The Terrible Secret of Women's Memoirs: Kill the Cookie

"At the risk of making a dozen devoted enemies for life, I can only say the the whiffs I get from the ink of [women writers] are fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin's whimsy, or else bright and stillborn."

~ Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself

How does a woman, an American woman born in mid-century, write a memoir? The chutzpah and femmechismo needed to undertake the project go against the apron.

I was raised, "Don't think you're so big." Yet to be a writer at all, you have to inflict your ego on a page and stake your reputation. To be a poet, the effect should be transcendent and disarming.

At the onset of writing my own story, I brought myself up-to-date on the memoir racket. I researched the bestsellers among women authors who contemplate their life's journey. The results were dispiriting: Diet books! The weighty before and after's.

You look up men's memoirs and find some guy climbing a mountain with his bare teeth -- the parallel view for women are pounds of cookies they rejected or succumbed to.

The next tier of bestselling female memoirs is the tell-all by a movie star, athlete, or political figure. The first two subjects are designed to exploit gossip -- the last are so circumspect you wonder if they're funded by government cheese.

The last group of popular memoirs -- across the gender divide -- are the authors who unload a great weight in the form of psychic burdens from childhood. The subject is driven mad by lunatic or intoxicated parenting, sidetracked by years of self-destruction, only to be redeemed at the end by a clean break from addiction and dysfunction.

I'm as vulnerable as anyone to the pitfalls of the American nuclear family. But I wouldn't call it disease or moral failure as much as I would point the finger at a class system that grinds people down like a metal file. Who doesn't need a drink? Who isn't going to crack and lash out at the people they love? I have sympathy for the dark places in my family history, while at the same time repeating, "This can't go on."

I came of age at the moment in the Los Angeles 1970s when women -- in jeans and no-bras -- were taking to the streets. Sexual liberation and feminism were identical in my high school milieu.

As I entered my twenties, and feminists disowned each other over sexual expression, it reminded me of what I went though in the labor movement, civil rights, the Left -- "let the weak fight among themselves." Radical feminists didn't need FBI infiltration -- the mechanism for sisterly cannibalization was well under way.

It was part of our radical ethos to not proclaim your name -- it went against our sense of the collective. Everyone was supposed to know how to write, talk, run a web press, unclog a toilet, stage a demonstration.

Most people unfamiliar with my work imagine that anyone with the nickname of "Susie Sexpert" must be an id-centric airhead, a happy but too-dim nympho. They imagine, along the dumb-blond trajectory, that I just haven't thought things through, about where sexual liberation might lead -- how a female Narcissus could drown in a pool of clitoral self-absorption and drag unfortunate others with her.

I haven't set any records in sexual feats -- far from it. I was motivated from the sting of social injustice -- the cry of "That isn't fair!" gets more impulsive behavior from me than, "I want to get off."

My parents were far more radical than I, because of basic changes in their generation: My mother didn't die in childbirth. She went to college. My parents married though they weren't the same religion. They divorced -- before it became an American way of life. My father's ashes can be found in a Native burial ground instead of a WASP family plot. They strayed so much further than I did from their immediate ancestors. They were better educated than I, but I had a bigger mouth. I don't who to blame for that.

The other side of my memoir, the one that isn't the "Si Se Puede" version of Auntie Mame, is exemplified by loss. I'm more preoccupied with people dying than people coming. Every loss uncovers a piece of why we persevere in spite of it all. Sex -- its quixotic vitality, not its banal marketability -- is one of those things that makes you feel like, "I'm not done yet."

It turns out a memoir, for man or woman, is a progress, not a final deliverance. Using Mr Mailer's criteria, I'm going for "dykily psychotic," definitely "bright," and hopefully, crowning.

Adapted from "Big Sex Little Death: A Memoir," by Susie Bright. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. (c) 2011.