Wednesday, January 21, 2009


The theater is dark and quiet. All eyes focus on the stage, then turn to follow a spotlight that appears, sweeps past the scenery and lands on a series of five black-and-white, poster-sized photographs positioned stage right. They are pictures of women’s crotches. The audience explodes with gasps and laughter. A number of heads swivel towards me. I slowly raise my hand, wave feebly, like an aging celebrity acknowledging fans, then hunch my shoulders in a don’t-ask-me gesture.

The year is 1991 and the show is “The Miss Vagina Pageant” conceived, written, and produced by my daughters, Faith and Jill Soloway. The piece is a hilarious, feminist – and raunchy – spoof featuring Miss South Side of Chicago, Miss Pennsylvania, Miss Tennessee, Miss New York, and Miss Trinidad and Tobago. The crotch shots (of the actresses) are codas topping off each contestant’s heartfelt wishes for an ideal America.

The eyes turning towards me are eager to learn how I’ve reacted to the photographs. Am I slinking low in my seat, covering my face to block the images, or laughing with the rest of the crowd? I laugh, but inside, I feel a mix of emotions.

First, I'm embarrassed, for at the time, I was a 53-year-old middle-class woman with nary a hint of artistic rebellion. I worried what others would think of a mother who raised such ribald daughters.

Next, I felt fear. Surely my kids will get into trouble for violating Chicago's decency standards. Then, my feelings switched to pride. How could I not puff up for these two young women, 26- and 27-1/2-years-old back then, who had already found national fame with their “The Real Live Brady Bunch” production?

My final emotion was jealousy, for deep in my heart, I wished, how I wished, I could be as audacious as they.

"The Miss Vagina Pageant" wasn’t the first or only irreverent or risqué Soloway sisters’ production. Prior to that show, Faith wrote "Co-Ed Prison Sluts," a musical that poked fun at censorship and B-movies, and included Sh*t and Moth*r F*cker as lyrics. When Faith settled in Boston, she unsettled the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property with her zany rock opera, "Jesus Has Two Mommies."

Meanwhile, Jill, who moved to Los Angeles, created her own upheaval with the short story, "Courteney Cox's Asshole," supposedly written by a tattle-telling personal assistant. Instead of getting her into trouble, the satire propelled Jill to a writing, producing slot on HBO’s "Six Feet Under." She followed that with her nonfiction book, "Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants."

Just the fact I can list my daughters’ works is testimony -- in the 18 years since "Miss Vagina Pageant" -- how pride has trumped fear and embarrassment. More importantly, at age 70, having benefited from Faith and Jill’s chutzpah, I can now claim some of that long-wished-for attribute as my own.

My transformation was a long time coming because I grew up compliant, and constricted by my mother's What Will Other People Think (WWOPT) rule. For beautiful, traditional, Min Elkin Shapiro that meant staying married to my father for 25 years (until his death), despite never feeling love for him one day of that quarter century union.

For her daughter, it meant never leaving the house without my hair combed, keeping my hands off the cookie jar lest I turn into a chubby like my father, not objecting when her criticism wounded me, and never telling anyone (including my parents) about the neighbor who molested me.

In high school and college, WWOPT continued to guide me. I wore wedge-heeled shoes to make myself taller, a girdle to do the job dieting failed, and used makeup and charm to assure some boy would save me from spinsterhood.

Fortunately, at 22, I made the cut, married a future doctor, and bore the two daughters I champion in this essay. Although I still mirrored my mother in wardrobe and appearance, I chucked the rules when it came to Faith and Jill. From the time they were toddlers, I encouraged them to choose their own outfits. That frequently meant matched sets becoming unmatched and other combinations that displayed creativity rather than neatness. When Mother visited and complained, “How can you let them go out like that?” I’d shrug my shoulders.

In my mind, the first visible symbol of my crawling out from under WWOPT was a sizable tattoo inked on my left biceps as a 60th birthday present to myself. By then, I had divorced, remarried, let my hair go gray, and adopted a uniform of black t-shirts and blue jeans. Quite the rebel.

But with each passing year, I emerged a bit further away from Min's worry (she died in 1981 at the age of 67 while in her second unhappy marriage). I wrote a childhood memoir, "The Division Street Princess," that put me front and center at book signings, college classrooms, and other public events. Although there was nothing in those pages to match the ideology, or bawdiness, of my daughters' productions, I finally did describe the scene when I was seven years old and Vic lured me into his apartment.

With my daughters' moxie as my mantra, I began to reveal more personal stories online and then wrote a second book, "She's Not The Type." This novel, about a married woman with two children whose unhappiness propels her into, um, situations not typically associated with good Jewish wives, is now making the rounds of agents.

If and when the book hits store shelves, and friends and relatives beg to learn if there's any truth in its pages, they may turn to my daughters for clues. I imagine Faith and Jill will hunch their shoulders in a don't-ask-me gesture and perhaps feel a mix of emotions. I'm keeping my fingers crossed their pride for their mother's newfound nerve -- gleaned from their own examples of honesty and courage -- will outshine everything else.