Memoirs are often penned by former rape victims, alcoholics, impoverished children, generally those who have experienced a life of tragedy and hardship. It seems that you need to experience something truly depressing in order write about life in an interesting manner. Memoirs written by women, in particular, often focus heavily on depression, rape, and rocky relationships with men. Sob stories like Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation have come to define the female memoir genre, allowing readers to assume that unless a woman has undergone hardship, her life story is not worth telling.
In the forward to Susan Jane Gilman’s memoir, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, the author readily expresses that her desire to write the memoir was a direct reaction to the literary status quo. “I’ve written this book, in part, because it seems that all of us could use a good laugh these days,” Gilman notes. “Yet I’ve also written it because so many of the stories women are currently telling are about getting a man… Yet ultimately, there’s so much more to women’s lives that’s worthy of attention and ridicule.”
Gilman’s life, at least what of it she represents in this book, has certainly been about a lot more than just men. And Gilman, unlike some of her memoir peers, is not depressed, not an alcoholic, has not been raped nor molested. Rather, Gilman is a witty, if not a bit sardonic, woman with stories to share–stories that ultimately reveal the mundane can become the most interesting facet of someone’s life when shared by the right storyteller.
Hypocrite chronicles Gilman’s life from the age of four, when she stars in a nudist hippie film, to the present, when she and her new husband uproot their lives in Washington, D.C., to settle in Geneva, Switzerland. Each chapter details an instance that has helped shape her existence, ranging from a teenage obsession with Mick Jagger to the time she posed as a lesbian to get in with a writer from The Village Voice. Gilman captures her struggles and experiences in a humorous manner that is universally relatable, without ever sounding like she is trying too hard to be witty.
When Gilman describes her borderline psychotic obsession with the Rolling Stones, her words echo with anyone who has ever found herself spending hours on Internet message boards stalking a celebrity crush. “Don’t ask me why, but for some reason I also had the idea that in order to meet the Rolling Stones and sleep with them, it was necessary to dress like them,” Gilman writes. “Of course, we had no idea what this really meant… so we assembled outfits that looked, really, like they’d been designed by a legion of Soul Train dancers let loose in the Salvation Army.”
The earlier chapters, which cover her childhood, are undeniably the most interesting. Gilman’s growing up in upper Manhattan, before it became yuppified with businessmen, makes for good storytelling and provides an intriguing perspective of race, as a white child who comes of age in a primarily Puerto Rican and black neighborhood. Gilman tells these stories with a childlike honesty and worldly fascination that doesn’t quite work as well when she begins to discuss her adulthood. Although her stories of working for a Jewish newspaper and shopping for a wedding dress as an avid feminist are well-written, they provide a slew of evidence that people’s lives become increasingly boring as they age.
Recently, it seems, increasing numbers of memoirs are being written by generally unknown writers. Gilman, not wholly unknown, as her girl-power book Kiss My Tiara made some waves a few years back, is certainly part of this trend, but unlike many of these angst-ridden authors, she manages to avoid relying on tragedy or drama to express who she is. If one can gain anything from Hypocrite, it is perhaps that everyday occurrences can be just as meaningful and life-shaping as depressive hardships — and absolutely make for a far superior read.