‘ Why I told my mother not to read my volume’- memoirs of a former wild girl

December 5, 2018

Claire Dederer has written what is surely one of the most excruciatingly frank memoirs ever raw, uncovering and explicit

In the days before I’m due to speak to the writer Claire Dederer, the Freudian in me( admittedly quite a diminutive figure) begins to wonder if she isn’t subconsciously trying to wriggle out of our dialogue. First, there’s trouble with her broadband connect, which means Skype is out of the question( she lives on an island merely off Seattle ). Then I’m told that thanks to a terrible accident involving a pavement and her face, I’ll have to wait a few days while mobility is restored to her stitched lip. Even when I do ultimately hear her( somewhat subdued) voice down the line, part of me is still convinced she’s about to hang up. After all, novelists do sometimes suffer from the equivalent of buyer’s remorse- and she would have more reason than most for doing so, being the author of what is surely one of the most excruciatingly frank memoirs ever to make it to hard covers.

When she first began thinking about this memoir- its somewhat vague title, Love and Trouble: Memoirs of a Former Wild Girl , barely clues at the places it takes you- Dederer was 44 years old, and in possession of a life that was, by any standards, blessed. On her island, a democratic stronghold that is reachable only by ferry, she was living in her really pretty home( it has a badminton court and seems out over woodland) with her husband and two children; a journalist, she was also enjoying a big success with her first book, the best-selling Poser: A Mother’s Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses ( as Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love and a major Dederer fan , notes:” It is very difficult to find volumes about yoga that aren’t incredibly annoying .”)

But appearances can be deceptive. Somewhere inside her, it was as if a switching had been flipped. She was having some kind of midlife crisis, one that involved some unnervingly adolescent behaviour. First came the listlessness and the crying jag. Then came the amazing friskiness: the compulsive flirting, the yearning for sexual “obliteration”. Taking all these symptoms into account, it resulted to her that the person she most resembled all of sudden was the” disastrous pirate slut of a girl” she’d been as a adolescent.

Was this- whisper it- the menopause? No.” It had nothing to do with my hormones ,” she tells me now, voicing almost weary at the gues.” It was an existential crisis; it was about the death of beauty and the decompose body – you know, the dying animal. Unlike men, who usually go across this apprehension of their own finality in their 60 s, girls tend to come up against it more in their 40 s. I’m pretty sure it has to do with the end of sex viability, with the loss of the male gaze .”

Claire
Claire Dederer. Photo: Jenny Jimenez

The trouble is, though, that writing about this feeling- let us not call it the “invisibility” of the middle-aged girl- is so fraught with hazard.” It voices so vapid ,” she says,” like you’re courting sexual harassment or something .” Plus, there was the problem that her passions, which involved, just as they’ve always done, both objectification and submission, were not exactly politically correct.” It felt daring[ writing them down ], even at the time. It’s a strongly feminist volume, but it’s not party-line feminism. I was very concerned I was going to be called out .” No wonder, then, that Love and Trouble took five long years to write.

But where did those passions come from in the first place? How is it that she can be excited by “the idea of victimhood” and still have been, like most women, victimised herself? This is one of several complex, intimate matters Love and Trouble attempts to investigate( another is the problem of sexuality between the long-married; yet another is the issue of predation, and the effect it has on the way girls result their own lives ).

Dederer, who grew up in Seattle, was born at the back end of the 60 s. As a tomboy who adored her older brother, Dave- even now she feels as if she’s in drag when she sets on a dress- her childhood was marked by her mothers’ divorce in 1980, when her “matron mom” took up with a bearded, braided, pot-smoking guy eight years her junior. Thanks to this, the family was reconstituted, constructed looser. It was a period, she writes in her volume, of “weirdos”. Part of her mother’s new freedom involved having these weirdos- friends of the new boyfriend, largely- is an indication and stay for a while; another part was her new preoccupation with matters other than the strictly domestic. Like most kids then, Dederer and her friend had, as a consequence, a licence to roam.

These were, she guesses now, best available of hours, and the most difficult of hours.” The idea of being free was the salient point of the 70 s ,” she says.” It had primacy over everything, and it had a sex component: a revolution was happening that said all your old hang-ups was about to that, and being free sexually was the most important thing .” She pauses.” That seems victimless, right? But it wasn’t. Mothers were not home as much, and children were unsupervised. I was at large, roaming the veldt, and while that’s something I miss for my own children- a lot of benefits came with that- there were risks, too. The culture was busies celebrating the sexuality of very young girls: Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver , Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby , every other album cover. The three things together created this tolerance[ a blind eye] among adults which is frightening to look back on. Children were the victims of the sexual revolution. I believe that profoundly .”

‘At
‘ 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

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