When September comes I say goodbye to Louis, goodbye to New York, hello to Goucher College. Goucher is an all-girl school on the cusp of the South, and I am resigned to going there. My first choice is Antioch College which sounds much more bohemian, but my parents put their foot down and say no. They want to immerse me in convention, something to dampen my rebellious attitude. Okay, I finally say, because although Baltimore isn’t Paris, its in the right direction, the far-away-from-home direction.
Goucher turns out to be shockingly different from the Bronx. I am surrounded by nice Southern girls wearing circle pins, some tell me they have brought their horses to school with them. Horses, when I can hardly keep a parakeet at home. Contrariwise, I am, I want to be, a bad girl, a beatnik, an existentialist, I will wear turtlenecks from the Army-Navy store. I will ride with Marlon Brando, not John Wayne.
I find my reputation precedes me. What happened is that I went to a party in August for prospective students. I was all fresh from fucking Louis every way he could think of, and announced proudly to anyone who would listen that I believed in free love. I pranced around like a rebel, an outlaw, a star, oblivious to the reactions of the girls and stoney-faced sponsors. I guess the word gets around quickly.
The telephone in the dormitory hall rings for me all the time. I’ve never been so popular, actually I’ve never been popular at all. I say hello, and a stranger at the other end of the line asks me for a date, and I laugh through a whirl of fraternity parties, dances, lacrosse games. Almost nameless boys, after all these years I cannot remember a single one but I sleep with them, with a myriad of boys, write about them in a notebook and score their sexual skills, there are no awkward pauses in our courtship. I learn by heart the topography of rooms and beds, and it is easy as shaking hands and exquisitely casual. I do not want love. I do not have orgasms. What I have is intimacy without attachment and I learn that generosity is its own reward.
In my first week at Goucher, the administration orders every freshman to line up for naked photographs. We wait in a huddle like sheep, are ushered one by one into a small room and told to strip. Frontal view, side views, turn around, snap snap snap. It has to do with posture. I am not sure what it has to do with posture, but that’s what they tell us.
Many years later, I find out that nude posture photos were common in Ivy League and women’s colleges, part of a study conducted by Dr. Robert Sheldon. He believed that body types could be classified as mesomorphs, endomorphs and ectomorphs. To substantiate his theories, he took thousands of photographs of naked men and women, front, side and rear. Colleges were Sheldon’s enthusiastic partners and presented the photographic sessions as a part of their standard entrance requirement, just take off your clothes, dear.
Students were never asked to give consent or told that they had a choice in the matter. Once in a while, though, some less compliant subject would get angry and refuse to be photographed. In 1950 a woman in a Seattle college complained to her parents about what had happened and scandalized university officials and lawyers raided Sheldon’s offices and burned all the photographs. Other colleges did the same, although some remained Sheldon allies for years.
Posture photography didn’t disappear completely until the ’60’s, and I suppose Goucher must have been one of the last bastions of the practice. Most colleges eventually destroyed all their photographs but Sheldon kept thousands in his archive and the Smithsonian has a sealed collection.
Sheldon’s theories are now dismissed and discredited as subjective and discriminatory quackery.
Naked pictures aside, I enjoy my classes at college. Goucher is academically rigorous, at least compared to my high school. In between weekends of sexual exploration I study hard and research and write papers and memorize facts. I learn how to use a microfiche reader. I learn about primary sources, it turns out I love primary sources. I never knew about them before, probably they are old hat to you.
We have to pick a historical subject and write about it. I pick the Scottsboro Boys case, which was an incident from the 1930’s which combined race, sex, violence and injustice. Black boys in Alabama had been accused of raping two white women on a freight train.
The professor thinks my research and writing are good but hates my subject matter. “There are other cases with more important and more reliable people involved,” she scrawls in red ink and she is all indignant about my condemnation of Southern prejudice. I admit I am a bit sweeping in my statements, but remember I am only seventeen and inclined to stern judgments. You don’t have to be very rebellious to be an iconoclast at Goucher, and I keep forgetting we are in the South.
The college administration eventually catches up with me. Dean Geen calls me into her office for a serious talk about my behavior. I deny having any behavior, much less bad behavior. The Dean talks to me seriously about maturity and ethics and responsibility and indicates I must see the school psychiatrist. Fine, I say. I think it will be interesting.
The psychiatrist is a middle-aged man in a three piece suit who is fascinated by sex. He leans forward in his chair to hear every tidbit of detail and looks at me intently when I tell him that I shave my pubic hair. He says that I have penis envy. He wants to sign me up for more sessions, but I don’t believe in penis envy, so I say no. It’s the kind of stupid idea a German misogynist would dream up. Oh, that’s right. One did.
I finish the school year but when I get home my parents receive a letter saying that I am not welcome back. I am not sorry about leaving Goucher, but my parents are angry and confused about what to do next. Ironically, for the next fifty years they receive regular requests from the school for donations and bulletins filled with information about alumni. They pass the newsletters on to me. I always think it’s funny when they ask me to include Goucher in my estate planning.