No sooner had the blood dried in that Tucson, Ariz., parking lot and the body of 9-year-old Christina Green been lowered into the ground than “a large slice of educated America,” as David Brooks put it with his usual flair for evocative language, immediately switched its attention to one of the great issues of our day: Chinese parenting vs. American parenting.
Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (The Penguin Press, $26)—an excerpt from which appeared two weeks ago in The Wall Street Journal, thus setting off a cyclone of controversy—means to shock with its case for “extreme parenting,” and people have responded, mostly negatively, to it with great passion. No one, however, seems to have actually read the book. If you do, you won’t be shocked by Chua’s quaint child-rearing techniques (they are merely throwbacks to the stern immigrant parenting of yesteryear). You will marvel, instead, at the power of the elites—Ivy League professors, literary agents, book publishers, prestigious newspapers—to create the illusion of intellectual substance where there is none.
Chua’s book is a case study in how lack of self-knowledge, absence of empathy and poor writing skills can be a blessing if you possess enough robotic ambition, callousness toward other people and lack of honesty about yourself and your subject. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is an inspiration to aggressive mediocrities everywhere. The book wasn’t written; it was assembled. Toward the end of her cringe-inducing commodity, the 47-year-old Yale law professor tells us that as she was writing her little treatise, “I didn’t know why I was doing it.” Well, allow an extreme critic to suggest one reason to the extreme parent: an $800,000 advance.
I like money, and I like big advances, but what I don’t like is having to slog through an artificially fabricated book that has incited an artificial controversy tailor-made for the “Most E-Mailed” list. For women who have either given up careers to raise a child, or chosen to balance the two, the stakes are painfully high. The attention paid to Mommy books comes from a legitimate desire to see how other mothers are bearing up.
That desire will not be satisfied by reading Chua’s thing. During her meltdown in Kate Zernike’s article in The New York Times (cub writer meets Tiger journalist), Chua lashed out at her detractors and called them “obtuse,” even as she was backtracking from her book by explaining that she wasn’t sincere but “ironic” when she wrote about insulting her daughters—Sophia and Lulu—and threatening to burn their toys if they didn’t practice their instruments.
Chua tells us that “the ultimate proof of the superiority of Chinese parenting is how the children end up feeling about their parents.” But isn’t the ultimate proof of any type of parenting, after you take into account the myriad influences on a child’s life, the adult that the child becomes? By that standard, Chua, herself the product of extreme “Chinese parenting,” as she calls it, is the strongest argument against it.
Auditioning for a job at New York University law school, Chua tells us that such an arrangement is “basically a semester-long interview where you try to impress everyone with how smart you are while sucking up to them at the same time.” Well, there are some people who find themselves in that situation who simply do the best they can, sucking up be damned. But Chua, who throughout the book confuses clueless self-disclosure with canny self-awareness, is not that type of person.
You can almost feel her molding herself to her editor’s guidelines for packaging a best-selling shocker. After recounting her Jewish mother-in-law’s warnings to Chua not to incite jealousy between her two aspiring-musician daughters, Chua denies the existence of sibling rivalry: “There are all kinds of psychological disorders in the West that don’t exist in Asia.” Later in the book, she writes that she “had a problem. … How would Lulu feel about another big event with Sophia as the center of attention?” She writes that her husband, Jed, has “always supported me in every way,” then describes them fighting bitterly throughout the book, with herself always emerging as the winner; portrays him as just the type of American softie she hates—when she gets a teaching job at Duke Law School, they move to North Carolina, from where Jed has to make a 500-mile commute to Yale—then describes him as an “alpha male.” Debase yourself for the marketing people. Then correct. Then debase again. Or to put it another way, “impress” while you are “sucking up.”
Though she is now a “writer,” Chua is blind and deaf to the most transparent psychological event. When Sophia, her oldest daughter, jumps out of their car “to grab a tennis racket” as Chua is backing out of the driveway, Chua runs over the girl’s leg and breaks her ankle. Rather than attributing her daughter’s recklessness to the hysterical anxiety her mother’s pressure is inducing in her, Chua strides ahead. Being laid up “at least gave her a lot of time to practice the piano,” she shrugs. On the day that Sophia gives—according to Chua—a stunning, fancy-schmancy recital, her less accomplished younger daughter, Lulu, vomits her guts out. This is also the day before the younger daughter’s own audition at Juilliard, a position for which she fears she is not qualified—rightly, as it turns out. Does the 47-year-old graduate of Harvard and Yale law professor think the vomiting might be caused, again, by unbearable pressure? No, Chua explains that Lulu had gotten “food poisoning” at a “deli” where she’d had lunch. (Go ahead, blame the Jews. Poor Jed must have gotten an earful. But, then, Chua elsewhere writes that “we were celebrating at a mediocre Italian restaurant, because Jed had forgotten to make reservations at a better place.” Look for Chua’s next book: Battle Hymn of the Battle Over Custody.)
Desperate to finish a book she has no idea why she is writing, the Tiger packs it with incoherent chapters about her dogs, and incoherent attempts to link them to her “shocking” thesis. “There is another huge difference between dog raising and Chinese parenting,” she writes alarmingly, out of nowhere, on her way to making no point at all. Striving to reach her word count, she takes a stab at psychological analysis, but only embarrassingly exposes her inner crudeness. Her daughter’s piano teacher “looked like her husband had just left her for a younger woman but not before transferring all his assets to an offshore account.” That Chua thinks she knows how such an experience would be reflected in a person’s face is downright terrifying.
The most appalling part of this dreadful, frantic attempt at cashing in is Chua’s description of her younger sister’s struggle to survive leukemia. The heart-wrenching account serves no purpose in the book, advances no point and illuminates no part of Chua’s argument. It comes out of nowhere. It is there to coldly demonstrate Chua’s love for her sister and her willingness to sacrifice for her. After deliberately portraying herself as a maternal monster, Chua has to wheel around and portray herself as an empathetic human being. “Impress.” “Suck up.” Poor Jed. Poor Sophia. Poor Lulu. Poor Yale.
I understand Tea Party rage better now. You lose your job, and your house, because the political and financial elites experienced “irrational exuberance,” and Yale Law Professor “Tiger” Chua gets $800,000 for the literary equivalent of a defective mortgage. David Brooks, a gravely preening elite who himself has mastered the pretense of having something important to say, tells us that he “loved her book as a courageous and thought-provoking read.” The Chinese are gaining, all right, and it isn’t because of extreme parenting.