The Hite Report on Shere Hite (8 page)

BOOK: The Hite Report on Shere Hite
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In my first month there, I went to see the famous
Barzun to introduce myself I had sent him my master's thesis. He was grumpy and arrogant (not
, as people said) throughout our meeting and finally told me, ‘I don't even believe you wrote that thesis yourself.'

‘Why not?'

‘Because it is
well done, I doubt you could have done this – and all those books you cite. Where did you get them? I'm sure the library at the University of Florida doesn't even have them.' He managed to articulate in a semi-British style, perhaps having seen Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins with Liza Doolittle recently, and imagining us them.

About Florida's library: obviously, he had never been there. The university was founded in the 1890s, and had one of the oldest and most spectacular libraries in the country. But, snob that he was, he wouldn't have known that. How he sneered when he said the word Florida. He was so shameless, I was amazed. Where I grew up, his behaviour was bad manners.

‘Why don't you ask me questions, to test my knowledge, then, if you doubt me?' I offered.

‘Oh, you could easily have learned what's in there by now,' he sneered, and stood up, dismissing me. ‘I've no more time.'

This encounter was a rude shock to my idealism. I was upset, and hardly knew what to think. There were no words; ‘sexist' or ‘misogynist', weren't in usage yet. I felt he had a problem, but just as much, I wondered what it was about me that didn't inspire any faith. I felt very small, but at the same time I knew he was nuts. I never went back to see him again, and luckily someone else taught the seminar, though all the other students were male, and clearly, I was not really welcome. Anyway, I continued my studies at Columbia until about a year and a half later, when I began to run out of money.

But New York, fortunately, was not only Columbia University. New York was New York! I learned at least as much about what was going on in the world from the city – well, much more, than I did from Columbia.

New York was full of exotic cultures and languages. I loved it. From the moment I arrived, I was intoxicated by the mixture of hundreds of various nationalities and cultures, all spilling over into one another. From taxi drivers to stores to names of things, to how people looked and talked – everyone and everything was there. Many were from a kind of middle-European group that had arrived (or whose parents had) between 1900–40. (There are more Jews in New York than in Israel is a remark you hear all the time.) To me, something about this cultural background seemed so lyrical, so
, and so sympatico. Why from that period and that place, I don't know, but they were.

I wasn't anywhere near to coming from an immigrant background. Both sides of my family had been in the
US for one or two centuries. I was a
, a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, supposedly the ruling class, but not if you were poor, of course. I always tried to underplay my
looks, making my hair curly (
s have straight hair, including me) or reddish (
s have blond hair, dishwater blond). So the city of New York itself, more than Columbia, was an education for me. I was thrown into a cultural cauldron I had never imagined before. Not to mention seeing on the nightly local television news all the gang wars that had happened that day. We didn't have gang wars in Florida or the Midwest, that was inconceivable. And hearing so many Italian names everywhere, I fell in love with Italian food, Italian popular music and Little Italy, the Italian part of Manhattan. I learned about the films made in California in the thirties and forties, films by immigrants, or children of immigrants, such as von Sternberg, Charlie Chaplin, Max von Stroheim, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder. Here too was yet another cultural input, a different way of seeing things.

School had always seemed very democratic to me – that is, I could learn all I could, as much as I wanted, with nothing to stop me. And I was very curious about so many things! I wanted to know, I needed to know, everything.

Yet in the Columbia pre-graduate history department, some sort of formal social order I didn't understand was the main focus, not knowledge. Among graduate students, jockeying for rank with the professors
was the primary pastime. Nothing I was particularly interested in. Others found the department stuffy and authoritarian, as their protests on the lawn told me. Students were demonstrating about the university's involvement with government war programmes.

The whole country, not only me, seemed to be in the middle of an identity crisis in the 1960s. Large numbers of people were fed up with authoritarian systems, the conduct of the war in Vietnam being just the first point on the list. People were demonstrating in the streets to make politicians do what they believed was right: end the war in Vietnam. The demonstrations and angry reactions of the administration at Columbia and elsewhere were also about even larger issues: about whether the US would be democratic, an idealistic state, or turn more authoritarian, even though there was a Constitution. For that round, democracy won: the Vietnam War was finally halted, and flower power became the hip symbol of the day.

I began to try to understand these contradictions in my own country. There had been no contradictions or imperfections in what I'd been taught in Hall School in my elementary education. There in Missouri, we started each day by standing, facing the flag, putting our hands on our hearts while reciting, in unison, the oath of allegiance to the flag. Now at Columbia, going to classes, I walked past, through, and sometimes joined, lines of demonstrators against the Vietnam War. The anti-war movement seemed like democracy in action, maybe even the way the French Revolution was carried out. But the man
teaching that seminar on the French Revolution wanted nothing to do with the anti-war protests or student demonstrations! Rather than discussing the parallels, or lack of them, he acted as if nothing was happening.

It was the time of student demonstrations, civil rights, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King (he was the conservative one, we thought then), the Beatles, Haight-Ashbury, and flower power. You shouldn't have a higher education if you wanted to be accepted as a real hippie, since that meant you were irretrievably middle class and privileged. The hippies were fun, but really exploited women (or tried) in the name of ‘free love', meanwhile chanting mantras and spouting about flowers. I hitchhiked to Haight-Ashbury with a friend and stayed there for a month. The ideology of Power-to-the-People and the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg had some very good points. But somewhere, I felt, there must be a way to understand more sides of this reality. Where? For me, activism and philosophy came together just a year later, in the women's movement.

During this time, I often saw Martin Luther King on television. His death was tragic, I and my friends felt almost wounded ourselves by his shooting. I remember hearing about the shooting of Malcolm X in a garbled way on American television. We were told that he had been a wild man, someone hysterical and against good things, who probably brought this terrible end on himself by his strange actions and his hostility to the state. All this sounds like the media descriptions of
in the eighties. I and my friends laughed in disbelief but eventually I learned, these media distortions can be dangerous.

Post-war movie and television images had constantly filled my mind as a child of how we, in America, had saved old Europe from its decadence and lack of idealism. How our idealistic system had built the greatest fighting force on earth, and how our political system was the model for all the world! And yet, images of Vietnam, of the scandals in Washington, the McCarthy trials, the ‘Communist' witch hunts (a cover for authoritarian repression of free thought, and punishment for those who didn't conform), conflicted with these pictures of a perfect American idealism, land of freedom – free speech and free thought – for all.

At Hall School, every morning at 8 a.m., we were so proud to salute the flag, say the pledge of allegiance to our country, our hand over our heart, and then sing the national anthem. We must have been breathtaking to see, usually about thirty of us in a class, all standing earnestly at attention. We learned that America was the finest, bravest, most ethical country on earth. We had contributed the best to the world in political thought, science and technology, farming and all-round goodness. We were God's chosen people, ‘one nation, indivisible, under God'. It never occurred to me to think that I might be learning to be a nationalist, without even realizing it.

In the US, after World War II, we didn't hear a lot about topics like, ‘We are the nation responsible for the 200,000
deaths in Japan at Hiroshima'. We heard that there had been a new bomb that ended World War II, the atomic bomb, and that it was deadly and dangerous, and that the Cold War was all about stopping its spread.
We had dropped the bomb because we had to we were told, and ‘in the end it saved lives, because it stopped the war, and many others might have been killed if it continued: so it was right to use it.' We were the heroes who fought the war for a just cause, and led the noble Cold War against the evil USSR.

In the US, victory after World War II seemed to harden into a bully-like military glorification, though the US could have come away from the war more chastened by the idea of war, less celebratory. US films of the 1950s depicted us as the heroes, either in military clothing or as cowboys against Indians who were redskinned ‘bad guys'. All of the mythology – some partly true, some not – found its way into my head. After all, it was great to feel myself part of a wonderful nation. And therefore, good myself.

Was my idea of America a myth? I always believed America had a certain spiritual splendour, a grandeur in its idealism. I still think it does. But this spirit of idealism was certainly aided by the intellectuals and humanists who came to the US before and after World War II, enriching its culture, science, films and music. So, when I arrived at Columbia University, I became confused. Was the idealism of US democracy real, or a dream? It couldn't be only a dream, it seemed too important to be a dream.

I had a boyfriend in the philosophy department at Columbia, probably the skinniest male on campus, with the most minimalist wardrobe. Did he ever wear anything
but the same outfit? He loved to smoke pot endlessly, read philosophy, talk about Kant, hang-out and make love. He lived in a one-room ground-floor apartment with a large fold-up bed in the middle of the room, surrounded by a sea of books, papers and discarded bedding or garments. I could never tell; it was basically very dark in there.

I, meanwhile, lived in a studio apartment further from campus, but much nicer and lighter. However it was more interesting to visit his … It was the body contact I liked, the intimacy of his room, the conversation underneath the dingy sheets. Sex with him, for me, was just a footnote. A curiosity. (‘Oh, is that how they do it, is that what he thinks should be done? Interesting.') He was skinny, not because he had some malady, but because it would have been unaesthetic to be otherwise, he wouldn't have looked like a philosopher, or one of the photographs or drawings of one of them on the covers of the books he had. Besides, philosophy he felt, is all about mind, not body. He was very intelligent and exotic to me, and I liked him. For about six months.

Then, I went to Haight-Ashbury during the infamous ‘Summer of Love', with a new boyfriend. He was a yoga fan who introduced me to yoghurt and Hare Krishna. With him, too, there was little sex, as we spent all our time hitchhiking from New York to California (not as easy as it sounds), and hanging out in over-peopled rooms. In Haight-Ashbury, I had to pretend I didn't have two university degrees, and say I liked the endless rock concerts. We lived for a month with a struggling rock band – seven people in three rooms.
Their idea of breakfast was Indian tea and a shared joint, sitting silently in a circle on the floor. Was this boring after a while! I was glad to come back to New York for the autumn semester.

My grandfather had been paying my tuition all through university, while I was getting my master's degree and beyond. But the rent in New York and the tuition at Columbia were so high that eventually he couldn't do it anymore, and that autumn I had to pitch in and get a job.

To earn money to continue school, I became a fashion model. What jobs were available to me at that time? I had been a secretary in Miami between degrees to earn money. It was full-time, paid very little, and the boss was sexually aggressive. I couldn't imagine how I could work full-time, make so little and still continue studying. There were no graduate scholarships available to me, I was told when I enquired. I could apply to some foundations, they said, but thousands of others were too. I felt they implied I had little chance. Looking back, I wonder why they were so negative and dismissive. Maybe I should have applied. After all, at the University of Florida I had easily gotten a soroptimist scholarship.

My very first job had been when I was in high school in Florida. I was always very proud of my ability to be independent, so when my uncle and aunt chided me because I had no money of my own, I became fiercely determined to get a job. Of course I couldn't find one,
because I was underage. They laughed even more. Though I couldn't work legally, I took a job that didn't require papers: as a waitress in a sleazy waterfront restaurant. This was not approved of, but I felt it increased my dignity to show I was able to make money if I needed to.

The boss of this family-owned restaurant was sexually provocative and harassed me, making sexual innendos. One day during my first week, he shoved ice cream with his bare fingers into my mouth, in front of his wife. My arms were full of dishes, full of food I was taking to one of the tables, so my hands were not free to push him away. I felt disgusted, and was most upset for his wife. But I didn't want to give up my job as soon as I had started it, since then my family would laugh at me again and say how right they had been. So I came to work the next morning with my fingernails painted green. (It had been pistachio ice cream.) The green on my nails looked like real poison, and the looks I gave the boss were as cold as poison, too. He never dared approach me again.

BOOK: The Hite Report on Shere Hite
8.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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