Return of the Pirate Slut


Still worse, it turned her on. We have a short essay on the weeping middle-aged women of Seattle (“Who cares if it’s hormones,” one friend observes. As Dederer wrote in a diary entry back in 1989: “I want to be essential and be fucked as such.”
Dederer’s childhood experiences were shaped by an awareness that she wanted more, and more intensely, than everyone around her. On New Year’s Eve, she dares to leave the house, located on Sydney’s second-most dangerous street, for just a few hours. Also blood. Only in middle age, after 15 years of marriage, does Dederer begin to understand the appeal of that space, how she lived there so long. I liked the way it externalized my despair.”
It was the highlight of her day. Marriage is essentially plotless, but the dick has a plot.”
Lives, too, are essentially plotless. At a promotional dinner, Dederer gets excited about the possibility of meeting a known literary philanderer. Dederer’s chapter on The Kiss is called “A Kiss May Ruin a Human Life.” The title is only partially tongue in cheek. “The idea that an event can change your life,” Dederer writes, “is a bullshit narrative construct. Both more and less than anticipated. When the story-writer really does kiss her, the following night, it is not just a kiss. In one chapter, she’s a preteen being molested in a sleeping bag; in the next she’s middle-aged, on an art junket in Los Angeles. As a teenager, she makes out with a homeless man in the parking lot. When she leaves for Poser’s book tour, the feeling deepens. In this way, her midlife crisis is about a last hurrah of power. “A famously immoral person!” They stand by the buffet. So what do these 23 chapters amount to? On her book tour decades after, she longs to be stolen again. Spiral Jetty isn’t the worst place to end a somewhat freewheeling memoir. Soon after, she has her first “adult” sexual encounter: molested, as a preteen, by a trusted adult. She loves being driven around, metaphorically and literally, by the famous literary philanderer. “The paper’s findings are inconclusive”); Dederer’s Oberlin memories, delivered in alphabetical form (A is for Acid: “[W]hat we did. (For Dederer, the world falls apart with a kiss; for Levy, with an email to an old flame.) The idea of a marriage that unravels irrevocably with a single encounter — a stray email! The book leaps back and forth in time to examine Dederer’s emotional coming of age, her sexual awakening and sexual regrets, as well as the near impossibility, for many women, of teasing their sexual identity from their self-worth. It’s a scene so terrifying and beautiful that it’s tempting to find greater significance in this moment: the writer settling down inside her helplessness, building a home there. The omission is justifiable — Dederer’s focus here is her early sexual life — but also puzzling: a good deal of the memoir’s force hinges on the reader’s ability to believe that the events of that spring were world-changing enough to make Dederer undertake a forensic examination of her entire youth. I want you to be strange. “We drove through the night,” she writes, “which was warm and funny-smelling, close, like being trapped in a French kiss.” Never has a rental car felt so threatening. Looking back on her youth, Dederer is struck by how tightly her sexuality and her victimhood were knit. Whatever form it has is inconsistent. I want you, and at the same time I want my life to change, and I want that change to happen to   me.”
In the closing pages, even Dederer herself seems to admit that The Kiss was something of a red herring. And yet she finds herself possessed with “sleepy despair.” At a quiet birthday celebration, a friend looks at her and says, “You know, you haven’t blinked for several minutes.” In her youth, Dederer was wilder — a persona she describes as “a disastrous pirate slut of a girl” — and now she has the unshakeable feeling that the pirate slut is taking control again. It feels like an act of spiritual channeling, a ceremony inviting all the lustful spirits. ¤
In the past year, we’ve seen a series of memoirs — most notably Ariel Levy’s The Rules Do Not Apply — equating wanting with risk. But when it’s visible, it’s gorgeous. It was a lesson: love was sudden, visionary, transformative. “I   meant   to become interested in other things,” Dederer explains — more, that is, than love and sex. But as far as we can tell, not much happens after The Kiss. “Pirate slut,” that quick-and-dirty summary for a quick-and-dirty youth, is a revealing turn of phrase. Nor will they find out how, exactly, The Kiss affected the marriage. “Victimhood came to shape my own concept of my sexuality,” she writes in horror. The spring she turned 44, Dederer writes, one almost tore her life apart. ¤
Alas, the memoir as a whole is less sharp, less cohesive, than my retelling may suggest. At the next day’s party, she’s amazed by how easily other people seem to sense that she has surrendered control — they approach her, touch her, invite her up. Really I was only made for this one thing.”
She spends days alone with books, “trying to read inside my white mosquito net, a girl in a cloud.” When the Quark Basher goes to spend the holidays with family, she finds comforting structure in Tolstoy. What’s at ransom? a spear of asparagus! When she comes back she finds the windows broken, shards and syringes on the floor. ¤
Jamie Fisher is working on a collection of short stories and a novel. She does nothing. Like homework.”)
The wobbly mosaic these chapters create is intentional; still, it’s hard not to wish the tiles were more precisely cut. But there’s a dark underbelly here. At the time, she was at the height of her powers: a much-published critic; recent author of the yoga memoir Poser, about to become a best seller in English and 11 other languages; and the center of an idyllic-seeming, if fierce, family life with her husband and daughters on a small island off the Washington coast. At its strongest, Love and Trouble is a story of spiritual possession — partially the story of Dederer’s sudden surrender to her younger self, but also the story of how she spent so many years dearly wanting to be possessed. This is memoir-as-collage. But once she gets there, she finds she is only unemployed and lost in a new location. — feels more like the territory of Victorian fiction than the modern memoir, and yet here it is. That bewitching chapter on The Kiss, and her entrapment by both love and pomegranates, is followed by 17 stream-of-consciousness pages about, and addressed to, Roman Polanski. But if they don’t have an inherent structure, they can be given a shape. The landmark is half-shaped — depending on the time of day, either eroded or exposed. She looks. That was the kind of kiss she longed for, “a revolutionary kiss”: “A kiss that will be an agent of change; a kiss after which nothing can be the same.”
“Decades later,” she writes of her art-house cohort, “when we are middle-aged ladies, we will be susceptible to incursions, to people who make us feel like something is   happening to us.”
This sounds romantic, perhaps classically so. The writing feels loose and bloggy, in need of tightening, and then suddenly a line comes along that makes you think Oscar Wilde has been reincarnated as a middle-aged woman living in Seattle:   “The hard-on is man’s original slapstick,” Dederer observes in “On Having Sex with One’s Husband of Fifteen Years.” “There’s always something going on down there, even if it’s nothing. As Dederer explains, “I left the door wide open — come on in.” And it worked. Dederer’s younger self. Later that spring Dederer is made out with by a divorcee, who grabs her by the mouth, then by other places. After her opening chapters on The Kiss, and the crazy-making, marriage-straining season that followed, Dederer leapfrogs across time with childlike enthusiasm. From the age of 12 she finds herself fetishized by men passing on the street. It is The Kiss, “a fatal chink,” “a blow, a premonition.” She spends the rest of that season waiting for emails from him — “an incubus,” she calls him; “my be-liked” — and picking apart pomegranates: “[I]t was such a   neurotic-looking activity. She goes home and tells her husband this, and while they don’t argue over it, there is an implicit tension Dederer wishes she could voice: “I want you to be a stranger. Working in an art-house theater as a teenager, in dark skirts and white blouses, she was transfixed watching A Room with a View. If Poser was “a life in 23 poses,” Love and Trouble might be summarized as “a life in 23 free-associations,” which will, the subtitle promises, constitute “A Midlife Reckoning.”
But to reckon is to explain, to recount, to add up. That’s not how life works. During her college years, her brother finds a local park bench that reads, “FOR A GOOD TIME CALL CLAIRE DEDERER.” A therapist diagnoses her as “hypersexual”; a doctor, less kindly, gives her the nickname “Chlamydia.” Eventually she drops out of Oberlin and moves, spur of the moment, to Australia to be with a sexy red-haired quantum physicist (alias “the Quark Basher”). “When I sat down to write a memoir of my adolescent sex life,” Dederer explains in summary of her project, “for months I could only write about assaults and molestations […] I only wanted to tell stories of how sex had   happened to me.” The point is underscored with chapter titles like “Three Kisses in the Passive Voice.”
And so, for decades, sex happens. ¤
Crucial to Dederer’s attempts to understand and rescue her younger self is a trail of old diary entries woven throughout the memoir — 20-some volumes, beginning with a Christmas present (a 1975 Peanuts journal) and ending (“no shit”) on the night before her wedding. A belief in the power of love to alter lives and make destinies is as old, and as fairly anodyne, as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. As the Quark Basher points out, less than kindly, she doesn’t exactly have any skills. JUNE 19, 2017
WHAT YOU THINK of Claire Dederer’s second memoir, Love and Trouble, will depend on what you think of a kiss. Dederer was less piratical than pirated, at her most loved when stolen. “That doesn’t make it hurt less.”); a case study of “Recidivist Slutty Tendencies in the Pre-AIDS-Era Adolescent Female” (Spoiler! Her life feels so empty, so poised to break; his novels feel full. When you say “A Kiss May Ruin a Human Life,” you should be prepared to back it up. Through the ’80s and ’90s, lust is Dederer’s only compass. She is vacating her body, bit by bit. She sits down on her bed with War and Peace. He looks at her asparagus. “But really I was pretending. As a girl, she stood on a square of shag carpet that her brother told her was enchanted, “waiting for love, so terrible, to come and change me.” One of her earliest memories of a devoted relationship was her mother’s hippie boyfriend buying the family a color TV, just so they could watch Elton John in full regalia. “That’s okay,” he says, “I’ll just have yours.” And then he takes a spear and “sword-swallowed it with extravagant silliness.”
The asparagus leads naturally to his car. Sometimes the effect is a sense of wonder, but too often slapdash confusion. (It is hard not to think about Dederer’s own description of her diaries: “collections of meandering self-thought, involuted as a vulva.”) We see so many jumbled styles that this memoir can feel like a ransom note: some letters from Vogue, others from the Times, still others from a community paper. To some extent, Love and Trouble also stops at the wedding; readers will discover very little about her husband of 15 years (although they will learn quite a bit about his penis). She asks him if he wants to get himself some food. Except when it does.”
And then, after a trip to Spiral Jetty with her bestie, the story ends. They’re only headed to the next event, but Dederer makes it clear that more is at stake.