Big Sex Little Death: A Memoir

Big Sex Little Death: A Memoir

by Susie Bright

Paperback(First Trade Paper Edition)

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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."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781580053938
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 04/24/2012
Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Susie Bright is the author of national bestsellers Full Exposure and The Sexual State of the Union—as well as The Best American Erotica and Herotica series, which ushered in women’s erotic publishing. She the host of Audible’s In Bed With Susie Bright, the beloved and longest running sex education show in the history of broadcasting. She was co-founder and editor of On Our Backs magazine, and was the first journalist to cover erotic cinema and the porn business in the mainstream press. A progenitor of the sex-positive movement, Bright taught the first university course on pornography, and brought lasting sexual influence to her role in films like Bound and The Celluloid Closet. She has one daughter, Aretha Bright, and lives with her partner, Jon Bailiff. She currently resides in Santa Cruz, California.

Read an Excerpt


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.

Table of Contents

Preface 9

First Bites

Baby Teeth 19

India 26

The Irish Side 30

Way Out West 37

D-I-V-O-R-C-E 42

Runs Through It 53

Bleeding 60

The Time Has Come, the Walrus Said 70

The Red Tide

The Bunny Trip 77

The Churning Mist 83

Swim Banquet 90

George Putnam's Show 96

Sex Education 104

You are Now a Cadre 110

Patty Hearst 117

Dago Armour's Apartment 123

The New Branch Organizer 137

The Master Freight Agreement 148

Greyhound to Detroit via Amarillo 157

The Aorta 164

Commie Camp 167

Relocation 183

The Perfume Counter 193

Expulsion 200

All Along the Girltower

School Days 213

How I Got Introduced to On Our Backs 222

The Feminist Vibrator Store 231

The Baby Showers 238

Models Crying 247

Les Belles Dames Sans Merci 258

The Daddies 274

Motherhood 285

Rotation 289

Aging Badly 298

When I Came Back from My Honeymoon 305

Santa Cruz 314

Notes 318

Photo Credits 320

Customer Reviews

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Big Sex, Little Death 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
nancyewhite on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love her essays. I love her passion and chutzpah. I admired her during the Lesbian Sex Wars of the early 1990s. I really didn't enjoy this memoir. It was disjointed and, more unforgivably, flat. If you are interested in the Socialist/Labor movement of the late 1970s or the sex radical movement of the 80s/90s or the history of On Our Backs, it's worth getting for an overview, but generally, I'm sad to report this just wasn't very enjoyable.
kraaivrouw on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As a person who came of age during the roaring '70's only to enter college and adulthood for the early years of HIV, I've always admired Susie Bright. She's been a sex-positive educator throughout her career - openly gay, an editor of annual collections of erotic stories. She founded On Our Backs, the first magazine for gay women. She was the first female critic of the X-Rated Critics Organization and wrote feminist reviews of erotic films for the Penthouse Forum. She sassy and funny and was a beacon during the Reagan-era for treating sex as a normal and extra fun part of life. I was really excited to get this memoir, but stopped reading about halfway in. It's not that it wasn't well-written or interesting (it is both), but for some reason it just didn't grab me. Maybe I already know as much as I want to know about Susie Bright?