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A daughter reflects on the 50-year legacy of her mother's novel 'Fear of Flying'

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Erica Jong's novel "Fear Of Flying" is narrated by a young writer named Isadora Wing. She's on her second husband and is searching for love, independence, purpose and no-strings-attached sexual pleasure. The book was first published in 1973, a time when it was not widely acceptable for women to actively seek out those things, much less write about them. "Fear Of Flying" went on to sell millions of copies, and now a new edition is being released to mark the 50th anniversary of the book.

Before we get into it, note to listeners - this conversation will include discussions about sex. Erica Jong's daughter, the writer and podcaster Molly Jong-Fast, wrote a foreword to the new edition of her mother's book, and she joins me now. Hi, Molly.

MOLLY JONG-FAST: Hi. Thanks for having me.

MCCAMMON: You know, usually we ask authors to read a section of a book, and we're not going to ask you to read your mother's writing...

JONG-FAST: Thank you.

MCCAMMON: ...About sex (laughter).

JONG-FAST: That's very generous of you. I appreciate it.

MCCAMMON: Of course. Of course. You know, as Erica Jong's daughter, you write that you didn't have the same relationship with this book that many people did. You say it felt deeply uncomfortable at times because, as you say, the protagonist was a thinly veiled version of your mom. Do you remember when you first read it and what you were thinking that first time?

JONG-FAST: So I read, like, about 200 pages, and I thought, oh, a lot of this stuff really happened. And then I thought, you know, you don't have to read any more of this. And I put it down, and I never read it. I thought - I had this moment of, like, you know, it's OK. I don't have to know everything. And I think my mental health has been the better for it, quite frankly.

MCCAMMON: Do you remember about how old you were at that time?

JONG-FAST: I was about 15, I think, and I was reading it. And, you know, it was not, like, a secret. You know, this is the curse and the blessing of being a nepo baby - right? - is that you get all these advantages, and you get special treatment, but you also get this sense in which people know about - things about you that you can't - you don't know what they are, but you know they know things about you and that in the - that can make you very crazy 'cause you start thinking, what does this person know about me? What does this person think about me? I'm just glad I got out of it alive. It was not good. I mean, look. The reality is I'm very grateful because I had huge advantages from being the daughter of someone famous. Who even knows - you know, I'd probably be, like, a butter farmer in Iowa had I not been born into this family, you know?

MCCAMMON: But that doesn't sound so bad, right?

JONG-FAST: Right. Well, I don't know. I mean, you know, I like cows. But, you know, it's impossible to know, like, what part of my - the course of my life was helped along by the fame.

MCCAMMON: You said that "Fear Of Flying" shaped the trajectory of your life in many ways. Why do you think it was important to re-release it 50 years later?

JONG-FAST: I think, especially right now after the fall of Roe - I mean, I don't think - like, I think of my mother - and second-wave feminism gets a real bad rap because they had - certainly, some of the second-wave feminists turned out to really be disappointing. When I think about my mother, I think about how she would always say to me, we got a lot of things wrong, but we got you Roe. We made Roe the law of the land, right? - 1973. You have bodily autonomy. I always - you know, she'd always be, like, if you ever needed an abortion, she would be - I'd be, like, 10 years old, and you'd be, like, if you ever need it. And I was, like, Mom, what are you even talking about? But the point was that this was something that had not been available to women - right? - that you were sort of - you couldn't - you didn't have choices if you got pregnant. You had no choices.

And what I think is interesting is, right now in America, we have lost Roe, right? We have a real religious zealot called Mike Johnson who is the speaker of the House. So I think that when you have a book like "Fear Of Flying," which reminds you of what it meant to have the pill and what it meant to have abortion and what it meant - what the sea change was from not being able to have a bank account without a husband, you know, or a father on it. We have come very far, and we have very far we could come back to, and I think that's a really important thing that we should be remembering - that the world of 1973 is - it could - we could be back there.

MCCAMMON: A lot has happened in 50 years, clearly. Notwithstanding the fact that you, for reasons I fully understand, never finished reading "Fear Of Flying," what parts of it do you think will resonate with readers today? And are there parts that might not have aged so well?

JONG-FAST: Yeah, I mean, anything written in 1973 - and I think it's really important. My mom was a affluent Jewish woman who grew up in a certain kind of very cloistered away - you know, there wasn't the kind of intersectionality that we work really hard now to be able to include. It wasn't inclusive, and that was one of the biggest problems with that kind of feminism - was that it didn't include women of color or that it didn't strive for the inclusivity that we now know is so important and, I think, even knew then was so important. But there's really interesting stuff in there, and the reverberations - the way it changed the way we write about sex, the way we think about sex, the way we think about liberation - that is really important. You know, there are a lot of people who come over to me and say things like their mothers left their husbands (laughter) because of my mom's book, which I think is a dubious legacy, but...

MCCAMMON: Did they feel good about it years later?

JONG-FAST: I don't know. You know, I really want to not cause destruction and other people's lives, but maybe it worked out, and maybe they were supposed to leave those husbands. I don't know. You know, that gets me a little itchy when people say that.

MCCAMMON: You know, I've read that your mother received a lot of fan mail from readers asking for relationship advice about things like whether to leave their husbands and sometimes even about bigger questions about just how to be a woman in the world. Do you know how she responded to them or if she responded to them?

JONG-FAST: One of the great weirdnesses of my life was that people would ask my mother for advice, and she was - I love her so much, and she is such a fabulous woman. She had some of the worst advice for me I'd ever gotten in my life - I mean, just incredibly bad advice. So I pray to God that these women never got a letter back. Look. You don't get married four times without having some judgment issues. I mean, I actually was struck by what bad judgment she had about people. But, you know, some of what happens when you're famous is that people think they know you. So I think people thought they knew her, which maybe they did.

MCCAMMON: As this book comes out again 50 years later and reaches a new audience that was not born at the time, what do you hope the impact and the legacy might be of "Fear Of Flying?"

JONG-FAST: You know, books like this didn't exist before it. I mean, that's an incredible thing, and I think it's a really important - to sort of track the trajectory of feminism. And it's just such a - it's really, like, a little time capsule, so I think there's a lot to be gleaned from that and from the experience of the publication of it and from how the world changed since then.

MCCAMMON: That's writer Molly Jong-Fast. She's a special correspondent for Vanity Fair and host of the "Fast Politics" podcast. Her mother Erica Jong's bestselling novel, "Fear Of Flying," is 50 years old. Molly, thanks so much for talking with us.

JONG-FAST: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERMANITO'S "MARACUYA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.