“Look,” said Ashley to Quinn, “you got the breasts. I want the belly part.”
“Fine,” said Quinn. “Fine, okay. So. ‘With his warm tongue, he found her navel again, and—’”
“Right. So, ‘With his warm tongue, David found her navel again, and . . .’”
I pulled a flat, mildewy pillow over my head, giggling hard in hopes of drowning this out before I died from a heart attack. We were all thirteenish and at band camp, years before anyone came to believe that there was anything sexy about band camp whatsoever. Ashley and Quinn, however, brought the sexiness wherever they went, being jointly and severally obsessed with David Bowie. They were reading sex scenes out loud from a novel, swapping in their own names and Mr. Bowie’s respectively. And whose fault was this?
“‘David brought his hand back up her inner thigh, feeling the special softness there, and over the springy curls of her mound—’”
It was my fault. I had brought this novel to camp with me. I had disclosed to other human beings that I had a copy of The Plains of Passage—one of the sequels to Jean M. Auel’s The Valley of Horses. And now they knew, now everyone was going to know, that I had a dirty book—
“Okay, is this the actual sex? We should both get part of the actual sex.”
The other girls were laughing, yes. They were laughing and blushing, but—I moved my eye from beneath the pillow—none of them were laughing at me.
Everyone who forms a theory of prehistoric life must sooner or later base it on what they privately believe about human nature.
Marija Gimbutas was a pioneering twentieth-century archaeologist whose life was torn apart by war. When her native Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union, Gimbutas had to flee, carrying only her dissertation and her baby. After her years of struggle and gender discrimination, Gimbutas’s 1974 book The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe caught the zeitgeist like a spinnaker sail.
Gimbutas had studied prehistoric “Venus figurines” —small, anonymous, heavyset female statuettes, such as the Venus of Willendorf—as well as the warlike Indo-European cultures of the Bronze Age. According to Gimbutas, once upon a time, Paleolithic Europe had been inhabited by a race of peaceful goddess-worshipers. The Indo-Europeans swept in with their bronze, their chariots, and their patriarchy, breaking the scattered peoples of the Goddess and, in short, ruining everything. In the onrush of second-wave feminism and anti-war sentiment, Gimbutas’ theories had an immediate appeal to women inside and outside of the academy.
Around this time, Jean M. Auel, an accomplished Oregon businesswoman in her forties, sketched her first story about the prehistoric world. In 1980, she published her debut novel, Clan of the Cave Bear, in which an orphaned H. sapiens girl, Ayla, is raised by the Clan, a band of Neanderthals. The girl’s cleverness frightens and confuses the patriarchal Clan, who are genuinely incapable of learning anything new. Clan of the Cave Bear is now among the one hundred “best-loved books” listed by the PBS Great American Read, and it has become a minor classic of historical fiction.
Its sequel, The Valley of Horses, is not so much as a classic as a whisper among women, a shared secret in libraries and locker rooms. But it is this sequel, together with the subsequent books in the Earth’s Children series, that became legendary among female readers. In it, Ayla strikes out on her own and manages to make a living for herself until she meets another human for the first time, the comically handsome Jondalar. His people—as Gimbutas posited—worship the Great Earth Mother, Creator of all. Human cultures do not share a language, but because they share the Goddess, they live in peace throughout Europe. Ayla and Jondalar learn gingerly about each other’s worlds, culminating in Ayla’s detailed sexual awakening and Jondalar’s detailed falling in love.
And who could not love Ayla? She is the type specimen of the Canon Mary Sue—a flawless, feisty maiden, persecuted for her daring. At various points in the series, she invents horse-riding, fire-starting, the concept of sexual reproduction, and dogs. Jondalar has already invented having blue eyes and a large penis; Ayla helps him come up with the spear-thrower as well. They then take a leisurely three books to travel through Ice Age Europe to return to Jondalar’s people. Each book offers diminishing returns to the reader, and yet, taken together, they offered something that women of the 1980s apparently needed.
At that time, the hero of a romance novel was generally what modern authors call an “alpha-hole” —a cruel, self-absorbed rake. The heroine’s reward was that her persistence would unlock his heart and teach him to love. This is not a job that Ayla must do. Jondalar actually likes women; he accepts them as leaders and comrades, just as other men do. And, like all the Cro-Magnon peoples in Auel’s books, Jondalar views sex as a sacrament— “the Mother’s Gift of Pleasures.” The drawn-out sex scenes are repeated throughout the books, with as much tenderness on the fiftieth occasion as on the first.
The first time anyone else saw me naked, they laughed at me.
They were little boys who had threatened to hit my dog if I didn’t pull down my underwear. The association between taking off one’s clothes and being laughed at has remained strong in me ever since. I got more sex education on the fly from R. Crumb comics and dirty magazines. Sex, I gathered, was a nasty business, premised on one principle: make the joke or be the joke.
There are no jokes in the Earth’s Children series—at least, none that are funny. There is plenty of boisterous teasing, but nothing with actual bite. Something about this appealed to me. I did not exactly like the sex scenes. Even as a sheltered child, I suspected that the characters could not possibly bathe enough for all that. Yet the scenes depicted something I had never imagined: truly safe sex—respectful, reverent, healthy. Auel envisioned a world in which life was dangerous, but men were not, and a woman could lead a life of adventure with a partner, not for him or against him.
Once, I found a heavily used paperback of The Valley of Horses at a jumble sale. In the margins, someone had written “Turn to page 41,” “Turn to page 150,” and so forth. These instructions resulted in a simple tale of one woman surviving in the wilderness and domesticating animals, then meeting a nice fellow. Who gave these instructions and to whom, I cannot say. But it was clearly someone who recognized that the book could give more than it was famous for. Stripped of its sex scenes, it still offered hope—the hope that one woman, alone with her broken heart, could build a full life.
Hope, however, is not the same as quality.
The paperback edition of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s Reindeer Moon was stamped with FOR EVERYONE WHO LOVED THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR! It is decidedly not. Reindeer Moon is indeed a book about the adventures of a young woman thrown on her own resources in ancient Europe, but the heroine, Yanan, lives a grinding life of constant cold and hunger. Her clothes are ill-fitting; her companions are narrow and quarrelsome. Yanan too is passionate and defiant, but when it costs her dearly, fate does not reward her. Nor does struggle make her exceptional. When Yanan encounters a motherless wolf cub, her first instinct is to eat it.
Thomas, who spent some of her youth among modern hunter-gatherers, has more insight than Auel does into what truly motivates humans on the edge—not peace, love, and discovery, but warmth, blood, and fat. By the time I found Reindeer Moon, it reinforced what I understood then to be true: life is brutal, and any men who express interest in the ancient spirituality of the female body are trolling for tail.
It seemed unsafe to enjoy something like the Earth’s Children series. Women’s fantasies are used against them in a way that men’s never are. By the time I was in college, I had been sexually assaulted by someone who was, by all accounts, deeply in love with me, and I understood this to be my fault for being in love with him. I needed to prove two things—first, that I was to be taken seriously, and secondly, that I knew better to expect anything from men.
One way I have done this, over the years, is to make fun of the work of Jean M. Auel. I turned on the premise and the purple prose, mocking its sexiness and its ahistoricity. I wasn’t wrong, but I was also bridging a dark place—my own knowledge that sex, for me, had never been a joyful, celebratory, sacred act, and that I could not trust anyone who said it was.
I have, I think, been ungrateful. Auel offered me something that I once took gladly—a chance to imagine, free from the laughter of boys or men. Thousands of readers were able to enjoy the same peace, for a little while, and to learn a few things from Auel’s vast and diligent research. Every day, I struggle to imagine a simple story that is unclouded by discourse, by the weight of what I know the world to be. Auel could not only imagine such a story, she could write hundreds of thousands of words of it and cite her research. Auel depicted a world that was more than pain, and for this, I am glad.