Though I was only three when it was published, and thus exempt from most of the societal upheavals that it described, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying nonetheless occupied a reasonably significant role in my coming of age. I’d always heard rumors of its outrageous salaciousness, but when I finally got around to reading it–sometime in college–I was perplexed; to my mind there was far too little sex and far too much explication of the evils of Freudian therapy (why didn’t the heroine just get a nice female therapist, I wondered). Still, its reckless honesty and minute detailing of bodily functions unnerved me sufficiently to keep me reading. I’ve retained a certain irked curiosity about Jong ever since, picking up her other novels when I see them selling for cheap in secondhand stores. When I heard that she was coming to town to push Fear of Fifty, her rather exiguous new autobiography, I wasn’t going to miss it.

Arriving at Women & Children First bookstore for Jong’s reading, I feel like I’ve blundered into one of my mother’s bridge parties. With the exception of a few women in their 20s and 30s (“I started that book years ago and never finished it,” one says to her friend. “Yeah, but she’s a big name, you know,” the friend replies) the salt-and-pepper-haired crowd is here to be titillated and validated once more by the girl who showed them, 20 years ago, that their secret urges and angers were shared. Jong plays amusingly to her audience; she’s there, she explains, to tell them that she–and they, by extension–are “generational pioneers.”

“We have been pioneers in our own lives, and the price of the pioneer is eternal discomfort,” she reads, holding her book in hands bedecked with a collection of those clunky, jewel-encrusted rings that my mom calls “dinner rings.” “The reward is the stunning sense of pride in our painfully achieved selfhood. ‘I did it!’ we exclaim with some shock and amazement. ‘I did it! You can too!'”

I wonder what it takes to be a pioneer–is it enough to be an Erica Jong fan?–and who in the room considers herself one. I don’t think my mom would qualify for pioneer status; though she just turned 50 herself, she doesn’t seem to share Jong’s belief that it is “just a number.” Anyway, I can’t imagine she’s ever even read Fear of Flying. I’d like to pursue the pioneer question with mom, as well as some related ones (what, exactly, constitutes the “frontier” for aging middle-class women?), but apparently I’m not yet seasoned enough to talk to her about such things. In Jong’s view, an interest in your parents “is something that you come to in your 40s or 50s, or maybe in your early 30s,” so I guess I’ve got a few years to go.

Not one to let her generation be crowded out by the trendier boomers and X-ers, Jong has coined a term to sum it up: the “whiplash generation,” in which, according to the promotional materials for her book, she’s a “charter member.” (By the way, I’m putting together a charter for generation Y, the “young twentysomething” generation; anyone under 25 who’d like to become a charter member can contact me c/o this newspaper.)

Why the “whiplash generation”? By way of explanation Jong evokes a stream of idols that tugged her in opposite directions throughout her life. In her teens it was Doris Day, then on to Gloria Steinem in her 20s (“Gloria said to me once, ‘But I wanted to be you, Erica, and write poetry,’ and that’s very sweet, but back then I just wanted to be her”); and then, in mid-life, Princess Di and Madonna. Princess Di and Madonna? In a nearly identical passage in Fear of Fifty, Jong makes no mention of the Blond One; instead, she offers Nancy Reagan as a symbol of 1980s womanhood. Baffled by the apparent interchangeability of these two in Jong’s mind (well, they are both Material Girls…), I make a little star in the margin of my notebook. This seems like a perfect symbol of the difficulty Jong has dealing with the contemporary scene.

But then Jong reads some more from Fear of Fifty, and soon I’ve got more symbols than I know what to do with. Meditating on the significance of her three imaginary friends from childhood–long forgotten except for their names, DeeDee, Funalike, and the Famous Guy–she unleashes a blizzard of dated images: white limousines and tuxes, chimney pots and Peter Pan, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and the rumba, poodle skirts and red-haired guys in Harvard scarves. “Shall we reinvent these friends from the names up?” she asks the reader, but eventually the “we” vanishes and she ends up just talking to herself, spinning her habitual interior monologue in the assumption that her audience will, as usual, find themselves in her experiences.

“DeeDee was a regular girl and you would never be regular if you lived to be a hundred and six….

You cannot change your name to DeeDee, whatever you do. You are Erica, Erotica, Eroica–as they called you in high school. Or Isadora, Fanny, Jessica, Leila–as you called yourself in books. But never normal blonde happy DeeDee who marries the captain of the football team and never even longs for the Famous Guy, let alone cruises the city, searching for him and inviting him into that long limousine.”

My experiences, your experiences. Jong’s bland self-absorption, her confidence that the long limousine, because it is in her heart, is also in the hearts of her audience–that she is their “generational pioneer”–is as much her trademark as her vaunted honesty. When she talks about Fear of Fifty, both traits come on display. “This book was a tremendous liberating experience for me,” she says, “and, I think, for the people that have read it.” It’s a book that has “enormous passion,” she explains, “a very funny book” that just came “bubbling out of me.”

Jong talks excitedly about interviewing her parents, particularly her mother, who she “found to be my muse,” but looks only obliquely in the other direction–my direction, and that of her 16-year-old daughter Molly. In the preface to Fear of Fifty Jong tells of how Molly dismissed her as a “seventies writer,” then tried to read Fear of Flying, only to abandon it after 100 pages in favor of The Catcher in the Rye–confessing later that she was too embarrassed to read about her mother’s shocking experiences. “How about that,” I like to imagine Jong, one elbow propped on a mantel piece, saying to a throng of admirers at a cocktail party. “She’s more alarmed by me than by The Catcher in the Rye!”

Jong doesn’t read the Molly anecdote aloud, but Molly comes up just the same. When a man asks what Jong would tell the next generation of daughters, she replies, “Well, I can rarely tell my own daughter anything”–eliciting, of course, a round of sympathetic laughter. “When I can tell her anything, I tell her, don’t be complacent about women’s rights,” she adds. “They’ll take them away whenever they can. We’ve raised a lot of consciousness, but we’re in the middle of an unfinished revolution. We’re in the third wave.”

The third wave? Having missed out on waves one and two, I’m not quite sure what she’s talking about. It’s strange to see Jong coming so smoothly to terms with a barrier even more rigid than the ones she’s devoted her life to breaching. She’s settling down comfortably on one side with her audience, the women who remember exactly where they were in 1973 when they read her book. And I’m on the other side–me and Molly, and everyone else who’s come along since then.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nigel Parry.