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This blog was featured on 08/24/2018
Documenting a Historical Movement Through Personal Memoir
Written by
She Writes
August 2018
Written by
She Writes
August 2018

Today's essay comes to us courtesy of Lise Weil, author of In Search of Pure Lust. Weil’s short fiction, essays, reviews, literary nonfiction, and translations have been published widely in journals in both Canada and the US. She currently lives in Montreal and spends summers in a cabin in the woods north of the city where she hosts annual retreats for women writers centered on dreamwork.

I did not set out to document a historical movement. I’m not a historian, and had I set myself such a task I would have felt terribly ill-equipped. What I set out to do, very simply and humbly, was to write about lesbian desire, to narrate scenes of lesbian desire from my own life. Why? Because lesbian desire had been the single most transformative force I had known (it was also, as I had to acknowledge as the scenes proliferated, sometimes the most destructive). I wanted to remember and record the utter exhilaration of it, desiring and being desired by a woman, how it opened up realms of possibility beyond anything I’d imagined—and also, how from the very start it was inseparable from my desire for a different world, a world with women at the center of it.

Then….story took over. I found myself wanting to explain how I came to desire women and for that I had to go back to the very beginning, to the seeds planted by my parents, my mother through her emotional absence and my father through his example.  I had to go back to my first big love, my first-grade teacher, and then to other women I had loved long before I ever came out. I had to go back to the shrink I saw three times a week in NYC trying to “get in touch with my feelings” so that I could be a better partner to my boyfriend. And I had to go back to the beautiful woman on the Staten Island Ferry who by declaring herself a lesbian made me realize I was one too. Before I knew it I was writing a memoir.

In 1976, when I did come out, I came out into a world that was all on fire—or so it seemed to me.  Lesbian desire was the pulsing center of this world. Everywhere you looked, women were assembling in places where only women assembled—and in most cases, for “women” you could read “lesbian.” We were all riding a giant wave of lust and love buoyed by the poets, songwriters, philosophers of the day who each in her own way was proclaiming the rightness and greatness of this love and lust. I had a lot of pleasure in writing these scenes – which were set in among other places a Holly Near concert in New York, a women’s spirituality conference on Staten Island, a women’s writing center in upstate New York, and the lesbian bars and restaurants and feminist bookstores of Boston.

But increasingly, there was also an elegiac quality to these descriptions. I wrote the book over a period of fifteen years, and if at the beginning of those years parts of the world I was describing still existed,  I was aware as I wrote that its traces were vanishing at an accelerating rate.  What I/we had thought was a new world we could count on to be there for generations to come was turning out to be a very finite era, now part of history. And what began as a writerly impulse to fill in scenes now became a historical impulse to provide period detail—so that generations to come could get a feel for the institutions we had created and the richness of our social and political lives.  In the interest of accuracy, that detail extended as well to our stumblings and failings as a movement (my own failures in love are amply documented as well), to the bitter squabbles and conflicts that so often tore us apart.

As I say, I did not set out to document a historical movement and I certainly made no attempt or claim to be comprehensive in my accounting. What I did was to write with a growing conviction that my personal story was part of a large collective story and therefore that the details of my story mattered, and to provide as much in the way of  textured backdrop to my own personal story as I could. So, even though it’s what I hoped for, it has been a surprise, and a wonderful one, to have readers describe the book as “a call to remembrance” and “a chronicle of a movement”—and even more, to have them thank me at readings, sometimes tearfully, for helping them to remember what they had almost forgotten and hoped never to forget.

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