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A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century is a memoir written by Jane Vandenburgh. The book appears divided into three stories. Firstly, the author's childhood with her mother, father and brothers, her high school years with her aunt and uncle and thirdly the author's college and married years.
The opening of the book and the first few chapters are very well written and deal with the loving but dysfunctional family in which the children do not regularly attend school. Neither are they properly supervised, regularly fed or washed. What is striking is that their situation does not subsist due to poverty or lack of support but is maintained by the abnormal behavior and self importance of the mother and father who are artistic and eccentric.
When the children are taken from their mother, due to her alcohol abuse and deteriorating mental health after the fathers passing through suicide, they are placed with their aunt and uncle who already have four children of their own. The author's teenage years are probably the most fascinating, much due to how clearly written and engaging these chapters are. This part of the book deals with the role of young women and the sexual double standard that exists between boys and girls sexual behavior and wishes. Here the author also learns about the role of marriage and the privilege of white men.
The second half of the book is concerned with the author's college and married years. During her visits to multiple different colleges she struggles to come to term with what proper sexuality for women includes and who she should or should not be sexually attracted to. She also speaks much about her own femininity which she feels is not quite conventional and which she describes as lacking. The author's married years focus less on her family and more on her relationship with her dying friend, which is beautifully described.
The main focus of the book are the complex and difficult issues associated with growing up, such as feeling that one does not belong, which are common to many people. It also deals with more serious issues such as abnormal behavior, abandonment, alcohol and drug abuse, as well as sexuality. Vandenburgh writes about how it is to grow up too fast while knowing too much, such as which friend's father is best to keep away from and the emphasis on male superiority and importance in pornography.
The author and her two brothers deal with the sudden expectations that are placed on them in different ways. The author embraces the adult world and learns how to get what she wants, mostly from men. At the same time she is not ready for what it includes, such as attention from older males. Her younger brother isolates himself while her older brother copes fairly well with the new family arrangement.
Vandenburgh writes with much passion and humor and is very capable of describing the close and sometimes odd relationships she forms. The strength of her writing is that it is relatable and appeals to a broad audience. The book discusses feelings of abnormality, depression, and substance abuse. It does not mean, however, that it resembles a text book or is a complicated reading. The book therefore is suitable for both professionals and the general reader.
Where the book is lacking, is perhaps in the later part of the book in which Vandenburgh's writing becomes slightly abstract and at times difficult to follow. It sometimes appear as if the authors writes about all that is in her mind at the same time which gives this part of the book a vagueness that was not initially present. It is also at times difficult to discern whether or not Vandenburgh is proud to be a woman or dislikes certain women. On one hand, she (as her mother did) calls girls and women 'Our People', and the next she describes her new car as a 'silly soccer-mom-ish' car.
Although she writes much about emotions and feelings, her portrayal of herself is slightly mechanical in that she appears at time flawlessly in control, even in very dramatic and upsetting situations. One example regards a horrible incident where an ex lover breaks in to her apartment and violates her. There is a surprising lack of emotion described in relation to this event.
Still, the book provides interesting and capturing reading in which the reader can identify with some of the characters and the pressures associated with being male and female and fitting into the boxes that accompany our gender.
© 2011 Elin Weiss
Elin Weiss has a Bachelor's Degree in psychology at University College Dublin, Ireland, and is currently working on her Master's Degree in women's studies at the same university.