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Big Sex Little Death: A Memoir Hardcover – March 22, 2011
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"Susie Bright's real life is just as compellingmore compellingthan her sex life. And that's saying something." Dan Savage
"I have a very scary feeling Susie Bright is not making any of this up. Guns, drugs, threesomes, socialist factionalism, a stabbing . . . all before she got her G.E.D.?" Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
"Big Sex Little Death is subtle, hot, enthralling, raw and tenderI loved it. Susie Bright is a national treasure." Josh Marshall, Editor and Publisher, Talking Points Memo
"The best-named writer in America, Susie Bright has written a witty, wise, and enlightening memoir." Erica Jong
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I'm also one of her thousands of Facebook friends and regard her site as one of the best portals to the good things going on on the internet--politically, socially, and erotically. Like me she regards most internet pornography as tediously bad and knows how to distinguish between honesty and in-authenticity in sexuality better than anyone that I know. As a long time editor of "The Best American Erotica" and many other collections of sexually-oriented writing, she also knows how to distinguish between good imaginative writing and porno hack jobs.
She has now published a memoir called "Big Sex, Little Death," and it is a revelation, because it goes beyond the persona created in her erotica and gives us a detailed portrait of the cerebral, radical, flesh and blood person she is and where the components that make up her identity come from.
Susie Bright, the name is perfect for her--kind of oozing intelligence and light--is the only child of Elizabeth Halloran and William Bright, born in Arlington, Virginia in the late 1950's. Her parents were academics and separated shortly after her birth, then divorced. She remembers a high school English teacher who attributed her "out of line" behavior to the fact that she was the product of a broken home. In the years since, a "broken home" has become more the norm than the exception, and the phrase itself seems as antiquated as eight track cassettes. Nonetheless, she was deeply affected by her parents' divorce, especially by her mother's erratic and isolated ways. She describes a horrific event early along when her mother drove her to the edge of the iced-over Saskatchewan River after the twelve-year old Susie had lost her glasses and was told by her mom, "you won't need them in the bottom of the river," and then when the confused child asked where they were going responded "I'm driving us into the river."
It's no wonder that Bright writes "If you were to ask me what the happiest days of my life were, I would say the day that my daughter was born...and the first week I spent reunited with my dad." This happened when she was in her early teens and her mother had asked her father to take care of her permanently. Living with her father was liberating. Both her sex life and her political life began at the tender age of fourteen; she tells us casually on page 85 that after she became involved with a socialist high school paper appropriately called The Red Tide, "I also started having sex. Not with anyone at school, but with the socialists, the ones with all the ideas in their heads." Her political and sexual identities were formed early and have been sustained in unison ever since.
"Big Sex, Little Death" is divided into three sections--the first dealing with her childhood, the second with her adolescence, and the third with all of her adulthood. This gives the book a bit of a skewered feel. Two thirds of the volume deals with a bit more than one third of her life, while the last third of it covers some thirty-three years. (Bright turns 53 this year). This may be because the last third covers the Susie Bright we generally know about--one of the founders of "On Our Backs" and the editor or author of a shelf-full of erotic writings. She was "present at the creation" of a new kind of feminist-based sensuality and a witness to the San Francisco-based sexual turmoil of the 80s and 90s. She chronicles both the AIDS epidemic and the sexual revolution in some detail, and the devastation that both left in their wake. We know a great deal about the former, but less about the latter, and it's surprising to encounter the litany of deaths and suicides associated with the young women who worked in San Francisco sex clubs (p. 243) as well of being reminded of the fratricide committed by Jim Mitchell, one of the famous Mitchell Brothers who ran the notorious O'Farrell Theater in the 70's and 80's and produced porno films including "Beyond the Green Door," which was one of the biggest porno-pop hits of the period.
The only thing we don't get to find out too much about is her long-term relationship with the man in her life (Jon) and particular details about her interactions with her daughter Aretha, now a young woman. Yes, she does offer some good advice about parenthood: "Don't hit them. Don't lie to them. Respect their privacy and your own," but there's little more. Well, I certainly respect her right to privacy in these areas, but many of her readers might like to know about how it was for Aretha growing up with such a sexually explicit mom, and whether her ongoing connection with a man in her life has made her monogamous, or if their relationship is an open one. These seem important omissions for a woman who has made most of her life an open book, but I'm sure there are more than a few pages yet uncut.
Nonetheless, the best thing about Susie Bright's writing is the clarity and vividness of her style as well as it's very personal tone. She has the gift of writing as if she's sitting across a table from you and talking with you casually, even about outrageous things like her mother's threatening to kill her and commit suicide and having threesomes at age fifteen with her girlfriend Danielle, age fourteen, with a series of "older men." Listen: "I felt safe and bold with Danielle--I'd do things with her I'd never do by myself. We could seduce anyone; we could get out of--or into--any situation that we wished. When we were alone she told me that my kissing was terrible, that Americans didn't know how to kiss. She ran a bath for us, and when we got into the tub to practice, we turned on the shower, too, the water pouring down our heads....Men were intimidated by us, which we thought was funny. Funny, but great leverage. For the first couple of months of my sex life, I was too intimidated to do anything alone with a guy--Danielle was my big dog, my fearless leader, the one I could temper and reason with. I loved her. Sex with her, alone, made me shiver. We never talked about it." I quote this at length to give you a sense of the flavor of Bright's precise, talkative, and unadorned prose. Simple declarative sentences, precise detail, and secretive matters you feel like she is sharing just with you. Of course she isn't, but that's the illusion created by this kind of exactitude. This is unquestionably Bright's best and most important book.
Yes, and the mom thing. Her station as daughter and mom in this life continues to set her apart as a thinker and writer in the realm of sexual politics and publishing. Among sex talkers and writers aplenty these day she's one of a handful who have braved motherhood and lived to tell the sex part of the story openly.
I found her childhood account uncommon only in the severity with which she embraced it all, finding a way to survive with a heart childlike and open. Indeed, I was surprised to learn that it was her success with thin skin poetry that opened the first door for her in publishing. A great encouragement here for young writers. Yet the mom thing will always define Susie Bright for me. It's how she sees herself to this day. Having one, being one. She's a true traditional untraditionalist. We listen to her because she lives where we all have lived as sons and daughters. But she does it all never selling out her eroticism from youth to middle age.
Perhaps the funniest part of this hardbound book is its color: black and white. A little joke no doubt. If a world abides anywhere in the universe as black and white, it's no place where this woman lives. She's always been every ounce nuance, every bit color and question mark. Even when she pontificates away I read her as one open to ideas and a possible new way yet of looking at things.
But having a daughter remains the key kernel of madness in her art and life for me I think. Maybe because I've one too, near in age. Also, as politically incorrect as it might be in her field as sexpert and lesbian pioneer she does not hide that it was the positive masculine input of her father, Bill Bright, that remains an anchor for this literary storm we call Susie. Oh, and for heaven's sake, this out-there lesbian trail blazer woman has a long time serious male friend, Jon, an "all but married" life partner relationship no less. She never apologizes. She just loves.
However full and fantastic this tale of her youth, I still get that this erotic literary nut tree woman is never going to stray far from her Irish Catholic roots. It's an underground current that nourishes her writing and sex and commitment to motherhood. I'm sure she knows this. Again, there's a nun somewhere to be sent flowers for this.
What stood out for me in BSLD is how she kept reinventing herself; and how chance and circumstance played a big part. She never seemed to let bitterness whack her down for even a whole day. Raised by a whack job mom who tried to undue her, she loves. In family, in business, in the world of friends, she is betrayed. All these players bring Judas to her again and again yet she harbors no bitter seed, just that platonic Susannahism where wonder remains the beginning of all wisdom and philosophy. No doubt Big Sex Little Death is just Part One of the Susie wonder woman tale. This woman can sure tell a story. I await Part Two.