Keeping her own promise

Wendy Smith is the author of "Real-Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

The first words of Lillian Faderman’s frank and moving book evoke the preoccupations of every American autobiography since Benjamin Franklin but give them a 20th century spin.

“How could I not have spent years of my life lusting after the golden apple?” she asks. “When I was three months old and a war was raging across the ocean, my mother rocked me in her arms in a darkened theater. On the silver screen, here in America, in the Bronx, was Charles Boyer, a duke with a mansion in Paris.... My mother -- a shopgirl, an immigrant, no husband -- stared with open mouth, rapt, all but drooling at Boyer and paradise.” In four sentences, we have it: ethnic origins, poverty, violence and, glittering in the near distance, as close as the movie screen but as far away as Boyer’s Paris mansion, the vision of a better life.

But while the American Dream promises one thing, the American reality is quite different, an idea reflected in Faderman’s title, which evokes Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land.” Born in 1940, just three years after Brown, she shares with him the experience of escaping economic deprivation and personal despair and the knowledge that escape was far from inevitable. Education was Faderman’s salvation, but it wasn’t just book learning. “Naked in the Promised Land,” as with all meaningful autobiographies, is about the discovery of self and a place to belong.


The main story begins with a 7-year-old en route by train to live in California, dreaming of becoming a movie star and rescuing her mother, and ends with a 39-year old English professor at Cal State Fresno, about to publish a pioneering lesbian history, “Surpassing the Love of Men.” In between, Faderman was a shy preteen acting student with a crush on her female teacher; a tough, angry girl dressed like the pachucas at her East L.A. junior high; a teenage model who posed nude for girlie magazines to finance a nose job; a nervous but thrilled visitor to gay bars (her first sexual experience was with a butch pimp who tried to persuade her to turn tricks); wife to a gay man; and a stripper supporting her neurotic girlfriend while they got their bachelor degrees from UC Berkeley. Faderman was never a hippie, but she certainly took a long, strange trip to her final destination, and though the tone of her text is earnest, the tart, ironic chapter titles (“My Movie-Actress Nose,” “How I Became a Burlesque Queen”) suggest that there were a few laughs along the way.

Not when she first arrived in the Golden West, however. East L.A. was nothing like her Hollywood fantasies. Faderman’s mother had been persuaded by her sister to move west to escape Lilly’s father, who would never marry her. She made the move but couldn’t escape her guilt over relatives who had perished in the Holocaust or the bouts of mental illness that left Faderman terrified. “Naked in the Promised Land” recalls another American memoir, Alfred Kazin’s “A Walker in the City,” in its painfully candid portrait of the mingled love and shame Faderman feels for her roots. Her mother and aunt embarrassed her with their Yiddish accents, the heavy food they pressed her to eat, the miseries of their existence they shared with her. Her mother’s “tragic stories of pogroms and other annihilations and sweatshops and a bad man,” Faderman writes, “unwittingly gave me the antithesis of the fox’s advice never to desire the impossible. What could she know, after all, about what was impossible or possible for her American child?”

And for a while that child didn’t have a clue either. Her early lessons were all in what wasn’t possible. “If you were a woman and hoped to act, you had to look like a light-hearted shiksa unless you were old enough to play Molly Goldberg,” she realized. “The golden apple would never be mine.” Not until her mother’s new husband moved them to the Westside and she connected with a counselor for “underprivileged youths” did she meet someone who convinced her she could shape her own destiny. Not shocked by a teenager who modeled nude and hung out in gay bars, the counselor remarked, “If you’re a homosexual, you don’t want to get married, right? So you gotta work to eat.... So you better finish high school and get yourself into college.”

When she walked out of his office and headed west on Sunset Boulevard, for the first time she had a plan: “I would go back to school, and I’d figure out what I wanted to be and how to do it ... become somebody.” How many times have those last two words been spoken in American books, plays and films?

The former truant got A’s at Hollywood High, but her “front marriage” at 17 spoiled her chances for a scholarship to UCLA. “You’re married already. Why do you want to go to college?” a teacher asked. After the marriage collapsed, a girlfriend lured her to Berkeley, and she discovered her scholarly vocation in the English department and reluctantly declined to join her fellow students protesting against HUAC. She was working too hard, and anyway, “wouldn’t they be horrified if they really knew me? I couldn’t tell these sons and daughters of the upper and middle classes about Gigi Frost, the Bubble Bath Girl.... I saw no other lesbians on the Berkeley campus.”

She discovered her kind of activism in graduate school at UCLA when she fell in love with Bink, an idealistic teacher at Marshall High School, whose black, Mexican, Jewish and Asian students learned to question the sacrosanct canon “long before Ivy League scholars thought of it.”


“How come everyone has to read ‘The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,’ but you don’t get to read ‘Black Boy’ unless you’re in Miss B.’s class?” one boy asks. “She’d made books come alive for them, opened a universe of ideas.” Faderman too “caught fire with those novel ideas”; she and Binky collaborated on an anthology of fiction and poetry by writers of all colors intended to show “that literary study has to be integrated just as society does, that white men don’t have a monopoly on eloquence.” Faderman reminds us with unapologetic passion that the academic “political correctness” so routinely decried today is the outgrowth -- overzealous, perhaps -- of very real gaps in the standard curriculum.

While her male colleagues were steered toward Columbia and Cambridge, she was offered the choice of four state college positions. Cal State Fresno, though it ultimately broke up her relationship with Binky, was a blessing in disguise. “Here we were, in the fall of 1970, on a little campus in the middle of the agribusiness capital of the world, and two women professors were teaching feminist courses in the English Department,” she writes. “It couldn’t happen at a place like UCLA or Berkeley, where the faculty was hidebound. It certainly wasn’t happening there.” Multiculturalism, Faderman’s account of the battles at Fresno reminds us, wasn’t an abstract idea imposed by elitist ideologues; it was a movement by people once shut out of the academy or forced to assimilate on its terms who asserted that their experiences and their literature were worthy of study and critical reflection.

It all came together for Faderman in 1974, when she got pregnant by artificial insemination, knowing that this would end her rise through Fresno’s administration but not yet realizing it would send her in a new scholarly direction. (Someone, she decided in the tranquil early days of motherhood, should write a history to put gay and lesbian literature in context: Why not her?) She named her son Avrom, after the grandfather she never knew.

The book closes in 1979 at her mother’s deathbed, where she and Faderman rediscovered the loving intimacy they had left behind in the Bronx. Lillian never managed to grab the golden apple she believed would save her mother, but this exhilarating narrative of her life to this point shows her achieving a different kind of success as she went to the tree of knowledge to transform her own life. *