Marcella Learns Sexual Bliss is Shameful Sin

marcellaWith no sex ed, a squeamish mom and friends who laugh at her naïveté, Marcella grew curiouser and curiouser about her body and its changes.

She seemed to have a secret cavern right inside her body… but where did it end? Exploring, she felt tingles and ripplings … the body’s song… Ohhh, she can’t wait to go to bed each night. And then one night they come,

bigger, and harder and… oh, enormous wind-torn gusts of feeling that… rumbling! …

No part of her felt the same after…

She thought sometimes that what she’d done was wrong, that she shouldn’t do it again, that maybe it was like sinning. But how could it be? … All bliss, and calm, like floating out on soft warm waters afterward, with heavenly music coursing in her ears. God must surely approve.

One day her mom hands her a book called So You’re Growing Up. A chapter entitled “Peeping Through the Keyhole” talks of masturbation. She’s not sure what that word means but by the time she’s done reading she knows it’s bad.

Eventually she learns exactly what the sin of masturbation is. This pleasure, which had once seemed a gift of God, turns out to be evil and perilous.

Desperately, she tries to stop. She just can’t disappoint God and go against her Christian values. She doesn’t want to go to Hell. But as she fights the urge she gets even more obsessed… and guilty and shameful… and more obsessed.

She seeks help from the Minister who brought her to God. And he sexually assaults her.

Seeking sanctity, she wanders into an empty church and eventually finds her way to the church kitchen and its drawer full of knives. If only she could cut off her hands… no, that wouldn’t be enough, she would need to cut off her arms… or just off herself, entirely.

What will happen to Marcella?

Marcella is a coming of age tale written by Marilyn June Coffey, an award-winning poet and author. The ground-breaking novel will be republished this year, 40 years after making literary history as the first English work of fiction to use female autoeroticism as a main theme. I had a chance to interview her. The discussion below was first posted in Ms.

What inspired you to write Marcella?

My psychoanalyst. He asked me, “But have you ever tried to commit suicide?” And I remembered descending to the church basement (as Marcella does), selecting a knife, and sawing at my wrists. That memory provoked the novel.

How did you expect Marcella would be received when you wrote the book in 1973? Were there any surprises?

I thought God might send down a lightning bolt and kill me. But He didn’t.

The biggest surprise was the strong support from feminists. They lauded my controversial novel. Ms. published the menstruation chapter as “Falling Off the Roof.” Gloria Steinem hailed Marcella as “an important part of the truth telling by and for women,” and Alix Kates Shulman praised the book in her New York Times Book Review.

What sort of effect do you think your book has had?

Varied. From a refusal to read it to “Thank you for telling my story.”

What kind of response do you expect for the republication? 

Lisa Pelto of Concierge, my specialist in marketing, suggested that we offer Marcella to a Young Adult audience. This surprised me, since in 1973, my audience consisted of adults.  Then I considered the sophistication of today’s young adult reader compared to her counterpart forty years ago. I’m sure that today’s young reader is so much more savvy about sexual matters that my book wouldn’t shock her. So I think my audience for Marcella will broaden.

I understand that in 1989 you attempted a public reading which was eventually canceled after public outcry. Since you are once again planning a public reading, I’m wondering how the response has been different and why you think that is.

I think the response to this year’s reading is largely different because of place. Omaha, Nebraska, is a sophisticated city that supports the arts and wouldn’t attempt to ban our marathon reading.

But in 1989, I had agreed to read a marathon in Orleans, Nebraska, population 400 in my home county of 4,000. I love my roots, but sophisticated they are not. My Orleans reading was initially accepted, but when word spread about its descriptions of mas -tur – ba – tion, a brouhaha erupted.

How do you see reactions to your book and to public readings as relating to today’s war on women by the extreme right?

I am appalled by the attacks on women’s rights by the extreme right. I thought we’d settled all that decades ago. I have three recurring elements in Marcella, her Christianity, her masturbation, and her love of music. I expect the first two might give the extreme right reason to dislike my novel.

I’ve heard you describe Marcella as being sexually addicted. What do you think caused that? Do you feel her desire for nightly masturbation was addictive, or did the addiction come more after she began feeling guilty about it?

In my experience, sexual addiction is the result of trauma. Two things traumatized her, her belief that masturbation was sinful and Big Jim’s unexpected sexual attraction to her.

Do you see parallels to Marcella’s pedophile Minister and to pedophile priests of today, and public reaction?

A pedophile is a pedophile whether in Marcella’s day or now. But today children are taught to speak out about behavior that makes them uncomfortable. That has caused, as you know, a tremendous outcry against pedophilia.

However, Marcella thought that the sexual experience with the minister she trusted was her fault, not Big Jim’s. Who could she speak to? No one.

What sorts of letters have you received from those who have read your book – or from those who haven’t?

The Internet has coached us to expect many responses from readers, as I experienced with the recent publication of my Mail-Order Kid: An Orphan Train Rider’s Story and with A JoLt of CoFFeY, my blog. But I received very few letters in response to Marcella. They were laudatory.

The response I valued most was from a woman who saw me in an art gallery. When she read my name tag, she cried out, “Oh, are you the Marilyn Coffey who wrote Marcella?”

Ah, fame! Fleeting but delectable.

Coffey’s new collection of tart poetry from the sixties, Pricksongs, will also be published in 2013. It will include her Pushcart Prize winning poem, “Pricksong.” 

Her most recently published book is an adult biography, Mail-Order Kid: An Orphan Train Rider’s Story. It’s a best seller on Amazon and the recipient of The National Orphan Train Complex’s Special President’s Award. 

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on February 25, 2013, in feminism, sex and sexuality, women and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I myself recently turned 40 and while I have never heard this book until now, I am anxious to read it. I remember being a young child and also having a very timid mother. We did not talk about sex or even about our bodies, period. I started menstruating during Christmas break from school and I knew where she kept her feminine hygiene products. I helped myself to them and it took her a few months before she even realized that she was going through her pads faster than normal.

    It took years for me to teach my mother that it was okay to talk about sex. Heck, it was even okay to LIKE sex. But 40 years ago, I can imagine the uproar a book like this caused to women like my mother. The sad part is that even now, 40 years later, there are people, even women who will think it is shameful. It goes to show that even though we have come so far as women, we have such a long way to go!

  2. It makes me sad to think that something as natural as masturbation can be looked at in such a negative light and be considered a sin. Thank you Marilyn for having the courage to put this out there and make people aware of what the religious world is pressuring girls to feel like. To convince someone that something that is pleasing and good for you like masturbation is bad is oppressive and controlling. I’m curious to know if these religious leaders who are preaching this stuff actually refrain from masturbating themselves. Maybe if masturbation and premarital sex wasn’t so forbidden then there wouldn’t be as many cases of rape and sexual harassment in the church.

  3. Thanks for the great post. I count on you to provide thoughtful, well-written reading material. Keep it up.

  4. Wow, thanks for sharing, sounds like a really important book, both at the time of writing and with it’s second publication! I wish Marilyn the best of luck with it 🙂


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