I’ve known Sarah Bennett (“SB” to her friends) for ages through mutual friends. The thing that always struck me about SB was how impressively intelligent and unfailingly modest she is. I was thrilled to be able to interview her, in the wake of publishing her second book F*ck Love, co-written with her father, Dr. Michael Bennett.
I always knew you were a writer, but I had no idea you had therapist-level wisdom.
Both my parents are shrinks. They would talk about work at the dinner table. When I was really little, they worked at a public mental hospital so I had the best stories as a kid. The most fucked up ones. That’s why I have so many close friends from ages twelve and before because if you thought I was cool back then you were a life-r.
What kind of stories are we talking about here?
I remember my mom telling me about a woman who would put anything she could get her hands on into her vaginas. Like anything—pencils, Legos. One of the supervisors really was considering just getting her a vibrator like as a pacifier. If she walked down the halls, they’d just imagined she’d be shaking violently. Everyone who worked at the hospital had to have a sense of humor or they would have quit like two hours into the first day These are the stories I would hear as a child and would recount to my friends the next day the next day at school.
And they’d be like WTF?
Yes. Or I’m going to go eat lunch somewhere else now.
Once your parents left the public mental hospital and went into private practice, did they still share their stories with you and your sisters?
When my Dad transitioned to private practice, he would tell stories of the patients he’d seen that day. And he’d ask my mom for advice. Sometimes he’d talk about the advice he would give them and how satisfying it was that they’d really take to it.
When did It occur to you that there was a book in all this?
I moved to LA to try and do more TV writing, right before the writers strikes ten years ago. I was there with nothing to do. People who were established professionals obviously could not get jobs. There were no jobs. So I suggested to my dad, why don’t we start working on something?
And how was that for you, working with your Dad?
It works out pretty well between the two of us. Obviously, we share a sense of humor sense of humor; that part is easy. He was an English major in college but once you become a doctor all you’re doing is just writing charts, just-the-facts-ma’am in chicken scrawl. So his humor is there, I just translated it, made sure he doesn’t sound like a dick. It’s actually better if we’re in two different places because I don’t want someone to read over my shoulder. This is why I spend a lot of my time alone. I’m not socially adaptable.
That’s pretty awesome.
What’s been gross actually on this promotional thing is when radio people assume we are a married couple.
It’s happened more than once. Sometimes you have to talk to Morning Zoo guys and they’re like, “Okay, Dr. Bennett, you cover your ears, I’m talking to the little lady now.” And I’m like, the little lady is his daughter. It never gets easy. They don’t get is that this book is not about romance, it’s about the opposite. If it was about romance, I would not be able to do it with my father. I don’t have a very high threshold for awkwardness. I mean not that sterile but choosing a partner as if you’re looking for a business partner. Can you trust this person? Are they reliable? Not you know, how to set the mood. I can’t even imagine being in the same state with my father if you were writing a book like that.
What I like about F*ck Love is that it’s not an anti-love book, it’s more like, keep your eyes open in a relationship type book.
Exactly. Thank you. I’ve learned a lot in working with my dad. We were asked yesterday, “What do you want people to take away from these books?” I want them to realize they already know the hard truths of life; we’ve just written them in funny ways that get them to see, yeah that is true and I’ve known it all along. Like the dumb thing of never go to bed angry. Most people know that going to bed angry is a good idea in a relationship if you’re really tired and you’re not going to make a cogent argument, you’re only going to make things worse. But until they read some silly jokes about it, it might not click with them. One thing we hammer home in the first book is that you really can’t change other people. It’s hard enough to change yourself. I’ve bitten my nails since I was six years old. I’ve tried many times to stop. I can not stop. I’m now resigned to four out of ten of my fingernails, that’s the best I can do.
Who do you really want reading this book?
I really want people to give this to their sons. Women, we’re conditioned to think about these things from a very young age. At summer camp, there would always be copies of Seventeen and YM circulating around that were filled with all sorts of quizzes even for young girls, like what kind of boy is the right boy for you? I feel like guys don’t. They’re like, is she pretty? Those are the only qualifications that they really think of. They’re just not thinking sensibly a lot of the time, certainly not at a young age. I worry at not a mature age either.
I would agree with that.
The woman who sherpa’ed us around Toronto was saying she has a guy friend who’s great on profile—he’s tall, he likes to cook, he’s a lawyer. He will after a date say, “Yeah I wasn’t really into her, she liked artificial flowers.” Which is the stupidest thing. It has no bearing over what this person will be like as a partner or spouse or anything. It’s just you being a dummy. So I’m glad it will help the next generation. Please find young men and put it in their hands because I think they need more help.
When you lived with your parents, did you seek out their advice?
I’m really lucky because a lot of the advice my mom gave or that she gives is next level black belt pragmatism. She never gave a shit about how I dressed or if I was dating or what I was doing; I just had to do my homework, I just had to do my best in school. She’s in her mid-70s now. It was a struggle for her as a woman wanting to be a doctor. She was one of seven women in her medical school class of, I don’t know, a hundred. She was called “nurse” all the time during her residency. So for her it was, you have to be the smartest, you have to prove these people wrong who are going to look down on you, they don’t think women can do these things. It was never, why don’t you wear make up? Why have you dyed your hair maroon? She just didn’t give a shit. One time a guy was dumping me and earnestly said, “You’re just too good for me.” I told this to my mother. She said, “Well, what you say to him is, ‘fuck you, get better.‘” She just has this toughness. I was lucky to be around it. Me and my sister are very different in that my sister does love make up and she runs marathons and stuff. She’s an orthopedic surgeon, she’s in an incredibly competitive male dominated field and she doesn’t take any shit at all. I won the sweepstakes in that way. Our mom was on it. She taught us to keep focused on the good stuff and don’t let assholes get in the way.
You need that iron will, particularly if you are in a competitive room.
Oh yeah, what my sister deals with? Surgeons are not known for their bedside manner. They really want to put you under and get you to shut the fuck up and then cut you open. She married a guy she’d known in residency so they’re both orthopedic surgeons. They’re in a practice together. You have a day of clinic when you have patients come in to do follow up on all the surgeries you’ve done. Usually those days are incredibly busy; you’re trying to pack in as many days as possible. My brother-in-law can clear through like 70 patients in a day because all you’re doing is, move your hand this way, that way, does this hurt, are you doing okay, anything else, okay gone. But because my sister is a woman, people will try to talk about their problems with her. They just don’t with my brother-in law. It’s like, oh because you’re a woman, you’re compassionate, I can now talk to you about how my husband’s driving me crazy or how my wife isn’t understanding. She has to kindly but firmly say I’m not a therapist, I don’t have time for this, I did surgery on your finger, I’ve got a full day ahead of me, this is not on my docket.
You’re so lucky you were raised as a feminist.
Totally. Also because when I was in middle school, the book Reviving Ophelia came out. It was the first book to discuss about how girls lose confidence in middle school, how if they’re really good at math, they’ll start to pretend they’re bad at it. My friend Eleanor had gotten that book so we were reading stuff like that as we were living it. We became aware of the double standard that applied to us even at that time as girls. I was definitely aware of feminism at a young age.
Are you a hard worker?
I will work hard at stuff I’m interested in but my personal motto is I hate learning and I love knowing. I just don’t have an aptitude for math or science like my mother does and my sister do. They share that gene where they can sit down and focus and study even when they’re not really into it. That’s what allowed them to pass organic chemistry which is the thing you have to do to be a doctor. I could not do that. I could sit down and study every project that the Kids In The Hall were involved in and every affiliated comedy thing that Lorne Michaels had ever done because I love comedy but I’m not going to do that with a biology project. It’s just beyond what my brain is capable of.
Do you feel men have more to learn than women when it comes to things like dating, love, sex?
There’s so much more work to be done but it’s not so much for women to do, it’s for men to do. Convincing men that they need to do it is hard. How can I convince people to think about feminist issues? The minute you mention the possibility they could be sexist, they get angry and shut it down. In college, my friends organized the Take Back The Night marches, that moment when the feminist movement were like, why are we worried about not getting raped? Why aren’t we teaching young men not to rape women? What consent means. I have four young nephews, all boys. I think seriously about what I can do to teach them these things when they’re older. What can be done in general. Did you read Missoula, about the rape at the university of Montana?
The Krakauer book? Yes.
So much of that book is that boys just don’t understand what consent is. One of these boys clearly raped this woman brutally but he’d never had sex before. When she made noises, even if they were not pleasurable, he’d only had watched porn and assumed she was into it. Men will see porn that involves sex that is more forceful but don’t understand that’s not what all sex is.
Right. That’s not sex at all!
You think that’s a woman wants? You have to ask! it never occurred to them! Women have done all we can. It’s time for men to pick up the fucking slack. It’s time to get better. And how to do that is tough because you have to make men interested in it. You have to learn that when you see sexist behavior, that if you get angry about it, reply emotionally, then that gives them an excuse not to listen to you.
Does that apply to relationships as well?
This is something I’ve learned in working on these: in talking to your partner about making the conversation not personal and not emotional, getting them to see that their behavior goes against their own values. If somebody is drinking you can’t say, “You’re drinking too much, you’re ruining the marriage, how could you do this to me and the kids?” You have to say, “I think it’s worth considering whether your drinking is getting in the way of things that are important to you.” Presumably, if you’re married to this person, you shared similar values. It’s up to them to make those considerations but you can’t tell them.
Can this apply to professional relationships?
If you have a guy at work say something awful, you have to find a way to say, “I’ve been around you, you don’t have these thongs in your heart. have you considered what you said or did might not live up to the kind of person you are?”
And full circle, this comes back to finding parity amongst gender. You think it’s possible?
It’s hard. It’s a lot of work but we have to get men interested in doing the work too because we can only do so much. We’ve already done way more then is reasonable as an entire gender.
You can purchase F*ck Love at your local bookstore or any online outfit.