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NYTimes 12

Confessions of a Tiger Couple

One gray afternoon in November, on the eve of the Harvard-Yale football game, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld were preparing for their postgame party. Furniture had been moved, vulnerable rugs had been rolled into corners. Their older daughter, Sophia, a junior at Harvard, had just called, and Chua returned to the living room bearing some news for her husband.

“One thing — so Sophia’s bringing, like, 45 people.”

“Oh, no.” Rubenfeld reached for a glass on the coffee table and took a sip.

“Oh, you’re not going to like that. It’s flat.”

“You’re right,” he said, grimacing.

“It’s flat diet ginger ale,” she told me. “Jed doesn’t drink diet sodas, and he doesn’t drink flat.”



He also doesn’t like big parties, but she does. And those 45 people were going to be sleeping over. Even nonreaders of Chua’s 2011 book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” may remember the media chatter about how sleepovers were forbidden in the Chua-Rubenfeld household. All of it — the football game, the party, the sleepover — sounded like the stuff of tiger-mother nightmares.

“You have to understand,” Rubenfeld said, when I pointed this out. “Her whole thing was: That didn’t apply once they were older.” Rubenfeld, 54, speaks quietly and deliberately. He has a narrow, chiseled face, and when asked something he doesn’t want to answer, he’ll get very still and maintain an uncomfortable silence.

“It was supposed to be a kind of tongue-in-cheek book,” Chua interjected. At 51, she has a petite frame and a tendency to gesticulate. “The stuff I had to address was so . . . degrading. It was like, ‘Did you burn the stuffed animals?’ ” She seemed incredulous at the memory of it. “That was irony. That was irony!”

A pseudo-memoir of her adventures in authoritarian parenting, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” tapped into two potent sources of contemporary American anxiety: bad mothers and declining national fortunes, or what the cultural critic Oliver Wang calls “Fear the Chinese/Be the Chinese.” The book itself is an amalgam of true story, exaggeration and outright parody — “I trust them to make the right choices for themselves,” Chua writes, of her dogs. But it was her efforts to raise her two daughters “the Chinese way,” which included a willingness to call Sophia “garbage” and the rote drilling of multiplication tables to the point of exhaustion, that swiftly became an object of fascination and disgust. The hardcover edition spent 11 weeks on The New York Times’s best-seller list while generating the kind of enmity usually reserved for serial killers or politicians. Chua was called everything from “insane” to “abusive.”

“Battle Hymn” was Chua’s first real foray into pop-cultural polemics. She had written two books, both on ethnicity and international politics, which were more in line with her scholarship as a Yale law professor: “World on Fire,” about the dangers of exporting free-market democracy to countries where economic power is concentrated in the hands of a resented ethnic minority, and “Day of Empire,” about how “hyperpowers” thrive on multiculturalism and tolerance. Unlike “Battle Hymn,” which was assailed from all sides, “World on Fire” appealed to both ends of the political spectrum, garnering glowing notices in Mother Jones and The American Conservative. She had a personal connection to her subject: Her aunt, a member of the wealthy Chinese minority in the Philippines, had her throat slit by her chauffeur.

Rubenfeld, also a law professor at Yale, has had his own brush with popular success, writing two Freudian thrillers — including “The Interpretation of Murder,” a best seller in England — in addition to two treatises on constitutional law, his area of expertise. “I think six copies were sold, if memory serves,” Rubenfeld says of his most recent academic book, “and that includes the four that Amy bought.”



Considering how appalled they say they were by the Tiger Mother “firestorm,” their first collaborative project, “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America,” might seem either cynical or oblivious, or some uncanny combination of the two. Due out Feb. 4, the book is a work of Gladwellian sociology that enters the same cultural minefield as “Battle Hymn.” Looking at minorities like Mormons, Nigerian immigrants, Asian-Americans and Jews, among others, Chua and Rubenfeld contend that successful groups share three traits: a superiority complex, feelings of insecurity and impulse control. America, they conclude, used to be a “triple-package culture” before it succumbed to “instant-gratification disorder.”

The subtitle alone is enough to set some readers on high alert. Writing about success in terms of cultural values and traits has always been a contentious proposition in the United States, where it’s typically associated with conservatives like Charles Murray (“The Bell Curve” and “Losing Ground”), who argue that poor people are poor because of bad habits rather than bad situations. The Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, who is cited in “The Triple Package,” hadn’t yet read the book, but said he hoped that Chua and Rubenfeld were aware that they’re flirting with a Typhoid Mary. “I’m all for culture,” Patterson said, but “culture is a tricky concept. It has tripped up a lot of anthropologists and sociologists.”

It may now trip up a couple of legal scholars too. When The New York Post got wind of the book in early January, it ran an article about how Chua was “doubling down” with “a series of shock-arguments wrapped in self-help tropes” that could be distilled into one incendiary message: “Some groups are just superior to others, and everyone else is contributing to the downfall of America.” Never mind that the book doesn’t actually say this — the suggestion was out there. On Twitter, Chua was deemed a “racist” and a “troll” (sights were trained on the Tiger Mother; Rubenfeld was mostly spared). Within a week, the authors had been accused of everything from scaring readers to boring them, with New York magazine yawning that the book was “dull” and “conventional.”

“I guess we are fearing the worst,” Chua told me in November. Nonetheless, she was holding out hope that this time would be different. She pointed out all the ways in which they qualified their thesis. They ran numbers and collected data sets. They hired research assistants from “every possible conceivable background.” They acknowledged structural impediments to success, like racism. A chapter was devoted to “the underside of the triple package” and how pathological striving can lead to chauvinism and depression. The text itself is 225 pages, but to that they added nearly 80 pages in endnotes.


“The Triple Package” is full of qualifications, earnest settings-of-the-terms, explicit attempts to head off misinterpretations at the pass. “This point is so important we’re going to repeat it,” they write in a section about Appalachian poverty, which they argue was caused by geography and industrial decline, rather than by any lack of triple-package values. This last month of criticism showed that such lawyerly efforts to walk the line between blandness and notoriety are unlikely to satisfy their most vociferous critics. Yet Chua remained optimistic.

“I feel like it should be a book that if you approach it with an open mind, it actually shouldn’t be controversial. It should be thought-provoking.”

Rubenfeld, who was listening intently to his wife, smiled. “We’re just going to get raked over the coals — that’s what’s going to happen.”

Well before “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” Chua and Rubenfeld wanted to collaborate on a project. “For a while we were going to write a book about Jewish people and Chinese people,” she said, “and it was going to be how different the cultures were.” But then they noticed some historical similarities. “If you take Jews in the 1900s, 1910s, it’s like, ‘You have to listen to your father,’ too!”

Chua and Rubenfeld met in the mid-’80s, when she was in her second year at Harvard Law School and he was in his third. She had just made The Law Review, where he was already an editor, and a mishap at what she calls “the nerdiest volleyball game of all history” almost landed them in the emergency room.

“We were on opposite sides, and we both went up for the ball,” she recalled. She got a bloody lip; he got a black eye. “In fact, we were on the same team,” Rubenfeld said by way of correction. “We weren’t on opposite sides.”



He invited her for coffee, and she accepted. Rubenfeld was trying to democratize The Law Review by doing away with the grueling competitive process in favor of a lottery, which made Chua — a child of immigrants and an ardent believer in the meritocracy — suspicious. “I found the conversation irritating,” she said. “All these people went to private schools; I went to a public school, and I clawed my way into this thing.” She laughed. “I was just there to try to do well, and Jed was leading revolutions.”

When Chua described her first impressions of Rubenfeld, the word “cool” came up several times, and she enunciated it in a way that made it clear she was using it as a term of derision. Asked how she went from mistrusting the cool kid to marrying him, she recalled how, over time, she realized that his intelligence revealed some effort. He wasn’t just coasting by on his good looks and his privilege — coasting being the unforgivable sin in the Chua cosmos. She talks about hard work as both a practical and a moral imperative. Forgoing hard work is a mark of arrogance, which leads to complacency, which leads to intergenerational decline. In “Battle Hymn,” she casts the forced march of music lessons as an attempt to counteract the smug satisfactions of privilege, writing of her determination “not to raise a soft, entitled child.”

Chua grew up feeling anything but entitled. She was born in Champaign, Ill., to Chinese parents from the Philippines. Her father was a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering; her mother was a chemist who eventually gave up her career to care for four daughters, the youngest of whom has Down syndrome. Amy was the oldest. When their father came home from work, she would take off his shoes and socks before bringing him his slippers. Expectations were high, and they were clear. An A-minus was not merely unacceptable but “unthinkable.” Amy spoke only the family’s Hokkien dialect until she was 4, when she was thrown into a nursery school where everyone spoke English. But an English slip of the tongue at home would be met with a “whack of the chopsticks.”

Rubenfeld’s upbringing wasn’t nearly so severe. His parents rebelled against their Orthodox Jewish backgrounds to become, as he puts it, “very liberal, very permissive.” His father was a successful psychotherapist; his mother was an art critic. They didn’t push their three children to get good grades. When Rubenfeld was 12, his parents told him he could take violin lessons or tennis lessons. He chose tennis. “The message in my family was: Kids should go out and find out what they want to do. And that was great for us all, individually. But as a family, things didn’t work out that well. My parents were separated when I was in college. They got divorced. And they practically weren’t speaking to each other for the rest of their lives.”

Rubenfeld is only an intermittent presence in “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” and he generally serves as a foil to Chua’s more extreme disciplinary style. “I was already at a disadvantage,” she writes. “I had an American husband who believed that childhood should be fun.” Which isn’t to say he disagreed with her approach. “I would be seeing these parents, and the kids weren’t happier for having parents who would answer yes for everything,” he told me. “And then my wife is this Chinese woman who has all these ideas about parenting. I’m like, Maybe that is better.”

In “Battle Hymn” as well as in “The Triple Package,” permissive parenting is presented as hazardous to children, whose future success requires discipline and self-control. Yet despite his parents’ leniency, Rubenfeld will admit that he isn’t exactly a cautionary tale. He graduated from Princeton with a degree in philosophy, having written a thesis on Freud and Foucault. Princeton was followed by drama at Juilliard before he was, in his words, “kicked out” after two years (Juilliard was known for cutting its drama classes by as much as half). After Harvard Law School, Rubenfeld clerked for a judge in the prestigious Ninth Circuit, worked for Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz and then for the U.S. Attorney’s office. In his spare time, he wrote a paper about a woman’s right to abortion, arguing that “mandatory childbearing is a totalitarian intervention into a woman’s life.” Within a year of publication, Yale Law School offered him a tenure-track job.



When Rubenfeld began teaching at Yale in 1990, he and Chua had been married for a couple of years. (They celebrated their 25th anniversary this fall.) After the birth of their first daughter in 1992, Chua left the firm of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton and eventually found a teaching job at Duke. The couple endured tedious commutes between North Carolina and Connecticut until finally, in 2001, a series of visiting-professor gigs brought Chua to Yale.

Spending time with Chua and Rubenfeld, I was periodically reminded of something Stanley Cavell once wrote — that the defining moment in a screwball comedy comes when the oddly matched pair find themselves in a “mythical place” called Connecticut. Chua and Rubenfeld have been living together in New Haven for more than a decade, but to hear her tell it, they come not so much from different backgrounds as from different planets — though they’re not the henpecked husband and the dragon-lady wife of the public imagination. “He’s a bad boy,” she says. “He doesn’t mind people being angry with him.” Chua prefers to ingratiate herself, often deferring to others. “I love authority figures, I love experts.” They’ll go to a museum, and he’ll wander around, taking in the art, while she waits in line for the plastic audio guide. At a restaurant, he’ll ask to be seated near a window, whereas she’s willing to sit wherever she’s told, even if that’s next to the bathroom.

On the Monday after Thanksgiving, I arrived at Yale Law School to watch them teach. They’re both popular professors — Chua earned a teaching award in 2011 — but their styles are completely different. Chua was like a coach, nudging her students toward the answers and giving them smiles of encouragement. “Yes! Keep going!” and “You were all right!”

Rubenfeld, by contrast, laid out his points about constitutional law methodically. The students laughed at his jokes, but his delivery might be described as charismatic deadpan. He told a student “O.K., excellent” only once. At the break, he left the room so swiftly, it was as if he had been instructed to exit stage right.

Shortly before 7, Chua and I met Rubenfeld outside the law school, where he was waiting for us. I could hear strains of music coming from their Jeep. “Will you recognize me? Call my name or walk on by. . . .” It was the song from the last scene of “The Breakfast Club,” when Judd Nelson thrusts a defiant fist into the air.

Chua climbed into the back, leaning forward between the front seats to start pressing buttons on the stereo. “I have to turn this off.”

Rubenfeld looked neither surprised nor displeased as he took the car out of park. “Did you see how fast she turned off my music?”


“I don’t like that ’80s stuff.” Chua says that her taste in music is atrocious. She loves country — crooners like Kenny Chesney, not Wilco. Her cultural self-deprecation is so matter-of-fact that it can sound almost confident. Her husband is “the aesthetic person,” she told me when I first met them in their home. “I have zero taste.”

In the car, Chua and Rubenfeld started talking about the criminal-law class he’s teaching next year. He’d just published a paper questioning the standard definition of rape as “unconsented-to sex,” suggesting the better analogy was slavery or torture. Chua talked about her husband’s willingness to broach a subject like rape in his class with a mixture of admiration and mock-horror.

“I don’t want to be controversial,” she said. “I just want to be liked.”

For someone who doesn’t want to be controversial, Chua has shown a persistent willingness to enter the fray. One sunny afternoon in December, she showed me some emails in response to “Battle Hymn” that she stored on her computer, located on a cluttered desk in their bedroom. It was the week before Christmas, and their 17-year-old daughter, Lulu, was sitting on the floor nearby, wrapping presents.


The emails started arriving on Jan. 8, 2011, the morning The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from the book under the headline, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” To describe those first emails as nasty would be an understatement. Chua was accused of torturing her daughters and putting them at risk for suicide. Her first impulse was to write back to set the record straight. The excerpt and the headline were misleading. People needed to know that the book wasn’t a manifesto, and it wasn’t a parenting manual, either. Couldn’t they see her narrator was unreliable? Couldn’t they see how the book was meant to be funny?

“They got nicer and nicer,” Chua said, opening a recent note from a teacher who liked “Battle Hymn” so much that he had his class enact a “duo interpretation of a specific scene from the book.” One man started out peevish, accusing her of “low moral and ethical caliber” as well as “spousal abuse” before he sent her another email with the subject line: “Mitigation.” “Your article touched a nerve,” he explained. “I struggle daily with the iron will of my Hong Kongenese [sic] spouse.” He had attached a picture of himself with his young daughter, both sticking out their tongues for the camera.

The positive feedback felt like a vindication. “Battle Hymn” was written at a time when Chua’s sister was ill and Lulu, then 13, was going “public with her insurgency” against her mother’s oppressive methods. After a showdown in a Russian restaurant (yelling, smashed glass), Chua admits that she pushed her younger daughter too hard. But that doesn’t mean she thinks she shouldn’t have been pushing at all. For all of her claims about the book’s satire and hyperbole, she expresses a deep conviction about how she raised her daughters: “There is nothing I’m prouder of.”

As Chua and I got ready to leave the house, she walked over to where Lulu was sitting. “Is there some homework you should be doing?”

“I’ve already done my physics test,” Lulu said, curling some ribbon with scissors.

“But you should send an email to your teachers to explain why you’re not there.”

“They know I’m sick.” Lulu was at home with the flu. “You called in my absence this morning. They put it on the attendance sheet.”

Chua insisted Lulu should send an email anyway, especially because just two days before, she was accepted at Yale. “They’re going to think you’re arrogant: You got into college and you’re not going to class.”

Chua stared at her daughter expectantly. Lulu then did what any self-respecting high-school senior would do. She rolled her eyes and continued to wrap her present.

“New Haven is two worlds,” Chua said as we got into her Jeep. Somewhere between their mock-Tudor house and Yale’s campus, well-preserved homes give way to block after block of peeling clapboard and wire fences.

Yale Law School prides itself on being a kind of oasis for the country’s brightest students, the ones who scored highest on the LSAT and got the best grades and have done something ambitious already — volunteered in an African refugee camp, say, or worked as a C.E.O. It’s among the most selective law schools, and unlike the bigger ones, it doesn’t grade on a curve. Incoming students are told they’re “off the treadmill.” They can take some time to figure out what it is that they really want to do.

In “The Triple Package,” Rubenfeld and Chua write that this is the point of striving: to get to a place where you can break out of the straitjacket of conventional success and pursue the life you really want to live. Their daughter Sophia is studying Sanskrit and philosophy but also signed up for R.O.T.C. “Jed and I are wild fans of breaking away, kicking away the ladder,” Chua told me that first rainy day in their house. Their own excursions outside the academy might be seen in this light. But as “breaking away” goes, theirs is a fairly safe bet. They were law professors before. They will be law professors after.

Chua has been attuned to the plight of the outsider in each of her books, aware of how smug and insular success can seem. But there’s a kind of ingenuousness that can settle in after years spent in a safe space, one that stands at a considerable remove from the marketplace where most people make do. “The Triple Package” conveys a message familiar from self-help books: Adopt these values and you too can take control of your life. But you have only to step outside of Yale’s campus to see that the world doesn’t operate according to the same principles of effort and reward. For most Americans, especially now, striving and insecurity are likely to be rewarded with more striving and insecurity; you can do everything right and still have little to show for it. Kicking away that ladder will sound like a fantasy when you’re clinging to it for dear life.

The sky was getting darker as Chua drove us toward downtown New Haven. She had her forearms pressed against the wheel to get a better view of the road, which made her look hesitant. At one point we were stopped at an intersection when someone banged loudly on the back of the car. “Did I — ” she began. What happened made no sense. She’d stopped because the light was red. Had she really done something wrong?
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