In Autobiography of Us, debut novelist Aria Beth Sloss explores women’s coming of age before the sexual revolution and the secrecy and silence that governed both sexes at the time.
What inspired your novel?
A curiosity about my mother and what her life had been like growing up in Pasadena in the late ’50s/early ’60s. I began to imagine my way into this time as being part of a group of women who were in limbo. They were caught between two eras, too old by then to have been born into the world that their mothers had been born into, the conservatism, the ideal of the Donna Reed housewife. They didn’t grow up with the expectation in their own minds that they would stay at home, have children, and be housewives. But they were born too early to be part of what became the sexual revolution.
What did you want to say about homosexuality during that period?
I was interested in all the different kinds of secrecy and silence that still operates in some ways today... some more, some less subtle. To me that era represented the time when homophobia, racism, and other injustices were acted out all the time and hadn’t yet been forced into the spotlight. This kind of silence was everywhere, but it was much more pronounced in this echelon of society in particular. That’s something I got from going to Pasadena as a child, where my maternal grandparents still live. This upper crust, WASPy society held onto those ideas of silence quite a bit longer than much of the rest of the country.
The character Alex, Rebecca’s childhood best friend, experiences a lot of pain as she grows into adult life.
Rebecca yearned for a different life but constantly feared taking the steps and/or lacked the awareness of how to take those steps to make changes. In contrast, Alex knew more and had more awareness, and was troubled by the reality of not being able to escape their mothers’ destiny. Alex saw much more clearly the idea of the restrictions of those times and looked outside their world in a way Rebecca didn’t for much of the book. It would have been incredibly painful to see the things that came to pass, which would have changed their lives, had they just been born a few years later. Alex sees with a kind of clarity that nobody else in the book does.
And Rebecca’s mother, Eloise, responds badly to her daughter’s desire to become a doctor. In light of her own past, why was Eloise so adamant that her daughter be Donna Reed?
For Eloise, who had a very unusual dream for a woman of her era and saw that dream disappear, her desire was for Rebecca to have the sort of picture-perfect life that she never had. Trying to prevent Rebecca from having the big dream was an effort to prevent her daughter’s heartbreak. There’s also a real anger, a bitterness, to Eloise. It’s a natural result of the kinds of sacrifices I think women made all the time during both eras. Having to give up that dream of doing something other than raising a family cycled back through both generations.