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Sexual healing

Susanna Sonnenberg's salacious look back

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When Susanna Sonnenberg was just two years old, Norman Mailer presciently regarded her infant behind: “Susy’s got a great ass. It’s going to get her into trouble one day.” Trouble certainly came young Susy’s way, often from the hand of her mother, who once had 11-year-old Sonnenberg read the Penthouse letters aloud to her (“Go on my little pervert…”), who presented Sonnenberg with a packet of cocaine on her 16th birthday (“Your own gram. I cut it. It’s fabulous.”), and who most certainly influenced Sonnenberg’s decision to engage in a two-year affair with her high school English teacher. “Trust me,” Mom told daughter after their first meeting with said English teacher, “the world is about sex.” One way or another, the statement becomes a mantra in the family, one that echoes through the pages of Sonnenberg’s provocative new memoir, Her Last Death.

Beginning with an early morning phone call to the Missoula home she shares with her husband and two boys, then 37-year-old Sonnenberg is stunned by news of an accident. Her mother has been in surgery all night and is expected to die. Sonnenberg can’t bring herself to make the journey to her mother’s deathbed. She asks herself, “What will people think of me?” The real issue, though, is why she doesn’t go. And in the pages that follow, Sonnenberg attempts to give us—and invariably herself—an answer, a defense even. She probes the recesses of her memory, reconciling herself to a mother-daughter relationship that almost exclusively revolved around drugs, lies and, perhaps most consequently, sex.

Elegantly structured and compellingly rendered, Her Last Death focuses on Sonnenberg’s life from childhood into young adulthood, and particularly her relationship with Mom. Though she lived mostly in New York City with her mother and little sister (her parents divorced when Sonnenberg was almost four), there were forays to Taos, boarding schools on the East Coast and in Colorado, college in Boston, and a stint in Paris. Over time, Mom’s compulsive preoccupation with sex underscores every developing instinct in the young daughter: “I went to bed with everybody,” Sonnenberg admits. “I wanted the sex.” And as this compulsion continues, sex clouds Sonnenberg’s judgment to the point where life is defined by one conquest after another. “I didn’t have a no,” she admits, “and a person needs a no, some way to halt what’s going on and give herself a chance.”

By the time Sonnenberg settles in Missoula with the man who later becomes her husband, she has already begun to understand the devastating impact a preoccupation with sex has had on her life. After her first son is born, Sonnenberg catches herself in moments of maternal despair: “When I change the baby, I look at his penis and wonder what sort of man he’ll be. What will his penis be like when he grows up? Would he be a good lover? Who thinks that?…I didn’t know the touch of love, a blank in me, only the touch of arousal and promise, of sex. Every day I had to stop, revise, train myself.”

Behind Sonnenberg’s frankness lies the unspoken irony that Mother, of course, ends up being right—the world truly is about sex. On the page, sex may be a destructive force in young Sonnenberg’s life, but beyond the destruction is the truth that sexual titillation is valuable currency, one that certainly has facilitated this book’s publication. Her Last Death will succeed commercially not in spite of Mom’s obsession with sex, but because of it. In our increasingly voyeuristic world, the mother who asks whether her daughter’s new boyfriend willingly performs oral sex is, well, kind of hot. Additionally, Sonnenberg, whose father founded the literary magazine Grand Street and whose grandfather was Benjamin Sonnenberg, the famous public relations pioneer, window-dresses her story with the names of the New York elites with whom her family associated. Mailer lived across the street; Claudette Colbert had them over for lunch; Lauren Bacall came by for dinner (“we called her Betty”). Distressing as it inevitably becomes, Sonnenberg’s story—with its sex, drugs and famous names (there’s even a chapter entitled “Famous Names”)—also tantalizes. And Sonnenberg at the helm is not wholly unlike a modern-day Scheherazade with her 1,001 tales.  

The only question is whether the irony undermines Sonnenberg’s memoir. The answer is that it doesn’t. Certainly Her Last Death is in the current tradition of popular memoirs that allow readers access to every family skeleton, as no book can ever truly divorce itself from publishing trends that invariably catalog the history of human interest. Rather than merely exploiting the trend, though, Sonnenberg’s reflective narrative is in conversation with it. Yes, she will allow us to play the voyeur in both her own and her mother’s bedroom, but she won’t let us escape out the back window at the end of a steamy love scene. “Go ahead. Watch me,” the memoir seems to challenge us. “But see everything.”

Susanna Sonnenberg reads from and signs copies of Her Last Death at Fact & Fiction Wednesday, Feb. 6, at 7 PM.

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