Bumpy Road to Success: From Strip Joints to Academia

By Alana Newhouse

Published June 13, 2003, issue of June 13, 2003.
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There are coming-of-age books about Jewish identity, lesbianism, daughters’ relationships with their mothers, the Holocaust, being born out of wedlock, and the dark world of burlesque dancing. But Lillian Faderman’s autobiography, “Naked in the Promised Land” (Houghton Mifflin), just may be the first to cover all these bases in one fell swoop.

Faderman, now 62, teaches literature and creative writing at California State University at Fresno, the academic home from where she rose to prominence during the 1970s and 1980s as a feminist and lesbian scholar. But, as she reveals in her book, the road to success was bumpy and bitter, and it took her through worlds that most readers could hardly imagine.

“I’d spent a good part of the last year in photographers’ studios, dressed in feathers and harem pants and beachballs and nothing,” she writes. “I’d been in the Houdini whorehouse; I’d consorted with addicts and drunks; I’d been a regular in gay bars; I’d made love in a flophouse with a butch pimp. And now I needed to be an eleventh-grader.”

In an interview with the Forward, Faderman discussed how she came to understand the twists and turns of her own storied life.

“For many years, it was very hard for me — considering the person I thought I’d become — to own the person that I had been,” she said.

The person she thought she would become was a famous Hollywood actress, like those in the movies that she and her mother, an unwed immigrant woman from Latvia, would watch on big screens in the Bronx. If she became an actress, she believed, she could rescue her mother, who suffered frequent psychotic episodes, the result of unyielding guilt at having left her family behind in Eastern Europe, where they perished at the hands of the Nazis.

“There were so many things that needed to be hidden,” she said. “I had no father, my mother went through these terrible episodes, I posed nude for pictures, and there was a real danger in earlier years about being a lesbian.”

About those pictures: At the start of her sophomore year in high school, Lillian, who was studying at the Geller Theatre and School of Dramatic Arts, fell under the assumption that she would never succeed in Hollywood unless she had a nose job. She needed money, and a friend of hers referred her to a photographer who paid models for pin-up shots. From there, the spiral down was speedy.

“Girlie mags, they were called,” she writes. “I’d seen them on Hollywood Boulevard newsstands, and the pimply boys and round-shouldered old men who leafed through them. But my mother and [aunt] read only the Forward, the Yiddish newspaper that they bought in little Jewish grocery stores. They’d never go to the newsstands that sold those magazines.”

And so the secrecy began. It would become a recurring theme of Faderman’s life; at one point, she found herself unable to tell her fellow Berkeley students about her job as a stripper, and similarly incapable of revealing the truth about her academic life to her fellow strippers.

But the double life was hard to maintain. Poised on the cusp of a steep descent into an even darker world, Faderman stopped short and began the difficult process of pulling herself into a new life.

She earned a Ph.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles, authored numerous books and went on to become dean of her college’s School of Humanities and assistant vice president for academic affairs — highly coveted posts that, at the time, were traditionally filled by men.

Somewhere along the way, Faderman also came to terms with her lesbianism, eventually establishing a long-term relationship with one of her Fresno colleagues. The book is dedicated to their son, Avrom.

When asked what inspired her to turn her life around, Faderman said that her mother and aunt made it clear to her that she was a remnant, the last surviving piece of a family destroyed by the Holocaust.

“I couldn’t just go down the tubes,” she said. “I had to save myself and do something good.”

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