How To Tell If You Are In An ’80s Biography Of A Famous Woman -The Toast

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Previously in this series.

Somewhere in the middle is a series of photographs of you. In at least one of them you are smiling broadly, toothily, and unattractively. You don’t look iconic, just human. It will be hard for the reader, especially if she is a young woman, not to relate to you, and this sense of shared humanity will make her uncomfortable and a little edgy.

You flippantly rejected the romantic proposal of a nice man who had done a lot for you; your biographer is faintly apologetic on your behalf.

You once made a sexual advance that was rejected and/or accepted less than whole-heartedly. It is re-told in detail, with an exploration of the physical attributes that led to your rejection.

A number of better-established people went way out of their way to help you. You did not show appropriate gratitude.

For decades you were ignored or treated as second-rate. Now everybody more or less knows that’s not true, but people still worry it a little in their minds, the way people worry at having been uncool in high school.

You put a lot of effort into your appearance; this is noted in a rueful aside.

You paid dearly for your laceratingly funny insult to a powerful man.

Your husband was completely unsatisfactory.

You did at least one thing that, by the standards of a purely hypothetical young female reader, was completely unforgivable. By anybody’s standards, really.

You really were a genius, though.

You were friends with a less-successful man in the same field of endeavor, necessitating a meditation on the essential egotism and ruthlessness of your character, qualities admirable and discomfiting in equal measure.

In other words, you could be a real pain in the neck.

You created a mythology around your family that was three parts exaggeration and one part straight up lies. It’s endearing, also a little sad.

You wrote at least one completely over the top love letter filled with squirm-inducing innuendo, probably to the person who sexually rejected you.

Somebody smart has paid close attention to you. They did this because you mattered so much to them. You had been obscured for a number of years by the tides of political conservatism, but this person cared enough about you to want to show you in three dimensions, to bring you to life. And yes, seeing you in the round like this makes you less iconic, less grand. That’s the point, right? The Madonna side of the complex is also a planet unable to support human life. So why is this so disappointing to the young female reader? Mostly her unconsciously sexist assumptions, also her hopes and fears for her own future. It feels different, somehow, than reading about Lyndon B. Johnson being a son-of-a-bitch, and she can’t put her finger on why.

Getting old and dying really did not bring out the best in you.

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