When I grow up, I want to be as cool as Dorothy Freed. Well, that might be a tall order: no spring chicken any more, it’s getting harder to deny that I am finally, in spite of all my efforts to avoid it, a rather drab excuse for an adult. Still, if I could hope to be even half as cool as the fantastic Ms. Freed, or write about my own life-experience with the same deep self-awareness, honesty, passion, and grace that she brings to this amazing new memoir, I would consider that something worth celebrating.
Perfect Strangers proves once again that real life is often farther-out than fiction. Freed’s story has all the elements of a well-crafted erotic page-turner, including the plucky heroine with a problem on her hands, a seemingly endless series of obstacles to negotiate, and conflicts to overcome—her storytelling all the more powerful for being true! As in any good tale, conflict comes right at the beginning, in this case when Freed discovers her husband in bed with her best friend. Lacking the confidence that comes with experience, the young heroine is, at first, very much adrift: married at seventeen and a dutiful housewife for twelve years, her husband is the only lover she has ever known, though he never seems to miss an opportunity to remind her of what he perceives as her sexual inadequacies, particularly her (supposed) inability to achieve vaginal orgasm.
Soon divorced with two young sons to support, Freed made her way to the west coast in the mid-1970s. “If you come to San Francisco,” Scott McKenzie so famously sang, “be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…” Had she known what awaited her there, Freed might well have arrived with bells on. Already the legendary mecca of seekers, and undisputed world capitol of the dawning New Age culture, San Francisco in those years was the very pulsing, exuberant heart of the Sexual Revolution, and Freed found her element—and herself—there, truly at home for the first time in her life.
The city is much more than mere backdrop in this narrative, with its sleazy clubs and peep shows, steaming bathhouses, velvet-upholstered swingers’ retreats, greasy bistros, head shops, and cafes, high-quality psychedelics, and easy sex—what Erica Jong notoriously referred to as the zipless fuck—San Francisco is the magical canvas on which the story of Freed’s quest for liberty and self-knowledge assumes vivid life.
As in any quest-narrative worth the telling, the heroine needs a guide or mentors to help her learn the workings of this strange, new, and sometimes scary world. Enter a series of fascinating acquaintances and “perfect strangers” to help Dorothy navigate the Yellow Brick Road. At one point, Freed informs us, she was simultaneously dating no fewer than seven men, and would ultimately have close to a hundred lovers in the space of four years. She describes a few of these encounters in frank, unblinking detail, the good, the bad, and the bat-shit crazy, along with what lessons were learned along the way. But probably the most influential and constant figure in her life at that time was “Jake,” Freed’s friend-with-benefits galore, who, in his constant challenging of her inhibitions and hang-ups, ever pushing the envelope of convention, was instrumental in helping her realize her true sexual self, the dazzling butterfly at last emerging from its cocoon of uncertainty and self-doubt.
Freed’s musings about the pitfalls of love, the search for deeper connection and meaning in life, are often extraordinary, and beautifully written, rising to the level of the most memorable personal literature. Throughout, her language is direct, frank—but seldom brutally so—and never convoluted or confused. This is by no means a difficult book to read, though it is certainly an easy one to love.