Every month, I interview an author I admire on her literary firsts.
March’s featured author is Louise Wareham Leonard, author of 52 Men — a thinly veiled memoir written in tiny, flash pieces. Each of the 52 snippets features a guy with whom the narrator had a relationship — some affairs brief, some longer, some intimate, some cruel.
The book is sexy as well as scary, tender as well as crude — making for a riveting read. Relatedly, Louise runs 52 Men the Podcast: Women Telling Stories About Men. Each 10-minute episode features one woman writer telling, well, a story about men. My story ran on the podcast earlier this year!
In this interview, Louise talks about autobiographical fiction, the shame of secrets — and Milo Yiannopoulos.
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Siel: I’m curious about the writing process you took to complete this book. The 52 short flash pieces take place over a lifetime. Is this a book you worked on in bits over decades, or within a more focused period of time?
Louise: I was living with my husband in the outback of Western Australia, in the deep desert, as far from the New York City life I grew up in as I could get. We were there a year working for the aboriginal people, and others, and in that time my past life seemed a total dream to me – that chemical madness dream Fitzgerald talks of. All these faces and their stories kept flashing at me from the sky, speaking to me, and I just had to write them down.
A Trappist monk I met last year — who is also the poet John Slater — read the book and said, “Louise, here are 52 of the men you’ve known — now you have the other one hundred thousand.”
I think he grasped the idea that the number was random, or maybe that 52 cards in any pack is a good enough amount to play your game.
Relatedly, will there be a sequel?
They say that white people picked their constellations out of stars, but the aborigines in Australia picked theirs out of the pattern the darkness made. My 52 men are just the white shining surface. Right now, I am working on exploding the entire terrain. So yes, there’s something coming that’s related, though it is far more open and expansive, a change for me.
52 Men ends with a longer story about a girl who has a sexual relationship with her older step brother — at first as a young girl who’s being molested by him, later as a woman, consensually. This story goes to all the uncomfortable, murky, in-between places around consent, desire, and power — and because it does so, is very different from most of the neater, more binary abuser-victim stories we hear regarding sexual abuse. Did you have fears about the reaction to this story when you put it out into the world, especially considering the growing popularity of the “yes means yes” type rhetoric that tries to define consent and rape in definite, clear-cut terms?
I think it’s clear that when a child is ‘turned on to’ sex – whether a girl or a boy by, say, a priest, that child has been sexualized. However, for me at least, it’s not always what happens physically, exactly, but how it happens and what emotions it causes: particularly shame and self-loathing and the feeling of powerlessness over one’s own body and self.
That Elise forgives this guy Ben, the older stepbrother in the story, is her big mistake. Or not that she forgives him, but that she trusts him, forgets that he has consistently done her harm and could do so again. She’s young there, and naïve and foolish.
At the end, however, when she discards his letters, I think she has faced the truth about him – that he is weak, not she.
My ultimate point is that Ben is essentially a weak man. He lets down his step-sister by abusing her in childhood, then he lets her down later when she gets pregnant and he runs away. Abusers often, oddly, really are weak boundary-less unevolved people.
Maybe they are manifesting other people’s problems, or maybe some evil has them captive – but that’s being generous to them.
I was not of age to give consent; nor, by the way, was Milo Yiannopoulos who recently, perhaps unwittingly, dug his grave by saying how great it was for him to be molested at 14.
One thing I think helps a lot is to see that both in my case, and in Milo’s the relationship was secret. If it’s secret, there’s shame — and when there is shame, there is either abuse or betrayal, yes?
Even among thinly-veiled memoirs, 52 Men stands out to me as a book taken very much from life. Dubbed “autobiographical fiction” in the description, your book includes cameos by well-known men. Why did you choose to make and call this book fiction instead of memoir?
Even if someone abused you, I don’t think you have the right to destroy them. Not unless you have gone to court. It just doesn’t feel fair to me. People can apologize, and change, and though I believe in outing lies, and abuse, I am no one’s punisher — let alone for life.
Then again, some might say I am protecting my abuser, and my family. The day I stop doing that, which could be very soon, unless my abusers get a bit nicer, lol, it’ll be called memoir.