The Feminine Mistake
When iconic feminist Betty Friedan claimed in her recent memoir that her ex-husband had "beat up on her" during the couple1s 22-year marriage, the accusation made headlines in publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post. But no sooner had the press zeroed in on the charges of abuse than Friedan began to back off, downplaying the very allegations that her publisher was hyping in a press release for the book.
The revelations occupied a total of only six pages in Life So Far, Friedan's 399-page memoir published in May, but publisher Simon & Schuster made sure to highlight "the physical abuse Friedan endured" in its press release. George magazine plugged an excerpt from the book with the cover headline "He Beat Me," and crammed the bulk of her accusations into the story: "And how could I reconcile being knocked around by my husband while calling on women to rise up against their oppressors?" Friedan wrote. Soon scores of publications were repeating the charges.
When abuse became the focus, however, Friedan started to demur. "Let's not overdo that," she told the Chicago Tribune in May. Friedan repeatedly insisted in other interviews that her husband was "no wife beater" and that she was "no passive victim." "I gave as good as I got," she told The Christian Science Monitor.
In Friedan's opinion, reporters completely inflated the story. "I wrote a very long book about American history1the women's movement, and the like," she says, "and I simply will not tolerate the media...trying to sensationalize my life." As for her publisher's press release, Friedan seemed genuinely surprised that it highlighted this aspect of the book. (Her publicist, Aileen Boyle, insists, "She did see it, and all I can say is that maybe she overlooked it.")
At the same time Betty Friedan was toning down her story, her alleged abuser, Carl Friedan, was trying to get his out. Few media outlets had asked him his side of the story. In an Associated Press article on May 24, for example, Beth Harpaz wrote that Friedan was "reluctant to divorce the husband who beat her." Harpaz did not contact Carl Friedan because, she says, "I felt comfortable taking her word for it." (Harpaz called Carl Friedan and updated the wire report after being contacted by Brill's Content.) And in a May 11 New York Times profile, Alex Witchel wrote of "physical abuse by [Friedan's] former husband," without contacting Mr. Friedan.
Carl Friedan denies the accusations, claiming he never "gratuitously" hit anyone. After the George piece ran without a comment from him (a spokeswoman says the excerpt was fact-checked, though Carl Friedan was not contacted), he launched a one-man PR campaign, setting up a website and sending letters to news outlets nationwide.
His efforts were rewarded when the Times ran an apologetic editor's note on May 26, two weeks after Witchel's article appeared: "The Times should have sought Mr. Friedan's response in person or by mail," it read in part.
(Apparently the Grey Lady didn't learn her lesson. The abuse charges were republished -- without a response from Carl Friedan -- in the Sunday, June 25 books section. Reviewer Wendy Steiner, of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote, "The scandalous revelation of this memoirs is that Betty Friedan allowed her husband to get away with beating her." Times editors didn't realize their error before the section went to press, but they did catch it in time to run an editor's note on page A2, in the same edition. For a second time, they had to concede that the newspaper "should have taken note of Carl Friedan's responses that the accusation is 'blatantly untrue.' " Observed Mr. Friedan to Brill's Content, "This is how these things are propagated. This thing keeps haunting me.")
Whatever the truth -- and however she intended to promote the book -- Betty Friedan says she's starting to regret writing about the stormiest parts of her marriage. "If I had known the media were going to make such a deal out of it," she says now, "I simply would not have put it in."
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Copyright Brill Media Ventures, L.P. 2000