Naked in the Promised Land
By Lillian Faderman
Houghton Mifflin, 356 pp., $26
March is Women's History Month, and the theme this year is "Women Pioneering the Future." Consider, then, the "pioneer" Lillian Faderman, because the "future" is now.
In 1967, Fresno State College was "two hundred miles from the nearest bagel or Ingmar Bergman movie or major library." Now, it's California State University, Fresno, past hotbed of student political activity, past outpost of women's lib, and present post of Faderman, who teaches creative writing and literature.
In 1967, Faderman's specialty was Victorian literature. Now, it's women's studies, multiethnic studies, and gay and lesbian studies, programs she established at Fresno State and disciplines she based books on when the idea of such programs and such books was unheard of.
And in 1967, Faderman was a minority faculty member: a woman. Now, she's past chair of that school's English department and past dean of its School of Humanities, positions that helped her draw top-drawer women Ph.D.s and helped her put Fresno on the academic map.
But Faderman wasn't always Lillian. As she describes in Naked in the Promised Land, she was "Lilly" when she was 5 and in the Bronx; "Lilly the Kid" when she was 12 and in East Los Angeles at the storefront Theatre Arts Studio; "Lil" when she was 15 and at L.A.'s Geller Theatre and School of Dramatic Arts; "Diamond Lil" when she was best friends with "Simone Deardon" (née Sonya Dubinsky); "a pachuca gang girl" when she squeezed into a pair of capri pants in high school; "Ginger Frost" when she was a 10th-grader doing "figure" photography to pay for a nose job; "Gigi Frost" when she was 16 and pawed over by a silent film star in a mansion once owned by Harry Houdini; "Lil Foster" when she turned down a "hand job" proposed by a "portly, pockmarked, gap-toothed" but "powerful" agent named Mel; "Arlene Knopfelmacher" (born 1934, according to a battered birth certificate) when she entered her first Sunset Strip gay bar; just "Gigi" when she met "the hottest butch in town" (a nasty piece of work named Jan); "Lil" (again) when, age 17, she married a gay, alcoholic child psychologist named Mark (age 34), who abandoned her in Mexico; "Gigi Frost" (again) when she went back to being a pinup (to pay for college); "The Bubble Bath Girl" at Big Al's Hotsy Totsy Club when she was a student at Berkeley and supporting her girlfriend "Sabina D'Or" (née Shirley Ann Goldstein, an obsessive-compulsive deadbeat); "Mink Frost" when she worked with "Boston's Blond Bombshell Miss Bathsheba," "The Sexy Sultry Satana," "The Fan-tastic Miss Brandy Devine," "The Electrifying Electra," and Mara Karrara ("The Queen of South American Burlesque") at the President Follies in San Francisco; and "Lillian," finally, when she got her undergraduate degree from Berkeley in 1962 and her Ph.D. four years later, "a girl [!]," according to her adviser, "who did the best graduate oral exam in the history of the UCLA English Department." "Mommy" is what Avrom, Faderman's son by artificial insemination (when she was 34), calls her today. "Mama Phyllis" is what Avrom calls Faderman's "life partner."
And what a life before the above mess even got started: a borderline psychotic for a mother, who fled Latvia for the promised land (the Bronx), who lost her family (save a sister) in the Holocaust, and who raised her "Lee-lee" on movies and torch songs; a father, who had Lillian's mother on a string and who refused to acknowledge he had a daughter; an aunt, who talked mother and daughter into moving to Los Angeles, another promised land; a widowed landlady in crummy East L.A., who kept human eyeballs in a row of glass jars in the living room (gift from her dead husband, "My Marty," an eye doctor); a string of suitors, one, a Mr. Mann (!), who had his eyes on mother but his hands all over daughter, and another, who married Miss Faderman. (Never mind the hole in his head, product of time spent in a mental institution.)
Lillian Faderman's lucky to be in one piece. And who can fault her for going mushy on us -- when she'd been one tough likable cookie for a good 30-plus years -- in the final few pages of this remarkable memoir by one remarkable woman? She's due some TLC. One question: Her mother's name's what?