Books Are Pretty

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress.

Susan Jane Gilman's first book, 2001's Kiss My Tiara!, was the first book on feminism that I ever read. I enjoyed it tremendously, but at that time the only other feminists I knew were reading MacKinnon and lobbing words like "epistemology" and "phallocentric" back and forth to each other while deconstructing Derrida and Judith Butler, whose work read like a dissertation on tax law even when the topic was something as flamboyantly outrageous as transgenderism. Meanwhile, I'm puffing alongside them with Gilman, trying to keep up as I read things like "you will not get a raise unless you ask for one."

"I'd like to discuss this new book I'm reading," I offered. No one bit. I tried again. "Has anybody read it? Nobody wants to discuss it? I'm finding it really helpful."

Finally, someone responded, "That's so nice that you've found a book that's helping you," she said patronizingly (matronizingly?), "but we're discussing things that are a little more advanced."

I see.

A few months later my friend Lisa and I were on State Street, crossing the Chicago River. I'd met her for lunch and was walking her back to her office.

"I'm making less money than anyone in my department," she complained, "and I'm working twice as hard. My boss says I'm doing the best job there, so I don't understand why she hasn't given me a raise."

"Have you asked for one?"

"No, but...I don't think I could just walk in there and ask for more money."

"Why not? That's what men do. And they get it. If you don't tell her you want more money, she'll tell herself you don't really want it."

Two weeks later Lisa asked for, and got, a raise.

Judith Butler may deconstruct transexuals, but Gilman was the one that got Lisa the money she deserved. When Gilman's latest book, a memoir called Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress came out at the beginning of this year, I happily bought it.

I picked it up after We Need to Talk About Kevin, because that book freaked me right out, and I needed a funnier, more light-hearted book to read by the pool.

Gilman came through for me again, writing of a New York City bohemian childhood spent among hippies. Hypocrite roars right out of the starting gate with a hilarious tale of a socialist camp in upstate New York where she spent her fourth summer with her parents and two dozen hippies and their children, making an avant garde film called Camp.

The morning that Camp was to begin filming, I woke up so excited, I didn't want to eat breakfast. But there wasn't any breakfast to be had - my mother was already down at the lake, watching Alice shoot the first scene.

"Come take a look, sweetie," said my dad. "It's really something." Until that moment, it hadn't occurred to me that there might actually be other people in the movie besides [...] me. Following my father down to the lake, I didn't know what to expect: perhaps Alice would be seated in a director's chair while a few colonists milled around in sparkly costumes, awaiting my arrival. Maybe there'd be people practicing tap-dancing, or a collie with a red ribbon around its neck, being groomed to appear as my sidekick.
What I did not expect to see was twenty-seven hippies cramming themselves into a pink and purple VW Bug.

Gilman becomes disgruntled watching the hippies fold themselves in the beetle like origami chickens dipped Day-Glo paint, and wandered over to a grove of trees with the other children, who begin to pass the time playing a game in which one person farted into a paper bag, then everyone else took turns sniffing it.

The stories of her formative years go hilariously onward as Gilman confesses to changing her name to Sapphire and her ethnic background from Jewish to Puerto Rican. Once she lured me into this light breezy memoir, she sucker punched me hard with describing her trip to Auschwitz, on assignment as a reporter for the Jewish Weekly. As she walks from the rooms full of glasses and shoes, to the gas chamber, to the crematoriums with their "human-sized spatulas" protruding from them, she realizes she is "out of jokes; [she is] utterly alone." Gilman breaks down and cries, and I cried, too, right there under the bright summer sun at the water park, sitting in a beach chair as Alex flumed down the giant water slide over and over.

Hypocrite read a lot like a waltz in many ways, joke, joke, punch; joke, joke, punch; but I was taken by surprise every time she allowed a moment of anger or sadness bubble through.

In many ways, I feel like I imprinted on Gilman as a feminist mentor just like a duckling will follow around the first person she sees. Kiss My Tiara! gave me good practical advice for making my way through the world without losing my sense of humor, and Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress allowed me to feel good about that.

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