Excerpts show richness of 'The Heart's Progress: A Lesbian Memoir'
Brunswick woman's book shares the fullness and realities of lesbian life
At left: Claudia Bepko of Brunswick, a therapist and author, has written a new book titled ''The Heart's Progress: A Lesbian Memoir.''
Staff photo by John Ewing
By JOANNE LANNINBRUNSWICK - Claudia Bepko poured her thoughts and feelings about the events of her life into the journal she kept for almost 30 years. But she's felt no need to keep a journal since she finished writing her most recent book, ''The Heart's Progress: A Lesbian Memoir.''
©Copyright 1997 Guy Gannett Communications
''There's really much more of myself in this book than any other I've written,'' the 49-year-old therapist says. ''It's as if I gave voice to something I really wanted to say.''
What Bepko is saying in this book, published this month by Viking Press, is that the everyday life of a same-sex couple looks a lot like everybody else's. As the TV sitcom ''Ellen'' generates headlines and house parties for its main character's coming-out this week, and movies continue to sensationalize or trivialize homosexual relationships, Bepko's book seeks to show that there's nothing outrageous about her life and her choices in love.
''What I really wanted to say is that we lead very real, very rich lives and I can't for the life of me figure out what all the fuss is about,'' she says while sitting in the living room of her ranch house on a quiet side street in Brunswick. Bepko has co-written three other nonfiction, self-help books in the past 10 years. One of those books, ''Too Good For Her Own Good,'' was a national best seller.
''The Heart's Progress,'' an insightful portrait of Bepko's life that reads like a novel, is well-timed to take advantage of the publishing industry's current infatuation with personal memoirs. Reviews from Mainers who've read the book indicate that it conveys the message Bepko hoped it would.
''It was good for me and other (heterosexual) people to see that our hopes and dreams and fears are no different than hers,'' says Nancy Randolph of Just Write Communications in Brunswick, who read the book while working with Bepko on promotional materials. ''I did have a different view of lesbian relationships until I read this book. . . . The more you learn, the more you know we are all the same.''
''It's a very insightful look into a lesbian's life,'' says Betsey Alden of Brunswick, a friend of Bepko's for 10 years. ''She's a super-caring person, and it comes through beautifully in the book.''
Bepko says she got the idea to write her memoirs about five years ago. But because the subject matter is so personal, she waited until she felt she had some legitimacy as a published writer. She also was reluctant to write it until her parents were deceased.
Growing up in an Italian Catholic family in a small Connecticut industrial town in the 1950s, Bepko's childhood was not a happy one. Her father was an alcoholic, and her mother a distant figure who showed affection for her eldest daughter only when she was sick in bed.
Bepko turned to her religion, believing that God was calling her to be a nun. In high school, the first stirrings of her feelings for women came when she developed an intensely emotional friendship with one of her teachers, a nun who subsequently left the convent.
It was during college that Bepko finally acknowledged her sexual feelings for a woman. But the woman with whom she had a relationship left school and married a man a year later. Bepko followed suit three or four years later.
It wasn't until she met a woman she calls ''Alice,'' while they were both working as counselors at a community health center, that Bepko left her husband and declared herself a lesbian.
For Bepko's editor, one of the things that made the book rise above the ordinary was the way she wrote about the choices she faced in the midst of tremendous pressure not to make them.
''I felt Claudia was telling the story of a generation of women who came of age at a time when, for everyone else, there was an enormous amount of freedom,'' says Jane von Mehren, executive editor at Penguin Books in New York City. ''She watched women gain freedom everywhere else, but to be who she is was still complicated, full of dilemmas.''
Bepko intended the book to be not only about her coming to terms with her sexuality but also about the struggles and ultimate triumph of her long-term relationship with ''Alice.'' Their 18-year relationship ended, though, while she was writing the book, and Bepko agreed to change her partner's name in the book.
The book became an even more revealing look at why their union failed.
As Bepko's book shows, the problems that doomed the relationship were present from the beginning. Living and working together, they were constantly confronted with the differences in their personalities. While Claudia was quiet and serious, someone who liked things neat and orderly, Alice was constantly on the move, messy and had a ''wildness about her.''
Still, for years they persevered, trying mightily to overcome or accommodate their differences.
''That's one of the reasons we moved to Maine,'' Bepko says, ''to make the dailiness of our lives more nurturing of the relationship.''
But the two women separated soon after Alice saw Bepko through the emotional turmoil and legal nightmare of a car accident in which the driver of the other vehicle was killed. While it was Alice who decided to leave the relationship, Bepko acknowledges that it was inevitable.
''The dailiness of life can be deadly unless you make a lot of conscious decisions to work with it, shape it, as you would a piece of writing,'' she says. ''I think the story of the book is that the various stresses on the relationship, mostly external to it, just eroded what we had together.''
That's a theme that many couples - gay and straight - can relate to. What makes the story of Bepko's struggles worthy of a book, says her editor, is the way she writes about them.
''She makes ordinary moments resonate,'' von Meheren says. ''Writing memoirs can be difficult. You must report on your life, and you must create a compelling narrative.''
Bepko has just returned from a book tour that took her to bookstores in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Seattle and several other cities. She says it's been difficult getting the mainstream press interested in the book because the subject of homosexuality is still controversial to many readers. To the gay and lesbian press, she says, the book isn't controversial enough.
Bepko's editor thinks the primary audience will be gay women who have gone through similar experiences, and their families and friends. Bepko would like her book to reach a wider audience, but she says she will be more than satisfied if it becomes a best seller in the gay community.
''When we go to bookstores, we don't find much that we can read about our lives,'' she says. ''I kept thinking, 'I want to go out and buy a love story that I can identify with, that makes sense to me.' In some ways, you always write the book you wanted to read.''
Excerpts show richness of 'The Heart's Progress: A Lesbian Memoir'Claudia Bepko's writing in ''The Heart's Progress: A Lesbian Memoir,'' is compelling and rich in detail. Her prose flows smoothly most of the time and flashes occasionally with subtle humor.
Here are some excerpts from the book:
On one of her attempts to come to terms with her sexuality in college:
''I don't recall how I heard about the woman or how I knew where to look for her. What I do remember is the bleached, medicinal smell of the hallways and labs of the chemistry buildings on the campus of the university where I found her. She propped herself up to sit on one of the lab stools, and, taking my cue from her, I did the same. Classes were over for the day. It was getting dark out; the lights inside were dim.
It was in this redolent, dusky silence that I first confessed to a total stranger that I thought I was a lesbian. Someone had told me that she talked to people about such things and might be able to help. She looked at me for a long while, seeming to mix and weigh and measure me as she might some chemical compound. Finally she said, 'You may not be strong enough to be gay.' Her pronouncement lodged itself permanently in my mind, and it may be that my life since then has been dedicated to proving her wrong.''
On her first date with ''Alice'':
''The week before, when she had asked me what kind of food I liked, I told her anything but fish. She cooked shrimp - shrimp creole hot and spicy, with rice that clumped together because she cooked it in too small a pot. That very night I acquired a taste for shrimp, for much that I had never had a taste for. I overlooked all that might have disturbed me in my other life - even the cat litter scattered all over the porch floor. In my life as a wife, I had been known to be quite irritable with David for not being neat, but here, with this woman, her very messiness became a part of her charm.''
On her breakup with ''Alice'':
''There is nothing like divorce to bring out the worst in people. There is bitterness, there is recrimination, there is distrust; there is the growing, overwhelming reality of suddenly hating the sight of someone you have lived with and loved, someone with whom you have shared the most minor and the deepest intimacies of your life. There are the moments of grief when you talk calmly and intently, more openly and sanely than you ever did when you were together, when you think, 'If only we could have done this then.' When you are tempted to make love for one last time, when you remember how bad the last time was and wish you had known then that it would be the last.''
- Joanne Lannin
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