“WE'RE SEEING A GLOBAL REGRESSION into domination,” warns macro-historian Riane Eisler, reflecting on the frightening state the planet currently finds itself in. “It happens in cycles, and in the past those downward spirals eventually cycled back up. The crucial difference with this downward spiral is that nuclear weapons are involved.
“We no longer have unlimited time to figure out how to live together — and that's why the politics of partnership is so important now,” adds Eisler, who provides a blueprint in her new book, The Power of Partnership: The Seven Relationships That Will Change Your Life. A self-help text synthesizing elements of systems theory, anthropology, history and feminism, the book is a compendium of tips on how to improve relationships with the self, lovers, nature, and the local, national and international community.
Partnership's central idea — that people either work in partnership or are imprisoned in hierarchies of power — is obviously a sound one, and is a reprise of material Eisler presented in her gender-holistic analysis of eroticism, Sacred Pleasure, published in 1995. Both books have roots in her international best-seller of 1987, The Chalice and the Blade, which examined history in terms of what Eisler refers to as “dominator society vs. partnership,” as well as making the case that goddess-worshiping cultures flourished for 15,000 years prior to the birth of Christ. Dominator societies tend to be governed by vengeful male gods, and maintain their power through violence. Needless to say, the world has been mostly ruled by such systems, but after studying these societies for years, Eisler concluded it doesn't have to be that way: Human beings, and cultures, are capable of change. “I know change is possible,” says Eisler, “because historically it has happened.”
Eisler maintains a daunting schedule of lectures and symposiums, but manages to carve out time for an interview between preparing talks she'll deliver in Dubrovnik and Switzerland. Eisler lives in Carmel with her husband of 25 years, social scientist David Loye, who picks me up at the Monterey airport early on a Saturday morning. A bearded man with longish hair and a slightly beleaguered air, he seems like a sweet character, and shortly after I get into his car he turns to me and solemnly announces, “Meeting Riane was the most important thing that ever happened to me.” Eisler may have changed Loye's life, but she won't be having lunch with us, he explains, because “She eats at funny times.” Thus, minutes later, Loye and I are roaming the aisles of the local health-food store, and discussing the relative merits of various dips available for sampling. Loye then remembers he needs a packet of screws, and we head for the local hardware store, where we putter around some more.
Errands completed, we arrive at the rambling, light-filled house Eisler and Loye share a few miles from the Center for Partnership Studies, a clearing-house for similarly forward-thinking work being done in other fields, which the couple established 13 years ago in Pacific Grove. After entering through the back door, Loye removes his shoes and requests that I do the same. “For the sake of our rugs, we don't wear shoes in the house,” he explains as he shows me into the living room to meet Eisler, who enters from another door. At 70, she's a stunningly attractive woman with a regal bearing well-suited to her task of persuading others to share her point of view. I notice she's wearing shoes.
SINCE CHANGE IS THE ESSENTIAL subject of Eisler's work, I cut to the chase: How can individuals change a system in the grip of corporate powers that maintain their position through liaisons and methodologies that are largely hidden?
“It has to start with the transformation of parent-child and gender relations,” she begins. “Parent-child relationships are crucial because they affect the neurochemistry of the brain, and once patterns are established in childhood they're difficult to change.
“And it's a huge advantage knowing history — that's why I wrote Tomorrow's Children,” she continues, referring to her book on child development and education, published in 2000. “Kids need to be taught history properly so they can see we can be agents for nonviolence. Look at us now in the West. We're not good, but looking back as recently as the '50s, it's obvious there have been dramatic shifts in consciousness in terms of homosexuality, women's rights and children's rights.”
Eisler's new book places enormous emphasis on proper nurturing in childhood — so much so that it appears to suggest we all come into the world with equal capabilities, and that with adequate tending everyone will grow up to be nice. “I don't intend to imply that,” Eisler corrects, “but I do believe we all have some capacity for empathy. The fact that humans have ideas like fairness and yearn for caring connections — it's a biological given built into us. Some people do come in with a greater capacity for partnership, but the variable I'm interested in is what's taught. I'm not disputing that hormonal arousal plays a role in behavior, and we can't change that, but we can change how people are taught to handle those feelings. I, for instance, have a lot of anger, but I've learned to use my anger productively.”
At this point, Loye passes through the room, and Eisler asks, “Darling, could you make me a cup of tea with lemon?” He cheerfully trots off to prepare her tea. “We are so blessed to have found each other,” she says of Loye, a noted scholar in his own right who devotes much of his energy to facilitating her work.
“Legislation plays a huge role in changing the collective consciousness, and changes in legislatures can't happen without campaign-finance reform,” continues Eisler, who plans to write a book on economics after completing her current project, Human Possibilities, which she describes as her theory book. “Mass marketing through television has made the electoral process extremely dysfunctional. However, I don't blame capitalism. Feudalism was worse. Still, we don't have free enterprise when we're living under the influence of five mega-corporations, all with the same agenda. We haven't seen this kind of centralized control since the church in the Middle Ages, and the people running those corporations are so difficult to get to it's as if they're hermetically sealed.
“So, you try to find the people within the organization who are amenable to change, and make them understand they're in a first-class cabin on a sinking ship. I haven't had a conventional job for more than 30 years,” adds Eisler, who devotes a chapter of her new book to office politics, “but I know there are partnership-oriented companies that are thriving. Companies where people get fired for being abusive, that offer good health care, and encourage people to work sensible hours and take vacations — there's a strong grassroots movement in this direction.”
At this point Loye returns with Eisler's tea, along with a cup of coffee he'd previously promised me, and Eisler furrows her brow. “We don't drink coffee in this room,” she declares. “I'm very peculiar. I can't afford to replace these rugs, so we'll have coffee in the kitchen. Neatness is very important to me. I have to have an aesthetic environment, especially because of all the ugliness I saw.”
WE REPAIR TO THE KITCHEN, WHERE the story of Eisler's life begins to unfold. Born in Vienna in 1931, Eisler, along with her family, left Europe in 1939, shortly after Kristallnacht. She has vivid memories of her father being roughed up by the Gestapo, and has wrestled with intense feelings of fear ever since. Fleeing to Cuba, Eisler and her parents spent seven years there under the Batista regime.
“We'd lost everything, and we landed in a cockroach-infested tenement. The Nazis had whipped up an enormous wave of anti-Semitism in Cuba, and I looked like I didn't belong, so I was terrified of the local street children,” recalls Eisler, who clearly has her own reasons for needing to believe the world can be brought to order.
Eisler's family was admitted to the United States in 1946, and bounced from Miami to New York to Chicago before putting down roots in Los Angeles. “We lived near Hancock Park, and my father went into the building business. My mother worked with him, but of course he got all the credit,” she says. “My parents didn't have an equal partnership, and my mother simultaneously chafed against her position and submitted to it. I didn't respect the way my father treated her, yet I adored my father, who was a charming man and something of a womanizer. In a male-dominated culture, it's enormously important for a woman to be liked by her father — it's much more important than having the mother's approval, because of the male-dominated nature of the culture.
“I was 14 when my family arrived in Los Angeles, and at that point I lost a lot of my ambition because I began to see how cultures work. Everything I studied was about men, by men, for men — it never occurred to me to challenge that, however, because my main ambition then was to belong,” says Eisler, who lived with her parents during her first two years of college, then left home in 1951 for a year at UC Berkeley.
“It was my first time away from home, and I went a little wild,” recalls Eisler, who contracted mononucleosis several months later and returned to L.A. to recover. She graduated with a B.A. in sociology, started law school in 1952, and the following year met computer scientist George Eisler, whom she married in 1953. Law school was put on the back burner when she and her husband moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she took a job as a social worker. Several months later, the couple left the country to spend a year in Europe and Israel.
“Judaism wasn't central to the house I grew up in, but I am a Jew, and Israel was the first place I'd ever been that I didn't feel like an outsider,” she recalls. “I started to learn about Judaism, and during those years I read everything I could about the Holocaust.”
The couple returned to America in 1956, and Eisler took a job with Systems Development Corp., which was a division of the Rand Corp. “By that point my marriage wasn't working, but being an alienated homemaker in the '50s was important in my development,” says Eisler, who gave birth to her first daughter in 1959, and a second in 1961. By the late '50s she was sinking into a depression, and she spent several years in Freudian analysis, which she describes as “a complete waste of time. Freud made some tremendous contributions, but he also made huge mistakes, and his whole view of the human psyche is just a rehash of original sin. The poor man was stuck in the very religious mythology he dismissed as ancient superstition!”
Eisler's marriage was ending when she returned to law school in 1964. “I quit smoking, my job and my marriage in a period of three months,” says Eisler, who earned her law degree the following year. “That was such an exciting period for me! I started to write and wrote a play called Infinity that was staged at the Pasadena Museum of Art [in 1970]. I dated a lot and became quite radical — this was, after all, the '60s. It was hard on my children, mother finding herself, but I couldn't do otherwise, because I was getting increasingly depressed.
“The thing that changed everything for me was the women's movement,” continues Eisler, who jumped in with both feet in 1968 when she responded to a newspaper ad seeking a pro bono attorney to help incorporate the first women's center on the West Coast. “That was huge for me, because I began to understand that as much as my life had been affected by being a Jew, being born female had affected it even more.”
She met Loye in 1976, and the following year she published her first book, Dissolution: No Fault Divorce, Marriage and the Future of Women. “With that book I invented a new method of looking at law, as an instrument for either maintaining or changing norms,” recalls Eisler, who was already deep into the research for Chalice, which consumed her for the next 10 years.
EISLER CONTENDS THAT THE SUPPRESSION of information that she revealed in Chalice is “the biggest cover-up in the world,” and it's not surprising that the book encountered resistance in academic quarters. The scathing critiques she's received from feminist scholars, however, are puzzling. Cynthia Eller's The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a History (Beacon, 2001) was a particularly vigorous attack on Eisler, who dismisses the book with a shrug.
“Culturally conscious social movements often attract the people who've been most wounded by the system, and they act it out. I frankly doubt these women can properly call themselves feminists, and Eller's book is so full of inner contradictions that it's pathetic. Nonetheless, the Atlantic gave it a lot of publicity — it's all part of the regression to the domination model. But even as we slip ever deeper into the dominator model, I know there's a strong partnership movement, and that it's growing,” concludes Eisler, whose relentless optimism may be her greatest gift.
On that cheerful note, Eisler suggests we take a walk on the beach. It's dusk on a cold, blustery day, but that doesn't deter her at all. Not surprisingly, she has a vigorous stride most 20-year-olds would have a hard time keeping up with. She gets out there and just charges into the wind.
Riane Eisler appears at Borders Westwood on Thursday, June 27, at 7 p.m.