‘Love and Trouble’: Claire Dederer’s Midlife Take On Sex And Self-Perception

By Nicole Brodeur The Seattle Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Nicole Brodeur takes a look at Claire Dederers new book "Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning." As Brodeur points out, "it is not the wholly affectionate, self-deprecating memoir that "Poser" was. It is more in touch with Dederer's darker side, exploring nascent sexuality, victimization, self-empowerment and Dederer's "compulsive" need for male approval."

The Seattle Times

Three things happened to spur Claire Dederer to write what would become her new book, "Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning."

First, she unearthed a stash of diaries from her younger years, which forced the best-sellingauthor, wife and "above-average" mother to size up the young girl she had once been.

So who was she? I asked Dederer recently.

"A pirate wench," she said.

She traced the start of that behavior to one night when she was 13, looking at the summer stars from a sleeping bag spread out on the grass near her mother's house. A man, a friend of her mother's boyfriend, slipped in beside her and pressed himself, repeatedly, against her thigh.

Years later, after high-school and college relationships, marriage and two children, Dederer went to a literary event where a famous, older author kissed her. It made her angry, but it also stirred up years of darkness, teen passion, longing and loneliness.

Was she still "a horrible girl"? Or was she simply a product of the 1970s, when, she writes, young girls were sexualized by a culture that, at the same time, urged their parents to go off in search of their own bliss?

"I look at the question of my teen sexuality from all these angles, and at the end of the book, there are two answers," said Dederer.

"One is, I did it because it felt good and it made me feel better," she said. "And the other answer is, I did it because I was trying to manage my relationship to men in the world. Both those things are true."

The questions vexed Dederer for years, and, for a brief spell, brought on depression.

But they also inspired some of her bravest writing, no small thing, considering the success of Dederer's New York Times best-selling debut, "Poser: A Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses," a loving, smart look at love and parenting.

"Love and Trouble" is still funny and honest as it recounts how Dederer broke up with her boyfriend after learning to give herself an orgasm, and how she knew Bruce Barcott would be her husband from the way he took her hand one night at the Mercer Arena.

But it is not the wholly affectionate, self-deprecating memoir that "Poser" was. It is more in touch with Dederer's darker side, exploring nascent sexuality, victimization, self-empowerment and Dederer's "compulsive" need for male approval.

"My character wants to be wanted and wants to be affirmed through other people's desire," Dederer said. "And that has to do with real midlife despair. The death of beauty and the death of fertility. My whole youth was focused on being desired by others and my gosh, it's coming to a close."

"Love and Trouble" isn't so much a series of sexual events as Dederer gathering string on her emotional, feminist and maternal makeup. She had to go back to who she was to figure out the person she has become, and whether she had changed at all.

But the May 9 release of the book had her a tad on edge. It includes some things that don't feel embarrassing so much, more like standing naked in town square. Her entire sexual history. A rape fantasy.

"There is ultimately, at the end of the book, the question: Why was I a gigantic slut?" Dederer said. "The book is about self-perception, and that story about hypersexuality is one that I have been telling myself my whole life. I see every question as a sex question because that was the only answer I had."

She goes back to that night in the sleeping bag, an experience that, in retrospect, was much bigger than she allowed herself to believe.

"I was getting at the heart of where the depression came from, and I chased it all the way back to this childhood thing that happened," she said. "It didn't seem like a big deal to me, and all my friends had a 'no big deal' thing.

"The guiding image for me was this idea that all across America, there were 'no big things' happening to girls who didn't know it at the time and didn't know how to talk about it."

In mid-1970s American culture, sexualizing young girls was no big deal. Think Brooke Shields in "Pretty Baby," Mariel Hemingway in "Manhattan," Lisanne Falk on the cover of Foreigner's "Head Games."

"It was all so normal," Dederer said. "It was part of the new idea of sexual freedom, but it overstepped."

And it was happening while "Me Generation" parents were being told to go off and find themselves.

"Kids were free to roam," Dederer said. "I grew up in this weird moment when little girls were being sexualized, and little girls were being unsupervised, and, as I say in the book, ˜You do the (expletive) math.'"

It makes sense, then, that the book started as a letter to director Roman Polanski, who in 1977 was arrested and charged with the rape of a 13-year-old model. He pleaded guilty to statutory rape, but fled to Paris before sentencing.

(Dederer wishes it was Polanski instead of herself reading the audio version of the book. "That way, I know he would have to read every word.")

Women everywhere have their own version of that story, Dederer said.

She recalled the days after Donald Trump's "grope tape," when writer Kelly Oxford took to Twitter to ask: "Women: tweet me your first assaults." In the course of a single evening, a million women responded.

"It is what I had been writing about for five years," Dederer said.

The subject required her to dig deep and swim in a lake of difficult memories and self-loathing, so Dederer escaped by playing with form.

"I would be writing a good memoir scene and then sneaking off and having an affair with all these goofy forms," she said. "Taking this sad sack, desperate, uncomfortable material and entertaining myself by writing in the second person, or as a map."

Hence the chapter, "How To Have Sex with Your Husband of Fifteen Years" ("Never mind that you haven't brushed your teeth, or that you are wearing the tatty underpants you bought at Bartell Drugs seven years ago ... ").

Another, called "A is for Acid: An Oberlin Abecidarium," covers her college experience, from acid to Zinn (as in Howard).

"And at the end, I had this earnest memoir and this hodgepodge collection of goofy play pieces."

Dederer didn't feel professional pressure to follow the same success as her first book, "Poser." She wasn't looking for a big sale.

"I felt a need to write a better book," she said, "and be more ambitious artistically." She is also asking readers to do more work, and make time and style jumps, while she never overtly explains the themes of the book or comes to a conclusion.

"There's no resolution," Dederer said. "But I do think that, as a middle-aged character, I grow to have more compassion for myself.

"We all do that," she said. "But for me, it was hard-fought."

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