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True Confessions

Before the current flood of memoirs, there was Rosemary Daniell and her tales of sex and writing in the South.



When Rosemary Daniell hit the literary radar screen in the 1970s, "autobiography" was used more than "memoir" and hindsight accounts of dysfunctional families had not become an industry. The unvarnished candor of Daniell's sexual exploits, recounted in her 1978 memoir, Fatal Flowers, brought her a good deal of notoriety. The book prefigured the wave of sexual confessionals by writers like Mary Karr and Kathryn Harrison, a flood of books that saturated the popular mind with images of toxic families and drug- and sex-addicted marches toward personal reckoning. The more hopeful of these tales find resolution in the resilience of individual will. The rest go to Jerry Springer for 15 minutes of meltdown.

Daniell, who lives in Savannah, Ga., has chronicled her sex life and writing life as entwined themes in books that chart the road away from numbing youth. She has also established herself through poetry, journalism, nonfiction and a novel set in New Orleans, called The Hurricane Season, as well as with writing seminars called the ZonaRosa Way.

Daniell charts a personal topography of the South, a land of lush landscapes where the patina of mannered life can't conceal a hothouse of wild eros and sudden violence. This South of teeming, unresolved impulses is on display in her new Hill Street Press book, Confessions of a (female) Chauvinist, a series of essay-reportage pieces, linked episodically like an autobiography. The book moves from erotic adventures with flashes of comedy to more melancholy meditations on the wall between the genders.

"As a Southern woman, I have often felt repelled by the brute way of my Southern brothers," she writes. "But I have also encouraged them, playing straight woman to their no-good, good-ole-boy craziness -- buying their rationales, nurturing their machismo. Many Southern women, brought up to behave genteelly, need men to act out their aggression for them."

Confessions includes a chapter on the 1983 trial in New Orleans of Ginny Foat, a National Organization for Women organizer whose sadistic ex-husband had accused her of murder. The story drew national coverage. Daniell, having turned down the chance to write an as-told-to account of Foat's life, covered the legal drama as a journalist. She ended up with a case of ambivalence.

"My father had been an alcoholic who had sexually and otherwise abused me; I had escaped him via marriage to a no-good ole boy of 19 who -- till I fled with my 2-year old son three years later -- had battered me as well," she writes. Like Foat, Daniell had two other marriages to "milder men," but by then, she admits, "I had been so marked by the violence (and excitement) of those early relationships that I had little taste for traditional men or a traditional lifestyle."

She goes on: "Yet the changes I had made had a cost, inducing a recurrent case of the emotional bends, a kind of free-floating guilt at having disowned my past, my class, and especially the patriarchy-inside-me that I imagined Foat, with her transitions in lifestyle and politics, to have experienced."

Foat's attorneys portrayed her as a victim who had been framed, and she was acquitted. Foat made the rounds of talk shows, after nabbing a $150,000 Random House advance for the as-told-to book, with another writer. As she watched her on TV, Daniell was uncomfortable with the metamorphosis of Foat as legal victim into a symbol of triumphant feminism. The issue wasn't Foat's innocence, rather the paradox of a feminist-as-celebrity for being a victim.

"It had only been by owning the disowned parts of myself -- my own impulses toward sex and aggression, yes, even my repressed love for my abusive father," writes Daniell, that allowed her to find a sense approaching wholeness. Watching Foat, she wondered "whether she's a cipher, a victim, or just another good woman martyred by a bad man.

"I do know one thing," Daniell concludes, "she's a woman who knows how to make use of her situation."

Daniell's first book, a 1975 collection of poems titled A Sexual Tour of the Deep South, was a liberated woman's glance-askew at Southern men. It was also, in part, a calculated break from the writer James Dickey, who functioned as Daniell's early mentor and left her feeling spiritually blackened and sexually expendable. In Fatal Flowers she wrote of the "Famous Southern Writer" -- a transparent profile of Dickey, the poet and writer famous for his novel Deliverance, his epic consumption of alcohol, and a legendary appetite for women.

Confessions of a (female) Chauvinist begins with a long post-mortem on Dickey. On a trip to South Carolina, Daniell visits a pathetic woman, living in poverty and addiction, who had given her life to satisfy Dickey's cravings. As a greedy ghost of the famous one hovers about, Daniell asks:

"What was it about male writers -- Dickey, Hemingway, Mailer -- that made them turn to such extremes of male behavior? Was it because they considered the act of writing ... basically effeminate; that they felt the need to counteract it with extremes in order to feel like a man?

"For whatever reason, James Dickey had felt driven to create an ugly myth about himself. He was a genius -- and he was a genius of lies, of manipulativeness, of poetry, of self-creation. The Jaguar, the cowboy hat, the bow and razor-tipped arrows -- were we women also among the things that reinforced his image? Instead, he had succeeded only in creating, in the eyes of some, a cartoon of what it means to be a man."

Daniell's childhood moved to the manic undertow of her mother, who hungered for the comforts of patrician life and eventually committed suicide. The daughter's career was a product of the '60s, that stretch of revolutionary hubris in American life when it seemed that the center would not hold. A generation later, Daniell soldiers on with a veteran's sense of hard-fought wisdom:

"Indeed, bitterness is a danger for the Southern woman who denies either her roots or her own integrity. On the Angela show in New Orleans, when I did writing exercises, or 'exorcises,' with women in the audience, rage emerged as the one emotion the women were seeking to resolve. But this rage is the very thing from which the woman who takes responsibility for herself has been freed. 'Take what you want and pay for it,' goes a Spanish saying. Yet paying the price is not the same as having regrets. By the time the payments came due I was already so entrenched in my path -- a trajectory to which I had committed myself long before -- and so out-of-touch with middle-class aspirations -- that the prices didn't seem excessive at all."

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