There are some moments in life that you can remember clearly, perhaps not every single second of that moment, but the feeling that you (and in many cases) the rest of the world had when it was happening or it’s aftermath. The day the news came out that a court decision had been delivered in the United States that ultimately lead to same sex marriage being legal in all states was one of those times. I felt immense joy even though I am not American or gay. It was about fairness, dignity, humanity – the right for people to live and love on their terms and not to be discriminated against because of it.
The face of that decision was Edie Windsor and the book, A Wild and Precious Life, is her story.
I think it is important to point out that the book was originally written to be an autobiography but Edie died before it was completed. The co-author, Joshua Lyon, didn’t know whether to finish as Edie had such a forceful influence over the books development, but all her loved ones insisted she would have wanted the project completed. So he pivoted the work to an autobiography/biography format where Edie’s words are mixed in with memories from her surviving friends and family as well as with factual information provided to give context to the memories and events being talked about.
Born into a non-practicing Jewish family, Edie was a maths wiz at school and it was that ability with numbers and logic that eventually led her to her involvement with computers although it wasn’t a natural progression – she didn’t actively study maths at college and spent years trying to work out what she wanted to do as a career. She ended up as a technology manager and programmer at IBM at a point in time when women only had a scattered presence in that industry.
It was only later in her life that she became an LGBTQ Gay Rights activist, with her lasting fame being rooted in the public consciousness born out of the 2013 US Supreme Court decision for which she was the primary plaintiff – United States vs Windsor. It overturned section 3 of the Defence of Marriage Act which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.
But A Wild and Precious Life is not about that case. It’s about her, starting with a remembrance of her earliest memory – being in a polio ward with her brother – and following her as she moves from childhood to that of being a young woman who was discovering her feelings and identity as a lesbian.
I found it interesting that when she talked of liking boys in her early years, and even in reference to her relationship with her husband, it wasn’t with passion or deep emotion, but with something akin to expectation – girls liked boys and would marry and have a family. Her relationships are of course discussed including those with men when dating, as well as her eventual very short lived marriage with a family friend that, it would be truthful to say she did not love, certainly not as she would come to love two particular women further down the track.
And it’s the relationships with women that are interesting as they give some insight into Edie, the real Edie, and of course highlight the social attitudes to ‘being queer’. We see the beginnings of her gay sexual identity in her relationships with Renee (while still at high school) and her first real love – by the author’s own admission – Caroline. And being frank, these were not just dalliances that consisted of just kisses and cuddles. They were full blown physical relationships involving sex. They were conducted in secret as much as possible, hiding from not only wider society but her family as well. It was somewhat eye-raising that she had had sexual relations with women before she ever slept with a man, yet when Edie spoke of being intimate with a man for the first time, she referred to ‘losing that side of her virginity’. It was almost as if having sex with a woman didn’t count somehow.
Another thing that as a modern reader was interesting was despite the fact that she was sleeping with men, and had far more of an obvious and deep seated physical attraction to women, she didn’t really consider herself a lesbian, at least not at first. It wasn’t until her old flame (Caroline) tried to seduce Edie in her marital home (she declined) that she finally said to herself – I am a lesbian. She admitted to having (in the term of the day) homosexual relations with women, but for a while didn’t make the connection to that as a part of her wider sense of self or identity.
I generally liked the first and third parts of the book which, respectively, profiled her early years and her later activism. In the middle part of the book Edie talked a lot about her sexual journey, her affairs, who she slept with, and her relationship with Thea, the self confessed love of her life. This was obviously an important part of who Edie was as a person but I must confess, after reading stories of the first few lovers, I lost my interest in the book. Not so much the parts with Thea, because of the obvious deep and long lasting connection they had although even that got a bit boring, but all the others … well it all became a blur. And this was not because the relationships were between women. I would have had the same reaction if they were heterosexual relationships. It just got dull as we were presented with a parade of encounter after encounter. I don’t think it added anything meaningful to the book … at least I don’t think so.
I also felt that some parts of the story of Edie’s life felt rushed in relation to others. I was surprised how quickly the death of Thea was dealt with. I thought we would get more of Edie’s thoughts and feelings at losing someone so important to her but not so which I found odd. This could also be said of the death of her brother Blackie for whom she was very close. I also would have liked more insight into her relationship with her older sister Dolly and the circumstances surrounding the breakdown of that relationship. I think that perhaps this was because Edie didn’t want to dwell on those parts of her life as they were too painful, but considering all the time and pages given over to her sex life, it did feel a lacking. And if Edie wanted to give a true account of herself and her life, surely she should have included things that are difficult to talk about as well as the easy.
I am also going to be honest and say that I didn’t find Edie or Thea very likable. I know that was who they were, or at least who they presented themselves to be, but that doesn’t change the fact that for the most part, I didn’t like them.
When deciding whether to read this book or not, It is important to remember that this talks about a small microcosm of the lesbian community – rich and white. There is no mention of gay people of colour. That is not to say that Edie never came into contact with that section of the queer community, but it is never acknowledged in any way. To be frank, at some points in the book I felt very annoyed at Edie’s sense of entitlement especially when partnered with the privilege she enjoyed (and she did). I couldn’t help but think of all the stories untold about the real hardships endured by queer people of colour, how diffciult it was for them. If you are looking for an in-depth history of lesbianism in the US during those years then this is not it. If you want more detail regarding that or the gay rights movement then I would suggest researching titles devoted to those subjects. But in fairness the book never purports to being those things. It is someone’s life story.
Ultimately I consider this an average (at best) non-fiction read regarding the detailing of someone’s life. I found it interesting in parts but also very self indulgent with a lack of emotion and human connection.
Rating: 2 Stars
(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)