MARCH 2, 2014
I FOUND the stack of Cosmopolitan magazines under my mom’s bed when I was still in elementary school. There was also a paperback called Fear of Flying splayed on the nightstand, but that looked ho-hum next to the glossy women and bold letters on the magazine covers. What did I care about airplanes?
Orgasm and cock-not-as-in-rooster are two vocabulary words I might have learned from Cosmo’s pages. Hard to tell though, because it was the 1970s, and I was being raised by a man-eating tiger who wore green eyeliner and drank Manhattans straight up, and a Virginia Slims–smoking dragon who had been a lingerie buyer for a department store. Tiger and dragon were actually the Chinese astrological signs for my mother and grandmother, but there are no more fitting descriptions.
As a high school freshman I came across the Harold Robbins stash. I remember reading one — a quick look on Amazon just confirmed it was The Lonely Lady — that opens with the protagonist in a clinic having an abortion. You don’t have to go to bed with every man you meet, the doctor at the clinic tells her, and I never forgot her reply: “I don’t go to bed with every man I meet,” the character answers. “Only those I want to.”
There it was, on a page, in a book. Confirmation! Exactly what my two role models had been telling me in not exactly those words, but close enough. Sex was a sport and a pastime, sometimes used as a weapon. Men were just desserts. We needed them like a fish needs a bicycle — if you were beyond diapers in the 1970s I don’t need to remind you of all these clichés. But they were more than clichés for my family. They were guiding principles. My mother once gave me a T-shirt stenciled with a drawing of a redheaded serving wench bearing the caption, “Well behaved women rarely make history.” I understood it was a directive.
Mom was a never-married, single, working mother before such a thing was fashionable — it was in fact still scandalous, especially for Catholics, of which my mother also was one, nominally. (She had a rosary and St. Jude candles on the same dresser where she kept a laughing Buddha and a scroll from the Qur’an.) A crackerjack operating room nurse, Mom had a lot of male doctor “friends” who had wives that I never met. Sometimes she wanted me to call them “uncle,” which would have completely creeped me out except that most of them were pretty nice, and I kind of wished they would stick around like family.
Getting back to scandal, my grandmother was the first divorced woman anyone had ever met in the Podunk Western Pennsylvania town where my relatives had all lived since they stepped off wooden ships from Ireland and other parts of the British Isles and hacked their way into the woods. Gram the she-dragon conditioned me from birth to aim for a career and push motherhood off as long as humanly possible because it was “the end of your life.” Gram had decided long ago that church — and I can still hear her say this as if turning on a tape player in my head — was “for hypocrites and morons.” Her gospel was that you should never trust a man farther than you could throw him. (All advice I followed until I sought therapy and 12-step programs, but that’s perhaps another story.)
It should be no surprise that I was the one who in college, upon hearing that my best friend was still a virgin at the advanced age of 19, recoiled and commanded, “Lose it!,” as if her virginity was a wart or a badly chosen pair of earrings that clashed with her outfit.
I tell all of this in the name of establishing context. Let’s be clear into exactly what hands and before what eyes the irony-loving editors of this illustrious publication placed Nicole Hardy’s memoir, Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin.
Hardy, as a Mormon with a loving, stable family and firmly held religious beliefs, has written a book about her struggle to lose her virginity. To me and to generations of women who grew up knowing more about the writings of Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem than they did about the Bible, could there be anything quite so … exotic? A parallel universe to the one I grew up in, where a woman’s worth is measured in direct relation to her marriageability, faithfulness, and purity as a wife, and ultimate motherhood.
Never mind that the title seems meant to recall The Confessions of St. Augustine, thought to be the first actual memoir (written in 398 A.D.), establishing the high stakes of the genre as inherently redemptive — an inward journey of the soul that expands outward to express the human condition — I was prepared for Hardy’s Confessions to be boring and superficial from word one: a look-at-me-I’m-Sandra-Dee/lousy-with-virginity manifesto.
But I was 98 percent wrong. Hardy gives readers a plucky, intrepid narrator to follow on her episodic journey toward losing it. “It” in this instance being not only her virginity but also her adherence to the Mormon worldview — thus jeopardizing her devout family’s love and acceptance.
While other girls in Hardy’s prim Sunday school class are talking about their hair and clothes and dreaming of being mommies serving dinner on high-end China plates in homes worthy of House Beautiful, we already know our heroine, even though she’s dressed in Laura Ashley, will soon yearn to be a writer. She will dream of finding herself on the bookstore shelf, and she will fantasize about the big O — which of course in this case stands for Oprah, who she imagines will one day be moved to tears over her words.
I found it impossible not to like Hardy — the perky cheerleader you’d catch smoking in the girls’ bathroom — despite of my initial resistance. It helps that she’s smart and insightful — that she wants to be considered a thinker of deep thoughts. (Good lord, slut or prig, don’t we all?)
Hardy’s unfailing earnestness to accurately report and examine her experience undercuts all her attempts to be, as the French would say, vache, making her Confessions the molecular opposite of Sophie Fontanel’s The Art of Sleeping Alone: Why One French Woman Suddenly Gave Up Sex. Fontanel’s memoir is more or less an account of her decision to be celibate for about 10 years — she’s had enough sex, says she — and yet remain sexy because she is French, bien entendu. The book is evasive to the point of Gallic parody, its humorous moments seemingly unintentional, like some memoir version of Henri, le Chat Noir. At the end of the decade, an intriguing man appears. Et voilà. Sex, no sex, she does not seem to change because she does not need to change: she is French. And what about our Puritanical (not to say American, not to say provincial) desire for character arc? For struggle and redemption? Well, she alludes to being sexually violated in her youth (early on); eventually her skin starts to glow because, I suppose, her energy is going toward herself and not to pleasing a man with blowjobs (they can be so exhausting, oui?); but really, the whole account is written like chitchat among sophisticates at a dinner party. What exactly should the reader be caring about here? [Shrug.]
Hardy, a pleasant, God-fearing Mormon in spite of herself, works very hard at creating a narrative that is understandable and ordered, proving her essential good-girl-ness; I felt her wanting to do this book thing the right way — to make sense — to impose a linear structure on the frenetic jazz of life. I thought of the feminist scholar Estelle Jelinek, whose examination of the development of women’s memoir is still among the most important, and who observed that women’s autobiographical writing naturally moves to the fragmentary, the aside, the associative, as if we the readers are catching the women in the act of discovering a self. But Hardy seems to be reporting on a journey already digested, a conclusion cleanly formed, leaving little room for what Bernard Cooper once called the “felicitous use of language” that the best memoir shares with poetry.
This another recent memoir, Cris Mazza’s Something Wrong With Her, does to the extreme. Loosely it can be said that Mazza’s account is also about the problem of sex, in this case her lack of enjoyment, except that isn’t what the book is about. To explain its real preoccupation is way above my pay scale; it’s existential, it’s the birth of planets, not sensually focused, but almost purely cerebral. Multiple story lines converge and then splinter off, as if to approximate the way thoughts actually move, how they leap and circle as the author attempts to construct meaning from physical experience. This is the nearest a book will come to writing in real time, a high-wire act on the page — all of what Jelinek describes and more — as, in her determination to understand her problem, Mazza seeks out and includes the thoughts and comments of a man from her past with whom she constructs a new kind of relationship in the process.
But it occurred to me, as I was considering Hardy and Mazza (and even Fontanel) and thinking about all the other memoirs of recent years that have been similarly focused (Kerry Cohen’s Loose Girl and Rachel Resnick’s Love Junkie leap to mind), that any story that ostensibly concerns itself with the problem of sex — how to get it or how to stop getting it or how to like getting it or how not to like getting it so much — rests on the same dilemma: the feeling that something is wrong at the elemental level of self, and that maybe by joining, or fixing the way one joins up with another, that feeling will transform into wholeness. Click-click-click. Alignment. Wrong will become right.
About two-thirds of the way through her Confessions Hardy writes of a conversation with her mother:
There is a long pause while that blasphemy hangs in the air. “I don’t want to ruin our family — to be the one who failed, and ruined everything. I don’t want to fail you.” I take a deep, steadying breath and force myself to say what’s both awful and true. “But I am doing this. Love me and keep me. Or don’t, and we’ll grow apart. It’s your decision. You choose.”
Maybe the best stories about the problem of sex are really always stories about the problem of home, about the discord between the person you are or want to be, and the people you came from. Although Hardy and I might as well have been raised on different planets, I experienced the very same feelings, even if I didn’t utter the exact same words. I might have been contemplating wanting to be a writer or to move to Paris or to marry a man, while Hardy is talking about leaving the church — but the particulars don’t matter very much. The longing, the fear, and the rupture are universal, even necessary, if we are to birth our own identities and become who we are.