December 3 2000
Neil Lyndon's world came crashing down after he wrote a pioneering article in The Sunday Times attacking feminism. He was treated as a pariah, and his young son was taken from him. Now that his boy has grown up, the writer has decided to set the record straight
The return of the hereticNeil Lyndon
The Sunday Times
Ten years ago my life took a peculiar turn. From December 1990 until the middle of the decade, the common round was regularly spiced with unusual surprise.
One day, I would open a newspaper and find it telling the world that I must be impotent. Another day, I would read that I must have a little penis. While I was eating lunch at home with the woman I lived with, her eyes might drift over the page of a magazine and, seeing my name, she would read that I obviously couldn't get a girlfriend.
Walking through the aisle of a commuter train, going to the buffet car to get coffee, I would suddenly realise that many of my fellow passengers, casually turning the pages of their morning newspaper, were yawning over photographs from my wedding in 1977 and glancing at banner headlines which told them I had gone off my trolley.
In the middle of a winter evening, as we were dishing up our dinner, the doorbell would ring at the remote house in Suffolk, two miles down a farm track, where I lived with my girlfriend and her children and we would find a tabloid reporter and her minder standing on the step and saying: "We thought we'd just drop in." Turning on the radio on a Saturday morning, just as I was winding myself up to an attack on the household heap of ironing, I would hear Ned Sherrin observe as an aside that I was obviously very seriously disturbed by personal problems.
These unusual experiences came my way because I had written some articles and a book. The first and most controversial of these articles was a 5,000-word essay published in The Sunday Times Magazine in December 1990.
That essay was given the title (which I felt to be misleading) "Badmouthing". In it, I committed the offence of writing sceptically, even disrespectfully, about feminism. I raised some doubts about the central claims of feminism and I questioned some of the fundamental tenets of its ideology.
Writing articles and books is my work. It is what I have done for 30 years and what I expect to do for the rest of my life. Until December 1990, I was among the highest-paid and best-established feature writers in British journalism, contributing regularly to every "quality" paper and writing about everything from sport to music, from politics to books. I had written the Atticus column in this newspaper. I wrote columns, profiles and feature articles in The Times, The Independent, the Evening Standard and many others. After Badmouthing, however, I became a pariah, a professional and social outcast. My income plummeted from many thousands of pounds a month to hundreds. In the whole year of 1993, I earned less money in total than I had earned each month in 1989.
I had achieved something that may be unique in our age: I had committed an unpardonable heresy.
In an era of no faiths, no moral certainties and no saints, it is almost impossible to say something that so outrages a common creed that its author will be banished or ostracised. Any view or opinion is permissible on the monarchy, the church, political leaders and other public figures. Treason has been abolished. Indecency does not exist. There are, effectively, no limits remaining on the licence extended to entertainers. Yet my writing resulted not only in my professional ruin: it also made me an untouchable.
Over the 20 years of my career before Badmouthing, I had made friends with many fashionable people - writers, actors, sports and television celebrities, some of the best-known names in the media here and in America.
After Badmouthing, most of these people cut off all connection with me and have never contacted me since. Neighbours looked the other way when they saw me in the street and strangers shifted away from me on the Underground.
These things happened. Truly.
What had I said? What could I have written that was so violently offensive? The starting-point for this essay was to say that an atmosphere of intolerance surrounded men. In advertising, in entertainment and in the news media, it had become commonplace for men collectively to be seen as mentally and culturally inferior - idiotic, im-practical, ineducable, violent and slobbish by nature and incapable of love both as husbands and fathers.
My article was probably the first to be published in a major newspaper in the West which said that the routine separation of tens of thousands of children from their fathers through the divorce courts was the most serious human rights issue of our time. I think I was the first journalist to suggest that boys, not girls, might share a collective disadvantage in schools. And Badmouthing was definitely the first article in the national media to observe that, while women's illnesses were the focus of immense concentration and spending on research, illnesses that affected men only, such as prostate cancer, were ignored by medical science.
Many of those observations are now commonly accepted. Government campaigns urge men to be screened and to check themselves for prostate cancer. The position of boys in education and of young men in employment is generally agreed to be a subject for concern. The divorce courts are, broadly speaking, a little more protective towards the relationship between children and their fathers. Looking back on what was published then, I think most people would now feel that the arguments I advanced were reasonable and the evidence I produced was sound.
So what was the trouble? If the essay had concentrated only on the dilemmas and difficulties of modern men and boys, it might have excited debate but probably not uproar.
But I went further. I connected the intolerance that was allowed towards men and the neglect of their disadvantages to the universal dominance of feminism. We could not see that men truly did share some serious social disadvantages, I argued, because feminism had appropriated all gender inequalities to women. If we lived in the society generally described by feminists - a patriarchal society organised by men for the benefit of men - it was impossible in logic for inequalities for men to exist at all.
My article was received, therefore, as an assault on the foundations of feminism - and, indeed, that is exactly what I had intended it to be. It followed that, if everybody agreed feminism was correct, there must be something wrong with me. I must be mad. Or morally defective. Or several inches short in the penis. Or sexually inadequate. Perhaps my wife had left me. Or I couldn't get a girlfriend. It certainly was not possible that I might be right on some points or might have a good case in general.
That possibility was unthinkable. Everybody at that time either agreed with the essential propositions of feminism or had the good sense to keep quiet. As my treatment was to show, any voice that was raised in dissent would be silenced.
George Orwell once wrote that "the Catholic and the Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent". Feminists, being the disciples of a creed, adherents of a faith, share the same attitude and assumptions. Because I had attacked their holiest of holies, because I was a barbarian who had broken into their temple and turned over the altar, I had let myself in for the contemporary equivalent of a tarring and feathering.
Even before my article was published, it had caused unprecedented trouble. A group of women who worked for The Sunday Times Magazine wrote a round-robin to the magazine's then editor, Philip Clarke, asking him not publish my essay and warning that it would leave "an indelible stain" on the magazine's reputation. Some of those women had not, in fact, read my article but that did not hold them back in their condemnation and censoriousness - a pattern to be repeated constantly in the years ahead. Clarke stoutly told them to mind their own business.
The public reaction began the week after my essay appeared, with an article by Kate Saunders in this newspaper. She had asked some women what they thought of my article. All of them guessed, she reported, that my wife must have left me. Clare Short, who had less personal knowledge about me than she had, at that time, about the son she had given into adoption, opined that I must be unhappy about being a man. The publisher Carmen Callil laughed, Saunders said, at my findings on the neglect of men's illnesses and wondered if the trouble with me might be in my trousers. "Could it be the size?" she asked.
Reading this, I wondered what the families of the 12,742 men who had died of genito-urinary cancers that year might feel about the size of Carmen Callil's brain.
During the week between these two articles, Kate Saunders phoned my home to speak to me and my wife. We told Saunders that we were not in the steadiest state to be interviewed, because we had just, that afternoon, got back from hospital where our eight-year-old son had undergone a minor operation; but that information did nothing to stay Saunders's hand in her eagerness to carve us up. Because my wife broadly supported my arguments, Saunders jeered at her for being a Stepford Wife. When I outlined my ideas on state support for the parents of babies, giving both of them the money to take extended time off work, Saunders trilled: "How marvellous!" Alas, she was not able to find space for that merry agreement between us in her article.
I was dragged before the Senior Mistress in the dungeons at Broadcasting House and given a stern grilling by Jenni Murray on Woman's Hour. Media figures of great weight and seriousness such as Lynn Barber began to write about me in their columns, implying that I might benefit from a quick bunk-up with Princess Diana or some such obliging personification of submissive femaleness.
A storm of zealotry was gathering and I was its focus. The modern version of a witch-hunt may be nothing more than a prolonged roasting in the media but, in my case, it felt as if it might be in danger of getting less metaphorical when a Cambridge history don told her pupils that she would like to see me shot. Around the same time, the president of the Cambridge Union urged her members to burn my writings.
There was another writer in that period whose books were being burnt and who had been threatened with death for heresy. One of the extreme paradoxes of the time was that some of the same western liberals who deplored the fatwa on Salman Rushdie were unrestrained in their zealotry towards me.
The storm broke over my book, No More Sex War: the Failures of Feminism, which I published in the autumn of 1992. It emerged out of more than 20 years' thought, reading and constant connection with feminism. I had not come to this subject as an ignorant novice.
In the late 1960s, when modern feminism was emerging from America and beginning to influence many of my women friends, I was a student at Cambridge, actively involved in radicalism. I joined the editorial board of the underground newspaper Black Dwarf at the same time that Sheila Rowbotham published a women's issue - probably the first such collection of feminist writings to appear in this country. I myself had edited underground magazines (Idiot International, Oz and Time Out) that led the early development of feminism in this country. Among my closest friends in the early 1970s was the Marxist feminist Beatrix Campbell.
I went out with many committed academic feminists and my first wife was an ardent and prominent feminist who wore her women's liberation badge to our wedding ceremony. Feminism was constantly in my thoughts, reading and conversation and, broadly speaking, I supported the feminist cause because it appeared to be naturally on the side of justice, equality, progress and social liberation.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, however, I had felt uneasily unconvinced by many of the routine claims of feminists, especially on the topics of rape, domestic violence and the sexual abuse of children. I wrote occasional articles that wondered whether it could possibly be true, as feminists often told us, that all men were rapists or that one woman in four was the victim of male violence.
My scepticism hardened over the years when "feminist principles" seemed increasingly to be the excuse that unpleasant people gave for intolerable behaviour. Feminism began to appear to me to be reactionary and an agency of injustice and inequality. I increasingly felt that every one of the routine claims of feminists was nearer to the observable truth if you turned it on its head.
Researching my book in 1991 and re-reading many of the essential texts of modern feminism, I found that all the disparate elements of my disbelief locked together. The three months in the autumn of 1991 when I did nothing but write the book were the most thrilling period of my working life. I felt completely absorbed every day in managing a vast mental jigsaw and putting its pieces down in print. When it was finished, I felt more elation than I had ever known from writing.
In particular, I was happy with the chapters of forensic analysis in which I unearthed the cultural and psychological origins of modern feminism. The book proved, I felt sure, that change for women in the period since the French revolution had, broadly speaking, occurred with the consent of the whole population, including men. It blew away the ideological hokum at the root of modern feminism - the idea that our society is patriarchal in its organisation.
Most of all, I was proud of the book's central argument, which advanced the idea that change for women had been facilitated since the industrial revolution by mass-produced contraceptives: the origin of the decisive changes of the last 50 years, I said, lay not with women's liberation but in the pill and in abortion by vacuum curettage. Much of the book was scholarly, even turgid, and quite hard to read. My own personal experiences and reflections were mentioned on only 12 pages out of 250.
It is amazing now to read the press cuttings and look back on the riot of reaction that greeted publication and went on for years thereafter. More than 100 reviews and feature articles were published of which only three explained the book's central ideas and discussed them. Many of the people who wrote about me had clearly not read the book. Their articles were almost entirely devoted to personal attacks on me. Most reviews declared - on the basis of no evidence - that the book emerged from personal disturbance in my life and was largely about me.
Every literary editor gave my book to a feminist to review, which was like giving an anti-Catholic book to a cardinal. Those writing in left-leaning papers were the least scrupulous. The Independent and The Independent on Sunday, to both of which I had been a regular contributor, suggested that I had gone mad.
The Guardian published outright fictions about me and mangled my own writing to make it look as if I was writing from a right-wing perspective. When the Guardian columnist Catherine Bennett wondered in print "Why did Lyndon seem to hate women so much?" I offered to give £1,000 to the campaign group Justice for Women if she could find a word I had ever written or said that showed I hated women. Bennett did not reply so I raised the complaint with The Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, who dismissed it as being unimportant.
The novelist and columnist Joan Smith gave it as her opinion that I might be sexually inadequate. She had recently published a collection of writings called Misogynies, yet she was able to go into print with an utterance of her own about another writer as barbarically sexist as anything in her collection.
At that time, Smith was living with the diarist and columnist Francis Wheen, who seemed to have a bit of a case about me. In anonymous columns in Private Eye, Wheen wrote about my evident inability to get a woman. This was thoroughly baffling and hilarious. Throughout my adult life, from the age of 15, there had never been a day when I had been without the love of a woman, sometimes more than one. At the time when Wheen was going to town on my failure to attract a woman, I was more happily in love than I had ever been and living with a woman so good-looking that she still turned men's heads in the street when she was in her forties. Knowing Joan Smith as I did - and though it may be ungallant to say so - I would not have been in a hurry to swap places with Francis Wheen.
The unwillingness of journalists to investigate and report the truth about me and their unswerving determination to write fictions was one of the most consistently weird aspects of the time. A series of women feature writers trailed out to Suffolk to interview me. None reported I was happily involved with a lovely woman, even those who had actually seen her.
Angela Lambert told readers of The Independent that, when she met me, I had been wearing a pair of jeans I had meticulously ironed with my own hand. This made my girlfriend cross, since she had ironed those jeans with her own hand. Why did Lambert, like Wheen, assume that she knew the truth without asking?
Part of the reason was, obviously, that my second marriage had broken down. Between the time when the first Sunday Times article was published in 1990 and the publication of my book in 1992, I had left my wife and started living with another woman. This misfortune and upheaval supplied the zealots with the ammunition they needed to attack me. My estranged wife contributed to the mischief when my book appeared by writing a self-serving piece in the Daily Mail, which The Guardian deigned to pick up and reprint.
Both papers offered me the opportunity to reply but I refused, until now, to say anything about that marriage. I wanted to discuss my book and its ideas, not my personal life. And I wanted to protect my son, then 10, whose circumstances had become unbearable and whose life was hell. I got a court order that forbade my wife and me from discussing our marriage in public until our son had grown up. He was 18 last month.
I would not speak. But, if any of the journalists who wrote about me had investigated the truth of my personal life, they would have found an extraordinarily interesting and revealing story - one which, paradoxically, illuminated and reinforced some of the themes of my writing.
The truth was that my marriage, which had been impossibly unhappy on my side for more than 10 years, had broken down largely because my wife was an extremely heavy drinker. When she was drinking, I found her nightmarishly impossible to live with. She did almost no work and contributed little to our income. Our marriage ended over her drinking and our associated money troubles, among other things.
My book had nothing at all to do with the failure of my marriage. There was no more connection between my personal life and the ideas in my book than there would have been if I had written a book - as I have long thought of doing - about the origins of atheism.
But the failure of my marriage did have something to do with my work on feminism. My wife was disturbed and unbalanced by the published attacks on me and, to my horror, her drinking worsened in 1991. After we separated in September 1991, she took advantage of those attacks to tell our friends and neighbours that, as all the papers were saying, I had lost my mind.
Just before Christmas, in December 1991, she took our son to Scotland, where she went to court and, without my knowing that her application was being heard, obtained a temporary order giving her custody in Scotland. The reason she gave for abducting our son was that I was causing her embarrassment by openly conducting an affair in Suffolk, where we lived. In support of her application for custody, extracts were presented to the court from my writings about feminism, as if these proved that I must be a monster and an unfit father.
By order of the Scottish Court of Session, our son was placed in the custody of a person I believed to have at least a serious drink problem and given over into a way of life that severely damaged his boyhood. (My son has read this article and, while he would naturally prefer our private life to remain private and he is concerned for his mother who is seriously ill with rheumatoid arthritis, he agrees that the moment has come when I should make the truth known.)
Thus it happened that I, who had been thinking for half a decade about the courts' readiness to eliminate the natural rights of fathers, found myself comprehensively eliminated from the life of my only child, to whom I had always been absolutely devoted. And one of the instruments by which that evil injustice was effected was the work I had written about the injustices men endured in the courts.
Why was no journalist interested in this extraordinary story? Why - in all the thousands of inches of newspaper coverage given to me and my writings - did nobody investigate the truth?
Angela Lambert confidently informed Independent readers that I was all worked up because my child had been swiped away to Scotland and I had written my book because I felt I was being treated unfairly. A host of other writers followed this fiction, ignoring the fact that I had delivered my book to the publishers before my wife removed our son. The abduction did not provide the motive power for the book: the book was used in court as an excuse for the abduction.
The reason why they did not seek out the truth must be, I think, that the imaginary role in which I had been cast - as heretic, as moral derelict, as sexual inadequate, as maniac - was essential to the dismissal of my arguments. If the fact had been reported that my child had been abducted and that I had been driven so far out of his life that I had to get his school reports through lawyers, a different and more sympathetic attitude might have been required towards me and my work.
But - no matter what terrible trauma was being inflicted on an innocent young boy - justice and sympathy were not to be afforded to me. Who, after all, feels any need to be fair to a heretic?
© Neil Lyndon 2000
Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.