I Write as a Charlatan
My Fake Book1: May 2009
Having always feared I was one, my charlatan-complex was sustained for the wrong reason. I’d assumed I’d been published, and continued to be published, by luck or fluke, that soon the literary world would realize I had no talent and nothing to say. But my disguise, the role I played, the imposter that I am, has not been that I am a writer. That part, at least, is real. It’s the brand of writer I was made out to be that was counterfeit.
From the very beginning, when my first book earned words like lasciviousness in its first pre-publication trade review, I was marked as a new writer unflinchingly exploring female-sexuality, following in the footsteps of Erica Jong and Judith Rossner. Although my notoriety was minor, even in the world of literary fiction, my second book, Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? – which enjoyed some infamy having been released six months before the Clarence Thomas - Anita Hill congressional hearings – added sexual politics to my label. Subsequent books didn’t dissuade label-makers, and then co-editing the two Chick-Lit: Post-Feminist Fiction anthologies in the mid-90s sealed the deal. I was a frank, brash, even assertive surveyor of sex and sexuality2.
In fact, my sexlife, for over 30 years since losing my virginity, could be described with other adjectives – painful, desperate, dysfunctional, uninspired, unresponsive, perfunctory – but all leading to eventual prolonged periods of celibacy, simultaneously with relief and self-loathing, a reprieve and a condemnation.
I occasionally speculate what readers might assume about my private life: what are those who meet me casually, or become friends who then read my books, envisioning about me? In the Midwest’s remote north woods where I go to fish, I’ve become acquainted with a local man in his early 40s, a self-employed carpenter and handyman with a high school education, who has spent periods living without television and internet and turns to reading by propane-powered lights. Sam has read at least two of my novels, and commented (to my husband3), “your wife has a real darkness in her.” With me he has easily slipped into sexual banter that makes me wonder what he’s looking for in my responses (which, he may not notice, are close to naught). He tells the story of a friend of his, a man in his upper 60s, a retired corrections officer at the local state prison, who upon returning from a 3-week trip to visit children and grandchildren, dropped his luggage and immediately went to visit his girlfriend because “It’s been 3 weeks – it’s coming out my ears.” Then Sam reports that his friend asked his girlfriend, “don’t you get horny?” She indicated, somehow demurely, that she may occasionally. “What do you do?” the man asked. She replied, “I go on a walk.”
Never mind what my poor husband must have endured, in not making any reply, three weeks being more like a minute in the timeline of our celibacy, and having been told that his wife no longer feels any desire that needs to be answered. What did Sam expect, I wonder – for me to contribute my more rousing, frank, or titillating version of a woman’s behavior when feeling lust? The author of the books he read certainly would have had a candid sexually-charged retort to offer.
This (minor) voice of female sexuality and postfeminist sexual politics actually knew diddley-squat about sexuality. If I knew so little about sexuality, what made me think I could speak on sexual politics, particularly in Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? and Former Virgin. Looking at my books, at my current life condition, and at a past I haven’t ever put behind me … I want to know why, what happened?
Sexual politics, and particularly sexual harassment, had – until recently – presented themselves to me as a possible context to understand the bookmarked places in my past that I’d never been able to let go. Perhaps, I thought, there was an explanation for what I had allowed myself to become if I could look back at myself in my 20s in the framework of that being the era when sexual harassment laws were being developed ... look back through a lens of having “suffered” sexual harassment. The old standard tune: Claim being a victim so complicity dissolves. “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman, givin’ all your love to just one man …” “For the love of him, make him your reason for living …” “ … you’ll have bad times, he’ll have good times, doin’ things that you can’t understand …”
Over a hundred pages into this manuscript, I finally rejected that tactic. But if the journey is happening while I’m writing, the book should be read as it’s being written. Therefore I wanted to leave in excerpts from the original introduction, set-off in a different font, representing both my lack of experience in the bigger issues I was supposed to be tackling in my fiction, and, more importantly, the failed route toward understanding myself. That collapse is part of this process.
Overture: But Was It Sexual Harassment Yet?
Some would say look back to 1964, but that landmark isn’t actually ours – girls. 6, 7, 8, 10, playing street baseball, cowboys-&-Indians, or Barbie. It launched for us in 1972. The Federal Education Amendment benignly – if dreamily – mandated that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” This law, familiarly known as Title IX, marrying gender (if not the actual word) to discrimination for the second time – this time in education and federal programs – would seem to be the foundation for the forthcoming classification (or discovery) of the phenomenon known as sexual harassment.
But it was the original Civil Rights act of 1964, not Title IX, under which the first case of sexual harassment was tested in the courts in 1976. When quid pro quo sexual advances were determined to be a barrier to employment for one gender and not for the other, this form of gender discrimination became sexual harassment4. One year later, the same standard was determined to exist under Title IX5.
But it took three more years before this sexual form of gender discrimination was fully (though not finally) defined, and written as law. In 1980, the two basic forms of sexual harassment were identified: the emblematic quid pro quo, and any (sexual) behavior that creates a hostile environment. Difficult to define, except by the individual experiencing the hostility, but there was other language to assist: intimidating, offensive, or unreasonably interfering with the person’s ability to work or learn. One key word in the EEOC’s definition was “unwelcome.” That is, “sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other … conduct of a sexual nature,” which has the “effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment,”6 had to be unwelcome in order to qualify as sexual harassment. This will, for some of us, prove to be the most complex, bewildering aspect of the dilemma. Had I experienced what would someday be viewed as sexual harassment when, in junior high, boys held me immobile behind the empty stage’s curtains so they could touch me, and in high school, when I let one of my buddies from the trombone section, where I was the first and only girl, squeeze my breasts to practice for a date with his girlfriend? These boys weren’t in a position of power, except the power society had given them, to be the ones allowed to choose which girl to take to the movies or roller-skating – girls, at that point, still standing against the wall at the dance, waiting to be approached.
Eight years, a slow-motion tidal wave of transformation. Now can any excessively introspective woman with sexual dysfunction who came-of-age between 1972 and 1980 look at this span and not think back to where (and who) we were during, and just before? And marvel at how long it took the line in the sand to form, and how so many remained oblivious to which side they we standing on, or where we might be straddling it. And how our [over]reactions to any of it might define the rest of our lives.
The Black Hole in My Memoir
My book Indigenous: Growing Up Californian was called, for marketing purposes, a memoir. It’s not ordered entirely chronologically, but if one looks for a timeline, there emerges an obvious gap. Roughly the mid ‘70s to mid ‘80s are missing. The very years when sexual harassment was being defined, tested in courts, and put into written law. The issues wrought during those years did nourish several of my novels; but I begin now to attend to them in a different context, starting with an introductory synopsis:
• 1972 Education Act Amendments — (Title IX) prohibited gender discrimination at schools and universities with any federal funding
It must have been almost imperceptibly that adjustment began. But this was the date when law, medical, dental and veterinary schools had to terminate the system of capping the number of women in each incoming class at 5 to 10 per cent. Had any of us been aware of this when imagining (or telling school counselors) what we wanted to “be” when we grew up?
1972, a male social science teacher began a class discussion: should women work? A good guess that not a one of us — in our androgynous long hair, Levis or corduroys, t-shirts or army jackets — was aware of Title IX hovering in our classroom. Therefore impossible for any of us to realize the that this teacher, also the boys’ soccer coach, might have a conflicted, even unhappy reaction to the new mandate. One of the boys in class said women shouldn’t be working, because that would mean fewer jobs for men, and men had to support their families.
My best friend never spoke in classes. She wore dresses even after they abolished the gendered dress code. But that day she replied: reported aloud that her father had just been diagnosed with leukemia and had only five years to live, so her mother had gone back to college so she could get a job and they wouldn’t have to move back to Minnesota and live with her grandparents. She hadn’t even told me yet. I sat staring at her, forgetting the topic given us to debate, and unmindful of the socially significant moment she’d been handed to publicly unburden herself. Her sunny, gentle father, who worked at the phone company while her mother kept the home, who’d spent months of afternoons after work the first year they’d lived in their newly built house hauling wheelbarrows of dirt from the driveway to the back so there’d be a lawn where we could sunbathe, and a level place for him to grow vegetables — he’d been given a deadline. I don’t think I even contributed that my own mother had just started that year as an elementary school teacher, after five years of one-class-a-semester preparation, and had done it so that all five of us, boys and girls, could go to college. Maybe not whatever college we chose in the whole country, maybe only the local state university, and maybe Title IX didn’t have any affect on whether that would have happened anyway.
High school athletics didn’t earn income to support themselves, so if boys cross country had to be cancelled, or if girls soccer had to be added to balance the boys team, we didn’t identify it as a progressive movement; it was just the way things were destined for eventual modification, like the way there had been a bare patch of dirt between the quad and the gym for 20 years, but someday it would be a swimming pool. So we didn’t think of Title IX with wistful gratitude for our softball team: our own gym clothes as team uniforms, a dirt field behind the boy’s turf baseball diamond, bases that didn’t fasten in place, a bag of scuffed balls and heavy wooden bats.
But after 1972 I could, if I wanted, apply to veterinary or medical school, without worrying about gender caps. At the time I was still considering animal husbandry, though my mother informed me that no commercial chicken ranches would hire me as foreman. That argument didn’t cause me apprehension; I was learning to play trombone, joining that traditionally all-male section, as much a male bastion as the football team, sans the locker room. I was the first girl to play trombone in my high school band, landing on my feet in the all-male section in 1972, completely unaware that I was a manifestation of the era, in some paltry way.
• 1976 - Williams v. Saxbe - conditions of employment applied differently to men and women were forbidden under Title VII as sex discrimination.
I started the job I valued, which gave me my first real sense of purpose and identity, as administrative assistant for the two band directors at the university I attended. The two of them, plus their paid and unpaid assistants, shared an office, a small office, about the size of the office I now occupy alone at the University of Illinois - Chicago.
• 1977 - First charge of sexual harassment of students brought under Title IX of the 1972 Education Act Amendments.
My two bosses began a subtle power war with each other, with me in the middle – the quantity and quality of my loyalty toward one over the other became the discernible sign of who might be winning. But I’d made my choice early on: the one who gave me a brand of older-male-approval, an intimate attention to my personhood that either society or biology (depending on who you ask) had trained me to need and seek.
After 1976, the conventional ‘A’ for a Lay began to disappear in universities when courts determined the unethical part was that one of the two bargainers held all the power, so the deal was inherently unfair. But which was it who held the power? Students, especially pretty ones who knew how to use it, and who could, after all, lie as to who made the first offer, lost their bargaining power for grades (lost a willing party to bargain with) when the federal courts stepped in to make the power differential clear. The grey area — the potential for women to misuse a desperately needed set of anti-gender-bias laws — continued to trouble me for years.
• 1980 — “EEOC Guidelines on Discrimination Because of Sex” became official.
During these years that witnessed the definition of sexual harassment solidify, my two bosses had continued their strategically veiled contest hidden behind a synthetic surface of out-for-a-beer-after-work old-boyziness. No one in the conflict had, over the past 3 years, offered me a better job situation for a sexual favor.
Nevertheless during the year before the legal precedent for sexual harassment claims was established, I’d also been involved in a mentorship relationship with another slightly older man: my “master teacher” who oversaw my secondary student teaching, who also (or, eventually, instead) mentored my sexual trepidation while he simultaneously (and secretly) carried on a sustained affair with a teenaged student.
Early 1980 – a year after the squelching of my potentially life-changing tryst with my master-teacher – is another flashpoint, when sexual offers seemed more like parlay in a language no one really understood, and I was as much at fault as the young men. One, citing his religion as the reason a relationship with me was out-of-bounds, escorted me through almost every facet of my day, including after-work refreshment, and if that included alcohol, he would proceed to get closer in intimate ways difficult to interpret incorrectly … except I did, every time, when I assumed his religious blockade had ended. Then he would recoil, accuse me of backing him into a corner. In utter confused frustration, I turned to my friend, Miles7. Perhaps I did seek physical affection from him, and offer it in return, with some quid-pro-quo – please help me forget everything except this moment – but there was no hostility nor aura of discomfort in how our hands and mouths clung to each other one night in late January. Yet too many other layers of anxiety had caused me to dissolve into that evening’s long moment, and those same issues ignited again to lead me to a decision so laced with shame and regret, I tried to hide from it until the writing of this manuscript.
• 1982 & 1983 - Two federal circuit courts of appeal identified two basic forms of sexual harassment: (1) Quid pro quo ("this for that") and (2) hostile environment.
By this time my sexually-hostile environment was one of my own making: in a marriage troubled in ways few will publicly admit in confession-books. It seems easier, at least more accepted, for women memoirists to discuss their past promiscuities and peccadilloes, their sexual excesses and transgressions, their unmet appetites, than it is for a woman to discuss her experience with sexual inadequacies and failures, otherwise tastelessly known as frigidity.
So while I (carefully) wrote about that in Indigenous. I didn’t (perhaps couldn’t) attend to the years beforehand, when I was still an apprehensive virgin, when my dysfunctional sexual attitudes were being formed by my own obsessing, and when my daily life was infused by both the “men in power” the new laws warned us to be wary of, and by younger men, at least one, whose desire for me for I didn’t recognize as a need for my strength or my buoyancy or my support.
Madness and Method: Back to May 2009
So at one time I thought I could blame my sexual dysfunction on having been “victimized” by various forms of sexual harassment. Now I don’t think that claim is defensible. I at one time almost grieved over how the definitions of sexual harassment seemed to suggest that few, if any, of my bewildering sexual (and power-differential) situations would bequeath me the halo of desirability that would seem to accompany having officially been “sexually harassed.” But my long-term unease is more in the insinuation – in the media, and delivered personally from friends – that because there was no outright licentious quid pro quo, my encounters, of such acute influence on me, are trivial. Would therefore re-imagining my experiences in fiction also define my novels – struggling to come to terms with an array of unanswered questions, unsettled agitation, unabated disillusionment, and unfulfilled needs regarding several unresolved relationships – as trifling?
And why do I find myself on the gangplank of a voyage back into these still-cloudy waters, and why has the swirling debris not settled, the water not cleared in almost 30 years? And why, this time, will my vessel no longer be a novel?
If it is madness to dwell on and agitate over thirty-year-old events and relationships, then I seek a method to exorcise them. Is persistent recollection a reflexive attempt to continue an experience; to live through the same situations all over again in a tape loop, so the experience never ends, becomes an expedition I can indefinitely ride, continue to hold onto? To what aim? To do it right this time? To have control? To prevent the ending? To find the ending? To make a new ending? Or maybe only to know my own role. To take ownership. Perhaps then, at last, to finish becoming and let myself just be.
Interlude: Get Over It
I’ve been told it was “common” for boys to learn to express sexual need without embarrassment or awkwardness with a girl who doesn’t “matter.” And “common” meaning, if not “get over it,” at least “why didn’t you get over it?”
So they also say you should’ve just been one of those high-school fiascos everyone has, part of a “coming of age” story no one wants to read anymore. But why, and in how many inexplicable ways, did I not “just get over” you?
Maybe because, with you, I was the girl who mattered. And that still didn’t prevent me from recoiling – partially from not knowing if you wanted me, or just it. Assuming – from past experience I also hadn’t been able to “get over” before you – there was a boundary where I ended and just it began. And unfortunately I didn’t know until afterwards that I did, for you, matter beyond the electric moment. But when I did realize it, for some reason I thought it was too late. Too late to undo my panicked rebuff, too late to undo my reputation as an 18-year-old on her way to becoming a frigid (or just frightened) girl unable to be a woman.
Too late to allow that knowledge to let me trust? Or is it never too late for that?
Is there a literary method to manipulate memory so I can make a new ending for us? Or should the question be: have we even found our ending? Did it actually never happen, so what we have now, in addition to our past, is actually a future?
Certainly what I can’t turn around is the ending of one night in January 1980. Bulls-eyed in the middle of a twenty-four month span that started with our carpool into our (supposed) futures, and ended with your wretched observation of my rebound marriage. The 2 years on either side of our night, January 26, 1980: my passage through a failed career preparation coupled with sexual circling – uncertain if I was prey or predator – adult bookstores and XXX video booths; a mentorship that controlled too much of my unrealized identity coupled with too much involvement in two other people’s power-warfare; a religious crisis when my naïve need for love was named the unworthy and worldly sin that had to be resisted; continued over-reliance on the mentor for too-much counsel and even flawed protection until he then betrayed me; and the rebound man I met then married in January 1981 who, on retrospect, was as close to being you as a man could have been.
You, always there – even after I’d watched you move into your future, looking backwards. At first I resisted bringing you along in these pages, you having nothing whatsoever to do with the developing sexual harassment laws which I once assumed would be my primary lens for viewing the past. I should have known, it’s never that easy: Because elements other than the [lack of] sexual harassment laws, and other than my disappointment over not being able to blame sexual harassment on my sexual problems, have affected me, admittedly too much, ultimately forming the novelist but preventing the woman from ever evolving.