I wasn’t certain I’d review Big Sex Little Death, Susie Bright’s long-awaited memoir, since I’m too close to some of the material to be purely objective — but as it turns out, I just can’t stop myself.
Full Disclosure: Susie Bright was one of the first people I met when I came West from New York some 25 years ago, and one of my first acts as a San Franciscan was to submit my sex stories to her Herotica collection. Shortly afterwards, I joined the On Our Backs staff as Susie’s assistant, a year later became their fiction editor, and, finally, was second successor to the editorial throne. Shadowing Susie didn’t end at OOB: I assumed editorship of Herotica with the #4 volume, when Susie moved on to more lucrative projects. I told her I seemed to be following in her footsteps; she replied with her radiant million-dollar grin, “I’ll just keep warming up the chair for you.”
That charm and generosity are quintessential Susie, and they permeate Big Sex Little Death, her journey from childhood to teen socialist to feminist to sexual activist and public figure. I was familiar with much of this history, but seeing it all together in one place, I recognized, for the first time, how much Susie and I have in common, beginning with abusive mothers who lost their own mothers at an early age. Being a “motherless daughter,” I’ve recently learned, can affect a woman more profoundly than any other aspect of her life; it particularly influences the kind of mother she becomes. My mother was emotionally abusive; Susie’s was mentally ill (apparently undiagnosed), and physically abusive:
She pinched the top of my arm and dragged me out the door. I remember her grip on my arm—and her disgust at my blubbering. I was pathetic, I knew it, but I couldn’t stop. I could see in her eyes how loathsome I’d become.
All this because Susie missed her cat, which her mother had unceremoniously abandoned.
I know all about that look in a mother’s eyes; that Susie was on the receiving end of it makes it that much more astonishing that she grew to become such a strong powerful woman. Lest anyone foolishly credit such experiences with helping to radicalize a person, it was not her mother’s abuse but her father’s love and support that pushed Susie forward. He stood proudly behind his teenage socialist firebrand, and he welcomed her home when the fires went out. Both parents – Mommy dearest was not all bad – were “braniacs; they were language, poetry and music fiends; they took enormous pleasure in big ideas and the power of word. They were literary sensualists.” Not a bad heritage for a feminist leader.
Susie took a dollop of this and a plateful of that from her parents. She incorporated socialist ideas into feminism – and took feminism even further, insisting that female-centered sexual representation and expression were its logical extension.
I wish she’d probed a little bit deeper into her life as an active Socialist. As her one-time editor, if she had asked for my opinion I would’ve urged her in that direction. Some of her anecdotes of life among the Commies aren’t reflective enough to satisfy, and while I loved what I read, I wanted more.
One of the major differences between Susie’s journey and mine is timing: I was a young mother when I first became, as I see it, conscious — while Susie seems to have been highly conscious from birth. I don’t know of many teenagers who can be as confident as Susie seems to have been in her beliefs, especially since they ran against received opinion.
The first time she stands up for women and their bodies is, appropriately, the day she first bleeds. Late returning to school after lunch, sent to the principal’s office, Susie marches right in “like a mad bear,” protesting, “This is not right…My period just started at noon, and I had to figure out the Tampax all by myself….and you can’t discriminate against me just because I’m menstruating…” The mortified principal nearly passed out and practically begged her to leave his office, showing her the power of her sexuality in one fell swoop. She has continued to confront sexual ignorance and patriarchal privilege ever since.
Although I ate up the first two sections of the book, I was, naturally, in something of a hurry to get to the part about OOB. Reading Susie’s account of each incident, from the founding of the magazine to its change in ownership, I kept receiving little shocks of recognition with every turned page. If this was a comic book, light bulbs would be hanging over my head, popping off in every panel, so faithful is Susie to what happened, at least as I remember it. For those who weren’t close to the scene, I direct you to the book. It’s a helluva story; maybe someday I’ll have enough distance to write more about it myself.
Big Sex ends on a positive note – the day that Susie and Jon and baby Aretha move to Santa Cruz to begin family life anew. That too I remembered….then I eagerly turned the page…and was confronted with a page headlined “NOTES.” I could not believe I’d reached the end! And more than 15 long years ago!
Now, I have been waiting since the day Aretha popped out of Susie’s belly to see what kind of American girl/child/woman Susie Bright’s daughter would become. As a mother who feels that I fucked up the sex education along with everything else, I was dying to see how Susie did with the hardest job on the planet. Unfortunately, a veil descended and I didn’t find out.
Susie has a right to put in or leave out whatever she wants from her memoir – but as a reader, and as her friend, (and as an editor) I wanted more. I especially want to know what happened in the years since the time of this book’s ending. I want to know about her mothering: how did being raised in an atmosphere of, or at least lip service to, sexual freedom affect Aretha and her attitudes? What about their relationship? My daughter is still angry about some of my sexual openness; what’s the story with Susie’s? More than most people, I understand the delicacy of the mother-daughter relationship, as well as the desire not to violate a child’s privacy – but surely some of Susie’s story can be told without inflicting damage. This is not just idle curiosity, either: I honestly believe that Susie has something important to contribute to this other area of female experience that’s been historically shrouded in darkness.
Because of this and a few more minor gaps, it doesn’t feel like Susie’s story has been fully told. Then again, nobody’s story is ever fully told, is it? Still, Susie has a lot more livin’ to do: I’m looking forward to a sequel.