I just finished Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner. It’s fantastic and I highly recommend it. The book made me think about the social constructs and ideas that single women have to battle if they want to be sexually fulfilled by more than one man. However, I read some of the reviews of this book after I read it and they made me want to pick a fight. So I’m writing this instead.
Here’s the basic premise: a woman named Teresa picks up a strange man in a bar. They have sex. She tries to kick him out afterwards. He kills her.
That’s not a spoiler. That’s the first chapter.
Then the book backs up and we meet Teresa in the midst of a seminal physical experience as a young kid – not sexual abuse for once – that forever separates her from her body. The whole rest of the book she tries to get back into her body, swimming through an ocean of self-hatred that she mitigates with work and men and booze and drugs and continual movement. We see her attempt to connect with her life in a deeper way and we also see the way that sex brings her into the body that she’s hated and has been separated from for so long. But she also uses sex to punish herself and her body.
Now, as a psychobiographical thriller, this book is fantastic. It’s tightly plotted (one reviewer called it 'penetrating" lol... sigh) and it's beautifully written without any extra unnecessary stuff or words or scenes. I read it in a day and was riveted for most of it. I really enjoyed how the book was written almost as if the author was Teresa herself – because there are so many things that only she could know – but also with an objective empiric eye for logistical detail, as if Teresa were being followed and interviewed by a biographer who also contributed their own perspective.
The subject matter is rough – a single woman murdered after a casual sex hookup – it's based on a true story (? I'm going to look into that) and it caused an enormous stir when it was published in 1975. I can understand that there would be controversy because sex always causes controversy, but it’s so aggravating to read reviews that miss the entire point of the book. Here’s one of the worst:
“A haunting compelling thriller, guaranteed to make any woman terrified of the next strange man that she meets.”
Oh. My. God. That’s the takeaway lesson? Strange men are dangerous??
How fucking superficial.
I know that common wisdom dictates that any woman who has casual sex with a near stranger is courting rape and murder. Despite generations of women disproving this tropism, it still persists and I find it so disappointing. Especially when this book is so well written to prove another point all together, which is that people find what they seek.
Teresa looked for danger as well as fulfillment in her sex with strangers and she found those things, in the same way that women who want to stay alive and healthy generally do.
When healthy women have sex, it is an expression of their desire. If their act of sex is healthy, that has everything to do with their intent and the people that they choose, whether it’s someone they’ve known for 5 years or for 5 minutes.
In strict contrast to a healthy woman’s sexual expression, when I finished Looking for Mr. Goodbar, I wondered if perhaps this was the end Teresa had been seeking her whole life. Her sexual intent had been largely destructive and her end followed in the same way.
Looking for Mr. Goodbar is one woman’s story of self destruction. It’s not a parable or an educational myth. There’s no equation where casual sex = death. If anything, this story proves that self hatred = death. That how you do anything is how you do everything. If you hate yourself enough to let other people hate on you, bad things could happen.
And the worst part is that you might think you deserve them.
Read this book. It’ll make you think.