The most unusual true love story you will ever read. —Marion Winik, author of Highs in the Low Fifties, First Comes Love, and Rules for the Unruly: Living an Unconventional Life
An increasingly and pleasingly unhinged experiment in autoforensics and self-consciousnes —Ander Monson, editor of DIAGRAM and New Michigan Press, and author of Vanishing Point
Beyond brave writing. —Lidia Yuknavitch, author of Chronology of Water and Dora: A Headcase
Cris Mazza’s new book, Something Wrong with Her, is a memoir about anorgasmia—the inability to have an orgasm. Research suggests that at least 75% of women cannot reach orgasms through vaginal intercourse, and upwards of 15% are completely anorgasmic. The surplus of contemporary sexual memoirs would have us believe otherwise. Something Wrong with Her is not a book about overcoming anorgasmia. Rather, it is a poignant memoir about a girl who didn’t feel the sexual awakenings she knew she was supposed to feel, and about the boy who loved her nonetheless. Thirty years later Cris Mazza went back to find that boy, now a man, only to discover that he’d never stopped yearning for her. Worse, in an attempt to cauterize his feelings for her, he’d sealed himself into an abusive marriage. Something Wrong with Her is an astonishing real-time testimony of a couple’s reconnection, and their candid wrestling with 30-year-old memories, questions and regrets.
Cris Mazza is the author of seventeen books, including Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls, Waterbaby, Trickle-Down Timeline, and Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PENN/Nelson Algren Award. She is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She will be a guest-lecturer this fall at The Johns Hopkins University and will be the featured reader for Eckleburg’s Rue de Fleurus Salon held November 1st at Johns Hopkins, Homewood Campus. The below discussion began in March of 2013 and took place over several months.
Rae Bryant: The narrative voice of Something Wrong with Her is fresh and particular to this nonfiction and yet, at the same time, could be the voices of many women, which is what drew me so much to this book. Do you see this as something of an anthem for women’s sexuality, or rather, anti-sexuality?
Cris Mazza: So far only a handful of people, like yourself, have read the pre-publication galley. A healthy percentage of them have, in fact, told me that the book resonates for them in personal ways. One woman said, “Did I write this book?” This has been both surprising and satisfying for me in ways I couldn’t have predicted, let alone desired beforehand. I don’t believe I could have embarked on writing an “anthem” for any secreted slice of a multitude of women’s experiences (a) because to try to do so would have ended in pretentious failure, and (b) how could I write an anthem for others when I kept my sexual situation disguised and (possibly as a result) felt isolated? In fact, still, nobody who has said the book spoke to or for them has told me in what way, or which portions.
Sexuality and sexual politics have been present in nearly every one of my stories and novels — that’s a lot of words, situations, characters, bodies, however you want to count it, and yet … now I have a nonfiction book that could possibly be “about” anti-sexuality? One wonders how much control the author ever gained over the material.
I do suppose this book could be viewed as anti-sexuality, in part, since the comprehensive extent of what that word means is something I may only understand intellectually. I am not advocating anti-sexuality, although the constant use of personal sexuality or sexual terms on social media in testimonies of opinion on anything from politics to good literature (i.e. “his convention speech made my panties wet”) disturbs me — seems to put conversations about ideas on a beer-ad level — but perhaps also unsettles me because it both compounds my covert feeling of isolation and I’ve “heard” myself do the same in the past. Once, speaking with the former wildchild eternally popular-and-desired woman dog-trainer who appears in the first chapter, I told her that hooking and landing a big bass was “like an orgasm.” And by what means did I make this comparison? Better asked: why did I make that comparison? Because speaking frankly about sexuality was what sexually successful (or sexual and successful) women did, wasn’t it?
If so much of everything is about or related to sexuality, where does a person with stunted personal experience find the kind of meaning or validation that life seems to be a search for? If this is one of those cases where women start to make their way out of one crowd where they’ve been hiding and cross the street to stand in another group that’s less easy to look at, that surprise and satisfaction I mentioned will be … no, I won’t compare it to an orgasm.
RB: In the introduction, you describe jazz musicians and their way of teasing and tinkering with compositions. You write “I hope this book is more like jazz than like a novel.” How would you want this book “teased” and “tinkered” if performed, as you suggest, “more like jazz”? Is this essentially a community-created artform?
CM: The kind of communication and give-and-take that jazz musicians most prize is the conversation or the interplay between and among the musicians in the band or combo, i.e. the rhythm section with the soloist, or the dialogue between soloists. Sometimes they are also communicating an emotion or communicating with an emotion, sometimes playing for a person who is not present — dead or gone. But I don’t think the actual present-moment audience is the biggest factor in jazz being a spontaneously- or community-created art. It’s mostly in the other members of the band. They can play together with no audience and feel they have created something just as fulfilling or meaningful.
Okay, Mark, take it:
The response to one another regardless of an audience is why jazz recording artists usually like to record the whole ensemble at the same time. You just can’t re-create the same communication with, and response to, one another by laying down separate tracks. Like how will the drummer know ahead of time what the soloist is going to do until he does it. Hell, even the soloist doesn’t know until he does it, if it’s really jazz. So how could the drummer possibly respond to something that hasn’t happened yet?
Communicating via email with Mark — who was my accompaniment or rhythm section, and then became the other “comping” musician — while writing the book (listening to, responding to, and including his comments and even longer “solos”) was what made the composition (or performance) fluid. That feeling that the final product came out of conversation within an art medium can now can be extended to the audience, as people begin to respond to the book. At this point I can’t change the words (or replay the tune or re-do any of my solos), nor answer the readers, and I can’t decide how I want reader-response to influence how the book works, but I do feel that my own view of what the book says and what it can do, can (and is) changing.
RB: Throughout, the concept of self-acceptance and social expectation play a big role in how you view yourself sexually and musically. As you comment, a self-declared “frigidity” lacks a 2nd and 3rd Wave conformity, a woman playing trombone is a less than usual instrument for a female musician, a woman rejecting her genitalia as unlovable:
He would only touch me with his cock. He didn’t mind getting it dirty. There were times when, in taking care of personal hygiene, I thought: who would want to touch this?… I was learning to play trombone, joining that traditionally all-male section…completely unaware I was a paltry manifestation of the era….
Do you see the self-loathing as an everywoman attribute?
CM: Naturally anyone with any education and/or social acuity would have an informed awareness of gender stereotypes and conformity, so I would be expected (and would expect myself) to be able to contextualize my personal issues — even in the genre of personal narrative — to achieve a universal demonstration of how easily women are encouraged to not like their own bodies, or to feel sexually inadequate, or to feel as though being sexually harassed is a badge of sorts because male sexual approval ranks so high on the list of things women are taught to seek. In short, yes, some part of me did know — had to know — that my problematic attitudes were not unique.
That said … One of the initial impetuses for starting to write this book, as with many writing projects, was not a feeling of shared-experience or community, but one of isolation. A need to communicate with only the page (to let the voice in my head be recorded) because that’s the only way to not feel isolated or alone. It has been a (welcome) surprise to me that readers feel communally here.
In other words, if self-loathing is an everywoman attribute (and it is, to some degree or another), my knowing that fact was not at the forefront of my purpose in embarking on the writing of this book. I think a woman who lives even a portion of her daily life with these kinds of foundational thoughts about herself or her body is going to feel isolated … because she is bombarded not only by all the cultural/social reasons she feels that way in the first place, but barraged as well by the sexual persona women have adopted (either as a front or with earnestness) in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It is the latter that made me feel I was, in a way, quarantined. (I didn’t want to use the word isolated again, and I liked the icky sensation of “quarantined.”)
But I really want to go into more detail about this secret isolation with examples, the kinds of things I continue to trip over even after completing this book.
We’re all aware (and this one I did include in the book) of the new mini-genre within memoir that could be called “sexual confession.” Sexual confession memoirs would naturally need some sex to confess to, and so are memoirs revealing forms of sexual excess, from sex workers and sex surrogates to sex addicts and sexual “extremists” (I just made that one up to cover S&M, orgy, dominatrix, etc.). In short, an array of books by women who have had a lot, done a lot, some of them with celebration and no reason to apologize, others with retrospective insight into how it indicated something they needed to learn about themselves. This blossoming sub-genre can (and does) affect me the way the cool girls could in high school: lets me know in no uncertain terms that I am an outsider of a club everyone wants to belong to.
And it’s not only a sub-genre of popular but literary memoirs that spells my isolation out for me: Standing in line at the grocery story, the Cosmopolitan cover teases “23 Sweet & Sexy Moves — Orgasm Guaranteed.” A satellite-radio advice-call-in host speaks with a caller who is remarried in her late 40s and is upset because it’s taking her so long to … “get there,” she says. As the host is explaining the biological normalcy of this, and methods to help, I’m wondering How long would no longer be ‘normal’? 50 years?
Just today a traditional-aged (& unmarried) undergraduate turned in a short story about the effects of erectile dysfunction on a marriage, including a thought-line by the wife, “she thought about the hundreds of orgasms she wasn’t having …” While the professional me sat facing them discussing how the uncertain/inconsistent point-of-view was causing the story’s effects to be scattered and diluted, the other me wondered, “where does it come from in this 20-year-old’s life, the assumption, the certainty, that sex — of any kind, but in this case specifically intercourse — will result in a woman’s orgasm? And every time, apparently.” I wondered if this young woman was bamboozled by the gamut of media’s hype about female sexuality, or if it was, in fact, her reality? The wondering itself a microcosm for the sense of aloneness that instigated writing Something Wrong With Her.
But any such instigation is a step toward ending my own isolation … so perhaps the book is more a search for a sense of “everywoman,” rather than a statement of it.
A question has occurred to me, if a man had these kinds of feelings about himself and his body, would he be steered by society or a therapist to consider gender re-assignment?
RB: It would seem that a self-perceived male frigidity or “less than” performance would be an underlying motivation for any man’s self-flagellation, a perceived lack of manliness. It seems as much now as ever that not only women but men too would have difficulty finding expressive outlets for any alternative state of sexual being, hence further pushing each toward conventional solutions, which leads me back to your book. You discuss 1972 and animal husbandry, which interestingly has provided study for erectile dysfunction and electro-stimulation relief, and how your mother said “no commercial chicken ranches would hire [you] as foreman.” You discuss how playing trombone afforded a different reality for you, albeit “a paltry manifestation of the era,” as you put it. Music seemingly became your outlet, solace and sanctuary. Can this community of gender-typing and teenage isolation create the same chicken-egg cycle of body politic and sexual self-efficacy?
CM: In my case sexual inefficacy?
I have been thinking a lot about this, even before you’ve proposed this particular discussion prompt. And then since you’ve offered this in a chicken-egg context, my thinking has been more focused and yet more frustrating. So I’ve backed up to why was band so important to me? So important that I stayed in a marching band after high school, through all of college (BA and MA) and then returned for another year of marching band after my MFA? (That last year a pathetic example of clinging to the past.) This was not a case of finding solace in music. I was not ever a musician. I worked hard to learn to play my instrument, to learn my parts, and tried to adhere to instructions from the director to play with the proper phrasing, dynamics, character, etc. But what I was “in” was mostly a military-style marching band, which played concert music in the off-season. It was the marching band that generated most of the aura of sanctuary. I’m pretty far away from being a fan of what the military stands for or is used to achieve, but military precision and discipline in a marching band — especially during rehearsal and performance — is largely what gave us the “sameness” that was a form of equality. Or if you were “unequal” it was because you didn’t know your part, messed-up the drills or precision, cost points on the score and ultimately a placement. Our “nerds” were those who couldn’t do, couldn’t perform. We wore unisex (or masculine) uniforms, our grooming was unisex (no facial hair, no long hair showing outside the hat, gloved hands, no make-up or jewelry, etc.). This definitely did remove a large component of personal isolation. But not all of it. The situation was not devoid of sexual overtones and even, as described in the book, some playful — yet still harmful —incidences of sexual harassment. And yet instead of embracing or trying to conform to the sexual politics — girls play flute, clarinet, maybe saxophone, if a brass instrument it was French horn, if percussion it was cymbals, glockenspiel, tenor drum — I went another (or the opposite) direction. I did not choose one of those instruments. Then the “best” girls auditioned for and landed positions in the “banderettes” — look at the word! They had to be tall with good figures. They carried the name of the band out in front of the drum major, ten of them, each carrying a letter. Their uniforms were either Flamenco-style miniskirts or skintight Matador-style costumes. (Banderette politics: they mostly used the miniskirts for competition parades because they’d lost style points for wearing pants!) The boys who marched in the front rank carrying trombones — who I joined in the 10th grade — called them “bander-butts.” Yes, sexual division still existed in the sanctuary, but my choice to play a “male” instrument removed me from it. I wasn’t rejected by a banderette audition because I didn’t try (I was too short). I didn’t join the cluster of girls in the flute and clarinet sections — where there were either no boys (flute) or very few — where the differences I perceived between me and them would be evident. But I didn’t make these choices consciously. I wanted to march in the front rank, with those bold, brave boys who had those positions, playing that seemingly edgy, forceful instrument. (Yes, the phallic-shaped one.) I belonged in a way I never had; my place was one of leadership, authority, even “power.” Unconsciously, I created a form of belonging that was not constructed of sexual desirability. Now back to your question: did this help lead to my budding (then) and developing (later) and chronic (even later) body loathing and sexual dysfunction? Was the salve only a way to let the wound fester?
The more general answer is always more simple and obvious: from babyhood, girls are rewarded in various ways for being cute, then pretty, then sexy. Why wouldn’t they instinctively learn to use these tools for personal gain (attention, assistance, etc.)? This is, for many, a dangerous and dead-end road that I dodged (or was not offered). But, for me personally (and for how many others?), why did I grow up assuming I did not have those tools? And so turned to other tools — proficiency, performance, leadership — instead? And if that somehow served me professionally, did it also help cripple me sexually? When was I first shown I had no value as a female? When a boy at the junior high bus stop said so? (“Hey, Cris, Tim says you got nothing to offer.”) And why was that lesson so enduring, when there were other signs — especially after I’d met Mark when we were both 16 — that said the opposite?
Actually, the boy at the bus stop might not have been the first. Besides the tacit signals girls get from their mothers (according to psychologists), there was another early scene, this one involving my youngest brother who is five years younger than me. He must have been around 7 at the time. My oldest sister, five years older than me, would have been 16 or 17. We were at the dinner table—a ritual rarely broken, all seven of us sat down to dinner in the dining room. I don’t know how this topic came up, and how it wasn’t squelched by my father before it went too far, but somehow my brother, reporting on some wisdom divulged by a friend of his, announced that “girls have a hairy puss.” My brother had taken baths with me as long as we both still fit in the tub. These baths must have ended by this time, but the comment from his friend might have jarred his knowledge of what a girl looks like. In the moments of aftermath following his statement, I don’t remember anything my parents might have said to my brother; I don’t think the dinner table fell into complete silence. Guessing, my mother might have said “That’s not nice.” But I clearly recall my sister’s face. She flushed, her nose became swollen and nostrils trembled. She stared fixedly at the table. I recognized acute mortification. His impudent tale-telling, my sister’s shame, seemingly coming at me from both sides …it’s a scene I well remember, and why? The disgust for our bodies coming from the beloved little brother? Seeing my own secret feelings expressed by my older sister? Not hearing my brother corrected in any manner that disputed his gossip?
Arrgh … the conversation is all still made of questions, not answers.
RB: “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?’” Freud believed the female orgasm generated from inside the vagina, the surest and/or only way toward orgasm, a man’s penis inside the vagina. But of course! How else could a woman enjoy sex? Why else would a woman have sex? And we have magical spermicide don’t you know? And still this penis dogma exists. Do we give our younger women leave to be sexually explorative and unencumbered at a younger age? If you had been unencumbered at a younger age, would you have escaped anorgasmia?
CM: Outside my cognizance at the time, there was a big moment in the later 70s (when I was in college) to unencumber young women of their enduring ignorance — which likely did grow out of the misrepresentations and patriarchal “scientific conclusions” about the “feminine soul,” as well as from puritanical underpinnings. As well as from a whole myriad of other societal/cultural influences that served to not dispel this basic form of ignorance but instead to bloat it. But back to that movement to undo all this: It wasn’t an organized “movement” at first, but 1973 brought us Fear of Flying, and it’s not the zipless-fuck that was significant, but the sexually & verbally frank, voracious woman searching for the perfect fulfillment that had been promised “growing up female in America.” The young woman character contorted herself with a mirror in the bathroom to inspect her genitals, gave up necking and petting at 14 for masturbating herself to orgasm, recognized she’d been fed definitions of female sexuality from male writers like Lawrence who suggested that all women worshiped “the Phallos,” and was only afraid of sex for the power that lust had over her. OK, so that was a big splash in ’73, even though I wasn’t aware of it until around ’77 when I was in college. I’m not sure it immediately started affecting girls and how they viewed their bodies and sex, but it was part of a new frankness from women (not just about women) involving the female body, female sexuality, female orgasm, masturbation … all the stuff Freud got so wrong. (The fact that Jong put her character in the midst of a congress of psychological analysts in Vienna to celebrate the opening of Freud museum and the “welcoming back” of analysts to Vienna decades after being banned by the Third Reich, has the flagrant favor of irony.) But add to this atmosphere 1973’s Our Bodies, Ourselves, completely written by women, using personal vignettes from contributors, and covering some previously taboo subjects. And then in 1974 Betty Dodson’s Sex for One (on the benefits of female masturbation) and her movement of group workshops for women to teach them about their bodies and specifically masturbation which, legendarily, had them receiving instruction while seated in a circle, naked, with mirrors. As mentioned in Something Wrong With Her, I knew someone who went to one of these sessions, but then I researched it while writing the book to connect it to Betty Dodson, who has continued her work in this area, most recently coming back into feminist conversation when she criticized The Vagina Monologues for distorting the nature of her workshops. Dodson’s blog on this discrepancy (which has a description of her workshops) is too good to not include in whole:
That evening I sat in a small theater listening to a charming young woman who talked about my Women’s Sexuality Workshops with a distorted view of what I’d been doing for over twenty-five years. She called it “The Vagina Workshop.” Never in my wildest nightmare would I have ever considered using the word vagina to describe the work I’d been doing.
One of the great sexual tragedies in history occurred when Dr. Sigmund Freud formulated his theory that the clitoris was an infantile source of pleasure and that as a woman matures, her sexual sensations are transferred to the vagina. This theory has kept countless millions of women from becoming orgasmic. Yet the myth prevails. Women constantly ask me how to have an orgasm from vaginal penetration only. …
In her play, Eve went on to describe the workshop’s participants lying on blue mats like a Yoga class looking at their “vaginas” with a hand mirror trying to find their “G-spots.” It was painful for me to hear what she was saying. My workshops were held in my beautiful carpeted living room. The entire class looked at one person’s vulva at a time. Using a freestanding mirror she was able to use both hands to open her outer and inner lips, as well as pull back the hood of her clitoris. As I sat next to each woman looking into the same mirror, I guided her through the exquisite form of her sex organ. Viewing the female genitals with only one hand would be like pulling our mouth to one side and thinking that’s how we looked when we smiled. … But I felt I had to confront her about not mentioning the word CLITORIS in describing my workshop. As a matter of fact, the word clitoris was never mentioned throughout the entire play.
Betty Dodson, “Betty’s Response to the Vagina Monologues”
OK, I’ve gone on and on about an atmosphere, a movement, the work of many different women (and many more that could be added) that was directly intended to battle the sexual ignorance that oppressed — and still misleads — young women (and older ones, as I can attest). And I was, for whatever variety of reasons, unable to participate in the attempt to educate me. Or would I have been unwilling if the opportunity had been directly offered? If that friend of mine had invited me to attend a Dodson workshop with her, would I have gone? If I had, would things have turned out differently? These are what-if questions that can’t be answered except with idealized (or pessimistic) guesses.
I didn’t have Sex for One or Our Bodies Ourselves. Even if I had heard of the former, the fear to own books like those endured because I still lived with my parents, in my girlhood bedroom, so enough of an atmosphere of restriction must have developed there that I was inhibited (or scared) to openly own and read them at home. (Fear of Flying was a novel that no one could tell anything about from the cover.) But… I did know the word clitoris. I did travel Isadora Wing’s journey more than once, as well as the sequel novel (not nearly as good) How to Save Your Own Life. (The sequels yet-to-come were, frankly, very far below expectations.) I almost tore apart Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (1969) which — written by a man — I don’t consider part of the Our Bodies Ourselves / Betty Dodson movement. And it did not tell me “everything” I felt I needed to know. The Woody Allen movie of the same name is a good example of the kinds of things the book did put out into the mainstream, but nothing that answered my anxieties, which, incidentally, were not “how do I learn to orgasm” (it likely would not have answered that either). I should look at that book again now and see how it handles the issue of female orgasm, considering it was released in 1969, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that clitoral anatomy was accurately depictured in medical textbooks.
Back to your question: if I had fully partaken of what was actually available in terms of more open, available, and non-Freudian information about female sexuality, would I have known a different outcome in my personal sexual life? Maybe. But I actually think there was too much anxiety already in me to have gotten me to attend a Dodson workshop. The level of fear, really, was to the point of being aberrant.
RB: Earlier you asked how Something Wrong with Her speaks to or about the readers who identify with it. It appears to be a question of specifics. Details. Perhaps it isn’t so much the detailed ways in which the book speaks to its readers but rather the shared general experience it offers with such candidness. Your shared experience allows for a discussion of being female without the conventional views of being female, an asexual discussion of identity, perhaps. Does a lack of sexual drive make one any less male or female? Does it lift the burden of gender altogether? Maybe answers are difficult or even impossible so I will try to answer your question of connection as best I can with a story of my own. And so come my details:
As a young girl my most freeing and possibly last socially confirming moments as a child, were when I attended summer church camp with my grandmother who I called Mammy. I was the quintessential tomboy. Short hair, active, ballsy though highly reticent too. Mammy took me to church camp perhaps to soften me up, find my proper lady side.
We attended a Nazarene church and so the camp was a collect of a special sort of devout that believed in abstaining from dances, eating in restaurants on Sundays and other socially conservative practices. My parents were less religious than they pretended to be on the rare Sunday they attended church, though, to ask them they are true believers. They will to this day quote scripture.
My parents sent me to Sunday school and summer Bible School regularly with Mammy and Pappy. I spent a good deal of time at my grandparent’s house when not in school. So I grew up believing the devil was literal, as was the Garden of Eden and the impending Apocolypse. The Exorcist was a particular kind of literal terror that left me sleepless for weeks. When I learned to masturbate, I truly thought I would be stricken down but it felt too good to deny so I settled into my evil sin as any good Christian girl would. I covertly masturbated and would feel badly about it then try not to do it again. By the time I went to church camp with Mammy, I was not only an irony of myself, I was an expression of my religion’s and my family’s irony as evidenced through addictive masturbation. Not that I masturbated all the time. In fact, I rarely did. But the expectation was to never do it at all so doing it was a bad addiction. Maybe my parents knew I had discovered masturbation. Maybe that’s why they sent me to church camp. I don’t know.
At church camp, I believed good people would be there. The best sort. And I would be free to explore. Mammy generally let me run wild wherever we were as long as I was home for dinner. Church camp would be fun.
The first day, I befriended a beautiful boy. I don’t remember his name now but I remember seeing him for the first time outside the ice cream stand. His hair was brown, I remember that, and a foggy connection to his smile or teeth. I had a thing for nice teeth and nice smiles. He did have blue eyes. If I were to draw a picture of him now he would be a blurry image of brown on top, two blue dots and a pink ring around white teeth. It’s the kindness I remember most. Kind boys his age weren’t usually so cute. I liked him immediately. He liked me too and we shared ice cream and were inseparable the rest of the week. He was easier to be around than any of the kids at school. I wasn’t so popular at school. I wasn’t the girly type. I didn’t usually wear dresses or go in for the group following and such so I was something of a loner.
The entire week, I managed to duck out of churchy activities and instead ran around with this boy and two other friends we made. All boys. I was the leader. The boys did what I said. I told them to grab cattails and we would make light sabers of them and so we did. We made light sabers daily. We found another boy, smaller than we were, to chase and whip with our cattails. The end of the week came and Mammy made me wear a dress and attend the end of camp congregation, for fear of switching—that was the thing about Mammy, she’d let you run off and explore all you like but when she decided something needed to be done it better be done for fear of switching. I walked out of our camp room with a dress on and the boys nearly choked. One of the boys, the one I liked least mind you, excitedly pointed and said, See! I told you he was a girl!
My hair was short, yes. But I wore earrings all week, both ears. I had spent a lot of time making sure my short hair tucked just right behind my ears, what little of it I could coax back.
After the dress incident, the boys wouldn’t play with me. For the next day in a half, they avoided me. I had been ostracized. Perhaps this is why I still, to this day, wear my hair long. A short style, though, I like it very much on many women, looks distasteful to me on my head. That summer at church camp, I realized how distasteful my gender was to the other. And I had to make a choice or suffer the complete isolation of everyone. I was never able to make that choice spiritually, though, I made the choice physically. It plagues me. This was my first public lesson in gender assignment. The first lesson being covert. Masturbation as covert sin.
Something Wrong with Her speaks of a girl and young woman I would have really liked to have known at a younger age. I think we may have been good friends or we might have perhaps hated each other. Either way, I would have been better for it. Less alone somehow. Or maybe I am romanticizing the essence of isolation. Still, I wonder how many of you and of me were out there, close at hand. So, for me, your story is the story of being set apart. Isolated even within one’s own body.
CM: Yes, hiding inside there with our “secret”…
As you also may have experienced, when a boy did “like” you as a girl, he may not have continued behaving in the way that made his being a boy attractive. So, he either didn’t like you because you were a girl, or changed his own demeanor/personality because you were a girl, so that “being a girl” seemed a bad idea on all sides. (And those weren’t the only reasons it seemed a bad idea.) I’d love to see your story explored a little more, memoir and self-analysis style, with the religious slant probed — what were those boys possibly learning at home?
If we’d known each other, I might have been intimidated, as I was usually intimidated by girls who either (a) successfully exhibited the genderlessness I pursued (although you might argue at how “successful” you were), or (b) were just successful being themselves. Sometimes, not always, (a) and (b) were the same. I was also intimidated by pretty/popular girls (as so many of us were intimidated), and yet on more than one occasion, such girls were my friends. Perhaps I sought inclusion by association, or perhaps they sought a less intimidating friend in order to maintain their “success.” The social web of childhood is far more complicated than adulthood. And on that note, I’ll add my similar story about the freedom of losing my own gender, although I did so not to seek to be genderless but to become the other.
I told this story in my first nonfiction book, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian. (This book also touched on my sexual dysfunction, but did so in a way that suggested it was long in the past.) In the essay “Land of Make Believe,” which was to be parallel stories of an aunt I’d never met who had been an institutionalized schizophrenic since she was 12, and an institution for severely disabled children where I worked when I was in college. But I began with a long introduction about a private fantasy world I’d invented and played in alone — a boys’ orphanage where “we” each had our own pony — and then I included my taking this fantasy into reality, playing a boy at girl scout camp. I’ll retell that story in a minute, but first, the part I forgot to include in that book because I didn’t even think of it until last night as I was mulling over how I would respond to your personal offering. Another incident in girl scouts: My best friend had long blond hair and didn’t mind wearing girl clothes. I was forced to wear dresses to school because of a dress code at the time, but I did so minus as much female regalia as I could (e.g. all of my dresses had straight shirtsleeves). My friend Julie would wear things like sandals and sleeveless blouses even on weekends or at girl scout camp. But, her parents being college-professor hippies, we’d bonded over dogs, camping, cooking over fires, and playing in the canyons (similar to your cattail wars). In 6th grade I decided to have my long hair (always kept in tight braids) cut in a short boy style. Around that time, my scout troop was camping at the bay in San Diego, so during the day there were a lot of other people recreating where we were camped. A cute boy wandered into our vicinity. All the girls noticed him, watched him, some talked to him. You can imagine the raised hum of interest in the girl beehive. But then Julie was singled out by him, and, seemingly for hours, she and the boy lay on the grass on their sides facing each other, heads propped up on elbows, talking. I can still picture her (but can’t remember what he looked like). I must have ventured in that direction to look, to see if they’d moved at all, a dozen times. That boy had been the center of our collective universe of attention, and Julie had been “chosen” to orbit him. I’d been left (and left behind on another level) by my friend for a person of far greater interest, one who had been of keen interest to me too but for whom I’d remained nameless and invisible. Until last night, I’d never put this together with my other experience with a boy at girl scout camp, possibly the following year, when I was the boy.
It was “troop camp,” so troops from all over the county were camping in separate sites at the girl scout facility in the mountains, but all using the pool and joining for flag ceremonies, etc. The ruse started accidentally, when girls from another troop asked some girls in my troop if there was a boy with them at camp — meaning me. (This was 7th grade, but I was all short-hair, jeans, sneakers, T-shirts, boy-body, unfeminine facial features, never any jewelry or make-up, dirty hands and fingernails, and always messy to cap the image.) My friends thought it was funny and would make other troops jealous to say that, yes, it was a boy, the leader’s son. We managed to maintain this deception even during the hour our troop was scheduled at the pool. By the time I was suited and capped, I was no longer “David” but some other nameless nobody. As “David” I was the worshipped, the desired, the looked-at, the whispered-about … and the chooser.
From “Land of Make Believe”:
Girls began to show obvious signs of flirtation when I was around, waiting for me at places where they knew I would walk past, embarrassing friends by calling out that so-and-so wanted to ask me something, giggling as I went by. … Unabashed at our gall, we forged onwards, and at the end of the week of camp, the girl with the biggest crush on me was given my address. Letters exchanged between us for the rest of the summer, her big looping girl-writing expressing feelings she would’ve never been able to admit in person. Finally when she began to express her feelings more ardently, when she began speaking of coming by bus from her part of the county to visit me, I knew the jig was up, and I confessed. The last letter I got from her was, rightfully so, filled with the venomous anger of one who’s been duped and humiliated. Understanding her shame, I retreated back to my private and secret land of boys.
It may be significant to add that the girl who’d been given my address was also not the classic-beauty of her troop, but overweight and suffering adolescence’s pranks on her skin and hair. I don’t know why that information was omitted when I wrote the account for Indigenous. (Notice how I put that sentence in passive voice, as though it wasn’t me who had somehow made the decision to not say that the girl I’d allowed to be “chosen” was one of the “underprivileged.” Another slant or layer I’d not accessed until now. In this way, the effect of writing Something Wrong With Her is lingering, through editing, through production, and now in interviews. Seeing that how I wrote about an experience tells another story about the experience itself.)
You saw in your remembered episode a connection to your distaste for short hair. The accidental disguise felt good while it lasted, but was devastating when your real identity resulted in such displayed revulsion. Did it cause you to be careful not to revolt members of the male gender again in that way? And did the swing to the opposite extreme cause its own transgressions to your identity?
The revulsion I received was from a wounded girl. I understood it, but was too wrapped in my own immaturity to empathize beyond how alone I was after I was no longer in the spotlight that had enveloped me while I “was” a boy. It was after that experience that I again donned a male identity in order to be able to have my own paper route (girls were actually not allowed). Then I vaulted into an androgynous wardrobe — from the boy’s section of The Gap — as soon as dress codes were abolished as I entered high school. I took on one of the only instruments left in the band that was still an all-male bastion. But the next time I “passed,” — when a guest conductor was giving a clinic to the band and referred to me as “young man” — I stormed out of the room. After that, but not a direct result of the incident, I let my hair grow. By college I was wearing halter tops and sandals, but still only rarely a dress, and never any make-up, ear rings or nail polish. And that’s when I changed my name to the un-gendered shortened version of the uber feminine one I’d been given at birth. It was a mish-mash of identity and likewise my reactions to how it was apprehended by the world I was entering also vacillated. The year after I was out of graduate school, when I won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for an unpublished manuscript, the judges admitted to not knowing my gender, and the only one of them present at the award ceremony plainly leered when introducing himself.
The most difficult part of your story for me to respond to—and I want to—is in your quick summary of the religious overtone in your childhood (and I’d call it a heavy one). In the few squirmingly unpleasant sessions of sex therapy I attended with my first husband, I remember the guy asking me if I’d been taught that sex was bad, if my parents were very religious, etc. Rounding up the usual suspects. But there was none of that I could point to. No direct lessons in sin or sex and very little religion (and what there had been was a liberal demonization called Sweedenborgian. My father spared us his Catholicism). Were we inhibited not to swear, to be home in time for dinner, to not stay out past curfew, to always let our parents know where we were (and be honest about it)? Yes, yes, yes and yes. My father was a very strong presence, but I don’t remember articulated don’ts. I remember my mother telling my little brother (at around 5) to get his hands out of his pajamas. He was in the kitchen at the time, so I didn’t see this as a masturbation taboo. What I’m working my way toward, here, is how you seamlessly moved from your “knowledge” that the devil was real to how that knowledge impacted your behavior after you learned to masturbate. Or impacted your resulting feelings but didn’t impact the behavior. That behavior was something I simply never “learned,” without ever being told not to do it. I am bewildered, maybe a little in awe, when I hear how for so many women it is a natural phase of growing up. It certainly was treated as an unsurprising, inevitable and expected activity in Fear of Flying. (I recall a line where she “masturbated herself to sleep,” so it even somehow joined sleep-inducement measures like wine, reading and relaxing-the-tongue.) I’ve, of course, since then—and a lot recently—read how it is practically imperative for a woman to learn how to bring herself to orgasm if she is going to be able to get there with a partner. If I was going to be a case study, the study would stop there: they would have found their answer. My own questions go further: why didn’t I? Why was I not moved, either by physical craving or adolescent curiosity, to “go there”? What was I supposed to feel that I didn’t? That’s been the biggest “something wrong with me” I thought for sure there must be.
RB: Of course. Wasn’t that Freud’s point? There must certainly be something wrong with us all. I’ll take that as long as I am in such good company as you. Thank you, Cris, for this discussion and for writing such a splendid and genuine work.
Something Wrong with Her will be published in four editions: full color illustrated, black and white illustrated, ebook and fine art limited edition (Jaded Ibis Press).
Rae Bryant’s short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals, released from Patasola Press, NY, in June 2011. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Paris Review, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, BLIP Magazine, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, and multiple times for Pushcart awards. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and Johns Hopkins as well as fellowships from the VCCA and Hopkins to write, study and teach in Florence, Italy. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of the university-housed literary and arts journal, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. She is currently finishing a novel, another collection of short stories, and is represented by Jennifer Carlson with Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency in NYC.