Big Sex Little Death: A Memoir

Big Sex Little Death: A Memoir

by Susie Bright

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Ever wondered why there’s no female voice as bold, erotic, unflinching, and revealing as Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, or Philip Roth? There is. It belongs to Susie Bright. From fearful Irish Catholic Girl Scout to gun-toting teenage revolutionary — and finally the "The Avatar of American Erotica" (The New York Times) — Bright’s life

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Ever wondered why there’s no female voice as bold, erotic, unflinching, and revealing as Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, or Philip Roth? There is. It belongs to Susie Bright. From fearful Irish Catholic Girl Scout to gun-toting teenage revolutionary — and finally the "The Avatar of American Erotica" (The New York Times) — Bright’s life story is shaped as much by America’s sexual awakening as the national sexual landscape was altered by Bright herself. In Big Sex Little Death, Bright introduces us to her influences and experiences, including her early involvement with notorious high school radicals The Red Tide, as well as the magazine she cofounded in the 1980s, On Our Backs — which turned the lesbian and bisexual community upside down before it took the straight world by storm. Explosive yet intimate, Big Sex Little Death is pure Susie: bold, free-spirited, and unpredictable — larger than life, yet utterly true to life.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Writing in explicit sexual detail that makes the Diaries of her feminist icon predecessor Anaïs Nin seem tame, Bright (Mommy's Little Girl: On Sex, Motherhood, Porn, and Cherry Pie) relates her life from childhood to the present. Sexually active from her early teens, Bright went on to champion the cause of female sexuality, breaking through social taboos, especially those concerning lesbianism. A founding member of the lesbian periodical On Our Backs, Bright produced writing and photography that reached a demographic largely ignored by the mainstream media. During her teenage years, she was active in socialist causes, traveling the United States and joining regional International Socialist groups bent on achieving extreme-liberal agendas. A supporter of the rights of those marginalized by society, the author makes clear that her purpose in life is to loosen society's restrictions in order to allow freedom of expression for all. VERDICT Not for the prudish or faint of heart, Bright's memoir would interest readers intent on learning about contemporary female sexual history from one of its most influential figures.—Lisa Guidarini, Algonquin Area P.L. Dist., IL
From the Publisher
"Susie Bright is a one-woman counterculture, a teenaged socialist revolutionary turned Reagan-era sexual freedom fighter. In this lively, bittersweet memoir, she recounts a life full of political and erotic adventures and betrayals, a life at once deeply subversive and totally American, defined as it is by the idea that people should be free to express and pursue their own visions of happiness, no matter how uncomfortable it makes the prigs and scolds among us." — Tom Perotta, author of Little Children and Election

"Susie Bright's real life is just as compelling—more compelling—than her sex life. And that's saying something." — Dan Savage

"I have a very scary feeling Susie Bright is not making any of this up. Guns, drugs, threesomes, socialist factionalism, a stabbing . . . all before she got her G.E.D.?" — Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

"Big Sex Little Death is subtle, hot, enthralling, raw and tender—I loved it. Susie Bright is a national treasure." — Josh Marshall, Editor and Publisher, Talking Points Memo

"The best-named writer in America, Susie Bright has written a witty, wise, and enlightening memoir." — Erica Jong

Kirkus Reviews

"Godmother" of women's erotica reflects on her young life as a self-styled political and sexual revolutionary.

Longtime sex educator, provocateur and journalist, Bright (Love and Lust: A Sex Journal, 2010, etc.) was born to an eccentric academic couple with an abiding professional and recreational interest in India and Indian culture. Early on, the author bounced back and forth between her mother and father's care, from Los Angeles to Edmonton. Bright's remembrances of her parents, who were bitterly divorced when she was two, aren't especially vivid, and what she divulges about her mother is none-too-flattering. Most striking is the recollection of her mom's failed attempt to drive their VW into a frozen Canadian river, a suicide attempt that would have also taken Bright's life. With such an unstable upbringing, it's not surprising that the author turned to radical politics in high school and daily confrontation with pre–Equal Rights Amendment sexism from all sides. She went off to "commie" camp as a teenager and become editorially involved with The Red Tide, a leftist publication. After waltzing through college, she decided her interests were in gender and sexual politics, and she became the founding editor of the erotica magazineOn Our Backs. Yet however heroic Bright's sexual and political accomplishments may or may not be, one gets the sense that her middle-class activist antics stem more from superficial reaction rather than personal conviction. Throughout, the author's self-congratulatory tone may prevent readers from fully embracing Bright's worthy sexually and politically liberating accomplishments. For someone whose career and reputation rests so heavily on being a sex expert and erotica guru, she writes about her own fairly tame sexcapades with a coldly cerebral and often ironic detachment.

Surprisingly dry, uninspiring rendering of a potentially intriguing life story.

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Product Details

Avalon Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Trade Paper Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.00(d)

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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 writing—a couple years in earnest—inspired 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 tribe—and carried it from one generation to the next—it 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 teeth—the 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 gossip—the 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 memoirs—and this goes across the gender divide—are 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 women—in jeans and no bras, of course—were 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 infiltration—the 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 map—it 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 parents—or, 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 lead—how 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 numbers—far from it. I was motivated, always, from the sting of social injustice—the 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 divorced—before 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 problems—their assassinations and plagues—were 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.

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