Eckleburg: What drives, inspires, and feeds your artistic work?

Ellen Urbani: When I was a single mother to two wee ones, I felt my brain cells dying every time I reread GOODNIGHT MOON (which I did about 87 times per day for years on end). As such, I wrote LANDFALL to rebuild my brain, to stretch my synapses and keep my mind alive and engaged with the world beyond diapering and breastfeeding and Elmo. My desire to exercise and feed my own mind is what inspires all my artistic work.

Eckleburg: If you had to arm wrestle a famous writer, poet or artist, either living or dead, who would it be? Why? What would you say to distract your opponent and go for the win?

Ellen Urbani: At a whopping 5’2″ and 110 pounds, sans foul play there’s no way I could arm wrestle anyone and win. Which means this tussle will require deviant methods. So let’s say I lick my opponent’s arm to knock him off his game: what I’m talking about now is not only which author I’d like to arm wrestle, but which author I’d like to sleep with, for one cannot go around licking people without following through. So it that case pit me against Jack Kerouac, for I love to be on the road, and he’d make a mighty attractive traveling companion.

Eckleburg: What would you like the world to remember about you and your work?

Ellen Urbani: Presuming anyone will remember me or my work, which is terribly presumptuous indeed, let them remember me for this:

I am kind to children, the elderly, and animals. Always.

I accept constructive criticism with an open mind and hearty soul.

I am endlessly grateful to those readers, lovers, and friends who have made it possible for me to live the life I imagined.

Ellen Urbani is the author of Landfall, a work of historical fiction set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and the memoir When I Was Elena, a Book Sense Notable selection documenting her life in Guatemala during the final years of that country’s civil war. She has a bachelor’s degree from The University of Alabama and a master’s degree from Marylhurst University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and numerous anthologies, and has been widely excerpted. She’s reviewed books for The Oregonian, served as a federal disaster/trauma specialist, and has lectured nationally on this topic. Her work has been profiled in the Oscar-qualified short documentary film Paint Me a Future. A Southern expat now residing in Oregon, her pets will always be dawgs and her truest allegiance will always reside with the Crimson Tide.

Anorgasmia, Love and Something Wrong with Her: A Discussion with Cris Mazza


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


Rue Cris MazzaCris 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?

Something Wrong with Her by Cris MazzaCM: 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 IIRae 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.

From Something Wrong with Her: A Hybrid Memoir


Yes, I was one, all through college. A virgin in too many ways. A virgin whose first kiss had been milestone enough that subsequent occasions for kisses still triggered uneasiness, but not nearly as much trepidation as caused by the virginity itself. Not — as some have assumed — anxiety fostered by relentless itchy lust. If that were the case, then prospective situations would not have resulted in the resistant rigidity with which advances were met.

If I were to enumerate my angst, the bullet points would be:

  1. How was it done? And how would I know how to do it (when the moment came)?
  2. What if I didn’t know what to do and was really bad at it?
  3. What if it hurt/what if I don’t like it?
  4. I’m supposed to like it, I’m supposed to crave it, but all I do is resist and avoid it, what’s wrong with me?

In terms of importance, they shuffled. Sometimes #1 was the most vital, sometimes one of the others. But most often it was #4.


& Not Losing It

I began keeping journals during my last two years of college when I took fiction-writing workshop. (Semesters I didn’t take the workshop, no journal exists.)  I also have a handful of earlier “story” manuscripts — compulsively scribbled out during classes I routinely attended but did not have the wherewithal to pay attention. At one point these MSS got damp, dried out with permanent ripples, and now are brittle as 19th century proclamations. Immature narratives, mostly in first person, spelling the grief of my isolation after leaving some friends behind in high school — namely boys I’d allowed to squeeze my breasts or kiss me in preparation for their first dates. Not long after their dates had developed into girlfriends, the girls had requested that the boys not be friends with me anymore. Their docile compliance was difficult to condemn, but easy to let myself be wounded by. 

Yet in my journals and story drafts, it seems nowhere did I record my unenthusiastic response to three young men who, between 1976 and 1978, shared my company on a single date. 

The first was fall of 1976: A fellow trombone player, a chemistry major, a boy a year younger than me who’d been assigned to the marching band squad of which I was the leader, asked me to accompany him to an academic fraternity dinner/dance. This would naturally negate the conclusion that my playing the trombone made the male trombone-players view me as not enough of a girl to have dating interest in me. I was, however, not enough of a girl to appreciate a dress-up, corsage-wearing occasion where couples actually had their pictures taken. I felt repulsed by the way this boy became a solicitous, polite, car-door-opening drone, leaving the joking, irreverent shirtless college-freshman-in-cutoffs I’d known out on the football field, replacing himself with a suit-wearing Ken doll. Unfair, and not at all his fault. This was a role he had been conditioned to play, on dates, especially formal dates, and possibly had been further trained by the mission of this new fraternity — purely academic without its own house, striving to establish itself as a serious brotherhood of educated men at a known party-school. When, later that semester, he asked me to accompany him to the band banquet, I told him I wouldn’t be attending the banquet. How much intelligence does this take: I did go to the banquet, alone, and can still clearly remember the boy’s round face, his blank also-round eyes, his small expressionless mouth, when he saw me there.

And why was this young man not “good enough” for me?  While some may boil it down to me turning up my nose for shallow, frivolous, conceited reasons, in retrospect I can claim a mixture of social immaturity, societal conditioning, and gender-role defiance. I played a “masculine” instrument; I was his squad leader; I was a year older. How could I then appear on his arm as “his girl,” how could he be the Prince Charming I contradictorily, without using that term, was seeking?

Just before fall semester the following year, he died in his apartment, slumped over a chemistry experiment on his kitchen table — flagrantly messing around, as boys will do, with chemicals and gas and flame. Not making a stink bomb to pay retribution to a girl who’d discarded him in a cowardly way. Just creating, exploring, feeling invulnerable, and, unlike the girl who’d rebuffed him, plunging into hands-on involvement with the world outside a stewing adolescent brain. I was called to the band office and told about his demise, because I’d been his squad leader. They assumed I would be distraught. I don’t remember my outward reaction. I’d lied to him, evaded him, rejected him. I presume these things were not major issues for him, months later, at the time of his death. To assume he’d been mortally hurt by me is self-absorbed. As is the response, to his death, of guilt, remorse, shame… which is the only reaction I had. Guilt I did not share with anyone, not because I recognized how selfish it was to feel that way, but because I assumed other people would view me in the same appalling light: the girl who jilted him before he died — or nine to ten months before he died. What others might have viewed as encasing my emotions to protect a fragile psyche was actually guarding my fragile ego. I don’t even remember his last name. Alan Wilson. It just came to me as I typed the previous sentence.


In 1977, the football team ranked in the national top 20, so they earned a televised game the last game of the season, in San Jose. Because it would be broadcast, the athletic department paid to send the entire marching band to that game, twenty band members on the team plane and the rest in six buses. Somehow the PR director got herself a seat on the plane. The PR director had never in her life been on a plane. 

The team jet seated three across with a single aisle. The twenty band members — including band officers and those who had classes they had to attend on Friday morning, plus the directors — boarded after the team was already settled. Thus I ended up seated between two stalwart, Black athletes, each of whom had over a foot-and-a-half of height on me, and double my weight. 

In the 70s there was an impulse among white liberals to not describe people by their race. So my inclination here was to not mention that the athletes seated on either side of me were African American. However, to deny that their race didn’t make the situation more exciting is to claim a lie.

For some reason, momentarily without reserve, I turned into a journalist for a half hour to engage the two athletes in a conversation of some minor controversy: on the game broadcast the announcer had been complaining that the band was interfering with the quarterback’s communication in the huddle. I asked them if the band disturbed them in any way. They said they never heard any of it, except when the 5 glockenspiel players [an upright xylophone made of metal] played one of their prepared ditties. The athletes did not use the word ditty. But they did like the songs played by the glock section, evidenced as much by the fact that they remembered hearing it as they said so. Perhaps that’s what allowed the athletes to also be college boys, like the ones I knew, only more important boys, and — dare I say — these were taboo. So before I became perilously dizzy with airsickness, I managed to get one of the player’s names and his phone number when he suggested I call him if I ever wanted to “get together.”

Thankfully I didn’t vomit until after the plane landed, in fact not until I was sitting (for some reason) on a concrete curb in the motel’s parking lot. I was probably using sunlight to battle the nausea, something I commonly do, often without even thinking about it, seeking sun through windows of airplanes or airports, at highway rest stops, even through my bedroom blinds. I remember sitting on that curb, watching a trickle of foamy vomit trail away from me on the asphalt. I may have been thinking about how I’d just met a football player, a Black one, a star. From that moment, the next detail I remember is when, after I’d shifted my return-home arrangements to the bus, I called my parents to tell them to pick me up at campus instead of the airport, and that it would be 12 hours later than originally scheduled. At that time my father informed me that my grandfather — his father — had died.

I never fully shook the tremulous aftermath of the airsick nausea. My grandfather’s death compounded it. I’ve retained this image from the hours after the phone call: Shuffling tentatively (to keep my buzzing head as still as possible) onto the football field for an afternoon rehearsal in the San Jose stadium, I spotted Windrem — having heard about my airsickness, not my grandfather — coming toward me with a faux sympathetic smile and his arms held wide to envelop me in a hug. I don’t remember if the hug was consummated, or if it was, how long it lasted and how I disentangled from it.

From that image, it moves at fast forward: We practiced on the field, we marched the show, we played music in the stands, I recognized the name of the young man who’d given me his phone number when it was announced, many times, over the loudspeaker, because he was a wide receiver and it was a pass-oriented team. 

The queasiness lasted far too long. I was woozy through the bus ride home, the car trip with my family to Orange County, through the funeral and buffet lunch at my aunt’s house, red-eyed and stunned, my still-adolescent brain protecting itself from grief by maintaining a focus on the photography-class photo story-board I’d completed (topic, as usual: the marching band) and would, upon returning to school on Wednesday, present it to Harlan as an end-of-a-successful-season card. And maybe I would have occasion to tell him that I’d been invited by a football player to call him for a date.

During finals, I took the scrap of paper with his name and phone number from my wallet. I’d mulled over calling for several days — what would I suggest we do, should I invent an occasion? Where I finally called from was the band office, from the phone behind the bookcases that housed the marching band music library and created a hidden aisle, where I could pretend to be further secluded within a place that was increasingly becoming my burrow. 1977 was prior to widespread use of phone answering machines. Very easily, he could have never been home any time I attempted to call. But I believe I recall him answering the first time I gathered enough gumption to dial. Few details about  how the phone call went remain in my memory: A date was arranged, and I would meet him at his apartment, which turned out to be startlingly close to my parents’ house, where I still lived.

Our date began with him wanting to dance, right there in his apartment. No need to panic about my inability to dance to upbeat music (although I could march to it). His intent was to slow dance. I have no memory about the music he put on. Did he choose instrumental? R&B? Jazz? Rock? Some sort of crooner? One would imagine that, whatever it was, any time I heard anything like it I’d remember him. I do remember that he wore a popular brand of musk cologne, and I do think of him every time I sense it, usually in department stores near the fragrance counter, but often in other situations, even, occasionally, literary conferences. 

But I have to acknowledge, his being African American was part of the occasion. I remember, afterwards around the holidays, my father reported to my uncle that I’d dated a football player, and when my uncle asked if I was going to see him again, my father’s jovial exclamation was, “He’s the wrong color!” Then, before I could think of it, my uncle corrected him, “Not the wrong color, a different color.”  They needn’t know the real reason I wasn’t going to see him again. The one date would be allowed to remain a demonstration of my grand rebellion. My progressiveness. My moral superiority.  Because it, the date, had little to do with him. If the status of either of the date’s participants had been different, the occasion might not have been played out as my public moment of social revolution which sustained no consideration for the young man’s feelings, plans or wishes. More predominantly, if I hadn’t been a virgin, an intrepid virgin, and if he hadn’t intended for our rendezvous to begin, or at least end with sexual contact, then perhaps some coming-together of physical attraction and companionable sensibilities — whatever makes a “relationship” begin — would have occurred. Perhaps we could have accomplished something together, found a best friend and partner, supported each other through two widely diverse careers with wildly divergent pitfalls and tribulations. Or not. Such is the case of what if. Basically he was a young athlete on the eve of becoming a professional, who was accustomed to having sex with the girls who showed interest in him and was not looking for a new best friend, especially not a short white girl who played trombone and dreamed of being a novelist. And I was an apprehensive virgin who knew in her fearful bones as soon as he suggested we slow dance in his living room that my continued bodily resistance was not going to allow me to be seduced that evening, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with race. 

The rest of the evening did have to do with race, was a show, was a selfish ego adventure. We went out to eat at a casual ribs and chicken-in-a-basket place, where the curious or startled looks we got from other customers was pleasantly exciting. We went to a dance club where the same looks were, again, pleasurably exhilarating. When he came to understand that there would be no sex this evening (I’m sure I admitted my virginity to him, not wanting him to suppose I was rejecting him for the reasons my father would later believe), he benignly told me, as though he was ten years my senior instead of exactly my generation, that when I was ready, I could call him. We did kiss. The imprint of his scent is strong enough for me to be sure of that. 

As it turned out, I was not “ready” soon enough to take him up on his offer. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams the following April. In 1980 or 81, he was traded to the hometown San Diego Chargers and caught a definitive pass from Dan Fouts in a playoff game that I watched with my then new-husband. I doubt he remembers one humdrum evening in 1977 with a skittery girl from the marching band who he met on her first plane ride during which she became overwhelmed with nausea. But, no, that dizziness was not love. His name was Ron Smith. 


Early summer, 1978, I had graduated with my journalism degree, having long known I wouldn’t ever be a journalist. I would be starting the secondary education program in the fall, and had just recently been hired to my one-quarter time clerical job. I’d spent a little graduation money on the current coed summer style: double-knit track shorts, pink with satin piping, and a triangular-shaped halter top, tied around my neck and around my ribs, exposing my entire back and midriff (No, I didn’t dress as though I was anxious about sex). I rode a ten-speed to campus every morning during California June-gloom, and browned most of my skin on the sweaty ride home in sunshine. In the air-conditioned band office, I often had to wear a long-sleeved shirt.

The karma of my encounter with this third young man (although he was at least ten years older than the previous two) began during a week when I had promised myself that I was going to be more open, seem more friendly, create a more inviting aura, and say yes to the next person who asked me out. I remember, quite specifically, this promise, this summertime resolution I’d vowed. What I’m not expressly remembering, but which must be the case, is if I’d had an unusual period of being asked out a few times by someone I did not want to go out with and had said a not-to-be-revisited no. I believe, as well, someone had recently told me that I seemed uninterested in dating, that my aura was unfriendly, unapproachable, even scary. Thus, my private resolution.

He worked on campus. He was driving across a quad in a groundskeeper cart, and I was striding from the music building toward the bookstore or the administration office. I remember my diagonal angle cutting across the quad. I remember the relative (but not complete) emptiness of the campus. I don’t remember being startled when his cart pulled up alongside me. He asked, almost immediately, if I wanted to go out with him, but I don’t recall his first line or greeting. Something along the lines of “Hi, I just noticed you, you look athletic, like you keep your body in shape, the kind of body I really like, want to go out sometime?”  The pointed remark about mine being the kind of body he liked is the phrase I’m most certain was part of his greeting. 

I could have, should have felt treated like a headless manikin (or, I discovered later, one who looked better headless). But, after all, I was 22. Compliments and male admiration had not been frequent enough for me to pitch this crude version aside. And there was my promise to myself: don’t be gloomy, don’t be inward, don’t retreat, don’t flinch. Playing the coed party girl, I tossed my new Dorothy Hamil haircut and said, “Sure.”  (I thought sure sounded more like I was accustomed to being asked out.)

And so, without him getting out of his maintenance cart, a date was set. I must have realized, at least, that he was ruddy with dirty blondish hair, pale freckly/scaly skin, hands red-knuckled with chapped, chalky skin, a thin crooked nose, and eyes a little too close together. I don’t believe phone numbers were even exchanged. He didn’t have a car (only the cart) so I would meet him at his nearby apartment that Saturday night. I did not view it as a road to anything. I guess I considered it a ‘good experience,’ I was ‘dating,’ like girls my age were supposed to do. I needed a reputation of being ‘datable.’

I think it was while we were still at his apartment, he bragged of being buddies with members of the football team, and, upon learning that I’d met one of them, informed me that Ron Smith liked to collect white girls and that I would have never heard from him again, even if I’d given to Smith that which I would also be withholding from my current ‘date.’  (Except it was Smith who never heard from me again.)

My current ‘date’ brought his own bottle of salad dressing when we walked over to a Greek storefront restaurant in the shops near campus. I’ll say it was Russian dressing, because the Greek restaurant certainly wouldn’t have had that, and he was a graduate student in Russian. I don’t remember what I wore, except it would not be shorts and a halter, and it wasn’t a skirt (I wouldn’t go that far in my quest to alter my social approach). He’d worn shorts when I’d seen him in his cart then jeans for the date, since early summer evenings were cool. He wasn’t tall — was stocky, thick-bodied, barrel-chested, perhaps a little bowlegged.

The people working in the restaurant knew him. It was an order-at-the counter restaurant, and they knew not to put any Greek dressing on his salad. I have no recollection of anything else regarding the food. It might have been my first time at a Greek restaurant, even though it was so close to campus.

I wonder, and I do think I wondered then as well, if the restaurant workers saw me as another of his frequent dates — few (if any) of which they ever saw a second time. They knew his name, his preferences, probably even what he would order. Then they smiled at me. I may not have been creeped-out by it at the time, but it’s a little staggering, now, to try to imagine their thoughts: amused, curious, prurient. How could his reputation not trail him, if not preceded him?  Well, I was clueless. 

He wasted no time telling me, again, that I had the kind of body he really liked, athletic and strong. Compact was his word. Muscled and hardy. I might have lapped it up, except this time, face to face over a Greek salad with Russian dressing, he informed me that my face was not, in fact, “the kind he liked.”  Especially my nose, much too big.

Which should have been my cue to say goodbye and return to my car without looking back. But he’d inadvertently located and tapped a vein of one of my sorest insecurities. Why would that make me stay?  Probably the other vein he tapped, I’m not sure how quickly, but soon, very soon, he was holding court on “what was wrong with me, sexually,” and how I “had to get over my aversions.” 

My aversion, that night, was to him. But because he so quickly turned my revulsion into a “something’s fundamentally wrong with you” lecture, I remained in his company longer, much longer, far longer than I should have.

Memory did not preserve how the conversation started, nor the blow-by-blow progression of how one statement produced what rejoinder. I apparently didn’t go home and write it in my journal. I did, about two years later, use the experience for a scene in what would be my master’s thesis, a novel titled Chased. Some of the dialogue that I reinvented then goes like this:

So how did he diagnose me so frighteningly accurately, and so easily?  Did he try something after dinner, as we took a walk and ended up seated together on a secluded piece of lawn?  He knew the campus intimately; he must have directed our walk there. He had made his moves, even after telling me my face, my nose, was a turn-off. Even after I’d countered by telling him that he, really, was physically not my ideal man either. Even after he therefore pronounced my physical preferences to be shallow. And even then I didn’t get up and stomp away as I should’ve because he was telling me something was wrong with me, and that’s exactly what I’d been telling myself. How could I leave and allow him to be right, allow it to be true?  At the same time, there was no possibility I was going to “open myself up to him,” which I assumed he meant as literally as one could conjure it to mean, considering he also told me that his favorite sexual activity was “eating box.”  Said it to me on a “first date,” no more than two hours after meeting me, possibly in that grassy thicket, or possibly a little later, when I finally was back in my car, attempting to leave (not very vehemently, still afraid to just say “asshole” and run, although I don’t know why) and he was crouching in the open doorway of my car, leaning in, one hand up my shirt, my bra shoved up, his crusty fingers on my bare flesh, his thumb wiggling on one nipple and pinkie finger on the other. With utmost repulsion I’ve typed the end of that last sentence, knowing I had to get there, even though the extent of our “sexual contact” was no more than that. But just the idea of his white-and-red face, his too-thin crooked nose, his close-together eyes, his thick body, his bossy voice telling me my face was sadly lacking appeal and that my unwillingness to allow him his way with my body surely showed deep psychological problems I would have to overcome, while his scaly hand attempted to seduce my breasts… and I do feel ill.


But there’s also the astonishment, now, that this was ‘dating’ to this man, in 1978. I later learned, he had a reputation — with just about every “athletic and compact” woman in that area of campus (the music building being very close to the women’s gym). A year later I recall coming across a girl crying in the restroom who described an encounter with “this weird guy,” who turned out to be the same stocky campus maintenance worker. He had rushed away from the scene when the girl escaped, alarmed, into the restroom. I don’t remember if the crying girl revealed what he had done or said, but then again, I didn’t need to be told. I knew. On a first date he would tell a girl she had the kind of body that attracted him; graphically tell her exactly what he wanted to do with her, then shortly after he would certainly try to do it. He would declare that what she was attracted to (or not) should make no difference even though he could point out, numerous times, that she needed a new face to go along with that body — the body that would be the portal for him to get to know her (and for her to “know herself, and to truly communicate with the world”) through the many forms of sexual activity he had planned for them. If she resisted he would begin a psychological ramble about what was wrong with her and how she had to get over it. And wasn’t she lucky she’d found someone who understood her problem, who would help her.


His name was, I kid you not, Richard Mann. Dick man.



Cris Mazza’s first novel, How to Leave a country, won the PEN / Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction. Some of her other notable earlier titles include Your Name Here: ___, Dog People and Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? Mazza’s fiction has been reviewed numerous times in The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, MS Magazine, Chicago Tribune Books, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Voice Literary Supplement, The San Francisco Review of Books, and many other book review publications.