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Susan Lydon, 61; Author of Influential Feminist Essay

Times Staff Writer

Susan Gordon Lydon, a writer launched by the counterculture of the 1960s who helped found Rolling Stone magazine, wrote an influential feminist essay -- “The Politics of Orgasm” -- and later became a guru of knitting as a spiritual endeavor, died July 15 at a Florida hospice after a long battle with cancer. She was 61.

Lydon, who lived in Oakland, was the author of three books, including the memoir “Take the Long Way Home” (1993) about her battles with drugs, and “The Knitting Sutra: Craft as a Spiritual Practice” (1997), which addresses knitting as a form of meditation.

She also had been an editor and columnist for the Oakland Tribune before going on medical leave in late 2002.

Born in the Bronx and raised in Long Island, she was the eldest of four children. While majoring in history at Vassar College, she met Michael Lydon, a Yale student whom she married in 1965, the year she graduated.

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They moved to England, where Michael became a writer for Newsweek and Susan wrote for the magazine London Life.

They returned to the United States in 1967, arriving in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in time for the full flowering of the counterculture in the “Summer of Love.” Lydon was present at Golden Gate Park for the Human Be-In, the hippie celebration where Timothy Leary told the youthful masses to “turn on, tune in and drop out.”

She dropped out of graduate school at San Francisco State and began writing freelance articles about local rock bands.

Many of her assignments were for Sunday Ramparts, an offshoot of the radical journal Ramparts. She often wrote for its arts editor, Jann Wenner, who wanted to start a rock ‘n’ roll newspaper. He launched Rolling Stone when Sunday Ramparts folded in 1967.

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Journalism, even in the counterculture era, was a lonely place for women. Lydon recalled responding with an expletive when Wenner asked her to type address labels instead of write stories.

After refusing the menial role, she not only wrote reviews and articles but also served as an editor and production manager.

She left Rolling Stone after the birth of her daughter, Shuna, in 1968, as the women’s liberation movement was beginning to stir. Lydon attended one of the first consciousness-raising groups, which drew women into the feminist movement through intimate group discussions of their lives.

It was at one such meeting that a woman confided to Lydon’s group that she had never had an orgasm.

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When her confession spurred other members of the group to talk honestly about their sexuality for the first time, Lydon decided to write about the myths and realities of female sexual fulfillment, including why many women lied about climaxing during intercourse.

When she proposed the story to Ramparts’ all-male editors, they laughed until she cried. But she persevered, producing what former Ramparts editor Robert Scheer called “one of our great articles.”

“People forget how primitive our attitudes were then,” Scheer recalled in an interview last week. “In those days, women were not supposed to have the capacity to have orgasms..... She treated [the subject] seriously and broke ground with it. It went from being a giggle to a cause.”

With “The Politics of Orgasm,” published in 1970, Lydon became one of the first in the movement to write about the predicament many women faced. “With their men,” she wrote, “they often fake orgasm to appear ‘good in bed’ and thus place an intolerable physical burden on themselves and a psychological burden on the men unlucky enough to see through the ruse.”

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The “faked orgasm” became an important topic in the women’s movement, “a metaphor for sexual exploitation,” historian Ruth Rosen wrote in “The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America.”

Lydon was surprised at the essay’s influence. “She told me that so many women came to her crying and thanking her for writing it,” daughter Shuna Gordon said in an interview Friday. A Berkeley feminist told Lydon that she had made a sign for her wall that read “Thank God for Susan Lydon.”

The provocative article, later anthologized in Robin Morgan’s “Sisterhood Is Powerful,” marked a new period in Lydon’s life. Her marriage broke up and she moved to Berkeley with her baby and a new lover. She began freelancing for other publications, including the Village Voice and the New York Times magazine.

She also started using drugs heavily.

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She had smoked marijuana and popped diet pills since she was in college. Over the next 15 years, she took LSD and became addicted to heroin and cocaine. To support her habit, she shoplifted and worked as a prostitute and often left her daughter to fend for herself.

In her memoir, Lydon recalled one of her darkest moments: “driving around, with no license, in the car I had taken from my mother, with my [crack] pipe in my mouth and the needle in my hand, trying to find a vein, while the car was moving. I was totally insane.”

She did not get off drugs until 1986, when she entered Women’s Inc., a recovery program in Boston that combined feminist consciousness-raising and confrontational encounter groups with elements of Alcoholics Anonymous. Through her therapy there, she came to believe that her various addictions had been caused by a childhood experience of incest.

Laura Shapiro, reviewing “Take the Long Way Home” for the New York Times, was skeptical of Lydon’s assertions of incest, citing it as an example of the author’s “fatal fondness for easy answers.” Other critics were more favorable toward the book, with the Los Angeles Times calling it uneven but “extremely brave and moving.”

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Lydon had many hobbies, including bridge and bird-watching. Some years ago, she fell off a deck and down a flight of stairs while trying to get a better look at a hummingbird. She broke her arm and shattered her shoulder -- and gained a new appreciation of knitting.

She picked up her knitting needles and yarn to strengthen her arm and ease pain after the accident. The physical therapy gradually became a form of spiritual therapy.

“The very rhythms of the knitting needles can become as incantatory as a drumbeat or a Gregorian chant,” Lydon wrote in “The Knitting Sutra,” a book that fascinated devotees of the craft despite its lack of a single pattern.

A master knitter, she not only executed intricate patterns but investigated the yarns, making contact with the women who spun them, the animals that provided the fleece and the breeders who raised the animals. Among her most glorious creations were exquisite lace shawls of qiviut, a precious yarn made from the silky under-wool of the musk ox.

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She wrote of being sustained by “the enduring mysteries of lace knitting” in her last book, “Knitting Heaven and Earth: Healing the Heart With Craft,” published in June. The book traces the skeins of emotional crises she weathered, including the death of her father, the end of a romance and her diagnosis of cancer.

In addition to her daughter, Lydon is survived by her mother, Eve Gordon, of Del Ray Beach, Fla.; two sisters, Lorraine Garnett of Virginia and Sheila Wolfe of Boca Raton, Fla.; and a brother, Ricky Ian Gordon, of New York City.


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