizing something or putting together what she's seeing. And then it's like, she cleared the table, she could maybe piece it together faster if she wasn't constantly being interrupted by housework, but she is so, she can't.
So her husband is like, “See a psychiatrist. I think you're not well.” And so she goes to see a psychiatrist, a woman's psychiatrist. She talks about watching the robots on TV with her kids, and she's kind of putting it together. And the book says, “Dr. Fincher waited and nodded. ‘Rather than force an immediate move on your family,’ she said, ‘I think you should con-’ ‘Disneyland!’ Joanna said. ‘That program was from Disneyland’”. And then they end the session. And Dr. Fincher says, “‘Will you think about it for a day or two and call me?’ Joanna sat still and nodded. Dr. Fincher took a pen from its holder and wrote on a prescription pad. ‘These will help you in the meantime,’ Dr. Fincher said, writing, ‘They’re a mild tranquilizer. You can take three a day.’ She tore off a slip and offered it to Joanna smiling. ‘They won't make you fascinated with housework.’ she said.”
Mike: The Stepford Wives is true!
Sarah: Thank you. Joanna gets back home. She goes to the library and finds the article from when Diz and his wife moves to town and found out that his wife was active in the women's lib movement, and that Diz was an audio animatronics at Disneyland. And so she puts it all together and she comes home and confronts Walter. And he's like, “No, what are you talking about?” And she says, stop lying. You've been lying to me ever since I took my first picture. And this is a great part because this is like, you know, she's figured it out and he's leveling her accusations, finally. “What's the going price for a stay in the kitchen wife with big boobs and no demands, and what happens to the real ones?” He looked at her standing with his hands to the wall and the banister. ‘Go upstairs and lie down.’ He said.”
Mike: No, he's evil! No, fight him, throw things!
Sarah: So she goes upstairs and she's able to get outside, but she doesn't have a coat. She just has a heavy sweater. And she's running through the town and the men are driving around town, looking for her. And one of the last things that happens before the denouement is that a black family moves to town. And so she's like, maybe I can go, I can find the couple that just came to town because they haven't had time to change yet. And so finally the men find her and they're all standing around trying to calm her down. And so we get this scene. “‘Nobody is making robots.’ Frank said. ‘You must think we're a hell of a lot smarter than we really are.’ The man in the middle said. ‘You're the man who put us on the moon.’ She said, ‘Oh, Joanna’. Frank said, ‘If you were right and we can make robots that were so fantastic and lifelike, don't you think we would cash in on it somehow?”
Mike: They already did. They got boobs. That's caching in! Free sex, big boobs, clean houses.
Sarah: Yeah, good point, Mike. Seriously, what is the dollar value of all that labor? Oh my God. It's in the hundreds of thousands at minimum.
Sarah: And so the men decide that they're going to prove to her that they're not doing this robot thing. And that she's crazy by taking her to see Bobby. And Bobby will cut herself and prove that she bleeds. And so Joanna goes along with it.
Mike: Never do that. If you're a character in a book or movie, never do the thing where you go with the bad guys so they can show you something.
Sarah: So they got to the house and Bobby says, “‘I don't mind cutting my finger a little. It'll ease your mind for you.’” And there's loud rock music playing for some reason. And Joanna says “‘What's going on upstairs?’ ‘I don't know,’ Bobby said. ‘Dave has the boys up there. Come here. The men are waiting.’ Joanna went forward toward Bobby, standing by the sink with the knife in her hand. So real looking, skin, eyes, hands, rising falling apron bosom, but she couldn't be a robot. She simply couldn't be. And that was all there was to it.”
Sarah: Oh yeah. I know. It's rough. Yeah. And then the epilogue section, the black couple that just moved to Stepford are named Ruthann and Royal. And so Ruthanne runs into Joanna at the market and asks how Joanna's photography is going. And Joanna says, “Oh no, I don't do much photography anymore. I wasn't especially talented, and I was wasting a lot of time I really have better use for. I used to feel I had to have other interests, but I'm more at ease with myself now. I'm much happier, too. And so is my family. That's what counts, isn't it?” Joanna, smiling, walked away and stopped, took a box from a shelf, looked at it and fitted it down into her cart.”
Mike: But how big are Joanna’s boobs? I don't know. I don't know what happened about the boob size. I need closure.
Sarah: And so here's the final moment of the book. Ruthanne writes children's books. We learned this earlier when she and Joanna talked about it. And so she comes to talk to her husband at the end of her day of working on her children's book. “Royal sat reading men and groups. ‘Listen, what do you do me a favor? Now that it's moving, I want to stay with it.’ ‘Supper?’ He said, she nodded. ‘Would you take them to the pizza place or to McDonald's?’ ‘All right,’ he said. ‘I want to get it done with’, she said. He laid the open book down across his lap and took the pipe cleaning gadget from the table. She turned to go and looked back at him. ‘You sure you don't mind?’ She asked. He twisted the gadget back and forth in the pipe bowl. ‘Sure’, he said, ‘Stay with it’. He looked up at her and smiled. ‘I don't mind’. He said.
Mike: Oh no, Ruth Ann.
Sarah: To me, the note this book ends on is something that we have seen before between Joanna and Walter, where she will make a tiny request of him. Like something of that scale, like, will you do something? And he's like, sure. And doesn't put up resistance or argue with her about it. And is perhaps just quietly plotting to turn her into a robot. But yeah, to me, it's like the most chilling possible thing. And the implication is that like every time a woman asks her husband to do something for her, no matter how nicely he reacts, you can never know if he isn't quietly plotting to replace you with a robot.
Mike: Right, just like, no problem, honey, I'll go to McDonald's. And then he calls Diz on the phone and he's like, here are her specifications and these are how big I need the boobs to be.
Sarah: Housework and boobs. That's all I want. I'm tired of this equal rights shit, man. It's gone too far.
Mike: Buying a DD bra and a yellow sponge at Walmart the next day.
Sarah: And so the epilogue to me of the Valium story, Mike who are the Sackler brothers?
Mike: Oh, this is the family that owns or developed or something? Oxycontin.
Sarah: Yes, they are responsible for the grand marketing push of Oxycontin into every corner of the American medical system. So the Sackler family learned to walk with Valium so that they could run with oxycontin. And so this is from Patrick Radden Keefe's article on the Sackler family for the New Yorker. “Sackler promoted valium for such a wide range of uses that in 1965, a physician writing in the journal psychosomatics asked, when do we not use this drug? One campaign encouraged doctors to prescribe Valium to people with no psychiatric symptoms whatsoever. Roche, the maker of Valium, had conducted no studies of its addictive potential.”
Now I'm going to read you this passage from Dope Sick, by Beth Macy. “From a sales perspective, Oxycontin had its greatest early success in rural small town America, already full of shuttered factories and dollar general stores along with burgeoning disability claims. Purdue handpicked the physicians who are most susceptible to their marketing, using information it bought from a data mining network, IMS health, to determine which doctors in which towns prescribed the most competing painkillers. If a doctor was already prescribing lots of Percocet and Vicodin, a rep was sent out to deliver a pitch about Oxycontin's potency and longer-lasting action. The higher the diesel, a term reps use as a predictor of a doctor's potential prescribing whatever drug they're Hocking,” and which I'm sorry if I'm saying wrong, “the more visits that doctor received from a rep, who often brought along reminders set his Oxycontin branded clocks for the exam room walls.”
So just like this flooding of the market with a drug that has just been developed, it almost seems like it's good to try and sell something aggressively before you've studied it very much, because then you maintain plausible deniability about its addictive potential. And you can say with something approaching sincerity, that there's almost no risk of addiction, which is how Oxycontin was sold.
Mike: I will say, as a guy who's interviewed a lot of homeless folks in the last two years, you hear the word Oxycontin come up a lot.
Sarah: So this is another Beth Macy citation, “By the end of 2015, 51,000 more Americans were dead of drug overdose. A thousand more than died from AIDS in 1995, the peak year. And the epidemic displayed no signs of trending down. In fact, HIV spurred by the sharing of dirty heroin needles, was on the rise again with 65 new cases reported that year in rural Southwestern, Virginia alone. It was exactly what Art Van Zee predicted in one of his first letters to Purdue. ‘My fear is that these are Sentinel areas just as San Francisco and New York we're in the early years of HIV,’ he had written of Lee County back in November, 2000.” So Arthur Sackler markets Valium and the Sackler family company, Purdue, aggressively markets Oxycontin three decades later. And, you know, repeats all the same mistakes that they have made before, but more aggressively. Because they were profitable mistakes then, and only became more profitable. And so my conclusion to the Stepford Wives story is that, you know, maybe, Ira Levins’ work seemed, it had social themes and everything, but like maybe kind of alarmist. No one's murdering anyone, like progress and technology hasn't given us a wave of death and we just had to wait a few decades. That part came true also.
Mike: Right. The wheel of progress.
Sarah: It's all thanks to progress.
Mike: Yeah. Little animatronic dudes telling us we moved from valium them to Oxycontin and everything's better now.
Sarah: Yeah. And I guess I'm fascinated by that 1960s optimism, which seems like both so dangerous and so deadly because like we know where this is going and we, you know, and now, you know, in Silicon Valley, I think that like, you do see some of that carousel of progress, optimism about like, because of progress, we can do such and such. And it's like progress won't save us. We have to care about other people. The robot will only do what we tell it to you. And so the carousel of progress song, which I've had stuck in my head off and on for like the past several years is ‘there's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day. Yes there's a great big beautiful tomorrow and tomorrow is just a dream away.’ You're just like, oh fuck you guys. You did all the wrong things. So in conclusion, there's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow if we look at yesterday and don't do the exact same thing that we did before that led to horrible things happening.
Mike: Yes. We have to listen for the little thunder crack before we, the bell peppers, get sprayed upon.