The following is an English translation of an interview with Esther Vilar in Die Weltwoche, issue 51/2007.
“Love makes you unfree”
In 1971, Esther Vilar wrote a pamphlet against the women’s movement, which was at its height at the time. “The Manipulated Man” sold millions of copies. The author was beaten up by women and had to flee Germany.
By Peer Teuwsen
Ms. Vilar, “The Manipulated Man” was published in 1971.
Vilar: It’s been ages, my God.
A book in which you wrote that there is no patriarchy, but a matriarchy in the West, that women exploit men, not the other way around. A book that has sold millions of copies, written “in great anger,” as you once said. Is the anger still there?
Where has she gone?
Vilar: It has shifted to other topics.
But when it comes to gender issues, you can still get angry today?
Vilar: The “manipulated man” has become so popular that all my other topics are smothered by it. That’s why I don’t want to comment on it anymore.
But do you still like the book?
Vilar: Absolutely. I last listened to it as an audio book. Yes, it wasn’t bad to have written it.
For example, you wrote: “At the age of twelve, a woman stops developing her mind.”
Vilar: If she can afford it, yes. This is of course polemic and I cannot defend it in appropriate language.
When you were writing, were you aware of what you were going to achieve with the book?
Vilar: I thought I just had to write a book like that and people flocked to me because I explained everything much more logically. But it came completely different. A small part came to me, but the larger part turned even more violently into the opposite, into the militant women’s movement. No, I couldn’t imagine a polemic of this magnitude when I wrote it. No one can imagine that.
How was it?
Vilar: At first the manuscript was rejected by all publishers. Then I had galley proofs made myself and sent it away again, so Bertelsmann-Verlag grabbed it. Not much happened at first, the first edition was 8000 copies. There was a fantastic review in Stern. And then I was invited to make a wish, a Eurovision show. Then it started overnight. I had obviously said something revolutionary. My life had completely changed in one fell swoop.
When did you first realize you had written something dangerous?
Vilar: When threats came, and when I was beaten up.
Vilar: Yes, four young women beat me up in the toilet of the Munich State Library. That was no laughing matter. I was spat on, I constantly received death threats, my house in Munich was painted with skulls and the like. I left Germany from one day to the next, I had a little son, I couldn’t stay any longer. I’m in Switzerland. That was the beginning.
Would you also have written the book if you had known about the consequences?
Vilar: I wouldn’t have dared, no. In Spain, in France, in the USA it was the same as in Germany, in England there were public demonstrations.
Vilar: Yes, always against me.
Alice Schwarzer called you a “sexist” and “fascist”.
Vilar: Yes. Always just attacks. No, nobody ever defended me.
How do you explain that?
Vilar: My book was leftist, but not leftist in the way leftists had known it. It was a book for a minority. Because compared to us women, men are in the minority. Until then, they had no voice at all, let alone a woman.
But a lot of men didn’t want your vote.
Vilar: A few did, it was very divided. But the approval came only in private. Nobody dared to do it in public.
Did you sometimes feel like you were being treated like a murderess?
Vilar: Yes, I was more of the opinion, I would have done a good deed.
You wrote a book about women’s secret weapons against men.
Vilar: And what secret weapons we women have. But my book was so unwelcome, it went against everything that was fashionable to believe at the time. What I wrote was something no woman had ever said publicly before, although most of us probably knew it very well. I think it was a necessary book.
Would the book still be necessary today?
Vilar: Not that much has changed. Men still have no right to their children, which is, for me, the cruelest thing of all. Anyone who is a man has to reckon with the fact that their children will be taken away from them every day and that, if things go well, they will perhaps be allowed to see them once a month on the weekend. And the fact that men are still sent to war and to kill is so serious that I don’t see any disadvantage of a woman that could somehow outweigh it. And men who have started a family can usually never stop working. You cannot change your life because otherwise you would risk the economic basis of your people. The man has a responsibility that cannot be compared to that of the woman. Those are the main things.
Today women also take on economic responsibility.
Vilar: I don’t know any real househusbands. And the few that exist are not erotic – in the eyes of women. The woman’s gaze determines our world. The look and the language: A man who doesn’t bring home any money is called a failure. The woman, on the other hand, is a housewife. It’s not called the mother tongue for nothing.
You are so terribly rational in your books. Woman is very calculating in your books. It’s all so cold.
Vilar: We are all very calculating, yes. You don’t have to be particularly rational to recognize this. But I don’t think my books are cold. I once sat on a plane behind a man who was reading “The Manipulated Man” on the way from Argentina to Germany. The man laughed out loud all night long, I didn’t sleep a wink. I thought that was nice.
Have you ever loved?
Vilar: Oh yeah.
And for what purpose?
Vilar: Only for the purpose of loving.
In your books, however, love is always earmarked.
Vilar: Yes, but I’ve never done business like that myself.
Vilar: Yes, I can exempt myself from that, to a large extent. I could not have written the book if I was involved myself.
You’ve never let a man feed you?
Vilar: Not a day, no.
You’ve never trained a man by depriving him of sex?
Vilar: No. You couldn’t write a book against bank robbers and be one yourself.
Then you are a good person.
Vilar: I wouldn’t go that far now. But I could afford not to be fed because I had jobs, I was a doctor and then a writer.
But today many women have jobs.
Vilar: A lot has changed there, yes. But I don’t know any woman who works in order to feed the children and the husband for the rest of their lives. That’s why I later wrote a book to outline a way out of this situation.
You proposed the 25-hour week, which would give both women and men more time for themselves and their children, but at the same time would force both to work.
Vilar: I was too early there too. Today things are slowly moving in this direction – unfortunately not because of ideal insight, but because of economic necessity. If there is less and less work, and that will become acute, then you have to reduce working hours. A society with too many unemployed people cannot survive because this leads to unrest.
Do you think you were always too early?
Vilar: I was always early, earlier than the others. This also applies to my essays on aging, religion, intelligence.
I didn’t see your books about men and women as primarily a defense of men.
Vilar: They aren’t either, it’s an appeal to women’s fairness. You can also call them feminist books.
Even. You are the true feminist, you do not see women primarily as victims, but as people who assert their interests.
Vilar: I like that, I’m the real feminist. But, oh well.
But your big topic is different. That people do not take away the freedom they could have.
Vilar: Nice, you noticed that, a topic that you don’t want to acknowledge.
Vilar: On the one hand, out of cowardice, on the other hand, those who live freedom are not necessarily happy. You are happier when you submit and follow a system and dedicate yourself to a “task”. Anyone who is free always has to make their own rules.
They talk about themselves.
Vilar: Yes, I wanted to live like a free person, but I didn’t always succeed.
What made you unfree?
Vilar: Love, for example. Love always makes you unfree. This is a religion with the smallest possible congregation. God and worshippers in a one-to-one ratio.
Vilar: Of course children make you unfree. But making a new person is the greatest adventure of all. Freedom is the maddening problem of all of us. You become religious because you can’t stand freedom.
How do you define freedom?
Vilar: That I can do whatever doesn’t harm others.
I would say: Freedom is when you can choose your own dependencies.
Vilar: Much better
You could do that?
Vilar: Yes, and I still can.
What fascinates you about writing?
Vilar: The discovery of new worlds. But I often write just for fun, plays, short stories, novels, these are not polemics. But that’s also the reason why I don’t have as many readers as I used to. They first read a pamphlet, then a novel, see a play – and then they no longer know what to think of me. I still have about 30,000 readers.
Do you regret that?
Vilar: I can’t regret that, that’s the way I am. You can’t get angry on order.
What makes you angry today?
Vilar: At the moment I only write peaceful things. I’m currently working on an erotic thriller called “Speech and Silence in Palermo” and will be released next summer.
What price did you pay for the freedom you took?
Vilar: A lot of loneliness at times – I don’t belong to any club.
Are you good at being alone?
Vilar: Pretty good, but not perfect. And I travel so much that I can’t fit in anywhere.
You could stop doing that.
Vilar: But I don’t want to belong.
But you wanted to love, you wanted to belong to a human being.
Vilar: Yes, and hopefully that will happen to me again and again. The only sacrifice of freedom I value is love. But sooner or later you will be thrown back into freedom.
Doesn’t eternal love exist?
Vilar: Yes, but I haven’t experienced it, and I hardly know anyone who has ever experienced it.
What was your greatest love?
Vilar: I don’t talk about my private life. That wouldn’t do anyone any good.
Did you enjoy living in Switzerland?
Vilar: Yes. I met so many interesting people through my friend Jürg Federspiel. The Swiss are somehow more cosmopolitan than other nations, they travel a lot. But the problem is that I can never stay anywhere forever.
Why is that so?
Vilar: I’m too curious. Even in Zurich, if I heard an Italian hit on the radio in the morning, I could get on the train and go to Milan. I grew up in Argentina, a child of German parents, I never really felt at home anywhere.
But there is also the opposite: that you really want to find a place.
Vilar: My son is the kind of person who is determined to settle down. Probably because of all the traveling with me. He has become a real Englishman.
What was the best thing in your life?
Vilar: Basically everything was good. I could choose everything, the language, the partners, the countries. And when it wasn’t exciting anymore, I just went somewhere else.
Are you someone who believes you can start over again somewhere else?
Vilar: I start new every day.
That doesn’t work. You always bring your past with you.
Vilar: Of course, but there is always something new coming along. I want to keep building, like a house where you keep adding a room. It will be interesting to see how long it takes and how I cope with the end.
How do you imagine the ending?
Vilar: I’m terrified of dying because I love living so much. I find it a terrible idea that this all goes on without anyone noticing. I like the ending as Luis Buñuel imagined it: that you lie in the coffin, get up every ten years, buy a newspaper, read it – and then climb back into the coffin.
Was the “dressed man” your misfortune?
Vilar: No, but it did a lot of damage to my later works. I was in a corner, things are slowly getting better. I’m being played a lot now in the East, where people don’t hear the “Dressed Man”. But in the West I’m still branded, maybe it’ll never end.
What else do you want?
Vilar: “Want” isn’t a word at all. If I want something, I do it. So what else am I going to do? Always move.
Esther Vilar, 72, wrote the polemic “The Manipulated Man” in 1971. She had to move away from Germany with her child because of the hostility. She now lives in London and still writes.