Big Sex Little Death — Susie Bright's Memoir

Big Sex Little Death is weirdly boring. I say “weirdly” because you’d expect a book about sexual awakening, development, politics, and exploration to be more exciting; this Slate article on Bright and being wrong convinced me to buy the book. Skip it: read the reviews instead.

Big Sex Little Death has some clever lines and individual section, but as a whole the memoir feels prosaic. There’s an obligatory section on birth, parents, sides of the family, unlikely anecdotes; we find that “My mom didn’t drink” and that “My grandpa was a butcher and ran a chicken ranch,” which is eminently respectable in a memoir and somewhat tedious too. There’s a conventionally slightly broken childhood—isn’t it a requirement that people writing memoirs focus on childhood?—that leads to an adulthood that should hold the reason we’re reading the memoir. It does explain that, sort of, and tells a story about economic sexual censorship that I didn’t realize existed as late as the 1980s. Then again, looking at Amazon and Apple’s policies towards sexually frank books, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. I also hasn’t realized that Bright’s women-run erotica magazine, On Our Backs, even existed.

In disentangling herself from the financial pit that On Our Backs turns out to be, Bright finds the only thing rarer than a hooker with a heart gold: a lawyer with a heart of gold, whom she has say, “Ms. Bright, I’m going to take care of this for you,” without making her pay. Reviews of memoirs often want to engage the question of how much is “true,” and I can believe the whole thing except perhaps for the exchange on page 310. Gun threats, underage and unwise sex, cruelty: all believable. Kind lawyers: less so.

There’s not a lot about the intellectual development that led Bright to work on On Our Backs, or that led her not just to get a lot of action but to write about getting a lot of action. Maybe it’s impossible, or nearly impossible, to describe what leads to intellectual engagement: “I read a lot, liked it, thought about it, and transformed thought in my mind” isn’t very satisfying. And it’s not easy to make actions symbolize intellectual development. If someone knows a good example of such changes shown effectively in literature, I’d love to hear them (one exception: The Adventures of Augie March. Bildungsromans might be as close as we get).

Once Bright gets past the parent bits, she describes how, as a teenager, she starts having sex with socialist, many of them older than her; she says that “lucky for me, some of them were really, really good in bed—and since everyone was down with women’s liberation and nonmonogamy, that made things extra good for me.” This continues:

I was in no one’s debt; I was no one’s property. What little I thought about school anymore involved feeling bad about how scared everyone was: scared of having sex, scared of leaving their gilded cage, scared of dreaming about anything that hadn’t been premeditated by their parents.

And they still are. It’s one of the moments in the book that translates across generations and feels right, since so many parents still treat their children as property. Elsewhere, Bright has finely observed moments, though they sometimes go slightly awry:

People always imagine there is something happening in Los Angeles because of the celebrities. They think that because they see a movie star buy a bag of marshmallows, it must be an event. They think wiping their ass with the same toilet paper that a movie star’s maid wiped her ass with is an accomplishment. This is a company town, and Hollywood is just as crushing as a Carnegie Steel mill. The vast majority of Angelenos have so much nothing in their lives that ‘celebrity nothing’ makes them feel like they have something.

This is almost true: people do imagine something is happening in L.A. But the next sentence is choppy, with all the “t” sounds and the repeated use of the word “they:” “They think that because they see. . .” Still, Bright understands the vacuousness of celebrity worship, but she’s wrong when she says L.A. is “a company town.” There are at least five major movie studios, compared to a single Carnegie Steel mill, and L.A.’s economy is much vaster and more diverse than Pittsburgh’s ever was. That’s part of the reason it was able to thrive; as Edward Glaeser describes in Triumph of the City, cities with diverse economic bases tend to thrive. L.A. is one, even if the movie studios—notice the plural—are very visible.

During that time in L.A., Bright says, “I could not take one more minute of trying to convince the people of Los Angeles that a workers’ revolution and a complete overhaul of society were a tiny bit more exciting than getting a bit role in a Burger King commercial.” I’d like to know what exactly a “workers’ revolution and a complete overhaul of society” means. Revolutions don’t have a great track record, since they tend to include a lot of mindless bloodshed and power struggles. The “workers’ revolution” in Russia that led to the Soviet Union might be the single bloodiest event in human history, according to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. These demands aren’t a coherent political platform; they’re teenage angst writ large and the result of a mind that would be much assisted by taking some economics classics. I’ll take the Burger King commercial and maybe a faster CPU next year, thanks.

So her politic-politics might not be great, but her sexual politics and stories sometimes make more sense. Bright says that women making porn was shocking in the 1970s and 1980s. Apparently, however, women making porn for women is still news, and people are still going, “This is still news?!” I don’t see an end to this cycle. In the personal ream, Bright’s memoir could be titled, “Getting Some Ass From Unusual Places,” since relatively few people have gotten it from such diverse places: a union organizing camp; from college dropouts after she dropped out of high school; from lesbians; from men; and probably people in between. An appropriate subtitle might be, “And Then Thinking About It Afterwards,” Like Karen Owen, Bright has taken quite a survey of her escapes; unlike Owen, Bright isn’t alienated from herself or desires. She’s also more explicitly political, which can be both annoyingly polemical and deeper. Most people don’t think of their lives in overtly political terms, even when it might help them too, and it makes someone who does unusual.

That might be the biggest difference between Bright and many other writers about and havers of sex: she doesn’t regret what she’s done, has actualized her experience, and has never particularly bought into the sex-is-bad paradigm that, although weaker than it once was, still dominates culture for many people. We like everything leading up to sex—sexiness, attractiveness, revealing clothes, preening, buying expensive objects—but we still judge the people who move from signaling to action, despite or because of our own desires for action.

Bright imagines that, after the sexual revolution,

Women wouldn’t be catty. No one would bother to be jealous. Who would have the time? Sex would be friendly and kind and fun. You’d get to see what everyone was like in bed. You’d learn things in bed, and that would be the whole point. Romances would seem like candy cigarettes. You could have all the sex and friendship you wanted for free. Exclusivity would be for bores and babies.

I’m all for it. Alas, the pragmatist or realist in me sees this as so unlikely that I want to label it idealist in the worst sense of the word. Bright knows as much, however, and the eyes of experience looking backward demonstrates that she knows precisely how unlikely this is.

I wish there was more connective tissue between Bright’s experiences and better writing when she describes them. She knows the problems memoirs tend to have:

At the onset of my memoir, I thought I would bring myself up to date on the autobiography racket. I researched the current bestsellers among women authors who had contemplated their life’s journey. The results were so dispiriting: diet books. The weighty befores and afters. You look up men’s memoirs and find some guy climbing a mountain with his bare teeth—the parallel view for women are the mountains of cookies they rejected or succumbed to.

I think she gives men’s memoirs too much credit, since so many of them are equally inane and poorly written. And there are probably reasonably interesting memoirs written by women out there, but I think the bigger problem is “reasonably interesting memoirs” in general. Alas: I’m not sure Big Sex Little Death is one.

You can read more about Bright in this interview. Consider it and the other links in lieu of the book itself.

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