Sunday, January 23, 2005

Gilman: Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress


Childhood is a happy time. But seared in the memory of every adult is a terrifying birthday party clown, or a slip on the gym floor that marked you forever as a geek, or a zipper left down for the length of a prom, noticed by all but you. It is a rare book that can let us laugh at someone else's childhood disasters and let go of our own at the same time.

That book is Susan Jane Gilman's Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress. Reading it, you reel from one bout of helpless laughter to another. It is only afterward that you realize who you were laughing at.

Five-year-old Susan Gilman, nude, dances frantically for an artsy home movie with an equally pudgy boy-child in the chill dawn air of Silver Lake, "a summer colony founded by Socialists, people either too exhausted from manual labor or too unfamiliar with it to care much about landscaping." Six-year-old Susan convinces her teacher that her parents have agreed to let her be called Sapphire, in an attempt to upstage the show-and-tell of Albert, who brought in his brother's bong.

Susan Gilmore leads the kindergarten ballerina Mafia, going to school dressed in her tutu and tights despite the time it takes to use the toilet while wearing it. Jewish child at a Presbyterian school, ten-year-old Susan aspires to play the Virgin Mary, then shocks the choir-mistress by withdrawing becauses she's "not a virgin." Adolescent Susan yearns to meet Mick Jagger—but not like any groupie, waiting for him outside a club; Susan dreams of meeting him at a swanky dinner party where she will charm him.

In short, we meet Susan Gilman from the inside out, along with the hippie adults who surrounded her as a child, the patient editors who hired her straight out of college, the do-good liberal Congresswoman whose staff (including Susan) carry the real burden of her penny-pinching. We share with her the catharsis of visiting Auschwitz, the terror of moving to a country where English is a foreign language, the angst of whether to "out" herself as a heterosexual at a wedding ceremony for two women.

Susan-the-author helps us place her experiences in context: the ominous wall unit ("hideous, the Death Star of furniture") purchased by her parents in their efforts to avoid separation, the coffee-shop deli where she has her first "real paying job", the wonder and grittiness of growing up on the Upper West Side of New York City before it was gentrified.

The Susan Gilman we meet in this book teeters from one fringe position to another, and somehow always remains balanced. Her tale of growing up gives us hope for our own mismanaged lives. If Susan can do it, surely we can too. And if not, well, at least we can all share a good laugh about it.


Blogger samraat said...

4/03/2010 9:33 PM  

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