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Naked in the Promised Land

Lillian Faderman

(Houghton Mifflin)

From Burlesque to Lesbian Feminism

She admits that her life has been unusual. And that’s an understatement. Anyone familiar with Lillian Faderman’s previous works will associate her with lesbian feminist scholastics, ethnic history and literature. But in her first memoir, Faderman tells her own life story beginning with her illegitimate birth in 1940 New York to her obsessive compulsion for becoming a Hollywood child star to help escape the wounds of the Holocaust, which eventually led to her work in the pornography industry. The book comes full circle to her rise in academia, becoming a well-known scholar and university professor responsible for several groundbreaking books, including Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers and Surpassing the Love of Men.


In an interview, Faderman admitted, “Behind the scholar’s eye and voice, I was always trying to situate myself.” This book is very much about situating. She accomplishes it well with a combination of clarity and truthfulness about not only her strides, but also her judgments along the way. It begins with the author’s retrospect about being born to an unwed immigrant mother which led to several brushes with unsavory men, thus creating a suspicion of the opposite sex, whether it was with her mother’s misguided suitors or her own prepubescent boyfriends from “the other side of the tracks” with whom she most closely associated. It seems that Faderman knew who she was, but forever wanted to change this image. The first place she looked was to Hollywood.


The young Faderman portrays herself as both an astute and highly curious child who is determined to strike out for a career in the movies as a child star. But despite her serious attempts at taking dramatic lessons and moderate success in auditions, she finds that the world in which she hoped to escape is littered with more whores of Babylon than guardian angels. Under the auspices of finding work so as to spare her own mother, who suffers from what Faderman refers to as “spells,” from working in sweat shops, she pursues a film career from New York to California, living with her mother in rented rooms. Probably the most poignant relationship in the book is between the author and her mother, both as a child, and later as an adult. It’s through the author’s own acknowledgements about her aging that readers are able to see the evolution that her perceptions about her mother take. In the process, a range of emotions are examined, many of which are not uncommon to the mother-daughter experience despite unique socio-economic conditions. She loves her mother, but then she wants to marry her off. She is ashamed of her mother’s Yiddish tone, but she seems to want to please her by making a life in celluloid, where the mother and daughter seem to experience the most pleasure in formative years: by escaping.


The author’s education in the fields of sociology and ethnic studies suits the groundwork well, as she is able to use integral literary devices to draw the picture of the era, the class struggles, and effects of the Holocaust climate at the time. She scarcely mentions her homosexuality in the first few chapters outright, but the reader will likely discern cues from her descriptions of the women in her life, including her mother, her aunt and the drama coach, who was among the first real “crushes” to which Faderman admits as a child. In contrast, her experiences with men are almost always negative. Her mother’s boyfriends pawed her. Her own juvenile boyfriends treated her as a sexual device. And the men who hired her in the pornography industry used her. Even after she recognizes her lesbian impulses upon walking into her first gay bar as a teenager, it’s not until many years later that she befriends anyone who isn’t intent on victimizing her.


Despite many of these incidences, the book never takes on a martyr’s tone. Instead, the author uses rationalization to point to the cause and effects of many of her most unhealthy decisions. She’s also able to capture her mindset during each turning point. For instance, the child may not have known to label her mother’s boyfriends child molesters, but the child knew there was something unsettling with the experiences. The woman may have thought she could use porn to ease into more legitimate performing, but the woman also didn’t have the self-respect to recognize the damage being done.


The strength of the book also lies in its ability to remain structured without being cold. The author has obviously taken great pains to balance what amounts to a humanistic self-portrait that ties together critical junctions within the author’s life. Throughout the rendering of the book, Faderman infuses the stories, which aptly capture each era in her life on the outside, with subtle psychological examinations that also portray the inner thoughts she experienced both as a child and as an adult. In some ways, one would think that the leap from disadvantaged child to the lure of prostitution to esteemed university professor is unrealistic. But Faderman is careful not to make leaps. Credibility is in the details, like the awe she held early on watching her mother apply makeup to the unbridled days she spent in a sexual relationship with her first female lover to the accomplishment of graduating from college after years of playing parts on the burlesque stage. In one of her most revealing passages, Faderman establishes herself as an emotive voyeur with a keen eye on women even as a child:


“Though I didn’t understand most of what I saw, I learned to speak English without a Yiddish accent through the movies. And it was there that I came to understand female gorgeousness: women with glossy waved coifs, spider-leg eyelashes, and bold lipstick, elaborate drapes and . . . statuesque, well-corseted figures, shapely legs (but never as shapely as my mother’s) in seamed nylons and high heels; women who were sophisticated, glamorous. My mother tried to copy them on the Saturday nights she went out with my father. I watch as she looks at her face in the speckled mirror. She burns a wooden match and the cooled tip becomes a brush that she draws across her lids once, twice, a third time. I hold my breath just as she does in her concentration. The smudges are uneven, and she rubs her fingers over them, smoothing them out. Now her eyelids look heavy over her eyes, which are luminous and large. Next she takes her tube of lipstick and pokes her pinkie finger over the top of the worn-down stick, then dabs the color on each cheek. She rubs, rubs, rubs, rubs with her finger, and her cheeks become rosy. I know those cheeks well because I have kissed them with loud, smacking kisses and with soft, butterfly kisses. I don’t know if I like the new color, but I know from movie posters that glamorous women must have rosy cheeks. Her lips are next. She applies the blood red stick directly. I see she has not followed their lovely outline. The blood red laps over and makes her lips larger, like Joan Crawford’s. For a moment I want their delicate pink back, the graceful shape I sometimes studied while she slept. But now they look like a movie star’s lips, and she nods at them with satisfaction. “Hubba, hubba,” I say in my best Bud Abbott voice. She smiles, but I’m not sure whether she is smiling at me or something she sees in the mirror. Next she combs her dark curls, then puts Pond’s cold cream on her already creamy shoulders and neck. My eyes do not leave her for a second; but after she kisses my cheek and slips out, they well up with tears. Him I never see.”


While Faderman fans may have trouble with the more personal elements of this work, especially the more hardcore lesbian scholars, the book transcends her previous works by being a memoir as opposed to a politically charged manifesto. It’s doubtful that it would be quite as effective if the author used her personal experiences as a platform for social change and victim awareness. Instead, Faderman blends a prose awareness with a story worth telling in a systematic structure. It doesn’t lose its focus, perhaps because it’s so close to the author’s heart. But this can often be a difficult hurdle to jump for writers accustomed to taking a step back and analyzing material, especially if the context is self. It’s probable that Faderman’s own work in academics made the transition succeed. “Naked in the Promised Land” could very well be the basis for an academic discussion just as much as it is non-fiction for the beach chair. Both types of audiences will absorb something important about a woman acutely aware of where she came from and how she got to where she is today, as well as the benchmark of a 20th century lesbian feminist scholar who acknowledges the healing nature of narrative.

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Lillian Faderman might be described as a cat who roars. Soft-spoken, attentive, and highly intelligent, she's made her name as an academic and activist.
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