Friday, August 12, 2022 Aug 12, 2022
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The Faux Pas

"When I could finally laugh, I managed to forgive myself for showing my awkward growing pains in public."
By Gwynne Shook |

It’s hard to believe that what I wrote caused all that flap. Today the book would go unnoticed, except as an unskilled first novel that promised better work to come. Remembering the experience, traumatic at the time but therapeutic in the long run, makes me feel both defeated and triumphant, and it serves as an interesting way to contrast eighteen years ago with now.

At the end of the Fifties, as far as 1 knew, the world had no shadows. It was composed solely of light. I’d lived in a genteel cocoon. Born and sheltered in Highland Park, an only child among loving adults, I’d moved from Gillon to Beverly, to Livingston, once as far afield as Preston Hollow, and then safely back to Beverly. After graduating from Hocka-day and Smith, I had danced at Slipper. Terps and Idlewild. Blithely I’d joined neighborhood clubs. Married to the right man. from two blocks away, I had borne a son and daughter, had Junior Leagued, had tennised, had golfed, had produced a couple of amateurish paintings and a dozen unevenly needlepointed pillows.

Happy as I was, something important seemed to be missing, so I’d taken an MA and a part-time teaching job at SMU. But these latest activities, properly dilettantish, had turned out to be too cheerful and respectable to supply the mysterious need.

And so. to escape the narrow confines of my own conventional experience, I had to create my novel and my main character. Louise Mallery. I gave her the facade of conservative North Dallas perfection and projected upon her an exaggerated load of hostility and yearning I had unconsciously harbored. Louise became the scapegoat for my rejection of gentility and lingering Victorianism. I imagined her as being repressed, narcissistic and self-defeating, not wicked. Cruelly I forced her to face the emptiness of her pretenses. As a bedroom actress. Louise hid her sexual incapacity, “but afterward.” I wrote, “the dishonesty would make her feel worse than ever. And she was never sure whether she’d convinced him or not. Gradually she’d lost the strength to put on a show: she acquiesced more and more genteely. The surface of their life had become as smooth and unruffled as that of a frozen lake.” As a mother Louise was too protective for true parental understanding: “You had to be constantly on the lookout. You brought your children here and the least you could do was shield them from harm.” As a friend Louise gave only competitiveness: “Sue had been her sorority sister and maid of honor. She and George made the most satisfactory running mates Louise had found. Sue had let herself get out of shape so she was no competition: George was stodgy but he could talk golf and he understood the amenities.” Worse, Louise ignorantly blamed her own neuroses on the violence of her first lover, the carelessness of her husband and the advances of a lonely lesbian.

Drawn into compelling hatred and pity for this fantasy woman, I began escaping to a spare room to sit at my typewriter and put together her story. Between trips to the children’s orthodontist and to the Safeway, I visualized her returning home from a posh spa to discover her husband involved with her trusted friend, and her teen-aged daughter falling in love with the worst possible person, the son of her despised college lover. My Louise was the kind of wife and mother who could damage everyone around her. but I was determined for her to grow up and work all this out: and with her character, she had a tough assignment. At times she became real; at times she lapsed into cari- cature: always she was disconcerting; but this was heady stuff for someone like me, and 1 slogged through it for a whole year, three hundred pages’ worth.

My working title was The Shadow in the House, which should have tipped me off to what was happening. But I had not yet learned that psychologists use the word shadow for the opposite part of the self that is censored from consciousness as being inferior, primitive and unadapted. In satirizing the foibles of my time and place 1 had enlarged the qualities I feared and repressed in myself, in order to hold them up for public ridicule. A self-punishing act. But ironically, self-punishment became beneficial; creating and damning Louise Mallery gave me a way to break an imprisoning mold I had to get out of. Dealing with my shadow, formerly unseen, made me confront my own particular kind of fakery; it vitalized me and enabled me to shoulder part of the social problems of my day.

But I knew none of this till later. During the writing, if I was recognizing and accepting my shadow-side or exorcizing my demons or liberating my libido. I was unaware. I called my secret enterprise “writing a novel” and delved no moredeeply than that.

When the year’s anguish ended, any professional would have known it was time to get reliable editorial advice, or at least to have family members read the manuscript, but 1 was too exhausted and dumb to communicate. Did I dimly fear they would talk me out of the whole endeavor and deprive me of the painful therapy? Anyway. 1 was tired of my spasm; my anger had subsided and I wanted all those sheets of paper out of the house. So I tied them up and mailed them to a literary agent.

The agent said, with gentlemanly shock, “It amazes me the kind of books you nice women write. Maybe you’d better use a pen name.”

“No,” I said. Something in me knew that the subterfuge would keep me acceptable to and therefore confined by my old world. It seemed unfair to hide my identity, but it also seemed unfair to involve my husband Jack’s name in my turgid girlie fantasies, so 1 used my maiden name.

After a while I received a contract from Frederick Fell Incorporated, a New York publisher. The agreement paid a fee for hard cover rights, plus ten percent for copies sold, and provided for a paperback edition to come out 12 to 18 months after the original. I had suggested two titles, Shadow in the House and April Came Late, but Fred Fell called these “as innocuous as a ladies’ tearoom” and insisted on One Touch of Ecstasy. To me this sounded like parody, or the name of cheap perfume. However, 1 lacked the courage to refuse, so I signed the contract, mailed it back and for several more months continued my untroubled suburban routine.

But then my peace was broken. Out of the blue. Fell distributed the novel to Dallas bookstores three months before its announced publication date. 1 had a call from Cokesbury. “We have a pre-publication shipment of books and want to run an ad tomorrow morning. Could you run down right now and autograph some copies’?”

“But the autograph party’s planned for later. Can’t you hold the books’?”

“No. Somebody’ll beat us to it. We have to put ’em out. We’ll have the party later but we hope you’ll come down today.”

Two hours later, driving south on St. Paul toward Cokesbury, I stopped behind a red light at Pacific and saw in the car to my right the smiling face of a lifetime friend with whom, in high school, I’d gone to my first Brookhollow dance.

“Congratulations!” he called as he rolled his window down. “I just heard your book’s in town. I’m on my way to get one.”

When the light changed we rolled south into the traffic, and that’s the last word he has said to me about the subject, although we’ve often been in each other’s homes, and have had many conversations through the years.

Next day, a call came from Bill Gilliland, manager of McMurray’s (now Dou-bleday), saying the stupid publisher had jumped the gun and loused things up and McMurray’s was running an ad too. During following days I trotted around to bookstores. At home the telephone and doorbell rang a lot; there were telegrams and flowers. On Friday afternoon when I arrived at my sewing club, congratulatory friends waited with copies to be signed.

But after a week or so, when people had time to read, the tone of my days began to change. A Times Herald gossip column said, “Dallas’ upper set takes a belting in a new novel that makes Peyton Place look like the Nancy Drew stories. Written by prominent Dallasite GWS, the book deals with a prominent Dallas woman, respectable on the surface, so depraved underneath. Dallas bookstores are already swamped.”

I should’ve guessed by the reference to the bookstores, but at the time I didn’t know that this comment was planted by a bookseller to stimulate sales. All I could think of, sickly, was the columnist’s use of the work depraved and his untrue statement that my fictional character was based on a real person.

Also, Fell’s ads made me squirm. They referred to my “unashamed frankness” in telling the story of “a woman who sought fulfillment in her bizarre relations with men and women.” What was the matter with these people, using melodramatic words like depraved and bizarre? Another huckster called the book salacious, which I had to look up to be sure about. Hard to believe, I was too naive to understand that these men simply knew how to sell books. Certainly they meant me no harm; they probably thought they were doing me a favor, at ten percent per copy, instead of making me miserable.

Jack, who was naive too, gave the novel to one of his best clients and promptly lost the account. In a Tyler bookstore an imperious lavender-haired dowager bustled through the entrance and wagged a forefinger at me. “Shame on you, young woman. I drove down here to say I happen to know your great-grandfather was a brigadier general in the Confederate Army!” Whereupon she sniffed mightily and bustled out.

Pure comedy. But not then. Not to me, standing there in that East Texas bookstore, feeling the fury of her vibrations.

Another time, in a Dallas bookstore, a sensuous looking woman in a fedora hung around for hours, posing as an intellectual and trying in circuitous ways to get the address of the contouring salon in the book. If I’d been more experienced, or gutsier, episodes like this would have made me chuckle instead of cringe.

Wisps of gossip reached my ears: I was over-sexed, under-sexed, homosexual and heterosexual. Readers were playing the parlor game of choosing candidates for the characters, especially the sadistic college lover who’d become a doctor, the Sunday school teaching friend who was involved with the husband, and the seductive lesbian who managed the contouring salon. If my own reputation was ruined, I still feared damaging someone else’s, because few readers seemed able to believe the truth, that my indelicate imagination had simply made it all up.

The newspapers, as was their policy, didn’t publish reviews till three months later at the official publication date. Therefore Lon Tinkle’s review in the Dallas Morning News began, “Having already earned a ’succès de scandale’ by the publisher’s quirk of distributing the novel locally three months before its official publication date, Gwynne Wimber-ly’s One Touch of Ecstasy may profit by this fluke occurrence. . . The book has been a real best seller in Dallas. . . For any reader who has kept up with the books and plays that have won prizes and critical esteem in the past ten years, it will come as a shock that Dallas readers find OTOE shocking. It has the integrity and honesty that is art’s primary reason for being.”

Lon’s review, and others, salved my wounds. Refreshingly, they treated the novel as a novel. There was criticism pro and con of believable characterization, handling of dialogue, and use of setting. Reviewers heartened me to the extent that I became aware of a category of readers different from the outraged and the gossips. Strangers and acquaintances and professionals wrote that they appreciated the satire of club life, they approved of bringing feminine views of sexual experience out of the closet, they found the events clinically authentic, they hoped such honest writing would help men and women become more joyous and relaxed. A few said they got good laughs. Also, there were individuals who showed uncommon empathy, who took the initiative to approach me with compassion and understanding. They will always be dear to me.

One afternoon I answered the doorbell and saw five handsome college-aged boys and girls holding grocery sacks. “You don’t know us, Mrs. Shook, but we know you. We’re tired of hearing what our parents’ friends think about your book. We think the subject matter’s important and we like you for writing it. So we got together and came over. We knew you were here from your car.”

They’d brought Cokes and cookies, so we sat around the kitchen table and talked about the effect of one generation on the next. They lived nearby and I knew most of their parents. Home on spring break from graduate courses at the University of Texas, SMU and OU, these youngsters turned out to be so idealistic and bright that I was pleased when they came back for another session before returning to classes. From time to time, other young readers told me they identified with the character of eighteen-year-old Bets in the book, and I was glad.

But my upbringing had somewhat inured me to pleasant, complimentary talk: I was used to it. Disapproval, on the other hand, was new and dramatic, so 1 was over-sensitive to it. with a touch of martyrdom. Nervous about being discussed. I had uncomfortably mixed feelings, and I longed for the restfulness of my old privacy.

Old friends, most of them, appeared to be displeased. Since they had me catalogued as someone like themselves, they found it distasteful for me to pop up in a controversial role. Conventional people don’t like surprises, not from others and not from themselves. I didn’t blame members of my genteel coterie for being startled. How could I. when I’d even startled myself? In my explosion I’d attacked most of the sacred rituals: protecting the children, beauty parloring, clothes shopping, garden clubbing, country clubbing, home decorating, needleworking, even cooking pot roast and calling the exterminator.

Many friends made no comment. They didn’t know how to approach the subject because gentility stood in the way. One said in a low tone, “I never knew you thought about things like that.” When readers, or non-readers, asked why I’d written the book, instead of admitting I didn’t quite know, I foolishly tried to explain how superficially we lived, and this answer evoked nothing but anger. Then I tried telling how much we had to learn about true communication between the sexes, and this answer opened up two kinds of outburst, either furious denial or tearful confessions of marital unhappi-ness. At the time I was too egoistic, too naive and defensive, to cope with such encounters.

Once I tried becoming clinical, saying I wrote the book because I was interested in the female orgasm, but I never said this again. Trends in word usage vary as drastically as women’s hem lengths, and I960 was not a good year for “orgasm.” Finally 1 found the perfect two-word answer for the unsettling question. “”For money.” I would smile, and the questioner always nodded his understanding. Some words work well in all years.

My parents, bless them, did not add to my problems, but Mother looked worried. Jack, my finest-of-all-husbands-in-the-world, didn’t complain, but he had to take serious kidding from business associates. Our son and daughter took opportunities to defend me, and I felt painfully responsible. Facing people became difficult. Uneasy silences fell; eyebrows lifted; heads turned away; friendships chilled. An anonymous letter, laced with ugly adjectives, suggested that our daughter might never, after this, be treated properly by young men. WASPs can sting.

Someone more perceptive than I would have expected this kind of reception, would have worked and waited and improved techniques. But I was not adult in my emotions; I was crushed and bewildered. Although I hadn’t meant to hurt my family and embarrass my friends, I reasoned that I must’ve done something wrong to have become so disliked and unhappy. I’d asked for my spanking and had gotten it. As I saw it, I had selfishly indulged the rebellious spirit Miss Ela Hockaday had rebuked me for; I’d launched on a half-baked, attention-getting fit, and now, justly, I was being cast out of Eden.

I wore drab colors and avoided former friends. Acutely self-conscious, I withdrew from group doings. For a period of three years I worked into and out of the only depression I have known – and it was the finest experience ever, because it clarified my goals and broadened my vision. In the depression’s first phase I sank and searched; in its second phase I resurfaced and reorganized.

In Phase One 1 counseled with writers and clergymen. What was it okay to write about, I asked them, and every single one agreed with the answer given me by Levi Olan: “Anything, as long as it is done with insight and compassion.” So I tried to develop the prescribed insight and compassion by undertaking a comprehensive study of Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles. Then I read every self-help book I saw, from Freud and Jung to Tillich and Buber to Horney and De Beauvoir to Krishnamurti and Sri Auro-bindo. During this time I filled three notebooks with jottings of my day and night dreams, a pursuit that proved to be provocative and fun.

At some moment during the three years’ study of psychology and religion I passed from Phase One to Phase Two. The search became an exciting adventure because I discovered something new every day. Little by little, the cloud lifted and I could understand. Finding clues in my childhood and my growing up, I learned to know and respect myself, everything I’d done, including the mistakes, which had blessed me more than the successes. I began to feel open and strong. No longer angry at harmless domestic and social doings, I could now see how useful they were, and it seemed foolish that I’d made such a big deal of resigning from everything. Moving beyond paranoia, I found myself with several groups of new friends, so I concentrated on enjoying them.

Then, when I was able to act natural again, I found that my oldest friends were still my best friends. My parents, Jack and our children were happy and unscathed. Clearly I had overestimated my power to harm them; in fact, my narrow vision had overdramatized the whole bit. The shocked-and-horrified’s had forgiven and forgotten me. They’d responded and moved on: I had no reason to remain fixated on the past. The book had sold about twenty thousand copies, hard cover and paperback included, and had gone out of print. It had flopped in all ways except the one most valuable to me: as a means of learning and liberation.

I learned to see Dallas as a wide and varied city, inviting a broad diversity of lifestyles. When I was offered a new job in Language Therapy at Scottish Rite Hospital, and a new job in the English Department at SMU. I accepted both, and became totally absorbed. I wasn’t taking refuge in an ivory tower, because my spirit became more communal: I sensed myself more than before as a part of the city and of the world. I felt warmer, wiser, more useful and more relaxed.

Finally I could see the humor in what had happened. All that quaint, smalltime flak, then my quaint, small-time reaction. And when I could laugh. I managed to forgive myself for my big bad interlude, at last even to forgive myself for showing my awkward growing pains to the public. Which, heaven help me, I still appear to be doing.

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