Cris Mazza is nothing if not candid. In her 17 volumes of fiction and essays over the past three decades, Mazza — a longtime professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago — has set a high standard of frankness, in particular about sex and sexual politics. In novels such as "How to Leave a Country," which won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award, Mazza's inclusion of erotically charged scenes grouped her with Erica Jong ("Fear of Flying") and other leading chroniclers of the sex lives of women — including, it was assumed, her own.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
But in her latest, most unconventional book, "Something Wrong With Her: A Real-Time Memoir," Mazza's radical candor takes an unexpected turn. She reveals that for her entire life, up to and including the present, she has suffered from a condition known as anorgasmia — the inability to achieve orgasm — which is believed to affect as much as 15 percent of American women. Over most of her life, in fact, Mazza's anxiety about sex made it painful.
Worst of all, perhaps, her sexual dysfunction led to a 30-year separation from Mark Rasmussen, an early boyfriend in their hometown of San Diego who spent all that time pining for her, even as both of them were caught in unhappy marriages to other people. "Something Wrong With Her" is the record of the author's investigation of the causes and symptoms of her condition, interspersed with the far happier story of her reconnection with Rasmussen, who now shares a home with Mazza in west-suburban Aurora. (At readings from the memoir, Rasmussen performs jazz standards alongside her; a CD of their performances can be purchased with the book.)
Printers Row Journal recently caught up with Mazza, 58, for an interview over lunch near the UIC campus; here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: The form of the book is interesting: The main narrative is interrupted and supplemented by emails, journal entries, fiction excerpts and drawings. What do you mean when you say you want the reader to experience the book in "real time"?
A: I mean that it's not a case of my having had experiences and, years later, writing about them after I understand them, have resolved them, and — I don't like to use the word "cured" — overcome them. It's not a trauma narrative or a recovery narrative, which are common types of memoirs, especially lately.
Q: There's a triumphant quality in a lot of memoirs — the person having gone through hell and having lived to tell the tale.
A: Exactly. And the voice of the person writing it is the triumphant person afterward, not the troubled or anxious or confused person he or she once was. I started writing the book thinking I had that kind of distance, but I didn't. I was still confused about how to talk about this, about how what I knew about it could be explained in any terms that weren't still impacting me. The person writing this book is not finished with the subject, not at all. And, by the way, there was a story happening while I wrote the book, which reinforced the "real-time" aspect of it.
Q: The story being your reconnection with Mark.
A: Yes. In the fall of 2007, I was doing a mailing for a novel, and I put one of my business cards into an envelope addressed to Mark. I hadn't had contact with him for seven or eight years at that time, and then it took him six months to contact me, because he was afraid that opening the door again would reopen the whole, you know ...
Q: ... can of worms, so to speak.
A: (Laughs.) Yes, the can of worms. But he did. I was just beginning the book, and as our reconnection emails progressed, I naturally started telling him the memories I was recalling, memories from 30 years ago, including one of my earliest sexual experiences as a teenager, which he'd been part of. And then he started giving me his version of those and other events, and I thought, "I need to include this." When he would give me his version of a memory, it opened my eyes to a whole different world of possibilities.
Q: And so the book is a record of your shifting sense of what the book was going to be about.
A: Yes. Early on, Mark asked me one particular question that was larger than the rest, about an evening in 1980 when we had a sexual experience together. He wanted to know, "If you didn't really want me in your life, why did that evening happen?" The book needed to answer that question, but there was a lot of stuff that I needed to make a foundation of before I could answer it. So in the book I zigzag through time: before that night, after that night, the night before that night, and finally, near the end of the book, I settle right on that night, and give it a full treatment. Although even now, after the book is finished, I still don't feel I got there. If there is a resolution, I haven't gotten there yet. But the book had to go into production at some point! (Laughs.)
Q: You say in the book that you tell your fiction-writing students at UIC that real life doesn't always lend itself to storytelling, because it's incomplete; there's often no resolution, no catharsis. And that's what you're faced with here.
A: Right. And yet, writing the book created more of a resolution than I would have ever had otherwise. Mark is now living with me in Aurora. He retired from his job as a middle school band director, left his life in California, and came here to — as he says — live the life he should have been living all along, which was with me. He now teaches private music lessons in Geneva and St. Charles. And he plays at my readings. I read, then pause, and then he plays a cappella on the saxophone, and then I start again.
Q: Originally you were going to tell the story of your sexual dysfunction in the context of sexual harassment, sexism and gender politics in the 1970s. It's not that you decided those things were entirely irrelevant, but —
A: But I didn't structure the book that way, no. My original thought was to follow the development of sexual harassment law, and talk about what was happening to me and other people my age at that time. Nowadays, high school students are given guidelines about sexual harassment, although some of the ways normal boys behave could be considered sexual harassment. I'm sure that hasn't stopped. We hear the horrible things that still happen. My first question was, "Would it have been different for me if there had been sexual harassment laws?" But my question changed to: "Why did I react the way I did to what 'normal' boys did, and other girls didn't?" They either rolled with the punches, so to speak, or liked it, or got over it, or whatever.
Q: Your inability to enjoy sex was already in place before you knew Mark, in fact.
A: Exactly. Of course I can't go back and ask my friends these questions as an 18-year-old. It seems as though women and girls I talk to now feel desire. But I didn't.
Q: You had doubts, you say in the book, about your desirability.
A: I did, but I don't know if my doubts — my body-loathing, or whatever you want to call it — were any worse than a pretty large segment of girls. It's a given that half — more than half? I don't know — have those doubts. My question was, why did I let that rise to such an unnatural degree that I was so afraid of sex?
Q: In your very first sexual experience — which was not with Mark — there was an element of coercion. You say that he held your arms down.
A: He pinned me, yes. He turned it into a contest: See if you can get out of this!
Q: There's a gray area there, maybe, but a lot of people today will read that account and say, well, you know what.
A: Right. They will, and they probably should. He was a troubled kid himself. Didn't know what to do with his feelings. Had a not-perfect home life, like so many people do. It was, to me, a perfect storm of that troubled kid and this petrified girl put together. He probably responded to my resistance, my unwillingness, my lack of sexual aggression that other girls had, by doing what he did. I don't think he turned into a rapist. I know he had three kids by the time we were 28.
Q: Later you got married, but it was unsatisfying for all concerned.
A: Yes, though it dragged out for 10 years. It was during that marriage that Mark came back into my life for a brief period. He gave up his teaching career, came back to San Diego and worked a blue-collar job just so he could be in the same city with me and drop over after work two or three times a week. He has told me that it was killing him, sitting there watching me be married to somebody else, but he couldn't stop. I had rejected him on so many other occasions, and yet I wanted his friendship. Finally he had to get out; he took another teaching job and left. And we didn't have a lot of contact again until 2008, when he contacted me after I put my business card in the mail.
Q: Some of the events that led to your sexual dysfunction do involve Mark, and I wonder if both you and he have made your peace with that.
A: There's never going to be true peace made, but I'm way past any thought that he was inappropriate.
Q: But he must have felt that he was.
A: Yes, he thought that if he'd been more sensitive, if he hadn't turned into just another boy, etc. But mainly it's a regret for what happened later. If I hadn't overreacted so horribly to that, both of our lives could have been completely different — maybe happier for me, and certainly happier for him. As it was, I built a mountain of anxiety about sex that I could never escape. And later, when I wasn't afraid of "it" anymore, it manifested as pain. Sex was mainly painful and nothing else. There are some physical reasons why that can happen, but I don't have any of them. But once there's a connection in your brain between pain and sex, you can't really get rid of it. I think maybe hypnosis might help, but I haven't done that.
Q: And your sexual dysfunction is still not fixed?
A: No, it's not. Mark and I have a very good physical relationship, but we've stopped trying to achieve an orgasm for me, because when you start "trying," it's no good. And really, I've stopped caring whether it happens or not. What I get from him is love and acceptance and physical desire for me that I never experienced before.
Q: Maybe you have an expanded notion of what intimacy can be.
A: Definitely, and I've accepted that notion for me. I still do believe there's — the title of the book — "something wrong with me." But it's probably not very unique. I think a lot of women just don't talk about it. It's certainly not the end of the world.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter: @KevinNance1
Note: Cris Mazza will read from "Something Wrong With Her" at a book-release party at 7 p.m. April 12 at the Book Cellar, 4736-38 N. Lincoln, accompanied by Mark Rasmussen on saxophone.
"Something Wrong With Her: A Real-Time Memoir"
By Cris Mazza, Jaded Ibis, 390 pages, $18
Mazza wil alsol appear at Women & Children First bookstore at 7:30 p.m. on May 8. Visit womenandchildrenfirst.com.