Susan Asher: My Mother and Porn

I’d never thought of my foray into porn as rebellion.

If everything’s rebellion,

is anything rebellion?

Susan4

“What’s a nice girl like you doing working in porn,” asked the very important director.

We were eating our lunch together on the set of my first film. We both chuckled at the cliche. But it was a serious question.

 “What’s makes you think I’m a nice girl?”

“Oh, you know. You just seem so different from the rest of the folks here.

“Well, I probably am. How many of them have a degree from Berkeley in English literature and two nice middle class parents?”

“So, you’re rebelling against your parents?”

Well, not exactly.

That was a complicated question for me.

Looking back, I could clearly see the trajectory that had led me here. I’d been a girl with many interests and passions, raised in post World War II Los Angeles by parents who were happy to just be living a normal, boring life.

At the age of twenty-six—and in spite of her great charm and beauty and wealth—my mother had broken two engagements and had already been deemed an old maid, resigned to enjoying her cousin’s children, but never having a family of her own. “What a pity,” everyone in her family said. “She’s just too choosy.”

My father, until his conscription into the army at the age of thirty, had barely left the confines of the back bedroom of his parents’ house, except for work or to go on the occasional date. Before the war, he’d landed a job at Universal Studios in special effects. He’d worked on The Wizard of Oz, being one of several dozen who spent a day and a half tying down artificial flowers on a soundstage to create the field of poppies in which Dorothy lost her consciousness.

During my childhood, he constructed the fiber glass helmets worn by the Roman Legionnaires in the Elizabeth Taylor debacle Cleopatra, built the oversized basement for The Incredible Shrinking Man, and later the harness that made Julie Andrews fly in Mary Poppins. He was like a wise guy of show business—not part of the main body, but a solid and necessary appendage.

If not for the war, my American father and British mother would never have found each other. But when they did it was magic—at least for them. I saw little evidence of it in my life, however. Once they’d fulfilled their purpose—to have me and my sister—all magic seemed to have ended.

I was a typical suburban child of the fifties. Isolated on a street where my only playmate had a penchant for setting off fire alarms in public places, and was thus not considered a suitable companion. I was often left without guidance—until something went wrong. Then they were on me like the mayo frosting on my mother’s lime jello mold.

SusanAWhen I was six, I broke my arm roller skating on the sidewalk. I had been expressly forbidden to leave the safety of our backyard and my mother’s eight-hundred square foot patio. I found those confines far too restricting, but I hadn’t noticed the broken piece of concrete that tripped me up one Sunday afternoon and sent us all to the emergency room. Without a word being spoken, I knew this was my punishment for disobeying my mother.

Later, the rebellions were a little different. Sex was involved. And show business. I’d been told all my life that I was an actress—natural born. From the time I was five or six years old, my mother had me in plays and performing in various other ways. I spent my childhood and adolescence in one drama group, dance class, and little theater production after another. I learned to tap dance and play the accordion. I took voice lessons, elocution lessons and attended a charm school where I learned to pose like a model, one foot skewed slightly in front of the other.

I didn’t mind any of this. I liked the family atmosphere of the theater.

The camaraderie and friendship of adults. I liked getting out of the house, where we all tended to sit squashed together like tiny fish on the scratchy Early American sofa in front of the television.

I was a fairly good actress (I think), and I always imagined I would just be an actress when I grew up. But I had no idea how to go about becoming a “real” actress. And by the time I finished high school I had developed other aspirations.

I thought I might be a doctor. Not a Beverly Hills doctor, but a Doctor Livingston type of doctor, going to exotic locales, ministering to the needy rather than the privileged. And ever since I’d discovered foreign and other art films at the age of fifteen, I wanted to be a filmmaker. Not a Hollywood filmmaker, but the auteur of deep, sensitive, artistic films. But I lacked an adequate roadmap for either of these occupations, and doubted that I had the talent or the capability for either. Plus, I wasn’t supposed to have a career of my own. I was supposed to live in the reflected glory of a professional man (ideally a doctor) and have hobbies while I devoted myself to raising his children.

I was a rudderless ship with a lot of force behind its sails.

By the time I was sixteen, I was no longer committed to maintaining my virginity until marriage. That seemed like such a far off and impossible-to-achieve goal. But it’s not like I was ready to have sex. I wasn’t being pressured or tempted. I didn’t even have a boyfriend. It was nothing but an idea. In reality, the thought of having sex in 1960 terrified me. Although the birth control pill had been approved, it wouldn’t be available for a number of years. An unmarried pregnancy was something that we’d all been taught would “ruin a girl’s life.” And I couldn’t imagine how I could stand the way my parents would make me feel if I ever had to tell them I was pregnant.

But to my parents, the fact that I even had opinions about my possible future sex life raised a firestorm of protest. Though I’d always been encouraged to “express myself,” I was starting to realize that I was only allowed to express those things that didn’t make them uncomfortable. But I’d been so programmed to share my views, that I kept right on doing it even as it turned every dinner hour into a minor war zone.

My desire to have sex was considered rebellion. My desire to go to college and have a career was considered rebellion. My work as a cub reporter on the UCLA Bruin—rebellion. My penchant for hanging out with artists and musicians instead of pre-med students—more rebellion. My various ordinary choices—to cut my hair, to wear a red dress instead of a blue one, my preference for salt and pepper on my french toast instead of powdered sugar—rebellions. And unacceptable.

All my life I’d been told what I was going to do with my life—not what I should do, that might have seemed like I had a choice, but what I would do. It was as if my mother had a crystal ball and could see the future. And it was that future that I had to realize.

Once, I brought up the subject.

“I don’t think you ever just let me be myself,” I said.

“Oh, darling,” she said. “How can you say that? I always did my very best to make you the way I thought you should be.”

I had no response. If she’d ever understood, we wouldn’t have needed this conversation in the first place.

When every little thing is considered rebellion—how is a girl supposed to discover her real desires—and limits?

I’d never thought of my foray into porn as rebellion. And when the director asked me—although I answered in my typical smart assed way—I was a bit taken aback. It was a tough question. Not one I could answer with a simple yes or no.

Susan2As the sixties ended, I finished college, divorced my husband (not a doctor but the next best thing—a lawyer) of five years, and traveled in Europe for six months. And then I was done. I’d come to the end of what I could imagine for myself. There was not a single doctor in sight for me to marry. I didn’t think I was capable of having a career beyond typist. I wanted so much, and I had so little direction.

I’d spent the last couple of years of my marriage so depressed I could barely pull myself out of bed. So, leaving the marriage, finishing my degree, and traveling in Europe had been important accomplishments for me. But having completed all that, I was stuck.

Porn had arrived on the scene a couple of years earlier, and I’d been fascinated by the idea of women exposing themselves, of stripping away the veneer of acceptability.

I’d realized for years that women were second class citizens. We were expected to assume certain roles, which didn’t necessarily suit us. And the new sexual revolution, though it gave women the right to sexual expression, also awarded men with one more thing they didn’t have to earn. Just by virtue of their gender.

And it made me mad. And lost. And confused.

And so I did what anybody would do under the circumstances. I decided to make porn movies.

If I’m not good for anything but being an object, okay then, you’ve got it. Let’s not pretend that I’m a valuable human being when all you want from me is to type your reports (or legal briefs), fetch your coffee, cook your dinner, clean your house, and take my clothes off for you. I’ll just stick to the taking off my clothes part and forget the rest.

Anyway, I’d rather be a sex object than a typing object.

And in doing so, I reverted back to what I had been raised to do—be an actress. Maybe not exactly as my mother had envisioned it. But in the only way I knew how.

So no, it wasn’t rebellion. It was compliance. And more than a little bit of anger. And no, the irony wasn’t lost on me.

SusanC
Susan Asher is a retired psychologist currently living in Southern Mexico, where she gardens, makes flavored Kombucha, and writes about her past and present life. Susan has never had children of her own, but she did have a lot of mother.

 

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