Naked history: lesbian historian Lillian Faderman talks about her brave new memoir—and her tantalizing past as a stripper – books – Naked in the Promised Land – Interview – Biography

Regina Marler

You can probably count on one finger the academic memoirs that include topless pinup shots of their authors. Having fully emerged from the closet in the wake of her 1981 classic, Surpassing the Love of Men, lesbian historian Lillian Faderman now bares herself further by revealing that she put herself through graduate school by performing as a stripper at Big Al’s Hotsy Totsy Club in San Francisco. Her new book, Naked in the Promised Land, is the story of Faderman’s youth and of her relationship with her troubled mother, who of course knew nothing of her sweet Lilly’s nude modeling career in high school or of her later years on the burlesque stage.

“That’s one of the themes of my life: secrecy,” says Faderman, interviewed in her Fresno, Calif., home. Her mother and her intensely protective aunt were kept in the dark, but so were her classmates at the University of California, Berkeley–well-heeled radicals whose support of civil liberties did not extend to a gay gift’s job in a strip joint. And there was no greater openness for Faderman among the dancers of Big Al’s and at the President Follies, where she performed a burlesque act as Mink Frost. Both her sexual orientation and the fact that she went to college were kept hidden from her fellow strippers–women who at least understood the practicality of their shared profession. Around 1960, where else could a working-class girl earn over a hundred relatively honest dollars a week?

Thirty years later, Faderman put pen to paper on a long flight and wrote a brief memoir called “A Disquisition on Ambition at 30,000 Feet.” What had driven her–the daughter of an immigrant garment worker–to earn her Ph.D., to publish books, to pioneer the field of lesbian history? And how could she reconcile the underprivileged child Lilly and the driven, dating young woman Lil with the esteemed scholar Lillian? “There had to be something in common with those three personages,” she reasons.

As a girl she had dreamed of becoming a movie star to rescue her single mother from the drudgery of the garment factories. Mary Faderman arrived in New York City at 18 with her younger sister Rae in 1923. Their plan was to marry rich men and send money home to Latvia to bring over their brother and sisters. But after Hitler imposed his final solution, they were the only survivors of their large Jewish family.

The fact that Mary had been preoccupied with her love affair with Lillian’s father (who consistently denied paternity) and had not sent enough money back home to save her parents and siblings became an unending source of grief and self-reproach for her. Mary’s resulting mental illness was the central emotional event of her daughter Lilly’s life, the hinge on which her precarious childhood swung.

After a move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles–the better to break away from Lillian’s father–Lilly’s white-knight fantasies of rescuing her mother grew more intense: “I would learn to sing and dance and act,” she writes, “and I would become a child star. I would work hard. I would never be lazy…. Every nerve of me was set for the race.”

Despite all her work, she felt she could never do enough, never make her mother happy and secure. This sense of inadequacy lingered into adulthood. Her first attempt to write a book-length memoir reached only 80 pages before she realized it was “a litany of failure. The story I kept telling myself was the story of my guilt.” Yet in 1999 she caught sight of a familiar-looking notebook on her bookshelves–a journal she had kept in 1979, while her mother was dying. For years Faderman had recalled her part in those events with pain, as further proof of her failures as a daughter. But here was the evidence that she had been there, loving and steadfast to the end, supporting her mother. “It was crucial and freeing,” Faderman recalls, and these passages are incorporated almost word for word in Naked in the Promised Land.

No life is without its necessary secrets. Faderman’s memoir is dedicated to her son, Avrom, 28, who has never before seen the topless photos included in the book, let alone read descriptions of his mother’s high school tryst with a butch lesbian pimp. She laughs uneasily as she explains that he has just started reading the book: “I figure he can skip that, part.”

Marler writes for the New York Observer and the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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