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Still a Child at Heart
She's still a child at heart, but the grownup in her writes funny things about the kid she once was By Brooke Lea Foster
Comments () | Published March 1, 2005
Staff writer Brooke Lea Foster can be reached at bfoster@washingtonian.com.

Talking to Susan Jane Gilman is like watching her dance a jig. Ask a simple question and she spins her answer into analogies, impersonations, anecdotes:

When did you start writing?

"When I was eight, I'd go to Woolworth's and buy these spiral notebooks. I'd write stories and illustrate them. I created a Susie Star label, so each story would say"--she switches to an announcer's voice--" 'A Susie Star-Made Book.' "

Do you miss living in New York?

"Being in New York is like having someone's hand down your pants. At first, you can't believe your luck. Then you're almost physically high. Then you're overwrought and exhausted and need to leave--immediately."

How old are you?

"Always eight! Always eight!" She bounces on her seat in a hotel restaurant, shaking her hands as if air-drying them. "I still have imaginative streaks to the point of delusion."

Any pets?

"Just my husband."

GILMAN'S coming-of-age memoir, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress: Tales of Growing Up Groovy and Clueless, chronicles her unconventional mind.

And childhood. Her parents lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side and dragged their kids through nearly every fad of the '70s and '80s, from macrobiotic dieting to transcendental meditation. Trends were taken to extremes: When Gilman returned home from college, she found her mother's living room empty except for a pile of foam mats. The apartment had been turned into a Japanese exercise studio.

"I didn't want to write something that was woe-is-me," Gilman says. "I wanted people to read my book and feel superior, because they'd know someone who did things infinitely worse."

She says her book is about "getting a clue" on race, sex, injustice, what makes people who they are.

By race, she's referring to sitting at the dinner table at age six and imitating the streetwise Puerto Rican girls she idolized: "Like, 'I ain't going to be eatin' no carrots an' sh@#, riiight?' "

By sex, she means meeting Mick Jagger as a teenager. She was at a friend's mother's dinner party when Jagger commented on her breast size. "Looking back, it was vulgar and obnoxious," she says. "At the time, I could tell people: 'Mick Jagger said I have big boobs!' Everyone at school thought I was having sex with rock stars."

HYPOCRITE follows Gilman's wobbles into adulthood, including her stint as a communications director on Capitol Hill, a job she took in 1996 after meeting a liberal congresswoman--whom she declines to name--who made Gilman believe she could change the world. Gilman soon started applying for another job.

"Congress takes on the politics of high school," she says. "People are so occupied with what other people think: What will the voters think? What will the media think? What will the representatives think?"

Gilman lives in DC's Van Ness neighborhood and recently quit her job in communications at the National Education Association to decide her next step. She met her husband, a Department of Agriculture meteorologist, on a blind date. He's identified, both in the book and in person, only as "The Amazing Bob."

"I planned to be the anti-bride," Gilman says. "I'd wear red or black and walk down the aisle to 'I Can't Get No Satisfaction.' Then I went to David's Bridal and put on a pouffy white dress. I fell in love with my reflection. I had this complete feminist meltdown."

GILMAN was first published 24 years ago at age 16. She wrote a series of scenes from Manhattan's Stuyvesant High School, which her English teacher liked. The teacher was Frank McCourt, who went on to write the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela's Ashes. He encouraged her to send the scenes to the Village Voice, which published the article. Gilman calls McCourt her mentor.

Since graduate school at the University of Michigan, where she studied creative writing, she has written short stories and half-finished novels. Then an idea came to her while waiting in line at a takeout place. She had read The Rules, a 1995 diatribe about courtship, and was annoyed by how obsessed with marriage women seemed.

"Why doesn't somebody write a feminist guide to life," she asked a friend, "something filled with humor that's practical?"

Her answer, published in 2001, was Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a Smartmouth Goddess. It's filled with oddball--and frequently off-color--ruminations: "You know, men rarely get more creative than when it comes to devising euphemisms for playing with themselves. Ask Joe Sixpack to describe masturbation and suddenly he's a poet."

IT'S high tea at DC's Jefferson Hotel. Gilman, in a black suit and silver hoop earrings, nibbles on finger sandwiches. I mention it's my birthday.

"Louis Armstrong or Marilyn Monroe?" she asks.

Umm . . .

"They're the only impersonations I can do."

Okay--Louis Armstrong.

Gilman dips her chin, looks me in the eye, and croaks: "Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear . . ."

She sways from side to side. People at other tables look at us. She keeps on singing.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 03/01/2005 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles