|A Review byRebecca James|
|Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress: Tales of Growing Up Groovy and Clueless By Susan Jane Gilman, 2005
I have a little friend named Lauren who I've watched grow every summer from a quiet, raven-haired infant into a willowy, pink-sandalled four-year-old with a permanent tutu. Although she's still fairly quiet, it's obviously because the world inside her head is far more interesting (and probably more sparkly) than the one I share with her level-headed, low-maintenance mom, Sue. We compare notes on the latest books we've read as Lauren, periodically emitting squeaks that I assume allow her to communicate with dolphins, floats by on tip-toe (I'm not sure her heels have ever actually touched the groundin fact, I'm trying to convince Sue to have her Achilles' tendon checked out by a doctor). Lauren is one of those kids that make it very obvious early on in their development that their parents have created a new human personality completely separate from themselves.
I'm frequently uncomfortable around small children because I'm convinced that they are thinking about a lot more than they can verbalize (it's a good thing I teach high schoolat least I know what they are plotting). Lauren consistently provides evidence of this: "Rebetha," she'll say breathlessly (she morphed my name with my partner's last year, apparently deciding it was just too time-consuming to differentiate between the two tall, short-haired women who were always together anyway), "Rebetha, do you know my name is Michelle today?" Sue just rolls her eyes. Apparently, Lauren a.k.a. Michelle won't answer to anything else; Sue's a big fan of the 'choose your battles wisely' form of parenting.
Lauren-Michelle is also the same child who insisted on sleeping in her vinyl Little Mermaid costume complete with flowing red hair the entire week before Halloween, who wears pink rubber galoshes adorned with fairy wings springing off the heels accompanied by a pair of shorts on a sweltering day in August, and who not only owns a large tiara with a pink feather boa base (okay, small twinge of jealousy there) but actively glides around town waving like royalty. If she didn't physically resemble Sue so strongly, I'd question the genetic link between this fairy princess and her practical feminist mother. There is a part of us, however, who can relate to a drama queen, center-of-the-universe-so-why-bother-with-reality philosophy, and it is precisely this tiny forgotten inner princess who bonded instantaneously with little Susie Gilman in her new collection of comedic memoir essays.
Susan Gilman (who, incidentally, renamed herself Sapphire at the age of five, although I don't think she goes by that any longer) documents a childhood of an in-between generation. Born in the mid-sixties to hippie, socialist, long-suffering, non-practicing Jewish parents, Gilman describes her self-proclaimed social cluelessness with insightful, forgiving wit. From her lessons learned on the hot black pavement of her tough New York neighborhood to her apartment slutting in Geneva, Gilman gives a voice to any reader who feels guilty about his or her inner drag queen. She obsessively and frequently recreates herself in a way that makes me grin and cringe, remembering my own adventures vacillating between ballerina and cowgirl, hippie wannabe and punk rocker. Refreshingly, she's not entirely obsessed with getting a man. Gilman is career focused, in a roundabout way, and although she attempts to paint herself as superficially self-absorbed, it is clear she is not shallow or, as the title suggests, hypocritical in any way. Pouffy White Dress really is a chronicle of the awakening of an identity not clearly defined by outside influences. Gilman is a woman incapable of being stereotyped, although reading her accounts of vainly trying to fit in with people who blissfully succumb to stereotyping makes me think it would have been a whole lot easier to have been born a little square peg in a little square hole. Easier, perhaps, but not nearly as interesting.
Gilman divides her life after childhood, too. She grows from naively announcing her non-virgin (as in Mary, mother of Christ, metaphorically yet unfortunately incompletely explained to Susan by her mother) status to her grade-school classmates, much to the amusement of her Christmas pageant teacher, to desperately trying to lose her hormone-crazed, Mick Jagger-loving high school hymen. The best part, though, is that Gilman is able to appreciate the humor in her more recent blunders, too. Her twenties were dominated by a career as a journalist for Jewish Weekly at a time when her friends were finding jobs at the ultra-cool Village Voice and Vogue. Gilman finds outrageous "success" as the controversial columnist for an audience who previously had become enraged by changes in the newspaper's typeface. Gilman nearly sends themand her editorover the edge with exposs on pregnant lesbian rabbis and the Star of David Motorcycle Club. Her essay, "I was a Professional Lesbian" finds her fielding dozens of calls from proud Long Island Jewish mothers with pretty lesbian daughters. They found themselves disappointed by her apparently unmentioned straightness. They weren't the only ones fooled. Her best friend from grade school and her (same-sex) partner quietly howl as they watch Gilman struggle in vain to "out" herself as straight at a lesbian dinner party where it is assumed, because of her column, that she is gay.
Finally, Gilman leaves her readers, much too soon, with her ordeal as a feminist bride who finds herself staring for four hours into a David's Bridal mirror at a frosting-like version of herself that she absolutely, positively loves. Merging the two versions of herself is exactly how Gilman remains free of all labels except hilarious.
Back in Rehoboth, I buy myself a frothy, frilly pink scarf and marvel at the number of compliments I receive on the color, especially from Lauren-Michelle. I am a bit of a drama queen, I realize, and I hope that despite the perceived contradictions, little girls everywhere realize there is nothing wrong with being strong, independent, and exceptionally well-tutued
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 1 February 11, 2005