It’s hard to picture anything more humiliating than working on a project for nearly a decade only to learn, during a live radio interview, that you’ve messed up key details, thus rendering the entire work—and your reputation—suspect.
On May 21, 2019, Naomi Wolf—a feminist author best
–known for her 1990 opus The Beauty Myth—went on BBC radio to promote her latest book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love. The host, Matthew Sweet, pointed out that Wolf had misinterpreted Victorian archival information. Men she’d claimed had been executed in Britain for homosexuality — rather crucial data for a history of homophobia — had in fact not been executed. Thanks to this and other similarly consequential errors, the U.S. publication of Outrages was cancelled.
If you’re reading this, wondering how the establishment-challenging activist, long known for her public commentary and analysis, an inspiration to college students for generations, and acclaimed author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, could produce such shoddy work, the time has come to spell out that there are actually two different high-profile author-activists named Naomi: Naomi Wolf and Naomi Klein.
, does require spelling out that Naomi Klein and Naomi Wolf are two separate individuals: enough people have confused them that Klein wrote a book, Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World, riffing on her experiences having this double of sorts.
In Doppelganger, Klein writes that the two Naomis had been confused for a while, but that things only got interesting on that front when, shortly after the Outrages episode, Wolf went all-in as a COVID conspiracy theorist. Wolf’s shift in focus from liberal feminism to aimless crackpottery and then to unhinged social critique had the unfortunate effect of putting her work in the same thematic wheelhouse as Klein’s: both Naomis were now on what seemed, from the outside, like the same major-world-events, secret-corruption-exposed beat. This left Klein forced to defend her own reputation—all the while being a leftist critical of the very notion of a personal brand.
Over the phone, in an interview on Oct. 2, Klein insists upon the book’s wider scope. “It’s important to just say off the top that the book is not just about the confusion between me and her. It is really about doubles and different kinds of doublings and doppelgangers that exist in the culture.”
Klein is right that someone picking up the book in the hopes of a shallow account of people thinking this one lady is this other lady will be disappointed. The doppelganger theme is rich, potent, and leads Klein in many innovative directions. She covers sweeping territory that includes AI and deepfakes, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Jordan Peele’s Us, and the general sorry state of the world. Writes Michelle Goldberg, in the New York Times, “Only in a superficial sense is Doppelganger really about Wolf… Instead, it’s about the instability of identity in the virtual world and the forces pulling people away from constructive politics into a shadow realm where clout chasing and conspiracy theorizing intertwine.”
Doppelganger is also, incidentally, an important Canadian-Jewish book—worth noting, as these do not appear every day—with passages about everything from Montreal Hebrew day school to Canada’s response to the Holocaust. Some of the best parts are when Klein examines the Jewish angle of the Naomi-Naomi confusion. Do the people mistaking one Naomi for another think all Jews look alike? (Klein’s mother considers this a possibility, and she herself doesn’t rule it out.)
It’s impossible, though, to write about Doppelganger without returning, as Klein herself does, to Naomi Wolf. It is a book that mentions Trotsky, Sartre, and Freud, but the figure who looms largest by far is Wolf.
Wolf, Klein says, “is a kind of a throughline… She’s both an entry point, like the white rabbit, but she’s also a case study of a particular type of person who changed quite dramatically during the pandemic years.” Klein recounts to me, as she does in the book, how Wolf joined forces with the political right, and in doing so, rather publicly abandoned principles in areas like reproductive rights and gun control. “I followed her because she just kept giving me new material.”
And the material does keep coming. Klein reminds me of Wolf’s then-latest viral (as it were) pronouncement, a truly out-there conspiracy theory about vaccine shedding. “If you’re going to say that people are getting menstrual cramps for sleeping in the same hotel room with people who are vaccinated,” says Klein, “you’re going to get a pile-on on Twitter.”
Klein is right about this, and that the widespread mockery Wolf received for this theorizing was “not [Klein’s] fault.” Indeed, Wolf’s self-inflicted humiliations predate Doppelganger
, and continue apace. But with this book, Klein unquestionably draws further attention to Wolf. This is ostensibly about holding Wolf accountable, but does it risk backfiring?
Doppelganger is well-executed and at times quite engaging, with a focus on the urgent rather than the symbolic and superficial. It shows that the author is deeply learned, plugged into high culture and low, and grounded in reality. As a non-fiction book using doppelgangers as a lens for examining our times, the book succeeds.
Where I’m less persuaded—if more entertained—is the Naomi Wolf bit.
The focus on another writer named Naomi doesn’t quite land. The idea that Wolf is Klein’s doppelganger is clever at first
, but starts to seem forced as the book goes on. It’s not that I don’t believe people misspeak and name one in lieu of the other. (Reader, I have thus misspoken.) But this is something readily corrected, and it does not appear to have impeded either one’s ability to go about her life, each being extremely her own Naomi. They get confused all the time, it gets rectified, and life moves on. These things happen.
I’m not sure exactly where in Doppelganger it hit me that I was too sympathetic to the wrong Naomi. Maybe it was where Klein eyerolls at Wolf for referring to herself as a “tech CEO” when Wolf had, at the time, merely a “low-traffic website.” Klein had just gotten through reminding readers that her 1999 book, No Logo, sold over a million copies.”
Or maybe it’s not even about sympathizing with Wolf, but about finding the conceit itself questionable. Yes, both Naomis are public figures, and I’m sure gatekeepers aplenty OK’d this on legal grounds, but the use of this other person, an actual person, to make a book-length point about the shakiness of identity, seems a bit much.
From a storytelling perspective, Klein doubtless made the right call. But I wonder if a version of the book that was less person-specific would have made the points more effectively. I should be thinking about how terrifying it is—and it is!—that propagandists made the pandemic worse than it had to be, and what this implies for future crises. Instead, I’m wasting time wondering, But how does Naomi Wolf feel about there being this smash hit new book about how ridiculous she’s become?
My reaction to Doppelganger took me by surprise. My politics are closer to Klein’s than Wolf’s. I’d like to believe I’m on the side of reason and data and whatnot, regarding COVID and in general, and have the vaccine confirmation emails to prove it. I think the Nazi imagery Wolf and others embrace, presenting anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers as akin to Holocaust victims, is abhorrent. If I were granted the ability to remove the social media presence of one of these women, Wolf’s would be the obvious choice.
Yet Wolf, in Doppelganger, represents human foibles. She’s the George Costanza, the Hannah Horvath, the figure in whom the reader—a reader probably less accomplished than Klein, because who isn’t?—sees herself at her lowest points.
The central tension in Doppelganger is whether Naomi Wolf is a danger or a dingbat. If it’s the latter, then the book is a punch down, a public intellectual coming down rather hard on someone whose intellectual capacities are not what they once were. Klein insists that it’s the former, citing Wolf’s current status as a member of Steve Bannon and therefore Donald Trump’s inner orbit. She warns against those who’d “underestimate” Wolf, whose anti-vaccine conspiracy theorizing gave her a new, substantial platform on the right.
The sophisticated reader is meant to look past the Wolf thing, to understand that Wolf is but a lens into big ideas: misinformation, totalitarianism, literature, history, psychoanalysis, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The problem is the book itself, which returns again and again to Wolf. Doppelganger would not be getting the level of coverage it is, I suspect, if it were merely Naomi Klein, major thinker, sharing her interpretation of world events. The book needs the Wolf angle, and boy does the Wolf angle provide. The low-hanging dingbat-flavoured fruit on offer was just too tempting to omit.
Klein opens a chapter with a discussion of Wolf using, in her newsletter, the expression, “‘What did you do in the war?’—referring not to any actual war, but to the ultimately unfounded concern that she’d be denied a bowl of $6 overnight oats at an upscale Manhattan hotel, on account of her unvaccinated status.
The gist of the anecdote is that Wolf has no sense of perspective. Klein spells out that, through her language choices (“lunch counter”), Wolf is comparing her oatmeal woes to Black Americans’ Civil Rights-era protests. But the oatmeal tale also conveys that Klein—unlike Wolf—knows to triage the most important issues of the day. Klein does not merely name-check Ukraine and climate change as topics “the war” might instead have referred to, had Wolf been more plugged in, but goes into specifics about where both were in the news at the time.
This is a pattern throughout the book, this swinging back and forth between calm analysis and reminders that Naomi Wolf is a fool. In trying to make sense of what draws otherwise sensible people to conspiracy theorizing, Klein writes that she understands why “white suburban moms” would feel “done with being dismissed and mocked as ‘Karens.’” Later on the same page, she refers to Wolf as “a onetime-famous feminist who now wants to speak to the manager”—a reference to the meme about “Karens” being past-it, entitled white ladies who request to speak to higher-ups in customer-service situations, and who call the cops if they see a Black person.
Does it help matters to call Naomi Wolf a “Karen,” or does that just rev up Wolf’s admirers?
Occasionally, the book’s humour (and it’s not, on the whole, a funny book, nor need it be) is self-deprecatory, as when Klein recalls having been confused (by name, not in person) with the supermodel Naomi Campbell. But more often, it’s at the expense of Wolf, who is, you see, not a very serious person. Not now, in her conspiratorial period, but also not ever.
When Outrages went bust back in 2019, it was chic to write about how, actually, Naomi Wolf had never been any good. In particular, the work she’s known for, The Beauty Myth, can’t have been any good
, even though many did remember it as powerful) , given that Wolf was the one who wrote it. Slate, The New Republic, and the New York Times all ran essays about how Wolf was always a lightweight or worse.
Klein stands with the revisionist historians. She recounts a conversation with her mother-in-law, a former newspaper columnist: “‘Well, I didn’t think much of that Beauty Myth book; there wasn’t much new there. But we were all glad that this pretty young woman was choosing to identify as a feminist.’” Klein simply adds, “That made a lot of sense.”
It lines up with what Klein remembers of her own first encounter with the book: “There was nothing in my quick read of The Beauty Myth that was new or revelatory to someone raised by a second-wave feminist who had made a documentary film about pornography eleven years before.”
Not everyone had this response—but then again, not everyone’s mother makes feminist documentaries. Maris Kreizman, writing in The New Republic, explains that she knows better now, but that her initial response to the book was to feel, well, seen: “If Wolf’s debut felt trite and inadequately argued to anyone paying attention, then I decidedly hadn’t been. The Beauty Myth made me question my surroundings in a way that no other book had at the time… I had never taken a women’s studies class; I tended to get most of my information from women’s magazines, from broadcast TV, from the canon of literature we read in my English classes, from late-night drunken conversations.”
My own reaction was far closer to Kreizman’s. When I first read The Beauty Myth, back in 2013, it seemed plenty novel, but growing up, we had fashion magazines around the apartment, not political manifestos.
The doppelganger phenomenon implies asymmetry: there is the real person, and then there is that individual’s sinister double. This is Klein’s book, not Wolf’s, and Wolf (understandably) refused to participate.
In the book, Klein refers to Wolf as “my doppelganger,” or as “Other Naomi.”; The conspiratorial world she inhabits is the “Mirror World.” All all as though Wolf is a distorted, perhaps malicious reflection of Klein. The part I found most troubling on this front was Klein’s analysis of Philip Roth’s 1993 novel Operation Shylock, a novel about an imposter, which, she writes, speaks to her own experiences with Wolf—an analysis that suggests a blurring of lines between doppelgangers and imposters, and also between imagined and real people. Naomi Wolf is not a fictional character whose purpose is to tell the story of a protagonist, Naomi Klein. And for all her faults, she’s no imposter.
I ask Klein about this, and she tells me that she sees fact as different from fiction, and that, as far as Wolf’s resemblance to her goes, “I’ve no reason to believe that there’s any intent there.” Klein goes on to tell me just how much people confused her with Wolf (in the U.K., “It’s absolutely ubiquitous,”) and I only realize after our half-hour conversation that I should have pressed her on this. It’s not that I don’t see why Operation Shylock would resonate, but that I’m iffy on the fairness of the comparison.
“As empathetic as they are with one another,” writes Klein, about her undergraduate students, “they have little but cynicism when it comes to the professed pain of wealthy influencers.” Klein isn’t convinced, and decides to “gently push back,” asking them, “Why should surpassing a certain follower count preclude the possibility of feeling real pain?”
It’s not just acceptable but necessary for public figures to call one another out. I’m sure even heads
– of – state are capable of having big feelings when criticized, but this is no reason to hold back from demanding accountability. And I don’t buy into the idea that women, specifically, need to be gentle when criticizing the politics of other women, a patronizing view that sometimes poses as feminist solidarity. Am I being too hard on Klein for being too hard on Wolf? As the folks of Reddit ask, AITA?
“I’ve been pleased,” Klein tells me, “that a lot of the people who have read the book have remarked that it is not just a pile-on, and it does attempt to give her credit where credit is due, and also look at the ways in which she has been a spectacle for online bullying and mockery, and to actually question that.”
These other readers are correct that Doppelganger “is not just a pile-on.” This is still different from it not being, in part, a pile-on. As for “credit where credit is due,” I know the parts of the book she means. Wolf was once critical of Zionism in ways Klein found admirable. A milquetoast liberal is, Klein allows, better than a fascist, a proto-girlboss feminist superior to an anti-feminist. In the book, Klein recalls that she looked up to Wolf’s persona, if not her actual work, as a young author herself, leading to a formative if awkward (due to Wolf’s strange behaviour, even then) in-person interview.
Even in her what-if-I’m-the-doppelganger coda, Klein cannot resist sharing an anecdote showcasing Wolf’s inadequacies. Klein writes that when she was 20 and listening to Wolf speak about The Beauty Myth, a university friend “gently challenged Wolf on why she had so little to say about the particular pressures on Black and Asian women to bleach their skin and surgically lift their eyelids in order to conform to Eurocentric beauty ideals.” This is a justified criticism of the book, as indicated by the fact that people thought to make it at the time.
But Klein does not leave it there. The point cannot just be that The Beauty Myth was flawed even by the standards of its moment, but that she, Naomi Klein, knew this immediately. Of her own feminism and that of her university friends, she writes, “We were already way ahead of her.”
Klein writes that she thinks the rational, progressive side needs to do less infighting and focus instead on solidarity and collaboration, working towards a better world. A worthy goal, but ultimately I’m not convinced that the doppelganger framing helps the cause. She warns her readers against feeling “smug and superior” to the Wolfs of the world, but Doppelganger invites the reader to join its author in doing exactly that.
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The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on the website formerly known as Twitter. She also holds forth on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.