Susie Bright: Interview

Monday, March 26, 2012

Susie Bright has been known for at least four decades for her work as a sex expert and feminist activist. Bright hosts "In Bed with Susie Bright," a weekly radio program through, where she addresses sexual politics and provides sexual advice to listeners who email their questions. Her memoir, Big Sex Little Death, focuses on Bright’s complicated and sometimes painful history, as she shares personal stories about her unhappy childhood, her abusive and unstable mother, and her years as a troubled teenage radical. TriQuarterly Online interviewed her about writing her memoir and staying politically active, using email correspondence (at Bright's request).


TriQuarterly Online: How were you able to choose the specific stories from various stages of your journey that you wanted to share?

Susie Bright: I started with my high school radical underground days, because I’d never written about that before and it felt like a big secret history that had to be unearthed. I started with the stabbing because I felt like if I could write that well, I could do anything.

TQO: Many of them were so detailed, especially the memories from your childhood. Did you record a lot of your experiences while living them, or was there more mental recollection involved in compiling this work?

SB: It’s funny you say that, because I think my memory is terrible. Certain moments just hold your imagination forever. I can tell you something in detail that took place for five minutes when I was seven, but I certainly don’t remember what happened the next hour, day, week.

When you write a memoir, you tend to immerse yourself in the music, photos, ephemera of the times you’re recalling. I found those things, even making meals I remembered from my childhood kitchen, would just bring out all kinds of lost detail.

TQO: What were some of the challenges you faced while recounting the story of your life?

SB: Coming out of my writing room and rejoining the present moment. I’d get so lost. Sometimes the chapters were so sad or stinging, it was like reliving them. There’s no way around it that writing is a little bit like being your own therapist, dog, and executioner.

TQO: In the preface of your book you inform the reader, “I was motivated, always, from the sting of social injustice—the cry of ‘That isn’t fair!’ gets a lot more impulsive behavior from me than I want to get off.” During the second-wave feminist movement, these two concepts are tied directly together. How are the concepts intertwined for you today?

SB: I am still motivated more by outrage than just about anything else. I really need to calm the fuck down. Quaaludes were probably made to temper someone like me.

TQO: I, too, am the product of fiercely radical parents, so I am really interested in the description of your parents’ unshockability in the book. You tell the reader: “They were brainiacs; they were language, poetry, and music fiends; they took enormous pleasure in big ideas and the power of word. They were literary sensualists.” I wonder if you felt their radicalness bestowed upon you a certain wild freedom.

SB: Oh good grief, no. My mom was liberal politically, very much so, but in her childrearing and discipline attitudes, in our daily life, she was very traditional, very strict. We wore gloves to church. We cleaned our house from top to bottom every week. I was punished for slight infractions. She wasn’t lying around in a hammock smoking pot; she was working from dawn to dusk and then came home exhausted. There was no social life.

TQO: Do radical parents pass on radical DNA to progeny, and have you ever sensed your own daughter trying to outradical you?

SB: Remember that I moved in with my father when I was fourteen. He did have a social life; he had a more comfortable professor’s life . . . no worrying about groceries; he owned his own house, he had career security. He went to parties and had friends and a love life; he introduced me to a lot of culture, movies, books, music—that was great. But he was also a workaholic and very disciplined about his scholarly work; it meant everything to him.

I think I got a lot of “the work ethic” from both my parents and their sense of fairness and integrity.

My daughter? I don’t think we compete that way. She’s into all kinds of things I know little about, but it’s not that one of us is more “radical” than the other. I don’t compete with her in that fashion. I also think she has tremendous compassion and sense of justice . . . but gosh, who doesn’t, if you haven’t been locked in some gilded cage?

TQO: It was so fascinating to read this memoir against the backdrop of the recent protests against Wall Street. As a young woman you lament: “Why had people formulated revolution so long ago, yet nothing, nothing had changed?” Later you state, “I felt like we were swimming against a tide of apathy.” How do you perceive this in light of the Occupy movements all across the country and world? Also, what are some other ways in which you see the revolution being continued today?

SB: Well, all the original activists of the Occupy movement have been screaming their lungs out for years, it’s just the times have caught up with them. The pinkos, the anarchists, the punks, the anticapitalists, the workers’ rights movement, those who’ve been the brunt of racism, sexism, etc. ,etc.—we never go away; we just go through some really depressing periods when you feel like apathy is going to do you in. I felt like that during the entire Reagan administration. “Seize the Time” is really the thing we all have to have tattooed on our asses, if we’re in for the long haul . . .

TQO: Who would Susie Bright crown as today’s George Putnam and why?

SB: Oh, Rush Limbaugh, very much so. I’m sure he aspired to be Putnam in his early work.

TQO: In this story, you really portray your mother as a perpetual wanderer whose wandering spirit was bequeathed to you. By the end of the book the reader senses that Santa Cruz is home base for you and a bit of the transience has faded. Is that an accurate perception, and how has that affected your writing?

SB: Yes, I am surprised that I settled down in one place for more than a year or two. My mom was still making one last move when she was in her seventies! I think my mother’s constant migration wasn’t because she was some dancing fey gypsy, but came out of poverty, fear, each biting each other’s tail. She came from people who’d lived all their lives in one place, Ireland, then were forced out. Then they homestead, live for decades in one place in North Dakota, and the bank forecloses on their farm. Sound familiar? The cycle of homelessness, of being on the run, is really hard to break. But everyone loves a place to come home to.

TQO: About On Our Backs magazine you state, “The premise of On Our Backs was going to be that lesbians were not celibates-in-waiting-for-the-revolution, or coldly distinct planets. We were alive to sex and adventure and being every kind of queer we could be.” What is the equivalent now of OOB, or if none exists, what queer publication makes you the most excited?

SB: Equivalent to OOB? Nothing. Fucking nothing. I show that magazine to people today and their mouths drop open. It is still ahead of its time.

The magazine world really isn’t what it used to be. I am usually reading blogs or listening to podcasts or audiobooks or reading paper books or going to live events. I follow all the quick-witted militant queer and feminist bloggers, of course.

I should tell you something but my mind always goes blank at moments like this. You know one blog I follow religiously these days?

TQO: One of my favorite vignettes in the book is when you are working at the feminist vibrator store and the two nuns who have been in love for twenty years walk in. You imply that it’s hard to imagine being with someone for so long. What are the sexual secrets for relational longevity?

SB: What they told me at the time: “We just love each other so much.” It really is just that. You can’t bottle it.

TQO: How and why did you choose to end Big Sex Little Death where you did? Was ending the story something you struggled with as an author, or did it come about rather organically?

SB: You’ll laugh, but one night I was wondering aloud this very question, “How will I end this giant elephant?” and my daughter interrupted: “You’re going to stop it when I am born.” I was so relieved someone told me what to do!

It is hard to know where to stop, although you know when to stop when you find yourself accidentally rewriting chapters you’ve already completed.

I find that I need a good twenty years’ hindsight to figure out how to write something with any psychological depth. Look forward to part 2 as I crawl into my coffin . . .