The Solo movement has a “big tent,” accommodating a wide array of people—single or not—who see themselves as complete, self-reliant individuals. One group that clearly belongs under the tent is the Hermettes, a secret society of (mostly) single women who embrace a hermit-like life of aloneness. In this episode, Peter McGraw speaks to Risa Mickenberg, the Founder and Editor of Hermette: The Aspirational Lifestyle Magazine for They/Hermits.
Listen to Episode #139 here
Risa Mickenberg And The Hermettes
I strive to have a big tent for the SOLO movement, accommodating the wide array of people, single or non-single who see themselves as a complete self-reliant person. One group that fits squarely under that tent are the Hermettes, made mostly up of single women who embrace a hermit-like life of female aloneness. In this episode, I speak to Risa Mickenberg, a writer, director, performer, and the founder and editor of Hermette, the lifestyle magazine for the recluse by choice. We have a fun conversation about the unconventional and unapologetic lives of the Hermettes. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Thank you, Peter.
What is a Hermette and am I saying that correctly?
You are pronouncing it correctly. Although, I heard a pronunciation that I prefer. This will be the first time I launch it. Use a silent H.
Those are the European Hermettes.
I heard someone pronounce it that way and I thought that’s great. From now on, it’s Hermette with a silent H. An Hermette is the new ideal for human existence. It’s like the feminization of a hermit and it is a person. It doesn’t have to be a woman. It can be any person who’s a rugged individualist, an iconoclast, and the steer of your own ship. It’s a person who rejects the typical social constructs, chooses her own life, appreciates time alone and loves being alone, and draws a lot of energy from that. It’s an original thinker and a very attractive person. It’s somebody who has a force field of protection around them. It’s good luck to meet someone who’s an Hermette. Your life immediately becomes better when you meet them. That’s a rough idea.
That’s basically you.
When you are coming up with a new term, why not make it exactly what you are? I don’t like to be labeled in any way. I don’t like any identity that’s imposed on me because I never feel like it’s accurate. Hermette is a rejection of any identity that somebody else has created.
This has come up before in a podcast where there are single people, which is a huge class of people, and then there are subsets or subgroups in it, and often invented terms or constructed terms. For example, I had Sasha Cagen on. She coined the term QuirkyAlones. A QuirkyAlone is someone who would welcome romance in their life but is okay if it doesn’t happen. For example, Ally McBeal is a QuirkyAlone type there.
Bella DePaulo who I also had on the show. It talks about people who are single at heart. These are people who live their best life as single people. I have a term solo, which we’ll talk about later and you have arguably one of the most interesting terms and also the most specific set of conditions. A rugged individualist, an iconoclast, someone who enjoys their solitude, and an attractive glamorous person who is also good fortune to meet.
I would say that’s the textbook definition.
I’m glad we have that out of the way, so people either now know or they know to aspire to be this person and to join your secret society.
I did launch a society of Hermettes. What I did was I proposed a magazine called Hermette. We toyed with calling it modern hermit, but we decided that it was redundant. Also, people misuse modernism all the time. It’s for a specific period. I didn’t want to go down that problem.
Contemporary Hermette, perhaps.
That’s much more accurate. I like that. Maybe that’s for our home magazine, Contemporary Hermette.
The magazine is for recluses by choice, It is something that you have written.
I don’t know recluses by choice.
I have it written down here, “The aspirational lifestyle magazine for they/Hermettes. Join a society of antisocial deep thinkers with this publication that only comes out when it feels like it.”
Exactly. I thought that the magazine glamorized female aloneness, and created this idea of an aspirational lifestyle. A lot of times, being in a couple or being in a family is about real estate, betting, and stuff like that. When you have a person on a magazine cover, are they attractive? Do you envy their life? Hermettes is an exciting and enviable life to live a life on your own terms and have aloneness. Especially female aloneness, be ideal that it is, sometimes you need a glossy magazine for people to understand that, so that people envy it as much as they should. The only problem with women living alone is that people aren’t jealous enough of them. If they were, people could feel okay about it. That’s a very dark reason, but that’s the way a lot of society works.
You are saying that I should have launched a magazine and not a podcast in order to make being solo more aspirational. That is what I’m hearing.
No. The podcast is great because you are in conversation. First of all, the idea of a single person is redundant. Why aren’t they just called people?
It’s interesting that you say this because I have been working on a book. I’m starting the book by talking about the invention of marriage. It seems a little counterintuitive, but there was no word for the single person until there were marriages. You never had to define someone as a single until they became un-single or non-single in a sense. I appreciate that you’re pointing out the redundancy that someone is single. Where did this come from? What is the origin of Hermettes? Have you been training your whole life to do this?
I had a friend over and I had that idea and I told her the idea. She thought it was so hilarious. Her name is Gemma Brown. She drew up the cover. We were talking about articles, recipes, clams for one. The fashion vertical was my pants are on backwards, but I don’t care. Confessional, I have wanted to be alone with my aloneness to figure out how I felt.
We did that and then I kept making notes for the magazine. I have a billion insane ideas and I pursue a lot of them. It’s interesting. I ran into the guy who puts together a lot of events and there’s this performance space called Dixon Place here in New York. They do a lot of works in progress. He has a night where you can present whatever you want. It can be a reading or a performance. I said, “I’m going to launch the magazine.”
I had all these other crazy things going on and I was like, “I’m going to invite all the people who would be interested in this magazine.” It was before the pandemic. I invited a lot of my friends who are incredibly cool people. There was a great group of people there. I prepared by doing all of the thoughts I had on it and all of the ideas for what to do. It’s like a big brainstorming session.
I presented it to everybody. There was some back and forth with other ideas and everything. It was this incredible night and they all became the first Hermette. It’s funny because my neighbor wanted to come. She was like, “I have not wanted to go to anything and this was the one thing that I thought I would go to, a group of people who don’t want to go anywhere.”
That launch party was taped. I don’t know if it was secretly taped or purposely taped.
It was taped on purpose but I didn’t know it was going to be taped. My friend Amy taped it and I was happy that she did tape it. I started then a Substack, which is a way to publish a newsletter. The craziest thing is I started to get publicity. I talked to these two young journalists about some other projects I was doing, and they were like, “This Hermette magazine thing and this whole women as Hermettes thing, we think that could be a cool story. Could you introduce us to any other Hermettes?” I was like, “Yeah, I can.”
They interviewed me and two of my friends and sold the article to The Daily Beast. Once it was in The Daily Beast, all these other media outlets picked up on it all over the world. It’s all these Hermettes, especially from Australia and New Zealand, I have got a strong showing from Down Under. There are so many people with these amazing letters. It’s not just women. All kinds of people are proclaiming themselves to be Hermettes. Being a hermit. I don’t know. I think it would be cool to be a hermit, but by making it about women wanting to be alone, it changes things.
I opened up this notebook and I found what must have been an early draft of this. This was an original version of the description of the magazine, “At last, a magazine featuring female aloneness as the aspirational lifestyle. It secretly has always been. A room of her own was the tip of the iceberg. It’s time to take over the whole house. People say women don’t ask for or demand enough. Why are they asking? Who are they demanding from? Why is it even up for discussion? Being the most important route person in the room by not inviting anyone else over. I wonder why there are so many incels because masturbation, reading, cooking, and using Mr. Clean magic erasers to touch up your baseboards are so much better than the idea of even being in a room with anyone else.”
“Books by some great authors. Why would you want to listen to a dude’s opinions about Nancy Pelosi when you can read whatever these books are? Is the root of all of your unhappiness the refusal to accept that being alone is not just preferable to 99% of situations, but that it’s desirable and maybe your deepest desire? The course of history has been a narrative designed to dissuade you from your wilder bliss, perfumed and clean sheeted single bed bliss. If you fear dying alone, live alone.”
That’s fabulous. I was drawn to this also.
How did you find out about this?
One of the members in my community told me about it and sent me The Daily Beast article. I have a lot of inbound now when something is connected to SOLO through my community, which people can sign up for at PeterMcGraw.org/solo. We are going to dive a little more deeply into this, but there are a few things that I like about what you are doing. I like that you have a comedic background and I like that you use the reversal.
The reversal is a very common way to create comedy. When everybody is zigging you zag, so to speak. The average resource for single people is designed either to help them not feel bad, help them cope, or help them couple up. What I have been trying to do and what you certainly are doing is flipping that and talking about how incredible it is to have alone time, and how clearly you embrace it. I don’t know if it came up in an interview or your writing or your launch, but it’s how much you like when someone cancels plans.
Doesn’t everyone love that?
They are choosing not to do something social.
They are freeing you and you are freeing them. It’s not just that I like being alone. Everybody likes being alone. Everybody needs alone time. Everyone needs space. From your whole life, people need it. Just as they say people need each other and people need company, they also need to be alone just as much, if not more. Why is that state ignored? There are a lot of reasons why it’s ignored, especially for women. It’s like your value is told to be derived from how much you devote your life to other people. You’ll see gravestones and it’s like mother, daughter, and grandmother. I’m not saying those aren’t wonderful and incredible things.
We need mothers but it doesn’t mean everybody needs to be one. I needed a mother. As imperfect as she was, I still needed her at least to a certain age.
A lot of people don’t have mothers, lose their mothers or have mothers that don’t serve whatever they think it is that they need. No mother is perfect and it’s a difficult task. I think a lot of mothers are Hermettes and never had the space that they needed. Especially people of my mother’s generation, they got married in order to get out of their house. They never live alone until maybe they get divorced or until their partner dies, and then a lot of them love it. They then have this whole other life because they grew like trees where they are stunted.
That thing where you share a life also means that marriage is about compromise. Marriage is about sacrifice. Marriage is about all these things that don’t sound fun. I don’t think that makes me a bad person to think of how I get maximum fun out of my life. Also, if I love somebody, why do I want to subject them to compromise and work? Why would I want to do that? If they love me, why would they do that to me?
There are other ways to be in relationships. How are people able to have friends for their whole life? They have had friends since they were five years old. Because it’s a friendship, it is less demanding in a lot of ways. It can still be demanding. I think that the minute somebody gets romantic or whatever the word is, there are a bunch of expectations. Something happens like they get possessed. I had a good friend and he was hilarious. We could tell each other everything. We were both single. He started acting like such a weirdo. I’m like, “What happened?” It’s this partnership, this two-person, and that’s it thing. It’s not the greatest model.
You are talking to a bunch of folks who are saying amen. I want to clarify, when I said motherhood, I meant the fact that we need people to give birth to us in a sense. To dedicate your entire life and existence to other people doesn’t agree with all women or all men.
Another thing that’s going to be very interesting is this abortion legislation. I am concerned that men are going to have a hard time because they are going to be responsible for all of these births. Let’s say you get pregnant. How many times can a woman get pregnant, but a man can get people pregnant many times? If men are going to have a lifelong responsibility and financial responsibility and are also threatened with prison if they have an abortion, I’m surprised that men aren’t freaking out about this.
The way I talk about this oftentimes is the notion of marriage or a partnership is over-prescribed. This is a relatively new invention designed to solve a particular set of problems that happened when humans move from being hunter-gatherers to being agrarians. Once you started owning land, you started needing alliances. You started needing to understand who fathers and mothers were. You started needing very specific gender roles in terms of familial care and care of the farm.
What I like to say is humans are incredibly adaptable and cooperative, and they can make this thing work as imperfect as it is, especially as imperfect it is for all people because almost nothing works for all people. I always say this was invented by men ironically and the patriarchy oppresses men and women, and it does so in different ways.
You highlighted one of the ways with women is that they end up dedicating caregiving to lots of people throughout their lives oftentimes, and at the cost of their own development, and the cost of their own solitude. One of the things that is very clear is we need solitude in order to create, ala Virginia Woolf. What was so great about her essay is that women have no space mentally, emotionally, and physically to create. We need solitude in order to reflect, heal and be spiritual. Too often, mothers or homemakers suffer from what’s called aloneliness. They are not lonely, but they are alonely. They don’t have enough time to themself and that’s a stressful thing.
It’s the problem that has no name.
I had to invent a term. You had to put the word A in front of lonely in order to explain the opposite of loneliness, which is the stress of not having time alone. Men suffer because they basically end up working themselves to death in order to support this family unit. They fight in wars. They work in coal mines. They become firefighters or police officers. They work long hours in order to be able to provide. That is their role to do that. This works for some people, but it clearly doesn’t work for everyone. We know that because now that we don’t live on farms, we don’t work in factories, and now that we have washing machines and Uber Eats and so on, you don’t need these traditional gender roles.
It sounds like the Fisher-Price family. It’s a Fisher-Price world.
You have people like you and me and our relative communities opting out of this and even celebrating it.
That’s a history of marriage. There are so many different cultures and so many diff different ways of living all over the world that have different histories. I don’t think it has ever been the roles exactly that way. Especially when you are talking about creative people like writers and artists, I think women have always participated in the workforce, in the creative work, and in all kinds of work that men do. They have not just been credited. They haven’t been compensated.
It’s not that someone else hasn’t done it. They have said, “I can make a better contribution to the world by doing it through this man because people are going to listen to him. He is going to get his ideas through. It’s easier. He is the president of the company. People will invest in it.” I read about these women who made a fake man as the president of their startup. They got all these investors and this guy didn’t exist, and they got so much more money and all these different things.
That always happened. Women have always made this contribution. I think that men have also participated in the housework. Men have a lifelong connection to their children. Whatever it is, it’s part of their existence once they decide to do that. Marriage, maybe people make it work, but it has always been imperfect. I read a lot of fiction and it was always about unhappy marriages. Everything I read was about another unhappy marriage. It is true that I didn’t see an example of a woman being alone, doing her own work, and being happy. There weren’t a lot of examples like that.
Everyone wants to love and to be loved, and experience all of the wonderful things that there are in life to experience, but you can’t experience everything. There are loads of great things. If you don’t experience some of them, why not double down on the other ones, instead of feeling like crap? You are allergic to dogs so you can’t have a dog, so then have a cat. Have a newt. I learned that newts make great pets.
I agree. I’m not sure I would want a newt but otherwise, I don’t think we are at odds here. I do want to get into some of the tenets of hermettesism if I may. I like this notion of it is subversive. You use the term iconoclast. The act of embracing your hermettetude is an act of defiance and rebellion. It’s to be unconventional and to be unapologetic about it.
I would say to be unapologetic. Going back to a room of one’s own. They say women are bad negotiators and we are. Americans are bad negotiators because we don’t ask for anything. We don’t ask for months of vacation. We don’t ask for free community college. There are so many things that we should be asking for. We shouldn’t even ask for them. What we should do is demand double. That’s what a great negotiation is. A room of one’s own, why it was such a hard thing to ask for one room in the whole house? It’s your house, and you are begging for one room that’s like a converted closet. Say, “I’m going to have the whole house and another house,” and then you bargain back down to one house.
I feel like you embody this. I want to say it’s fun, absurd and cheeky. There’s a tongue-in-cheek element to this where you are making fun of the world.
I don’t know if you are making fun of the world. It’s having fun and not caring too much about what other people think like how you dress and doing whatever you want. It’s a form of rebellion but it’s also what feels the best. Why not dress the way where you get the most breeze, and you can wear it for most days? You made it yourself. The way people dress is absurd. It’s bad for the planet, and people could have a lot more fun when people wear things that are outrageous. You connect with people in a different way when you are genuinely happy, when you feel at home in the world, and when you feel in love with the world.
That’s the other thing. Everyone should be in love with the world. That’s what being Hermette is. It’s being able to save up your energy to be in love with the world because you have all the time you need. Maybe some of it is because I am a writer. I do a lot of different things, but I’m never bored when I’m by myself. Maybe other people are. Part of it is you can’t be bored when you are by yourself. It’s hard to get outside of my own head and know how other people feel.
I have had this massive response. When I say massive or whatever, I don’t care how many people follow it or get involved in it. I don’t know that I’m going to offer anything that people can’t find elsewhere or in their own travels. I have connected with some cool people as a result of this. Part of it is that it’s absurdist, but the whole world is absurdist. This makes perfect sense.
I have to say we did a little pre-interview prior to this, which was very fun. I ended up journaling about it. You gave me a great gift that you alluded to. That was you talked about not caring. I’m not an artist, although I do now identify as a creative person. Some of the best art has that perspective. I don’t care what people think. I don’t care if anyone watches this. I don’t care if anyone reads this. I’m doing this for me. I’m doing this because it needs to be. If people find it, fine, but I’m not going to pander. I’m not going to be concerned and beg for their attention.
That’s a very liberating idea. I struggle with it with my project. I’m a little envious that you are able to have this perspective because on one hand, I agree. I needed to be reminded that it doesn’t matter. I should be doing this because it’s important to me, but then I also feel this responsibility that there are people out there who are suffering. There are people who do feel uncomfortable, and who are looking for an alternative narrative. I don’t want to alienate them. I want to embrace them. I want to bring them in.
I talk about having a big tent. I feel this tension between the artists and the caregiver, for lack of a better term. It’s as close as I have ever come to creating meaning in my life. I want to thank you for reminding me that it’s okay for me to do what I want to do with this. In some ways, it’s an extension of soloness or Hermetteness. It is the idea of it’s not about compromise. It’s about coordination. It is what I often talk about. Good relationships are about coordination. I don’t want to have to subvert in order to please, and so I want to say thank you for that.
That’s very kind of you and I’m happy if I was able to do that. Your intent to help people who are suffering and show them another thing is a meaningful ambition. You do have to be careful about people’s feelings. I also think that when you care about something, it’s hard to not be serious about it. It’s an important subject and it is a subject that a lot of people feel a lot of pain about. I have thought about this subject a lot. It wasn’t until I seized on this idea about the magazine that I thought it threads this interesting needle and picks up on something that is happening.
What do people want? People want to be happy. They want to be happy. When you say this may be your one chance at creating meaning, being alive and appreciating that life, being kind to other people, and doing your best to be a good human being is a meaningful life. Especially if you are putting pressure on yourself because you are like, “I didn’t have a child or I didn’t have a marriage,” those might be meaningful things. I don’t know if that’s what you mean.
I think that’s a hugely false thing. When people say, “The minute I held my daughter in my hands, that was the best moment of my life.” Person after person, cool people always bum me out. I don’t know if Mick Jagger said it, but it’s basically like, “That was the moment.” It’s like, “Really?” I bet there were some others that were up there that you are just not allowed to. If it is, that’s great for them. There are tons of things that can happen in your life that you can do because you don’t have a child that is unimaginably incredible.
I want to turn this back to you. For me, I spend so much of my life trying to survive, trying to achieve, and then I stumbled into this idea. I wish I had the kitchen table story that you have for it. Once it took hold, now this is much more about other people than me per se. It transcends me and that’s where I feel where the meaning is. I have shifted into a different mode. I’m in a different stage in my life. I’m birthing this thing. With it comes some responsibility, some pressure, but also joy and in many ways, peace. I’m much more at peace with who I am.
I use the term unapologetic a lot. I never have been as unapologetic about who I am as a result of this project. I feel very fortunate for that and I get to meet interesting people like you as a result who are living remarkable lives. I want to kid a couple of things, and then I want to talk to you about your life a bit. I’m sure people are going, “Who is this woman?” I don’t know if it’s a tenet but you use the term glamorous. Can you talk more about that? First of all, I love the word glamorous.
You could use it. You could change it to a glamorous solo.
I talk about the value of taking care of your space and taking care of yourself, and even taking care of how you dress, and how that is important both to the world and to yourself. When you use the word glamorous, I honed in on it. How does that work within your society?
You’ve probably seen the book Live Alone And Like It. Are you familiar with that book?
It’s great. They republished it. It’s a fantastic book about decorating and making your space. It’s exactly what you are talking about. Glamor is a talent. It’s about creating beauty, and beauty is a hugely important thing in the world. That pleasure of having a place to have a room of one zone and more ideally two houses, now I’m going to double down, is that you want to have it be where you love everything in it. Everything in it has meaning and history. When I was joking around before and saying that, a lot of what people want in a marriage is a house. I was watching When Harry Met Sally on Netflix. I rewatched it. I hadn’t seen it in so many years. She has this friend, Carrie Fisher, and they finally get married. They move into this gorgeous apartment and they are having this fight over his wagon wheel table.
I love that. That’s my favorite scene in the entire movie.
It’s so good and she makes him throw it out. I was like, “That’s a cool table. You could make that work if he loves it so much. Why is that so horrible?” It’s a bad beginning, but they have an awesome house. I don’t think people understand what it means to buy a house. It’s important, especially for women or for everybody, to have their own house at some point. It doesn’t have to be a house. I don’t have a house. I have an apartment. I didn’t get one until I was over 50 years old. I have rented them, but you don’t have to own them.
Having a place that’s your space and beautiful. You have to have beauty in your life. If you can’t have it in your home, then you can have it in the way you dress. You can have it in the way you move. You can have it in the way you eat. That appreciation of beauty in the world doesn’t at all have to be expensive. There are styles. It’s cultivation. It’s a lifelong thing.
That’s another thing that’s great about getting older. You know what works and you know doesn’t work. You know where to find all the great stuff. You have these amazing things that you’ve had through the years. Do you know how to cook better? As you get older, you become a better and better cook. You become better at shopping. You become better at traveling. That’s where some of the glamor comes in.
I don’t know if it’s going to be exactly part or adjacent to a series on homebodies. First of all, there are way more homebodies out there than anybody assumes. The non-homebodies, the world travelers, the socialites, and the partiers get all the attention. They are all over the dating apps. Passport ready and all these things. “I’m outdoorsy and I’m all this stuff,” and yet there are a lot of people in many ways whose home bodyism was reinforced through the pandemic who thrive with indoor activities and thrive within their homes. Some of it is the value of solitude and the ability to create in that space. Some of it is to control your space to make it comfortable and to make it a space that allows you to thrive.
Bad lighting is a reason to never leave home. Natural light we are lucky is the best light, but then once you are not outside, it can get bad. You got to control the lighting.
Also, the older I get, the more sensitive to noise pollution I become. Hermettes skew home bodies but they are not homebodies per se.
I don’t know. It’s such a secretive society that I don’t know how they skew. For me, I love being home and I love my home, but I also like to travel. My favorite thing is to stay in the awesome homes of my friends. That’s a great way to travel. Part of being unmarried is you don’t wind up with a lot of deep friendships, but I have a lot of wonderful friends all over the world. Also, traveling for a purpose like if you are researching or you are meeting people about the podcast. You are talking to people and you are going to explore Hermetteges.
In the magazine, we are going to have troglodyte times for cave dwellers. Let’s say you want to explore the caves of Turkey. It turns out there are some amazing caves that you can stay-in in Turkey. That’s a good reason. What I’m saying is staying home is great, and also traveling. We were talking before about the hermit crab has its shell on its back, and so their home is with them wherever they go. The goal for me is to start to be able to travel light. I do love my home but in a way, I wish that.
I have a friend who’s a great Hermette. She will rent out her place. She will go to Sweden. She will live there for the summer, and then she’ll work on a project in Iceland. She’ll be there for a month. She’ll invite friends to come with her. Also, the living arrangements. She has people come and visit her and stay with her. She has her ex-husband who still comes and stays with her for a month every year. Sharing your space can be a nice thing or sharing somebody else’s space, cohabiting. During the pandemic, I lived with my boyfriend and my friend. We all lived together, three people. It was a great cohabitation.
I like this idea of the hermit crab. That is the symbol of the movement.
I like the idea that your home is where you are. You bring your home with you. That’s a powerful idea. You had mentioned spending time with people. One of the members of the community asked this question, “I would be interested in hearing about her and other Hermettes relationship with their family members and extended family members. Is there anything special about it, or does anything change when it comes to family relationships when you embrace your Hermettetude?”
I’m still in the process of figuring that out. I have felt stigmatized because I never got married and never had children even though my parents have always been totally accepting of my decision. I have a sister and a brother. They both have partners and my sister has children. I’m close to her whole family. We travel together. They live in another state, but I have always felt like part of their family. I do have close relationships with my cousins, aunts and uncles. I have a big extended family and I’m pretty involved with all of them.
I want to talk about your personal life and your professional life here now. I have to guess that none of them is surprised that you turned out this way. Is that true?
I really don’t know what they expected, but I am not very different from what I was when I was five years old. I do exactly the same things every day. I finally got my life back to the way it was when I was five.
You were a creative director.
As a person who came to creativity late in his life, that sounds super appealing. Is it? You have left it.
I still do it freelance. I was a creative director in advertising. I did it all the way through college. I wasn’t a creative director when I started out, but I was a copywriter. You are creative team is usually a copywriter and an art director, or a copywriter and a designer. You work together as a team. Very often those teams are a form of marriage. You can have a very long relationship with a creative partner which I have had. The two of you work together very much like lyrics and music. I have had that relationship too where you work together that way.
There are a lot of different partnerships. Being a creative director, you can also oversee other teams of workers. There’s encouragement. I hate the word nurturing, but the best creative directors will help other people do the best work they can, and help them realize it the way they want to. It’s a kind of teaching. We are helping people. Even with teaching, I have done that too and teaching film. It’s helping people realize their work as best they can. Help them realize their own best work.
That’s what being a creative director is. You come up with ideas also. It’s advertising so you are coming up with campaigns. You are also coming up with strategies. I do a lot of creative strategies. I do think being a Hermette is a strategic way of looking at proper admiration for people who live solo life because it’s courageous and genuine. That’s what I say, a rugged individualist.
It’s all these things. In America, the solo person should be self-sufficient and come up with great new ideas. That’s what America needs right now. They don’t need anybody to have a traditional marriage and traditional family. That’s not going to help anything except pay our Social Security. I certainly don’t understand why we are supposed to have a bunch more children whose parents can’t afford to keep them, have them, or support them, whether that’s emotionally or financially. Why that’s what we need right now in this country is totally beyond me. I don’t see how that’s going to help. Amazon needs workers and so maybe Amazon lobbied for it. I’m trying to figure out whose great idea this was and who benefits. Further investigation is needed.
I have this saying, “Create more than you consume.” I think you are echoing that call. We need people building things and making things. I’m going to do a little PSA for an episode that already has come out. It’s called Why Sweden is the Singles Capital of the World. Despite being the richest country in the world, America doesn’t often provide enough of a safety net for its citizens.
Some of them are compelled to play it safe and compelled to couple up as a hedge against ruin and disaster. What the Swedes do very nicely is they give people universal healthcare. They give them employment and free education. This liberates them to be even more individualistic and to be entrepreneurial and to be creators in a way that is in many ways, more American than America, in a sense.
They also have a wonderful system for childcare. They also make it easy to have a lot of children and to be able to have a family. It’s being able to give people actual freedom of choice. It should be a choice. That’s not a recipe for a happy marriage. Harkening back to your origins of marriage, being a financial contract often was a woman being sold into a form of slavery for her husband’s family. She is supposed to take care of them and take care of all of his parents and his children. Her family receives money for it. It’s not a pretty picture.
That trickles down into the way we feel we should be when we are in relationships. A lot of women feel like they need to clean up if they are dating somebody. Maybe they feel like they need to clean up his apartment or they feel like they need to cook for him. They feel like they are going to be deficient if they don’t do these things. I’m sure there are parallel things for men, but those are ingrained things that women do and it’s left over from them being chattel.
You are also a writer and director. You studied directing. I saw you with Mike Nichols, the great comedic mind. You entered into the foray around this topic of motherhood with a screenplay of a movie called Egg starring Christina Hendricks, best known for her role on Mad Men. Can you talk about the premise and the background of that writing project?
It’s a five-person cast and every single person in it is incredible. Alysia Reiner plays a woman who is an artist and is married. Gbenga Akinnagbe plays her husband. They got married for tax purposes. They have this co-creative life. They are both creative people and they have what she thinks has always been an ideal marriage of two equals, and neither one of them ever wanted to have children.
They always discussed that they didn’t want to have children, and they were going to have this wonderful co-creative life where they are both individuals and it’s ideal, and then he changed his mind. This is the backstory of Egg. He changed his mind and decided he did want to have children, and this sometimes happens to men and sometimes happens to women. They think they don’t want to and then all of a sudden, they do.
She decides, “How can I do this if he wants to have a child?” She thinks to herself, “I don’t mind having a child. I just don’t want to be the mother. I don’t like the role of the mother. If I can have a child and be the father, I will do that or I can create my own role. What if I hire somebody to be the mother?” Alysia Reiner’s character and Gbenga Akinnagbe’s character hire Anna Camp who is an amazing comedic actress to be their surrogate mother.
Not only is she going to have the baby, but she’s also going to be called the mother. On Mother’s Day, if she doesn’t get a card, she can get pissed off. On Thanksgiving, if she doesn’t make dinner, she can deal with it. She wants to do this because she’s in a relationship with a married man. He already has children and she wants to have a baby, but she can’t have one with him, so she’s going to have it with them instead.
It looks like everybody wins as you are setting this up.
That’s right. That’s why the Alysia Reiner character is like this is all her genius idea. It began as a play, but then became a film. The film begins when Christina Hendricks and David Alan Basche are a wealthy couple, and Alysia and Christina went to art school together. Christina has married this rich guy. She’s given up on her artwork and she’s eight months pregnant. The two friends haven’t seen each other in a long time. They come over to Alysia’s loft and they are reunited, and the husbands are meeting each other for the first time. They then get a phone call. The shit has hit the fan. The surrogate told her boyfriend about what was going on, and the whole thing blows up.
The whole thing takes a phase and hilarity ensue. Sometimes people are like, “This isn’t a comedy. This is sad and painful,” but it’s I think funny. I wrote that because I was having a hard time deciding whether I wanted to have children or not. I never saw a role model of somebody watching somebody go through that process and decide to not do it.
Even though that’s not exactly what happens in the film, you do see somebody who doesn’t want to have children and who wants to figure out a better way to love her husband. The only reason she does it is because she loves her husband and she wants him to have everything that he wants to have while not compromising what she wants and how she wants to live her life.
I love the movie. It was directed by Marianna Palka who does some amazing films that she wrote. She got all of the dark humor in it and the cast is fantastic. It was such a weird thing because that was a big accomplishment for me when that film came out. One of my dear neighbors from growing up said, “There’s a new movie theater here. We got to get the movie in the theater.”
She arranged it. It sold out two showings. Everyone in town came. My family, my friends, and the kids I rode the school bus with from the time I was five years old. It was an incredible thing. What showed was this movie that’s outrageous. It attacks motherhood in a lot of ways. I took all the things that I was thinking and assigned an extreme of those opinions to each one of these characters, and then had them duke it out.
How I felt was totally indecisive. I identify with every character in there, but they are all comic exaggerations of how I felt, feeling so indecisive for so long. Not being able to decide like, “Do I want this or not?” By that time, it took me fifteen years to get the movie made. I wrote it first as a short story then I did it as a play. It kept almost getting made all these different ways as a film. Finally, it was made. By that time, when I first started to want to make the film, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. By the time the movie came out, I was totally at peace with my decision to not have children.
It was so freeing and I was surprised to see that so many young women were coming out of the movie crying and how intense it was for them in their twenties. I thought that people in their 30s mostly would respond to it because that’s the age when you feel you need to make a decision, but I got such great responses also from men. What I try to do with writing is always say the things that nobody else is willing to say. I think people appreciate it but when they say seen, I felt seen by my family, neighbors, and friends, and I was shocked that everybody liked it so much. It was the weirdest thing. I was like, “I couldn’t believe it,” especially since there is some outrageous stuff that they are saying. I was like, “I forgot that’s in there. I can’t believe they are all watching this.”
I have to say that I’m glad that you have more than a room of your own. You have an apartment of your own. You are able to cultivate this and be able to write something like this. We need diverse perspectives to create good art and to show people a different way. A movie like that shows that there are different ways to live, and there’s not just one way to live. The last thing I want to do is I want to turn things around and I want to ask you about my project.
I see Hermettes as a subset of solos in a sense. I talk about solos having three qualities. They are not as sexy as yours, unfortunately. They are not as exciting as yours. They are more pragmatic, and by that is that a solo sees her or himself as a complete individual or as a whole individual. Not a half waiting to become a whole. They are autonomous. They are self-reliant. Lastly, they are unconventional just by virtue of seeing themself as a whole person.
By virtue of being self-reliant, they are already unconventional when it comes to thinking about relationships and their place in the world, but they tend to be open-minded more broadly. If you are going to question marriage and traditional relationships, you should be questioning a whole bunch of other things out there. The way that the world is set up, it can’t be set up for everyone. I know that you have glanced at the project. I’m curious, what are your reactions to it, whether it be critiques or thoughts?
I don’t have any critiques about it. Critiques are for chumps or for insecure people. I don’t have any critiques. It’s important work. I listen to a number of different podcasts. I think that they are thorough and genuine interviews. Some of the things I love are the range of subjects like cleaning, furnishing your space, or all these different things because it’s such a big topic. Part of the fun is to be able to explore all these aspects of it. I went to one event that they were like, “There’s a singles event.” I’m like, “I hated going. Everybody’s here to meet somebody.” I didn’t like it. I was in relationships back-to-back, not married relationships, but single.
Also, defining somebody as a single, you could be a Hermette and you can be in all different kinds of relationships. It’s a cry of your soul that means, “I need to be alone.” Me being alone is like a fish needing water. I need it and I believe other people need it. It is one of the great losses in our life if we don’t have it and respect other people’s privacy.
Another aspect of being a Hermette is having a private life. It was interesting because I was listening to some of the podcasts about polyamory and a whole bunch of different ways of defining couple them, dating them, or how do you identify in terms of how you date other people or stuff like that.
I say that a Hermette is private. Your intimate life, meaning your political thoughts, your philosophies, and especially your sexual relationship, romantic relationship, and friendships. The sense of privacy is also hugely important. Not defining yourself to the world and not being forced to define yourself in any way to the world. Resisting that and resisting identification, that’s part of being a Hermette.
We should end there, with that open idea of how you live with the ambiguity of not belonging. Risa, thank you for your time. Thank you for your starting your not-so-secret society. I’m sure you are going to pick up some more members here as a result of this.
I hope so. I appreciate it. I enjoy your show and you interview some of my favorite writers. It’s impressive. It’s so great to meet you.
- Risa Mickenberg
- Sasha Cagen – Past episode – QuirkyAlone?
- Bella DePaulo – Past episode – The Science of Single Living
- Live Alone And Like It
- Why Sweden is the Singles Capital of the World – Past episode
About Risa Mickenberg
Risa Mickenberg is a writer, director, performer, rethinker. founder and editor of Hermette: The Lifestyle Magazine for Aspiring They/Hermettes.