In this issue:
Susan Jane Gilman, author of Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, a coming-of-age novel, is funny, smart, and an in-your-face feminist who is also endearingly up-front about her insecurities and doubts. In The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters the narrator of this very satisfying epistolary book by Elisabeth Robinson not only writes letters; she lives a large portion of her life through them. Age-Proof Your Mind by Zaldy Tan attempts to help those of us who panic when we can’t remember where we left our keys, or the name of our third grade teacher, or where, God save the mark, we parked the car.
Hypocrite in a Puffy White Dress
by Susan Jane Gilman, © 2005
Warner Books, NY & Boston
Paperback, 352 pp
This coming-of-age novel is subtitled “tales of growing up groovy and clueless,” and the two words aptly describe of the childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood of Susan Jane Gilman. Gilman’s first book, Kiss My Tiara, was subtitled “How to Rule the World as a Smartmouth Goddess,” which may give the reader a clue as to the author’s mindset even before opening Hypocrite. Susan Jane Gilman is funny, smart, and an in-your-face feminist who is also endearingly up-front about her insecurities and doubts.
The memoir begins when Gilman, aged 4, is spending a summer with her family at a Socialist colony in Silver Lake, NY. Her young, leftist parents are definitely into the politically correct messages and activism of the 1960’s, and Susan Jane’s take on life with the semi-hippie adults surrounding her is both funny and insightful. Half of her yearns for a more traditional family and lifestyle, and the other half longs to be extraordinary and outrageously interesting.
Gilman today styles herself as a “child of New York,” even though she now lives in Switzerland, and lived before that in Washington, DC. Reared in the rough New York City neighborhood that gave its name to Broadway’s Westside Story, she adopted early-on a smart, streetwise manner necessary for survival in the upper Westside neighborhood ruled by gangs.
Like many idealistic parents of the ‘60’s, her parents put her in a public school where she would have friends of many colors and faiths. The young ones, Gilman says, had no problem with this, but the older kids were definitely hostile to each other, and to the younger ones who weren’t of their own race or religion.
When the local school board, in an excess of ‘60’s zeal, decided to take the walls out of the classrooms and allow the children to explore education on their own, Gilman’s parents transferred her to a Presbyterian school, where, as a non-observant Jew, she was an outsider looking in. She was ostracized on several counts. Not only was she not a Christian: she was chubby; she was a high achiever; she lacked the kind of savvy that could protect her from the machinations of the “in” group of girls who, as we all know, can be the meanest beings on the face of the earth.
High school seems to have changed all that. Her absorption with friends and rock stars rings true to anyone who has ever been, or parented, an adolescent. Throughout her college years and her first jobs, Gilman continues to pursue her persona of smart-mouth, wisecracking, tough young woman. She also continues to betray a soft, sensitive side despite efforts to hide it. Dumped by a pompous frat-boy boyfriend whom she has just driven 600 miles to visit during Spring break, she weeps all the way back to New York, and spends the rest of her vacation receiving the tender, wise, and healing ministrations of her family.
The portrayal of Gilman’s parents is refreshingly honest, loving and appreciative. In many memoirs, parents are presented as static, unchanging and one-dimensional creatures. Gilman perceives them as human beings as well as parents, and observes their growth along with her own. They adapt to changes of time and circumstance, as their daughter and son do. There is, in the end, no megalithic parental unit that is the Them to their children’s Us. There are only two individuals who did their best, and are loved and respected by Susan and her brother. This felicity is hard-won, one suspects on both sides.
Gilman’s first job after college is with a Jewish newspaper. Again, her education in the business of being a grownup rings true. Tutored by an older staff member, she evolves into a disciplined and valued reporter, albeit one who still loves to shock, as in seeking out subject matter like “Gay and Lesbian Rabbis,” designed to rattle the paper’s readership,
Assigned to accompany and report on a group of Jewish teenagers who are on a tour of concentration camps, Gilman’s account of her own progression from wise-cracking avoidance to life-shaking, gut-wrenching horror is presented without histrionics, and is deeply moving. Recounting the annual “March of the Living” from Auschwitz to Birkenau she notes that in the end, everyone was weeping: “It was a mass funeral for a mass grave. There was no getting around it.”
Her next job took her to Washington, D.C., where there was another kind of education to be had. Often funny, often upsetting, it’s the kind of insider’s view that will make you smile and gnash your teeth at the same time. But Washington was also the place where Gilman met her husband to be. The account of their wedding plans gives us “the pouffy white dress” of the title. Gilman had no intention of wearing a traditional wedding gown, but when she tried on The Dress and looked in the mirror, her intentions flew out the window. The wedding ceremony itself, however, was performed by a Lesbian Wiccan priestess and an amazingly adaptable rabbi, and was satisfyingly non-traditional.
We are left at the end of this memoir at a time when everything seems rosy for Susan and her husband, the Amazing Bob. One can only hope that life will continue to be as rewarding for them both. If she decides, in another book, to continue her chronicle of growing up, it will be fun to see how Gilman copes with the vicissitudes and challenges that are inevitable. As we seniors know, growing up is a process that doesn’t stop until you die.
2005 Julia Sneden for SeniorWomenWeb