Review by: Jan VanStavern

May 2003

The Territory of Men: A Memoir
By Joelle Fraser
ISBN: 0375504370

From its cover photo of a faceless blonde in sexy 1970s short-shorts to stories of a toddler drinking her wine with a straw, Joelle Fraser’s The Territory of Men (Villard Books, 2002) chronicles the story of a girl growing up among California hippies. Born to a free-spirited, pragmatic mother and an alcoholic dreamer father, Fraser retells her experiences growing up amidst house boats, island shacks, foggy shores, and continually changing men.  This arresting memoir does not follow typical patterns of plot and resolution; its fragmented, non-linear plot follows the “moments of being” that comprise a young woman’s life. 

At the beginning of the book, Fraser enters as a plural being, a physical and metaphorical part of her mother, careening into life amidst drunk hippies on the Golden Gate Bridge:

Watch us as we barrel across that bright bridge toward San Francisco, the gray waves of the ocean seething and crashing below. . . .The Mama’s and The Papa’s “California Dreamin’” comes on the radio, and everybody sings, the words swept up by scarves of fog and spread over the sea.  They’re drunk, all of them, all but my mother, who leans back to ease the pain, belly swollen, legs braced because it’s almost time and I’m pushing to get out.

This writer’s detailed descriptions of her early life stem from her mother’s own journal, which she used in her research.  Her mother’s agreement to share her journals shows a courage and closeness that Fraser notes in the acknowledgement and in interviews—her mother does not like her life displayed, but, as she says, she could not tell her own story without also telling her mother’s.  From the stain when a glass of wine is thrown on a wall to the song on the radio at daughter’s birth, this book is a collaborative effort to tell the truth, no matter how unpleasant or unflattering it may sometimes be to mother and child.  In those opening lines,  “Watch us,” signals that this mother-daughter creature, a hybrid of two beings, is at the heart of the story’s fascination.

Fraser’s love and loneliness for her mother creates the only structure in this fragmented, engaging memoir.  Her mother cures the loneliness with men, first with her Robert Redford look-alike father, who regularly loses jobs and fails to begin his novel, and later with a series of husbands and lovers who comfort and charm her, and comfort or frighten Joelle and her brothers. Reframing the American Dream to fit her own economies of heart and income, and recasting it with a new father every few years, Fraser’s mother and her children learn that to survive is to adapt.  Reprints of photographs from the 1970s show her mother dark haired, dark eyed, and smiling with Mac, one of Joelle’s favorite fathers.  She is a woman who attracts the men she thinks she needs—and somehow survives the disappointment and crisis that they bring, or that their presence can’t erase.  First her mother, and then the narrator herself, grapple with trying to become human in a world where they are perceived, punished, and rewarded mainly for being women.

The microscopically described scenes that saturate this book—from children salvaging scraps of velvet to make clothes in Sausalito to her mother eating ripe fruit from their trees in Hawaii, to the nude house parties at a hippie compound where the children sit quietly while their parents hot tub—create an intimate view of Fraser’s life and a lyric post-mortem to the West Coast of the 1960s and 70s.  Regular intimations of joy are set on a constantly shifting landscape.  The times were changing, her fathers were changing, her house was changing, and no matter how wonderful an individual day might be, stability was not part of this author’s landscape.

The eeriest parts of the memoir are the private stories of Joelle’s own adaptations, and her shadowy brushes with men’s sexual invasions.  When she is very young, a strange man follows Joelle into an alley in Sausalito and touches her with his “shivering hands,” calling her “Miss America” and threatening to never let her go; Joelle’s solution is to tell him that her mother needs her, and to hold very still, “because if I’m good and quiet enough he might go away.”  Later, when she is in sixth grade, Joelle is informed that a popular boy is going to kiss her, and her awkward, sweet confusion about whether she is supposed to “put my arms around you or not” is abruptly silenced by the boy’s humiliating kiss, a performance not for her but for his laughing friends.  

But this is not a simple story of innocence’s end; the memoir, like the life it describes, works with an intelligent restlessness, without clear boundaries or narrative arc, to create a blend of overlapping experiences that center around womanhood, men, identity, desire, family, and the changing landscapes that all of those things imply.  The shaky handed man disappears and is not mentioned again; some other men, such as her mother’s violent lover, eventually violate Joelle, but their violence is more of a confirmation of her early instinct about them than a surprise.

There shouldn’t be a conclusion to a book about a young woman who has just launched her career with a brilliant memoir.  Hollywood, if it ever filmed Fraser’s book, would correct one minor disparity—an awkward jump between moving to Oregon that places readers suddenly back in San Francisco without explanation—and try to draw a romantic ending from this romance of the self.  But past a Writing Workshop in the Midwest that echoes Fraser’s own experiences at the University of Iowa, a divorce, a touching goodbye to her dying father, and a reconnection to place and mother in San Francisco,  Fraser offers a life of continuing rhythms that do not end simply.  This life, drawn in its many, irreducible moments, continues to grow and pad forward, never larger than it was when she was a child on the wharfs of Sausalito with her aunt, never smaller than it was when she shrank at an unfamiliar boy’s advances at a Hawaii bus stop.  As a child of the Hippie culture growing up in California, Oregon, Hawaii and the Midwest, Fraser gives us her world, as it was recorded, through an inimitable voice.

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