In our ongoing quest to find out what the women we admire are actually thinking, we're asking them a few questions that we really want answers to. No fluff about their newest movie or boring questions you've heard a million times before — just real talk about midlife (and what their 17-year-old self would think of their life now).
Karen Duffy is the New York Times best-selling author of Model Patient and Wise Up. She is a producer, actress, and former MTV VJ. She has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and O, The Oprah Magazine.
Read on to find out about lasting love, donkeys, Stoic philosophy, hanging out with George Clooney at the Kennedy Center Honors, and whether ghosts use the bathroom.
What have you lost patience with?
I study Stoic philosophy, and I try to navigate life with its wisdom pumping through my veins. Epictetus, my Stoic main man, reminds us, “We can’t control what happens, we can only control how we respond.” This is known as The Dichotomy of Control.
One thing that drives me mad is this idea of “anti-aging.” If we’re not aging, we’re dead. I think the belief that aging shrinks our perimeter of pleasure is baloney. Negative attitudes about aging, now that is OLD news. I just turned 60, and on most mornings, I tackle the day as though I’ve been shot out of a cannon.
The only thing we should be wary of is not living the best life we can. As Goethe wrote, “An unused life is an early death.” I’m a one-woman conga line. Age is no guarantee of maturity, so live it up!
What is the strangest situation you’ve found yourself in recently?
One of my best mates, George Clooney, who was once voted People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive*, was receiving the Kennedy Center Honors in 2022. George could invite two people as guests, and my husband, John, and I were over the moon to join the Clooneys and celebrate this well-deserved honor in D.C.
We visited the Oval Office, met President Biden, and attended a dinner with him and our dazzling first lady, hosted by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the upstairs dining room of the Department of State building.
On the way to dinner, I was mesmerized to see the Roll of Honor, a marble-and-gold display of names of U.S. diplomats who gave the ultimate sacrifice while serving our country. The first was for William Palfrey, who was appointed consul general to France and was lost at sea in 1780.
As I walked through the hall, I was intrigued to see that it stated their name, the year they perished, and how they died. Shipwrecks, murders, loss at sea, earthquakes, smallpox, plane and motorcycle crashes. A few died in volcanic eruptions, or from landmines, snipers and rocket attacks, and bombings. Several died saving others from drowning. They all died heroically, and I kept thinking about the last moments of our fallen brothers and sisters, how the facts of how they died are chiseled in the marble. I spent so long looking, I was late getting to dinner, and my husband had to hurry me along.
"I’ve learned that we are the sum of our choices."
The Kennedy Center Honors ceremony was beautiful and very touching. It was a great honor to ride George’s coattails on his big night, cheering on the lads from U2, hearing Gladys Knight sing, and dining with Eddie Vedder and Garth Brooks. Watching Sasha Baron Cohen as Borat roast Bono had me crying with laughter, but learning about Doris Knittle, a nurse working for the U.S. Foreign Service who had been murdered in Afghanistan in 1970, had me weeping other kinds of tears.
*I have also been honored by People magazine: Years ago, I was voted one of People’s “Worst Dressed” in the “head-to-toe horror” category. The photo in question was taken when I was taking my little niece to a movie premiere, and I was wearing a trench coat and a gigantic hat that looked like it made a forced landing on my head.
What do you want more of in life?
I am so grateful for this life. The Stoic philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius wrote, “What a precious privilege it is to be alive to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” His words wake up my mind and revel in the lucky fact of our existence.
But, since you are asking, I live on a farm, and we have 12 cows and a baby water buffalo named Walter who is insanely adorable. But I love our jackasses, Jake and Mason, so much. I refer to the animals on our farm as “used” rather than "rescues" (I didn’t climb into a burning orphanage to save them). We got them from neighbors who could no longer care for them. I asked for a donkey for my 50th birthday, and my husband and son found the best pair of brother donkeys I could ever dream of! So I would like more donkeys, please!
The biggest lesson you’ve learned so far?
Just 25 years ago, I ran off to Jamaica and eloped with a fantastic guy I had met only a few times. John and I were dating other people at the time, so when we got back, I had to call my boyfriend and tell him I had gotten married. A few months later, my old boyfriend met my new husband, and the old boyfriend said, “You could not have married a better man.”
My husband has exquisite manners, and he’s old-school. He wakes up looking pulled together. His charisma lights up every room. I’ve learned so much by marrying the person I most admire in the world. He’s taught me to be a better person, an entertaining partner, and happy mother to our son, Jack.
I’ve learned that we are the sum of our choices. Epictetus wrote, “If you make beautiful choices, you will make a beautiful life.” That line reverberated through me like a cherry bomb in a cymbal factory.
What would you tell your 17-year-old self?
I grew up in a big Irish Catholic family, and it was expected that all of us find a way to volunteer. The former U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm said, “Service is the rent for the privilege of living on this Earth.” That was a Duffy Family motto. I still believe in service: I’m a certified hospital chaplain, a mentor, and a member of the Community Emergency Response Team in my community board. I just wish I had expanded my worldview. I had aimed for a service profession, and I started as a recreational therapist. I would rewind the tape and study philosophy and history. But hey, I get to live out my polymathic dreams now.
What’s your secret superpower?
I have an incredible memory — it’s not quite photographic; I’d say it is photogenic. We forget about 80 percent of what we have learned the day before, so I make efforts to keep my noodle sharp. I handwrite notes, memorize a quote a day, and use mnemonics. Just please forgive me for forgetting to hand in these questions on time!
Have you ever seen a ghost?
I live in a farmhouse that was built in the 1700s, and I have never had a spooky ghost experience. I figured if there was ever a house to haunt, it would be our Arcadia Farm. A buddy of mine told me that he’d start believing in ghosts when he saw ghost poop. I don’t know what to think, but I’m very happy not to believe in them.