'Tiger Mother's' spouse joins her in defending memoir
By Lisa Pierce Flores
NEW CANAAN — During a rare joint author appearance with his wife, Amy Chua, at New Canaan Library Sunday evening, Jed Rubenfeld took the podium first, accepting the position as warm-up act to his controversial and famous spouse.
Chua’s memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (Penguin Press, 2011), was “more dramatic,” he said, than his latest novel.
Though Rubenfeld’s new thriller, “The Death Instinct” (Riverhead Books, 2010), is about terrorism, World War I, and radiation poisoning, Chua’s memoir about the successes and failures of what she calls “Chinese parenting” has proven more explosive.
Though Chua’s book ultimately chronicles her realization that her strict, high-pressured parenting style is endangering her close relationship with her younger daughter, her refusal to disavow her highly structured parenting philosophy entirely has many outraged readers and pundits.
“I saw the book as a self-parody. My two daughters are the heroes and have all the best lines. They call all my bluffs,” said Chua, delivering one of many lines during the event that elicited cheers from the audience.
Later she added, “If I’d known this book was going to generate this much controversy I could have made myself more likable.”
In addition to writing books for popular and academic audiences, Rubenfeld and Chua both teach law at Yale University. They live in New Haven with their daughters, Sophia, 18, and Louisa, or Lulu, 15, a former concertmaster of the Norwalk Youth Symphony.
Rubenfeld, who described himself as “along for the ride,” admitted the last six weeks had been “a surreal time for our family.” Chua nodded her head, adding that, “it’s nice to be back on home turf.”
Throughout the event, the couple’s second joint appearance since their books came out, Chua and Rubenfeld sat side by side in leather armchairs. Dressed casually, Rubenfeld in jeans, jacket and a lavender button-down shirt, and Chua in a mini skirt and sling-back wedged heels, the pair defended each other but rarely themselves.
Author events at New Canaan Library typically attract 75-80 people; Chua and Rubenfeld’s joint appearance garnered 268 with a waiting list of 88 more, according to Assistant Director Cinde Bloom Lahey.
Chua reiterated that the book is a memoir, not a parenting book or a how-to guide. The book was in many ways a family project. Rubenfeld and their daughters read every draft and tried to reconcile their different memories. The final version reflects “four different sets of memories,” Chua said. “It was like family therapy.”
“It’s also the story of your pulling back from that method of parenting,” Rubenfeld added.
On Jan. 8 the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from Chua’s book under the provocative headline “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Since then, the article has prompted more than 8,000 comments and counting, most of the “these kids should be taken away from her” variety.
Chua said the first portion of the book was intended as self-parody. She was aiming for David Sedaris, she said, not “Mommie Dearest.”
Ten days after the excerpt was printed, Chua’s oldest daughter, Sophia, wrote a rebuttal in her mom’s defense titled “Why I love my Tiger Mom.” In addition to her academic and musical accomplishments, Sophia’s open letter to her mother mentioned her steady boyfriend and described a network of supportive friends who love her mom’s dumplings. It concluded: “Now that I’m 18 and about to leave the tiger den I’m glad you and Daddy raised me the way you did.”
Because younger daughter Lulu was more resistant to Chua’s strict parenting techniques, she has some of the best lines in the book. In a section called “Coda” she suggests her mother title the book “The Perfect Child and the Flesh-eating Devil” or “Why Oldest Children Are Better.” At another point in the book Lulu compares her mother to Harry Potter’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort.
Audience questions that followed Sunday’s reading reflected a high proportion of readers who had no problem with Chua’s approach to parenting, including a young Asian mother who applauded her for her “candor and courage.”
Janane Nejjar Diouri, a Greenwich mother of two, said she agreed with many aspects of Chua’s book.
“Rules need to be reinforced,” she said. When her 9-year-old son accuses her of being stricter than other parents, she says, “I’m not here to be your friend.”
Laughing, she added, “compared to my parents, I’m laid-back.”
Many of Chua’s harshest critics have questioned Rubenfeld’s role in his daughters’ upbringing. Chua explained that she focused on the girls’ academic and musical training, while Rubenfeld oversaw the girls’ religious, ethical, and intellectual development. It was at this moment that Rubenfeld drew the loudest applause of the evening.
Rising from his armchair and striding to the podium, he captured the attention of the audience with the practiced confidence of a college lecturer. Saying he has been surprised by the criticism his wife has faced for her insistence on structure, he recited a list of discouraging statistics about American youth, from high rates of teen pregnancy and depression to low academic test scores.
“These are not problems caused by too much structure,” Rubenfeld said. “These are problems of too little structure.”