Author and poet Sharon Doubiago’s new book My Beard (published April 18, 2018 by Spuyten Duvyil, New York City) consists of twelve short stories about her life. The prose are often visceral and unabashedly sexual, always body-focused and poetic. My response to the stories was complex. On one hand, a part of me cringed inside at what often felt like raw, graphic openness, while my larger, observing perspective absorbed her narratives as simply beautiful, whole, uncensored, and refreshingly honest tellings from the heart. She frequently illustrated parallels and interrelationships to her own body and the earth. Hence, Ms. Doubiago’s direct mentionings of the Goddess were a crystal clear frame of reference. I enjoyed reading something so current in which the author is unashamedly attuned to and grounded in her flesh and Mother Earth. The Goddess lives!
The reader is immediately introduced to the author’s hippie, unconventional lifestyle. For extended periods of time, she lives out of her vehicle, first a large old car named “Roses” and then a van called “Psyche,” a gift from her parents. She alludes to some odd jobs for employment, including bartending, but largely makes a living through teaching writing classes, including in a men’s prison.
Sharon’s political progressivism comes through everywhere, such as in the piece “Our War,” in which she both interviews and dialogues with a woman from Sarajevo during the last year of the Bosnian War (1995). She conveys a balance of openness, humbleness, and erudition while conversing with someone who has witnessed the horrors of war first-hand. Like Ms. Doubiago, her interviewee/discussion partner is also a writer and someone with a history of involvement with independent, small press publishing. This story felt comparatively less imaginative and poetic than the other ones because much of it is from directly recorded dialogue and focused on a large-scale piece of history in the making. However, I appreciated the author’s journalistic skills and partial history lesson she provided me, the reader, about a war and area of Europe I hardly knew anything about.
Many of the stories are about Ms. Doubiago’s intimate relationships with men that are doomed to end, are ending, or come to an end within the narrative. Each lover clearly has intimacy issues, is emotionally unstable, and ends up leaving the author or, in one case, forcing Sharon to ultimately leave because of the man’s brittle mental health and extreme ambivalence over staying with her. She shares how all of her relationships were erotically rewarding to at least some degree, except for with her second (or third– admittedly unclear to me) husband due to his lack of sexual interest much of the time over their seven months of marriage. The dissolution of this union is powerfully described over three stories: “Stripper,” “Tsagalalah, She Who Watches,” and the last entry “My Beard.” He, a sculptor by trade, was having an affair with another woman since the day of their wedding. He coolly collected experiences with lovers like he acquired sculpting commissions, which mostly were bronze castings of naked women who posed for him in his studio while he plastered over their bodies. One day, while plastering an art subject, he flatly announced to Sharon that she was “no longer erotic” to him. “High art” objectification was happening here, but objectification nonetheless. I felt relief for Ms. Doubiago each time one of her fraught relationships came to an end. This is what it seems she wants us readers to understandably feel with and for her. She writes clearly with deep emotion yet keen observation honed both from hindsight and identifying as a lone outsider early on in her life.
I found myself particularly caught up in deep intrigue while reading “Psyche and the Vidyahara.” Here again was a bit of history lesson for me while learning about the behind-the-scenes corruption of the Tibetan Buddhist Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. As a child of well-educated hippie parents in 1970s Northern California, I often heard my folks and friends of theirs mention this place of higher learning, namely for creative writing and Buddhist practice. It took on a mystique for me, though never strong enough to travel and directly find out about it for myself. In her ninth story of this book, Ms. Doubiago comes across as a voice of reason and compassion as she describes the sexual and emotional abuses committed by Naropa’s leader Chogyam Trungpa and then by his anointed successor to the lineage Ozel Tendzin, a bisexual American man with AIDS who had unprotected sex with many of his uninformed followers.
Fast-forward from this sordid backstory to the author being invited to the Institute as a visiting professor for the summer session at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. (The pretentiousness of that name evoked a chuckle from me.) Courageously and caringly, Ms. Doubiago shares her concern aloud after an aggressive-toned reading about raping “white girls” by another visiting writer and professor Anne Waldman (who I met once when I was about seven and later enjoyed hearing her read a poem like a chant). She is soon roundly misunderstood and shamed, including by fellow poet and attendee Allen Ginsberg. Sharon is further scapegoated afterwards at a meeting set up for the purpose of doing this to her. The “wrong” committed? In her own nuanced way, Ms. Doubiago did not conform to the politically correct “format” of discourse everyone else was holding to in the name of combatting censorship, even though Sharon clearly had no use for censorship either. She was able to leave there with a sense of appreciating the bit of support she managed to glean from a situation of adversity where she’d reasonably hoped to find camaraderie with peers. My own remaining curiosity about the Naropa Institute felt quite fulfilled after finishing this tale.
At least two other stories touch upon the author’s nonconformist outsider status within the poetry and writing community, such as in the third installment “Fornography.” This largely takes place at a two week annual writer’s conference attended by the likes of Margaret Atwood and William Stafford. Sharon Doubiago effectively conveys here a sense of “group think” that whole factions of writers hold to, including on how to view and discuss (vs. how not to view and discuss) pornography. Elsewhere, towards the end of the final story “My Beard,” Ms. Doubiago is sitting on a panel of writers when she gets verbally threatened by none other than “superstar” (Sharon’s descriptor) author and poet James Dickey. The audience cheers him on. And while the reader is never told or shown exactly what she said that evoked such a hostile response, the content of the whole narrative of “My Beard” lays out her thought processes over many matters, including about “gender and the family,” the topic she and the other panelists had been assigned to give a presentation about.
In some places, the emotional depth and urgency of Sharon’s experiences are effectively elucidated through the visual power of her dreams. For example, the author dreams of a flopping fish following her down a mountain, nipping at her heels, this fish’s dogged determination a way of showing it loves her. It is very much like her then-dying father, a man who loved to fish and who constantly abused her. In a sense, he acted like this fish out of water, pursuing Sharon and committing actions not at all healthy or natural to do.
There are many recurring themes in this deeply thoughtful book, an overarching one that stands out being the ongoing healing the author engages in from surviving prolonged sexual abuse by her father, including an incident of raping her when she was seven years of age. He clearly sexualized Sharon, his oldest child of three, throughout her childhood. The mother’s jealousy and avoidance of protecting her only enabled the abuse to keep happening. Ms. Doubiago’s sense of self, including an often wavering confidence, and all of her intimate relationships were hugely affected by this tragic aspect of her upbringing. The final story “My Beard” brings it all home as the author gracefully weaves back and forth between childhood and the last months and days of her father’s life, coupled with the final memories of being with an unfaithful, self-absorbed, misogynistic husband, the parallels between he and Sharon’s father coming forth in waves. (As a visual reference/focal point, Sharon refers to the ocean and its waves in this story and a few others.) Admirably, Ms. Doubiago lovingly cares for her father on his deathbed, helping her elderly mother out as best she can, all while having to drive a long distance between her home and her parents’. And yet, she remains misunderstood and invalidated within even her own family of origin; her jealous sister, who never was sexually abused by the father, repeatedly denies that Sharon herself was ever abused. Sharon clearly became an outsider early on, mother and sister each jealous of her and the father using her for his own painfully unresolved needs.
What is additionally wonderful is that I knew Sharon Doubiago when I was a child. She was a family friend, slightly older than my father. This is why I sometimes referred to her by first name only in this review. I remember her as being soft-spoken and very striking with her large blue eyes, high cheekbones, and thick blonde hair. Now, I’m getting to know this amazing, talented woman better through her writing.
It’s affirming to read a series of stories that, taken together, comprise a memoir. Maybe that’s the form my own memoir will take if and when I end up writing it.