Elizabeth Lesser, CASSANDRA SPEAKS

Elizabeth Lesser, CASSANDRA SPEAKS

Zibby Owens: Elizabeth Lesser is the cofounder of Omega Institute and the author of Marrow, The Seeker’s Guide, and the New York Times best seller, Broken Open. She has given two popular TED talks and is a member of Oprah Winfrey’s SuperSoul100, a collection of one hundred leaders who are using their voices and talents to elevate humanity. She lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her family. This is her book, Cassandra Speaks. Basically, she talks in this book — I’ll let her explain it more. It’s a collection of her own thoughts and feelings and responses to how history has shown women to not have the most advantageous position in the narrative, but it’s not an angry book at all. It’s thoughtful and considered. Cassandra, the myth that she’s referencing in the title of the book, is because — I can’t remember all the details, but something like Zeus gave Cassandra the power to see the future but not be able to enact any change or really have anyone believe her. In a way, that’s similar to how some women feel that they know everything, and they say it and people don’t listen. Here we go.

I’m live with Elizabeth now. Hi, Sam. Thank you guys for watching ahead of time. Hopefully, this will work. There are so many quotes and so many sections that I wanted to talk to Elizabeth about today, and the fact that at the beginning of most chapters she has these little quotes, which I always love.


Elizabeth Lesser: Hi. Oh, boy, here I am.

Zibby: The problem with Instagram Live is that everybody who eventually gets on is completely flummoxed and frazzled because it never works right at first. I’m sorry.

Elizabeth: I’m on my iPad sitting in my living room. Thank you for having me on.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for coming on. Your book was so good. I was showing the people here, I dogeared like every other page. Usually if I find something interesting, I just turn it. Maybe there’ll be two or three things where I’m like, I have to talk to this author about this. In this book, this page and that page. Now of course, you’re here, I’m not going to be able to remember what I wanted to ask. Anyway, thrilled to talk to you about it. If you wouldn’t mind, for everybody watching, I read your bio already, but if you could explain better than I did what Cassandra Speaks is about and what inspired you to write this book, that would be great. You can bring in any family members, anyone in the background. Totally fine.

Elizabeth: My husband just walked through the room. Ask me the question again.

Zibby: Here, we’ll start again. I’ll pretend that this is a podcast only. There’s a dog barking in my house too. My sister-in-law is here with my mother-in-law’s dog. Welcome, Elizabeth. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Elizabeth: Thank you.

Zibby: You’re welcome. You’re the author of Cassandra Speaks, which I told you is amazing. Subtitle, When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes. Could you please tell listeners what your book is about and what inspired you to write it?

Elizabeth: In a way, I’ve been preparing to write the book my whole life. It’s my fourth book. People often say, how long did a book take you to write? I’d say my whole life. This one, not the other ones. I’m the daughter of a feminist mother and a domineering father. I have three sisters, so four girls. From my earliest age, I was like, what’s going on here? How come men told the story and women’s values and who we are don’t also get expressed in our myths, in our movies, in our literature? I studied literature in college. I love books like you do. It’s not just that so many books that we consider the canon of Western literature are written by men. So many of them are about what men care about. It’s not that women also don’t care about the hero’s journey and adventure and war and sports and things like that, but we also care about things like family and relationships and talking. These get put into women’s literature as if that’s a genre, as if women are a genre of writing. I always wanted to explore, what would’ve happened if women’s storytelling had also been valued as much as men’s? How would history have changed? How would culture have changed? I go back into the old stories of Eve, Cassandra, Pandora, Hester Prynne, a lot of the old literature, and newer movies. I also explore the canon of power, books about, what is power? like Machiavelli, The Prince, and Sun Tzu. How did we come to define power as what we do? I also tell a lot of stories about my own life as a mother and a wife and a daughter because I’m primarily a memoirist, so I can’t help but do that too.

Zibby: I loved those parts. All of it was super interesting, but I found myself wanting to fast-forward to, when’s the next little snippet she’s going to share about herself?

Elizabeth: I know. Isn’t that so? My first book many years ago was about how America was changing the way people did their spiritual searches, the democratization and diversifying of spirituality. It was primarily research, but I told a few of my own stories. People would always say, that was interesting, but I really liked your stories. My next book was almost completely memoir because I think people — see, that’s the point. People learn through stories. We’ve learned everything about humankind through stories written primarily by men. Not that there’s anything wrong with male stories at all, but we’d left a huge part about what it means to be human out of the human story.

Zibby: You show how all the statues are of men, how everything is about war, how even our vocabulary, the way that we talk, like no-holds-barred, and all these things refer to things that have the meaning of power that isn’t necessarily the best meaning of power.

Elizabeth: An imbalanced meaning of power.

Zibby: And how we can change it even with little things like the way we use our vocabulary. I love how you started it off tiptoeing down to procrastinate and you’re going through your son’s boxes and finding his whole canon of literature downstairs where you start going through some of these books. It was so clear in the book, but just tell people watching how when you were down there and going through the books, you were like, can you even believe that it says this in The Prince, or all these other books that you had been opening? Tell me about that moment a little more.

Elizabeth: My youngest son went to a college called St. John’s College. It’s the Great Books school. It’s an amazing school where every student reads the same one hundred books over four years. That’s all they do. They read the Greeks in ancient Greek. They study math through reading Pythagoras, no interpretation. They just read the original texts. The students lovingly call it the dead white man’s curriculum. Whenever I’m trying to do something, especially writing — maybe you can relate to this. All you writers out there can. The way I procrastinate — because writing is hard. Even if you’ve written a lot, writing is hard. I procrastinate best by cleaning. I love to clean things, closets, my car. The basement is particularly, according to me, not my husband, disgusting in our house, just tons of old boxes and everything. I was about to start this new book. I thought, oh, my god, I got to clean something big. I went into the basement and I started going through boxes. One was a box of my younger son’s college books. That was the first box I opened and, PS, the last box. I just got completely caught up in the books.

Here I was about to start writing a book about women and power and stories, and I start reading through these hundred books. I felt so naïve. I opened the first book. It was The Prince by Machiavelli. Now, I doubt any of you have read The Prince. Maybe you have. I never had. I knew his name. I knew he said something like the ends justify the means, but that’s about all I knew. I start reading this book. It was shocking, some of these quotes about how you do power by making sure people are either enemies or followers. He said something like a leader should be feared more than loved. I was just like, really? Why wasn’t I informed of this? Then I opened Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, same stuff about fear and love being for wimps. There I am in the basement. I’m actually sitting in an old rocking chair that I nursed my kids in in a dark basement reading these books about men and power thinking, wow, there actually is a primer for the abuse of power. Why wasn’t I informed of this? I took all those books upstairs. I made a deep study of the history and the pathetic way that we’ve reduced power down to either dominating or aggressing. All the newer forms were women come into more power of vulnerability and inclusion. None of that’s in the old doctrines of power.

Zibby: It’s so true. Then of course, you led a big retreat, which started off small and, as you say in the book, grew and grew and grew, called Women in Power. You have all these high-powered women come in and strut their stuff and do everything from getting people away from their phones to regroup to having great speakers. Tell us a little more about your Women in Power conference and how that came to be and what the goal of it is, especially vis-à-vis men in power and the imbalance that exists today.

Elizabeth: I’m the cofounder of an organization called Omega Institute which is a conference and retreat center in Rhinebeck, New York. I helped start it in my early twenties. I’ve been at the same place for forty years running this conference center. Even as I say it, I can’t believe it. What? I’m not telling the truth. Forty years? Actually, it is. As such, I have organized hundreds of conferences over the years in everything from holistic health to poetry and sports, because it’s a holistic learning center, all sorts of ways that humans can learn and grow. As a woman in power, I had been aware yet confused and scared about how I was learning the language of how to be a leader with all these men. I was grateful for what I was learning, strategy and some form of holding my own and ways of being powerful that I was eager to learn. My way of expressing — let’s say I was a leader in a meeting and I was emotional and it was making me want to cry, I would stuff that and try to be a guy among the guys, like locker room putdown or stoicism or whatever. I felt, I am losing a whole part of myself to be powerful. In many ways, I’m losing the best parts of myself: my empathy, my ability to listen and include, my desire to empower people as opposed to dominate people. I’m losing that part of myself. I don’t want to lose that part of myself. What do I do? Help.

I looked around. There was no one to help me. I thought, I’m going to start one conference. The first conference I organized, I had Anita Hill and Eve Ensler who wrote The Vagina Monologues. I just picked anybody I could who would be like, who are women doing power differently? I don’t want just women who are out manning the men. I want women who are actually trying to bring some of their best qualities into leadership, changing leadership from the inside out. Not that men, bad; women, good. Look, the world’s a mess. We need something new. Could women do it differently? I brought this first conference in. Usually, I do one conference on a subject, and that’s it, but people were starving for it. Women were so hungry just to be a room and to say things that we can’t usually say. One thing we can’t usually say is, I want power. We’re not supposed to want power, but I don’t want that kind of power. I want a different kind. Twenty years later, the conference is still a vital, amazing gathering where we’ve brought women leaders from all over the world and every discipline, an astronaut and artists and actors. Also, the women in the audience are so fantastic. A lot of that informed the book. A lot of the keynotes addresses I’ve given informed my Cassandra book.

Zibby: I love when you were backstage at the TED talk. Who were with? Madeleine Albright or something. You were all nervous about going out and giving your big talk. Tell me more about that experience and how you’ve found your way to lead in the way that you wish other people could lead.

Elizabeth: That was funny. I was giving a TED talk. If you’d ever like to actually almost have a heart attack, you should give a TED talk. They figured out a way to make every speaker incredibly nervous. The person who’s about to go on and the next person and the next person all go in the greenroom at the same time. The person before me was this amazing speaker who actually founded an amazing organization called A Call to Men which is helping men actually become more vulnerable; and then me, I was going to give my talk; and Madeleine Albright who, of course, had been the secretary of state and brokered peace in Serbia. She was so nervous. The reason I told that story is because as the founder of Omega, I’ve had a chance to meet so many powerful people, men and women. People often ask me, what’s the best thing you’ve learned from being around all these people? I would say that they’re all scared children inside just like you and me. It doesn’t matter what’s on your resume. It’s doesn’t matter. Everyone has that core, super strong dudes, women athletes. It doesn’t matter. We all have that part. We just all hide it from each other in different degrees of success. That is a very helpful thing to remember as anyone wanting to do power differently. Part of the skill, to me, of being a new kind of leader is finding that place in another person. The best way to find it is to admit our own, to be our vulnerable selves with each other. I do believe that is something women have a little more skill at than men do. It’s what the world needs now.

Zibby: This is validating my personal confessions on Instagram all the time. You’re making me feel better about that. Another part of why I think you told the story from the TED talk was that the man who had gone before you talked about how one of the young people he had coached or mentored had said that should somebody tell him he threw like a girl, he would have been more than upset. He would have been destroyed by that comment. You were saying, what kind of gender roles do we have if being compared to a girl would make a boy feel destroyed inside when girls want to, perhaps, throw like boys or whatever else? What does that say about what our genders are defined as these days?

Elizabeth: It’s very interesting. I’m a grandmother now. Right before I signed on here to Instagram with you, I had picked up my eight-year-old grandson at school. With COVID now, he goes to school just two hours every morning. It’s crazy hard for parents. You just start working, and suddenly you have to go pick up your kid again, so I’ve been helping them. I picked him up. He’s eight. He likes every now and then to wear dresses to school. I’m thinking, this is so cool. This is so amazing. Often, it’s just like, is this okay? Is this okay that my little grandson wants to wear a dress? It’s so amazing what’s going on now. I’m not saying it’s easy for any of us as all of this merges and melds and changes. The fact that if a girl is called a tomboy and she feels good, it’s kind of cool to be called a tomboy, but a boy is called a sissy or a mama’s boy, and that’s an insult. What does that say about what men think about girls and women? I’m insulted if you compare me to a girl, but if a woman is compared to a dude, we feel cool. Unpack that. Just think about it. It goes all the way back to the ancient stories. The fact that there’s some fluidity now strong kid boy and still like beautiful things, I’m so fascinated with this.

Zibby: My son likes to wear all my daughter’s stuff a lot of the time, all her nightgowns and whatever. He wants to be her. She’s so cool. He doesn’t have the type of school that would allow anything but uniform, but whatever. Just the fact that he can paint his nails and we can have the greatest time and that’s just the way it is, it’s fantastic. I love it.

Elizabeth: That’s new. That’s also not universal. In other cultures and in houses down the street, we are still under the influence of a double standard of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman and what kind of values are seen as primary.

Zibby: You illustrated that so well with your support group of the 9/11 survivors and how even though you were like, it’s okay, you can all share, I’m here, everyone’s like, we’re not doing that. No matter what you did, no matter how skilled you were at eliciting feelings and confessions and all the rest, the men were too set in their trained ways to break through all that to be able to share the trauma that they had been through. Tell me a little more about that.

Elizabeth: I’ve been a teacher of mindfulness meditation for many years. After 9/11, people who had that skill, many were asked to come and help first responders who were having trouble integrating what they had seen and experienced. They were forced, if you can enforce mindfulness on someone, it’s doesn’t really work, but they had to take these courses so they could learn better how to deal with their reactivity. When you’re traumatized, your reactivity, you can get triggered very quickly. Somebody gave money for first responders in New York City to take mindfulness classes to learn how to take that pause before you react, which is what meditation is so good at teaching. I was trying to teach mindfulness to wounded warriors, all guys, who were firemen who had rushed into the buildings on 9/11. I loved these guys. We had a wonderful, fun repertoire. As you say, every time I would have them — often when I teach meditation, I have people start just by, put your hand here right now on your heart. There’s something very powerful just about that. Just stop, pause, and breathe. What’s in there? There’s varying degrees of — some people put their hand on their heart. I ask, what’s in there? They just start to weep because there’s grief in there.

We’re not trained in grief. We’ve got this bizarre idea that you get one day off when your mother dies, from work. Whereas in the old cultures, the women wore black for a year. They’d walk through town and they’d get great respect. Oh, she lost someone. Now you get over it, closure, my least favorite word. Some people are afraid to go in because if you go in there, uh, oh, what else is in there? I maybe would cry for a year and never stop. Some people are like, feelings? Wimp. Get over it. They’re just going to slow you down and confuse the matter. That’s for the girls. Those guys were like that. I’m not going in there. I’m not talking about it. I’m supposed to get over it. That’s what Tony Porter, the guy who gave the TED talk before me, he calls that the man box. Not only men are in the man box. To some extent, we all suffer from patriarchy, for lack of a better word. We’ve all been trained. That’s Cassandra’s story. Cassandra tried to tell the truth of what was going on, but no one believed her because she was a hysteric. We have this mixed up idea that if you feel deeply, you’re a hysteric. Men don’t want to be hysterics, so they lose out on so much, such depth of feeling and intimacy and all the juicy, good things that are in here. They’re the strong and silent types. I tried to help them feel that you could be soft and communicative, and that is also powerful and good and helpful. It’ll heal you. You’ll actually get over what’s bothering you quicker. We made some progress. We made a little progress, but it’s deep. It’s deep inside of men and many women.

Zibby: Do you think it’s too late? What about this new breed of female empathetic world-changing leaders that nobody might be ready for? In your Omega Institute, how do you walk into a room full of men who aren’t of the new mindset? How do you affect change when you’re still a minority in that sense?

Elizabeth: Hard, but it’s being done. I’m super hopeful even though it looks alarming at the top right now. It looks like we have backslid back into the neanderthal caves, without naming names. Look at the leaders who have handled COVID best in the world. They’re women. They’re Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand. They’re Angela Merkel in Germany. They’re in Taiwan and Finland. I think the top seven countries who’ve dealt the best, the least deaths, the least new infections, are women. They’re in power. They’re obviously doing something different because their countries are handling it different. In neuroscience, they talk about, for years, you’ve heard the way humans deal with trauma and stress is flight or fight. Those are the only two ways. There’s been a lot of new studies done on women. Now they’re calling it tend and befriend. There’s fight and flight, but there’s other ways to deal with stress too. Women have millennia of dealing with it through tending. There’s a trauma. You tend to the old. You tend to the children and befriend. Instead of making someone an enemy, hey, can we do this together? Can we all create a goal we want to solve? We may have different opinions, but can we move together toward something? This is how the COVID women leaders have been dealing with it, by tending to the most vulnerable and befriending the different ideas of how you deal with it and trying to create a community as opposed to dividing people. Those studies, both the medical studies and the studies done sociologically in organizations about tend and befriend versus fight and flight, are so fascinating. I really recommend people reading them.

Zibby: Interesting. I love that, tend and befriend. That, I can do. Those come easy. On the writing side, can you tell me a little more about your process of writing the book and then also if you have advice for aspiring authors?

Elizabeth: I’m the kind of writer — when I wrote my first book, I kept trying to be a different kind of writer. I kept trying to write what, I think it was Anne Lamott calls shitty first drafts. I write sentence by sentence, word by word. I can’t leave a sentence until I love it. I can’t write big, huge things and then go back. It makes for an extremely slow and tedious writing process. I’m not a very fast writer. I just work those sentences. I love words. I love language. The construction of a sentence tells me a lot of what the next sentence needs to be. There’s a poetic sense to my nonfiction. It’s the way I do it. I’ve tried not to do it that way because it’s slow and torturous, but that’s just the way I do it. I keep telling myself, well, you wrote a book, so I guess you can do it this way. When I’m writing a book, I’m very, very disciplined. Other parts of my life really suffer. My friends don’t understand me. I disappear. At the end of every book, I’m like, I am never doing that again. Why would I do that again? Just last night, I’m laying in bed thinking, when this virtual book tour is over, what will I do? I have a book in my mind. I’m like, no, don’t do it.

Zibby: You clearly know what you’re doing. Now I can’t wait to go back and read your memoir now that I was just trying to pull out all the bits of you from this. You really are a beautiful writer. I underlined so many things. I don’t, for sure, always say that, so I mean it.

Elizabeth: Thank you. Thanks so much.

Zibby: Any parting advice for aspiring authors?

Elizabeth: I’m a nonfiction writer. I did try to write a novel once. I think probably all nonfiction writers try to write a novel. My agent, when I showed him the first couple hundred pages, he said to me, “Well, your dialogue kind of sounds like a stilted civics lesson.” I was like, ouch, run away. I put it in a drawer. I’ve never looked at it again. This is advice for nonfiction writers because I’m not a fiction writer. I just think people learn through stories. The stories people mostly learn from are not the sweet and happy and “isn’t my life so perfect” stories. They’re the stories of mistakes and really poor behavior and learning through just everyday crap. I end up telling those stories. I always say the book made me do it. People are like, you’re so brave. I’m like, no, the book made me do it. I would just say be brave about telling your own story because that’s what we want. We want you.

Zibby: I love that. That’s great advice. Thank you so much. Thanks for having me a part of your publication journey. I know you have so many notables interviewing you. You had Dani Shapiro and Maria Shriver and all these great people on your tour.

Elizabeth: You’re a great people. Thank you for teaching me how to do Instagram Live. I learned I can’t do it on my computer.

Zibby: I should’ve put that in the email. It’s my fault.

Elizabeth: No, no, no.

Zibby: Now you’ve got the hang of it. You’ll know how to do it from now on.

Elizabeth: I do. I know now. Thank you.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Take care.

Elizabeth: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Elizabeth Lesser, CASSANDRA SPEAKS