In 1979 McCarthy returned to New York for the publication of Cannibals and Missionaries and to visit her brother, actor Kevin McCarthy, 65. At the suggestion of PEOPLE, Kevin agreed to play journalist and interview his celebrated sister.
You're widely celebrated for your so-called caustic wit. Does it come naturally? Are you proud of it?
Of course it comes naturally and I don't know if I'm proud of it. I enjoy it, I enjoy laughing.
You seem to get a great deal of open pleasure in your own natural gaiety, in your own irony and humor.
You mean laugh at my own jokes?
In print you have the reputation of being cold and ruthless, you know, a bitter quill dipped in venom. When critics say you are seeking revenge on someone or something, what is your response?
Do you like writing?
It's a terrible job. I can produce 19 variants of one page—often! Of course I rewrite. That's why it's a terrible job.
Who is your audience?
I think quite a few simple people, not illiterate, but very ordinary. I'm not an author that's greatly loved by an elite.
Do the figures of our parents, whom we lost in the 1918 influenza epidemic, come back to you?
No, not unless something evokes them. As far as I'm concerned, they've really turned into their photographs.
Were you ever jealous of me?
I don't know, Kevin, maybe as a young child. But I was envious when you ran away in such a dramatic way.
I remember saying when I got back to that dismal foster home, "I ran away to an orphan asylum." I was looking for an orphan asylum to go to. But you ran away twice!
I think we four kids were difficult children, already a handful.
Did you ever go to a psychoanalyst?
After I was married to Edmund Wilson I was sent to three, don't you remember? But I don't recommend psychoanalysis. I think the whole thing is an absurd series of myths. It's never in any way been empirically verified.
Why did your marriages break up?
I don't know. But it's never been incompatibility, except, let's say, with Edmund Wilson. And in that case, there was no other man in the picture when I left him. It was [laughing] desperation!
I and my wife, Kate, are, you know, 35 years apart, and we're about to have a child. I have three children by my first marriage and a grandchild, Jessica, almost 6. Is it an okay thing?
I think in this case, yes. Kate is going to be 29, has been married before and has a child. And you, Kevin, seem tremendously young for your age. But usually it's grotesque—these ancient men with 18-year-old girls. You never see it the other way around.
When you look back on childhood, do you feel you are compensating in your career for some of those wounds?
That sort of psychiatric stuff doesn't compel my belief. Its tendency is to take any mystery out of our experience, and to imply one has a kind of knowledge one doesn't have.
Then what is your secret?
Well, as far as you and I go, I think it's natural that we as orphan children—rather looked down on, different from other children—would try to distinguish ourselves favorably. I know that as a child I had this attention-getting business very strongly, and [laughing] alas, I still have.
Would you say that my becoming an actor was to get attention?
Yes, it could be. And I suspect our Irish father was drawn to the theater and drama, which might have been an early influence.
I vividly recall realizing in my first Shakespearean play at the University of Minnesota that I could speak—I could speak out! But you, too, wanted to be on the stage, didn't you?
Yes, but at Vassar, when I played in Chaucer's Knight's Tale, I shook so hard that this papier mâché tower I was in nearly fell over and the audience was laughing. I still have stage fright, a fear of appearing in public.
You seem to me fiercely indomitable, always ready to take up arms. Why?
For the fun of it, perhaps! Or a mixture of fun and principle. If nobody will speak out on a subject, well, I will.
I admired your courage in going to the battlefields of South and North Vietnam.
Well, I wasn't the first woman journalist. Barbara Deming [from a Greenwich Village journal, Liberation] got to North Vietnam first. And during those bombardments, I was scared. Once we had to flatten ourselves in a ditch when the American bombers came over. I never went on patrol. I felt I was rather weak, but I wouldn't have learned anything about the Tightness or wrongness of our actions by going on patrol. It was the most dangerous thing you could do. I felt it would be a kind of betrayal of Jim, my husband, if I were killed.