Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century: Jane Vandenburgh

Written by Britt Julious
 Active Image      The title of Jane Vandenburgh’s new memoir, A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century, is somewhat misleading. That’s not to say sex is not prevalent in her memoir. It is only to say that Vandenburgh uses the complicated effects of sex (and more specifically, sexuality) to frame a story about drug abuse, mental illness, and broken marriages. 
 

The title of Jane Vandenburgh’s new memoir, A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century, is somewhat misleading. That’s not to say sex is not prevalent in her memoir. It is only to say that Vandenburgh uses the complicated effects of sex (and more specifically, sexuality) to frame a story about drug abuse, mental illness, and broken marriages.

Vandenburgh’s memoir begins in Redondo Beach, a development near Los Angeles, in the 1950s. Cookie-cutter, Sears catalog-type homes litter the street on which the author lives, and the only thing that separates the exterior of the Vandenburghs’ home from the exterior of their neighbors’ abode is a pepper tree planted in the front yard by Vandenburgh’s father. Vandenburgh notes, “More normal dads would dump topsoil and then scatter lawn seed.” (She is, perhaps, foreshadowing the novel’s later events).


From the onset, the audience is introduced to the idea that something is afoul with the American Dream. This memoir is not a rich John Cheever/Richard Yates-esque fictitious accounting of the seemingly lost decade, but rather a personal supplement to such stories. For Vandenburgh, life is a seemingly endless parade of truths. On one hand, she is entirely aware of the falsity in trying to maintain an ideal perpetuated through media outlets. Her own home—rife with her mother’s drug abuse and mental illness and her father’s “treatments” for homosexuality and his eventual suicide—clearly contradicts the idyllic. On the other hand, Vandenburgh is surrounded by individuals who do seem to get it all right, or at least most of it right, and this confusion over accepting the truth of her family’s reality versus finding a more fulfilling truth in the perception derived from her peers frames the narrative.

Vandenburgh writes with an agreeable prose that translates effectively to the reader. This gives the memoir a fluid, lyrical quality that makes the reader understand and even sympathize with two parents who spend more time in conflict with their personal identities than parenting. There is an urgent conflict with mainstream society, one that Vandenburgh refers to as an incessantly judging facet. Her grandparents told Vandenburgh and her siblings that their parents, “imagine they can live outside the rules, as ‘bohemians.’” As Vandenburgh writes, “… my parents have little regard for consequence. We were very small when the chorus began speaking to us like this, in a tone of diagnosis, the ominous shadow of penalty hanging over our uncombed heads.” Initially, the audience reacts sympathetically to the parents’ plight and can relate to their need to live completely as their own individual selves while trying to be good parents. The feeling is a contemporary, relatable sentiment.

However, what makes Vandenburgh’s writing so effective is her ability to transcend anemic clichés about finding one’s own true path. Vandenburgh is writing not from the perspective of the inquisitive mind (like that of her parents) but rather from the child’s perspective. She is taking into account what they felt combined with their actions, and framing it around her own experiences and how those actions ultimately shaped her life, often for the worse. There is understanding coupled with warning.

A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century addresses sex but is not about sex. There is obviously sex in the conception of the author and her siblings, and it is her father’s inability to suppress his homosexual desires that ultimately acts as a catalyst in his own death. However, the title works as a play of diction. Our conceptions of sexuality as sex are far more complicated than we want to let on. Our history of sex is not entirely built on constructed identities of what is correct, but it is rather a seemingly endless, intricate affair that reaches beyond the physical.

Share this post