Elizabeth Hayt’s I’m No Saint kicks off with the author going down on her bridesmaid the night before her wedding.
Bet that got someone’s attention. Woo-hoo!
Ms. Hayt must believe that any writer who begins a book with whimsical lesbianism, infidelity and cunnilingus deserves decent book sales and kudos for being brazen and honest. (This reviewer is hoping to reel readers in for 800 words—did I mention that she performed the act in her childhood bedroom?) The impulse actually isn’t surprising. A book about growing up, getting married, having a child, divorcing early, dating around, having sex, doing drugs—the basic and ordinary stuff of life—desperately needs something new and shocking on page 1 to justify the publisher’s decision to stick the whole thing between hard covers. So without a particularly original story to tell or a particularly elegant command of the language, Ms. Hayt—like many writers before her—has produced an ostentatiously frank car-wreck memoir, so called because it invites irresistible rubbernecking and, inevitably, a book deal.
Her honesty is a pose. She’s like the high-school girl who sheepishly “admits” that she loves football to a group of guys whose girlfriends are demanding that they turn off the Giants game and switch to the John Hughes marathon: One suspects she doesn’t really love football. She might understand the rules and know the players’ names, but she doesn’t totally relish the brutish spectacle. She just wants the boys to notice her.
Ms. Hayt wants to be noticed. And she’s also trying to appeal to women who long to hear about other women who regret their decisions, who are conflicted about love and marriage, who are just dying for really good sex.
Throughout her tale of growing up with dysfunctional parents in Great Neck, marrying her college sweetheart and painfully pursuing a career in writing, one doesn’t doubt that Ms. Hayt loves sex, resents motherhood, or faces life’s problems with a sympathetically familiar mixture of pluck and heartache. But because (I repeat) we’ve heard this story again and again, she feels she has to do some rhetorical kegstands to bust through the memoir malaise: She uses words like “cock” and “cooch,” sometimes in the same sentence (“I preferred cock to cooch”); she describes her post-divorce sex life in blandly graphic language (“Penetration required gentle pushing”); she treats her son like an annoyingly overlarge piece of furniture (“Bad enough I was a mother who chafed easily”) in the name of oppressed moms everywhere.
Her intentions are transparent, and almost everything backfires. Even the sex scenes fall flat, and you end up feeling sorry that the son must endure the mother’s self-absorption. It could so have easily gone the other way, but Ms. Hayt is intent on being a tough, unique woman rather than a thoughtful or funny writer.
In a recent smart book (with a loathsome title), Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, Ariel Levy writes: “There is a widespread assumption that simply because my generation of women has the good fortune to live in a world touched by the feminist movement, that means everything we do is magically imbued with its agenda. It doesn’t work that way. ‘Raunchy’ and ‘liberated’ are not synonyms.” In her quest to realize her destiny as a modern woman rather than a housebound hausfrau, Ms. Hayt finds herself in the same nebulous, seductive territory that Ms. Levy describes: Ms. Hayt confuses explicit language with real freedom, and a crass, almost masculine sensibility with a candid, feminist message.
And yet there’s one episode in I’m No Saint that works: Ms. Hayt’s mechanical, cliché-free portrayal of her date rape at age 13. She wants to say no, but she doesn’t: “Eventually the deed was going to go down, so what was the goddamn big deal anyway?” In effect, she draws an illuminating and disturbing parallel between the way sex is portrayed to young girls (as if virginity were something girls protect and then relinquish, something boys pursue and then take) and the process of rape (something is violated and taken). To the teenaged Elizabeth Hayt, succumbing to date rape felt wrong, but not all that different from losing the virginity she’d been taught would be stolen anyway. The whole scene is only about four pages long.
Date rape may have had something to do with Ms. Hayt’s screwed-up love life and depression, but no more than her crappy relationship with her parents, or her drug problem, or her long-standing feelings of insecurity—I’m No Saint is a catalog of women’s woes. We like to think that surviving a specific trauma makes us stronger, and so we’d like to think that recovering from rape in particular could have helped Ms. Hayt to achieve some kind of stability. But we never hear about the date rape again—she has other things to deal with, including cocaine addiction, sobriety, new men, old men, being a better mom, anorexia, plastic surgery and starting to write for The New York Times. What she demonstrates is that some women just get over date rape like they get over everything else. It’s the one truth in I’m No Saint that might actually come as a shock.
Suzy Hansen is a senior editor at The Observer.