In Search of Pure Lust by Lise Weil
Much like groundbreaking historical surveys by queer authors such as Leslie Feinberg and Lillian Faderman, first-person narratives about life in earlier gay and lesbian communities can help fill the gaps in queer history. For this reason, I was eager to read Lise Weil’s new memoir, In Search of Pure Lust, which follows the author from her childhood to her coming out in the 1970s, continuing with her life as an academic, lesbian feminist, and writer in New England and Québec in the 1980s and 1990s. Along the way, she engages in what seems an endless string of passionate affairs.
I was drawn in by the author’s description of her involvement in the women’s movement—writing workshops where participants composed poems inspired by tarot cards (a detail that seems eerily contemporary), reading groups held in large rural homes, and the founding and operation of the radical feminist journal Trivia. Weil is at her best when it comes to these scenes; she has a knack for establishing atmosphere, and I enjoyed reading about the many prominent feminists she met
over the course of her career, including Canadians Nicole Brossard, Daphne Marlatt, and Betsy Warland.
Unfortunately, other elements in the book detract from these strengths. Much like the memoir’s title, the framing provided by the epigraphs (drawn primarily from famous women writers and Buddhist texts) found at the head of each chapter is often heavy-handed, almost corny. An already dreamy chapter about a passionate, tumultuous relationship is set up, for example, by quotations from a Cris Williamson love song and Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet.
Similarly, the author’s tendency to explore the minutiae of her love affairs’ dissolution means that both Weil and these relationships can come off as petty. It was also disappointing to read about Weil and her fellow white feminists’ reactions to marginalized voices in the women’s movement—particularly Black women, who are repeatedly described as “angry” and divisive, but also other groups, like disability activists, whose efforts to educate their peers are quickly dismissed—which is downright cringe-worthy and problematic.
I found myself waiting for Weil to pause and reflect on this discomfort with others’ claiming space for themselves, but this never came. In addition, the author seems unaware of the wider implications of her and other white women’s appropriation of elements of other cultures, such as traditional African goddesses and Zen Buddhism. In one particularly painful scene, Weil and her lover are on a flight that encounters turbulence. Her lover, a white woman from the American South, attempts to comfort the other woman in their aisle, a woman from East Africa, with stories of fierce African goddesses. The entire anecdote is related without reflection or comment. While the memoir certainly sheds light on an important moment in queer and feminist history, it is compromised by a lack of intersectionality, and as such, fails to adequately raise up all participants in the women’s movement.