MOTHER BOUND by Jill Johnston


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Johnston (Lesbian Nation) analyzes her complex sexual/social development up through her early 30s--in a densely schematic memoir-cum-case-history: frequently fascinating, occasionally tiresome, rarely affecting. The most distinctive element in Johnston's background is brought forth at the start: her RN mother, devastated by the death of an idealized father, had an affair abroad with an older, cultured man, bore Jill secretly--and pretended, back in the US, to be a widow. ""My mother went back to work, I became my mother, and my mother became her father who would support me and her mother""--Jill's grandmother, who tended Jill while mother nursed at a N.Y. hotel. Thus: ""The man in my life was really my mother. . . the object of my longing."" At Catholic boarding school, tomboy Jill ""went right on being a boy,"" despite attempts to overcome her lesbian preference. And when her mother's lies were revealed, she found ""another mother, one who would deliver me from the curse of my own"": Jill's first serious romance. But she also sought her mythic father--in older-man liaisons; a failed dance career and unrequited passion drove her to pregnancy (""immediate proof of gender/role identity""); defying her unwed mother, she sought ""normalcy"" in marriage, had two kids, got divorced. And then, in the early-1960s bohemian art/dance world, critic Johnston again went looking for both ""the father principle in some guise"" and ""a new mother."" She found father-images in culture itself, in mentors (sculptor Mark di Suvero et al.). She found Mother in a beautiful dancer, while also defying Mother with her openly lesbian life. But a stormy triangle ensued (the dancer had a male lover too)--which made Johnston realize that she still hadn't resolved her identity problems, that ""I was not a proper half. I was condemned as a girl, and I would never succeed as a boy in a world I had to share with 'real boys.'"" So the book ends with Johnston ""going abroad to discover my actual father. . . . Only a father's daughter, or son, could function in a world governed by fathers."" Feminists may have mixed feelings about the intensely psychoanalytic approach here. Many readers will find the sex-role terminology wearying, sometimes confusing. But the serious, sincere grappling with tangled, layered impulses is impressive; the prose, when least analytical, is brisk, lucid, ironic; and the Soho scenery--with Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage among those passing through--adds a touch of rueful bohemian glitter.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Knopf