Sexual Coming of Age in Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

When I was a teenager, I completely flunked sexuality. Unable to balance signals from my body, from girls, and from social expectations, I “solved” the whole mess by running away. My all-boys high school made it easy to hide from girls during the day. And every Friday and Saturday evening I worked at my dad’s drugstore. I graduated high school having been on a total of three dates, all awkward, one ending in a car crash. Eventually, I reached adulthood, eager to forget the awkward feelings and general sense of failure I associated with those memories.

Decades later, when I became interested in writing my memoir, I had no idea how to revisit those early years. I was afraid my confusion about sexuality would force me to continue the pretense that this fundamental human need didn’t exist. But I soon discovered that by reading the stories of other people’s lives, I could gain wisdom about my own. Even though most authors only briefly touched on the subject, I gradually accumulated a greater understanding of how we humans incorporate this powerful force into our lives.

For example, Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes gives a gritty glimpse into a boy’s sexual awakening. And the boy who inappropriately touched Jeanette Walls in Glass Castle showed me the fear and confusion from the girl’s point of view. Name all the Animals by Allison Smith took me across the border into same-sex attraction. Beyond groping and pure confusion were the infatuating romance of sexuality such as expressed by Tania Grossinger in Growing up at Grossingers. And in Crazy for God, Frank Schaeffer wrote an excellent story of a boy falling madly in love through the joys of sexuality. His passion started not only a marriage but also a political movement.

In almost every case, each young person feels alone in their desperate attempt to understand the awakening of sexual urges, and few of them attempt to apply social or religious teachings to help them steer. In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt was told that thinking about sexuality would land him in hell. Since he couldn’t escape his own sexual impulses, he decided to escape the Church. In the memoir, Crazy for God, Frank Schaeffer received extensive religious training from his parents who ran a famous Christian commune. But their advice didn’t stop him from having sex with the attractive young seekers who came from all over the world for spiritual direction. His sense of morality only kicked in after his girl friend became pregnant. Aside from those examples, until recently I had not read any memoir about an author who investigated the complex, nuanced relationship between the rules of society and the impulses of the body.

That gap has been filled by Karen Prior’s memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me. In it, she describes the development of a young girl’s journey through the tumultuous awakening of sexual impulses, and toward her own inner peace with it. Karen Prior’s forays into groping quickly led her to crave a deeper understanding of the social rules she ought to follow. Her desire to explore these rules adds such an important direction to the discussion of sex, I feel as if she lifted me out of flatland and into the third dimension.

Before Prior reached puberty, she had already received a good education in love and sex from her mother whose life had almost been destroyed by an unwanted pregnancy out of wedlock. Her mother taught her, first, to carefully understand the consequences of sexuality. Her mother’s second rule, equal in importance to the first, was that in her mother’s eyes, sex would never “ruin” her. They would be in it together, no matter what.

Prior took her mother’s guidance into account. However, she still needed to figure out how to apply this advice to her own life. Where does a young girl go when looking for such guidance? Karen Prior turned to literature. And that inquiry is the topic of her memoir, which could have been called “How literature helped me understand myself and my role in society.”

From her point of view, high school English Literature classes are about more than just interesting reading. They are about sharing with young people the repositories of the values of civilization. And so, Prior did not just read the books assigned in her English class. She devoured them, and tried to understand their social implications.

In the literature of only a century earlier, she discovers the disturbing fact that despite her mother’s reassurances, girls really could be destroyed by sex. However, instead of accepting this damnation, she looks at it as a stage on the path of civilization. Karen Prior realizes that human attitudes toward each other evolve over the centuries and our literature is like a historical record of those changes. As an example, she discovers that one of the most damning of books, Tess of the D’urbervilles by Thomas Hardy is a subtle mockery of the cultural climate of the time. According to her close reading, Hardy’s book celebrates the inherent dignity of the girl, and criticizes the social hypocrisy that condemns her.

Karen Swallow Prior’s memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me is not just about lessons she learned in books. It’s also about growing up bookish. For example, when she crosses into adolescence, the clique of popular girls pushes her away. She makes an important, perhaps life-altering decision. Rather than beg her way back into a club of girls who base their power on sexual charisma, she applies for admission into the clique of smart girls. Her new friends support her mission to make sense of life not by commanding power over sexuality, but by mastering the thoughts that govern those impulses.

Romance, sex, feminism, and values
Through Karen Prior’s exploration of her own coming of age, she has created a fascinating tapestry that weaves together human kindness and decency in the same bundle as sexuality. Her story has shown me more clearly than ever the meaning of the feminist diatribe against pornography as the objectification of women. But rather than making this assertion as an obvious fact that I’m already supposed to know, she takes me on her journey of discovery and reveals the logic behind it.

Her premise seems familiar enough. By stripping romance out of sex, the package of romance falls apart and leaves just sex. But trying to apply that premise in modern society at first seems quaint and old-fashioned. However, through her value-rich eyes, she shows how without romance, sexuality quickly becomes dark, sinister and manipulative. Then I take another look at my memoir shelf and see the potential for human suffering hidden just behind the promise of easy pleasure.

In Nic Sheff’s memoir Tweak and Janice Erlbaum’s memoir Girl Bomb, falling into drug addiction leads to the gritty, sobering reality of trading drugs for sex. On an even darker note, in Reading Lolita in Tehran Azar Nafisi describes the way the righteous men of Iran treat women like objects, similar to the way Humbert Humbert treats Lolita in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. In the memoir Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro, the author becomes a plaything of a controlling, rich man. In Crazy Love, Leslie Morgan Steiner finds that within her new husband’s heart lurks a wounded, vengeful animal. In Lucky by Alice Sebold, love is stripped away entirely, leaving behind the raw, animalistic sexuality of rape.

In Karen Prior’s analysis, pornography is another expression of this dangerous obsession that offers sex without the uplift of romance. Her explanation gives me the eerie feeling I have just witnessed the convergence of two almost diametrically opposed belief systems. On one extreme, left-wing radical feminists fight valiantly to prevent women from seeming like men’s things, and on the right-wing, sexual moralists fight with equal vigor to remind us to maintain the linkage between love and sex. She combines the two into a single powerful argument, and she does it all through the universal language of literature.

Two “characters” – the young girl and the grown woman

When Karen Prior becomes a literature professor, she has the opportunity to teach younger students about how literature can help them grow up. Most memoirs I review allow the reader to stay focused within a single timeframe. The single timeframe lets us suspend disbelief and enter the character’s world. In Booked, Prior removes that wall that keeps the reader within one timeframe. Her memoir moves back and forth between her younger self and the adult looking back on that younger self. From her vantage point as a professor she can make more profound observations about her younger self than she could if she remained within a single point of view.

Memoir purists might object to this shift that splits the reader’s attention between the two perspectives. However, I love stretching the boundaries of this vast, fluid Memoir Revolution. If the author believes the story is best told as a split between two timeframes, I accept her storytelling choices and go for the ride.

Her journey of Coming of Age continues, until the young woman grows up and merges with the adult, a somewhat haunting storytelling effect. In a chapter on the pleasures of married life she calls upon the writings of the sixteenth century poet John Donne. When John Donne fell in love he married his beloved without her father’s approval. The shotgun wedding angered her powerful father so much that he had Donne imprisoned. This punishment did not shake the lovers’ commitment to each other. Donne’s writing memorialized this romance-in-a-crucible, offering generations of readers insight into a poetic view of the institution of marriage. *

Prior’s exploration of the pleasures of marriage took me by surprise. Isn’t this a memoir about a girl learning about sexuality? However, after pondering the arc of the story, I realize that marriage is integral to her journey. Her willingness to postpone the urge to procreate is founded on the hope of finding a partnership that will last a lifetime.

As we go through life, attempting to figure out how to live, we naturally absorb examples and ideas from our reading material. From books and stories, we learn how other people steered and why they made their choices. Karen Prior offers an excellent example of a young woman who learned from books.

The memoir inspires me about more than the power of studying literature in formal English classes. If a young woman reads Karen Prior’s story at just the right time in her life, this author’s example might offer wisdom, passing along the wisdom of one generation to the emerging choices of the next.

Writing Prompt
What lesson did you learn that you wish you could pass on? Naturally once you learned that rule through your own hard experience, you may feel entitled to pass it on to young people. If they don’t listen, try another method. Take advantage of the Memoir Revolution’s pathway, and share the story of how you learned that rule. Your mistakes, and the agony of your hard earned lesson might find their way into another heart more easily than merely repeating a rule.

According to a new branch of science that studies the evolution of culture, humans invented stories to teach each other how to live in society. In his book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, Brian Boyd makes the case that humans are wired to tell stories, so we could learn from the mistakes of others, and advance our culture based on the stories of those who had come before. And according to my book Memoir Revolution, memoirs extend that system, allowing us to learn not only from fictional characters but from living ones.
John Donne’s wife’s name is Anne, and he was thrown in jail for marrying her. In one of the cleverest micro-memoirs ever Donne uttered these five memorable words: “John Donne. Anne Donne. Undone.” I am grateful to Karen Prior for sharing this clever bit of intellectual history.

I’ll write more about her contribution to my understanding of intellectual history in a future post.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

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