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Big Sex Little Death: Review

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Susie with Cocktails at Bruno's in the Mish

Big Sex Little Death
A Memoir by Susie Bright
Seal Press  2011

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.

Abortion Restriction = Invasion of Privacy

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Woman at the first month of pregnancy.

Image via Wikipedia

Several states are considering restrictions on abortion at this time, and several others already have them. These typically involve an enforced 72-hour “waiting period,” which strikes me as ironic, considering that the later the procedure the more hysterical the anti-abortionists become. It seems like their strategy is to make her wait, throwing obstacles in her way,  hoping to stall her until it’s too late for a simple procedure.

And what is the woman supposed to be doing during those 72 hours? First she must have an ultrasound, during which the technician describes in minute detail every tiny aspect of the creature swimming in her uterus – every aspect, that is, they can find. It may take hours to pick up a heartbeat, but by god, they’ll find one or die doing it!

To fill in the rest of the waiting period she must undergo “counseling.” The “method” of counseling used by anti-abortionists is to bombard the pregnant woman with “information” about her “unborn child.” This strikes me as akin to torture, or, at the very least, brainwashing. I wonder how many women under these circumstances succumb, and alter their lives forever by giving birth?

I had an abortion when I was 27. I’d gotten pregnant by a man who told me he’d had a vasectomy. (I know, I know – how could I have been so naive? But the doctor at Planned Parenthood, that brave much-needed organization that’s now under vicious fire from anti-abortionists, told me they’d heard that story before.) It was a time of fast and furious romantic adventure, at least in my life, and the guy was a friend of my boss, a Colorado cowboy who breezed through New York buying and selling Native American jewelry. He courted me in my boss’s penthouse suite overlooking the Hudson River.

At the time I had two children, aged six and eight, living with their father on Long Island. They were there because after my divorce I’d become overwhelmed by single motherhood, and, just as important, I really wanted those adventures, having had children far too young to get that need out of my system. One secret about divorce is that when Daddy takes the kids for those long weekends, Mommy gets a taste of freedom, perhaps for the first time in her life – and that taste whets her appetite for more. So there I was, living where I’d always wanted to, in New York City; not as the Greenwich Village artist I’d fantasized, maybe, but as a secretary. (Fantasy seldom takes into account economic necessity.) It was good enough. I was having my adventures, and not just the sexual kind.

The trouble was, I missed my kids. Every day I woke up physically aching. I didn’t like how their father was raising them, to put it mildly. They were growing more and more distant from me. Besides a genuine desire to be with them, I was weighed down by enormous guilt. I didn’t know how much of my suffering came from female conditioning and how much was real, and couldn’t begin to separate one from the other. Every day was a struggle to shove my feelings aside and live without depression and guilt riding my back. I started a Mothers-without-Custody support group, which met weekly for two years.  Four years after I’d left the kids I took them back.

How, under these circumstances, could I possibly have another child? What would it have done to my abandoned children?  To my guilty conscience? This baby didn’t even come with a few pennies from Daddy: how could I support a child when I was barely supporting myself? I absolutely positively did not want another child; and PS, my oldest had been born with a chronic medical condition that took a hundred times more mothering energy than the usual. I knew better than others all the things that can go wrong. Fortunately, abortion was legal and performed without drama.

But what if I’d had to wait 72 hours? If I’d been forced to look at a sonogram and listen to a lecture? If I’d been dragged through the thick sentimental anti-abortion muck? I know myself well, and I can tell you what would have happened: I would have borne that baby. Between my guilt over my kids  and the hormones of pregnancy running through my body, I bet I would have caved in. I would have staked my future, and my kids’ future, on a fleeting emotion.

Fortunately, I was not subjected to brainwashing, to an invasion of privacy, to what I want to call torture. To be totally honest, during the abortion I felt the life being sucked out of me, and I cried. There is sadness here, yes – but again, you don’t, or shouldn’t, base major life decisions on fleeting emotions. Even in my sorrow I did not regret my decision. I did promise myself inwardly,  This will never happen to me again. It never did.

I am grateful my abortion wasn’t prevented by law or brainwashing. It worries me that girls and women do not have the same freedom today. Even before the anti-abortionists get their nasty claws up close and personal  enough to strangle the fight out of them, most women have already been pumped full of dreck from our culture and its post-sixties backlash, where every birth is a triumph and every abortion a tragedy.

The tragedy is unwanted babies, unhappy women, and ruined lives.

Poem For A Reader

For My Ex-Lover’s Lover

I see what she sees in you:

the curve of your cheek

is almost more than I can bear.

Sometimes when we talk

you touch my shoulder gently

and I feel it in the places

where she hungers.

I know her weaknesses

and the way she likes to hold you

how her face looks to you

from below.

I see your limbs entangled loosely

and the movements that arouse her,

feel her hot and pulsing in your hand

as if I lie between you

instead of by myself

remembering the curve

of your cheek.

Sometimes I wonder
on whose account I’m jealous.

Movie Star Sex

Cover of

Cover of The Way We Were (Special Edition)

Yesterday Oprah Winfrey reunited Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford on her show as a sort of tribute to their 1973 movie The Way We Were. Millions of women all across the country, including me, shed millions of tears at the sight of these two coming together again. TWWW is the chick flick of the century, a story of unrequited love that breaks your heart every time, whether it’s your first or seventh viewing. For me, the ultimate Barbra Streisand fan and aficianado (see At the HoJo with Babs), the most intriguing aspect of yesterday’s show was the way they interacted: they just could not keep their hands off each other. Their kiss-hug greeting was more than just friendly, and throughout the interview they held hands; every once in awhile a hand would roam. Strangely enough, I’d never wondered if Babs and Bob (she calls Redford Bob) had a real-life affair, being so caught up in the film version. Yesterday I couldn’t help but wonder, what with her facial expression announcing that she was dying to go backstage and grab him good. As my friend Angie said when I asked what she thought, How could they not?


I got to thinking about movie stars’ sex lives, a topic that’s never seriously engaged my interest. I wonder why – after all, the possibilities are endless. Think about it: we plebes have our little fantasies that we think are so risqué, while these golden girls and boys have endless reels of erotic drama to play with when the cameras aren’t looking. Think of all the scenes that end at the bedroom door: why wouldn’t the actors take them to their logical conclusion? Why wouldn’t Babs and Bob have had breakup sex, makeup sex, falling-in-love sex, angry sex – you name it, that movie relationship covered the gamut of human emotion. Why wouldn’t they fly to the nearest bed after the day’s shooting ended?


Celebrity fantasies are nothing new — but people frequently use them as cover-up: to the question What’s your fantasy? a person will often respond by naming Brad or Jen or Angelina, rather than confessing their deep personal dramas. We all have them. Some of us have even written about them. My friend Shar published a couple of collections of sex with the famous and beautiful called Starf*cker.

I’ve dreamt, in my sleep, of doing a 3some with George Clooney and Jimmy  Smits. Even that now seems mundane compared to imagining celebrities with each other, completing all the truncated sex scenes in PG-Rated movies, incorporating the characters into their bedroom fun. By comparison, the straightforward celebrity fantasy seems almost clichéd.

I’ve gotta go now: I have a ton of movies I want to watch again. Camelot. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. All About Eve. West Side Story. And oh yes — The Way We Were.

The Kids Are All Right: Movie Review

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Kids All RightWarning: Spoilers and X-Rated Material Ahead

Of course the kids are all right. I always knew they would be. Some people were wringing their hands, fretting about how children raised by gay couples might turn out, but I never thought they’d have it any worse than kids from other family configurations – then again, I don’t worship at the altar of the nuclear family. Besides, unlike straight couples who just assume they’ll have children, those living outside the norm are forced to think long and hard before jumping into parenthood; in fact, they don’t “jump” at all – they sometimes go through hell and high water just to become parents. And once they do have kids, they tend to be fairly conscientious raising them. I’m not idealizing gay parents or saying they’re better at it; it’s just that living outside the mainstream in any way whatsoever forces people to deal with a host of issues that heterosexuals never have to think about.

 

Surprisingly, however, the film’s title is hardly the point. It turns out to be not so much about kids raised by lesbians, but rather about love and family and betrayal, and all the complexities in long-term relationships. It’s about sexuality and sexual identity and the longing for connection. That the kids are all right is almost incidental.

Eighteen-year-old Joni, named for Joni Mitchell and played by Mia Wasikowska, has the riveting looks of Claire Danes; she also happens to resemble someone I know, and I could hardly take my eyes off her. Which is quite a feat when you consider that Annette Benning and Julianne Moore, both knockouts, play the mothers. Their gorgeous looks are underplayed: if they were wearing any makeup in this movie, it was to highlight sags and wrinkles. When Moore’s character dons her gardening gear, she comes off looking like a middle-aged Annie Hall wannabe.Kids All Right

The plot is set in motion when 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) convinces his sister to find their donor, the man whose sperm contributed to their existence, since he’s too young, by law, to get the information himself. Joni, afraid of hurting their mothers, is reluctant, but when she meets Papa Sperm (Mark Ruffalo), she just about falls in love with him. So does everyone else in the family, with the exception of Mama Benning, whose fear of rocking the boat turns out to be well-founded: Mama Moore, while creating a lush garden Papa Sperm hires her to do, jumps into bed with him. The affair almost tears the family apart. That they survive is testament to the strength of their bonds and loyalty to one another – or so I perceive director Lisa Cholodenko’s point to be.

Mark RuffaloThe sex scenes between Moore and Ruffalo are wildly, passionately, animalistic. She literally tears his pants off, and greets what’s inside them like a long lost friend: “Hel-lo!” she says, apparently awestruck. Two or three substantial scenes of their lovemaking follow, in sharp contrast to the women’s sex: there’s been just one anemic scene of them in bed. In it we see Moore moving about under the covers, and Benning’s facial expressions – which would work if she were actually being expressive, but if anything, she seems bored. From underneath the quilt comes the buzz of a vibrator. More movement. End sex scene. The lesbians sitting behind me were laughing their asses off in recognition, and I confess I too got a chuckle out of the scene. The hetero sex scenes had not yet occurred, so it’s only in retrospect that I feel the lesbian couple got the fuzzy end of the lollipop.

More important, because Moore has such a raging good time in penis-land, what comes later on, in the confrontation between her and Benning, seems off kilter.  It’s evasive, even false. A bisexual friend of mine was miffed because Benning asks, “Are you straight?” rather than “Are you bisexual?” The latter question, I think, would’ve been out of character, especially during a confrontation – but there is something missing here. Benning’s question doesn’t even seem to register with Moore, and when Benning asks if it was about sex, Moore makes a dismissive face. Finally, she claims that she slept withKids All RightPapa Sperm because she was feeling “unappreciated.”

Is that what she was getting, her legs high in the air while Papa Sperm pounded into her like a steamroller? Appreciation? Gimme a break! The intensity of the hetero sex scenes, and the absence of romanticism, utterly contradicts the lie.

So I have to ask: Why? Why did the director stereotype lesbian sex as warm and cuddly, while depicting straight sex as raw animal pleasure? Was it fear of letting a mainstream audience see what women really do in bed? Or was she just rewinding old tired stereotypes of female sexuality? I guess it was foolish of me to expect Hollywood to move beyond lesbian stereotypes — a good movie about lesbian mothers is enough of a leap.

But here’s the thing: my criticism isn’t coming from some pro-lesbian-passion crusade. This is not a political ax I’m grinding. What I’m talking about is honesty and believability in art. The director’s choices regarding sexual portrayal wreck the film. Oh, sure, it’s a fun movie, it’s enjoyable to watch  – but the premise of the film doesn’t work, not if the implication at the end is, as it appears to be, that the family’s bonds are far stronger than a roll in the hay, and their relationships will heal and go on. From what I saw between that man and woman in bed compared to what I saw between the women’s sheets, I don’t believe this ending one bit. I don’t believe that Mama Moore will be faithful from now on. She’s going to stray again. And again.