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Thursday, March 31, 2011

My review: Big Sex Little Death by Susie Bright

My interview with Susie Bright should be up tomorrow at SexIs Magazine but in the meantime, my review of her new memoir Big Sex Little Death, available at Amazon and wherever books are sold. See for tour dates.

Big Sex Little Death is about some of the things you would expect from a Susie Bright memoir: her time at pioneering lesbian sex magazine On Our Backs, the feminist sex wars, politics and hypocrisy. But it's also about a lot of things you might not expect, things that revealed not just how she got to where she is now and the forces that shaped her, but the rift her parents' divorce caused inside her, and how it shaped her as a parent and person.

Bright starts off as a little girl trying to absorb what she can about her family, and to tolerate the wild mood swings her mother has, often with Bright as the object of her derision. It's almost easy to forget that she was ever that little girl when she so boldly takes on the status quo as a high school student with the newspaper The Red Tide. But Bright's vision is set on being part of real socialist organizing, and she drops out of school, argues her way into the IS, raises the money to get there by housecleaning and is even willing to stay after almost being beaten to death and facing extremely dangerous situations. To her the cause stands paramount, yet she is always questioning and observing those around her. There are moments that make one pause and think, "This happened in America?" Even for those of us who aren't under the illusion that the US is perfect, those are hard moments, but Bright manages to write about them, such as the racism at her department store job, with an eye for injustice and a belief that there are ways to change these injustices.

This is especially clear as she maps out the feminist culture at the time she was starting to sell vibrators at Good Vibrations and become part of On Our Backs. The clash between what women were being told they were supposed to be doing in the name of feminism and what women were exploring sexually provided for plenty of drama, and Bright is at perhaps her sharpest here, highlighting both the thrill of being part of something new and visionary as well as the death threats that came with it. During this time, Bright also becomes a mother and there are some very poignant observations about the credit she was given, by random neighbors and others who previously would have dismissed her, and how the process of becoming a parent helped her see that she was not doomed to repeat her mother's mistakes.

This book is admittedly not an attempt to document an exhaustive history of either The Red Tide, On Our Backs, or Susie Bright's entire life, and the stories she did choose to tell are illuminating. She doesn't lose that youthful spirit of wanting to shake things up that she had at sixteen, even in the face of ostracism from within the ranks of the IS or the lesbian or feminist worlds. She does, however, make choices she needs to to best protect herself and her family. This is a powerful book that will, perhaps, leave you a good way. The writing is so rich, too (she describes Andrea Dworkin as "Like arguing with Freud but being happy he was taking you for a ride.), and Bright is clearly not just rehashing the same old stories. The final chapters, in which she is served with papers, there's a murder and Bright grapples with motherhood, are particularly dramatic, but there is a gracefulness to Bright's words, one that doesn't mute any of the horror of the details she's revealing, but that in fact leaps off the page. It highlights the reality that truth is stranger than fiction and certainly makes the book go out with a bang. A fascinating read whether you're familiar with Bright's book or not, whether you share her political beliefs or not; this is a memoir about finding companionship as well as fierce opposition among the rebels, and figuring out when to stand one's ground and when to find new ground to stand on.

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