Bernadette Murphy wants to challenge your preconceptions about the kind of woman who owns a motorcycle.
Once upon a time, Murphy, now an LA writer and professor in Antioch’s MFA program, was a room mom for her children’s Elementary School classes: a woman who wore Winne the Pooh jumpers and bought into a vision of placidity. But when her father died, she bought a Harley, reassessed her life, began to dabble in risk, and started living for herself.
Harley and Me is Murphy’s memoir about learning to ride a motorcycle, but it’s so much more. In the vein of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Harley and Me is a journey narrative. But Murphy contextualizes her journey with scientific, historical, and cultural references. Harley and Me makes us evaluate not only how we see motorcycle riders, but how we see ourselves as women, mothers, and risk-takers.
Murphy and I spoke about neuroplasticity, becoming The Fonz, and the bio-chemistry of bonding with a machine.
Harley and Me is out in paperback May 30, 2017.
Heather Scott Partington: You write, “Awareness of death, it turns out, is a critical force motivating human behavior.” What did it mean to you to take on such a monumental risk? How did it shape your awareness of the current moment, and of who you want to be?
Bernadette Murphy: I bought my motorcycle the day after my father, my last remaining parent, died. He had always seemed such a huge figure in my imagination, a strong, nearly invincible and wholly tangible human. I could not imagine that one day he’d get older and die. But of course he did. Experiencing his death changed how I saw things. If death came for him, the most solid human I knew, it was coming for me, too.
We live in a culture that tends to play down and hide the reality of death. Recognizing just how limited my time on this planet actually is has motivated me try my hand at a slew of wild adventures. I used to always think that there’d be more time later if I didn’t take an exciting opportunity when it was offered. But guess what? The chance may not roll around again. I need to make sure I do the things I really want to do in this life, and inhabit my life as fully as I can while I can, because there will be no do-overs. And while I know I take my life in my hands every time I mount my motorcycle, it reminds me that I take my life in my hands every moment I draw breath. Driving across town, doing my daily routine. There’s no knowing. So why not go do the things I want to do – I’m going to die one day, either way. Of course, I take all precautions I can – full-face helmet, riding armor, classes on how to be as safe as possible.
HSP: How did you deal with sexism or sexist language on your rides, and at the rallies? How did you reconcile for that with your pre-riding worldview?
BM: There’s no question that the sexism is rampant in the motorcycling culture, especially among riders of a certain age. It’s been gratifying to meet an emerging new crop of young female riders who are breaking all the boundaries and just basically leaving that sexism in the dust. Check out The Dream Roll, The Women’s Moto Exhibit, and Babes Ride Out. These are groups of women (usually younger than me, but they include me, too, in their gatherings) who get together to ride and forge their own culture. They’re not focused on changing the sexism of the old-boy network. Rather, they’re focused on their own riding, their own community, their own strength. This is what I love about them: they just can’t be bothered focusing on what they don’t like about the male-centric aspects of the moto world. They’re going off script, off road, to forge their own path. And though this is not their goal, I suspect that by doing so, they will help transform the misogynist culture.
Personally, I don’t tend to go to motorcycle rallies and events like the ones you describe – they simply don’t appeal to me, unless they’re women focused like The Dream Roll. Last summer, I rode from LA to Washington State to camp out in a field with 280 other female motorcyclists. That was a blast.
HSP: The chapter about Fonzie is great, and oddly enough I love that Henry Winkler was a little afraid of the bike–he was such an icon, but it was more of an accessory to him than a way of life. What did it mean to you to speak to him? And to reconcile the reality of the Fonz with how you had seen him when you were younger?
BM: Speaking with Henry Winkler was one of the highlights of writing this book. I’ve had a crush on him since I was 11 years old, and still have a crush on him to this day. In fact, my infatuation only got deeper after the conversation because he’s such a thoughtful, authentic, and willing-to-be-vulnerable human. He’s just really present and I connected immediately with that quality. From talking with Henry Winkler, I saw that that he, like me, has struggled with the issues of being clear about who he is, claiming himself fully, being true to who he is. What a wonderful confirmation that I’m on the right path! I also came to see that I had stopped emulating the parts of the Fonzie character I had so admired. Instead of wanting to be Fonzie, to some degree – to the degree that I wanted — I have in fact become him — or at least, my female version of him.
HSP: You write that women have an innermost thermostat that tells us how much joy, love, and success we think we deserve. What did this journey teach you about what you deserve? What lessons do you think other women can take away from your time on the bike?
BM: I learned that I have been shortchanging myself my entire life! Especially as a young mother, when finances were tight and kids needed so much, I had learned to deny my own needs and wants, to reduce my desires to as small and easy-to-contain a package as possible. And with good reason. But now what I’m finally breaking out of that scarcity and lack mindset and working to reset my joy thermostat, and finding that my dreams and desires are huge! And that when I embrace them and think it might actually be possible to pursue them, I am so very happy and content. Notice I didn’t say that when I get them I’m happy. Getting them is almost beside the point. Knowing it’s possible and that it’s okay for me to embrace these desires is the thing. For a long time, the voice in my head repeated the same toxic six words: “Who do you think you are?” Who did I think I was to believe I could have a rich and wonderful life, to do things that were wild and exotic and just plain fun? That voice kept me stuck for most of my adult life. Now when it pops up, I remind it that I’m a beloved child of the universe who deserves these things as much as the next person and that I believe good things are in store for me.
HSP: Why do humans get risk-averse as we get older? What chemical changes start to happen when women decide to accept risk into middle age? You write that risk is necessary, that “one thing seems certain: avoiding risk altogether is actually an unhealthy state for all of us, male and female alike.”
Risk taking (in whatever form – taking a drawing class, traveling abroad, learning a foreign language, ice climbing, mountaineering, etc.) rewires our brain. We use new muscles – literally and metaphorically – that increase our neuroplasticity. This is a virtuous or vicious cycle, depending on which way you go, because the brain chemicals support the change. If we take more risks, our brain chemicals give us a reward and then we want more of that reward so we continue to take more risks. And if we stop taking risks, the reward cycle is broken and we find comfort in taking fewer and fewer risks. The reason this is so dramatic for women in middle age is that the childbearing chemical brew we talked about earlier has convinced us to take as few risks as possible. And unless we actively try to break that cycle, we’ll continue taking fewer risks until we become stuck and unable to take any kinds of risks at all. If we’re not growing and evolving, we’re dying. It’s a truth for all living things.
HSP: Did your experiences change anything about how you talk to your [adult] children? You write about how difficult it was to explain your risk-taking to your loved ones. I’m wondering if it changed how you want to parent them, or the message you want to communicate to them, even though they’re adults.
BM: My kids taught me more about risk taking than anyone. They haven’t (yet) gotten stuck in that “let’s take a safe path no matter what” thinking. They still believe so much is possible. And they got me to do the same. This has changed how I parent them. I have to believe that if I’m safe in the hands of this universe, that they’re safe, too. That I personally no longer have to be the guardian of their safety. I’ve done a good job raising them and I believe they make good and healthy choices for themselves. So if they make choices I don’t believe in or support, I have to let it go and let them do what they’re going to do. It’s possible they are on the exact path they need to be on and that any interference from me is only going to mess that up. And if the choice they make ends up hurting them, they will have learned something I couldn’t have taught them in a million years.
Plus, I have to embrace the fact that bad shit happens in life and there’s little I can do to change that. They could get hurt doing a risky thing, but they could also get hurt not doing a risky thing. Parents are quick to warn their children about all the lurking perils if they take risky options. But they seldom tell them about the death that occurs, slowly, like the frog swimming in a pot of increasingly heated water, if they don’t put their true selves on the line. That’s what I tell them.
HSP: What new risks are you taking now? Has your family’s reaction to your risk-taking changed since they read your writing about it?
BM: The biggest risk I’m taking right now is holding my partner, Edmond, in my thoughts and in my heart as he climbs Mt. Everest. He’s one of the 200-plus climbers currently on Mount Everest*, on the brink of the first attempts in three years to make the final ascent to the world’s tallest peak, after fatal avalanches cut short the 2014 and 2015 campaigns. Here’s a piece I wrote about it.
My family is divided on my risk taking. My kids, my partner, and two of my brothers are supportive. My sister, my stepmother, my ex, and some others still think I’m crazy and that if I’d just quit this stuff my life would be better. What they don’t realize is that my life is now the best it’s ever been.
HSP: Can you share a little about your research related to Oxytocin? The results of your tests were astounding.
BM: Oxytocin it the cuddle compound that we create in our bodies when we have sex, nurse a baby, feel deep love, even pet a dog. It causes us to trust and to feel connected and warm with others. I had this theory that my embrace of my motorcycle was tied to this neurotransmitter. I believed that as my 25-year marriage deteriorated, and as my kids began to fly the coop and didn’t hug me and need me in the same way, I was going through a kind of oxytocin withdrawal. Embracing the motorcycle seemed to reverse that. But from a scientific standpoint, that doesn’t make sense. Oxytocin, the neuroscientists tell us, can only be produced with contact with other living, active beings. You can’t increase your oxytocin level with a machine. Or so we thought. We took my blood before and after riding my motorcycle and found my oxytocin level jumped a good amount – as much as a groom’s oxytocin level jumped in one experiment, just after he’d taken his vows. I believe that riding the motorcycle helped me have a deeper relationship with myself and that that is responsible for the oxytocin leap. Of course, this little experiment was just done on me and just done once, so it’s not scientifically valid, but it does lend credibility to my theory.
HSP: What are you working on now?
BM: I’m working on a novel about a woman who teaches at a performing arts high school in Los Angeles and who engages risk – but risk of the more emotional kind. She learns that her version of her past is not the true story, and then has to change her life to incorporate this new information.
I’m also toying with a possible book project on the nature of women’s leadership and the role marriage plays in it. I’m particularly interested in 1) how marriage as an institution is dying away in Iceland and what that means to the culture, and 2) how the women of Rwanda took over many leadership roles there after the genocide there (when a large percentage of the men were killed and women had to step up into government and leadership positions) and how that change in gender balance of those in power has made for a healthier, happier country. How those two topics fit together and what I might do with it, I don’t know yet. But that’s what I’m tinkering with.
*This interview was conducted in the spring of 2016.