In Search of Pure Lust by Lise Weil

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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.

Annick MacAskill

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