At the risk of making a dozen devoted enemies for life, I can only say that the whiffs I get from the ink of [women writers] are fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin's whimsy, or else bright and stillborn.
Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself
How does a woman, an American woman born in midcentury, write a memoir? The chutzpah and the femmechismo needed to undertake the project go against the apron. I was raised with, “Don’t think you’re so big.” Yet to be a writer at all, you have to inflict your ego on a page and stake your reputation. To be a poet, the effect should be transcendent, and disarming.
I already knew the best result of my memoir, before I finished it. The days of my writinga couple years in earnestinspired many of the family and friends around me to write their story, to put a bit of their legacy in ink. Reading what they had to say was a revelation. If more of us knew the story of our tribeand carried it from one generation to the nextit seems like the interest would pay off. Maybe a few less mistakes on the global scale.
I know so little of my own family history that, when I was young, I often read memoirs in search of blood relation. I wanted to be Emma Goldman. I wanted to digest Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook like biscuits. I felt like Harriet the Spy, looking for a dumbwaiter to hide in, scribbling down all I witnessed.
At the outset of my memoir, I thought I would bring myself up-to-date on the autobiography racket. I researched the current bestsellers among women authors who had contemplated their life’s journey. The results were so dispiriting: diet books. The weighty befores and afters. You look up men’s memoirs and find some guy climbing a mountain with his bare teeththe parallel view for women are the mountains of cookies they rejected or succumbed to.
That was humiliating. The next tier of bestselling female memoirs, often overlapping with the diet tales, is the tell-all by a movie star, athlete, or political figure. The first two subjects are designed to exploit gossipthe last are so boring and circumspect you wonder if they’re funded by government cheese.
The year I started writing this, one of the most-talked about women’s memoirs was by the daughter of the outgoing U.S. vice president, Dick Cheney, who explained how she, Miss Mary, could be a God-fearing, union-busting, lesbian Daddy’s Girl who would never put civil rights in front of a corporate interest. I assume most of the sales were to people who wanted an amusing brick for their toilet.
The last group of popular memoirsand this goes across the gender divideare the ones in which the author unloads a great deal of weight in the form of psychic burdens from childhood. The subject is nearly driven mad by lunatic or intoxicated parenting, sidetracked by years of self-destruction bred into their family line, only to be redeemed at the end by a clean break from addiction and pathology.
I’m as vulnerable as anyone to the toxicity of the American nuclear family. But I wouldn’t call it disease or moral failure as much as I would point the finger at a class system that grinds people down like a metal file. Who doesn’t need a drink? Who isn’t going to crack and lash out at the people they love? I have a lot of sympathy for the dark places in my family history, while at the same time repeating my mantra, “This can’t go on.”
I came of age and became a sexual adult at the moment that womenin jeans and no bras, of coursewere taking to the streets. Sexual liberation and feminism were identical to my best friends in high school. As I entered my twenties and feminists began to disown one another over sexual expression, it reminded me all too well of what I went though in the labor movement, civil rights, the Left“let the weak fight among themselves.” Radical feminists didn’t need FBI infiltrationthe mechanism for sisterly cannibalization was already well under way.
When I was first involved in politics, it was part of our group ethos not to proclaim our names and so-called talent all over the mapit went against our sense of the collective. When people ask me how I became a professional writer, I couldn’t give them a “climb-the-ladder” scenario, because I went out my way to be part of a group. Everyone was supposed to know how to write, talk, run a web press, unclog a toilet, stage a demonstration.
I saw a news article today by a corporate headhunter who said he liked to get under his applicants’ skin by asking them how, exactly, they were most misunderstood. What an endearing literary question!
It was a good interrogation to ask myself, midmemoir. What do people think about me that is off base? And how do I gauge this misperception?
Most people unfamiliar with my work imagine that anyone with the youthful nickname of “Susie Sexpert” must be an adolescent airhead, a happy but too-dim nympho, someone who set out to shock her strict parentsor, alternatively, was raised in a den of hedonists.
They also think, along the “dumb blond” trajectory, that I just haven’t thought things through, about where sexual liberation might leadhow a female Narcissus could drown in a pool of clitoral self-absorption and drag unfortunate others with her.
I would say, for one, I have never swung from a chandelier, but I would like to try before I die. I haven't set any records in sexual feats or numbersfar from it. I was motivated, always, from the sting of social injusticethe cry of “That isn’t fair!” gets a lot more impulsive behavior from me than, “I want to get off.”
My parents were far more radical than I am, because of basic changes in their generation: My mother didn’t die in childbirth. She went to college. My parents married even though they weren’t of the same religion. They divorcedbefore that became the American way of life. My father’s ashes can be found in a Native burial ground instead of a WASP family plot. They strayed so much further than I did from their immediate ancestors. They were better educated than I, but I have had a bigger mouth. I don’t know who to blame for that.
The other side of my character, the one that isn’t the “Sí, se puede” version of Auntie Mame, is exemplified by loss, constant and too-early. I’m more preoccupied with people dying than people coming.
In the world of sexual risk and revolutionary politics, a lot of voyagers die before their time. Evangelist Jerry Falwell famously preached at feminists, queers, and integrationists that all their fatal problemstheir assassinations and plagueswere retribution from an angry God, who wanted people to keep their legs crossed, accept the minimum wage, and drink at the “colored fountain.”
I don’t believe in God or retribution, but I accept that there are consequences from pushing, hard. Pioneers don’t look good on an actuarial table. Sex radicals tend to be excellent at hospice care, at the rites of the dying, at memories that leave legacies.