"I've had a really fun life": Joan Walsh opens up on her childhood, career -- and online critics

Salon institution dishes on childhood, parenthood, what it's really like having her job -- and what makes her pray!

Published March 19, 2015 10:13AM (EDT)

Joan Walsh
Joan Walsh

Longtime Salon readers may feel like they know Joan Walsh personally. The well-known editor-at-large, columnist and former editor-in-chief has been writing here for nearly two decades, and appears on MSNBC regularly as a political analyst. But while we may know her political views and writing voice, some sides of a writer don't necessarily show up in their daily columns. Beyond the news they're analyzing that day, what do they think about when it comes to broader or more personal topics? What are the body of experiences and perspectives they're bringing to their writing?

To get a better sense of the answers to these questions, Salon is publishing a series of interviews with smart voices across the media landscape. Rather than ask about the issue they just spoke about somewhere or the column they just wrote, we'll talk about their personal stories -- what motivates them, what frightens them, and how they got where they are today. (See our previous interview with Brittney Cooper here.)

We chatted recently with Walsh about her upbringing, professional journey, views on religion and mortality, and relationships with fans and critics online. A slightly edited transcript for length and clarity follows below.

Despite me associating you with San Francisco and Wisconsin, it turns out you actually grew up in Long Island, which is where I was raised, too. Tell me about your childhood; was it a happy one? 

It was a happy childhood. It was very communal; I was one of 13 kids and cousins who all went to the same Catholic grade school in the same town— not first cousins, but my mom was very close to all of her first cousins. They raised their kids almost communally. We would go back and forth to each other's houses and it was really nice. That part was great. They were all refugees from Brooklyn and the Bronx and they had a lot of refugee issues; they missed Brooklyn. They acted like they had been sort of exiled from it by crime and all the other troubles of the '50s and '60s.

So they left the city to go to the suburbs because they were worried about crime, looking for more space?

My mother left where there was crime but then they moved to Flatbush, which was not exactly a hotbed of crime. I think they just did what white people of that generation with modest means were doing. They bought a house for literally $14,000 in around 1960; my dad became that person who had to take the train and then the subway.

My dad, too. Siblings?

Yeah, I have a brother one year younger— we're practically Irish twins— and my sister is six years younger.

So it was you and your two siblings, growing up with modest means and lots of family around. You moved at some point?

It's kind of complicated, as these things are. We moved because my dad got a better job, basically. He'd sort of reached the limit of where he was and he got a job offer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

How old were you at this point?

I was 13. I thought I was going to go live on a farm. Wisconsin was cows and farms and...

And you were sad?

I was very sad. My dad was a Christian Brother. He had gone away to become a Christian Brother when he was 12 and he basically did that. It was Saint Joseph's Normal School up in Barrytown and they sent him away just like foster care for the Irish poor. He and two of his brothers were sent away amidst the Depression, so he stayed with the Brothers, got right up to final vows, and then met my mom. In the process he developed a drinking problem, so he had a horrible disappearing-for-the-weekend drinking problem until I was 5.

And you were aware of that as a young child?

I was aware, yeah. I got to be old enough that I knew he wasn't coming home and my mother was really distraught and my uncle would come over late at night just to make sure we were all OK. Not violent, sweetest man in the world. He would fall asleep; that was really what would happen. He would drink, he'd be funny, and then he'd fall asleep on the train and wake up God-knows-where— once he woke up in Cleveland.

So you're 4 or 5, aware that your father doesn't come home sometimes. Your mother is distraught but you have your two siblings...

I have one sibling. My sister, we always teased her that she was the little celebration baby because their marriage was going to make it. My dad quit drinking, just one day when I was 5 and never drank again. And then their lives really changed and they really did have a happy marriage and a happy family but there's always that break where you know there was a lot of turmoil but you don't really have memories of that time.

And then you moved to Wisconsin. By the time you were 13 you were a real New Yorker and had that built into you and all those experiences. Was it difficult to go from Long Island to Wisconsin and leave all your cousins and your family behind? You thought you were going to a farm but it was Milwaukee the city?

It was a suburb, North Shore, which was a lovely city. One of the things that happened was that we sort of traveled from the middle middle class to the upper middle class because my dad was making more money but the cost of living was also a lot lower.

What was the job?

My dad was in Catholic educational publishing. He came out of the Christian Brothers and that was what he was qualified to do, so he ran a company that now merged into something else but that basically published textbooks and filmstrips for Catholic schools.

So you were raised relatively religious?

Very religious.

You went to Catholic school in Long Island; did that continue in Wisconsin?

No; we got a choice and we chose, strangely, not to go. We hadn't told our parents the horrible things that had happened. It really was one of those beaten-by-the-nuns places.

Like, slapping you with rulers?

Never rulers, just open hand.

For the tiniest things?

Very tiny offenses.

Not sitting up straight?

Not that bad, and I had a big mouth so it's not like I didn't do anything. The things I got punished for were ridiculous things, but I did not get punished for things that perhaps deserved more punishment. It was that arbitrary; it was pretty awful, and my brother got it worse because he was a boy. When we told our parents they were like, "What? Why didn't you tell us? We would've yanked you out of there, we would've sued them!" and we were like, "We thought we were going to get in trouble." So anyway, when we got a choice we did not choose to continue in Catholic school.

Right, so you moved to Wisconsin to a lovely suburb. You're no longer in Catholic school but it was obviously hard to move. Tough making friends? Was it an easy adjustment? Did you settle into being a nice Midwestern...

A nice Midwestern rebel. I  literally had a teacher say to me, "I know you came from some Mickey Mouse PS 186..." all these assumptions, you know? The ignorance there about New York— and I talked in a very, very strong Brooklyn accent at the time— I think they just had this idea of me. I also had a terrible education at the Catholic school. I got straight A's and then when I got to Wisconsin and went to public school— the schools were really good there— I was like a C student. I had to struggle to catch up. I didn't really catch up and start getting it until about sophomore year, and that was really shocking. But I enjoyed it and I made friends pretty quickly, a wonderful group of friends I'm still close to.

What were you like in high school? Similar to how you are now? Would we recognize you?

I think you probably would recognize me. I became popular; I started out being shy and then realizing that actually having a New York accent was not a terrible thing because people were interested in me, although sometimes for the wrong reasons. By the time I got to sophomore and junior year I really didn't have it anymore. We were lucky at my high school because we had cliques but people kind of floated a lot. People could be a jock and a stoner and a greaser, and I sort of did all of those things — I was never a jock, let me make that clear, although I liked sports.

Were you interested in politics at that point?

I was interested in politics.

You've always been interested? That's something, even as a kid, you remember watching elections...

My parents were political junkies.


My father was a lifelong very liberal Democrat who only got more liberal as he got older, which, as you know, is pretty weird. My mom went the other way and I write about this in my book a little bit. She really was that person who saw the disorder of the '60s and saw the crime and the violence. Her heart was in the right place on civil rights — that really was the issue that mattered most to them — and it's why I really do believe there was something of the backlash of the '60s and early '70s that was not entirely propelled by race.

A lot of it was, we know that and I write about that all the time, but I do try to say in the book and elsewhere that there were things to be afraid of. There really was a sense that families were falling apart, that society was falling apart, that things were more dangerous. She was a big JFK person but we believe she voted for Nixon the second time. She didn't vote for McGovern.

When you say "we," you mean...?

My dad and I. She wouldn't say, and it was the first time she ever pulled the Alison Lundergan Grimes "we have a secret ballot" thing.

And you were always on the left side of things?


And active, and cared about these things?

How active was I? That's a really good question.

Well, you were following the election results?

I went to high school in the dead zone, looking back. Part of why I love Rick Perlstein's work so much is because I feel like even though he's younger than me he captured a lot about my formative years in "Nixonland," for sure, because my family was split down the middle by Nixon and in "Nixonland." And then in "The Invisible Bridge," just that dead zone -- MIAs and gas lines and not really having an easy left-right way of making sense of things. I worked for my high school paper and was ultimately editor-in-chief, so that's always been my activism, I guess.

So if the high school version, or maybe even the 7-year-old version of Joan, saw what the today version of Joan was doing... Would she be surprised?

She didn't know about the Internet. I think I'd be pretty happy with the way... I don't think I would have envisioned it quite this way, but who would? I knew I wanted to be a writer but I don't think I distinguished between fiction and nonfiction — my critics will say that's still true — so I could see myself writing novels or writing fact and being a journalist. I wasn't really clear on that. I was a real precocious, approval-seeking, smartest kid in my class...

Had your hand raised...

Always. I was frequently told not to raise my hand so much, was taught the word "digression" by Mrs. Barbone in third grade because when I answered questions I frequently digressed and shared more information than...

I'm trying to stop you doing that here!

(laughing) Thanks for the warning.

Why would the 14-year-old Joan be happy about the way things have turned out for you?

I did become a writer, although I don't think I ever envisioned myself doing television because I didn't envision that even 10 years ago. I know I would be happy that I did find a career in writing; I'd be happy that I wrote a book, even if it's the only book I ever write. I'd be very happy with my daughter, and I think I'd think that I've had a really interesting and fun life — which I have.

You mentioned before that you grew up in a relatively religious household. Is religion at all a part of your life now? Are you spiritual?

I believe in God, I definitely believe in God. I always have, I've never had a doubt. That's weird, right? I think it's psychological; that's the way my mind and psyche formed.

Do you have a specific idea in your mind?

No, it's not a guy or a gal or anything like that. I just believe in an animating spiritual force.

Do you pray? 

Yeah, I do!

As you make decisions, do you think about God?

I think as I've gotten older I definitely still pray but I don't think of God as directing me in a particular direction. I don't see it that way. I think prayer is very good for self-calming and as a way of organizing your thinking about what you want. I don't know that I think it actually creates an outcome — not to get too touchy-feely about it — but just in case... I'm a little bit of a just-in-case prayer. This I'll share with you: the night I came to our office [last October] to do our Salon politics event was the same night as game seven of the World Series. I was early; it was raining; I went across the street to Saint Francis and I lit a candle.

For the Giants?

For the Giants, and they won!

God liked the Giants last year...

I lit a candle at Saint Patrick's Cathedral for them in 2004 and they were in last place, so I guess God's not always available. I mean, I don't really think that happens but I do things like that anyway.

Do you believe in the afterlife? Does your spirituality extend to that?

I think it's more I-don't-know. I can't see it all ending completely; I think I am one of those people who believes in Something Else, but I don't know what it is— a kind of Buddhist, we-are-all-united kind of oneness that we will rejoin or become conscious of that we don't have. I sound like a nut! You're making me sound like a nut!

I'll bring it back to me: After we had my first child, I found myself thinking about mortality more. I think that's probably normal. You have a daughter; did that happen to you? Are you thinking about mortality now more than when you were younger or is it not something you think about at all?

I do think about it, although I try not to. My mother did this really crazy thing where she told me that by the time it's time for me to die maybe they would find a cure for death, so maybe I shouldn't worry about it. When I was little I was in church with her one day and I had a panic attack about the issue about eternity. Even if we were spending eternity in heaven that seemed oppressive to me. I didn't want it to go on and on, I found it too big.

I brought these questions to her and she said not to worry about it because by the time I'm old, maybe they'll have found a cure for that too. I'm not sure that was the best answer but it calmed me down in the moment. Every once in a while I find myself thinking about it and I'm just not sure there's any good reason to think about it.

Steve Jobs gave that famous graduation speech where he said something to the effect that death can actually be used in positive ways because it makes you realize you have a limited amount of time and you may as well just go for it. It sounds like you don't really need much help being driven and goal-oriented, though...

I think I've always been driven and goal-oriented. My mother died when she was 45 so I've now outlived her by 11 years.

How old were you when that happened?


Wow, that must have been...

It was pretty bad. I feel like I have a really weird perception of aging, too, because I'm older than my mother ever got to be. Am I really going to look at my wrinkles or feel the twinges of my knee and say I hate aging? I'm very well acquainted with the alternative, so I feel like that gave me a little bit of freedom, paradoxically. On the other hand, watching my aunts and uncles get very old and sick and die, I realize I was kind of shielded from that. I feel like I've had a different relationship with it. Yes, I accepted that death was real, but it also seemed like such a horrible thing. It was a freakish accident that happened to our family.

How did it happen?

It was cancer, so it wasn't sudden. I think I slightly protected myself from it because I am only now becoming acquainted with how common death is. Watching my aunts and uncles, some of whom took really good care of themselves and some of whom didn't... people are just aging in different ways. Some people have lots of quality of life and mobility and some don't. You realize how tough you have to be to get old, and not just somebody who sits around kvetching about it all the time.

Let's talk about something more positive. Did having lost a parent affect the way you are as a parent? Did the way you were raised affect the way you are as a parent?

I won't say I found it easy, because I didn't. I think I would have been very challenged if I had two kids, so I'm lucky I only had one.


I just think having to mete out different ways of relating and different kinds of discipline or encouragement based on having different little human beings would have been really stressful, whereas all I had was my daughter, who sort of taught me and her dad how to parent her. I feel like it was organic — which is not to say it wasn't hard. She was colicky; she didn't do well in school for a while, and so I've had to deal with the limits of all schools in dealing with kids who learn differently.

She doesn't have a learning disability, nothing diagnosable, just a very rambunctious, smart, active kid who didn't learn exactly the same way as other kids. I almost feel like she was a little more like a boy in that way. People say schools are harder on boys or that boy energy isn't fit for sitting at desks in rows and always raising your hands — and some of this is stereotyping that I don't accept — but basically I don't think schools do a good job of dealing with the different ways kids are people. I've really had to struggle with that in order to get her into good situations in the classroom but from high school on she was fine. It was hard sometimes but I'm sure I'm not remembering the really hard things.

What about the work/family balance? Your daughter's in her 20s, right?

She's 24.

A quarter of a century ago it must have been a lot harder than it is now.

You know, it was, but I worked for myself at the time. I was really lucky in a couple of things: I was married, my then-husband really could support us— at least for a while— and then working for myself meant I could take four or five months off and then not really work full-time until I joined Salon when she was 8. Because I was self-employed I travelled, and there were weeks that I worked 80 hours but I didn't work in an office, I worked at home.

I'm sure you get this a lot, but what was the road to how you got to be where you are? Obviously things are different now, but I think the barrier to entry is a little bit lower than it was back in the day. You started out doing some kind of consulting?

I found it really hard to earn a living in journalism and I was really interested in politics, so—

This is right out of college?

No, when I moved to the Bay Area I lived in Oakland first, and I got a job offer. I had been writing about welfare policy...

You went to college where?

Madison, Wisconsin. I'm a Badger.

And you stayed there?

No, I went to Santa Barbara and wrote for the Santa Barbara News Revue because a bunch of my friends from Madison went out there and basically took the paper over and recruited a bunch of us. As long as you were willing to make like $300 a month that was the place for you, and we had so much fun. It's still sort of there in a form, it's the Santa Barbara Independent, and I was a writer and then I was editor-in-chief and then I was a writer again, and it was a great couple of years.

Then I moved to In These Times in Chicago, and they made me their California bureau. Both of these places paid very little, they were classic left-wing journalism. I got a job offer from Tom Bates, who's now the mayor of Berkeley, and I became a consultant to the California State Assembly Human Services Committee, which was overseeing welfare, child care policy. and foster care. It was really fascinating; it was really the equivalent of going to graduate school.

When I got sick of doing that— because I was commuting to Sacramento— I started my own consulting firm. I always did journalism on the side but I opened Foundations and wrote about community development and education and poverty issues for about ten years.

And Salon hired you from there?

Yeah. I was very good friends with David Talbot and I was present at the founding. I didn't want a job. I didn't know what they were doing, I wasn't sure they knew what they were doing, and they didn't know what they were doing.

This is like 1994?

Yeah, '94-95 they launched.

You knew him from being in San Francisco?

From San Francisco politics, from Mother Jones, from the San Francisco Examiner, Image Magazine... I had written some of my best magazine pieces for David. Our kids were exactly the same age and they were in the same class at school. We went and looked at schools together; we were very close.

And he was like, there's this thing called the Internet and we're going to do a magazine?

Scott Rosenberg had to teach me how to set up and use email to send my first story to Salon because I was like, what's your fax number? He was like, no, no, we're never going to do fax. They did do faxes for older, more important people but not for me. I was their first full-time news editor. They created a position and at that point I was ready to do something different and felt incredibly lucky to get to go back into journalism and make a decent living. I thought it might be for a couple of years, but that was 16 years ago.

That was '98 when you started? What were you doing between '94-95 when they started and '98?

I did a little freelancing for them— for us— and a bunch of other places but my primary income was consulting, from Foundations.

What's next for you? Is there something you're hoping to do before it's all said and done? Any unfulfilled ambitions, professionally or otherwise? Sounds like a pretty good life.

It's a pretty good life, yeah. I'd like to write another book but I now know exactly how hard it is so I really know what it takes to sustain yourself and to sustain storytelling, so I haven't jumped into anything. I feel really lucky to continue to have a voice on the issues I care about and have an enormous amount of freedom— thank you very much. I don't want to say there's nothing left for me to do because that makes me superstitious and then bad things happen. I want to be a grandmother but that's a lot of pressure on my daughter.

You have an enormous following on Twitter and there are people who watch you on TV and email you who are big fans. You also, because we have this thing called the Internet, are able to be contacted by detractors or critics or people on the right—

— and left!

Right, and the left. What's that like? How have you weathered it?

I really do know that it's been a net positive for me, in the sense that I've made real-life friends from Twitter and Facebook, people I'm really close to. I think the positive feedback I get outweighs the negative, but having said that, the negative stuff can be very hard to take.

It does bother you even though you've been doing it for a long time now?

It can still bother me. I don't know if it should bother me more but it does bother me more when it feels really gendered. You and I have talked about this and my male co-workers have actually been helpful to me in gauging how bad it is. I can write virtually the same piece as Elias or you but the vitriol that I get personally is just so personal. It's not just that I have more followers than other people, because even if you compare me to a man with the same number of followers...

I write this short thing last week for the Nation about Hillary Clinton and my reluctant eight-years-later defense of her. I don't know who I'm going to vote for in the Democratic primary if she runs; if she gets a solid challenger I might vote for that person. But I know I'm going to be consistently defending her because Hillary hate reminds me of my experience. It's not enough that people criticize you, "you're wrong, you wrote a bad story, you made a bad decision." It's that you're awful, you're the worst, you have to be destroyed, you're just unbearably stupid, you don't deserve to have the job you have.

I'm not even talking about the sexual stuff or the looks stuff, bad or good, just the constant idea that you really aren't fit to be at this table. That's really jarring. I retweet my haters and it bothers some people but I don't really care if it bothers people. It's my escape valve and sometimes I really want people to know what I'm seeing because maybe it'll wake people up. If you don't like it, don't follow me!

By Blake Zeff

Blake Zeff is the former politics editor of Salon. Follow him on Twitter at @blakezeff.

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