Kim Chernin was raised in the home of a radical political organizer, Rose Chernin, an immigrant from Russia, and her engineer husband, Paul Kusnitz. In Chernin’s early years, when anti-Communist sentiments and hysteria about Red infiltration characterized American society, her mother was among those devoted and outspoken Marxists on whom Senator Joseph McCarthy focused considerable attention.
A summer trip to Russia in 1947 disabused Chernin of any strong Marxist sentiments she might have had, so that while many American adolescents from middle-class homes were demonstrating their independence from and defiance of parental authority by embracing Marxism, Chernin’s adolescent rebellion against her family took the form of shunning this ideology.
In 1958, at the age of eighteen, Chernin entered the University of California at Berkeley. She soon married David Netboy, a philosopher, left the university, and had a child, Larissa Nicole. By the mid-1960’s, they had divorced. She later married Robert Cantor, a psychologist, but that marriage, too, ended in divorce.
Chernin again settled in Berkeley after living in England and Ireland. During the social unrest of the 1960’s, Chernin imbibed much of the spirit of those times, living in a place where that spirit was most intense. Divorced and raising her daughter, Chernin, alienated from her family and particularly from her mother, moved toward feminism and began to study it closely. In 1972, as a feminist act, she changed her name legally to her mother’s maiden name. By 1978, she was a committed feminist. In this commitment she found her most effective writing milieu.
Her interest in feminism and family relations led Chernin to investigate the causes of two major eating disorders, anorexia and bulimia. The more Chernin spoke on the cult of slenderness in the United States, the more people urged her to write about it. The outcome was The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness, which found a ready market. She published The Hunger Song, a book of poems relating to the same topic, the year after The Obsession. While she was writing these books, Chernin was also working on a memoir, In My Mother’s House, a fictional biography. These three books bear a close relationship to one another.
In The Hungry Self: Women, Eating, and Identity, as in her earlier books, Chernin examines from a feminist perspective the root causes of eating disorders, linking them inexorably to family situations. From her viewpoint, such disorders are deliberate, if unconscious, attempts on the part of young women to arrest their own growth to avoid having to deal with the psychological discomfort of surpassing their mother’s accomplishments. Although such reasoning seems spurious to some, it has sufficient validity to appeal to many of Chernin’s readers and zealous advocates.
As her explorations into eating disorders branched out and took on stronger feminist overtones, Chernin broadened her scope to the point of writing more encompassing social commentary on the status of women and the historical origins of that status, particularly in American society. Reinventing Eve: Modern Woman in Search of Herself and Sex and Other Sacred Games: Love, Desire, Power, and Possession deal with women from an expanded historical perspective. Reinventing Eve, originally entitled Eve’s Hunger, is the last book of the trilogy that includes Obsession and The Hungry Self. The novel The Flame Bearers is the first volume of a projected trilogy dealing with the mother-daughter relationships that so vitally interest Chernin; she seeks to examine further the ideological underpinnings of the family, as she began to do in In My Mother’s House.
Two books published in 1996, both indirect extensions of her earlier research but with a refocusing and realignment of her feminist priorities, are A Different Kind of Listening: My Psychoanalysis and Its Shadow and In My Father’s Garden. The former is a deeply personal, soul-baring book that builds on many of the same feminist principles that Chernin articulates so well in Reinventing Eve and Sex and Other Sacred Games. In My Father’s Garden is virtually a companion volume to In My Mother’s House. It is a retrospective assessment of the major early factors in Chernin’s life that accounted for her philosophical and personal development. In My Father’s Garden seems to be a direct outcome of Chernin’s psychoanalysis and is, therefore, also closely related to A Different Kind of Listening. The Woman Who Gave Birth to Her Mother takes many of the issues Chernin has addressed on a personal level and expands them to a wider study of the relationships between mothers and daughters.
At times abrasive, at times perhaps excessively militant, Kim Chernin is nevertheless a deep thinker and a splendid stylist. Even lacking such rudimentary teaching credentials as a bachelor’s degree, she became a teacher of writing and remedial reading at the University of California at Berkeley. Each successive publication has revealed her growth as a writer, as a thinker, and as an influential and important feminist.
Barker-Nunn, Jeanne. “Telling the Mother’s Story: History and Connection in the Autobiographies of Maxine Hong Kingston and Kim Chernin.” Women’s Studies 14, no. 1 (1987): 55-68. Amplifies much in Chernin’s fictionalized biography.
Chernin, Kim. “Kim Chernin.” Interview by Suzanne Mantell. Publishers Weekly, July 5, 1985. Captures a great deal of Chernin’s feminist philosophy. A useful biographical source.
Gagnier, Regenia. “Feminist Autobiography in the 1980’s.” Feminist Studies 17, no. 1 (Spring, 1991): 135-148. A lengthy review of In My Mother’s House. Psychologically penetrating.
Pascual, Nieves. “Depathologizing Anorexia: The Risks of Life Narratives.” Style 35, no. 2 (2001): 341-353. A scholarly examination of anorexia that draws on Chernin’s works.