PAPER DAUGHTER by Jill Johnston


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In Mother Bound (1983), Johnston recalled and analyzed her life up through the mid-1960s, to around age 35: her lack of a father; her skewed relationship with her mother; her attempts at conformity (marriage, children) despite lesbian leanings; her sexual role-confusion; her rebellion--including a problematic affair with a beautiful bisexual dancer; and her trendy involvements in the art/dance/Village Voice world. Despite these superficial moves toward autonomy, however, up until 1965 Johnston remained ""a kind of bystander to my life,"" subject to ""social and external"" directives, a ""dead person"" (alive only to ideas) with ""an unnegotiable identity theme."" And here, in an even more densely analytical, self-dramatizing memoir, she details how she responded to this untenable situation: ""Between '65 and '69 I lost my mind three times, furthering my resolve after each episode to strengthen my ego."" In her long periods of psychosis, Johnston felt ""airborne,"" heard voices, had an acute hysterical pregnancy; she surrendered to elaborate delusions about her unknown father and grandfather--involving Christ, Freud, LB J, English royalty, and (above all) French poet Guillaume Apollinaire. She spent chunks of time in Bellevue and St. Vincent's, became more or less addicted to Thorazine, devoted most of her time to sleeping--while continuing to cover the avant-garde scene for the Voice, in increasingly haywire pieces. Bolstered by her fantasies, by 1968 she ""turned into a fool or a dancing bear""--parading in male drag, cultivating the rich and famous, embracing the world of gay bars and quickie sex: ""Divorcing love from sex in relation to other women was invaluable to my becoming less (emotionally) dependent on the sex that had dominated me."" And this mind-journey ends with Johnston presumably on the verge of finding her true self in the writing of Lesbian Nation--an event that may not quite deserve the two-volume buildup that it's been given in this multi-volume ""Autobiography in Search of a Father."" Again, as in Mother Bound, Johnston's wrestlings with gender-roles can become verbose and wearisome. Her reconstruction of her psychosis often seems too neat to be true--with unconvincing romanticization (… la Laing) and anti-institutional rhetoric (…la Szasz). Still, though there's much less straightforward Village/art-scene atmosphere here (Rauschenberg and others make brief appearances), this has even more of the self-involved intensity that made Mother Bound intermittently fascinating, frequently exasperating.

Pub Date: April 22nd, 1985
Publisher: Knopf