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Why it's good to be a `bad girl'

Bad Girls 26 Writers Misbehave Edited by Ellen Sussman W.W. Norton: 304 pp., $24.95

July 10, 2007|Erika Schickel | Special to The Times

THE bad-girl racket ain't what it used to be; time was, bad girls had sass and smarts and originality. Lately it's been taken over by celebrities and heiresses given to sloppy behavior. Ellen Sussman's anthology "Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave" reminds us that bad girlery is so much more than sloppy behavior and wardrobe malfunctions -- it's a calling. It's the call to self, mixed in with the call of the wild. Anybody can get a DUI, but a real "bad girl" is a creature of passion and conviction, simmering rage and acute horniness, frailty and fearlessness.

"I wanted to taste everything," Elizabeth Rosner explains in her essay, "Everything I Know About Being Bad I Learned in Hebrew School." "I wanted to choose according to my very own desires: my dates, my food, my clothing, my praying. I wanted not to be a good girl or a bad girl but simply to be myself, a follower of my own sense of right and wrong. I wanted to be free."

That urge toward freedom classically begins with the need to escape our mothers. In "Independence Day," a teenage Kate Moses is virtually kidnapped by her own badly behaved mother and held at the Anchorage, Alaska, chapter of the German Club's annual beer-fest and camp-out weekend. " 'Can I set up your tent for ya?' Helmut or Hans or Arne asked me. 'No!' I answered over my shoulder, yelling to get my mother's attention. There she was, sliding through the long, neon grass in her slick, new sandals, held by the manicured hand, like an enchanted, red-toenailed princess being led into the forest by the green-clad woods folk."

"Being a 'bad girl' remains an individual experience," Jennifer Gilmore testifies in her essay, "Dinner." Gilmore rebelled by regurgitating her mother's cooking until she was eventually hospitalized. "The hospital was a vessel for damaged, rotten girls, and there was a hierarchy to their badness. The anorexics ... were all trying very hard to be good. But the bulimics, the camp I was tied to despite my efforts, were bad. We were bad to the bone because everything about us was dirty, even our secrets and lies."

The perennial bad-girl icon is, of course, the trollop, and she is given new dimension within these pages. In "Lisa the Drunken Slut," Maggie Estep humanizes her fast and nasty girlfriend, allowing her to be powerful and intelligent in addition to tarty. In "Plan D," Kim Addonizio, on the rebound from "a certain man who had drained the shot glass of my heart, slammed it on the bar, and walked away," gets brazenly debauched at a writers' conference.

Some girls are simply born adventurers and break the rules while on the road to peak experiences. Katharine Weber's stirring "The View From the Ninety-ninth Floor" describes her ascent to the top of the under-construction South Tower of the World Trade Center. At the ninety-ninth floor, the stairs end and the building has no walls. "Standing there, trying not to gasp for air, listening for the footsteps of the guard who may or may not have been below us on those stairs, I listened to the primeval sound of the night wind forcing itself through the interstices of the building, like a magnificent version of the note you can play when you blow across the top of your soda bottle. I want to hear that note again. I have never heard that note again."

Every bad girl knows that one of the rewards of misbehavior is getting to tell the story later, and that's what makes this collection so good. "Writing, to me, is going on with your bad self, it's sassing back, acting out. It's flipping off, turning conventions inside out," Kaui Hart Hemmings writes in "Author Questionnaire." Daphne Merkin illustrates the point with her hilarious, subversive essay, "Penises I Have Known," and Elizabeth Benedict tries to liberate her repressed stepdaughter by peppering her conversation with the F-word. In "A Good Girl Goes Bad," Joyce Maynard earns her bad reputation simply by telling her story. Wooed and dumped as a young girl by the pathologically private J.D. Salinger, Maynard obediently kept her mouth shut about it for decades: "He was so much more important and valuable than I was, I knew. His voice had spoken on this subject, and so mine must remain mute. The only way I had to prove to him that I was not completely unworthy lay in my silence." She finally sacrifices her need to be good to her greater need to tell her story and promptly becomes a pariah.

Rare is the anthology without a clunker, but there is none here. The only thing not to like about this book is its tired, pejorative title, which perpetrates the dull, sexist notion that women who dare to live bold, authentic lives are no good. "Bad girls are born, not made," Susan Cheever says in "Alma Mater." "In fact, perhaps bad girls aren't bad at all, maybe they are just sad girls, girls adrift among the shoals of others' expectations and society's weird reefs; girls who haven't found the lives they were meant to lead."

Erika Schickel is the author of "You're Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom."

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