Book review: Ill-Equipped for a Life of Sex

cover of ill-equipped for a life of sex & author jennifer lehr

For all of my public candor and truth-excavatin’, there are areas I will not touch.

One of them, no pun intended, is sex.

Another, believe it or not, is relationships. I am a champion of privacy, wherever possible, and also a big, fat coward: I’m loathe to pull a Truman Capote and end up like Truman Capote (although the middle of his life, in between the gothic horror and lonely, alcoholic demise, does sound interesting.)

These are just two of the reasons I was floored by Jennifer Lehr’s 2004 memoir, Ill-Equipped for a Life of Sex. In it, as you might expect from the title, she exposes her many and colorful sexual encounters (in vivid and fascinating detail), from her first kiss (or desire for one) through her mostly sexually-dysfunctional relationship with her eventual husband to her post-marital flirtations and fantasies. If Lehr left anything out, it was neglible: parts of the book read like letters to Penthouse Forum, only realistic. I was shocked not so much by what she did, but that she was writing about it so openly in the same book where she cheerfully and un-self-consciously outlines her relationships with many members of her family, with whom, it would appear, she is still close (and who definitely win the prize for most tolerant family around.)

This, though, is the trick of the book, and the second meaning of the title: it’s as much a story of how she got here from there as it is a salacious recounting. What Lehr has done is to write a book, a shockingly intimate book, about intimacy itself, and the role it plays in keeping all kinds of relationships alive. To bare ourselves metaphorically  requires high levels of trust and commitment, often far higher than those required to strip down and get busy, not to mention a slavish devotion to truth.

And over and over, after each screw-up (so to speak), she throws herself once again headlong into the truth. There is her shink, and her next shrink, and her shrink after that. (Geographical and other factors outside of her control necessitate the moves.) There is his shrink, and AA, and their shrink. Shrinks. There is an art project in grad school that leaves her open and vulnerable and ultimately spurned for attempting to get at a truth, which (surprise, surprise) freaks everyone’s shit right out. It is so painful at times, watching this earnest struggle to get at the truth, to learn what it is and then learn how to live in it, to communicate with it, one aches for this young woman and her crazy quest.

But this is the same thing that makes it compulsively readable. Well, besides the sex, which is pretty salacious, and the unselfconscious exposure of her very privileged life. (Lehr was financially supported by her family, and in fairly grand style, pretty much until her husband’s ship came in.) Again and again, despite the crazy pain involved, she dives into the hard work of scrutinizing her screw-ups for clues as to their genesis, until finally, she comes up with the answers. They are both complex and simple, always boiling down to truth and communication, communication and truth. Many of the reviewers on Amazon say they saw their own life in Lehr’s; the rest (and we’re talking half and half), dismiss the book as an overly-long, poorly-written exercise in narcissism by a spoiled princess.

Could it be shorter? Yes, by about 100 pages, I reckon. Better-written? In parts, certainly. Hell, there are parts of every post I’ve ever written that I know could be better-written, usually as I’m writing them.

It’s fearless, though, and earnest and heartfelt. And it’s a startling expose of the real reasons we both turn away and towards sex in (and out of) relationship. It’s about addiction of all kinds, and how it keeps us from true love and connection. It’s about how unbe-fucking-lievably hard it is to communicate when the stakes are high. (The story of how John and Jennifer Lehr turn around their relationship is instructive and inspiring.)

So while I wish that maybe she’d had a little more experience with writing before she sat down to tell her story, or an editor who had leaned a little harder on her, I’m grateful to Lehr for sharing it. And very much looking forward to deepening my own commitment to rooting out fraud in my own life…

xxx
c

1She explicitly the details of life with her husband, comic actor John Lehr, or the lack thereof, when it comes to.

Photos: (l) ©ReganBooks, Cover design by Richard Ljoenes; (r) photo of author Jennifer Lehr ©Stephanie Howard

Yo! Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt’s excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

7 comments

  1. I’m so glad you’re publicizing this now-forgotten book. For my money, it’s essential reading for anyone in a relationship, along with another mysteriously forgotten book, Michael Vincent Miller’s Intimate Terrorism (although I noticed Miller’s book featured prominently in the NY Times Magazine piece about marriage a few months ago). These are both brutally forthright books that are also eminently practical.

    If Lehr were writing now, she’d do this in a blog. Her book has the immediacy and fearless searching-ness of the best blog-writing — like yours. Like Penelope Trunk, though, there are many moments when you want to strangle her. In the end, though, she is far braver than anyone I know (well, excepting you), and admiration wins out over exasperation.

    You don’t mention her main message though, which is this: every problem in your life will ultimately manifest itself in your sex life. For her, her boyfriend’s money anxiety shuts down his desire for intimacy completely. Her awakening to this is one of the triumphs of their experience in couples therapy. What looks like a fear of intimacy — and what the culture as a whole assumes is a fundamental characteristic of men — turns out to be fear of not being able to put food on the table.

    1. I confess, I was genuinely surprised that it had gone out of print. I suppose in an era of tell-alls (especially celeb tell-alls), this wasn’t juicy enough, and on the other end of the spectrum, it’s not such a literary gem that it would stay in print for the writing alone. Still, I think it’s a valuable addition to the canon because it’s so accessible.

      Thanks for the reco on Intimate Terrorism. Have added it to the list, along with Tara Parker-Pope’s new book on the science of marriage, which also looks promising.

  2. Aaah, I just read this last year. I’m a bit of a privacy person myself so I was taken aback by some of the details, but really respected that she was comfortable enough to share them with a very wide audience :) I thought it was well-rounded in its perspective, even if only one person’s account – but I had some good takeaways…Thanks Colleen!

    1. So why, I’m wondering, are we all finding this book so late?

      I wish I’d noted who referred me to it; I’ve started annotating all the stuff in my Amazon Wishlist (default to-read list, although it gets as unwieldy as my Netflix queue) with a source since then.

      I agree that she was remarkably open-minded in her pursuit of the truth. Would that all “fair & balanced” sources were thus.

  3. I recommended it to you, in a comment. In the same comment, I told you that her path of writing a book like this and parlaying it into speaking and writing gigs could be a role model for you in your search for work speaking and writing.

    1. Ah. That would explain it. If it was from you, I probably didn’t bother sticking it on a list: I just went and got it.

      Thanks, Dan. As always, you’re looking out for my best interests.

  4. hey colleen,

    jennifer lehr here. thanks so much for such a thoughtful look at my book. i’m glad to hear it’s finding it’s way to some people who appreciate it and or are getting something out of it. perhaps it will find it’s way back into print someday, and maybe with some editing.

    while i do hope i’ve grown as a writer, and while i certainly work at being better at it, ultimately i’m just trying to be good enough to get across what I want to say in a very real way. i’m closing in on finishing up my new book. it would be fun a a publisher bought both and reissued ill-equipped…i’ve actually gotten a few pieces of fan mail lately, and it’s been a while!

    i appreciate the interest.

    jennifer

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