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Friday, October 31, 2003 | return to: news & features


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A life exposed: From student stripper to respected professor, lesbian historian bares her own secrets

by alexandra j. wall, staff writer

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When she was 16, Lillian Faderman had a nose job. But the similarities between her and her peers who also underwent this surgical rite end right there.

Faderman wasn't from Great Neck or Beverly Hills. She didn't have wealthy parents to foot the bill. She paid for most of it herself, with money she earned as a pinup model. Ditching school during the day, she was hanging out in seedy lesbian bars in the underworld of Los Angeles.

From these beginnings, Faderman, now 63, not only went on to earn a Ph.D. and become a professor at California State University at Fresno, but to pioneer the field of lesbian studies. An author of nine books about lesbian relationships throughout history, she has turned from academic writing to her own story.

Faderman will discuss her memoir, "Naked in the Promised Land," on Nov. 9 at the Contra Costa Jewish Book Festival in Walnut Creek.

"It often happens that you get to a certain age, and you think about your life and try to figure out how you became the person you are," she said in a telephone interview from her home in Fresno. "Obviously, I'm so different than that young person ... yet part of that person is in me, making up who I am."

The story of how she became who she is, is tied with her overwhelming desire to rescue her mother — and her constant belief that she was failing.

Faderman's mother, Mary, immigrated to the United States with Rae, her younger sister, from a shtetl in Latvia. It was the 1920s, and in many families such as hers, the eldest son was the one who was sent to America. But since the only boy in the family was disabled, the two sisters were sent instead, in the hopes they would find rich husbands and then send for the rest of their family. Faderman's mother was 18, and Rae had just turned 16.

They landed in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and like so many other Jewish women with few skills, they worked in the garment industry — more specifically, in the sweatshops.

From the beginning, Faderman seemed destined to be a survivor. During an eight-year period, Mary Faderman became pregnant three times by a man who refused to marry her. She aborted the first two pregnancies, at his request. The third time, she refused, and Lillian was born in 1940.

Unable to get her boyfriend to establish paternity, Faderman's mother was stuck. Her dreams of sending money back to Latvia to save her family vanished.

"My mother would come home from work exhausted, and say 'Rescue me from the shop.' And I would say 'How mommy? What should I do?' and she would say 'Become a movie actress.'" recalled Faderman. "When she said we were going to LA, where the movie stars are, I thought it was because she believed I could. My great obsession became that I had to rescue her."

Faderman remembers meeting her father once, right before they left for LA.

"She produced me, and said 'Lilly, say hello to your father.' So I said 'Hello father,' and he said 'I'm not your father,' and then he asked my mother, 'Why did you bring her here?' and walked off. Shortly after, we left for LA."

Mary Faderman and Rae didn't fare much better in Los Angeles. Still unmarried, they continued to work in the garment industry. Faderman's mother began experiencing psychotic episodes. She especially worried about her disabled brother, and her trauma centered on whether he was still alive. When she learned that he, as well as all her relatives in Europe, had disappeared, she was consumed with guilt. The stresses that prompted Mary's mental illness trapped her young daughter as well.

"Subconsciously, I thought that she didn't rescue her relatives but I would rescue her, and that lived with me for many years."

In the meantime, Faderman took up acting classes, which she loved — and not only because she developed her first "powerful" crush on the woman who ran the theater arts studio.

Also on the bright side, her mother married when Faderman was 14, which relieved her somewhat.

"It released me from rescuing her, but I still wanted to become an actress. I loved it, and I was fiercely serious about it because it was a sacred mission," she said.

Acting led to modeling, which earned her a real salary. About that time, she discovered the lesbian bar scene, which was totally underground and seedy at that time. Of course, Faderman was not even supposed to be entering these places. She was a minor, but it didn't faze her.

"I had very little serious supervision, as my mother didn't know how to maneuver in America," she said. "While she did support us, in many ways, I was the parent and was free to do as I wanted."

Faderman's first real relationship was with a woman who turned out to be a pimp. "I was really lost at that time," she said. She almost dropped out of school.

Depressed, she found help in a social worker who worked with juvenile delinquents.

"He saved my life," she said. "He said 'If you're going to be a lesbian, you won't get married and will have to support yourself. You have a choice; you can work like your mother did, or stay in school and find yourself a profession. He turned my life around."

But that didn't happen right away. Before she even graduated high school, she felt pressure from her mother and aunt, and so she married a gay man twice her age. The marriage lasted six months. Rae insisted they get a Jewish divorce, a process Faderman said she found "fascinating and medieval."

Faderman began studying at UCLA, but transferred to Berkeley to live with a new love. But this woman had psychological problems, and Faderman once again found herself in the role of rescuer.

At first, Faderman worked in the library, but that didn't earn her enough money. She became a cocktail waitress, but that took up too much of her time needed for studying. She answered an ad to be a chorus girl, but then realized the featured acts got paid much better. So she became a stripper at the San Francisco club, President's Follies, and led a completely secret life; she hid her sexual preference and her life as a student from her fellow strippers, her job from her fellow students, and her sexuality from her mother and aunt.

"I'd sit in the dressing room between the times I was on, and do my homework," she said. "They asked 'How come you're reading all the time?' and I said something like 'I just like it, I guess.' There was no way I could tell them I was a student; if it was discovered at Berkeley in those days, I imagine I would have been kicked out."

While Faderman could barely concentrate in high school, she found that in college, she loved learning.

"I didn't understand how ... you just have to pay attention and you're fine," she said. "Once I got it, it was delicious to me, the most delicious thing I could think of doing."

It wasn't until Faderman joined academia that her life became more ordinary. A professor of literature and creative writing, she has been with the same partner for almost 30 years, and together they raised a son, Avrom, who earned a Ph.D. from Stanford in his early 20s, and works at Oracle. She has written many books and earned quite a few academic awards.

But she could never talk to her mother and aunt about her sexuality. Even though they met her partner, Phyllis, they couldn't conceive that the two were more than roommates or friends. Hiding how she got pregnant, Faderman told them she got married but her husband took a job offer in Boston, and she wasn't going to leave her job to join him.

"I knew I couldn't tell them I would do it out of wedlock. She'd think I was repeating the pattern, and that she was responsible," she said. "It was important for me to have a child for her sake, and she got to see him for four years."

Faderman ends the book with her mother's death in 1979.

"She was the driving force behind everything I became," she said, finding irony in the fact that she earned a Ph.D. in English while her mother was practically illiterate.

Faderman's memoir is divided into three parts — as if she has three disparate identities. There is Lilly, the illegitimate child of her immigrant mother; Lil, the driven model, stripper and habitué of the lesbian underground; and Lillian, the mother, life partner and academic.

In revealing herself in this form, she said, "I was able to discover what the connection was."

Book fair highlights authors in Bay Area's

backyard, page 25a

"Naked in the Promised Land" by Lillian Faderman (356 pages, Houghton Mifflin Company, $26).

She will speak at the Contra Costa Book Festival 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 9, Contra Costa JCC, 2071 Tice Valley Blvd., Walnut Creek. $8. Information: (925) 938-7800 or http://www.ccjcc.org.


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