Paula Kamen, born in 1967, has always had her work — from satire to journalism to play scripts — called “brutally honest.” (And sometimes that has even been a compliment.) A priority has always been serious research, to back up observations about beginning social trends. That includes with her first book, Feminist Fatale, noted as the first Gen X feminist report, her second book, Her Way, on young women's greater outspokenness about sexual issues, and third book, All in My Head, an early memoir/journalistic report/black comedy on women, chronic pain and invisible illness. You can find a just-reprinted excerpt of her essay defining chronic pain and fatigue as a feminist issue from 2005 in Bitch Magazine here, in a special series on women and chronic illness. Her most reprinted essay, from a 1996 anthology, “Good Girls/"Bad Girls,” gives needed background about Gen X feminist anti-rape activism and media backlash. Her most recent book, Finding Iris Chang, explores the mental illness behind the at-first baffling suicide of Paula's most successful friend, the bestselling author of “The Rape of Nanking.”
Lately she has been focusing on her revised part-documentary play, “Jane: Abortion and the Underground” — about the legendary pre-Roe feminist abortion service, which has been produced at about 20 fringe theaters and college campuses. The script is based on fictionalized scenes and excerpts from actual interviews Paula conducted since the early 1990s with women who ran and used Jane; her most original contribution is finding women who used the illegal service. The play was excerpted in several anthologies, including THE BEST WOMEN’S MONOLOGUES ’99 and THE BEST STAGE SCENES ’99 (Smith & Kraus, 2001). Writing in the Chicago Reader, critic Kim Wilson said, “Everyone — but women especially — should hear this story.” The research that Paula conducted for the play was used by the makers of the 1998 PBS documentary Jane: An Abortion Service and is on file with the Special Collections Department of the Northwestern University Library.
Her other two produced plays are “A Cure For AIDS,” (20-minute play) which has won several awards, and the comedy “Seven Dates with Seven Writers,” which also has been excerpted in a Smith & Kraus men's monologues book and widely used for auditions.
Her commentaries and book reviews have appeared most recently in McSweeneys.net, and the Women’s Review of Books. In spring 2008, Paula was a guest blogger for the online New York Times, in a special feature on migraine, and since 2010 has been an occasional guest blogger at Ms Magazine online. She has also been published in the print New York Times (1990 op ed on young women and feminism), Washington Post, Salon.com, In These Times, the Forward, and more than a dozen anthologies.
Her main career has been as an author, with her latest book being FINDING IRIS CHANG: AMBITION, FRIENDSHIP AND THE LOSS OF AN EXTRAORDINARY MIND (Da Capo, 2007). The book, a quest to understand the puzzling and tragic suicide of her longtime friend Iris Chang, was released in paperback in 2008. Entertainment Weekly called it “a moving bio” (12/19/08), and in its fall/winter 2007 preview issue, Kirkus described this memoir/biography as “a rewardingly complex portrait of a driven and troubled woman.” The Chicago Tribune called it “engrossing” and “fascinating” and named it as one of its “favorite books of 2007.” It was also a 2007 independent-bookstore “Booksense” pick and the subject of a C-SPAN’s Booknotes program. The book also seeks to raise awareness about bipolar disorder, the possibly dangerous effects of hormonal treatments for such patients, and Asian-American stigmas about mental illness. Meanwhile, it explores how journalists can protect themselves from the toxic effects of traumas they cover.
She is also the author of another feminist health book, ALL IN MY HEAD: AN EPIC QUEST TO CURE AN UNRELENTING, TOTALLY UNREASONABLE, AND ONLY SLIGHTLY ENLIGHTENING HEADACHE (Da Capo, 2005). In January 2005, Kirkus described it as “sharp, entertaining, informative, and blessedly free of poor-me-see-how-I-suffered-ism.” Salon.com said it “connects the dots on this issue of women and chronic pain in a way nobody else has done.” But it was too ahead of its time for others.
Paula is also the author of HER WAY: YOUNG WOMEN REMAKE THE SEXUAL REVOLUTION, (NYU Press, 2000, Broadway Books, 2002), which was noted as the first comprehensive “big picture” journalistic report of Generation X women’s evolving and enhanced sexual attitudes and choices. The online New York Times excerpted it and its print edition gave it a very racy review. In 2002, the book was also released in Japan by Kodansha.
Like HER WAY, FEMINIST FATALE, published in 1991 when she was 24 years old, is also based on interviews with a diversity of young women, and explores a central conflict about feminism: resistance to the label of “feminist,” but then support of the ideals of the women’s movement. Praised by Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf, the book was widely covered and reviewed, in such publications as the Washington Post, Elle, and Time. Feminist scholar bell hooks called the book “one of the most well researched and thoughtful discussions of the factors that shape responses to feminist thinking among younger women.” The LA Times wrote: “Interesting, surprising…. a thoughtful book by a promising, provocative writer. Paula Kamen has done her homework and has had the courage to back up her point of view.” School Library Journal described it as “lively, well written and provocative.” Like HER WAY, FEMINIST FATALE has been used as a textbook at colleges.
Her papers from her first three books and other writing through 2006 are archived at Duke University’s Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture. That includes extensive files on post-boomer women and feminism dating from the late 1980s.
Her work has also appeared in at least a dozen anthologies, many of young writers back in the days when she was actually young. Paula’s most widely reprinted essay, about young women’s activism against acquaintance rape and for consent, first appeared in “BAD GIRLS/GOOD GIRLS”: WOMEN, SEX AND POWER IN THE NINETIES (Rutgers University Press, 1996). Early in her career, she wrote regularly for Might Magazine, and her satire, "Paradigm for Sale,” offering to sell out for cash to the Right appeared in the publication’s post-humous “best of” anthology, SHINY ADIDAS TRACK SUITS AND THE DEATH OF CAMP (1998).
Her first satire published was "The Preppy Syndrome," in the Chicago Tribune in 1982 while she was a freshman in high school, She had a big break getting a commentary about young women's views of feminism in the New York Times in 1990, published months after submission on the slowest news day ever. Paula is a 1989 graduate in journalism from the University of Illinois. After college, she worked her only full-time job (not counting working "the max for the minimum" at TJ Maxx in high school) as city reporter for the Kenosha (WI) News, until leaving to write Feminist Fatale. She was born in Chicago and grew up in south suburban Flossmoor. She now lives with her husband and two sons in Evanston, IL.