Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Big Cold Sea

What is failure and what is success? Does one cancel out the other?

These questions aren't subject to reason, and the answers I give myself vary from day to day. If a feeling of success is a momentary warm glow, a feeling of failure is a deep, cold sea in which one can easily drown, surrounded by rusting metal and broken glass.

In my Baby Boom American childhood, successful women were good housekeepers, discreetly sexy wives and mothers of well-behaved children. Successful men had well-paid careers or, if they were like my academic father, they compensated for small salaries by having big ideas. When Second Wave feminism arose in my late teens, I decided to seek the kind of success that comes from individual accomplishment rather than from an attachment to someone else. Consciously, I wanted to be an honorary man. Secretly, I wanted an androgynous life of accomplishments and relationships.

My family moved to Canada, where I acquired a boyfriend who told me he felt called to become a writer and express big ideas. The essays he wrote in our shared high school classes were full of awkward sentences and grammatical mistakes, so I edited and typed them for him before he handed them in. I wanted to be the rock he relied on.

When I won a major award in a national student writing contest, Boyfriend told me that my writing was an ego trip. He said he hoped I would be happy with myself, because I would never have a Significant Other. A literary career would apparently be poor consolation for the lonely life of a failed woman.

I went to university, and discovered an emerging body of feminist theory that defined women in general as an oppressed class. I realized that most of my personal failures, as I thought of them, could be seen as tiny symptoms of a vast historical injustice. Yet political analysis could not tell me who I could have been in a social system with no "isms."

Some feminist literature of the time sang the praises of “sisterhood.” I joined the campus women's centre, which lacked an organizational structure, and was ignored by the core group during meetings, which lacked an agenda. I was told that rules and structures were patriarchal. Apparently I had a bad smell, so I stopped going to meetings or calling myself a feminist.

I was befriended by a gorgeous, overachieving female classmate who had no use for the women’s movement. For many years, she demonstrated a kind of sisterly loyalty to me that I never felt from my actual sisters or my “sisters” in any metaphorical sense.

But one good friendship didn’t seem to make up for my failures in every other sphere. My writing was a great source of comfort after every personal rejection, yet writing in a social vacuum was never enough. I wanted to get something published, and my desire for recognition and dialogue with interested readers made me vulnerable to more rejection. Most of my writing submissions to unknown editors seemed to disappear into the sea of lost things.

I married a man who said I could write "on my own time," but his alcoholic rages took up much of our time together, and he suspected me of compulsive cheating whenever we were not in the same room. I escaped with a baby and moved in with my parents, where we stayed for two years. A few of my friends claimed to admire me for resisting abuse, but my divorce hardly seemed like a medal for courage under fire.

That wasn't the last of my failures.

My parents offered to support me until I could qualify to teach high-school English. I succeeded in my education classes, but failed my practicum at a high school where the real teachers made it clear that I was not one of them. My degree in English was actually described as a barrier between me and my teenage students. The students pushed their luck, as could be expected, and I was judged a failure at maintaining discipline in the classroom.

In my early thirties, I supported myself and my daughter as a call girl. I succeeded at acquiring a cult following of regulars, and I discovered the power of having nowhere further to fall. No one could shame me by calling me a whore when it was a statement of fact. But there was no comfortable future in it.

In my “private” life, I had wonderful sex with women. However, most of my bar-based lesbian relationships could be described as boozy misunderstandings. I learned that power dykes push their way into the boys' club of dangerous, well-paid blue-collar work. No one could imagine me earning a living with power tools, including me.

Failure at everything was the filthy water I lived in. I considered giving custody of my child to my parents, then killing myself in a way that would look like an accident, leaving her a fortune in insurance benefits. I spent a sleepless night trying to perfect this plan. I was stopped by the likelihood of failure.

Eventually, I acquired a Revenge of the Nerd teaching job at the local university, where academic knowledge is not considered a disadvantage. Much of my writing has been published. I don't feel any closer to fame than I ever was, but this is probably a good thing. Famous lives don't necessarily end well.

I am now legally married to the woman I have lived with for over twenty years. We have investments and real estate. Her two grown sons call us both "mom," and we are also their landladies.

So it seems I'm not a complete failure, either as a woman (spouse/mother/friend) or a man (teacher/writer/social activist). On bad days, I feel like such a failure that the movie of my sorry-ass life fills the screen of my imagination. This epic has some title like "Down to the Depths" or "Outcast: Why Jean Roberta's Blood Relatives Don’t Want Their Family Name to Be Used Here."

However, I have all the trappings of a comfortable middle-class life. I’m still breathing; the big cold sea hasn’t closed over my head yet. That may be as much success as any mortal can reasonably expect.


  1. Great post, loved it.
    I do think that in the end, success or failure - defined by society or by ourselves as personal goals - don't mean squat when the big cold sea eventually does close over our heads. What remains is: was I happy and did I make those I loved happy?
    (some people go for success first and then expect to be happy; me, I'm just striving for happy, and maybe success will turn up - or not!)

  2. Jean - Whew! What a life! Congrats on your biggest success - love.

  3. Wow. What a struggle you went through to achieve what you have. Well done.

  4. What an incredible life you've lead! Congratulations on being this orsum. You're an inspiration!

  5. To have gone through what you have and survived is testament to your strength. That surely must count as success.

  6. I can't add anything that is worthy here, except to say that I look forward to reading more of your things. Good luck with this new venture. May both gods and goddesses look down upon you.

  7. Welcome to our blog. I think we've been waiting for you and maybe didn;t know it.

    You've really been through some raw experiences. But like Kathleen said you've acheived success at love and it looks like your career is okay. I think you're a victem or a specimen of interesting times, where everything is in transition and you;ve been at so much of the center of it. I have so many questions i hope you can answer over time about your odd journey from heterosexual to lesbian and how that works.


  8. Hello, Jean!

    First of all, I really want to welcome you as a regular contributor to the Grip. I always loved your essays at ERWA, and I look forward to your insights and sly humor here.

    As Jay commented, if we allow society to define the meaning of success, most of us are bound to fail. One of the benefits of getting older, I've found, is the ability to shrug off the dictates of the so-called majority if they don't fit personally. I congratulate you on building a life that is emotionally and intellectually sustaining. That's really all that matters.


  9. Really outstanding introductory post, Jean and what an amazing life. Here, I thought I knew you.

    I think failure is primarily in our own heads. What is failure to one may be success to another and we need to just keep crawling over the face of the earth, touching and being touched in as many ways as possible. Sometimes I feel successful and sometimes I don't. I'm afraid the traditional success of monetary gains is simply out of reach for an erotica writer but that doesn't make us failures--even if our families disown us.

    As we used to say, just keep on keeping on!

  10. Thanks to all of you! I had no idea my first post would get this much response! I feel overwhelmed by the support. You've demonstrated the concept of a "chosen family." - Jean


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