“Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex”
Edited by Erica Jong. Ecco, 256 pages.
Decatur Book Festival author appearance: Rosemary Daniell will discuss “The One Who Breaks My Heart,” her essay in “Sugar in My Bowl,” at 1:15 p.m. Sunday, September 4, at the City Hall Stage, 509 North McDonough Street, Decatur. Visit the festival’s website for details.
Who doesn’t like looking into someone else’s window? We do it hoping to catch people unaware, off-guard, intimately revealed. In “Sugar in My Bowl,” a compelling and idiosyncratic collection of women’s writings about sex, Erica Jong has gathered 28 accomplished fiction writers, memoirists, critics, journalists and poets to disrobe and expose themselves in words. It takes guts to join in an exhibition this unprotected, to speak so candidly about oneself. Jong, a famously vocal veteran of the sexual revolution who scandalized America with “Fear of Flying” in 1973, expresses surprise that some of these writers wanted to check with their partners before they agreed to contribute to her anthology.
By now one would expect a feminist to realize that inhibition can be a good sign too, forcing a woman to pause before she makes herself vulnerable, as a number of the writers in these pages do. Without inhibition, what you get are caricatures of sex — the “hot bodies” and manic exhibitionism of pornography and celebrity culture. In these pages, intelligent, articulate writers tell things that ring startlingly true and real, or come off as exquisitely sensual or nostalgic, or funny or excruciatingly painful, or even embarrassing to the reader.
“Best Sex I Ever Had,” Jong’s original title for the book, evokes a feminist hubris that dates her (not to mention weirdly links her to Donald Trump’s infamous boast about a mistress) and thankfully didn’t stick. It did provide a useful underpinning for the best of these entries, by writers such as Susan Cheever, Fay Weldon, Rebecca Walker, Rosemary Daniell and Linda Gray Sexton, which recall a moment of bliss or a particularly devilish or sublime partner.
Daphne Merkin, a former critic for The New Yorker and now a contributor to The New York Times, recalls a summer consumed with desire to screw her brains out with one J.C. “I was willing to do anything,” she declares and fearlessly chronicles what that was. “Bend over with my head on the bed and my ass high in the air.…” A stint at the prestigious Yaddo writer’s colony interrupts the sex. Merkin finds herself trapped in an absurd dialectic between high-minded literary conversations at dinner and, instead of writing her book reviews, days spent in her studio obsessively fantasizing about what J.C. would do to her body. Uglier aspects of her lover and weaker aspects of Merkin emerge as she dissects their relationship, turning the tumultuous passion around to show the impulses behind it: his drive to dominate and her wish to be subjugated and yet to mock him, and his need to punish her for it, and all the hostility involved in this ill-fated combat.
The kind of fiery dalliance that Merkin finds impossible to sustain becomes a blazing permanence in the life of Savannah writer Rosemary Daniell. Her one-night stand with Zane, an attractive paratrooper 15 years her junior, evolves into a three-decade-long entanglement of love and hate that encompasses marriage, separation and reunion. The free-spirited Daniell is thrice divorced and writing a memoir about her willful promiscuity (“Sleeping With Soldiers”) by the time she picks up Zane in a bar. “Call me a slut,” she writes, flippantly beginning the account of her conversion to faithfulness.
In Zane’s company, Daniell soars and crashes on ecstatic sex, boozing and nights of rage that end in “bruises and broken furniture.” But that isn’t the worst of it. Plainly and delicately, without a trace of self-pity or fanfare, she lays out the devastating string of tragedies, from a mother’s suicide to worse, that run through her life. Zane reckons with his own demons, from battlefield trauma to worse. The rage and sexual chaos, we come to understand, have their reasons. (Disclosure: I’m a member of a writers’ group led by Daniell.)
Linda Gray Sexton, daughter of the volatile poet Anne Sexton, confides here about a dangerous foray into near-asphyxiation during sex. If the male hands around her throat squeeze too hard, she might end up dead. But she decides it’s worth the risk and sums up the result in one voluptuous sentence: “The lack of oxygen made a fiery bow of my body, bent back on itself, as one orgasm after another after another rippled through me.”
Then there’s the younger generation, daughters of permissive, free-loving bohemian parents, such as Jong’s own daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, who seem to disdain sex or at least the celebration of it. The title of Jong-Fast’s essay squeezes the messy generational rift into a nutshell of dour irony: “They Had Sex So I Didn’t Have To.” What else could be expected of a girl whose mother marries multiple times and whose progressive school sends her out to buy condoms at 12 years old than that she would want to become a defiantly monogamous, PTA-attending stay-at-home mother of three? Sort of. As long as that portrait includes an early stint in rehab and a home on Manhattan’s ritzy Upper East Side to stay in.
Or as Julie Klam, another reluctant offspring of progressives, writes, “My parents were fiercely naked.” And so in junior high school, embarrassed by all the openness and viewings of familiar bodies, she decides, “I would make it my business to find a good Jewish convent.”
Jong herself contributes a flash fiction about an epic kiss that confirms her bona fides as a sexual warrior: it’s “a mitochondrial kiss in which generations were born, died and were buried, in which trees leaped out, bloomed.…” Such starry-eyed faith in Eros is certainly more becoming than cynicism.
The hodgepodge of incidental fiction that fills out this anthology lacks the drama of the personal narratives, but it is redolent of the chaotic, free-wheeling ’70s, when, one imagines, this literary collage, with all its variety and loose ends, might have been put out by a women’s collective or a small press tucked away in Canada. That aura of guileless freedom that has almost vanished from today’s America, monopolized by the marketplace and media, comes back to us for an instant here like innocence regained.