Meeting Your Idols
You know the proverb, “never meet your heroes,” the possibility for disappointment and all that? Well, if your hero happens to be Rita Mae Brown—poet, New York Times bestselling author, pioneering LGBTQ-rights activist, and Emmy-nominated screenwriter—then that proverb goes right out the window.
My introduction to Ms. Brown began in 1993. I was 23, a fresh-faced college graduate working at my alma mater, the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Sarah, my boss, the director of orientation, was revered on campus. Her reputation: authoritative, but fair.
As part of my “other duties as assigned,” Sarah had me memorize poems, injecting her love of poetry onto her assistant director. The first poem, by Rita Mae Brown, “She came at that precise junction in a life / when the past is unbearable / and the future uncertain,” had me wondering if Sarah was trying to send me a coded message or if it was just my budding crush creating this farfetched scenario. Didn’t matter. Sarah had a long-term partner. Not to mention she was 34 years older. She would never like me.
But she did. And that poem, Sarah would later admit, was a slip. It became the impetus for our secret love affair that lasted until Sarah’s death 10 years later, but whose mark remained with me indefinitely.
In the early 90s, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was the country’s motto. We weren’t in the military, but still, we hid. Sarah had a girlfriend and I worried what my parents would think. We tried ending it, but every attempt failed.
After Sarah’s passing, I mourned her as I had loved her: in secret, pouring my angst into my journal. On a whim, I entered a writing contest. And won. Two other pieces would soon be published. Little by little, my secret was coming out. And in a way, so was I.
During the pandemic, life felt more fragile and I took stock of my past relationships. After Sarah, I had only ever been half in with anyone else, still connected to her. Keeping my story to myself, it was clear, would keep me from moving on. I decided to start by telling my parents everything. They hugged me. Their support was all I’d ever wanted.
Before Half In: A Coming-of-Age Memoir of Forbidden Love, about my secret affair with Sarah, could be published, I needed permission from Rita Mae Brown to use her poem. After an intense search I found a phone number. The voice was southern, quick. Ms. Brown generously granted me permission, then we chatted about writing. Forty-five minutes later we said goodnight. As happy as I was, I teared up. The one person I wanted to tell about my call was gone.
Months later, I left another message for Ms. Brown, asking her to endorse my book. Soon after a cream-colored envelope arrived. “Dear Ms. Cohen,” wrote Ms. Brown, in her distinct handwriting that would, in time, become familiar, “Half In is ever tempting.” Having someone whose work I’d admired for decades in my corner validated that my struggles in the relationship, and the years I spent writing about it, were worth it.
I called Ms. Brown a third time. “Would like to do an Author Talk with me?” I asked. What gave me the moxie, I’ll never know. Perhaps Sarah’s voice in my head.
This past March, Rita Mae Brown and I took the stage in front of over 100 people in New York City for a conversation about writing and life. In preparation, I visited her on her 600-acre farm at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. After watching Ms. Brown, a Master and Huntsman, lead a foxhunt, we spent the day talking.
That evening we sat outside eating sandwiches, house dogs at our heels. She shared experiences from her time in the women’s movement, the impetus for writing Rubyfruit Jungle, and the internet (Ms. Brown doesn’t own a computer). When the sun dipped behind the mountains a chill filled the air. Ms. Brown drove me to my rental car, parked in a wide-open field, bathed in moonlight. A half-dozen deer, grazing nearby, took off, their white tails a fading blur as we shared a hug goodbye.
Driving along winding dark roads to my hotel, my eyes once again filled with tears. Exactly 30 years earlier Sarah had made me memorize a poem that had changed my life then. And was about to change it again. I wrote Half In to come to terms with my forbidden love affair, never thinking it would win awards or bring me a new friend. My hope is that by sharing my story I can inspire others who may be struggling with their own forbidden love. Because in the end, love is love, and that should never be kept hidden. ▼
Half In is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook wherever books are sold.
Felice Cohen is the author of the bestselling and award-winning books Half In: A Coming-of-Age Memoir of Forbidden Love, 90 Lessons for Living Large in 90 Square Feet (...or More), and What Papa Told Me. Felice’s website: felicecohen.com.▼