Susan Jane Gilman’s hilarious memoir, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, is a page-turning ride through Gilman’s unconventional Upper West Side Manhattan childhood in the ‘70s. Gilman was raised in a family of “intrinsic grooviness” in a “neighborhood whose only claim to fame at the time was that its crime and gang warfare had been sufficient enough to inspire the hit Broadway musical West Side Story.”
Like all children, Gilman longed to be like all the other kids, but also to be exceptional. Blessed with an inventive imagination and parents whose idea of a vacation was trekking to a summer colony founded by Socialists, Gilman makes the most of both the mundane and the unusual moments of her childhood. Gilman’s narrative reflects the social and cultural upheaval of the ‘70s; as a four-year-old, she was desperately afraid of becoming a hippie, despite her mother’s reassurances that she was no such thing. “‘For Chrissake, you’re not a hippie,’ said my mother, fanning incense around our living room with the sleeves of her dashiki.” Was Gilman culturally confused? Absolutely. Bitter about it? Never.
From her hippie-fearing preschool years to her Puerto Rican wannabe stage, to her longing to play the Virgin Mary in the school pageant at her Presbyterian school (where she was one of the few, if not the only, Jewish student), Gilman laughs her way through her childhood and into her early adulthood while trying to figure out her identity as a feminist woman. Some of the funniest moments in the book come in the chapters when she describes her first post-college job at The Jewish Week newspaper. Gilman reveals her “secret life” as a lesbian Jewish woman (sorry, you’re going to have to read the book to find out about that one) and the time she eats lobster ravioli in cream sauce at a lunch interview with an Orthodox rabbi.
There are some funny and unexpectedly poignant moments when she is sent to Poland for a week with 3,000 Jewish teenagers to learn about Jewish history and the Holocaust. As a group of teenagers pose under the infamous Auschwitz gate for photos, Gilman thinks, “I could only imagine their photo albums back home: Here’s me and Jason at Disneyland. Here we are at the junior prom. Oh, and here we are at Auschwitz… But then, strangely, I found myself tickled, almost gleeful. Hitler, after all, had hoped to turn a handful of synagogues into museums documenting ‘the extinct Jewish race.’ Instead, his own machinery had been preserved as a tourist attraction, and now here we were, the shrill, popcorn-crunching crowds, the kids with cartoon T-shirts, Instamatic cameras, and picnic lunches, as mindless and ordinary as any other group of spectators, posing beneath the defunct infrastructure of genocide, laughing and squeezing together to fit into the frame of the autofocus.”
Toward the end of the book, Gilman ‘fesses up to the hypocrite part of the title. Always thinking herself a strong, independent, feminist woman, when she falls in love and plans her wedding, she meets the dress of her dreams at David’s Bridal. Believing she is the “anti-bride” she tries on a wedding dress with mixed feelings: “It was confectionary, princessy, glittering. It was exactly the type of dress that I had sworn on a stack of Ms. Magazines that I would never, ever wear. It looked spectacular on me.”
Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress would be a fabulous summer vacation read; light, entertaining, but not too fluffy, Gilman as author will make you want to be her new best friend.