Catherine Hollis

For LGBTQ+ people coming of age in the 1970s and ’80s, there were often no words for the experience of discovering one’s sexuality or gender, and usually no family support—much less legal protections—to nurture an adolescent’s emerging identities. A person muddled through and, with any luck, found community in adulthood, while the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic often compounded the traumas they incurred.

In her exquisite memoir, This Body I Wore, poet Diana Goetsch harnesses the power of language to describe truths that went unspoken for too long. Goetsch’s skill as a poet informs the beauty of her prose as she recounts the decades she spent evolving alongside the trans community, until her own late-in-life transition in her 50s. As the language used by and about trans people changed over time, so too did Goetsch’s understanding of her own identity.

This Body I Wore spans Goetsch’s abusive childhood on Long Island, her entrallment with the beauty of women as she grew up, confusing sexual encounters she had in college, and her professional work as a teacher, both for privileged students at Stuyvesant High School in New York City and for incarcerated youth. Goetsch’s talent for teaching rests in her deep compassion for her students and her sense that finding the right words, for the students as well as for herself, is the key to unlocking one’s identity.

I was utterly riveted by the narrative Goetsch crafts and was reminded of many now-lost friends and acquaintances from my own college years in New York in the 1980s. Goetsch’s memoir, like Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show, offers a significant contribution to the documentation of LGBTQ+ history and culture in New York during that era. But perhaps more importantly, the hard-won wisdom contained in This Body I Wore offers a new generation of trans and nonbinary youth a guiding hand from a previous generation.

In her exquisite memoir, poet Diana Goetsch harnesses the power of language to describe the evolution of her identity and her late-in-life transition.

Joining recent memoirs by Elissa Washuta and Terese Mailhot, Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe’s Red Paint illuminates the stories and experiences of Indigenous women from the Pacific Northwest for a 21st-century audience. Red Paint offers a poetic narrative of trauma and healing through ancestral rites and punk rock, both of which prove to be potent medicine during LaPointe’s excavation of family legacy and matrilineal power.

Named for her great grandmother, Violet taqʷšəblu Hilbert, LaPointe bears not only her relative’s Skagit name but also the strengths and wounds of her maternal line. Haunted by childhood sexual abuse and periods of teenage homelessness, LaPointe initially found solace and community in the punk scene. But as she came to recognize her trauma as a sickness of the spirit, LaPointe leaned into the Lushootseed language and the curative practices of five generations of her Coast Salish ancestors.

A large part of LaPointe’s healing involved recovering and reimagining the life stories of the women she’s descended from, including Comptia Koholowish, a Chinook woman who witnessed the death by smallpox of her entire community in the early 1900s. Aunt Susie, a medicine worker and storyteller in the early 20th century, is another powerful woman whose words and example come to life in Red Paint.

The wearing of red paint is a ceremonial act for the Coast Salish people, identifying the bearer as a healer. LaPointe’s quest to wear the red paint of her ancestors in the context of her own life as a poet and performer integrates the twin strands, past and present, of this stunning memoir. For LaPointe, restoring the self to health is entwined with restoring Native women’s voices that have been erased throughout history. She uses her own luminescent voice to tell their stories, wielding language, words, ritual and community as tools of contemporary and ancestral healing.

With Red Paint, Sasha LaPointe offers a poetic narrative of trauma and healing through ancestral rites and punk rock.

Mountaineering is healing. This is a secret climbers know—that despite the risks of injury, frostbite or even death, climbing high mountains is a peculiar balm for the soul. There’s something about being forced into the present moment, step by step, that helps ease the mind of its burdens.

Silvia Vasquez-Lavado, the first Peruvian woman to summit Mt. Everest, understands this truth. Her memoir, In the Shadow of the Mountain: A Memoir of Courage, is a brilliant assessment of the power of high altitudes to heal trauma. Beautifully structured in back-and-forth chapters, the memoir travels between Vasquez-Lavado’s childhood in the civil strife of 1970s Peru to her ultimately successful attempt to complete the Seven Summits, the Earth’s highest mountains.

Unlike mountaineering memoirs that celebrate the ego of the individual, usually male, climber, Vasquez-Lavado’s story is intimately collaborative and feminist. This is most true when she brings a group of young women from Nepal and America who have survived sex trafficking and other sexual violence to Everest’s base camp. Their travels as a group, and their individual stories, are the emotional heart of this memoir. When Vasquez-Lavado continues without them to Everest’s summit—Chomolungma, or the Great Mother—her triumph at the mountain’s peak is merely a bonus. The real journey is these women's path toward healing. 

Vasquez-Lavado’s own journey from horrific childhood sexual abuse through immigration to the U.S. and professional success in San Francisco’s first (and second) dot-com booms mirrors her trip up the mountain. In both worlds, the body holds trauma and has the power to release it, but the process is arduous and filled with potential setbacks. But as Vasquez-Lavado learns, the reward for persistence is the unimaginable beauty of dawn lighting up the roof of the world, and the exhilaration of releasing shame.

Read more: Silvia Vasquez-Lavado narrates the audiobook for ‘In the Shadow of the Mountain.’

Unlike mountaineering memoirs that celebrate the ego of the individual climber, Silvia Vasquez-Lavado’s story is intimately collaborative.

Reading Jami Attenberg is like hanging out with a friend who encourages you—through their own example—to be your messy, vibrant, glorious self. Attenberg’s voice is equal parts wise auntie and wise-ass, sincere and profane, whether on social media or in any of her seven increasingly well-received novels (most recently, All This Could Be Yours in 2019). With I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home, Attenberg turns to memoir to explore the hustle and chutzpah with which she has built a successful career as a working writer.

Writing isn’t magic, but it can do magical things. The preface to I Came All This Way to Meet You reminds us of this in an inspiring manifesto about the power of committing to the work of writing. Creating a life of travel and work, rather than a life more domestic and rooted, requires creativity and grit, especially as we age, and especially for women. For Attenberg, in lieu of traditional stability, writing became the portable home she always returned to.

Attenberg’s travels around the country to promote her books form the backbone of this book, which is written as a series of short, interlinked essays that touch on themes of work, solitude, friendship, heartbreak, risk and itinerancy. A stunning scene in a chapel constructed out of bones in Portugal exemplifies the beauty and peril of the writer’s life. Communing with the dead offers the writer stories and companionship; connecting with the living can be far more difficult.

Attenberg’s memoir ends in New Orleans, that magical city of eccentricity and art, where she has only recently created a home for herself and her dog, Sid. The “ultimate privilege,” Attenberg finds, is to have a house she can open up to visiting friends, returning the favor from her own periods of wandering. Attenberg extends this hospitality to her readers, too, as she invites us into this funny, perceptive portrait of a life well-lived.

I Came All This Way to Meet You’ makes for a relaxing audiobook. Read our review.

Jami Attenberg’s voice is equal parts wise auntie and wise-ass as she explores the hustle and chutzpah with which she built her successful writing career.

In The Right to Sex, Amia Srinivasan, a professor of social and political theory at All Souls College at the University of Oxford, engages with some of the most complex hot-button cultural issues to emerge around sex and consent in the 21st century. With intelligence and clarity, Srinivasan unpacks the moral and philosophical underpinnings of such topics as false rape accusations, pornography and teacher-student relationships, making her book an invaluable companion for readers interested in nuanced analysis rather than hasty clickbait. 

The book emerged from Srinivasan’s 2018 essay “The Right to Sex,” which considered the case of Elliot Rodger, the killer whose deadly rampage at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2014 was supposedly motivated by his status as an “incel,” or involuntary celibate. Rodger’s assumption that he was somehow “owed” sex from women has proven to be a toxic influence on some social media platforms. In considering this case, Srinivasan moves her argument in unexpected directions to ask ever larger and harder philosophical questions: While there is no “right” to demand sex from other people, how should we think about desirability as a concept? Why are some bodies seen as desirable and others aren’t? How is desirability a political concept, shaped by popular culture?

In other essays, Srinivasan provides a helpful survey of the history of feminist responses to pornography, which range widely from the anti-porn feminism of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon in the 1970s and ’80s to the more pro-sex pleasure activists of the 1990s. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Srinivasan opens up these issues beyond their original contexts to engage with them in a contemporary setting. To this end, Srinivasan’s classroom of undergraduates at Oxford becomes a kind of testing ground for how young people think about pornography and the influence it has had on them as the first fully digital generation.

With articulate precision, Srinivasan’s timely book offers readers a lucid and compelling guide to thinking philosophically about sex and power.

Amia Srinivasan’s book about sex and consent is invaluable for readers interested in intelligent, clear and nuanced analysis rather than hasty clickbait.

This engrossing new history of American women’s fight to gain autonomy over their sexuality and reproductive choices has a somewhat misleading title: The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age. While Anthony Comstock, the “anti-vice” crusader and U.S. postal inspector, was without a doubt a man who hated women, his story is ultimately less significant than those of the brave women who stood up to him at the dawn of the 20th century.

Comstock’s drive to root out and destroy materials that he considered pornographic led to the passing of the Comstock Act in 1873, which made it illegal to mail “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” materials through the U.S. Postal Service. In his role as postal inspector, and inspired by a mania for “purity,” he defined pamphlets and books about contraception and family planning as “obscene” and subsequently hounded, prosecuted and even drove to suicide people who disseminated such information.

Bestselling author Amy Sohn vividly brings to life the activists who opposed Comstock's efforts in The Man Who Hated Women. Suffragist Victoria C. Woodhull, free love advocate Angela Heywood, spiritualist Ida C. Craddock, abortionist Madame Restell, anarchist Emma Goldman and birth control defender Margaret Sanger are just a few who doggedly fought against the Comstock laws in order to bring information about sex and birth control to American women at the turn of the century.

Sohn has unearthed a wealth of vivid historic detail about these women’s resistance to Comstock’s censorship. Dr. Sara Chase, for example, not only sued Comstock for damaging her medical practice but named the vaginal syringe she sold to women for contraceptive douching the “Comstock syringe.” Craddock, who believed that sex was a deeply spiritual act, fought for the rights of Egyptian belly dancers to perform the “hoochie-coochie.”

Sohn places these mostly forgotten “sex radicals” at the center of the history of the women’s rights movement. That this battle continues in our own time makes The Man Who Hated Women all the more important and enlightening.

Amy Sohn vividly brings to life the activists who fought for American women’s right to information about sex and birth control at the dawn of the 20th century.

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