Confessional journalists have people like Mary MacLane to thank for their blunt style of autobiographical writing. The 19-year-old girl from Butte, Montana shocked everyone after publishing I Await the Devil’s Coming in 1902 — perhaps even her publisher who changed the title to The Story of Mary MacLane. She was a self-proclaimed genius that lusted after the Devil, wrote about her desire for other women, and became a best-selling sensation practically overnight. Melville House has released a new edition of the unflinching memoir with an introduction by Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin. We read a passage from I Await the Devil’s Coming printed in the New Yorker this week and felt inspired to round up other juicy memoirs written by women. Feel free to share your own recommendations, below.
Mary MacLane was inspired by 19th-century Ukrainian artist Marie Bashkirtseff’s memoir I Am the Most Interesting Book of All — a confessional diary that was published posthumously and heavily edited by her overbearing mother. Bashkirtseff’s radical stories about her family, the struggles of being a woman in the art world, and her feminist explorations (many of them published in the newspaper La Citoyenne) might sound tame in our time, but she was a star amongst the Parisian intelligentsia.
Former New York City Ballet dancer Toni Bentley detailed her spiritual awakening through anal sex in The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir. “I am sitting on the threshold. Perhaps this is the final paradox of God’s paradoxical machinations: my ass is my very own back door to heaven. The Pearly Gates are closer than you think,” she wrote. Some people do yoga or visit a therapist, but for Bentley, “emancipation through the back door” was the only thing that healed a lifetime of psychosexual problems and daddy issues.
Feminist poet Katha Pollitt wrote about stalking her ex-boyfriend online in a 2004 New Yorker essay that was published in her memoir, Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories. Revealing tales about her experience with heartbreak, sex, her mother’s illegal abortion, a Marxist study group, her stint as a proofreader of porn, and politics abound. “Mostly, though, I Webstalked him to find out what he was up to now. Each new search result drove me wild with excitement: maybe this would be the link that would reveal all,” she confessed in “Webstalker.”
What does a New Jersey-born grandmother and retired New York City church administrator have in common with President John F. Kennedy? Mimi Alford was the teen mistress of the 35th President and wrote about her summer internship at the White House, where JFK took her virginity. They had an affair that lasted 18 months. “The fact that I was being desired by the most famous and powerful man in America only amplified my feelings to the point where resistance was out of the question,” she wrote in Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath. “That’s why I didn’t say no to the President. It’s the best answer I can give.” Alford revealed that although their time together was often loving, the President never kissed her, encouraged her to give Special Assistant and Assistant Appointments Secretary Dave Powers oral sex while he watched, and forced her to try poppers.
This exposé from the adopted daughter of Hollywood legend Joan Crawford was published the year after her mother’s death in 1978 and became one of the first celebrity tell-all memoirs. Christina Crawford unflinchingly wrote about her mother’s alcoholism, abusive nature, bisexuality, and pathological personality. Crawford claimed she and her siblings were just another prop in her mother’s carefully curated public image. The book saw a resurgence in popularity thanks to Faye Dunaway’s wild-eyed performance as Joan in the 1981 film adaptation. Wire hangers haven’t been the same since.
French writer, critic, and Art Press editor Catherine Millet wrote a graphic memoir about her sexual history in 2002 that became a national best seller. Millet was a respected figure amongst French cultural circles, but by night she was searching for the “sexual grail” by engaging in anonymous orgies. “I was carried by the conviction that I rejoiced in extraordinary freedom. To f*ck above and beyond any sense of disgust was not just a way of lowering yourself, it was, in a diametrically opposite move, to raise yourself above all prejudice,” she wrote. Critics have likened her style of prose to Henry Miller or Jean Genet.
“My case is not unique,” Violette Leduc wrote in her 1964 memoir La Bâtarde — an account of her life largely dominated by isolation, which she poetically embraced through her work. Emotional stories about her distant and hostile mother, volatile love affairs (many with women), her struggles with poverty and self-esteem, and her infatuation with writer Maurice Sachs burn across the pages. Simone de Beauvoir became a champion of her writing, praising its intensity and clarity through the “thickness of the years.” Often cited as France’s greatest unknown writer, Leduc never used the veil to shield herself from life’s miseries. She used it to find her own voice.
Fans of screenwriter Diablo Cody’s razor-sharp wit should appreciate her memoir Candy Girl, published when the scribe was 24. Cody was blogging and working various office gigs when she signed up to be a contestant for a strip club amateur night. She took up dancing full-time and chronicled the experiences in a blog called The Pussy Ranch. It evolved into her memoir about life at peep shows and seedy clubs, a stint as a phone sex operator, and absurdist observations about the industry.
Daphne Merkin has published essays on the joys of spanking, her battle with depression, cultural self-loathing, and more. Most have been collected in her 1999 memoir Dreaming of Hitler. The Fame Lunches: On Sadness, Writing, the Promise of Fame, and Other Imperfections is her next book (to be published in 2014) and continues to tackle similar self-conscious complexities. “I have very strong feelings about self-revelation. It is an art,” Merkin said in a 2006 interview. “Tina Brown once said to me, ‘The art of self-exposure is not simply catharsis.’ When I write personally, I truly try and think: ‘If I were reading about me, would I want to know this much? Have I gone on too much here?'”
Throwing Muses frontwoman Kristin Hersh didn’t spend 318 pages writing about the salacious life of a rock star, but her memoir often feels like you’re reading a diary accidentally left open to prying eyes. Her account of her own bipolar disorder, being on the road, and becoming pregnant is so emotionally raw and honest that Rat Girl’s nonlinear impressions usurp the traditional tell-all.