Barbara Raskin remembers her first hot flash.
"I was sitting in a chair. I didn't realize what it was. I got all wet and damp and sweaty. It was only in retrospect that I realized what it was."
Pssssssss. Weird. Like a radiator cap leaking steam. Like the fizz on a pop-top can. Like a teen-ager's first flush.
That was three years ago. Now, the 52-year-old frizzled-haired former flight attendant, Jewish grandmother of three, vested Washington writer and ex-wife of a Famous Left-Wing Thinker has done for menopause what Philip Roth did for masturbation. Her raunchy, hilarious new novel, "Hot Flashes," has been called "the 'Fear of Flying' of the 80s" and Raskin seems in danger of being permanently flushed.
Most reviews are still to come, but the New York Daily News has pronounced it "compelling ... a mural of the feminine experience." And "I did just get the Cosmo review and they said it was a 'landmark' novel," Raskin says, nearly tripping over the loose folds of her cotton jumper in search of the photocopied magazine page.
By now, there are 800 copies of "Hot Flashes" in the window of the B. Dalton bookstore on New York's Fifth Avenue. It's a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate and has already been bought for a major motion picture by Richard Benjamin. She's done "The Today Show" and People, and is prepping for a bicoastal book tour. "The whole schmeer," says Raskin. "It's fun."
Breathy, breezy, slightly befuddled, Raskin has become the Colette of the Correctol set. She is brilliant, neurotic, insecure, self-deprecating -- all the requisite personality traits for a successful, if late-blooming, female novelist. She is also compulsive, the kind of woman who would make 900 tacos in her un-air-conditioned kitchen in July for her daughter's wedding reception. She's a worry wart. A noodler. A nudzh. "I decided there should be a new definition of a nudzh," she shrugs. "Someone who speaks repeatedly to someone who doesn't listen."
She seems skittish and self-conscious. Worried that reviewers will see her as a female Henny Youngman and fail to notice "how serious a statement I try to make." She also thinks reviewers will attack her politics and not her prose. Neoconservative kvetchmeister Norman Podhoretz has already lashed out, calling Raskin "cynical, brutal and foul-mouthed" and citing "Hot Flashes" as proof positive that the women's movement ruined everything. "Like the Norman in my book," counters Raskin cheerfully, referring to her least attractive male character, "Norman Podhoretz missed the point completely."
"I think people will try to criticize her for her views," says ex-husband Marcus Raskin, codirector of the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank. "But the fact of the matter is she's a great writer."
"Hot Flashes" is Raskin's fourth try at an Important Woman's Novel. Her first three, "Loose Ends," "National Anthem" and "Out of Order," were all considered witty, if slightly overwrought. Looking back, she says they were all first drafts of "Hot Flashes" -- amateur attempts at the kind of fully realized product it takes a lifetime to write. "I feel like I waited. Because when this came to me, I knew I had it. This was it."
Success, she says, is "very sweet, I must confess. I hope I'll be considered as a serious writer of fiction. I've been waiting a long time to get on the merry-go-round with the brass ring above it."
Raskin is sitting in the yellow-walled den of her Adams-Morgan town house. Her grandchildren, two girls and a boy, dart in and out of the room in various stages of undress. Famous for her tart reviews of other people's work (hers is a frequent byline in Washington publications), she says she does feel more generous now. "I feel rich, magnanimous. It's delicious. I hope I don't sound like a goon."
What finally came to her, she says, was the notion that she and her contemporaries had experienced the kind of cultural and highly commercial group grope that Mary McCarthy ("The Group") and Lawrence Kasdan ("The Big Chill") had celebrated.
"I never knew until I was 50 that I was part of a generation," she says.
We always looked good at airports.
We liked to visit hot countries.
We slept with strangers whenever we felt like it.
We learned a lot from our lovers ...
We wanted everything, got it all, and then discovered it wasn't enough ...
While many of our husbands became famous, most of us didn't. Regardless of their professions, our husbands became men-of-a-million-letterheads who eventually turned up in Who's Who. We were unlisted, since there's no section for Muses; we were only mentioned as in: "He is married to the former blah-blah and has three children" ...
We all laugh at the notion that menopause implies "Men: a Pause" ...
We are not yet ready to die. We still have the kids' old dogs growing incontinent on our worn-out carpeting, and nowadays they must be coaxed to eat. Also, we still haven't finished the ironing ...
One thing is perfectly clear. We have all decided upon closed coffin funerals. If for some reason the coffin must be open, we want to be buried with our sunglasses on.
Among Barbara Raskin's peers are Gloria Steinem, Judith Viorst, Jane Fonda, Joan Baez, Shirley MacLaine. They were dominated by the '50s, liberated by the '60s, sobered by the '70s. They were the women who threw their Maidenforms into that trash can in Atlantic City. They were the mad housewives who swapped dogeared copies of "Up the Sandbox" and shared their sexual fantasies and frustrations over sangria, spreadable cheese and mind-altering substances, not knowing quite how to live with men or without them. "We kept swimming for shore," says Raskin, "and we never quite knew what was supposed to be there."
Now they are 50. Still not convinced that a woman's place is in the home -- even if she goes there directly after racquetball. Trailed by younger, burnished women in silk suits and Reeboks wielding car phones and credit cards, they feel proud and envious at the same time. "Hot Flashes," Raskin says, grew out of memories of this feminist struggle. "For once in my life a sentence came to me. It was 'We always looked good at airports.' No matter what. We used to wear these high heels, and press our jeans."
She curls up on the floral-covered sofa. "The only way I can talk about this without sounding like an egomaniac is because I waited for 51 years for that sentence to come to me. 'We always looked good at airports.' I swear I pulled every other sentence in the book out of that."
Other sentences describe their clothes, their vices, their love affairs, marriages and divorces. Raskin herself went through a painful split, but though she writes bitterly on the subject, this is no "Hotburn." Marcus Raskin says that Max, the ex-husband in the book, is not him (though there are some obvious resemblances), and he has nothing but praise for his ex-wife's work.
Indeed, the novel treats men with an unusual amount of tenderness and humor. Says author Judith Viorst, "I see this as a postfeminist, reconciling book. I admire its painful honor and honesty about male-female relationships."
Although Raskin had been taking notes, scribbling lines on pads left around her home, the idea for the novel began to take shape several years ago when she was able to use her network of women friends to help another woman with a project.
"Finally we were old enough that we could do something for a young woman and no questions. Just have it happen, like that male network. I thought later, 'You know, we are a group. I'd never really thought that ever. We cared desperately for each other."
Her eyes fill with tears. What's the sadness? "It took us a long time to get it together. I guess that's what's sad. It was a hard haul for my generation of women."
Now, her friends are calling, sending notes, wishing her well. "You really wrote your little heart out this time," said one. "Another friend said, 'You have nothing left. You've used it all up. There's nothing left.' "
Raskin smiles benignly and sighs, seeming more a harried sorority sister than a radical spokeswoman for her generation. "We never knew what was okay. Honest to God, we never did. We had a lot of pain from that. I literally was wearing white gloves when I came to Washington. Hitchhiking from New York! We were chaotic messes."
Unfortunately, we believe that if we win the lottery, one of our children will get run over by a Greyhound bus and that when we die we will still have to change planes in Atlanta.
She was born Barbara Bellman in Minneapolis, then went to the University of Minnesota. She began writing at the age of 5, and sold her first short story to Seventeen as a teen-ager. She says she knew she was going to write something special someday.
"You carry that destiny within you. You always think you should say something profoundly meaningful. Your writer's urge is always there. I've been waiting a long time to say something."
At the University of Chicago, where she earned a master's degree, she met Marcus Raskin. They married the day after graduation. "I was a stewardess then. I would fly in and out and run to class with my uniform on."
After a year in Europe, the couple settled in Washington. They had three children: Erika, Jamie and Noah. Barbara taught at American University while her husband gained notoriety in the antiwar effort (in 1968, as a member of the "Boston Five," he went on trial with Dr. Benjamin Spock on antidraft conspiracy charges and was acquitted). Marcus Raskin had originally served in John F. Kennedy's White House as a member of the special staff of the National Security Council and later was assigned as disarmament aide. The Raskins were members of the vanguard Washington Left. Says Barbara Raskin: "If we slept five hours a night, it was a lot."
It was around this time that she began attending women's lib meetings in the apartment of a neighbor. "I was older than them. I came in and none of them wore bras. None of them wore shoes. I was quite charmed by them. They were very young and free. They were saying things that I had felt for years and never articulated. It never occurred to me that husbands ought to do anything about their children."
(Raskin had reason to suspect that men were not biologically geared to the task. One day, she says, she bundled up one of her children in a pram and asked her husband to take the baby to the park. He did. And came back an hour later, pushing the wrong baby in the wrong pram. Marcus Raskin, laughing, now says the story is apocryphal. Says Barbara: "He swears on the Bible it's not true. I swear it is.")
In 1969, her husband left her for another woman, and Raskin fell apart. "I had a rough time," she says quietly. She was in and out of therapy (a vocabulary full of words like "collusion" is always a dead giveaway) and says, "I was a crisis patient."
The Raskins reconciled in 1971, separated again in 1979 and were divorced in 1980. "It was a rocky marriage during rough times. We lived it to the hilt," she says. Marcus Raskin remarried in 1985; Barbara Raskin is also remarried, to Anatole Shub, a journalist and former State Department adviser now working for the Board for International Broadcasting.
Raskin has written about philandering in all her novels, and "Hot Flashes" is no exception. It is, she says now, a redemption. A way of repairing the damage. It's a forgiving book. "I think I wanted to say something about all that. And I think I have."
After Max left, I went to New York where a crazy lady at Penn Station who had been accosting a lot of people came up to me and asked, "What is your religion? What is your race? What is your creed? Who are you exactly?"
As soon as she finished her litany of questions, I burst into tears ...
What happens to memories that cease to be mutual and are no longer reinforced? Isn't the birth of a baby less dear when remembered alone? Isn't an averted plane crash less real if only one person recalls it? Isn't a tragedy more painful, a fear more fearful, a dread more dreadful, when suffered alone? ...
Certainly there were moments at restaurants when our family shimmered with closeness. There were car rides that didn't become irritable. There were mornings when mutual expectations fused into familial joy.
AskBarbara Raskin which one of her characters she most resembles and she laughs. None of them, and all of them.
There's Sukie, the writer and reporter who goes to pieces after her husband Max leaves her for a younger woman. Sukie is talented and volatile; confronting Max with his adultery, she pulls out her left breast at a restaurant dinner, then pours catsup down her blouse. Her pain is slowly alleviated by vodka, Valium, Elevil and a blue-collar Vietnam vet lover ("I see Nick Nolte in this part") while madness scratches at her psyche like the raccoons inside her Washington town house walls.
There's Diana Sargeant, also divorced. Long and lean, Diana is described by Sukie as "a knight who moves indirectly but with challenging results." And later, "Diana was like a little dinghy tied to the boat of our marriage. She tagged along behind us in case of emergency."
The book centers on Sukie's sudden death and the reunion of her four closest women friends. Diana finds Sukie's journal and traces the last few years of her life, fending off the advances of Max and fantasizing about Sukie's younger man, Jeff.
It's a "Big Chill" for women. Funny, perceptive, outrageous and sad. Raskin doesn't know if she'll write a sequel. (Will Diana marry Max? We can only wonder.)
Raskin has had rotten luck as an author. Says friend Nicholas von Hoffmann, "Barbara is a gifted writer and a true victim of bad publishing. This is a woman whose talents should have been recognized long before now."
"Loose Ends" was published in 1973 -- the same week Erica Jong's "Fear of Flying" appeared. Shrugs Raskin, "Forget it, right?"
In 1977, her second novel, "The National Anthem," was published. The first printing of 12,000 copies was destroyed in a warehouse fire. Then her editor was fired. Another book had pages bound upside down. But unless something terrible happens in the next few weeks, "Hot Flashes" should change her luck.
Raskin says she never threw in the towel and went into real estate because she was born fighting. "We had to fight for what we got. We had to fight to hang on to it. In our lifetime, we went through violent changes. The Second World War, which we remember, and the '50s, and by the time we got out of college the '60s just rolled over us. Wow, you know. And all the time we kept struggling to maintain our own private life and keep our little families together. The Vietnam war, the civil rights movement and all that stuff."
The turmoil was mimicked by Raskin's own artistic struggle. "I felt I hadn't done what I was meant to do, and that hurt me for a long time."
Now, the phone is ringing. The checks are rolling in. The invitations. The kudos. "I don't have to explain myself all the time. You know, 'I'm a writer, I just haven't written it yet.' Now I hope I don't have to do that anymore."
Still, she agonizes on the doorstep about not giving her guest anything to drink ("Ayy yi. Please don't write that a Jewish grandmother didn't offer you anything") and hasn't shed any of her undiscovered Washington writer anxiety.
Earlier, she had to think a few seconds before answering the question: What's your biggest fear?
"Will I be able to do it again?"