The beginning of this book was more than promising: the account of a butch lesbian’s evolution from the embryonic sense of difference of a born sexual dissident to the archetypal stone butch, Frankie Hucklenbroich’s autobiographical opus ‘A Crystal Diary’ seemed to be a novel about the long and dangerous journey from an early childhood immersed up to the eyeballs in the fierce heterosexism of a blue collar world that was a mid western city in the ‘forties, into -the euphoria of self-discovery, and an increasingly confident claiming of self identity.
The beginning was sweet. I was drawn into the story of tall slender Jo Koerner, the author’s young across the street neighbour, who returns home after her demobilisation from WWII as one of those fascinating, exotic, mythical creatures – a full fledged dyke. I was hooked by the tense suspense of Jo’s stubborn refusal to relinquish her identity: As in defiance of convention she drives her car, wears pants, crops her hair (there is a dramatic telling of this particular incident), and gets a job in a nearby factory. Hucklenbroich made me cringe to read about the narrow-minded neighbours of Jo’s world, who trapped in their own bitter lives don’t know what to make of her, and how the vicious gossip and prejudice leads inevitably to bullying social rejection.
Of course this made me root for Jo, to succeed – to create a happy life for herself. The anecdote about Joe Koerner is the story I wished this could have been: That story would have I think been infinitely more engaging – and rewarding than ‘A Crystal Diary’.
Nonetheless, we readers were wrenched from this promising beginning, and compelled to take an abrupt change of direction as the story bumped along. Each new chapter seemed full of jolting herky-jerky turns in the road. The narrative seemed not so much elliptical ripped through with huge gaps, so much as to make the segments seem like non sequiturs.
But perhaps we should be grateful for those gaps – and for the unpleasantness we might probably have been spared.
What we may have hoped to see from this bit of time travel beginning in the ‘forties is perhaps a fond and nostalgic look at our hidden lesbian history and our antecedents while safely situated in our relatively safe and un-repressed present. I was rather expecting a look from the through the wrong end of the telescope into the past to the bad old days of bar raids and paddy wagons and corrupt police bullies, and there was some of that, but this was not intended to be a comfortable read.
Instead we are made to follow Hucklenbroich’s veritable ‘rake’s progress’ from a not very innocent child to feral juvenile living on the margins of society: From hawker of magazines to liar cheat and thief, vagabond, mugger, crook,depraved exploiter and abuser of women, methamphetamine addict, pimp, business owner, proprietor of a whorehouse and finally writer.
In the historical dramas set in the Roman Empire, we see the robed patricians resplendent in their spotless snow-white togas. That’s the way we like to imagine ancient Roman aristocrats. But I can’t help wondering if those togas reeked, since the historical truth is that the raw material for the Roman laundromat was found in the city’s public urinals.
In Hucklenbroich’s telling of our lesbian past, I felt as if my nose was being buried in one of those togas.
I came to this book by a circuitous route – first as an excerpt in Joan Nestle’s anthology ‘The Persistent Desire’, and then Lillian Faderman’s ‘Naked In The Promised Land’. In Faderman’s book she writes of her crossing of paths with Hucklenbroich, and their tragi-comic affair. In ‘A Crystal Diary’ the favour is returned, and Lillian is ‘Jill’. Faderman and Hucklenbroich tell each other’s stories. To hear Faderman tell it, ‘Nicky’ was a likable kid, who fell passionately in love with her – but it was a passion she was unable to return. In Faderman’s book Nicky is sketched sympathetically as a lovable outcast, equal parts rube and dork, but with a talent for writing.
I knew this was not going to come close to the gold standard of butch memoirs – Leslie Fienman’s achingly written ‘Stone Butch Blues’ . I expected ‘A Crystal Diary’ to be gritty: Hucklenbroich’s excerpt from ‘A Crystal Diary’ in Joan Nestle’s anthology ‘The Persistent Desire: a butch femme reader’ prepared me for a gritty read. But I wasn’t prepared for this novel’s sheer sordidness and squalor – the sleaze, the repugnance of it.
The character who emerges from this tale is an amoral opportunistic monster: A mugger and a thief, meth-addict, parasite, pimp and a sociopath – a predator and a sadist. In the course of reading ‘A Crystal Diary’ I forgot the the slightly silly picture of the young butch with the elevated eyebrows, delicately bulging hip and breasts hidden by a bent arm, and came to imagine instead a swaggering female thug, an image which was not dispelled by the ‘wine turned to vinegar’ photograph of the bloated old personage on the back cover.
I was reminded of the shocking and repulsive scene in an old movie – James Cagney with his mean little too-closely-set together-eyes snarling at his long-suffering wife and reaching across the breakfast table to gob smack her… but Cagney has nothing on the remorseless, parasitical, unapologetic exploitation of women cold-bloodedly recounted in ‘A Crystal Diary’. I am referring to the unforgettable stomach-turning incident where Nicky, after first publicly humiliating her, throws the woman she is prostituting out into a rain drenched street with the injunction that she not come home until after she had earned over a hundred dollars: This of course is after she had ground out a lighted cigarette on the woman’s shoulder. This is woman on woman predation at its most callous. If that was not sufficiently appalling, Hucklenbroich gloats that the woman returned like a whipped cur to hand over her earnings.
I will not deny that ‘A Crystal Diary’ both powerfully and compellingly written – So one star for that, and another for it’s sheen of honesty, which exerted on me the kind of hypnotic revolted fascination that one feels when catching a glimpse of unspeakable aberrations, madness, roadkill, or exhumed bodies.
But this writer makes of us her readers the voyeurs of her sadistic and sociopathic compulsions. We eat the meal that is set before us, but the aftertaste is putrid. The monumental self-absorption of this crook – this pimp – is not redeemed by the brutal honesty of her writing style. Here style and content are incommensurate. The ugliness in this litany of one distasteful incident after another seeps indelibly into our consciousness like a nightmare that won’t go away. I would rather have read a novel about cannibalism or vampirism than this heartless tribute to a life of dissolution.
Faderman uses words like ‘poignant’ and phrases like ‘lesbian strength’ and ‘noble courage’ to describe ‘ A Crystal Diary’, but in my view ‘despicable and ‘contemptible’ would have served us better. Faderman blames the publishers of this book for not doing a better job of promoting it, and for not including what must have been the flattering blurb she was asked to write, and wrote. However I can see the dilemma faced by the publishers had they tried to aggressively pitch this book to p.c lesbians. It would have been like trying to sell rotten meat to devout vegetarians.
I am not an uncritical respector of p.c. ( p.c lesbians would blench to read this book ), and I have no difficulties with squeamish themes. Much maligned Humbert Humbert, the professorial pedophile in Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ is in my estimation quite a sympathetic character: But Humbert is a paragon of propriety and sexual epicureanism compared to this vulgar bit of autobiographical depravity, which also contains some disgusting graphic sex – sex minus humanity. I found particularly galling the glib and callous (no doubt meant to be humourous and satirical) pseudo-commandments of the butch’s code.
We cheer when the ruthless seducer Don Giovanni in Mozart’s opera gets his final comeuppance. The audience feels a certain satisfaction when the earth splits open, and the Don is helplessly dragged into the fiery inferno of hell. This is not vindictiveness, but the wish for a moral symmetry. We feel a little uneasy when evil deeds go punished, or the murderer gets away with his crime. Such things are not to be passed over with a wink and a nod. But the Don ( who never tortured and prostituted the women he seduced) is a choirboy in comparison to this monster. Even other well-known sexual miscreants like Cassanova and the picaresque Encolpius of the ‘Satyricon’ appear in comparison to be likable philanderers and harmless rogues whose seductions are decidedly non toxic.
So in my view it would have taken an act of retribution – a punitive fiat, or at the very least an expression of remorse for this story to have been redeemed. Suddenly I find in myself feeling a new and unexpected empathy for Dante (I have read him in the original Italian and still think he is overrated) whose over-the-top delight in and unsparing descriptions of a thousand hellish scenes, was little more than a crude revenge fantasy finished off with a careful sugar coating of literary virtuosity.
But there is no sugar to be found here.