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  • Writer's picturePatricia Grayhall

A Conversation between Patricia Grayhall and Felice Cohen





 

Patricia: Let’s start with the generational gap between us. When I came out in 1969, homosexuality was considered a mental illness. I thought I was the only lesbian in Arizona because there weren't any organizations where I could get information except from clinical books at the library that said homosexuals were doomed to have unhappy lives because they couldn't hold down jobs or sustain relationships. Not a very positive beginning.

 

Felice: I can’t even imagine what you went through. For me, it was the early 90s and I was in Western Massachusetts. Northampton had just been nicknamed “The Lesbian Capital of the World.” But it took me a while to get comfortable with my sexuality. I turned to books since we didn't have the Internet. We couldn't Google.

 

Patricia: I had no access to good lesbian literature. There were some pulp fiction books I read in the drugstore, secretly. I couldn't take them home. I don't remember the stories, but the lesbian always came to a bad end or went back to men.

 

Felice: With no real guidance, what did you do?

 

Patricia: Well, unlike you, I'm not bisexual, I'm a lesbian.  I couldn't suppress my attraction to women and I especially didn't want to after becoming pregnant. I didn't see the point of trying to persist in being what I wasn't and having to deal with the repercussions. So, in 1969, right after the abortion, I fled to San Francisco to finally be what I always was, a lesbian, and find other women like me.

 

Felice: That must have been so affirming.

 

Patricia: It was. Were you comfortable being attracted to women or did you still have qualms about it?

 

Felice: I had major qualms. I started questioning my sexuality my senior year of college. With my first girlfriend after college, I made her keep it a secret because I wasn’t sure I was gay. I had good role models, including my boss, who was influential in suggesting books, music, movies. Then I had an affair with my boss and we kept it a secret because she had a partner, and the secrecy of our affair fed right into my uncertainty about my sexuality. I found a comfort in not having to come out.

 

Patricia: If she hadn’t been so much older and with another woman, would you have been as secretive?

 

Felice: You mean would love have prevailed over my fear? I don’t know. Even though times were better than they were when you came out, it wasn’t like today. One reason it took so long to get my book out was because society was, in a way, also “coming of age” at the same time.

 

Patricia: Good point. I don’t think either one of us could have written our books even ten years ago. But we need to tell our stories to give a more complete history of our shared humanity, with all the various permutations of how we love one another. Now there’s this whole spectrum of identities.

 

Felice: In the 90s when I would talk about a woman I didn’t want others to know I was dating, I would call them “they” just because I was trying to hide it.

 

Patricia: Do you feel angst putting yourself out there and identifying so much with the book?

As memoir writers we have to develop a thick skin and realize that this book is a version of ourselves that no longer exists. We’re not that person anymore yet those experiences made-up who we are now.

 

Felice: Well, that's what memoir is: remembering the past, what you learned from it, how it shaped you, and how you moved on. I was a little thrown at first thinking, “My friends and family are reading about me doing the nasty!” But then I thought, everybody does the nasty. It doesn't mean I still don’t wake up in the middle of the night and go what was I thinking?

 

Patricia: Absolutely! Just before my book went to publication, I called the editor and said I needed to take out all the sex scenes. I had this panic attack because some of them are kind of explicit. The editor said you’re not going do that, it’ll wreck the story.

 

Felice: My dad was one of the early editors on my book so I get it. I disassociated myself a little, knowing my dad was reading my sex scenes. I imagined that the 23-year-old in the story wasn’t me any longer. And in a way, she wasn’t.

 

Patricia: I understand that. I’m in a critique group and I was scared to share my sex scenes. I’d write a chapter for them and type “sex scene here” because I couldn’t face them across the table. Then at a book signing those women were flipping through my book looking for the sex scenes and saying, “Here's the scene she wouldn’t let us read!” They were smiling and I thought what was I was so worried about?

 

Felice: Right. I think that’s why I interjected humor into some of my sex scenes because it made it a little palpable for me knowing people are going to read it.

 

Patricia: Why do you think the age difference was such a source of shame for you?

 

Felice: I was 23, and to a 23-year-old, 57 is ancient. I was afraid of what would people think because I was dating someone who was older than my parents. But now every year as I get closer to that number, I laugh. Fifty isn’t old! But I had no role models then. Sure, there was The Price of Salt, the only book I read with an age-gap relationship. And today, that trope is so popular. It’s also great to see Holland Taylor and Sarah Paulson out as a couple. I'm no longer ashamed, but it took me a long time.

 

Patricia: I can relate to that. I had this relationship once with a woman who was 29 years older than me when I was 44. It was a big age difference but she was quite a dynamic 73. But approaching 73 myself now I realize the issues are different. I was being in the moment and responding to someone the way they were right then and not projecting into the future as to what the age gap would mean.

 

Felice: How long were you with her?

 

Patricia: About four years. It was more a companionship, but I did worry about what my friends thought even though she was very much an accepted part of my social group and people liked her. But then in my early fifties I reconnected with a woman I first met in 1981. We are married and have been together almost 20 years.

 

Felice: Do you think you’ll write a sequel to your memoir about finally finding your person?

 

Patricia: No, but I have written a novel. It seems less fraught. My memoir is a piece of me out there in the world and if it is criticized, it’s hard to not take it personally. I wrote my memoir under a pen name and changed the names of characters to protect people that I care about and love. Did you change anything?

 

Felice: I changed all the names except for the people in my family and Sarah. I also combined a few characters. When I started writing this book over fifteen years ago, it was just for therapy. Sometimes I wonder had I not kept a journal would I have forgotten the whole story? Would it have not had such a significance if I hadn't spent years writing about it?

 

Patricia: That’s true for me too. We were downsizing and I was going to toss my journals because I hadn't read them for decades, thinking I'm happily married, who needs to read about my 20-year-old angst? But I decided to look through them and realized they had significance beyond the personal with the illegal abortion, the rampant homophobia, a woman becoming a doctor when it was a mostly male profession. I decided writing about my love life revealed universal truths about everyone. We all want to love and be loved, to belong, and to do meaningful work. And for older women, I hope it validates some of their experiences and shows our lives had meaning. Thomas Doherty said, “there’s someone out there with the wound in the exact shape of your words.”

 

Felice: That quote has a double entendre for you as a doctor. But I agree, the more honest you can be in your memoir, the more it will resonate with others. Details might be different, but who doesn’t want to be loved, understood and accepted? Straight men who’ve read my book tell me it reminds them of their post college years, so it doesn’t matter straight or gay, female or male, we all go through stuff. That’s life.

 

 


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