Perfect Strangers: A Memoir of the Swinging 70's, 2018, self-published.
We have here a very sexy but unusual book: an erotic memoir, by an author best known for her heavily BDSM-oriented short stories based on her own experiences, which contains no more “kink proper” than one vague mention of the relative merits of scarfs versus police handcuffs; tools of the inexperienced. (Which, at the time, she was.)
While this was surprising, it is not a complaint. In fact, it makes it all the more interesting to me, on several levels, some of which I will get back to. I can tell you that there is plenty of filthy behavior in this book, which any erotic memoir should have.
Dorothy Freed’s life story is a fascinating one, and in the five-year chapter of it covered in Perfect Strangers, she might not have yet discovered the joys of BDSM, but she certainly had a lot of sex. I mean a lot.
I am new to erotic memoirs, having only read one other so far. I am fascinated by the genre—even though I’ve been revealing my most personal proclivities here in my reviews, and in my fiction, the actual physical activities of my erotic life have been almost entirely private. I read of bold public behavior—group sex, being bound nude or flogged in front of a crowd—and the conservatively-raised prude in me is still scandalized, mouth agape: “People actually do this?”
Yes, they do. I admire and envy their courage and drive (and opportunities); reading such accounts, and knowing they actually happened, thrills me more than fiction.
Perfect Strangers takes place in the period of Freed’s life before she discovered Kink, or at least the kinks of power exchange, restraint, and impact play—but to call the more or less straight fucking depicted here, sans accoutrements, “vanilla” would be a serious mislabeling.
More than anything, Freed tells a good story, in this, her first full-length book. One of the most basic requirements in good storytelling, fictional or otherwise, is whether the character we are following changes, and how their experiences alter them.
And Ms. Freed, it can safely be said, goes through some changes.
Beginning her story in 1974, the author states the crisis immediately:
When I discovered my husband, Paul, naked and on top of my best friend, Cassandra, it wasn’t the infidelity that hurt me the most—it was the sizzling sex they were engaged in that cut to my core and changed my life forever.
Until that moment, she had not necessarily thought that her marriage was happy, but had believed that the sacrifices and compromises she’d made had been worth it: stability, two great kids, something resembling caring, or so she thought at the time; occasional sex.
But she realized in that moment that her entire married life had been lacking two things, two related and conflated yet separate issues, which define her struggle and journey through the book and most of the ‘70’s: the lack of respect and intimacy in her marriage of twelve years, and all those years without a satisfying orgasm—or one provided by anyone but herself, that is. Because of this lack of vaginal orgasm, getting off by simply being fucked, her husband Paul had accused her of being frigid—and rather than being the kind of man who would put in the effort to solve that problem, it was easier to just find an alternative outlet, the more reactive best friend of Dorothy.
Amazingly, this being in the aftermath of the liberating ‘60’s, Paul has the brilliant idea that the three of them could maybe arrive at an arrangement, a three-way marriage in which Dorothy could care for the kids (and him) and he could fuck Cassandra silly. What’s not to like about that idea?
Dorothy is shattered, as anyone would be. She kicks him out. She is distraught, and depends on her neighbor Carla for emotional support. But she also realizes she has been unhappy in this marriage for a very long time, that only her conventional upbringing—while the post-‘60’s environment is influenced by the Free Love ethos, she was raised in pre-‘60’s traditionalism, as most women were—had kept her doggedly pursuing her defined role of devoted wife. She had given up her own agency, a passion for art (pottery), all for the hope of the Doris Day ending that never came. And, sadly, neither had Dorothy.
The ‘70’s rising trend of astrology figures largely in this book. Paul becomes quite the devotee now that he’s met his new friend, giving Dorothy all kinds of mumbo-jumbo justifications for how his new relationship is more or less destined. Not only that, but that he intends to quit his unsatisfying job to draw up charts and do consultations for a living. Who wouldn’t be up for this New Age arrangement?
But no. She leaves—after the divorce is finalized, after a few mediocre attempts at trying out new men in bed, after a thousand calls from creditors (he soon disappears across the country, new lover in tow, to leave her with the mortgage and joint credit card bills), and after her supportive neighbor tells her a friend in San Francisco is opening a coffee shop/gallery and is looking for a live-in manager. She packs up the kids into the station wagon, and starts her new adventure.
Early-‘70’s San Francisco is radically weird, filled with every type of eccentric and expressive person that was lacking in her suburban Syracuse, NY past; her sons are bedazzled, as is she. There is also a radical sexual openness and sense of exploration in her new city.
And Dorothy, somewhat shy at first, sets out a very thorough program of exploration and discovery.
I’ve never much bought into astrology, especially regarding anything predictive. I’m an evidence-based materialist; imaginative but not especially romantic, at least in matters of causality. But I must admit there is something to the tendencies of behavior and temperament inherent in each Zodiac sign; I believe it has more to do with climactic conditions—hours of sunlight, etc.—in gestation and infancy than what stars happen to be behind the Sun. (But never mind that, for now.) Ms. Freed is a Virgo, and I do think that Virgos tend to be highly concerned with organization, and order, and everything in its place—lists, and charts, and graphs. Fussiness.
Freed, arriving in a city still undergoing radical expansion in sexual freedoms and experimentation, makes a plan: A plan to plow through as many men as possible, sampling every type, on a quest for that elusive orgasm—from fucking, not clitoral stimulation—that has eluded her her entire life.
It sounds like fun, and it is. We get many chapters devoted to these interludes, some awesome, some weird, some dangerous, though nothing too terrible happens (which is kind of a surprise). The sex scenes are hot and it all has a wonderfully nostalgic, ‘70’s feel to the encounters. I am old enough to have been aware of the signs of that era of liberation through its music, movies and TV—those Farrah Fawcett short-shorts, that dancing on Soul Train, Johnny Carson’s innuendos, hints of off-screen hooking up on The Love Boat; natural-breasted, pre-fitness-era porn magazines smuggled from friends’ fathers—but I most certainly was not participating yet. Coming of age in the Reagan-dominated, AIDS-anxious and sometimes nihilistic ‘80’s, all these singles-bar approaches and open-minded sex parties feel…optimistic; charming, in their way.
Her quest—again, Virgos tend to go all or nothing once they set up their organizational plans—gets a big boost when she meets up with Jake, a sex-quester himself who personifies erotic optimism. He gets her off in their first encounter—a big deal, in this book. In fact, he’s determined to; he tells her it’s his personal mission to make every woman he meets happy. (See what I mean, about the times?)
And they are a pair. Not exclusive, mind you. In fact, a big part of Freed’s plan is that there will be no emotional intimacy in this search of hers for the elusive orgasm. She had enough of the facsimile of “love,” without satisfaction, in her long and miserable marriage; now she’s going after the opposite with total devotion. And Jake is indeed the perfect man for this.
Besides their own stellar encounters, he introduces her to lots of people. Part of his quest is a sort of guru-istic guiding of meetings, events, encounters. He facilitates. He introduces Dorothy to another man for her first threesome, another couple for her first foursome. (As I said, there are kinks in this book, just not “Kink”.) He likes to learn what people, not just this new friend, want, and then not only help them get that, but advance them beyond it. He is a sexual guide, scout, manager, assistant, cheerleader…exactly who she needs at that moment.
While Jake is out spreading the Word (and his seed), on his own, Dorothy is meeting all kinds of men as well. Most she sleeps with once or twice; a few satisfy her to the point that she keeps them more or less on retainer—she’ll call them soon, or they’ll call her. One important man she keeps as a friend, without benefits. Her calendar is staggeringly full.
And this is where things begin to turn again.
While attending a full-on orgy that Jake has brought her to—mirrors and hot tubs abound—Dorothy realizes that certain doubts about her plan that had been nagging her for a while have become even more pronounced. It is a change of heart that is unexpected, leaving her unsure of what to do.
I won’t give away the ending. Freed has, to say the least, many relationships going on, many in different levels of happiness or chaos. But why on earth would anyone abandon such an ideal situation?
I leave this to you to find out.
What we do know, thanks to her short stories and interviews with Rose Caraway, is that in the next decade Freed does discover far kinkier forms of sexual liberation. She has considered, now that she has completed her longtime goal to make public this tale of her transformation into a freed woman, writing a second volume that relates her subsequent discovery of freedoms that involve temporary, consensual lack of freedoms.
I truly, truly, truly hope that she does. As I said, Freed, now in her 70’s, has a fascinating life story, and I would love to read about how the transition from newly liberated libertine, to submissive in a near-24/7 D/s relationship, came about. I hope to be once again saying, as she obeys her Sir at a public play party, “People really do that?”
But this also brings to mind questions I have about the nature of Kink, and the nature of those of us who are kinky.
I’ve mentioned many times in these reviews that many of us who consider ourselves kinky to the core have known this about ourselves since a very early age—before, to use a phrase I’m beginning to overuse, we even knew what sex was.
An early fascination with power play: a forced stripping in an old cartoon watched at a young age, imperiled heroes tied up in TV shows. Orion slave girls on Star Trek (the original series). Upon reaching puberty and finding those classmates we were attracted to were less than likely to share these interests (or at least admit them), compromises had to be made, but we already knew deep down what we truly wanted.
I’ve always been confused by people who come to Kink late. They apparently had no inclinations in early life, in their previous marriage or relationships, but go on to find that person who coaxes or converts them? Or have they merely been hiding their tendencies, even to themselves, all these decades? In any case, I am always happy that they’ve found the joys that I know and love. But how does this happen?
This book does not answer those questions for me. Quite the opposite! Freed states that she takes over a hundred lovers in the period covered in this book, and only one—Jake, of course—tries to cuff her, which she found unpleasant. (Though it was because of the harsh steel police handcuffs more than the feeling of being bound.)
Make no mistake, this is a sexy book. This was a fun, well-written memoir that tells a vital story—that of a woman raised in a conventional time and environment but finding her faithfulness abused and unrewarded, who takes her shattered life into her own hands and enters a radical quest for sexual and personal fulfillment. She comes out of the experience transformed, in so many ways, and for the better. The book captures a specific time and place, a unique one, and portrays the frustrations of an entire generation of women, while depicting a course chosen by few.
That alone makes the book important, and well worth reading (as do the many sex scenes—this is an erotic memoir). But as the first chapter in an even larger sexual transformation, into a BDSM maven whose life structure goes on to be defined by submission and dominance, this book can be seen, for those of us who follow Ms. Freed, as one piece of an even bigger puzzle. And it is all the more fascinating for it.
Dorothy’s website and blog can be found here.
Freed’s erotic fiction is available in many anthologies; Perfect Strangers can be purchased here. Highly recommended.