Nancy Friday, author of My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies—i.e., my all-time greatest adolescent Friends of the Library Book Sale find—has died at 84.
Friday published My Secret Garden in 1973, one among a wave of books in the era that tacked the subject of women’s sexuality in a new way, ranging from Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying to the first sexually explicit romance novels. Drawing on hundreds of interviews, Friday offered a field guide to the wide variety of of fantasies among women. Or, as the original New York Times review summarized, “the rape fantasies, the licking dogs, the beatings, the donkeys, the Lesbians,” continuing:
Predictable enough, but, “Oh is that a fantasy, why, yes, of course ‐ oh, and that one. hello ...” I chuckled in recognition. As Nancy Friday says, “I do think a lot of women are likely to begin fantasizing after reading this book. Or rather, become aware that they have been fantasizing all along, and that these sudden odd ideas or notions they have up to now forgotten, or repressed, are indeed fantasies.”
She thinks that women suppress them through guilt and what she calls a “conspiracy of silence.” Her point, though, is not whether a woman has fantasies or not, but whether she feels guilty or isolated because of them. And this is where the book makes its claim for seriousness: “I’ve never dared discuss my thoughts with anyone because of being considered indecent,” confesses one woman. “I’ve never told anyone,” writes another. “I’ve just had them and then felt awful about it. I’m telling you now because deep down inside I believe it’s the guilt that’s wrong and not the fantasy.”
The piece was headlined: “In spite of women’s sexual fantasies, men are still indispensable.”
The book was groundbreaking at the time, and it quickly became a bestseller. Friday became a staple of the talk-show circuit. But while the book was part of an important moment in the history of pop culture and feminism, Friday’s relationship to the movement was fractious. According to her New York Times obit:
“For better or worse, Ms. Friday helped to create a confessional feminism,” Ginia Bellafante wrote in The Times, reviewing a 2007 stage version of “My Secret Garden.” (The play itself was pronounced “a tedious affair.”) It was a philosophy, she said, “reliant on the assemblage of personal anecdote” that “held women’s self-therapy as its overriding goal.”
But Ms. Friday was not considered a friend of the women’s movement. “What pitted her against her adversaries,” Ms. Bellafante wrote, “was her idea that women’s erotic freedom and the shedding of shame” — rather than other factors — “would establish the bedrock of equality between the sexes professionally, economically, politically.”
“Ms. Friday talked about preferring the company of men to that of women and seemed to take pride in a Ms. magazine review of one of her books, which included the observation ‘This woman is not a feminist,’” the Times added.
Nevertheless, her book was quite a discovery if you were—for instance—growing up in the Bible Belt before the mainstreaming of the internet.