The "grandmother of erotica" Susie Bright on storming the gates of the status quo, becoming a dirty old lady, and other ways to be happy.
Ariel: You've just written a deliciously radical memoir, Big Sex Little Death. It's gracing the LGBT bestseller lists and rising on the national lists--guns, drugs, teenage activism, threesomes, commie camp, revolutionary journalism. Are you a Bodhisattva-type activist, content to delay personal happiness until all beings are free, or are you having enough fun along the way to call this pretty much Nirvana?
Susie: I'm afraid I'm a fun-envying work masochist. A worrywart that needs to be removed before it becomes a pox.
I say I'm going to make more leisure time, more unapologetic fun, but then the exasperated bread-winner in me speaks up: "Oh yeah? And who's gonna pay the bills?"
My inner bitchy burden-filled basket case never shuts up. I swear I'm going to chuck it all someday and become an Oxy addict living in a hammock.
The Present is hardly Nirvana and there is no pot of relaxation gold at the end of the rainbow. But storming the gates of the status quo is pretty thrilling in itself.
Ariel: In the introduction to The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir warns women activists against concerning ourselves too much with the question of happiness--or at least against concerning ourselves too much with the kind of happiness that we've been taught to pine for.
She says, "Are not women of the harem more happy than women voters? Is not the housekeeper happier than the working-woman?... In particular those who are condemned to stagnation are often pronounced happy on the pretext that happiness consists in being at rest. This notion we reject..."
As a woman who has never (apparently) been at rest, where have you found the greatest crop of happiness?
Or is joy not your concern?
Susie: I love her writing on that subject, to the effect that ignorance may be bliss--but who wants it? I agree. I don't think of happiness as a state one achieves and then puts in "park" like a car in a Pink Cloud parking spot. For me, happiness is fleeting, and that's why it's so sought after and cherished in memory.
Doing something creative always gets me out of my grind, like writing--it always relieves my bad mojo. So does being outside, all the wholesome things like dancing and sweating and singing and digging a hole to plant a fruit tree. I just always have to argue with my bad mood to give it a whirl. I never remember ahead of time that these things instantly make me feel good. I have to kind of trick myself into starting and then, voila, all of a sudden I'm having a very good time.
As far as revolution goes, I feel very lucky that I've been in the middle of a few uprisings, right in the thick of it, where you could see a few people changing the world. There's nothing like justice; when you say "joy" that's about the closest I've come to it.
When the young people filled the Square in Egypt this past spring, I just cried my head off with memories and happiness. I knew exactly how they felt--the staying up all night talking and singing, the linked arms, the feeling you could make love to anyone, that everything is possible, watching the dictators crumble before your eyes. Good times.
Ariel: A couple of writers in my online class were in Cairo for the revolution and these was this magic even from here, logging on every day, wondering if they were able to get online, wondering what the day would bring. The rest of us were so worried for them, but great cheers would go up when they logged on to tell us what CNN wouldn't.
Susie: Love the online friends I made those days and we've been in constant twitter contact ever since.
Ariel: When I identify as a woman reclaiming the word "hag" and remind my friends that I could be a grandma any day now, they take pity on me and reassure me that I still look 15.
I do not, in fact, look 15.
I don't want to look like I'm 15.
Do you plan to be a happy and wise Baba-Yaga-hag when the time comes? Or are you getting the lifts and the lipo?
Susie: I wish I was just effortlessly attractive without lifting a finger or spending a dime. Is that an option? It's not fun becoming invisible, sexually. I definitely notice my "disappearing act" and my vanity is hurt. No wonder people buy sports cars and make fools out of themselves.
You start to wonder how much your libido is ego and how much is genuine lust. I was never a great beauty queen, but just being young was enough, I realize. Plenty of attention.
Betty Dodson told me that the only realistic route for aging women is to embrace your inner "dirty old lady." She says that the benefit of being invisible is that you can gawk at everyone else as much as you want. Rub yourself in public, no one even sees you. It's not about your vanity, it's about what you desire, what moves you--not whether you're fetching to someone else. How novel for the female point of view, eh? I hope I'll be heading in that direction.
Ariel: In a particularly wild and resonant scene in your memoir, your mother essentially tries to kill you. In later chapters, your relationship with your mother is less violent--if not somewhat mended. Still, I believe that not having mother-love as a guaranteed unconditional makes for a whole different kind of relationship with the self and the larger world. I'm struck that you can share this story without it overwhelming the story of your life. Can you offer a strand of advice for people whose mothers have abused them, disowned them, tried to kill them, or basically made them feel like worthless sacks of spider puke? Perhaps a strand of advice about how to not make that our central story, but just a recurring theme, just a chapter, if that.
Susie: I am as perplexed by this as you. Why does one person survive and thrive after trauma and another doesn't? You certainly don't emerge without scars, but those scars don't necessarily map out the rest of your life. I've been loved by many dear people, I was introduced very young to the life of the mind and the arts, which has always been my refuge. I've learned a great deal from therapy and my own psychological spelunking; I got to raise my own daughter and break some of the bad-fairy spells--is that it? Or is it just my particular bag of hormones and salts, a twist of fate? On my bad days, I don't think you'd hand me any accolades.
Here's my one big advice that cannot be denied: Get physical distance from the people who are trying to hit you, kill you, hurt you. Get bigger and get away, get rescued, just get the fuck out. Every day that passes without the physical domination and threat, you get a little bit more sane.
Ariel: What is the intersection between sex and happiness?
Susie: I keep thinking this is a trick question. Orgasm, love, spontaneous intimacy, lifelong friendship, tender memories, the possibility of life, the feeling that you're human after all... am I being too obvious? Sex is interesting, it's revealing, it cuts through the nonsense, it has the possibility of great honesty... all those could make for a happy day, or a shocking one!
Ariel: Ha ha, it IS a trick question. How about the intersection between activism and happiness?
Susie: Seeing the impossible materialize before your very eyes!
Ariel: And between creativity and happiness?
Susie: Disappearing into your story world. I love it. I am one big lucid dreaming lovedoll.