‘ At 14, she acquired her first boyfriend ‘: passport booth photos of Claire Dederer in her wild child days
Dederer isn’t sure what effect all this had on her sexuality. When she was 13, for example, a hippy in cut-offs climbed inside her sleeping bag( it was the holidays, she wanted to sleep under the stars ); she only had time to feel his erection against her before he ran off, startled by the sound of her mom screaming the words:” Claire! Goodnight !” But constructing too much of such an incident- it scared her, and yet some small part of her enjoyed the attention- strikes her as an overly neat way of ordering the messy narration of her life.
The chapter in her volume that is called ” Recidivist Slutty Tendencies in the Pre-Aids-Era Adolescent Female”, and which poses as an academic newspaper examining her behaviour as a teenager (” Let us proceed to the subject’s history … at 14, she acquired her first boyfriend “), reaches no firm conclusion in the face of its subject’s undoubted exuberance for promiscuity (” The subject never stopped, she was like a shark .”)
Nevertheless, from the moment she got running, sexually speaking, she was aware that she operated at a” higher pitching” than most. She may not have enjoyed every physical encounter: one of her memoir’s chief virtues lies in the way it shows that good and bad sex are at once in close proximity and yet miles apart. But still, she craved such contact more than anything.
” I wanted harder ,” she writes.” And yet I felt disempowered to take action. I required someone to do it to me. This need would never go away …” And the point is , now, that she doesn’t really mind that this is the case.” I don’t know if my desire to be predominated grows out of my early experiences ,” she says.” But that is part of the sexuality I was given, and I’m not about to give it up .”
In the US, Love and Trouble came before the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the rise of #MeToo, which meant that reviewers took its ribald tone at face value, often ignoring its darker undercurrents, the fact that its twin engines are sex fear and sex bureau, and all the ways they operate, together and apart. Nor did they focus on the letter she includes in its pages to Roman Polanski( Dederer ensure Samantha Geimer, who the director raped in 1977 when she was 13, as a” universal emblem of the predation of little girls” in the 70 s ).
” It has been weird ,” she says, of this timing.” Part of me thinks it’s spookily prescient that I wrote about Polanski, and part of me thinks that as a topic it’s depressingly eternal, and therefore not prescient at all. But yes, I feel part of my book get missed: the component that shows that these incursions, these violations, are happening around us all the time, and that even when they seem not to be a big deal, taken together, they add up to one. One thing the book gives you that’s fascinating in the context of #MeToo is the feeling of what it’s like to live with the aftermath of sex predation. I moved through the world impression afraid of rape and assault; that dread is inside me, omnipresent, and it has repercussions, which the book tries to get at .”
Her attitude to #MeToo is, however, gently shaded with doubt.” I think this moment is unbelievable ,” she says.” The gift of notion transferring from the accused to the accuser is unbelievably important. But I’m concerned there’s a way it will victimise or infantilise women’s sexuality, and I guess this is based on my own experiences. If you just see sexuality as something the hell is done to you in a negative way, then a really big part of your own experience is taken away from you. Any time we try to normalise or standardise sexuality, different groups whose liberties are ultimately truncated is women. Infantilisation and demonisation of sexuality has not worked out well for women in the past .”
Dederer also worries about where we may be going in terms of the work of those with dubious private lives( she recently wrote for the Paris Review on the experience of re-watching Woody Allen’s Manhattan ).” These are murky waters to wade into ,” she says.” But I will continue to write about my notion that we don’t jettison the art .” The topic of her next volume is likely to be these” art ogres “.
Naturally, she is leery of the” eternal flowing of hot takes” on the issue of permission; read one way, Love and Trouble is a 235 -page exploration of the subject, which seems to be the least the subject deserves. Still, as the mother of a 16 -year-old son, she sees the present dialogue around it as a positive thing:” It’s about taking the fear I’ve lived with all my life, and building humen have a part of it. When my son is at a party one day in the future, he will be afraid of being falsely accused, and that seems like a fair trade to me: that men have to start to walk on egg shells, too .”
Can this exist side-by-side with a sexuality that, as she puts it:” embraces and enjoys the exhilaration and drama of being overcome and overwhelmed “? She believes that it can, though the thrill of desire,” the drive to be wanted and admired by humen”, is perhaps even harder to talk about than permission.” That also runs through my volume, and it’s an embarrassing thing to discuss. Writing about it felt tender and vulnerable and goofy. When you’re a girl, especially a pretty daughter- that’s also hard to say: it sounds obnoxious- there’s such a gap between being and doing, between what you look like and the stuff inside .”
Ah, yes: embarrassment. For Dederer, various principles guide the creation of memoir. Good catharsis stimulates for bad writing. The notion of the transformed self is loathsome. Merely” dark truthfulness saves memoir from narcissism”( though the squeamish British reader may feel, sometimes, that even this does not always do the job ). For this last reason, then, her book features is not merely some pretty out-there self-debasement, including an episode in which, having dropped out of university, we watch her following a callous academic, aka the Quark Basher, to Sydney, only for him to abandon her. It also includes a buttock-clenching chapter called ” How To Have Sex With Your Husband of Fifteen Years “:” Kick the flowered quilt off the bed … reach into his boxer shorts … don’t think about the back of your left leg, where you recently spotted a single, squiggling varicose veins …” It goes on for six pages. There seems to be almost nothing she won’t tell us about what she and her husband do in the privacy rights of their own bedroom( it’s always the bedroom:” The family spaces are too, well, family-ish .”)
I have to ask: how did those who are in the book respond to it, especially the men? She hasn’t heard from the Quark Basher.” You know what they say: if you write about person, give them a big penis and then they never complain .” What about her husband?( He is Bruce Barcott, also a journalist, and you can only imagine how he feels about the way she describes his naked body, or her email flirtation with a famous Californian short story novelist .)
” Normally, I depict him work in draft. But this was something I hid, like I was growing mushrooms in the basement, secret and dank. So when I had to give it to him, yeah, it was a problem. Partly because I hadn’t talked to him about a lot of the feelings I was having .” An intake of breath.” It was hard, but he dealt with it beautifully .” They are together; she never actually cheated.
And her mom? As I read Love and Trouble – compulsively, at once fascinated and repulsed- I’d wondered how she’d managed to keep going knowing that her mothers might one day read it. Dederer giggles. She knows exactly what I mean.” But before it came out, I had a flash of genius ,” she says.” I supposed: I’m just going to tell them not to read it, and if they then go behind my back, that’s their problem , not mine .” So far, she has no reason to suspect they might have done otherwise- that, or they are two superb actors.
Love and Trouble: Memoirs of a Former Wild Girl by Claire Dederer is published by Headline at PS14. 99. To order a transcript for PS12. 74, go to guardianbookshop.com . The volume is reviewed in this week’s Observer New Review