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A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century: A Memoirby Jane Vandenburgh
Synopses & Reviews
"In her memoir, novelist Vandenburgh (Failure to Zigzag) tells of her dysfunctional Protestant family, rebellious adolescence, a flirtation with lesbianism, a survived car crash and famous friends. She begins the narrative at age nine, barefoot and scrappy, skipping school and wreaking unsupervised havoc with her two brothers (aged 13 and five) in 1950s Redondo, Calif. Their bohemian bliss sours when their father, who had been arrested several times for hanging around gay bars, commits suicide, sending Vandenburgh's already fragile, mentally unstable mother off the deep end. She loses custody, and Jane and her brothers are sent to a suburb of L.A. to live with their aunt, a fervent Christian who has four children of her own, as well as an adulterous husband. Then comes suburban ennui and rebellion: short skirts, shoplifting, watching porn. Vandenburgh's story is engaging, though feels familiar-in fact, Vandenburgh has written parts of it before (Failure to Zigzag features a crazy, often negligent mother; The Physics of Sunset focuses on an adulterous affair in Berkeley, Calif.). In a neat narrative twist, she has an affair with a person who ends up being the publisher of her book." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
This memoir is basically two different books. The first half is a very coherent, tightly controlled account of the author's childhood, which was, predictably enough, fraught. Jane, along with her older brother, Will, and her younger brother, Geo, are raised for the first 10 years of her life in the downscale California shore community of Redondo Beach. Her father is a respectable,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) even prominent architect, but the problematic thing about him, in the '50s, is that he's bisexual and repeatedly brings disgrace upon his family by being arrested in low bars. Her mother, in this section at least, is arty, bohemian, snobbish and utterly undevoted to her children. When Jane's little brother cries, for instance, his mother comforts him thus: "There, there, there, there, she tells Geo, holding him to her, grimacing over his head to go, See! From this Will and I are supposed to get how hilarious it is that our mother is being expected to act like a mother, instead of what she really is, which is this rare thing, this wonderfully gifted and spectacular being, the Radiant Child she has always been." When Jane is 10, her father kills himself, and soon afterward her mother goes crazy and is committed. Jane and her bewildered brothers are sent to live with their paternal aunt, who is only in her 30s and has four children of her own. This aunt and her husband are conservative, Republican, very conscious of the good families they come from. They're deeply committed to living a different kind of '50s lifestyle, which involves vast quantities of hard liquor and cigarettes and pool parties featuring canapes stuck with toothpicks into a pineapple. The two sets of kids hate each other on sight but eventually manage to rub along all right. The uncle cheats on his wife, who finds her emotional refuge in the Episcopal Church. Exposed to such differing clues, the orphaned kids don't know how to grow up. Will is soon sent to military school, little Geo stops talking, and Jane becomes obsessed with sex and suicide. Jane turns into a beautiful blond teenager who manages to get herself into fairly standard trouble (but of course she doesn't know it's standard). We, as readers, get to see that every member of this wealthy, presentable family — each and every one — is starving for love. The aunt in particular, so strict and respectable, forever whiling away her time by embroidering priestly vestments, is cordially loathed by some of her children and assiduously avoided by her husband. Jane is repelled by almost everyone and everything. She can't stand the family's devotion to alcohol and their kittenish phrases for being drunk. She is equally repelled by the self-indulgence of her mother and the Puritanism of her aunt. She obsesses about sex in its most unpleasant guises. One of her high school classmates has a relative who thoughtfully leaves out reel-to-reel, larger-than-life porno movies for the girls to view, and Jane's mind skips from kissing some sweet boy in a convertible to crouching in a cage having awful things done to her. Which is the authentic version of sex? (She knows that a wrong choice can literally kill you, given what happened to her dad.) The end of Part 1 is gloomy, filled with intimations of doom. Jane is still in high school, having made the first of what will be many wrong choices. Part 2 is a very different kind of book, with random essays exploding here and there like a string of Chinese firecrackers. The author's voice changes from chapter to chapter as she rails at whatever comes to mind. She deplores the wimpy English-major types she always seems to end up with as boyfriends: They're either gay or downright sexless. On the other hand, she abhors brutish types. So she's stuck with wimps who won't sleep with her and boors who do. She says several times that she was kicked out of her aunt's house for some infraction of the rules, but she never gets around to saying what that infraction was. She works her way through college, but she disparages her education. She is, at times, discursive in the mode of Henry Miller: Her memories of working for the phone company recall Miller's evocation of the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Co. in "Tropic of Capricorn." And then Jane finds herself living with her brothers and crazy mother again, after it turns out that her mother isn't quite as crazy as advertised. Then the tone of the last essays changes drastically; Jane has turned into a compassionate, sympathetic person who thinks about things other than herself. She marries a second husband, whom she really likes, and we hear nothing more about her sexual needs, fears and hang-ups. It's as though she's become a real person instead of a poster child for this or that. And then there's a lovely chapter about her friendship with the Japanese wife of poet Gary Snyder, and this gracious woman's graceful descent into death. And a final chapter about a family reunion in New York with her grown daughter, her beloved husband and her aunt — frail now, in her 80s, divorced from that loutish uncle. The aunt has morphed into something like a saint. I loved the first half, but I had trouble with the second. I thought some important information was withheld. How did Jane Vandenburgh get from "there" to "here"? How did she turn from one kind of person into another? And though she goes on for paragraphs demonizing alcohol, ranting and raving about the excesses of drink, I could never figure out whether Jane herself seriously drank or not. And for all her rhetoric about sex, except for a few startling fantasies, we never find out about sex as it happened to her. Strange, that for all her bravado, she would turn out to be as ladylike as her aunt. Reviewed by Carolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Born into a certain kind of family”—affluent, white, Protestant—Jane Vandenburgh came of age when the sexual revolution was sweeping the cultural landscape, making its mark in a way that would change our manners and mores forever. But what began as an all-American life soon spun off and went spectacularly awry.
Her father, an architect with a prominent Los Angeles firm, was arrested several times for being in gay bars during the 1950s, and only freed when her grandfather paid bribes to the L.A.P.D. He was ultimately placed in a psychiatric hospital to be cured” of his homosexuality, and committed suicide when she was nine. Her mother—an artist and freethinker—lost custody of her children when she was committed to a mental hospital. The author and her two brothers were raised by an aunt and uncle who had, under one roof, seven children and problems of their own.
In the midst of private trauma and loss, Vandenburgh delights in revealing larger truths about American culture and her life within it. Quirky, witty, and uncannily wise, A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century is a brilliant blend of memoir and cultural revelation.
In the midst of private trauma and loss, Vandenburgh delights in revealing larger truths about American culture in the 1950s and 60s. Quirky, witty, and uncannily wise, "A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century" is a brilliant blend of memoir and cultural revelation.
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