article

01.20.11

How Tiger Dad is Handling Parental Infamy

What was Jed Rubenfeld doing while wife Amy Chua was calling their children garbage and threatening to burn their stuffed animals? Colleagues speculate the brilliant Yale law professor may have tacitly signed on to those techniques, reports Newsweek's Lisa Miller.

One has to wonder. While the Tiger Mother was screaming at her two children to practice their instruments for hours upon hours; while she was calling them “garbage” and threatening to burn their stuffed animals; while she was berating them for insufficient parental respect, where was the Tiger Dad, and what was he doing?

“There’s surprisingly little of Jed in the book,” says Robert Gordon, a Yale Law School colleague of Amy Chua and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld. “Are we to infer from that that he mostly stays out of it? I’m not sure.”

Rubenfeld, known this week as Mr. Amy Chua, is keeping a low profile. (He declined to be interviewed for this story.) Next week, when his own new book, The Death Instinct, comes out, he may find that it serves him to speak. Some friends and colleagues speculate that Rubenfeld must have tacitly signed on to his wife’s child-rearing techniques, revealed in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, or he would have played a bigger role in her story. In any case, it’s clear that Rubenfeld and Chua have a partnership based at least in part on mutual competitiveness and a shared obsession with success. They live with their daughters in an enormous brick manse bordered by tall hedges in New Haven, Conn., about a mile from Yale’s famous football stadium (the neighborhood where, full disclosure, I grew up).

Like Chua, Rubenfeld is a professor at Yale Law School. Like his wife, he is a successful, popular author. He reportedly received an advance of $800,000 for his 2006 book, The Interpretation of Murder, a thriller about Sigmund Freud. (It was a massive bestseller in England, though it fared poorly in the States. Filled with kinky sex—“her entire body glistened in the unbearable August heat”—the book was described by a reviewer for The New York Times as “both smutty and pretentious.”) At least on occasion, Chua has used her Tiger Mother methods to push her already accomplished husband to make more of himself. The Interpretation of Murder “was all my wife’s idea,” he told bookreporter.com in 2006. “She was the one who said I should write a novel, and she was even the one who suggested using what I knew about Freud in it.”

Other friends suggest that Rubenfeld is the good cop to Chua’s drill-sergeant approach. “Maybe he’s the warm counterpart to her tough love,” says Gordon. Chua implies as much in her book. The few times that her husband does make an appearance in its pages, he does so as the straight man and the voice of reason, showing her that her ambitions for her dog, for example, are completely insane. “Amy,” he says near the end of the book, as he attempts to break up another fight between Lulu and her mother, “everyone’s tired.” In interviews, Rubenfeld has said that he read in the evenings to his girls—J.R.R. Tolkein and Philip Pullman—a normal-seeming pastime by a normal-seeming dad.

At 50-ish, Rubenfeld is impossibly handsome in a tall, slim, square-jawed, Atticus Finch kind of way—though based on available Web videos, he wears his leading-man looks earnestly, like armor.

Here is what we do know. At 50-ish, Rubenfeld is impossibly handsome in a tall, slim, square-jawed, Atticus Finch kind of way—though based on available Web videos, he wears his leading-man looks earnestly, like armor. He was raised in a conventionally success-oriented New York Jewish family. His father was a shrink. His mother was an art critic who, writes Chua dismissively, “believed that childhood should be full of spontaneity, freedom, discovery and experience.” (Chua devotes a fair amount of room to her ideological conflicts over child-rearing with her mother-in-law.) Rubenfeld’s detractors say he is always in control, always on stage, a posture that keeps him from connecting personally with others, but which his students love. “[Rubenfeld’s] class is literally like going to the theater,” a law student named Chris Sherman told the Yale Daily News in 2006. “He knows how to weave a great story.”

Obviously, Rubenfeld’s non-Tiger Mother upbringing served him well. He did his undergraduate work at Princeton and afterward was accepted in the drama department at the Juilliard School. (He was kicked out, according to Chua’s book, for insubordination: Apparently Rubenfeld has issues with authority.) After a brief stint waiting tables, Rubenfeld decided on Harvard Law School. He worked at Wachtell Lipton, one of New York’s most prestigious law firms, before taking a job in the United States Attorney’s office. In 1990, he was recruited to Yale, where he became a full professor in 1994. Colleagues and former colleagues are, to put it bluntly, in awe of his accomplishments. “He is in fact a very brilliant, charming man, an adventurous and unorthodox scholar, a dashing and debonair presence; even more appealing because this bravura style comes also with a lot of self-doubt,” says Gordon in an email.

Rubenfeld made his mark early. In 1989, while at Wachtell Lipton, he wrote an article for the Harvard Law Review, which is still talked about in legal circles. It was what legal scholars call a brilliant argument about—ironically, given the events of the past week—the right to privacy.

In his article, Rubenfeld used the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade to argue that privacy is inextricable from personhood, and that the Constitution should guard a woman’s right to choose an abortion because not allowing her to do so amounts to a kind of governmental control over a woman’s identity. “Women should be allowed to abort their pregnancies so that they may avoid being forced into an identity,” he writes. How interesting that the argument his wife makes in Tiger Mother is, essentially, the opposite: that through persistent repetition on the part of parents, children can be molded into obedient creatures who always get As. How doubly interesting that Rubenfeld, who was raised by a mother who believed that children should express themselves creatively, must in some way have supported this.

Rubenfeld gave a video interview to a French journalist sometime after the publication of The Interpretation of Murder, and here he expounds, somewhat, on his personal views of America’s confessional culture, a web in which he finds himself caught today.

“People are often asking me about my life,” he says, after a brief introduction in which he speaks beautiful French. “Well, I just don’t think people should be talking about this stuff as much as they do now. You have these talk shows, and Oprah Winfrey, and everyone comes on and confesses their secret.” Rubenfeld goes on to trace Americans’ urge to overshare back to Freud. “He thought that if you express these things it will make you better. And healthier...That one I don’t agree with. Well, it may make us feel better, but I don’t think it changes much.” Rubenfeld got that part wrong. His wife’s expression of feeling has irrevocably changed their lives—and, as for oversharing, well, the Tiger Mother is out of the bag.

Lisa Miller is a writer at Newsweek and winner of many journalism prizes including the 2010 Wilbur Award for Outstanding Magazine Column. She is the author of "Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination of the Afterlife," to be published in paperback this spring. Find Lisa Miller on Facebook.