Across the great divide

Before she became a writer, Joelle Fraser enjoyed a brief career as a painter. Like Georgia O’Keeffe, Fraser gravitated toward flowers as her subjects, filling the page with lush red hibiscus and yellow plumeria. She sold her watercolors herself, alongside the street vendors who thronged the park in Sausalito, Calif. This was the golden, uninhibited, northern California of the early ’70s, and as Joelle walked along with her wares, people would smile, offer her joints, see if she might want to trade something for a painting.

She was 6 years old.

This enterprise ended one day, when a stranger menaced her into a stairwell. He molested her, but she was able to get away and run home before worse happened. Still, it’s the last time Fraser would sell her paintings in the park.

It’s a startling story, and one of many revealed in Fraser’s recently published memoir, The Territory of Men (Villard Books). But then, Fraser’s growing up was anything but conventional — which is, after all, the only excuse for a memoir by anyone under 40.

She’s the product of a love match between two free spirits, who divorce while she’s still a toddler. When we hear “free spirits” we often think “simple,” yet the portraits Fraser gives us of her parents are anything but.

Her father, a writer, is a white native of Hawaii. He’s handsome, peaceful, gifted and deeply alcoholic. A good talker, he’s the sort of man in whom charm so often doubles as elusiveness — as a way to deflect scrutiny and keep himself to himself. (In a powerful essay near the book’s end, Fraser recounts his death from cirrhosis, and you can tell he remains an enigma to her to this day, an intensely loved yet confounding figure.)

Yet it’s for her mother that Joelle, as a child, reserves her most fierce devotion. She writes, “My mother was in real estate but more into EST, palm reading, and alcohol.” The list leaves out her beautiful, young mother’s other consuming passion: the opposite sex.

If Joelle’s childhood gaze is focused on her mother, then she can’t help but see that her mother’s own gaze seems to rest most constantly on men, a steady stream of “fathers” who enter their lives for varying periods of residence, from weeks to years. It makes for a migratory lifestyle, taking Joelle, her mother and Joelle’s half-brother Dace up and down the West Coast — with interruptions for visits to her father and her other half-brother, Ken, in Hawaii.

Michael, Mac, Tom, Brad and Steve — as you read through Fraser’s essays, keeping track of the changing names of her mother’s lovers can be disorienting. You can only imagine what it was like for a child, looking up over cereal: “And you are … ?”

Fraser writes, “This is what it means to be a daughter: you’re a package deal. I came with the mother, not the other way around, and each man treated me accordingly. I was accepted or resented and often a combination of the two.”

To Fraser, it’s obvious that her mother is an expert on “the territory of men.” And it’s into this strange territory — sometimes thrilling, sometimes frightening, always charged with the frisson of the mysterious — that Joelle follows. The essays in the book are only loosely chronological; instead, each wrestles with a certain memory or single event — the first kiss, the first boyfriend, the regrettable first marriage — that chart Joelle’s own forays into the opposite sex’s turf, as she goes from child to woman.

While it could easily have teetered into the gush of confession, Fraser’s story is no Mommy Dearest; she’s not interested in holding a literary tribunal to try and sentence her parents. Nor is it a Bastard Out of Carolina-type story, where the mother’s betrayal of her child goes beyond anything we, as readers, can forgive (when a stepfather sexually abuses Joelle, her mother’s decision to leave is gratifyingly immediate).

Instead, Fraser has done something else, weaving stories out of her past that are gripping yet complex and evenhanded in their portraiture, and lyrical with a bittersweet beauty.

Fraser clearly prizes many aspects of her childhood, and she shares both the light and the dark of the experience. “I was loved. I had no bedtime. I fell asleep on laps and couches and on piles of coats, and sometimes a dog or another kid slept beside me. I was never alone.”

Yet she’s equally candid about the unease she felt as a young girl looking on at adult parties, as the grown-ups stripped off their clothes and headed naked into the hot tub, to drink and smoke pot amid the curling steam, and then stumble off, two by two, into the night.

In writing the essays, Fraser drew on her mother’s journals as well as conversations with family and friends. In a phone interview, she remarked how grateful she was for her mother’s support.

“So many people want to write their story but they say, ‘I have to wait till my parents pass on before I can do it,’ ” she says. “Whereas I’ve had the fortune of having a mother who’s so supportive and understanding, and who knows that my telling my story may be the only way she and I can get past a surface relationship.”

Her mother often attends her readings, Fraser says. And sometimes, unfortunately, she also reads the reviews. A recent article in The Washington Post, for example, praised Fraser as an “excellent, gorgeous writer,” while also taking her parents to task. “[The reviewer] said that … people like my parents shouldn’t be having children, but here I’ve contributed this book, which she says is excellent. So how does that work?”

The hardest part of publishing a memoir, Fraser notes, is the sense that in doing so, she’s exposed her family to unjust criticism. Yet her own mother, who is now a therapist active in the Native American community, terms The Territory of Men a “bridge book,” a trigger to start conversations between mothers and daughters.

Perhaps the most important conversations it began were between Fraser’s mother and herself. There’s a lovely image near the end of the book, giving us Joelle, now an adult, and her mother on a visit to San Francisco: “By the time we get to the Legion of Honor, the O’Keeffe exhibit is closing, but we can still see our favorite pictures beyond the rope, only a few feet away, and side by side we look at them, and that is good enough, absolutely.”

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