Read The Hite Report on Shere Hite Online
Authors: Shere Hite
I learned most of my liberalism and tolerance from
her (what little I have!), not from my grandmother’s lip service to it. My grandmother was basically intolerant, although when it came to race she believed blacks should have as much authority in the church as whites, even in the fifties.
My aunt was actively involved in community mental health in the days when this was in the forefront of progress, as it meant using understanding rather than punishment or moralistic clichés to bring people together. She believed it was right to think independently and reject prejudices, rather than be an unthinking conformist to ‘the establishment’.
My aunt was close to her mother, my grandmother. After my grandmother had had a stroke – she couldn’t speak anymore but only make sounds – my aunt stood as close as she could to the hospital bed, hour after hour, leaning over her, stroking her forehead and holding her hand, caressing her and making sounds to indicate that she understood what my grandmother was feeling and trying to say with her sounds that she was there to help, no matter what. And to care. That she wouldn’t leave. She stood there for days. I wonder if my grandmother had cooed to my aunt in her basinet as a child, in the same way? I had never seen my aunt – though I had watched her bring up three children – cuddle and coo so intensely, with such abandon and pleasure.
How did I get along in Daytona? First, I could never get a tan. And this was in a beach town, one of the most
beautiful sandy beaches in the world. I tried and tried: creams, lotions, timing, whatever could make it happen never did. Repeatedly, I burned and peeled.
I was not very good at water sports either. Forget water-skiing, even swimming was a trial (remember the swimming pool episode of earlier). But somehow I learned to swim, and went regularly to the beach with everyone else. There were six of us: the three small kids, me, my cousins, and Cecile and Paul. It was a lively beach town, and this was the centre of social life. Also, the club, to which we belonged, was focused around its own swimming pool. The community was rather rich.
One day, I went to a local barber, trying to ‘shape up my looks’. He cropped my hair extremely short, a sort of ‘crazy salad’, as he christened it. I tried to get into the mood of it, imagining I looked adorable as the dubious hairdresser announced, but all I felt was naked pedalling my bicycle away from the shop down toward the beach in my two-piece bikini. ‘That skinny creature’ I imagined everybody I passed was thinking, ‘She looks like a plucked chicken’. I was obsessed with what people would say, as I desperately needed to fit in with my aunt’s family. Or where would I be? I became an upper middle-class teenager, and joined the football team cheerleaders’ squad.
High school in Daytona fits the jokes about Florida’s academic status: I had already learned what little they tried to teach there, except for Spanish. Still, I ‘succeeded’, on graduating, in being nominated one of the ten girls from whom the Prom Queen was elected. For the talent competition, I played a piano recital. The girl
who won did baton twirling. I enjoyed playing Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ – but I didn’t want to win and would have been terribly embarrassed and uncomfortable if I had. It was perfect to have been one of the ‘top ten’. It made the point, but didn’t put me on the spot.
During these years, my aunt was busy creating her own family, and she and my uncle had two girls, Pam and Kim, and a boy, Paul. Three wild babies, each only a year or so apart, kept us all very busy! I had a semi-motherhood experience, since I was day and night changing diapers, washing bottles, making formula, feeding and bathing jumping, squeaking babies! I felt that my cousins were my brothers and sisters, and I loved them dearly. Adored them. Just when they were about starting school, I was off to college myself.
Working as a Fashion Model
Finally! I graduated from high school in Florida and was old enough to go out into the world on my own. I had been waiting, waiting to be grown-up,
It had seemed to take forever â¦ And now, finally, here I was: old enough to make my own life (well, go away to university at least), start to make my own choices, take decisions myself!
It was thrilling, this moment standing on the brink, ready to begin! I wanted to do everything â work, see the world, go to restaurants, learn about love â
However, away at university, at first I was drab and shy. Exceedingly quiet. Why? I had had to make such an
attempt during the last two years of high school â actually during all of high school, but especially for the last two years with my aunt and uncle â to fit in and be popular, well adjusted, not too intellectual, that it had left me psychologically drained. Adjusting to my new upper middle-class status, I just couldn't make any more social effort.
Going away to school was therefore a relief, as well as a luxury. Finally, I could focus on my own intellectual and artistic interests, without outside pressure to appear less intellectual and brainy. I could discover where my own future lay, my own interests. I didn't want to cultivate a social life, or be popular â I had done that. I had no boyfriends, not even a close girlfriend, for the first two years. I needed to clear my head.
To those around me, I must have seemed a ânice girl'. I had perfect middle-class white girl manners. I dressed and used a body posture which emphasized my humility, and de-emphasized my breasts. I tended to slouch, covering myself in front. The opposite of sticking out your chest with pride. I also covered my face with my longish hair, and was very thin. âYou are very sweet,' people said to me.
My posture, chest in, smile out, being sweet and non-aggressive (having a meek, âI don't want to challenge you' attitude) were what was considered better behaviour by the women in my family. These were refined manners. Women like my mother, sexual and demanding women, were not refined. Ladies were non-aggressive, and not in any way overtly sexual â because, you understand, one had to see their âother qualities', not their bodies! It was
hard to always be respected as a lady, but if you were a nice girl, you would be. Perhaps this is why it astounded me later, just after university when, though I had written a very explicit research book on sex, anybody should see me as âobsessed with sex'.
Of course, underneath my meek exterior were lurking all kinds of feelings â all the pent-up passionate emotions, lustful desires, wild imaginings and exaggerated dreams a seventeen-year-old girl can have. I wanted adventure and excitement, but was afraid to look anywhere for them but in history lessons, music and books.
Coming from such a cloistered background, I expected the outside world to be magical and poetic, full of adventure. I was sure there was an enchanted world out there somewhere, and I was determined to find it. I felt strong and ready to enter it, and at the same time, unsure and easily intimidated. Who was I, after all? Who said I had any right to go out and take part in the big feast out there â others were ahead of me, others more sophisticated, smarter, better dressed, more at home in these worlds. But anyway, I wanted to try.
My Aunt Cecile and my grandfather together made my university education possible. At first, I went to a state school; the cost, including room and board, was only about $5,000 per year. My grandfather had barely finished high school himself, but he was so clever, he supported all of us, with only his high school education. (He may even have left high school before he finished. I asked him once, and he was extremely vague.) School was a beautiful period of my life. I felt so free and was
given so many opportunities. During my first two years at the university, I was offered a feast of courses from which to choose. I remember looking at the huge catalogue of all the disciplines, and wanting to take them all. I did take a massive number of classes (it didn't cost any more). I had been starved for information, theories and ideas, and here they were! I loved the work. For me it was sheer pleasure.
In my heart of hearts, I was still in love with Rachmaninov and classical music. I wanted to study to become a great composer. Now I also loved Mahler, Wagner, Puccini, and especially Richard Strauss, even the earlier Viennese waltz tradition. But music was not to be my major, though it continued always to be my minor. My grandfather said he wanted to be sure I could always make a living. âBeing a schoolteacher,' he said, âYou can take summers off, and retire well.' He cared about me, and was thinking of my future. But of course, I didn't want to study so I could have a safe life! I wanted an exciting life, a life of adventure, challenges, people, travel, places new to see. As it turned out, we could both be satisfied if history were my major, since I wanted to know everything I could about it, and,
, one could teach it.
I spent a whole year reading about Knossos, Crete and Sir Arthur Evans' archaeological excavations. The class was led by a witty male professor who himself was an education to the mild and unsophisticated me. He was from somewhere I wasn't sure (Egypt, perhaps?) and
altogether, quite exotic to my eyes. He didn't even notice me, I was just a blurred shape in the middle of the class, but I was fascinated by him and the subjects he talked about. His own style, his speech and manners, transmitted very well the elegance and playfulness of that early civilization. He seemed to know every detail that could ever be known about Crete, and in fact, he looked like a chubby version of the people on the vases. His hair naturally waved in exactly the same tight black kink, glistening with some exotic brilliantine. I had never seen hair like that. He was very appealing to me, but he hadn't a feminist thought in his brain. I doubt he ever suspected that he was telling us about a
society, not to mention, a non-patriarchal one. Had Evans suspected this, for that matter?
Evans, the excavator of Knossos, was later accused of having faked the famous small sculpture of a
with naked breasts, holding a snake in each hand of her outstretched arms, from fragments he found that may not have gone together. Later scholars
with this, and looking at that sculpture, I can't believe that it was faked. Her gestures, her dress, her expression, the designs on the snakes go together with such complete harmony, to the last detail, that I believe his presentation is accurate.
My love of archaeology has continued until this day, though I doubt the professor (what
his name?) imagined I was his star pupil. He looked with
at the more stylishly dressed students there, but I was sure I was getting the message he was giving about Crete more than most.
I was certainly spending more time in the library doing the assignments with the original Evans' books (valuable antique editions with marvellous full colour reproductions) than anyone else! After all I never had any trouble getting the only copies in the library delivered to my seat in the library at once. I read almost every word at least twice, sometimes three or four times, meanwhile staring at the elegantly detailed, engraved colour illustrations of the artifacts Evans had excavated, as if by peering at them more intensely, they would begin to unfold their secrets to me. Sometimes I thought they did. (Quite a few years later, I discovered the books of Marija Gimbutas and her remarkable excavations in quite the same way.)
At the same time, I was studying piano and music composition. No one seemed to have any idea how to âteach' composition. They would always put me in counterpoint classes when I asked for composition â valuable, but nineteenth-and twentieth-century romantic works went far beyond counterpoint, dealing with orchestration and the effects of sounds. Clearly, the elements needed were: melody or themes, counterpoint, harmony and orchestration. Even later when I went to Columbia University, which had a prestigious music school, their idea of a composition class was to tell me about the huge new synthesizer the school had bought (for a billion dollars, i.e., it had to be good), and that one should work on it. (There was a several years' queue, however, so one shouldn't get one's hopes up.)
Their computer, they announced arrogantly,
the composition of the future, since music of the future
would all be done by computer! Therefore it followed, I suppose, that there was no point in my (a girl anyway), studying something called composition. This put an end to our conversation, from their point of view. I attended one or two supposedly very avant-garde Sessions and Cage concerts, but beyond being supposed to admire the guys for their cleverness and manipulation of assorted machines and gadgets on stage, there wasn't much to get involved with. Beauty in sound, a sheer wall of sound, such as in Strauss, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev or others I loved, was not to be heard on those stages. It's fortunate that records exist in this century, otherwise I might never have known, especially from an early age, the beauty of true symphonic music, and the heights it can reach.
I also studied piano with a professor at Columbia University as part of my courses, and hung around with students at the Julliard School of Music. The piano lessons, aside from brief discussions of fingering and interpretation, mainly consisted of being told what kind of stage presence I should have. The stuffy, elderly male professior was clearly trying to work out for himself whether or not he thought a woman could ever really be a concert pianist, and âpull it off'. (This was his terminology, despite his European origins.) He worried about this, as his weekly monologues told me, and in the end, thought not, despite Wanda Landowska, Clara Schumann not to mention others. Anyway, he had me walk in and out of the room, and sit down at the piano in a lot of different postures. I got an âA' for the course, despite his advice.
Music history class never mentioned that women had not been allowed to sing in opera (or church, or most anywhere) until the eighteenth century; that castrati sang the parts that today we hear sung by women. Listening to the âgreat composers', learning to admire them, one was not told what male chauvinists they were, nor any word of reproach ever given, i.e., âDespite the prejudices of the age, still the music overcomes.'
Other fields were interesting, too, such as geology â the theories of continents growing, eroding and combining. The history of the Balkans, 1453 to the present, which was a lot about farming (since this was the occupation of most of those in the Balkans). I presented an elaborate paper comparing US agriculture with Balkan farming in the nineteenth century. Another one of my papers covered the Treaty of Vladivostock. (Don't ask me why! I think this was part of my Russian history course, and as I was taking Chinese history at the same time, this was of interest.) Also, I was studying, via the Balkans and Viennese music, European politics,
Hungary and its relations with Austria.
History had become my chosen subject (trying to figure out the world, as I was), but despite this, I had an inclination to take the historical facts, as presented, with a grain of salt. Others in my classes memorized the lists of facts with never a doubt. I was the questioning one, always. One history professor at Columbia had a major confrontation with me: âHistory doesn't ask
,' he declared, irritated with my many questions, âHistory asks
And that settled that â at least, he was sure it did.
I could never read all the books I wanted, though I tried, spending most of my days and nights in the huge library, poring over book after book. The card index system, when looking for one book, would easily lead you to another one, until I would wind up wanting to read everything ever written under âAntoinette, Marie' or âSeal rings, Minoan', and so on.
During graduate school, I transferred to Columbia University in New York City. Though I had been offered a scholarship at Georgetown University, having no one to advise me, I didn't realize what an opportunity that was, and went straight for Columbia. I was wildly impressed with a programme I had heard about there called: âThe History of Ideas, 1789 to the Present', with Professor Jacques Barzun. I applied and was accepted.
Of all the history courses I had taken, the French Revolution and its prior philosophical movement, the Enlightenment, as well as eighteenth century art and culture, excited me. The programme at Columbia focused on the French Revolution and its ideas, the democratic legacy â the negativity of de Tocqueville, who thought democracy could never work, the idealism of Rousseau, Diderot and his encyclopaedia, Deism â Robespierre, the Terror, the theory and âlife cycles' of revolutions, and so on. I wanted to hear all I could. I was sure this was the right direction for me and for my interests.
Also, I wanted to see New York. And, maybe, take a course or two at the famous Julliard School of Music.
I never dreamed how macho Columbia could be. It was the last school in the US, a few years later, to agree to follow government guidelines for hiring women
â and in the end, reneged. They really didn't want any female professors.