Non-Fiction Books (B)Reviews & Lists

Indomitable: The Life of Barbara Grier: Book Review

Indomitable: The Life of Barbara GrierIndomitable: The Life of Barbara Grier by Joanne Passet is a biography on one of lesbian publishing’s most dynamic and influential figures. Barbara Grier was a co-founder of Naiad Press, one of lesfic’s first publishers. As such, she was incredibly influential in lesbian publishing. Passet’s portrait of Grier reveals a woman who was unflinching in her belief that lesbian literature was a valid and important part of the publishing landscape. It also exposes Grier as a woman who could be very difficult to deal with, so certain was she of the rectitude of her cause.

Barbara Grier had a challenging childhood, but within all the turmoil, she came to the realization that she was a lesbian at a young age. She came out at the age of 13, and the revelation was well-received by her mother, which was no mean feat for the era. Determined to find out all she could about lesbians, she started collecting lesbian literature, a passion which would drive her for the rest of her days.

Beyond her collecting, Grier also made it her duty to winkle out lesbian literature wherever it was published. In her youth, this meant reading between the lines and scouring reviews for any hint of queer content in a book. She was also obsessed with discovering which authors were lesbians themselves. These activities would result in her getting involved with The Ladder, a magazine put out by the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian civil rights group around from the 1950s until the mid 1970s. Eventually, she would end up editing the magazine. Her driven nature and sometimes abrasive personal style would serve her well as the editor, but also caused friction between the magazine and the organization who produced it. The magazine would fold as a result.

Not long after the magazine folded, Grier helped to found Naiad Press, finally giving her the opportunity to be directly involved in the production of her beloved lesbian literature. It was important to her that lesbians everywhere be able to access positive depictions of themselves in fiction and literature. She was as driven in this endeavor as she was in the others, though with the same mixture of success and controversy as had marked her tenure at The Ladder. Despite the turmoil, she built Naiad into the largest lesbian publisher by the time she and her partner retired in 2003.

Barbara Grier was a demanding individual, one who put everything she had into her goal of advancing lesbian literature and who had little time for those who didn’t share her passion. She may have been a difficult personality to work with, but the sincerity of her convictions was impossible for even her detractors to dispute. She is remembered simultaneously as someone who would bulldoze any opposition to her ideas, while also being someone who would unselfishly share her experience and insights in lesbian publishing with newcomers. It may be easy to disagree with her methods, but it’s impossible to argue with her results. The current breadth and variety of lesfic publishing owes much to her.

The Writing Style

The book is non-fiction, but certainly not dry. I found the account of Grier’s life and motivations to be gripping reading, especially as someone who is interested in the history of lesbian publishing. It is incredibly well-researched with pages upon pages of notes, many of which spring from Grier’s prodigious correspondence.

The Pros

I very much enjoyed reading about this towering figure in lesbian publishing. As a writer myself, I find it very interesting to see where our little corner of the publishing world comes from. It is fascinating to see old models of publishing come back around, and to get a feel for the evolution of publishing over the years, especially as it relates to changes in tolerance for queers. I also enjoyed finding out more about how the feminist movement affected lesbian publishing.

The Cons

The only quibble I have is that the way the chapters are organized occasionally confused me. While the book is organized chronologically, the chapters are also grouped together thematically. This grouping sometimes resulted in some confusion for me. The beginning of one chapter would start a few years before the end of the preceding chapter.

The Conclusion

This is a must-read for anyone who has any curiosity for the history of lesfic as a genre. The genesis of one of lesbian publishing’s most renowned publishing houses had an incredible impact on the current landscape of lesfic.

Excerpt from Indomitable: The Life of Barbara Grier 

When readers opened the July 1958 issue of The Ladder, they found an essay titled “My Daughter Is a Lesbian,” by one Mrs. Dorothy Lyles. Allegedly written by Barbara Grier’s mother, Dorothy Grier, the essay portrayed a highly perceptive woman who recognized her precocious and strong-willed girl was “a little different from the average child.” After learning of her daughter’s lesbianism, Mrs. Lyles wisely responded with “love, appreciation and understanding…not censure, shame or withdrawal.” Whether apocryphal or authentic, this is the experience Barbara wished for every young lesbian. When she came of age in the late 1940s and early 1950s, being a lesbian entailed fear, doubt and even danger. At a time when an increasingly pervasive popular culture reinforced images of lesbians as deviant and self-destructive, few women possessed courage to admit their lesbianism to parents, husbands, teachers or employers. The repercussions were too risky: one might be committed to a mental hospital, expelled from school or evicted from an apartment. Government agencies fired suspected homosexuals and teachers lost their jobs. Mothers faced the prospect of losing custody of their children in cases of divorce.

Dorothy Grier’s matter-of-fact acceptance of lesbianism, unusual in 1940s America, was one of the greatest gifts she could have given her daughter. She also endowed her with several important life skills, including a positive self-image, a flair for the dramatic and techniques for coping with adversity. Years later Barbara tended to romanticize her childhood, omitting her father Philip Grier’s philandering nature, episodes of poverty and the teenage angst that had contributed to her drive to succeed. Recasting reality into a more acceptable narrative, she emphasized her mother’s love and the stable relationship she had with lover Helen Bennett for two decades. If pressed for additional details, Barbara mentioned having a physician father (untrue) and lesbian sister, but generally gave the impression that her childhood had been quite unremarkable. Nothing was further from the truth.

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[tweetthis]In the fight for gay and lesbian civil rights, books became her activism and weapon of choice.[/tweetthis]

Bits and Bobs

  • ISBN number: 9781594934711
  • Publisher: Bella Books

Note: I received a free review copy of Indomitable: The Life of Barbara Grier . No money was exchanged for this review. I will always review books as honestly as possible and on occasion I refuse to review books.