Lillian Faderman is not only one of the most respected lesbian history and literature scholars in the world, but she’s visiting the Philadelphia Free Library (March 7) at 7:30 p.m. to discuss her latest book – My Mother’s Wars. In it, the groundbreaking author of Surpassing the Love of Men and Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers tells the true story of the women in her family who survived the Holocaust to begin their storied lives in New York City.
In an exclusive interview, the award-winning author tells us what it’s like excavating family secrets, the truth about coming out in the 1950s and what books we should all be reading.
What inspired you to write your latest book – My Mother’s Wars?
The book is about my mother, and it takes place in the decade before I was born. My mother has been dead for quite a while now, but it wasn’t until recent years that I’ve felt I couldn’t fully understand myself unless I understood this woman who formed me emotionally.
I knew many facts about her life because she kept few secrets from me. I knew, for instance, that she’d had a very long affair with the man who fathered me and who refused to marry her. I knew she’d had two abortions – when abortions were illegal, and that her lover had wanted me to be a third abortion. I knew that during the same years she was being distracted by this man she was also trying desperately to rescue her brother and sisters from the Nazi threat which was spreading into Eastern Europe where most of the family lived.
I knew all those facts, but what I didn’t know was how she lived them, how she dealt with these huge conflicting emotional pulls. What I wanted to do in this book was imagine what it was like to be her, what it felt like to live through all that and make the choices that she made – especially the choice to give birth to me when she knew that if she did that she would lose this man who’d been her lover for so long.
You’ve long focused on stories of women. But what makes this one so different – and so personal?
A lot of my work has been about women who loved women in the distant past. In Surpassing the Love of Men, for instance, I start with the Renaissance; in Scotch Verdict I tell about an incident that took place in the early 19th century. Though those books are scholarly, I like to think they’re very readable because I try hard in my writing to be free of academic jargon; I try to engage the reader and bring her to see what I’ve seen. My writing has never been “dispassionate” – I don’t believe any historian can be objective; you always write from a point of view – and of course I was passionately on the side of those historical figures about whom I wrote.
But, as much as I was involved with my other subjects, My Mother’s Wars is more personal and more emotional for me. It did require research because I was writing about the 1930s, and I needed to know, for instance, facts about the Depression, about labor strikes in the garment industry in which my mother worked, about how a woman got an abortion when it was illegal, about Hitler’s juggernaut as it moved east. Then I wrote the book using novelistic techniques. The point of view is third-person, but I look inward – into my mother’s thoughts and feelings. I had to extrapolate from the things she told me; I had to imagine so much of what was going on inside of her, and that was what I wanted to do: to imagine her as she was in the years before I was born.
It feels strange but very moving – to imagine the person who gave birth to you, to put yourself in her place, to try to be her as you write about her.
In the process of researching the book, what was the most surprising thing you’ve learned about your family – and specifically the women in your family?
The most surprising thing I learned had less to do with fact than with feeling. I loved this woman who was my mother, but I’d always thought of her as pitiful, a person who was victimized by the forces around her. She seemed a negative role model, and I’ve believed that it was by observing her that I figured out who I did not want to be. The story I told myself for years was that I learned to become strong because she wasn’t.
But writing about her, having to think deeper about the circumstances of her life, I’ve come to realize that she was incredibly strong. Even her decision to give birth to me “out of wedlock” as it was called in those years, without a man to help her in an era when most women were sure they couldn’t survive without a man…that must have taken so much strength, so much courage. Having to imagine her in detail as I wrote about her life has made me understand that she was really heroic, and that I owe her awe.
You’ve written several history-making books over the course of your career, many of which deal with intimate relationships between women. How has lesbian culture changed in your own lifetime?
I came out in the bad old days of the 1950s. My first introduction to things lesbian was in working-class, “gay girls,” butch/femme bars, where you had to worry about vice squad raids and being hassled by straight punks. Because I was a literary kid, soon after my first lesbian experience I went to the library to see what books had to say about people like me, and I learned that all homosexuals were criminals, crazies, sinners, and subversives.
The rise of the feminist movement in the ‘60s and then the lesbian-feminist movement by the end of the decade was fantastically exciting to me because we made our own definitions of who a lesbian is, we wrote our own books and made our own music, we established our own safe havens. And lesbians who’d been around in earlier times went from being “maladjusted sociopaths” to being role models for how to be an independent woman. Incredible times!
But what’s happened recently is even more incredible. Sometimes I imagine myself in a time warp: I’m back in a gay girls bar in 1956, with a vice squad car parked out front; and suddenly lesbians walk in who have just gotten married, or who are pushing a baby stroller, or who have just gotten elected to the U.S. Senate; and we all sit there together listening to an African American president’s inaugural address in which he talks about “Seneca, Selma, and Stonewall”—and I know that either I’m certifiable or with the angels, because such things on earth are beyond any sane persons wildest dreams. But they’ve happened! We’ve moved further into first-class American citizenship than I could possibly have imagined would happen in my life time.
If a book was to be written chronicling the lives of lesbians today, what would it be about?
One of the many terrific things about the evolution of lesbian life over the last half-century is that we’ve recognized our diversity. It’s impossible to chronicle our lives in “a book.” We can no longer be reduced to a single quintessential image, like Stephen Gordon or Beebo Brinker. We come in all colors and classes and ages and political affiliations, and the meaning of “lesbian culture” varies widely depending on what else we are in addition to our same-sex sexual/affectional preferences. One down-side of the otherwise wonderful lesbian-feminist movement a generation or two ago was “political correctness” – which meant that all lesbians had to fit a particular mold. I think we’re so much freer now to choose who we want to be, in addition to being lesbian.
What are some of the challenges to this?
A few years ago I would have named as major “challenges” first, being tolerant of those who live their lesbian lives differently from the way you’ve chosen to; and secondly, supporting the younger generation of lesbians who may have to grapple with bullying or parental rejection, and elderly lesbians who find themselves in old age without much personal support.
But I think those things are happening. Lesbians are free today to be anything they want to be in addition to being lesbian: gender queers or cis, radicals or assimilationists, freewheelers or mommies. And organizations that address all aspects of lesbian life—from the young to the elderly and every stage in between—have proliferated hugely. Even if you live where you don’t have physical access to an organization, there’s the internet where you can find kindred spirits and support for anything you are. It’s ironic that the most famous lesbian novel of the past was called The Well of Loneliness. I don’t think any lesbian has to feel she’s alone and lonely these days. From both a historical and personal perspective, I believe that these are better times than ever in the history of the world to be lesbian.
Considering this younger generation, what would be on your essential reading list of women writers?
I hope the younger generation of lesbians won’t forget wonderful lesbian writers of the past, such as Amy Lowell, who wrote some of the most fabulous lesbian poems since Sappho’s. High school students are often assigned an awful poem by her, “Patterns,” but you have to search to find the beautiful lesbian stuff – like a series called “Two Speak Together.” They’re love poems to Ada Russell, the woman who was Lowell’s lover until Lowell’s death in 1925.
Other lesbian poets I think essential are Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Olga Broumas, June Jordan, Marilyn Hacker, Kay Ryan, Eloise Klein Healy…the list could easily be much longer, but those are my favorites.
The lesbian novels of the past I think especially important are Isabel Miller’s Patience and Sarah – because it was the first novel in the 1960s to break out of the mold of the miserable or villainous lesbian character, and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, a hilarious, pioneering lesbian-feminist novel. I think there are a couple of British novelists who are especially good: Sarah Waters, particularly her Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, and The Little Stranger—which isn’t overtly lesbian, but it has a lesbian character who’s never named as such. I also love Jeannette Winterson’s early novels, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and The Passion and her recent memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina is also not overtly lesbian (except for a very minor character) but there’s definitely a lesbian sensibility in the novel, and I love her writing.
Who are you reading now?
These days my reading is mostly in archives: letters and old newspapers and organizational newsletters, because I’m working on another book, a mammoth history of the lesbian and gay civil rights movement.
Lillian Faderman, March 7, 7:30 p.m., Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine Street.