An Interview with Carol Adams

By Laurel Long
Reprinted with permission by

As Carol Adams says, she wears many hats. Not only does she have an amazing perspective on how vegetarianism and feminism are related, she has years of experience in the field of pastoral care, writing, and speaking. Here, the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat talks about her teenage years and shares some of her insights on vegetarianism and activism in general.

Could you tell me about your new book, Help! My Child Stopped Eating Meat! And Milk! And Eggs! (what's left to eat?) The Parents A-Z Guide to Surviving and Thriving a Conflict in Diets"?

Because of The Sexual Politics of Meat, I'm invited to speak on campuses. There are teenagers who have encountered my work and want me to come and present this perspective to their classmates. Whenever I go, I always ask to have supper with the animal rights or feminist groups who are sponsoring me. For the past few years, I've said to them, "What have been the issues you've had with your parents? What were the good things and what have been the most difficult things?" Then, as we sat down to talk, I'd take note and think about the implications. I incorporate all of the information I've gathered from students around the country into this book.

What I heard was teenagers that became vegan or vegetarian really wanted their parents to understand why they were doing it and needed support from their parents, as kids do when they explore new things in their lives. Food issues are very intense issues sometimes; there are a lot of emotions around it. There are feelings of rejection and feelings of impatience. Many of the stories I heard were of kids who were really heartbroken by their experiences with their parents. Sometimes I met kids who had great experiences. That was always encouraging.

The way this book evolved was that I first wrote a letter to parents of vegetarians as part of the appendix in Living Among Meat Eaters. My literary agent, who himself is a vegan, thought it was a wonderful letter, very potent and direct to the parents. She said I should expand it into a book. I began to do that by talking to college students about their experiences then thinking and reflecting on what that said given the kind of theoretical work I've done on vegetarianism and veganism.

I should also say I wear another hat sometimes, in the area of pastoral care. Pastoral care is what ministers do, which is counsel people. I teach courses on that. I have some background in counseling issues. I used that to say if you're the kind of parent who'd go across town to support your kid learning how to play the tuba, you'd do the same thing here.

What exactly is covered in the book?

It's divided into several chapters. There's an introductory chapter that invites parents to avoid taking the decision of a child to be vegetarian personally. It's not about the parent; it's about the child exploring ethical, spiritual, health, and environmental issues the best way they can. There are ways to be supportive of that, and again, I call that the "tuba principle." We, the parents, aren't the ones who have to learn to play the tuba, and we don't have to carry the tuba; all we have to do is help the child get to tuba lessons and make sure that their tuba is in good shape!

I have a chapter on family emotional issues such as the feelings of anger and frustration and special issues that arise as teenagers get old enough to begin applying to colleges. I have a chapter on practical issues, such as what sort of things you should have in your pantry, what kind of utensils you should buy that make vegan or vegetarian cooking easier, and how to negotiate chores. There's a chapter on nutrition by Virginia Messina, who is a leading vegetarian/vegan nutritionist, which tells parents their child is not going to die by becoming a vegan. There is some very practical advice on sources for protein and calcium.

Then there's a chapter that I consider background issues. Lots of the students I met said their parents didn't want to hear information about what happens to cows on factory farms. I created a chapter that explains why young people want to talk to their parents about it. I explain an idea I call "traumatic knowledge." That is, when we learn about what happens to animals that is traumatic knowledge. It's very upsetting to think about what the cow endures, or what the chickens endure, or the sows endure. One of the aspects of traumatic knowledge is that it needs to be heard. I try to help parents find a way to hear this information without feeling that they're being so judged, that they feel defensive and can't hear what the young person is saying.

Why do you think so many teenagers are deciding to become vegetarian and vegan?

Well, I think that PETA does a great outreach to young people. I think that's very effective. They know how to speak in a way that young people hear them. I think the web probably helps. After thirty years of there being ideas around animal rights issues, young people are able to hear these ideas and say, "Yeah! This makes sense!"

I also have a secret theory that has to do with Living Among Meat Eaters, where I propose that meat eaters are blocked vegetarians. What I mean by that is when we're around age three or four, we somehow learn that we're eating dead animals. At that age, animals are very important beings in our lives. They're almost considered peers. We don't eat our peers yet our parents and our culture tell us "No, no, these peers you can eat. It's OK to eat this cow. It's OK to eat this chicken. They love you to eat them. They don't suffer."

Well, when you're nine or 11 or 15, you're a lot closer to that four-year-old who was convinced to eat meat than people who are 20 or 30 or 40. That part of you is still accessible. The part of you that felt that animals were peers is probably still more alive than when you become an adult. So there's a greater openness to the idea of changing your diet to not harm other beings.

What book are you most proud of having written?

That's a hard question to answer because the process of writing a book is so intense that it's like asking a parent which child they love the best. Each book is different, but The Sexual Politics of Meat took me 16 years of living with the ideas. I was learning how to be a writer. It's not easy just writing a book in the first place, so besides trying to figure out how to say there's a connection between feminism and vegetarianism, I also had to learn how to organize a book. So many people have now told me how it is really a breakthrough book; a book that is pioneering, that set a kind of standard. I've met professors who, because of  The Sexual Politics of Meat were empowered to do their own literary criticism around animals. Law students and lawyers refer to it. In terms of which book has made the most difference, it's probably The Sexual Politics of Meat.

When you were younger, did you envision yourself as a writer and speaker?

I think I wanted to be a writer. I remember having some ideas for short stories involving animals and recipes. When I was in fourth or fifth grade, I was pretty excited about that. Then, they got accidentally thrown away! It's very hard to take oneself seriously as a writer, or at least it was for me.

Sometimes there's a conflict between the things you do as an activist, and the things you need to do as a writer. As an activist, you need to be on your feet. You need to think on your feet, you need to be able to have sound bites. You need to be able to hear what other people care about and how they're suffering and transform that into goals to change whatever is causing the suffering. A writer needs to sit still and live with the loneliness of sitting at a desk. A writer needs to think in paragraphs, not in sound bites. It was a very complicated process to entangle the desire to be a writer from this person who'd become a social activist.

Now, when I'm on the other side of that, I can do both things. I've figure out how to wear both hats. When I go to campuses, I have a lot of fun. I love meeting students who care about these issues. At this point, there are even professors who encountered my book ten years ago when they were undergraduates! That's really amazing to me.

I enjoy trying to find ways to interpret this work. When The Sexual Politics of Meat first came out, it was very hard. I'd be on radio interviews that were awful! People would say, "Now that I've gone out to eat a hamburger, I'm going to go beat my wife?" I think the breakthrough in terms of interpreting this work came when I developed The Sexual Politics of Meat slideshow. The images do the work for me and people can have their own visual experience with what I'm talking about, rather than me lecturing the whole time. There are different entry points to people with a slideshow than with a lecture. It makes my job easier when I go to campus. And I get to eat great vegan food with young people!

Do you have any advice to young people who are interested in speaking about animal rights or vegetarianism?

You really have to know your audience. If these are interpersonal presentations, know when people are being defensive. When someone's being defensive, it's really hard to talk with them. We make meat eaters defensive simply by being who we are, and that's because we are able to take information about what's unethical, and act on it. Sometimes when we're talking even to our peers, there's going to be a defensive. We have to find ways around it.

I have a theory that people think it's really hard to be a vegan. When they see us arguing with people and often see us put on the defensive ourselves, they think, "I'm pretty unhappy being a meat eater, but that vegan looks pretty unhappy too! She's in all these arguments and always having to cite facts, so I might as well stay unhappy eating meat, then be unhappy and not have the food I want."

I think sometimes we think if we just had the right argument, people would change. For twenty years of being a vegetarian, I tried it that way. I knew every argument possible! All that got me was that people felt I was inflexible.

I think if you're making presentations, having a short video helps. People feel overwhelmed. I think it's OK to stand up and say, "I've changed. I once ate meat, and I realized after encountering this information that I needed to change. It's not that hard, and I've got some great food to share with you."

People love eating vegan food, as long as they don't know that's what they're doing. The New York Times had an article about a vegan teenage girl who had a vegan food party. If I had known the young women who was doing this, I might have said, "Don't tell them it's vegan." I thought we need to create an environment that people can relax and enjoy experiencing this food. We're so thrilled about all this great food, that it's understandable that we, in a sense, become evangelists, but I think one of the things that's most helpful is simply sitting back and enjoying our food. Eventually people notice.

What are your goals, both personal and for the world as a whole?

I need to shepherd this parenting book out into the world and make sure people know it exists. There are about 140,000 books published a year. When The Sexual Politics of Meat came out, there were about 40,000 books published per year and even being noticed then was hard. One of the ideas I have is to tell the teens that this is a book you can give to your parents. I've organized it in a way that if you're having an argument with your parents, and they're saying you can't get calcium, then you can open to the calcium entry. I tried to make it so communication between parents and teens is easier, too. It's sort of a hands-on handbook.

I've got some other books I want to do. I've still got a love for vegetarian history. I've got a huge book coming out in June called The Ethics of Diet. I didn't write it, but I shepherded it back into print. It was last in print in 1906. It's the first vegetarian anthology and it appeared in 1883.

I've neglected my yoga practice, so I need to get back to that. My other short-term goals are to continue to visit campuses and do some more vegan cooking. I think I've got three or four more books to write.

Sometimes I think it would be so wonderful if we all went to sleep and when we woke up, all the foods people take for granted were vegan! I'd really like to see violence decrease. I read a quote that war feeds war, so if you're a world at war, you teach people how to be at war. We are a world at war. We need a peaceful diet and a peaceful way of people relating personally.

Who are your personal heroes?

My partner is a hero to me. My partner works with the homeless, and he's got a lot of good political instincts. I think that's something we often need.

Susan B. Anthony has been a personal hero to me for years. Way back in 1973, we staged a Susan B. Anthony Day and that was a wonderful thing. She worked for fifty years for women's rights, and died without seeing the suffrage even granted. Now fifty percent of people don't even vote, but suffrage was never going to be the only thing that was achieved for women. It was thought that without the right to vote, how could you achieve anything else?

Gandhi is a hero for nonviolent change and Virginia Wolff for being able to write past her own madness and create a new way of writing fiction.

You have a book titled The Inner Art of Vegetarianism. What do you consider "the inner art of vegetarianism"?

Originally, the name of the book was going to be Veganism As A Spiritual Practice, but my publisher didn't think the word 'vegan' was well known enough. The Inner Art of Vegetarianism tries to capture what vegetarianism does for us spiritually. Being spiritual people, we are called to be vegetarians. When you look at what's happened in the recent years with all these New Age practices, it's so funny because you read about these New Age people eating chicken sandwiches! Some New Age people are really great about veganism, but it just seems to me that part of spirituality is being in tune with other, non-human life forms.

One of the things I try to do in The Inner Art of Vegetarianism is capture the mindset of someone who experiences vegetarianism as a spiritual act. I talk about the meditative qualities of vegetarianism. For example, yoga creates an inner space inside. Once you've created that inner space, you can say, "There's space enough for you animals. I don't have to eat you. In fact, by not eating you I am able to bring you further within and feel really connected to you because I don't have conflicts about eating dead animals."

Are there specific spiritual practices you recommend for teenagers?

I think yoga is a great practice. The discipline of yoga is helpful to bring one towards meditation. Yoga in itself is a form of body meditation.

I think a lot of young people are very driven. They have a sense that there's not enough time for everything. I identify with that. I'm very driven, and even today, I feel like I don't have time for everything, but it's really important to be able to step back from that. It's sort of a treadmill. There are so many demands on teens to be productive, and to get into certain colleges. Those are all external measurements, and I think creating the time and space to say, "Who I am right now is really OK. I don't have to improve my SATs. I don't have to get into XYZ college" is important.

I just remember being very conflicted as a teenager. I'm grateful that schools and the support there is for teens is so different now than it was when I was a teenager, but I still know that it's such a difficult time. There are peer group issues, especially for vegetarians who might not be receiving the kind of peer group support that's necessary. I'd say find something that helps you be present to yourself in a really positive way; whether that is walking, yoga, or cooking. It doesn't have to be a goal and it doesn't have to be done really well. It just has to be done to experience yourself right as you are this moment, not measured by external yardsticks.

What careers do you recommend for young people interested in promoting animal rights and vegetarianism?

I've been meeting a lot of young people who want to go into veterinary school. I even met a young person who was learning chiropractic for animals and herbal healing for animals. I've met a lot of young people who want to go into animal rights law. There is always going to be a need for professors. I know that teaching at universities is often a field that's overwhelming, but there is something to be said for figuring out ways to go to college and then graduate school and be supported doing that kind of work, so you can then create the courses to teach others. I've met some young people who are going into public health. Some people are going to schools of management, so they'll know how to run organizations.

Can you tell us about what you'll be speaking about at the Animal Rights Conference this summer?

I'm sure I'll be showing The Sexual Politics of Meat slideshow because that's a place for activists to see and hear the connection. I want to talk more about how important it is to have a feminist point of view around animal rights. To do animal rights without a feminist point of view is not exactly helpful all the time.

There are a lot of people who think animal rights activists only care about animals; they don't care about humans. I think one reason they do that is simply because they're defensive and they want to put the pressure back on the activists. Another reason they do that is because they can't envision how you can work for the homeless and be a vegan. It doesn't take anymore time. But I think sometimes animal rights contributes to that misconception because it doesn't make the necessary connections with human suffering. If the treatment of farmed animals is the perspective that has created the viewpoint that animals are objects and if that perspective is a patriarchal one, then we've got to challenge that in order to challenge the status of animals.

For instance, in my new book, The Pornography of Meat, one of the things I talk about is how all farmed animals are considered female. You eat turkey breast, which could be made from male or female animals, but then there are advertisements as though they are female breasts. One reason it's so hard to change the status of farmed animals is because they're seen as female. As long as the female has lower status in our culture, to challenge the status of farmed is going to be difficult.

Feminists have to recognize that one of the difficulties in moving women's issues forward is that we are still seen than less than human, closer to animals. There's what I call an "interlocking oppression." We can't separate them out. An example would be a battered woman who is staying with her partner because he's threatened to injure the dog. People who care about domestic violence might provide shelter for the battered woman and animal rights activists might rescue the dog, but if we don't understand how these two groups are related, than we're stuck. Then animals will continue to be killed and women will continue to be battered.

How can young people get you to speak at their college?

They can contact me at, and I can connect them to my speaking agent.