Elise Loehnen Wants You to Misbehave (and Has Great Summer Recs)
"I’m always doing, rather than figuring out how to be."
As the former CCO of goop and creator of the podcast “Pulling the Thread,”has interviewed some of the best philosophers, therapists, writers, and thinkers. Her new book On Our Best Behavior applies her journalistic bend to challenges the ways in which women have been held back by cultural expectations to obey and behave. Below, I chatted with her about the web we’re all stuck in, how the Seven Deadly Sins pervade culture even today, and what lies on the other side of “being good.” I published a condensed version of Elise’s responses in “Issue #91: A Summer To-Do List and 3 Heat-Proof Outfits.” Here is the full version of that interview:
In the introduction to On Our Best Behavior, you write that we are all "stuck in a web." Can you explain what this web is, and why it's vital to recognize and break free from it?
I spent the first 40 years of my life being chased by voices telling me I was not good enough—not a good enough mother, partner, colleague. Not thin enough, not smart enough, not worthy. I hit a wall and recognized that I would never outrun these voices through performance and achievement—that I needed to turn and face them instead. It may seem like an obvious revelation, but in that moment, I realized that these voices that were urging me to be some sort of ideal woman were not unique to me. They didn’t come from my husband or my parents. They were actually toxic cultural stories that coalesced into a code of “goodness,” a punch card that lives in all women and drives our lives—I identified this list as the Seven Deadly Sins, which weren’t actually in the Bible. They’re cultural edicts, whispered into our ears over the centuries, and they are both invisible and yet obvious restraints, suggesting that good women shouldn’t need rest (sloth) or recognition (pride), have appetite (gluttony) or desire (lust) or dreams (envy), want more or even enough (greed), or ever feel upset (anger).
Once I saw this, I couldn’t unsee it—and all the ways that I police myself, and most sadly, other women. The great part though is that once you recognize these voices for what they are (toxic, cultural stories), you can start to push against them and interrupt the programming, choosing something truer in their stead.
As you mention above, your book is built around the Seven Deadly Sins. Why did you make this choice, and which do you consider to be the most damaging/pervasive in our culture? (Was there one you found yourself particularly shackled by?)
I wasn’t raised in any religion (my dad is a cultural Jew, my mother is a self-titled recovering Catholic). I’m not affiliated with any religion, though I consider myself quite spiritual. It’s undeniable that we live in a Judeo-Christian patriarchy, regardless of your beliefs. Religion is culture, it doesn’t require our faith to show up in our lives. To this end, I’m very interested in early Christianity, particularly in the ways it was a man-made construction. After all, Jesus did not want a church and had 12 followers—the church emerged centuries after he supposedly lived and died. The Seven Deadly Sins are a perfect demonstration of how many religious laws came to be: At the hand of men, looking to shore up power. They weren’t in the Bible, they were first written down as “Eight Thoughts” by a desert monk named Evagrius Ponticus, who is an early father of the Enneagram. They traveled around amongst monks for two hundred years, and then in 590, Pope Gregory I titled them the Cardinal Vices and assigned them all to Mary Magdalene. In this same Homily, he turned Mary into a penitent prostitute, a reputation she wore until recently. (In 2016, Pope Francis made her the apostle to the apostles, though she really was the first apostle.) This is how stories are made and passed down as law.
When I wrote the proposal, I was planning on writing a piece of non-fiction, with very little memoir. But as I worked through drafts of the book, I needed to bring my own experiences into it more and more, because I had to get closer to the sins in order to lead the reader through the process of leaving their restrictions behind. They were all in me, honestly. (I wrote a quiz if you want to see if they’re in you.) I had to therapize myself deeply to understand the extent to which they showed up in my life. The easiest and most accessible sin for me to find was Sloth: Like many other women, particularly mothers, I use busyness to cover up my bad feelings—I’m always doing, rather than figuring out how to be.
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You've spent your career, at Goop, as a ghostwriter, and podcast host, interviewing brilliant thinkers and researchers. What was it like to turn the tables and share your own ideas and disclose your own vulnerable stories?
Enter Pride! It’s quite obvious in retrospect, but I have spent my life hiding behind other people out of fear of being seen. Some of this makes a lot of sense: I love ghostwriting and structuring other peoples’ thoughts and ideas—it’s a fun and ego-less project. But I came to understand how I was also finding other people to telegraph my own thoughts and ideas—ideas and thoughts it was important for me to stand behind.
I’m an excellent synthesizer, this is my gift—I’m really good at distilling research and recombining it with other research to surface truths. So On Our Best Behavior in many ways feels comfortable—yes, it’s me and there’s memoir and insights and truths that come from my hand, but it’s also a collaboration and co-creation with so many other thinkers from across time, whose work I was able to build on. (I might be most proud of the Bibliography and the endnotes.)
I, as well as many people reading, have built a life around trying to be "good," and listening to "shoulds." What lies on the other side of this?
Freedom! And grace for ourselves. I’ve been working on this book for three years and have a bit of a head start, but even the awareness that there’s a framework of “goodness” that’s circumscribing our lives is enough to start liberating yourself from its constraints. It’s important for women to let all of their emotions—including ones we’ve been conditioned to label “bad,” like our appetite, sexuality, and wanting—come up so that we can live as full humans. This might sound so obvious, but the amount that I was repressing was substantial, and I grew up in a not-at-all-patriarchal home. I’m married to a lovely, feminist guy. In many ways, I have not abided by cultural dictates of femininity. And yet these were in me so deeply.
The ultimate thesis here, too, is that woman are good. Humans are inherently good. Intuitively, we know this—now it’s time to reclaim it for ourselves.
Okay, this is a bit of a fun one but since this interview will appear in an issue about summer: What are a few of your summer must-haves or recs?
Jeni’s darkest chocolate ice cream is a consistent theme, along with sliced Parmesan from Costco, Wasabi Peas, and Chicas tortilla chips. I have two little boys so they drive the rest of the snack assortment in the house.
My TBR pile is really intense right now (and always): I have been reading through everything by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Richard Rohr, and Cynthia Bourgeault. I’m definitely taking Horse by Geraldine Brooks on vacation along with the Overstory by Richard Powers and Cloud Cuckoo Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr because it’s been too long since I’ve read novels and I am way behind.