Eight writers reflect on women who fascinate them.
“Who do you think about (maybe a little too often), who challenges, inspires, or outrages you? Who are you obsessed with?” These questions inform this collection of essays, edited by Feminist editorial director Scholder (editor: Dr. Rice in the House, 2007, etc.), about famous women whom the writers see as personal icons. As they investigate the women’s lives, the essayists reflect on their own identities and what motivates their attractions. Novelist Mary Gaitskill writes about porn artist Linda Lovelace, whose public persona, Gaitskill believes, has been bowdlerized. Herself a victim of a violent rape, Gaitskill feels a visceral understanding of the “hellish combination” of anger and fear that Lovelace is likely to have experienced. “As much as anything,” she writes, “her story is about enormous loneliness and the struggle to survive, a condition so much bigger than how she was seen.” Writer and gardener Jill Nelson is incredulous that young women today have no idea who Aretha Franklin was—a woman who, for Nelson, embodied “liberated empowerment or broke down heartache, with a sultry dose of lust thrown in.” Historian, classical singer and restaurateur Hanne Blank is fascinated by food writer M.F.K. Fisher, who represented “style and self-assurance” and “sensual, unpretentious worldliness.” Blank continues: “Calm assertion is nine tenths of authority. Emotion is more potent without melodrama, or even exclamation points.” Justin Vivian Bond focuses on supermodel Karen Graham, the advertising face of Estée Lauder, to explore her own identity as “a small-town transperson…sure that what I wanted was to escape into a world of glamour and elegance, taste and refinement.” Other contributions include Rick Moody on singer Karen Dalton, musician Johanna Fateman on Andrea Dworkin, and novelist Kate Zambreno on Kathy Acker.
Blurring the line between biography and memoir, these essays consider the power of public personalities to illuminate one’s deepest sense of self.