Introduction to Women in the Shadows
by Ann Bannon
Cleis Press edition, 2002
There are dark and bright times in every life. This book was written in what was, for me, one of the darker ones. It was a period when a measure of wisdom was setting in, both in terms of my personal life and in terms of what I had learned about the lives of gay men and lesbians. When my first book, Odd Girl Out, was written, I was full of optimism. I believed I could make a go of a challenging conventional marriage. And privately, in my dream life, I was convinced of nothing in the world so deeply as the beauty and passion of same-sex love. I thought I could access it through books, through fantasy, through imaginary friendships, without rocking the domestic boat. Indeed, I thought that was my only option, and it had damn well better work. If it did not, I knew I would self-destruct.
When I wrote I Am A Woman, the second book, I had learned a lot, almost all of it exciting and confirming, about lesbian and gay life. I had been to the mountain — Greenwich Village — and I had seen and touched and watched and absorbed and treasured so much about that life and that place. I could not live in it — there were children now — but I could feel it and possess it and give it back to my readers.
Ah, but time went by and now I came to the task of writing book number three in the series, Women in the Shadows, having learned a great deal about what it means to soldier on through a tough relationship and, as important, what a range of problems existed in the lesbian and gay community. I did not imagine, when I first visited New York, that the law was so particular nor so cruel as to criminalize private sexual activities between same-sex partners. It was frightening to learn that police raids targeted the gay bars on a regular schedule, and that one could be arrested and publicly humiliated, simply for being found in one having a glass of beer with friends. I was appalled to discover that there were gangs of adolescents roaming Greenwich Village at night terrorizing gay people, beating them up, threatening them, doing bad things to good people just to score points in their tribal hierarchies.
From the point of view of the miscreants, gay men and lesbians were both easy and socially sanctioned targets. Why? Because the legal system was intractably biased. For those who wished gay people ill, the Establishment had almost — not quite — provided a license for mayhem. Young boys, some uncertain of their own sexual drive, took advantage of the prevailing prejudice to do a lot of irreparable harm to people who could protest — at their peril — but almost never prevail. Such was the atmosphere of the time. It pushed some gay people over the edge. For a brief moment in her life, Beebo was one of them. I guess the fact that I let something calamitous happen to her in a sense deflected calamity from my own door. Better to dump misery on Beebo’s stubborn back than risk a crack-up that would bring my own family down around my ears.
This book is dark — despite my dislike for the negative connotations, the title is probably apt — and there are things in it difficult to read, as you will know when you’ve finished it.
Most pointedly, I was saddened when I found bias within the community itself: confusion and shame over one’s own sexuality, alcoholism, partner abuse, broken relationships. This was the community I had taken to my heart, that I had romanticized and loved, that I had clung to in imagination when my daily life threatened to overwhelm me. It was shattering to let go of my ideals; unfair though it was, I felt betrayed. Why couldn’t the gays and lesbians in the Village realize how lucky they were? How much they had that the rest of us, outside looking in, could only yearn for?
And yet, as I was learning these disturbing things, I was trying to find my balance. My life and my discoveries about the gay community seemed to be developing in parallel. This book is dark — despite my dislike for the negative connotations, the title is probably apt — and there are things in it difficult to read, as you will know when you’ve finished it. Still, I feel affection for it, for the girl I was when I wrote it, for the gropings toward elusive happiness, even for Beebo and Laura painfully pulling their love asunder. This is a part of what lovers do; remember, they were young, too.
It would not be accurate to say that I became embittered. But I did feel the need to explore some of these newly discovered imperfections in a place and a population I had always admired without reservation. Perhaps it was analogous to reaching that point in a love affair where reality begins to overtake romance. You don’t fall out of love, but you have to restructure the relationship and lift it to a new plane. And so, while acknowledging the problems, I looked for other things to keep hope alive, to ease the heart even while coping with the pain.
There were themes I wanted to develop. In this age before the Civil Rights Movement burst upon us and changed the world forever, it seemed to one naïve young writer that two lovely women, one black, one white, ought to be exploring the possibility of interracial romance with one another. It seemed logical that a lesbian and a gay man, both of whom wanted children, should get together and, based on respect and deep affection, possibly even marry. After all, they were “nice” people, and one didn’t drag a baby into a world of illegitimacy in those days. These motifs may have a bit clumsy in the handling, but they were rare in lesbian story telling of the day. And they were constructive as well as unusual. It pleases me now to realize that I cared as much then as I do today about harmony between the races; that I saw and encouraged the affection, the cooperation, the whole sense of being family together, that can spring up between gay men and lesbians. It was out of this matrix of caring that the marriage of Jack and Laura came to my mind; that the cautious romantic minuet between Laura and Tris developed. But the obverse of that hopeful coin was the coin of disillusion. And there is plenty of it here.
The tentative romance between Laura and Tris, the ultimate decision of Jack and Laura to marry, were offered awkwardly, in the absence of rigorous insight, in the intellectual vacuum before the great enlightenment just ahead of us. I had yet to sort through my well-intentioned emotions and figure out why, objectively, it was more than just all right when two women of vastly different cultural and ethnic backgrounds fell in love. It just felt good to tiptoe up on the possibility. In my determination to marry off Jack and Laura, I tried to make more erotically of their feelings for one another than could realistically have been expected.
As for straight men, alas, I was never very kind to them; they represented the wardens of society, the stern, self-righteous “moralists,” the reprovers, the nay-sayers, the judgment-passers, the anhedonic social cops one had to circumvent to make it to the ball. They were all Oliver Cromwells, puritanical, controlling, condescending, or outright contemptuous. But I was looking for Oliver’s opposite number, that one-in-a-million man; I was looking for, say, Charles II, the Merry Monarch, who succeeded him. (Never mind that Charles was straight — very; he was nonetheless a man of illuminating tolerance, wit, generosity, and kindness. Anybody who brings back Christmas, the theaters, and maypoles to a country starved for joy is my kind of guy.) Sadly, there were too few Charles’s and too many Olivers in the world.
As for straight men, alas, I was never very kind to them; they represented the wardens of society, the stern, self-righteous ‘moralists,’ the reprovers, the nay-sayers, the judgment-passers, the anhedonic social cops one had to circumvent to make it to the ball.
Perhaps a part of the problem for me lay in the fact that, like most women of my generation, I inhabited all the “good girl” traditions, myths, and strictures of the years following World War II. I did not know they were a stone mirage beyond which other possibilities not only existed, but were survivable — even nourishing. It can be healthy to breach the wall. One of the ways in which I did that was to provide my characters with a sort of transcendent sexuality as an antidote to the constraints of their lives. In his enlightening book, Foundlings: Lesbian and Gay Historical Emotion Before Stonewall (Duke University Press, 2001), Christopher Nealon makes this point eloquently, referring to the tendency in lesbian pulp paperbacks to use “…transporting sex as a solution to homophobia” (p. 19). This is astutely observed; we needed stalwart social networks, we needed confirming friendships, but most of all, we needed the fire and enchantment of wonderful sex to validate our lives. Nothing else was going to help. It had to come from within us, and no aspect of human emotion is more deeply within us than that most delicate and powerful of mysteries, our sexuality. It was the glory of that sexual transport that eased the desperation of one’s queerness.
But when you light that fire, as humans have been observing in wry and regretful ways since they could first think about it at all, you can get scorched. That’s what happens to Beebo and Laura in this story. Laura becomes stifled by Beebo’s intensity; Beebo goes a little mad. But hang on — good things are coming further down the road. I could not stay angry at the characters I birthed and loved for very long.
Not long ago, I discovered an interesting analysis of Women in the Shadows from French writer and critic Hélène Cixous. She surprised and pleased me by observing, “This novel has important historical significance. Originally published in 1959, this novel broke from the formula of 1950s lesbian pulp fiction. It dealt with real issues in lesbian relationships like domestic violence, racism, and internalized homophobia. Other lesbian pulp fiction novels of the time were simply voyeuristic looks at lesbians and fostered the image that lesbians were predatory monsters. The women in this novel were tied to 1950s conventions, but they were still ahead of their time. The plot leaves much to be desired…However, this book should not be brushed aside because it is outdated. In its proper historical context, this novel is a masterpiece.”
The commentary is quoted on the Queer Theory Web site. I am abashed to hear the book described in such strong, affirming terms, but gratified, too, to be taken seriously, after so many decades of dismissal as a producer of “sleaze.”
There are those who have been kind enough to say that Ann Bannon offered a more positive portrait of lesbian life in the 50s and 60s than did many of her contemporaries. You would be tempted to doubt that reading this novel. But, while there are wrenching disagreements among the characters, and a small but telling tragedy, I remember thinking as I wrote that it was an uplifting story. There was violence, but it was intended to dramatize the toxic bias of the time and the inward turning anguish of the women who confronted and survived it. In their anger at the injustice of it all, they sometimes turned their frustration on themselves and those they loved. It was not because they were evil people; it was because they were wounded and there was no hospice for such wounds. There were only one’s personal friendships, which thus bore a heavy strain at times. And there were the women’s bars, those temples of dangerous comfort where sorrows could be drowned, but at a cost. No gay and women’s bookstores yet, soon to become the bricks and mortar of the community. And no World Wide Web, the new universal “bar” or meeting place. No forum for frank and open interchange. Back then, just unimaginable isolation and a lot of trouble. It was not a time and place for sissies.
[There were] no gay and women’s bookstores yet, soon to become the bricks and mortar of the community. And no World Wide Web, the new universal ‘bar’ or meeting place.
One final thought: you don’t always know the power of your own words, especially when you’re not sure there’s anyone out there reading them. I half convinced myself, while writing this book, that I was writing a letter to myself, that these words would not be read by anyone but their author, and therefore I could spill emotion all over the landscape. I have mixed emotions about the story that came out: some good, some not so. But on the whole, it was a valuable transition for me. I’m glad to have the validation from Cixous that I was anticipating important social developments and capturing a part of the truth of the times.
So — here they are: my characters, warts and all, working through the pain toward better days. And here was I, working through it with them, trying always to remember this: that without the night, there would be no stars.
With permission from Cleis Press