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.
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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.