My big, fat, hip wedding
Judging by two memoirs last year by David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, the greatest challenge facing the New York memoir writer these days is getting used to a life that is relatively normal. Both authors have made careers of remembering the various ways that normalcy seemed exotic to them back when they were living hellish, if hilarious, lives in families that ranged from the eccentric to the criminally negligent. But now that their lives are closer to what they longed for, is it possible that normal is becoming the new hip?
What Sedaris and Burroughs have accomplished for dysfunctional gays, Susan Jane Gilman may be doing for tortured heterosexual feminists and second-generation hipsters in Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress: Tales of Growing Up Groovy and Clueless. Gilman grew up in the Upper West Side of New York, where whites were a very visible minority. Her parents were vaguely Jewish counterculture types who drifted from communes to transcendental-meditation centers, though they seem to have had enough common sense to drift just as effortlessly out of them. Gilman, however, had a geeky, girly streak that was her undoing in this neighborhood.
While kids in suburbs of the time were longing for lives more like the drug-addled heroine of Go Ask Alice, Gilman was longing for tutus, frothy communion dresses and the lead in the school nativity play.
Persecuted daily for being overweight and for her freak-down-the-block-status, Gilman got through life via a series of reparative fantasies. Once in a while, they came true.
Like many teenage girls, she had a crush on Mick Jagger, and she even spent an evening stalking him while he was in New York for a concert. But, unlike most teenage girls, she actually found herself face to face with him at a dinner party hosted by parents of a friend. At the end of the evening, she was even the recipient of two compliments from him. One was overheard: “That girl in the kitchen, the one who’s not your daughter … she’s charming.” And one much later in the evening while they were watching Saturday Night Live together: “Do you know you’ve got the biggest titties out of all the girls here?”
As Gilman points out, in a short story, this would be the moment where she’d realize that the idol of her dreams was in fact a lewd creep. “I simply stood there astonished. For one moment, my insecurity and self-loathing, my bickering parents, my loneliness and fear, all melted away. I looked at Mick, and I beamed. I said simply, ‘Thank You.’”
Lest one imagines that Gilman goes on to become Ann Coulter, or some comparable conservative bombshell, she does end up following more or less in her parents’ footsteps. As a freelance journalist, she has an eclectic career that includes contributions to Ms., Bust and The New York Jewish Weekly. She’s also the author of Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a SmartMouth Goddess, a book of advice for young feminists. Although she does have a comic tic that can make her sound like she is unconsciously auditioning for the job now left open by Dave Barry, she manages just as often to be authentically funny and warmhearted.
She also has a knack for spinning the New York hipster world in a way that makes it out to be as parochial as any other community. The title essay is about the tribulations of getting married in her groovy family. Ditching her parents’ dream of an interfaith barbecue at a Southern roadhouse, Gilman eventually opts for the traditional wedding, based mostly on the discovery of what an Oleg Cassini dress can do for those “big titties.” In the end, however, the traditional is no more available to her than it ever was. Independence and maturity, however, seem to be a bit more within her reach.