Do Nice Girls Have Sex?

Or how did nice girls have sex in the 1950s―you know, so twentieth century. In her controversial NYRB piece about two new Sylvia Plath biographies, the critic Terry Castle (who is a friend from before Facebook and I am not going to enter into the Twitter fray) makes a claim about Plath’s sexuality that seems intuitively right to me: “Plath exposed,” Castle writes, “ as no one had before, the quintessential ‘nice girl’ sex-anguish of her time….” While I don’t agree with all Castle invokes to describe that “sex anguish,” the phrase  neatly encapsulates how “conventional middle-class American heterosexual women of the 1950s and early 1960s” negotiated their unnamed and often unacknowledged sexual desires.

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I say this as a “conventional middle-class American heterosexual” woman―girl we said at the time―who came of age in the murky sex-obsessed years of the mid-century (think Playboy or the Kinsey Reports). Like Esther Greenwood, the heroine of Plath’s pseudonymously published novel The Bell Jar, who in fictional 1953 was determined to lose her virginity in order to know what all the fuss was about, I desperately wanted to know why my parents were so determined to prevent me from losing it. (The language itself is odd when you think about it: losing something you don’t exactly “have.”)

When I was writing my Paris memoir, which revisits my life during those transformational years, I struggled with trying to recreate―remember and understand―just how ignorant and curious one could be as a girl in the 1950s. I had read a few “dirty books” in junior high―a much-thumbed paperback of Harold Robbins’s A Stone for Danny Fisher was a first step in the quest for information. Later, in high school, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and pirated copies of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. In college, foreign movies, especially French ones, offered hints of what erotic experience might be, but really at twenty, when I first went to live in Paris, I was still utterly in the dark―as it were―about how to have sex with whom. Not to mention how to enjoy it, beyond the daring. Could any twenty-first century girl possibly be as ignorant as we were, as I was?

The new biographical look at Plath’s sexual history (comparing it to my own) has convinced me―if writing my memoir hadn’t already―that sex, on and off the page, is dated. It’s certainly datable. Writing about sex is always hard―the “what is too much” question comes up immediately. But maybe what’s harder is to know what you didn’t know about yourself; that you couldn’t know at the time: to what degree your sexuality did not belong uniquely to you. I was a nice girl, yes, but did I think I was a girl of my time? Did I know I was suffering from “sex anguish”? I do now, but I did not then. And I’m not sure that when I return to that girl in memory, I’m returning to me―or to her.

Is self-plagiarism really plagiarism?

I’ve just moved to London for the summer and one of the first things I did was attend the June meeting of “Laydeez do Comics,” a lively, successful group founded by Sarah Lightman and Nicola Streeten a few short years ago. “Laydeez” meets monthly to view and discuss work by graphic artists. As Streeten and Lightman (both graphic artists themselves) explain, “Laydeez” is woman-directed but welcomes the participation of men. I’ve been fascinated by this group since I learned of its (youthful) existence and this week I wrote the monthly blog post for their website (a member writes the post each month).

Is it self-plagiarism for me to re-post myself (below)? Is this different from republishing an essay in one’s own book? From committing the odious academic sin of self-citation (“as I argue elsewhere, see my…..”)? I have to hope it isn’t since the comics meeting will surely be the highlight of my week and the main thing I want to write about today: the strange and powerful ways in which graphic memoir can represent suffering past and present. (I wish I could draw.)

But of course social media offers its own solution. I can instead link to my blog post on the Laydeez site. In that way, I won’t exactly be plagiarizing myself, but rather assuming a rhizomatic identity: spreading out with horizontal roots like a tuberous plant.

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What else can I report? This week has been filled with the kind of settling in domestic activities I loathe, and in particular dealing with a vast array of problems—lack of Internet heads the list—that have come with our otherwise quite nice rental apartment. I’ve suffered daily from the syndrome that my friend the late Diane Middlebrook (who spent a lot of time in London) called “Sorry, madam.” In other words, we are not going to fix your problem any time soon. “Sorry, madam” is by definition polite, and by a peculiarly British turn makes you feel rude for even asking.

Back to the domestic. The papers and television news are filled with commentary on the blow inflicted on “domestic goddess” Nigella Lawson as she is known here, by her husband, the millionaire art collector Charles Saatchi. There’s a photo of him grabbing her by the throat, appearing to choke her (as she stares at him aghast) in full view of diners at a fashionable London restaurant, in what he described (on his way to the police station) as a “playful tiff”? Is this a story in the States? My cursory check of the Times did not turn it up, but I might have missed it. The Huffington Post did not. A big story here.

Naturally, I don’t mean to suggest a casual slide from starring in domestic agility to being a victim of domestic abuse. Far from it. The statistics here suggest that 25% of women are abused (presumably that’s just the reported cases); I’m sure that American numbers are sadly competitive.

But I have been feeling so maddened by my involuntary immersion in the domestic that I feel brought back in memory to the early days of second-wave feminism.

If this keeps up who knows what kind of abuse I will inflict on whom. “Sorry, sir,” I’ll say, as I try to strangle (metaphorically) the realtor who can’t seem to deliver the Internet service promised, no matter how many times he apologizes.

What’s in a name?

A few days ago I received an email from a high school friend I haven’t seen for many years. She said that on a recent trip to Paris she saw someone who looked like me and almost called out the name I was known by in high school: Kip. Kip was the first half of my father’s name (Kipnis) and I thought it far preferable to my boring first name, even when shared by the popular girl detective Nancy Drew, whose adventures I had adored.

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What’s in a name? I gave up “Kip” when I became enamored of France and all things French. The name in French sounded like “keep” in English, and since Nancy was the name of a French city, I thought that would keep things simple. Besides, French men seemed to find the name masculine, the last thing I wanted to seem at the time.

It was strange to think that the person called “Kip” still existed in the memory of my friend, whose name happened to be Nancy. I found myself wondering whether that person still existed in me, and whether I knew her.

What happens to all the people we’ve been under our various names?

If as the theory goes, autobiography is the story of one’s proper name, the sequence of my names do offer a kind of narrative: my childhood name, Nancy Louise (after my father Louis), my horrible summer camp nickname, Curly (I shudder to recall, but I guess I accepted the moniker that emphasized the negative―my hair–the better to fit in with all the straight-haired girls); my so-called maiden name, my hyphenated first married name, and now my chosen (other side of the family) name, which, as it turns out, has its own miserable legacy. So now I have a name so common that last weekend I had to sign three documents stating that I wasn’t the Nancy Miller whose name figured on three “judgments,” when we sold our house. My names as infant, camper, high school girl, college student, married woman, divorced woman, graduate student, professor, writer, map the lineaments of a feminist autobiography. In my new memoir, though, Kip does not appear―or reappear―and I think I know why. The stories that attach to Kip are mainly stories I would be too embarrassed to tell. I’ve chosen to exclude them from the memoir along with the humiliations of my teenaged self, a self I would rather forget.

My friend’s email, however, made me think that Kip Miller would be a great name to have today, that its gender ambiguity felt freeing and pleasing. But I fear that it is too late to change my name again―first or last–especially now that my signature exists in print.

So maybe I’ll adopt Kip Miller as a pseudonym and start over in late life. Who knows what new person might emerge?

If Emily Dickinson tweeted…

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you―Nobody―Too? (c. 1861)

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Despite Dickinson’s well-known gift for concision, these lines and the ones that follow in the poem, suggest that Dickinson would not have been out there performing the acts of (shameless) self-promotion that writers today have been urged to practice by their publishers, via Twitter, Facebook, and social media sites as yet unknown to me. A friend and writer, Yona McDonough, who knows the poem by heart (she recited it to me from memory), discussed this phenomenon at the reading of another writer friend Daphne Kalotay, who was reading from her new novel Sight Reading the other night at Posman Books.

Ah, so now I’ve shared the shame of self-publicity by including two women in the performance. Does that change the fact that I am being “public―like a Frog–” putting names (not least my own) out there to an “admiring Bog!” Does it make it better if I link myself to others? But that’s also a strategy, I’ve been told.

It’s a conundrum. Poised on the threshold of a season of self-promotion as my pub date approaches, I can’t help but feeling dread at the thought of having to work on my “platform,” my “online presence,” as the editors have made clear to me that I’m expected to do. At the same time, I should ask myself why I think it’s OK as a memoirist to put my most personal memories in the world for public circulation and consumption, but not OK to help find an audience for the book that contains them?

“I know the reader doesn’t need to know all that” (details from his childhood experiences) but I need to tell her.” (“Her” is the generic him, masculine in French.) That’s a “confession” about getting autobiographical in public that Rousseau plants early on in his Confessions.

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Every memoirist feels that need: the need to provide readers with details that the readers might even consider: tmi. Too MUCH information. And maybe that’s the issue. What details are necessary to convey the story, what details are (my husband would say) self-indulgent? And who decides?

So I guess that is my question to myself and to fellow memoirists: how to decide what is enough and what is too much?