As it turns out, Ashley Judd looks somewhat chubby or bloated lately.

I hadn’t noticed.

In fact, I had somewhat forgotten that she existed.

But apparently she is out promoting a new project, and at some point during the press junket, she was characterized as looking “puffy” or as if she’s gaining weight.

Little did they know, boy-o, the press had objectified the wrong Hollywood-actress-who-has-posed-nude-to-help-sell-magazines-and-fronted-a-cosmetic-line-but-also-objects-to-patriarchal-beauty-standards*:

 

On Super Tuesday, after a blast of last-minute organization, Rick Santorum won the North Dakota caucus. I spent a strange and happy chunk of my kid-hood in the city of Minot, barely an hour from the Canadian border, and I attended the St. Leo’s parish school downtown, just blocks south of the Souris River and the giant red neon sign of the Bridgeman Creamery. Because this was also a time when my parents happened to be grassroots crusaders in the anti-ERA, anti-secular humanism textbook battles of the late 1970s, I feel a sense of déja vu to see Santorum win in North Dakota.

This is another way of saying I watch him win and feel about ten years old.

I wish the magazine Parenting would just go the full shot and rename itself Mothering; it’s never too late to be honest.

It’s a magazine by women, about women, and for women, with only a few obligatory Man Ghettos, a page or two on which fathers rear their dense and uncomprehending heads. I won’t bore you with comparative page counts or (follow the money!) an analysis of the advertising: more tampons than pickup trucks (and the latter at least can be gender neutral).

When Secretary Sebelius says that Plan B could pose health risks for teens, is she really thinking straight?  After all, Dr. Megan Evans, in RH Reality Check, writes, “Tylenol is over-the-counter and far more dangerous with far more potential for adverse outcomes. Oh, and pregnancy in a ten- to 11-year-olds also has far more adverse outcomes than a small, but effective dose of Plan B.”  Wise words.  In fact, according to the Guardian, for every 100,000 American women who give birth to live babies, 16.7 of them die.  And that’s not to mention the damage that post-natal depression can cause.

Evans’s grounded, intelligent point will doubtless be ignored by many.  Witness that since news of the Plan B decision broke, parents have been stating how brokenhearted they’d be if their own daughter didn’t ask their advice before taking Plan B.  This, they argue, supports Sebelius’s decision.  But the ruling isn’t just about parents who adore their kids.  It is also about young people who come from abusive families and are afraid to turn to their guardians for support.  It’s about those who live in the middle of nowhere and can’t drive themselves to the doctor.  It’s about those who have been date-raped and can barely think straight.

And it’s also about all of us, regardless of sex, gender and age, because when you control human sexuality, you control intimacy, life and the body itself.

I’d be surprised if that wasn’t a power trip.

Given these recent events, my political fantasy world has gone wild.  I mean, what if young people felt so afraid of pregnancy that they decided to stop screwing the opposite sex, but decided, instead, to all start having same-sex relationships.  “Don’t risk pregnancy,” they’d shout, “be gay!  There are fewer risks!”  I bet parents and politicians would be hitting the roof, showing their true homophobia, and Plan B would be in the bubblegum aisle sooner than you could say FDA.

Or what about if all the heterosexual under-seventeens who live in states where sex toys are illegal each ordered a vibrating rubber duck from Good Vibes, figuring this was safer than partnered sex without Plan B?  This could prompt the Vibrating Duck Revolution of 2012.  Fifteen year-olds throughout America would be sinking into their bubble baths, pledging their virginity to their rubber ducks.  And what would the police do?  Storm into these bathrooms and arrest these young rebels?  I’m not being entirely ironic when I say they might. I’m sure families, religious leaders and politicians would go nuts.  There’d be complaints about police pocketing ducks that weren’t theirs to pocket and there’d be anti-masturbation posters everywhere.  “We do not have evidence to prove that vibrating ducks are safe for under-seventeen’s,” the politicians would announce.  “Further testing is needed.”

See the mad place this is sending me to?

If Plan B is safer for an eleven year-old than Tylenol and they can also buy condoms in the bubblegum aisle, then the decision on Plan B is definitely a political one.

So.  What’s Plan C?

 

 

A Final Note:  This is the final installment of Hot Topic.   I have so enjoyed writing at TNB and receiving all your wonderful comments.  Thank you all so much for reading!  I will still see you all on the TNB site, as part of the community.  In the meantime, please do keep up with me.  I blog, most days, at www.lanafox.com.

Be safe, be proud, be you.

-LF

 

So I’m at a party and a stranger asks what I do.  When I tell them I’m a sex columnist, they laugh and joke that they should send me a letter.  “I’m not that sort of columnist,” I say.

Their brow creases.  “Well then, what do you write about?”

When I tell them sexual politics, they often look twice as confused.  “What’s that?” they ask, or else they shrug and say, “Isn’t that quite a limited topic?”

It isn’t their fault that they aren’t aware.  In most communities, sex is so taboo that people just don’t register the sexual side of political issues.  They know Michele Bachmann’s anti-gay stance is destructive, but they don’t particularly consider it a sexual topic.  Neither do they think that the Miss Universe contest, or Anders Beiring Breivik’s sexist manifesto, impinge on people’s sexual lives. That’s not to say they don’t care, because often they really do.  But the word “sex” doesn’t enter their minds.  Brothel closures, sex workers’ rights, condoms in porn, gay suicide…once I mention these topics, a light goes on and they’re with me.  But the fact that we’re not encouraged to view these issues as sexually political speaks to the effect that sexual silencing can have.  (In fact, in a recent column, I wrote about Michele Bachmann and the damaging power that her silence can wield).

The truth is, when we don’t talk about a powerful human issue, suddenly it’s everywhere — the elephant in the room.  That elephant can be so darn hard to ignore that we have to play psychological tricks with ourselves to keep it invisible.  Our unconscious gets used to automatically suppressing the sexual so that our conscious minds stop making the connection.  This could be viewed as an adaptive quality.  (You should see how often people glare at me because I even mention sex).  But I believe we need to start reversing this process, especially since so many are missing the lies we’re being told about sexuality.

Seeing as you are reading this post, I’m confident that your eyes are open to sexual issues.  So I thought you might be especially stirred by a list I created in order to answer the question, “What is Sexual Politics?”  I’ve entitled the list, “What Sexual Politics Is,” and it contains some (but by no means all) of the political issues that fire me up, right now:

Sexual Politics is:

When you work in a brothel where your clients dodge payment, until the brothel building is deemed structurally unsafe, and, much to the delight of the neighbors, is eventually closed down.  The fact that you were working in dangerous conditions isn’t mentioned by the local press. (And will you get arrested?  And Jesus, where will you sleep tonight?).

When five year-old children in Amsterdam ask their teacher “What is sex?” and he tells them it is a loving act, and none of the parents prosecute.

When your teenage son commits suicide because he was bullied for being gay, and then, after his death, the bullies continue to chant “We’re glad you’re dead,” when a grieving family member is near.

Sexual politics is a  vibrator that’s illegal, even when it’s shaped like a rubber duck.  It’s when queer sex and queer love are looked on as sinful.  It’s when you want to marry your lover, but aren’t allowed.

It’s when a porn movie, with consenting actors, is more shocking to many than the war scenes on the news.

It’s the boy who says no to condoms.  It’s the girl who says no to pleasure.  It’s the kid who feels neither female nor male, but is told that isn’t good enough, and wants hir life to end.  (If this is you, dear one, please look to Kate Bornstein who is amazing).

It’s the man who spends time with a sex worker and suddenly feels embraced and at peace, even though, technically, he’s just made himself a criminal.

It’s a world that doesn’t understand when a trans woman is having sex with a male partner and they identify as gay.  Or a world in which people who are attracted to both men and women are told that they aren’t real unless they choose.

It is a woman who has experienced deep trauma and decides to bravely enact a rape fantasy to deal with her pain.  Then, after this role-play with a trusted partner, she feels significantly healed, but is described by so-called “feminists” as as victimizing herself.

It’s a Facebook wall of rape jokes by men who, apparently, are making jovial confessions online, yet Facebook refuses to remove the conversation.

It’s when the word “cunt” is considered more offensive than “cock,” or when you’re in love with more than one person, yet society tells you you’re not.

(And that’s just the start of it).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mx Bond, you’re so pretty! Have you always been this pretty?

Well, thank you for noticing! I’ve probably always been this pretty, it’s just that lately I feel so damned good about myself. I, uh, think it must have something to do with my insides. They say beauty is on the inside. I don’t know what’s in there, but whatever it is, it’s really trying to get out.

 

Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels, is your first book. Did you imagine that your first book would be published by the Feminist Press?

No. I didn’t. I was fairly certain it would be published by Simon and Schuster. When I was a kid I heard of Simon and Schuster, because Carly Simon’s father ran it, and she was a big pop star. I thought it would be fun to run around with a group of friends who were really into music, who read books, and who had access to great drugs. But now, I’ve discovered, most rock stars are old and tired and feminism is where it’s at. Carly Simon is still fierce, but there is no other publisher that could impress me more than the Feminist Press at this point.

 

Your book is about your childhood between the ages of 11 and 16. Considering your lifestyle, how can you remember back that far?

Oh, my, what an interesting question! It’s true that I may suffer severe memory loss incurred during certain periods of time in my life, but I recently read an article about Alzheimer’s, and in it the reporter told me that most Alzheimer’s patients can remember nearly every song they learned when they were around 13 years of age so odds are our childhoods remain with us—at least our 13th year—and it’s a good thing, because I was 13 when I was de-flowered in a tree house!  You can read more about that in my book. Anyway, because of this theory, I think there’s a pretty good chance most of the memories in this book are correct. It was a difficult time in my life; I don’t think anyone remembers puberty as their greatest moment, and because it is a very specific time period, it doesn’t give a general overview of my relationship with my parents, which has for the most part, been very positive. But, I’m glad it seems to be resonating with a lot of other trans and queer people.

 

When you wrote this book were you writing it as a way of illustrating life from a trans-child’s perspective?

No, that’s the funny thing. I’ve been surprised by how many people have picked up on the book as being written from a trans-child’s point of view. At the time I didn’t think of myself as a trans-child, I just thought of myself as being me and I was telling the story of myself and a boy who grew up in my neighborhood who, like me, was diagnosed with mental health issues later in life that I believed were there all along. In telling this story, I was looking back through the lens of someone who had recently been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. I consciously chose to leave a lot about my experience as a transgendered person out of the book because that part seemed to me to be another story altogether. Evidently, I was wrong. I now realize the fact that I am a trans-person makes it obvious that my story would be perceived as being told by one. But at the time I was writing I wasn’t thinking in those terms.

 

You’ve said in previous interviews that your favorite fictional heroine is Mariah Wyeth from Joan Didion’s book, Play It As It Lays. What’s so great about her?

I like that Mariah Wyeth experiences a lot of what I aspired to as a child: living in Hollywood, having a handsome husband, being beautiful, a movie star. These were things I thought would make me happy when I was growing up in a small conservative town in western Maryland. But when I read Play It As It Lays, I realized that wasn’t necessarily true. Mariah in the end came to the determination that nothing mattered. This may seem like a bleak outlook, but I think that once you realize that nothing really matters, you are free to decide which things actually matter to you and invest your time and energy in them. You are able to write your own story and are free to attach importance and relevance to whatever you choose as you tell yourself the story of who you are and what your life is all about. I don’t necessarily agree with all of Joan Didion’s ideas or perspectives, but I’m grateful that by creating the character of Mariah Wyeth, she gave me that insight. Now my life is a story that I tell myself and I don’t feel that I have to be annexed or oppressed by the stories other people choose to inhabit regarding their own beliefs or how they choose to perceive me.

 

Oh My Goddess, Mx Bond! That is so intense. How do you come up with this stuff?

Well, I spend a lot of time thinking… but, I don’t get too carried away. I think it’s important to remain in the shallow end of the pool, otherwise you are likely to drown yourself. Just because you know how to swim, doesn’t mean you always have to get your hair wet. Can I say that off all the people who’ve ever interviewed me, you are my absolute favorite?

 

Why thanks, Mx Bond. I’m glad you’re not one of those tortured, conflicted writers who thinks it is important to impress everybody with how miserable you are.

Oh, no. I save the misery and depression for those who know me best. Namely my cat, Pearl, who has a very stoic nature and my most significant other, who has a tremendous capacity to tune me out when I get to be too ridiculous. And if the going gets to be too much, if I really need a break, I just get out of the house and go look at shoes. Shoes always cheer me up.

 

Wasn’t it shoes that got you into all this trouble in the first place?

Yes, in fact it was. If my grandmother hadn’t had such a fantastic shoe collection, it would have taken me a lot longer to discover that my impulses were not “gender appropriate.” Who knows? I might have ended up some tragic looter, raiding Footlockers instead of the glamorous lady authoress you are speaking with today. And let’s face it, in the end of the day, life isn’t about misery and sneakers, it’s about love and high heels.

 

Well said, Mx Bond!

Thank you.

 

Rae Bryant’s short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals, releases from Patasola Press, NY in June 2011. Her stories have appeared in BLIP Magazine (formerly Mississippi Review), Opium Magazine, and PANK, among other publications and have been nominated and short-listed for several awards. She has work forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, Gargoyle Magazine and other journals. Rae has received Fellowships from the VCCA and Johns Hopkins University, where she earned a Masters in Writing, awarded as Outstanding Graduate. This summer she’ll be attending the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Conference on Craft in Florence, Italy as a JHU Fellow.

We caught up to Rae at her home outside Washington, D.C. for this interview.

Being pregnant is interesting to you.  But you are not the first person to be pregnant or the first pregnant person anyone has known.  You are not the most important pregnant person anyone has known.  You are not even the only pregnant person in the world, country, state, or city at this exact moment.  You are probably the only pregnant person in your house.  But not necessarily.

Being pregnant is not exceptional.


Metaphorically, a chimera is a bogeyman, monster, or other fanciful mental fabrication comprised of grotesquely disparate parts.

In mythology, Chimera was a fire-breathing monster.  She was a child of Typhon and a sister of Cerberus & Hydra.  She had the body of a goat or ram, the hindquarters of a dragon, and the head of a lion (most depictions show her with the heads of the other two animals as well).  In some genealogies, she was the mother of the Sphinx.  Seeing Chimera was a omen of natural disasters like storms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions.

Chimerism is also a genetic anomaly.

Real-life  genetic chimeras have the DNA of more than one distinct individual, usually just in a handful of organs.  True chimerism results from the fusion of fraternal multiples very early in zygotic development.

A chimeric mother may, for example, have ovaries and a uterus from her fused female fraternal twin.  As such, the DNA in them would not match the DNA that made up the rest of her body, so the children she conceived,  carried, and gave birth to would not technically–at least genetically–be her children.  They would be her nieces & nephews.

Ultimately, you could say, such children would be born by surrogate.  But the whole reproductive system, not just the fertilized eggs, would be tenants in a host body.

It boggles the mind(s).


“How are you feeling?”

I don’t know how many times I’ve asked this question of a pregnant woman and not actually cared what the response was.

Most of the time, while pregnant women obligatorily answer my obligatory question about their health, I scan the room to find someone who can drink alcohol–preferably male–and make plans to escape to his company at once.

I have never fit well with women.  I have no particular allegiance to my gender (at least not for sake of my gender alone), and I don’t generally trust its members.  I consider myself a feminist, but only insofar as feminism is, foremost, a sort of individualism & autonomy advocacy.  It just so happens that it’s especially for females.  Women make me uncomfortable, even more so if they’re beset with a fundamentally female affliction.

There is, I’ve found, a tendency for reproduction to have the general social effect of a middle school dance.  Girls on this side, boys on that side.

It’s my worst nightmare to be isolated among women and left to talk about nothing but women things.  So if I am to talk about pregnancy, we won’t have any of that uterine cult, Red Tent nonsense.

And even where pregnant woman are not being sentimental about their gender, being in the company of most pregnant people is not altogether unlike being in a nursing home, hospital, or hospice center. The primary topics of conversation are medical in nature.  Or if the conversation is not directly medical, it will still call to mind hospitals, medical issues, internal anatomy, and bizarre physiological processes, creating a sort of sickly clinical atmosphere wherever one is, whether at a fancy dinner, innocently trying to grocery shop, or at Disney World.


There you are on some sunshiny Orlando day, maybe in line for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  Your pregnant friend is chatting away about doula hunting, and suddenly you’re compelled to consider burst blood vessels, blood, mucus, and your best friend shitting the bed in front of God and doctors and family alike.

Later, the gleeful giggle of preschoolers, the whimsical pastels of Main Street, USA, and the spectre of excrement, bodily fluids, and torn sinew hanging over your burger lunch at the Crystal Palace while your friend pokes three fingers into her bulbous stomach, chewing and grimacing as her fetus grinds a heel into her liver.


Everyone’s always trying to cover it up.  Like pregnancy is a spiritual experience rather than a physical one.  It’s the “miracle” of life.  This condition, which human evolution, in 3 million years, has not managed to perfect well enough to keep a woman from vomiting for 3 months straight or wetting herself every time she laughs, is considered a “blessing.”

Pregnancy is supposed to be this sweet, gentle image–soft-focus, vignetted.  But there’s an unspoken, septic quality.  Underneath the euphemisms and precious sentiment, there’s something very Dorian Gray.  The “glow” is a greasy face.   The woman gazes lovingly down upon a creature who is pissing into her belly.  And then inhaling it.


It’s the happiest time of her life.


Except for the excruciatingly painful varicose veins in her rectum that are beginning to bulge out of her butthole.



If everything goes well, she will give birth to both an infant and a slimy two-pound mass of blood, tissue and mucus, which she can then take home and cook up like a haggis, if she is so inclined.


Everything surrounding pregnancy tends to be feminizing, mortalizing, and deceitful.  Each is bad enough on its own; they are especially awful together.

But even worse, in my perception, pregnancy–though I recognize it not to be a disability or weakness, per se–is nevertheless an instance of a person in a compromised state.  I have known only a small handful of pregnant women who did not give off that vibe.

I am acutely aware of not wanting to be perceived of as compromised.

I am even more aware of not wanting to feel compromised.


Intentional though it may have been, my current pregnancy puts me in a weird spot.


I am aware of the implications inherent in what I’m saying, not the least of which is the suggestion that childbearing can compromise a woman’s personality or intellect.  But I am also aware that biology doesn’t give a shit about my feminism or anyone else’s.


Progesterone has natural anti-depressant and anti-anxiety properties.   In excessive doses, it’s a formidable sedative that causes drowsiness and difficulty waking.

I am currently, and all pregnant women are, to some degree, doped.


I’ve found that in the relative absence of anxiety and hyper-vigilance, my intellect has changed.  I am less curious.  I am not compelled to write.  I am less investigative.  I simply don’t care.  Face value will do.  The first answer is the last answer.  Finito.  My madness used to have a method.  Now it’s more of a declaration.

And once the pregnancy is defeated, “mommy brain” is said to persist as long as the children do.


Now whosoever of them did eat the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus, had no more wish to bring tidings nor to come back, but there he chose to abide with the lotus-eaters, ever feeding on the lotus and forgetful of his homeward way.



All to the grim, sneering satisfaction of those who have always wished I were a more docile human being.

I’m sure of it.


If the child were the only one who believed he/she was entitled to dictate a parent’s behavior, that would be one thing.

But reproduction and parenthood, especially for women, brings with it an oppressive expectation of conformity, moderation, and general temperance or softening of character and behavior in addition to a thoroughly more severe and self-righteous community of kibitzing, judgmental busybodies who want, more than anything, for the same things that happened to them to happen to other people and for other people to do the things they have done.  If there is only one way, then that’s the right way.  Validation.

I have found, already, that people suddenly assume they understand my life, my thoughts, and my emotions just because I am pregnant and they or people they know have also been pregnant.  They delight not only in speculating on how I feel and what I think but in telling me how I will feel and think come this time or that time in the future.

Presumed homogeneity of experience.  Unconscious communication and enforcement of norms and acceptable shades of deviation.


I have already been referred to as “a mommy.”

“A.”  Meaning any one among many.

“Mommy.”  The diminutive. Indicating small, non-threatening, less.


This was spoken by another adult.  A male adult.

I have put many different sentences here, attempting to describe the violent emotions that one word caused in me.  But like Lycia, I just burn and burn.


Women are often worse.  A female adult has told me that this will mark my transition into “full” womanhood.

Not only do the insipid platitudes of the sisterhood cause bile to rise in my throat and a greasy-black, acrid cloud of loathing to creep across my soul, I am intellectually allergic to the notion that a woman isn’t a really a woman until she has, under considerable duress, squeezed a watermelon-sized object out of her vagina.

Never mind that I never asked to be a member of whatever mythical club this woman is trying to induct me into.  She just assumes I’ve been on some kind of waiting list.  As if we all aspire to be “full” women.  Whatever the hell that means.

In fact, it is beginning to appear as though not even the smallest of my peeves, principles, neuroticisms, hang-ups, and individual sovereign boundaries will go unmolested during this blessed, miraculous time in my feminine journey, including, many warn me, the boundary where I prefer not to be groped by strangers in public.


There are, I accept, many aspects of reproduction and motherhood that will require me to relinquish significant portions of my Royal Self.

There will also be requests and attempted demands for such relinquishment that I will reject.

Potentially aggressively.


I pity the stranger who reaches for my belly.  I pity the person who side-glances at me as I order my morning–or afternoon–coffee.


I can feel them looking at me already.  Plotting my subsumption.  Putting their eyes on me.

It starts this low, inaudible rumbling.


Maybe I’ll end up in jail.



My pregnancy is not exceptional.

But I am.

Exceptionally what, I won’t presume.



Get your fetal chimera specimens here.


Successful Hollywood films have an overwhelmingly ballsy, brassy and over the top obsession with the hero’s journey. While many people point to the cheap and easy way Disney films use the same formulaic music scores and elements of “imagination” from one film to the next, less has been said to criticize this same pattern in Hollywood movies aimed at adults. Perhaps this is because we are pretty comfortable with this motif. When The Social Network was first released, many critics marveled at how the director was able to make a film that was ostensibly about computer programming interesting and fun. In reality, this was done using the same formula used for any successful Hollywood movie. We were given booze and boobs, and a bunch of geeky college students suddenly transform into warring tribes, both on campus and in the courtroom.

Dear Fetus

By Jeffrey Pillow

Letters

Dear Fetus,

At 22 weeks, your mother and I will learn whether you are a boy or a girl. My mom—your Gammie Pillow—has informed me the exact date is December 20. (I believe she has an internal countdown meter, which projects all of your life’s milestones) Just to forewarn you, I will probably make some uncalled for comment during this particular ultrasound.

Scenario A: Doctor says you are a boy
DOCTOR: And that right there is your baby’s—
ME: Oh my gosh, is that his penis? It is enormous.
DOCTOR: No, that is his leg.
ME: I’m pretty sure that is his penis.

Scenario B: Doctor says you are a girl
DOCTOR: And that right there is your baby’s—
ME: Oh my gosh. My daughter doesn’t have a penis, does she? That thing is enormous.
DOCTOR: No, that is her leg.
ME: Oh, thank God. I thought my daughter had a penis.

That is when your mother will give me the evil eye. Actually, your mother will probably lecture me prior to the visit not to make any penis comments. I will still make a penis comment.

Love,

Daddy

JR: I was once a buyer at Bookazine and now I work in sales.  I bought FSG, Rizzoli, Holt, and Houghton Mifflin.  A few years ago the rep for HM was presenting the new list, and this title Drift shot off the page and I asked for a manuscript, which met with a long stare.  I started tearing through Drift, a wonderful and powerfully written collection of short stories from Victoria Patterson. The collection went on to be nominated for The Story Prize.  This book didn’t have the highest expectations, and I remember telling people about it, but with collections, it certainly goes with the territory.  I started writing blog entries on the stories as I read them, and was absolutely knocked down by how good this collection is.  Victoria Patterson is a fine writer, and someone that I greatly admire.  Her talents are on display in her new novel, This Vacant Paradise, pubbing 3/11.  Over the years Victoria has been a positive and wise advocate of the Three Guys Blog, and a great friend.  We’re thrilled to have her here at the blog, where she’ll be giving us a column once a month (she was the first writer to solicit us with her own When We Fell In Love essay). In the meantime here is an interview she did with Jane Vandenburgh.

Jane Vandenburgh and the Hypothetical Fifteen-Year-Old Girl

“When I first began to write I was much worried about this thing of scandalizing people, as I fancied that what I wrote was highly inflammatory. I was wrong—it wouldn’t even have kept anybody awake…I talked to a priest about it. The first thing he said to me was, ‘You don’t have to write for fifteen-year-old girls.’”

–letter 3/10/56 Flannery O’Connor


Jane Vandenburgh


Jane Vandenburgh is the author of the novels Failure to Zigzag and The Physics of Sunset, as well as the memoir A Pocket History of Sex in the 20th Century.  Architecture of the Novel: A Writer’s Handbook was published September, 2010.

We met at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival in April 2010.  Her husband Jack Shoemaker is the editor of my forthcoming novel This Vacant Paradise with Counterpoint Press.

VP: I got in trouble with my family for writing Drift—well, not for writing it but for getting published.  Lately, I’ve been worrying about my novel’s publication, including my insecurity about the writing itself.  And, much to my frustration, I found myself recently apologizing to my dad for my novel pre-publication, regarding the sex in it.

JV: I’ve never been secure either except in the secret place where I keep my writing self, that something that somehow knows—and who knows how? —what is and isn’t excellent.  By excellent I mean only true. I simply have to work away until I get my writing to exist in at least the vicinity of the truth, otherwise it won’t continue to interest me.

But that box of unease and anxiety has also become smaller since I’ve grown a little older.  Jack says women hit their Fuck You Period at around 50 or so—what a relief to realize you honestly no longer care whether you’re voted Miss Congeniality.

Still it may be true that women, particularly mothers—as you and I both are—must operate in a way that is more dependent upon society’s support. It’s when we have kids that we become truly reliant upon those cork nets that society tosses out that are intended to keep our children and us from drowning. So maybe we, as a class of people— and by “we” I mean those of us who are moms—do simply need society’s approval more than other people do. And one quick way to lose said approval—as I witnessed with my own mom—is to be all the time needing to say the outrageous thing. My mother specialized in being outré, in uttering the true but unpopular thing. She also ended up losing custody of her kids when she was locked up in a mental institution.

VP: While I wasn’t necessarily surprised by the negative reactions to Drift, it bothered me that the complaints seemed to infer that I shouldn’t write about unflattering, gritty topics—especially as a woman writer.  A couple of reading groups “dis-invited” me.  And I’d been asked to speak as part of a fundraiser, only to be discouraged later from coming, when they finally took a look at the book.  What in your writing do you think is considered unpopular—or risky?

JV: What I’ve always wanted to say that is perhaps unpopular—as this is one of the great truths whose utterance goes in and out of fashion—is that female sexuality actually IS different from a man’s. It’s bound up in biology, in temporality, in our mortality and our ability to be generative. It also exists in context, referencing issues of emotional and physical and psychological bonds and the need for safety. What I mean is that our sexuality is vastly more complicated than a man’s, which is more simple and direct, but by simple I ardently do not mean either flat or one-dimensional.

And writing graphically about sex is difficult, because it becomes so quickly emotional, in that it makes you the writer feel things even as you’re making your reader feel things too. The writing itself also gets so easily gaudy or purple or cartoonish. It’s hard to tell the truth. You sit down to try to write about sex and you—I mean me—will instantly begin to reveal yourself, what each of us thinks about our own human bodies and those of other human beings and what this spiritual and physical and emotional connection is and isn’t made of.

And you and I are each trying to write about sexuality in the harsh light of day, that is, honestly, realistically, writing into the face of the received wisdom to say what it actually is and not what it purports to be.

It reminds me of that Flannery O’Connor quote I sent you about writing for fifteen-year-old girls.  And then there’s this as well: Ulysses couldn’t be published in the US from 1922 until 1933 because some youngish female person (described as an unnamed “girl” of unknown age) had read a chapter in a little magazine and was upset by it. The courts found it to be “obscene,” the “product of a deranged mind…” (who upsets fifteen-year-old girls…. but who ARE these people, Tory! at fifteen I knew all kinds of things, didn’t you?) Judge Wolcott’s New York district court 1933 decision was bound into the Random House edition I read in grad school.

VP: Tell me more about the received wisdom?

JV: The received wisdom is—I believe—just as tyrannically wrong as it’s ever been.  A woman’s sexuality is so often used by a misogynist society to accuse her of her inferiority, which serves to subjugate her.  Sex and the City? the kitty-cat, almost childish sexiness of that show strikes me as just such horseshit.  This is where the bodice-ripper has gone, no doubt, women in cute designer outfits eating, drinking, talking about shoes, waiting in their shallow and venal way for Mr. Right to show up to actualize their lives while they carry on achieving multiple orgasms with Mr. Wrong.  Which might be harmless enough except that it commodifies all aspects of these characters’ existences.

What it does say that is honest—I think—is that our sexuality is defined socially, that it is at least informed by Group Think, the degree to which we are social creatures. And that American society is—as ever—almost astonishingly conformist. Added to this is that rapidity with which the manners and mores to which we’re required to conform are almost as mutable as fashion—it makes it hard to keep up.

Group Think—when I was a kid—said sex for women outside of marriage was (morally) wrong. Only Protestant white guys over six feet tall got to have sex whenever they wanted, as long as this was heterosexual sex—witness Mad Men, which is one great show.  Society criminalized my dad’s being whatever degree or variety of gay he was, and I knew that to be horseshit because my mother told me it was horseshit.  And while my mom was crazy she was hardly ever wrong.

So I was born into a world that said—as a matter of our Calvinist inheritance—that we had to deny our human desires, then came the hippy days and poof! we were supposed to instantly get over that. Now a girl was supposed to be enslaved to her wanton desires, which we were being told were natural.  Sexuality had morphed into this untarnished moral good, which was also horseshit.

Fucking various men was now supposed to have become this political act—we now could act out sexually or use our sexuality to stick it to The Man, whatever, which benefited men even as it actually harmed women by trivializing the complexities.  It was confusing: I’d be thinking: But I don’t want to go to bed with you, and not because I’m particularly hung up. It’s because you’re not really that attractive.

So maybe my work has tried to be about what girls and women feel in these moments when they find themselves at those specific junctures, where they are changing or society is changing the rules on them.  I’m just vastly interested in what I think of as speech acts, in finding out what it’s possible to say because what we are and are not allowed to say does change what we think and feel and do.

I believe human sexuality to have everything to do with balancing power and powerlessness.  I’m interested in all this politically, interested in that particular existential edge, where we become alert to all the subtle manifestations of conflict between peoples of various classes, castes, races, genders, peoples, ethnicities.

I’m not particularly interested in what sex is supposed to be like according to the current fashion.  I’m interested in what feels real, what words can be used to describe textures, the inside-outside way the human body feels in moments of profound intimacy.

It is the writers who must get at this particular intimacy; we’re the ones who depict all the many subtle varieties of intercourse, the speaking or not speaking, the touching or not being able to touch. It is in Joyce or D.H. Lawrence or John Updike or Gore Vidal that I’ve gone to find enlightenment.  My theory about why women haven’t written a deep literature of female sexuality is that they’ve been too caught up in the received wisdom of society’s expectations. We’ve also been too busy getting our kids’ lunches packed and them off to school on time.  And up until the 20th century we would just too regularly have died in childbirth or lost a child or be actually worked to death.

Which is why so many of our best women writers have been one or another variety of maiden: Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Conner, Willa Cather. So writing about female sexuality from an adult, post-kid perspective may still be a little bit new. It’s challenging, also interesting. But it’s shocking that the things you and I are saying, Tory, are still shocking, no?

VP: My work is influenced by my family of origin—the alcoholism, depression, suicides, the focus on money, the politics and religion, so forth —and I somehow have lingering guilt for having a somewhat healthy life—for not imploding.

JV: The healthy life! God, such an important topic! Because we—as novelists—need to lead the organized, coherent life in order to write in the way we must, as these are the demands of writing books. The length of a novel will all but demand a bourgeoisified existence. A good book takes stability, quiet, sobriety, as well as years and years of toil.

You and I also have the experience of emerging only partially scathed from profoundly messed-up families, which is probably what shaped us to become the writers we’ve become.

And we’ve needed to do something about that guilt—in my case this is pure raw survivor’s guilt, that cosmic why of how come I get to have the life I have, that I escaped that profound unhappiness, when my little brother did not. My brother George—like Eric in your novel—was a homeless alcoholic. He killed himself almost exactly a year ago.

How come he drew that existence while I…? how sad and lonely this kind of inquiry will make you in the dead of night.

My own happiness used to feel like disloyalty. I’d simultaneously think two exactly conflicting things: that I was both the most sane and stable member of my natal family, and also, concurrently, that I didn’t have the slightest idea who the fuck I was. Coming from the family I did, I believed my sanity to be dishonest. Being sane had this mediocritizing and frightened effect on me. I thought the rest of my family were all just so much better at everything than I was, so much better, at least, at being fuck-ups.  I was a failure even at failing.

And because I have so little respect for the society that despised them, the failures in my family seemed somehow more honorable and attractive, even inspirational than normal people—my spectacularly brilliant and crazy mom? my elegantly messed up dad with his passionate sexual confusions? I just wasn’t much interested in succeeding in the world that had rejected them. Their Republican families seemed like The Textbook Elect, in that their own Personal White Person’s God had rewarded all these tall white emotionally frozen people with this great showing forth of His love and favor, this abundance of wealth and power and height and beauty, as well as Southern California real estate.

VP: There are parallels to our lives and to our work.  Do you think Jack was aware of that when he took my novel?

JV: He mentioned he had this new writer, a woman, a novelist, who’d grown up in Newport Beach, whose work reminded him of mine, in that she was serious and knew about both wealth and poverty. And he kept trying to shove this book of stories at me, and I’d be like, Sure, sure, that’s nice, Honey. My tone was probably dismissive.

And I am equally certain, Tory, that my basic reluctance had to do with the same old crap that plagues the intellectual powerhouses of The East, our society’s profound misogyny, that it infects women as it does men, saying girls such as you and I—those who’ve grown up in the Vacant Paradise you so brilliantly describe—cannot possibly be thinking about our society’s very interesting conflicts, at least not profoundly.

And—as we’ve discussed—you and I look so, well, normal. We look like women who drive the carpool because we have, we do, we will. We don’t necessarily seem like people who are ambitious, driven, discerning, as this has never been expected of people like you and me. But it’s actually important in that our Southern California-ness, this laid back, warm and open aspect is what has allowed you and me to come and go unnoticed, to both survive and even prosper behind enemy lines.

This semester, I’m taking a Representative Authors course on Toni Morrison. My professor is a white woman. There are two black students in the class, and the rest are white. One of the white students frequently comments in class and, though it’s usually in context, I’m beginning to suspect that he registered for this course because he wanted a safe place to say the word ‘nigger’. I’ll come back to that.

In the 1970’s, the television show, All in the Family, was one of the most popular shows in the nation and a real cultural mainstay. One of the reasons for its enduring popularity (aside from great acting and interesting plot lines) was the fact that regardless of where you fell on the political spectrum, All in the Family offered a humorous portrayal of the generational divide. The show’s creators (and many viewers) felt that the show clearly illustrated Archie Bunker’s bigotry and was therefore critical, rather than condoning, of his prejudices. In reality, studies actually showed otherwise. In, True Enough, Farhad Manjoo points out a study that showed that bigots and non-bigots each found the show equally humorous but that they also, “harbored very different ideas about what was happening in the show.” The psychologists Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach, who conducted this study, found that people of low prejudice saw Archie Bunker as closed minded and a bigot, whereas people of high prejudice saw Archie Bunker as, “down-to-earth, honest, hardworking, predictable and kind enough to let his daughter and son in law live with him.”

Like most women whose hopes and passions reside in this business of the written word, my friend and fellow Nervous Breakdown contributor Arielle Bernstein and I have been following Franzen-gate with interest. In chat after chat, we wondered if this was merely sour grapes on the part of Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, if their criticism of gender-bias within the “literary establishment” (as represented by The New York Times) would’ve had greater heft had it come from a woman whose talents might be considered more on par with Mr. Franzen’s (like, say, Mary Gaitskill, Marilynne Robinson, or Jhumpa Lahiri). We had no real answers, but our questions lead us down the rabbit hole of gender parity in popular media.

As I posted earlier this month, I’m going through a divorce. One of the interesting corollaries to my divorce is that, in general, it’s brought me closer to male acquaintances, friends, and siblings, while further from their female counterparts. My male friends seemed to get how to behave naturally, while I’ve wanted, at times, to knock on woman-skulls to see if anybody was home. Here’s what men seem to know that women don’t about how to treat a man going through a divorce: