Never the Good Girl : SKIN: Sex, Class & Literature, <i> By Dorothy Allison (Firebrand Books: $13.95, paper; 264 pp.)</i>
Dorothy Allison loves sex. She also loves writing, women, justice, Southern landscape, literature, her family and truth. It is this huge capacity for passion that makes her work so challenging. Her raw honesty makes it so intimate it’s almost too painful to read. The author of the National Book Award Finalist “Bastard Out of Carolina” and “Trash,” a collection of short stories, has written a book of essays that are at once political, autobiographical and revolutionary. Underneath it all runs the bittersweet story of Allison’s journey to wholeness, as she moves to understand and embrace all the disparate parts of herself.
“I try to live naked in the world,” she writes in the title essay, “unashamed even under attack, unafraid even though I know how much there is to fear.” Reading the early essays, one marvels at the incredible achievement this is for someone born poor and despised in the South, for a smart and bookish girl who was sexually abused for years at the hands of her stepfather.
It was through the lifesaving miracle of her discovery of feminism and the craft of writing that Allison created the transformation, learning how to stop feeling shame and claim her own life. She grew up to be a radical sex activist, a lesbian feminist and writer, not the most inconspicuous of life choices. Ironically, the nakedness that was imposed on her as a child has now become a vehicle for expressing who she is and what the world should be.
A true radical, Allison found herself fitting in nowhere; she was too sexual for the lesbians, too butch for the feminists, too angry for the Hollywood myth of romantic poverty. But she is never interested in “being a good girl.” On the contrary, each of her positions is part of her “long struggle to understand and love fully” and she is proud of all the risk that has demanded.
Feminists and all women need to hear voices like this.
Allison believes that women telling the truth about their lives and their sexuality is radically important if they’re going to break through societal boundaries to reach themselves. She tells of a lover who was finally able to “roar her passion,” about a telephone call from an acquaintance who was paralyzed by shame because of the way she masturbated. In one fascinating essay titled “The Theory and Practice of the Strap-on-Dildo,” Allison humorously describes her experience with “penetration devices.”
“Everything is so sexual to me,” she writes in an essay called “Femme.” “Everything is a miracle.” It is tremendously moving to read about Allison’s struggle into her own fully charged and powerful sexuality, a way of being which is taken from many women through memories of abuse, or repressed by cultural norms and sexism. “Sex then, no matter how dangerous. Sex then, no matter what the cost.”
In a straightforward manner, Allison describes the abuse she went through as a child and the painful aftereffects she has had to weather. The incest informs much of “Skin” as something that must be worked through and never silenced, something that she has had to write about even at the risk of shattering her mother and sisters. Because she writes to understand her life, when Allison forgives her mother, it’s a completely authentic act. Because of her understanding of the imprisoning realities of poverty she is able to feel a great love for the woman who “taught us . . . to keep our heads up and refuse to act ashamed.”
One of the best things about the book is the way Allison follows her own injunction to “tell the truth so well and so powerfully that it will have to be heard, understood, and acted on.” These are the parts that almost hurt to read. She describes the pain of her first lover’s fatal drug addiction, her need as an adult to vomit every time she sees her stepfather, her mother’s deathbed guilt over not stopping the incest, her passion for the good books that helped her through her solitary childhood and through her shame. Nothing in her life is to be hidden, not the kind of sex she likes or her terror at having a gun put to her head during a robbery.
Her own community is not exempt from her powerful truth-telling. In “Conceptual Lesbianism” she rages at those who want to define the concept of “lesbian” for everybody else. In “Believing in Literature” she calls to task lesbians who betray us all by writing safe books filled with cardboard characters. “The best fiction comes from the place where the terror hides. . . .”
“I knew that what I wanted to do as a lesbian and a feminist writer was to remake the world into a place where the truth would be hallowed, not held in contempt, where silence would be impossible.” In Allison’s world, writing is a revolutionary act. Literature is sacred. Telling the truth is the important moral obligation. For writers, the most stirring part of “Skin” will probably be the many chapters about reading and writing that push us to take ourselves seriously, take risks and race our fears.
At times it does seem that the collection could have used some tough editing. We read long sections in two separate essays about Allison’s mentor, Bertha Harris, invoking her to write with courage. Analyses of class, the links between gay and human rights, and the vagaries of lesbian/feminism are repetitious as are several of the recollections about her family. Some of the essays end abruptly, wander without focus or seem strangely undeveloped while several, which were written over 10 years ago, seem dated.
Yet, maybe they aren’t as dated as they seem. While it’s become popular in the mainstream media to characterize the ‘90s as the post-feminist era, a time when sophisticated women have moved beyond discussions about shame, power or sex, Allison’s talk at the recent San Francisco Book Festival would appear to belie that completely. To a crowd of nearly 400 people, mostly women, she read a piece about, among other things, the courage needed by non-majority people to perform even the most mundane of public arts. When she finished the audience erupted into loud and long applause worthy of a revolutionary hero. It appears that to a lot of women Allison’s invitation to “take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we have ever imagined” is still a vital and necessary call.
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