THE TERRITORY OF MEN, by JOELLE FRASER
Reminiscent of The Liars' Club and Shutterbabe, The Territory of Men is an honest, engrossing memoir by a woman born in mid-1960s San Francisco that describes the rootless, ruleless life that left her in perpetual search for -- and retreat from -- men.
The daughter of a beautiful flower child and an alcoholic writer, Joelle grew up in the drug and music-filled era of the 1960's and '70's in California and Hawaii. She had no bedtime and no boundaries, but she did have "dads" in abundance as her mother went from boyfriend to boyfriend, husband to husband, torn between the traditional rules of motherhood and the new freedoms of her generation and women's liberation.
She learned that a woman's life -- free or not -- is played out in men's territory: men arrive, they make life matter, and, sooner or later, they go away.
This clear-eyed memoir captures a childhood with no center in vivid, frank writing, then goes on to show how a legacy like this affects a girl growing up. Pretty and blonde, Joelle was drawn to places where men congregated -- bars, prisons, firing ranges -- ever striving to unlock the mysteries of men, often at great cost
"The photo, left to right is of our dog Star, Mac (my third father), my mother and me together, and then my Aunt Kathy on the far right. It's from 1970, in Sausalito."
July 22, 2002
A Flower-Power Childhood and Serial Daddys
By JANET MASLIN
THE TERRITORY OF MEN
By Joelle Fraser
Illustrated. 222 pages. Villard Books.
When Joelle Fraser was a little girl, she understood that late at night was the time when the grown-ups got in the hot tub. Her favorite aunt and the aunt's friends wore high boots and long coats and dangling jewelry as they inhaled white powder off the kitchen table. Houses smelled like meat and bread and marijuana. "I was loved," Ms. Fraser recalls. "I had no bedtime. I fell asleep on laps and couches and on piles of coats, and sometimes a dog or another kid slept beside me. I was never alone."
Father was a surfer. Mother "was in real estate but more into EST, palm reading and alcohol." Home was ever-changing, as Ms. Fraser was toted around Northern California, Hawaii (where her father had grown up) and coastal Oregon. Wherever they were, her parents' houses they split up around the time of her first birthday, in 1967 seemed to have revolving bedroom doors. "Any man, every man, could be my father," she writes, about her late-60's childhood memories.
"This is what it means to be a daughter: you're a package deal," she remembers. "I came with the mother, not the other way around, and each man treated me accordingly." As for those men, "my fathers, in chronological order: Ken, Michael, Mac, Tom, Brad and Steve." And in the end, "a man was my father for a few years, and he wiped my nose and taught me his favorite songs or told me about Orion or read to me from books about Alaska. But I never saw any of them again."
Self-pity takes a back seat to simple, poignant accuracy as Ms. Fraser looks backward. With the kind of parental turnover that she experienced, "it became natural by the fourth or fifth father to withdraw a bit, keep my distance. This was wise because of the new rules and habits to adapt to. Some fathers let me jump on the bed; others watched to make sure I made it properly." In the end, "it was understood that I and my mother and my brother were incomplete in the between-men times."
"The Territory of Men," Ms. Fraser's confident first book, is an autobiographical effort to take stock of such an upbringing and its consequences. Although she will surprise no one by revealing that these formative years made her grow up to be commitment-phobic and inclined to drown her sorrows, Ms. Fraser writes interestingly and affectingly about her flower-powered childhood.
Planted squarely on territory that already belongs to Mary Karr and "The Liars' Club," she nonetheless presents a resonant account of what it was like to watch her parents drift and ricochet, wondering what this would mean about her own future. Occasional precious and conspicuously writerly touches like use of the second person to describe herself ("You like to reveal yourself slowly, if at all") are far outweighed by thoughtful frankness.
In a book that carries its author from trusting na๏vet้ to a painful awareness of her parents' problems, Ms. Fraser makes a sharp observer of domestic details that speak for themselves. "A stranger would think it the scene of a crime, or of a wild act of passion," she writes about her mother's bedroom. "After school, I'd often come back and find her passed out, surrounded by broken glass, unearthed houseplants flung across the floor, as though a horrendous riot had taken place. But I knew it was just her, battling her own demons." When her mother married her third (and her daughter's least favorite) husband, the mood of the wedding was "as if the guests were trying to muster the energy for one more cheer for a losing team."
About her father, an aspiring writer who spent a sober year and a half in Mill Valley, Calif., but later drifted back to Hawaii and dissolved into alcohol: "When my father drank, he just slowed down like an old toy." One of her most alarming experiences while visiting her father was being taken out bar-hopping by his girlfriend at the time, Brandy. "You get a guy to pick up your tab," Brandy explained to the teenage Joelle, thus assuring the daughter that her father would soon be alone again.
Because she treats her parents as larger-than-life figures, Ms. Fraser fades slightly in describing her adulthood. By the standards of her childhood, it sounds relatively tame. She marries and tries to fit into a more conventional world than the one of her past. ("I find myself watching TV commercials for behavior tips.") She teaches writing to convicted felons who interest her more than her husband does; then the marriage fails. She has one affair with a young student and another with a playboy winemaker who flaunts his affluence. "In the candlelight, the colorful sauces and glazes shine like rain-soaked flowers," she writes of dinner with him. The seduction takes on a predatory aspect as they "eat creatures from Easter scenes rabbit and duck, lamb and quail."
Did her upbringing determine her choosing or failing to stay with these men? "The Territory of Men" is least interesting when it raises that myopic question. And it is least convincing when it affirms Ms. Fraser's ultimate rapprochement with her mother. The childhood damage it describes with such compelling immediacy is not so easily pigeonholed or swept away.
The Parent Trap
By Carolyn See,
whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays
Friday, July 26, 2002; Page C03
By Joelle Fraser
Villard. 223 pp. $22.95
|I teach classes in writing the memoir, and I know if I'd had Joelle Fraser when she was producing "The Territory of Men," I'd have encouraged her thus, in literary terms: "Don't worry about any of this, honey. What's bad for you is good for you, and you get to think of your childhood as your donn้e, your dowry, if you will -- just like an ox, and a red cart with bells, and a set of matching china. Your material is your treasure, this unique set of experiences, and you'll have it with you for the rest of your life. You're already putting it to very good work. So congratulations!"||
But in my head I'd have been writing irate letters to the "authorities" of this world, whomever they may be. To the pope: If you'd stop prattling on about birth control being a sin and make it a sin to have kids that you're not going to take care of, then the world might possibly be a better place! Or, to President Bush: Would you please pummel with a flyswatter the adviser who gave you the crack-brained idea that poor people ought to get married more often? Because look at this memoir I've been reading! The author's mom and her fourth, ex-con, husband rack up eight marriages between them, and they've sown a very wide swath of heartbreak here. What on earth could they -- or you, for that matter -- have been thinking?
And I'd have whispered to the author, in loco parentis, you know, you've mistitled this book. It shouldn't be "The Territory of Men," but "The Territory of Loser Men"! Didn't your mother ever tell you that there are plenty of men out there (and how the author would sigh at this) who don't drink themselves to death, who can hold a job, who don't write dubious poetry or get themselves sent to jail or subsist on minimum-wage jobs? But it would be futile, hopeless, poky -- because Joelle Fraser's mind-set has been part of American life since the first guys in steerage staggered out of the bottom half of the Mayflower and queried, with desperate, alcoholic cheer, "Where's the bar around here?"
Perhaps just because it's written so well, "The Territory of Men" is pure heartbreak to read. Joelle Fraser is born in the '60s, and her hapless birth parents are pure '60s folks. They do all kinds of drugs and lounge about in hot tubs and sometimes wander around naked, but mostly, they divorce early and often because they feel like it. Joelle's father is handsome, kind-hearted, elusive and alcoholic, and cherishes an ambition to write the great American novel. Joelle's mother battles grinding poverty, and is consumed by fierce periodic rages. This original mom and dad will both have sons with other people, and then, like weird malignant cells, they'll divide and unite again. Joelle's mother keeps on yelling and destroys her houseplants; the dad bellies up to a series of bars in Hawaii, making sure that he'll die young. The kids are left to fend for themselves.
So many disheartening dynamics here! Sex and drugs aside, why do men get to build bridges (and blow them up, of course), while women are still constrained to find their "adventures" by hooking up with so-called "bad" men? Why are the American poor still so distressingly poor, and why must they feel called upon to glamorize it? (Fraser refers to her family as "lower middle class"; it's one of the few occasions when she may be looking at her world through rose-colored glasses.) And why do the adventures of one generation so often turn out to be crimes against the next? Fraser's mom and dad both probably thought they were expressing themselves, living life to the fullest, while they cried, drank and ran in the streets and couldn't pay their bills and batted their various kids around like tennis balls from one "home" or one "parent" to another. To what end?
What in fact they've produced is an excellent, gorgeous writer who thinks it's smart to head toward the tumult during a prison riot or spend long evenings in "dive bars," sure that life is more authentic at the very, very bottom of the heap; someone who's absolutely sure about her ability to leave a decent guy, and not at all sure about her ability to stay with anyone. "It's not glamorous!" the reader wants to tell her. Breakfast every morning is glamorous. Don't you get it?
But it totally doesn't matter. Life at the bottom of American life vigorously continues, with many a smile, a song, a brutish blow, a fancy bar-drink. When Joelle Fraser explains her father's alcoholism as the result of two useful car crashes, the sudden discovery of his own father's affair and Hawaii's passage into statehood in 1959, the reader just has to shrug and say: That's rationalizing memory for you. Brilliant, often, but tending to be cracked. That's why the genre is called memoir, not nonfiction.
In sad pursuit of happiness
Memoir portrays young writer as disconnected yet hopeful
Reviewed by Sara Ivry
Sunday, July 21, 2002
The Territory of Men
By Joelle Fraser
As an unhappily married graduate student in Spokane, Wash., Joelle Fraser regularly joined a group of friends on so-called dive-bar tours. They were a diversion for her from the bourgeois normalcy to which her husband aspired. The young writers, some of whom were consciously slumming, spoke of pilgrimages they hoped to make and considered the precarious line separating them from the career drunks in their midst. It was a relatively joyless affair during which, Fraser pointedly notes in "The Territory of Men," "we all laugh real hard like we're having fun."
Though the comment comes midway through her memoir, the sense of existential dislocation Fraser identifies is already quite familiar. Until then, and thereafter, Fraser tells an itinerant story in which she, like her mother before her, seemed to stumble from affair to affair, and town to town, ever seeking an anchor and some measure of happiness in the arms of a man.
Predictably, that happiness was elusive, not merely because of the saw that contentment is found within, but because the relationships Fraser describes didn't last. By the end of the first chapter, Fraser's parents have separated. Her father was unable to keep a job and Fraser hints at the alcoholism that both parents fought throughout their lives. The forecast is bleak, but Fraser is skilled with her prose and lends an air of carefree abandon to the initial circumstances. It was, after all, California in the '60s.
"I was loved. I had no bedtime. I fell asleep on laps and couches and piles of coats, and sometimes a dog or another kid slept beside me. I was never alone." She and a half-brother witnessed a parade of boyfriends entering and exiting her mother's life and theirs as well. In some cases, as with the abusive Tom, the departure was a blessing. In others, like the beloved Mac, her "third father," the leave-taking cut a wound exacerbated by the ebb and flow of her mother's moods. "Whenever she looked at me, I felt as if I'd moved into sunlight, but when she turned away, I was suddenly chilled and a little afraid," Fraser says.
Before long, Fraser began mimicking her mother's behavior, deriving a sense of self-worth from interaction with men and likely hoping to achieve a measure of intimacy with her mother through this common pursuit. Blaine, a fellow sixth-grader, coaxed a kiss out of Fraser only to then leave her, alone, behind the football bleachers. Keith was a hard, dangerous surfer who taught Fraser to shoot a gun and whose lure she preferred to her staid college boyfriend. There were her students at a prison with whom she shared illicit, unbidden clues about herself.
It was in her later relationship with Johnny, however, that Fraser seemed to allow herself a tender, emotional connection. Nevertheless, she left him, scared that in time he would do the same. To be first out the door, thus, was to retain control; the fear of its lack overwhelmed her. "Either you decide to leave, or someone tells you to go," she writes. Her mother, she asserts, "taught me how to leave. What I never learned, and maybe never will, is how to stay."
Her father, with whom she lived at various points, schooled her in other ways. His drinking remained a problem largely until his death, hampering his writing career, and Fraser must contend with the fact that she accommodated his addiction. For her, the dive-bar tours offered a glimpse into her father's interior life and a way to get closer to him. She writes of her time with him in Hawaii, making leis and having a drink, and explores why she turned out differently from a murdered cousin. Fraser remarks that she is cleaved in two and marvels that she did not end up likewise dead or incapacitated by alcohol. Despite her parents' shortfalls, and her own, Fraser's portrayals are loving and forgiving.
Though many episodes and characters in this memoir appear in brilliant color, they fade in haste. New names are dropped as if they were already familiar, only to slip quickly and permanently away. On occasion, she makes pronouncements that, in spite of their relative truth, feel overwrought and offers anecdotes that, though somewhat titillating, are repetitive in their illustration of Fraser's anomie.
In some cases, the loose threads may prove frustrating to readers who crave narrative resolution, though there is no denying the gossamer quality they create seems to reflect Fraser's own, somewhat listless lifestyle. Ultimately, Fraser is a graceful writer with a keen eye. Her physical descriptions are vivid. Infrequently, she writes of "a place inside that I pull into when I need to, a safe place," and a "place deep inside," where her anger crawled.
Those turns of phrase seem, in this Oprah age, fairly melodramatic. More often, fortunately, Fraser sticks to painting pictures of her past that are, like life, a little sad and a little hopeful.
Sara Ivry has written for the New York Times, the Hartford Courant and Time Out New York.
The adventures of a restless spirit
REVIEW BY REBECCA DENTON
At age four Joelle Fraser was smoking pot and drinking beer through a straw. A tow-headed free spirit, she roamed unchaperoned through the hippie-strewn streets of Sausalito, California, in the early '70s, selling her watercolor paintings to strangers. As a teenager, she partied with her father's 21-year-old girlfriend. Fraser's experiences, recounted in her debut book, The Territory of Men, are the stuff of which unforgettable memoirs are made. Full of lively, honest prose that flows like poetry, the narrative of her life reads like an intimate conversation and is reminiscent of the work of Mary Karr and Lisa Michaels - other gifted authors whose lives were shaped by hard-drinking, troubled parents with unconventional child-rearing styles.
Fraser opens the book with the image of her pregnant, sweaty mother driving herself to the hospital - windows down, hair flying - while her father and his buddies smoke cigarettes, swig gin and sing "California Dreamin'" in the back seat. Rowdy and a bit sad, the snapshot captures the essence of much of Fraser's childhood. Set in northern California, the small towns of Oregon and the islands of Hawaii, Fraser's story traces the events that shaped her restless spirit. Her mother leaves her father - a likeable writer who works odd jobs and drinks away his dreams - when Fraser is just a toddler. A steady stream of boyfriends and husbands follows, paving the way to Fraser's understanding of relationships. "Early on," she writes, "I decided that it is always better to have a man around." With sharp candor, she tells about her own forays into love, from the awkward sweetness of a first kiss to the dull ache of a failed marriage. She finds herself drawn to violence, to prisons, to men who use her. And from her mother she learns how to leave. Still, Fraser writes about her parents and their choices with compassion and insight. The scenes involving her father are some of the most touching and graceful in the book.
Without claiming to know all the answers, Fraser evocatively describes her mistakes, triumphs, disappointments and dreams. Her thoughts and feelings are beautifully rendered - even when the portraits aren't flattering. Ultimately, her vignettes fall into a larger pattern that resonates beyond her personal experiences. Full of truth, forgiveness and gentle introspection, The Territory of Men is an impressive first book from a promising young writer.
Rebecca Denton is a copy editor and freelance writer in Nashville.
08/27/2002 - Updated 12:11 AM ET
'Territory' tracks difficult terrain
By Andrea E. Hoag, special for USA TODAY
Men who needs them? Joelle Fraser's memoir, The Territory of Men, tries to answer the question on the minds of millions of women on any given day.
Throughout her childhood in the '60s, Fraser's flower-child mother never felt complete without a man around. After her parents split, the shy Joelle was dragged from Sausalito flophouses and leaky San Francisco houseboats to late-'60s nudist colonies while her mother looked for love.
Single life for Fraser's mom meant depression and drunken binges, although married life brought beatings and eventual desertion. The fascinating story that emerges in The Territory of Men is one of child neglect tempered with occasional bursts of love and protection from the mother Joelle so longed to have to herself.
Fraser masterfully conveys the constant anxiety she felt as a child. Dad fades from her life and is replaced by a succession of stepfathers. To earn the attention of her beautiful mother, the young girl gracefully accepts any new man in their lives, no matter how angry or controlling.
At one point, Fraser's stepfather of the moment is a meaty ex-con adorned with prison tattoos. Here is a man whose idea of father-daughter bonding consists of delivering monologues on how to steal copper wiring or dispose of human remains. And this is one of the good guys.
One of the book's rare disappointments is Fraser's cardboard rendering of her real father, a rum-soaked man who lives in Hawaii. She boasts of her father's wonderful storytelling, but after the buildup, he is not given the chance to tell these stories.
Fraser's best scenes unfold when she describes her adult misadventures in the world of testosterone. Blessed with her mother's beauty, she attracts any man she wants, but she is unable to sustain a happy long-term relationship. This is partly the result of a childhood fraught with relationships that usually turned bad, where it was easier to replace the man than repair the relationship.
Whether she's having sex in a millionaire's hot tub or bedding a handsome poet, Fraser is willing to give men her body but never her heart. Readers might notice that although the author is quick to discuss the good looks she got from her mother, she seems less prepared to take her mother to task for the attitudes she has inherited from her about men.
A former cheerleader makes an unlikely protagonist for a woe-is-me memoir, but Fraser points out that beauty doesn't win her easy admission into the "territory of men."
Posted on: Sunday, August 11, 2002
Memoir manages to be enthralling and appalling
Advertiser Staff Writer
"The Territory of Men: A Memoir" by Joelle Fraser. Villard, hardback, $22.95
"The Territory of Men" is easy to read but hard to take.
Hard to take not because it's poorly written, but because Joelle Fraser is so adept at conveying the essence of her life story that the reader cannot maintain distance. Hers is a troubling life, and this book is troubling, too. Even members of her family have been unable to finish reading it, or had to take it in small bursts.
Fraser, who lives in Portland, Ore., now, considers Hawai'i her heart's home even though she has bounced between the Islands, the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest over the years.
She recalls in unvarnished detail her childhood as the daughter of an alcoholic writer and a hippie-artsy mother. And she reflects on how that upbringing, and particularly her mother's trail of five marriages and innumerable relationships and alliances, have affected her own ability to negotiate the territory of men.
It is the small scenes that strike the hardest:
Joelle, at age 3, sent to the neighborhood store for groceries with a list in her pocket that she's too young to read ("wheat bread, peanut butter, milk and Winstons or Marlboros"). "My mother taught me to be independent."
Joelle, at 4, partying with her mom and their friends in the marina community where they lived, sipping wine from a cup and beer through a straw and taking her tokes of grass just like the rest. "I had no bedtime. I fell asleep on laps and couches and on piles of coats, and sometimes a dog or another kid slept beside me. I was never alone."
Joelle, at 5, selling her artwork among the flower children on Bridgeway Street, lured into an alleyway by a molester, fondled and then let go. "There is a place inside that I pull into when I need to, a safe place where I hope he can't reach me. I pretend I don't feel his mouth or see his face."
Her mother changes lovers as often as most of us change the oil in our car. Her father, the fallen son of a well-connected family, changes partners less often, but offers no surer a haven a couch to crash on, a new girlfriend almost as young as Joelle herself, drinks and cigarettes and never enough money or even, sometimes, enough food.
For her mother, it was always the men. For her father, gambling and booze. And neither Fraser nor her brother could compete.
All this ought to be appalling. And it is.
But this book is no crime list and Fraser is no victim. She does not even seem to be particularly angry at her treatment; the only point at which she is overcome by rage is when she hears about someone who enticed her father to drink during the one period in his adult life when he had managed to sober up.
Fraser, it seems, was saved by love. And this book is saved by it, too.
Because Fraser's parents, as irresponsible and self-involved as they seem to have been, loved her and let her know it. Her father the late Ken Goring, author of "Gone to Maui," a novel that enjoyed considerable celebrity in its day listened to her stories, gave her writing advice, beamed his pride in her wherever they went. Her mother happily married now for more than a decade, working in social service and into Native American spirituality was a fierce defender and encouraged her creativity.
"The Territory of Men" is written as a series of linked essays, in a jumpy context-less style that may leave some readers scrambling. It moves abruptly from Fraser's childhood to teen years, largely skips over her time at the University of Hawai'i and moves on to young adulthood and her own serial relationships with men.
Fraser is unfailingly candid, doesn't attempt to shield anyone in the story from censure, including herself, and displays extraordinary self awareness, so that we're able to peer into her depths and get a surprisingly clear picture of her frame of mind from scene to scene.
Only a piece on her cousin's death at the hands of a violent husband seems shoehorned in and rather intrusive. Fraser, who made a trip to Las Vegas to research the crime, seems to have thought that this incident would explain something to her about men and women, but the insights gained seem trite and not up to Fraser's standard.
The last two chapters, however, are gems.
In "Notes from Maui," she sadly searches her father's book for insight into his character and reproaches herself for never having confronted him on his drinking (get thee to an Al-Anon meeting, my friend).
In "Where Love Is," her mother recalls one of the many times that she betrayed her children's trust for the sake of a man and says, simply, "I'm sorry," something many of us wait a lifetime to hear, and aren't able to believe when we do.
But Fraser forgives her mother, not out of pity but and this is worse because she empathizes.
"The same emptiness in her also lives in me," she writes. Still, the reader senses that it's an emptiness that she has learned to live with more comfortably and less self-destructively than her parents did.
Mother's Day, 1966
Watch us as we barrel across that bright bridge toward San Francisco, the gray waves of the ocean seething and crashing below. It's a warm May day, the windows are wide open, and my mother's black hair flies wildly around her sweating face.
We're late for the hospital, but traffic is light? and this is a party, after all, one that began in the morning and lasted all night and hasn't stopped for years. In the backseat, my father sits between two friends, smoking a cigarette, lips stained dark from gin and grape juice. He grins at my mother in front, tells her to hold on. He says wouldn't it be a great story if they had a baby on the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin' " comes on the radio, and everyone sings, the words swept up by scarves of fog and spread over the sea. They're drunk, all of them, all but my mother, who leans back to ease the pain, belly swollen, legs braced because it's almost time and I'm pushing to get out.
That summer my mother's twenty-four and broke, living in a small flat in Sausalito with an infant, and my father's away somewhere trying to earn money. He's lost jobs, as a shoe salesman, as a ranger in Muir Woods? he was let go for not keeping the latrines clean enough. This last job, at a landscaping company, they fired him for pulling out the jasmine instead of the weeds. He's been away from home for weeks.
She reads my father's letter, which says he's lost his fourth job, and it's his fourth job in half a year. Life is much harder now with a baby, and she suspects that it will not ease up soon, or ever. She remembers those wonderful evenings after they were first married, living here in Sausalito, drinking Red Mountain wine at three dollars a gallon, feet dangling over the water as the fog lifted and the small boats floated by on the bay, with San Francisco's lights beyond. She thinks of the late nights at Contact, the art magazine they worked at in the city, and the concerts at the Fillmore. She has all the memories of the year before, in New York, when he worked at Look and she at Mademoiselle. In New York, the party began Wednesday and ended late Monday night: their home was an open invitation to visit anytime but Tuesday. They made jokes about their lifestyle, how it was like the title from Hemingway's book A Moveable Feast. Almost every night they drank, and in the morning woke to friends passed out on their floor.
They were both dreamers, but my mother had a practical side, and it was mostly this concern for the future and for a sense of security that came between them. When they argued, it was about money, which fell through the cracks of their lives, emptied on booze and parties and books. But they had loved each other while it was just the two of them, and that was all that really mattered.
Then she got pregnant with me and they headed back west. My mother tries not to think about the way her life has turned, how somewhere along the way the wheel jerked and took a hard left onto a road she didn't want to go down or wasn't ready for.
Excerpted from The Territory of Men by Joelle Fraser Copyright 2002 by Joelle Fraser.
See texts written by JOELLE FRASER here