Linda Lovelace’s Ordeal (from A New Literary History of America, 2009)

1972: The Pill available to unmarried women in all states
March 22, 1972: The U.S. Senate adopts the Equal Rights Amendment
June 12, 1972: Deep Throat opens at New York’s World Theater
June 17, 1972: Five burglars arrested while breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate hotel
January 11, 1973: First broadcast of An American Family on PBS
May 17, 1973: First broadcast of Watergate hearings

Linda Lovelace: January 10, 1949–April 22, 2002

Ordeal, the third of four autobiographies of Deep Throat porn star Linda Boreman (Lovelace), isn’t interesting because it’s a good book, a tragic one, or even an arousing one. Published in 1980, it’s interesting as an artifact of early feminism, just like Deep Throat in 1972, and because, again like Deep Throat, it raises endless questions about sincerity, pleasure, the public and the private, questions that floated in the air just a year later during the Watergate hearings, questions that still shape our culture.

Lovelace’s voice is the studiously bland voice we hear every day from politicians, in the smuggest of op-eds, in the passive-aggressive niceness of airline employees. Hypocrisy has always been with us, but the mimicking of the colorless tone of down-to- earth “good folks,” of what was once called Middle America, seems to have become prevalent after World War II. It was diagnosed in the earnest realist novels of the 1950s, and parodied in Catch-22, Mad magazine, and The Graduate (“Plastics!”).

The deliberate impersonation of a blameless dailiness might have been an artifact of television, television commercials, and the televising of political oratory. All of this created a national speech, a national jargon, broader and more impersonal than the regional accents of radio, and it also allowed the audience to see how facial expressions and words played with and against each other. It is much easier to lie with your voice when your face is hidden, or to lie with your face when you don’t talk. (Deep Throat, like most porn films, is light on dialogue.)

When Lovelace discusses the injuries of her past, her voice has an almost autistic blankness: “My mother has always been very emotional toward me. When I was four years old, she started beating me—first with a belt, later with the buckle of the belt.” Is that “very emotional” a reflection of Lovelace’s inability or unwillingness to understand her own history? Is it a defense against the sadness that must underlie such a memory, if true? Ordeal might have been a very sad book, but intentionally or not, it is not. Or is “very emotional” a sly understatement, allowing the reader to draw the connection between Linda’s abuse by her mother and her choice to stay for years with her abusive husband and Svengali, Chuck Traynor?

Consider this bit of Linda’s backstory: “I don’t want to pretend that I was always Miss Holy-Holy. I fell in love once or twice; I lost my virginity at age nineteen, and when I was twenty, I gave birth to an illegitimate child that my mother put out for adoption.”

“An illegitimate child.” She doesn’t even say whether it was a boy or girl—the important thing is that it was “illegitimate.” Her mother put it out for adoption? I was under the impression that the child’s mother’s consent is necessary, not the grandmother’s. Linda has no agency here. “My only honest conversations those days were with God,” she says of her initial time with Traynor, but the question of how honest she is with herself, or us, comes up throughout her book.

Discussing sex, Lovelace blends false modesty and coyness, like the tan lines on the otherwise overexposed bodies of porn stars. Chuck Traynor may well have abused her, but Lovelace had a foot in the world he lived in before they met, through her high school best friend, Betsy, a “topless dancer.”

Lovelace’s ghostwriter for Ordeal, Mike McGrady, was an Eastern establishment journalist—Yale, the army, Newsday—whose Naked Came a Stranger, a parody of a sex novel, was a best seller in 1969. A year later, he published his self-exposé: Stranger than Naked; or, How to Write Dirty Books for Fun and Profit; A Manual. Linda did something similar. In 1974 she published her first autobiography, Inside Linda Lovelace, portraying herself as a sex addict who participated willingly in the porn world. In Ordeal she calls Inside Linda Lovelace “a pack of lies” and says it was written by Chuck Traynor. Ordeal doesn’t mention a second, 1974 autobiography, The Intimate Diary of Linda Lovelace, which was put together by the man who became her producer and lover after she left Traynor; he seems to have been gay, but beat her anyway at the end. Not to mention that in 1986 Linda published a fourth autobiography, Out of Bondage, also cowritten with Mike McGrady. The issues become murkier still when you consider that Out of Bondage was published by Lyle Stuart, a division of Kensington Books, while The Intimate Diary of Linda Lovelace was published by Pinnacle Books, also a division of Kensington.

Why would a woman who wanted to distance herself from an earlier, false autobiography choose a collaborator with McGrady’s history of hoax? Did she choose McGrady precisely in order to tantalize the reader with questions about truth? Or was he the best she could find—damaged goods, like herself? Or was Ordeal his idea, inspired by his own history of spoof and confession? These questions are emblematic of the early 1970s, when the first hearings on a possible presidential impeachment in American history were televised, and when the first reality TV show—An American Family—aired.

Appearing on PBS, An American Family, which entered the lives of the family of Bill and Pat Loud of Santa Barbara, California, was just a twelve-hour series, but the episodes seemed endless, weighty with barely voiceable griefs that television had never shown. And the unexpected revelation that the Louds’ son Lance was gay was the first appearance of an openly gay person on television.

An American Family established a social space for the revealing of what used to be private, and the same could be said, roughly, about the Watergate hearings and the mainstreaming of pornography. (The Watergate source was nicknamed “Deep Throat” after the movie—a coarse joke impossible to imagine in our more politically sensitive times.)

But the sixty-one minutes of Deep Throat raise even more intimate questions about what can be seen and known, questions about the location of the female orgasm. The premise of the movie—that Linda Lovelace’s clitoris is located in her throat—wouldn’t even have made sense until people began to worry whether or not women were achieving orgasms in intercourse. And it’s amazingly au courant, given that Anne Koedt’s essay The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm appeared only two years earlier. The orgasm Deep Throat imagines is in an unusual place, but it shares with the vaginal orgasm the fact of being hidden from view.

Koedt gave no medical evidence for her belief that the clitoris rather than the vagina is the source of female sexual pleasure. In fact, Koedt seems a highly untrustworthy guide to the female anatomy, insisting that the vagina is so insensitive that “women need no anesthesia inside the vagina during surgery.” Perhaps a similar belief explains the only sadistic scene in Deep Throat, when a man drinks through a straw from a glass inserted in Linda Lovelace’s vagina. It may have been plastic, but it’s hard not to imagine the effect of glass breaking.

Leap ahead to a time when it’s an article of faith that women achieve orgasm only through clitoral stimulation, that intercourse provides gratification only to the male, and you may wonder just what is behind this dogmatism. Perhaps it’s connected to the culture of public exposure of which Ordeal is an early manifestation: anything that cannot be seen by everyone is possibly false, certainly suspect. Some of this attitude is probably a reaction to television, which brought both the interior of the body and the ends of the earth into the American living room. There are still people who believe that Neil Armstrong’s 1968 walk on the moon was a hoax, staged in a television studio; in 1983, in Sex Tips for Girls, Cynthia Heimel claimed that the oral sex in Deep Throat was done with mirrors.

Today, a movie based on the fantasy that fellatio gives women orgasms appears shamelessly exploitative. But in 1972 taking a woman’s sexual fulfillment seriously was new, as recent as access to the birth control pill, which became available nationwide only by the end of that year. For the first time in history, women of childbearing age could have intercourse without fear of pregnancy. Can it be that the new permission to have intercourse had something to do with the new doubts about whether intercourse was in fact fulfilling for women? Deep Throat is earnest about Lovelace’s pleasure, even more so than that of Lovelace’s costar Harry Reems. When Lovelace reaches her moment, we see shots of the ringing of a bell, fireworks, and the liftoff of a rocket. One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.

Both the defenders and attackers of Deep Throat assumed that a woman’s sexual satisfaction was important, and even shared to some degree the hippie ethos that insisted on pleasure as a political goal. The defense in the obscenity trial of Deep Throat—brought in New York in late 1972—claimed that the film had the value of insisting on female sexual satisfaction. But the prosecution argued that the film will “strengthen in her ignorance” any woman who thinks that the clitoral orgasm is real. Surely this is the first time an American prosecutor took a stance on where female orgasms occur. (The film was found obscene by the court; the judgment was overturned on appeal.)

Ordeal’s controversial claim—the reason Lovelace says she wrote her story a second time—is that Deep Throat is the record of Lovelace’s rape. It is again a sign of progress that this was supposed to be a shocker. Probably the consumers of stag films in the 1920s were not so concerned with whether the actresses actually enjoyed what they pretended to enjoy, and they may have even assumed that they were coerced into participation by poverty or underworld links. But Deep Throat was the first respectable porn film, praised by the intelligentsia, the left, and the chic. A special January-February 1973 issue of Film Comment was titled “Cinema Sex.” One of the contributors was Brendan Gill, who extolled the new “permissiveness.” “We probably wouldn’t have done that special issue if it hadn’t been for Deep Throat,” Richard Corliss, the editor of the issue, said in 2005. Deep Throat was a movie that middle-class couples were not ashamed to be seen seeing, so the assumption of the willing participation of the actors was important, maybe for the first time in the history of the porn film.

Some of what Lovelace tells the reader in Ordeal is meant to be an unpleasant surprise, but on another level it’s also exactly what he would have expected to hear, because it plays into an American identification of sex with violence. This has been discussed by many writers, and the insight has even filtered down to a context that makes sense for Ordeal and Deep Throat: consumer-goods marketing.

A clever French-born consultant, Clotaire Rapaille, coined the term “the culture code” for “the unconscious meaning we apply to any given thing—a car, a type of food, a relationship, even a country—via the culture in which we are raised.” The code for sex in the United States is “violence,” Rapaille says, and American culture is “far more comfortable with violence than with sex.” Ordeal fits into a narrative Americans understand implicitly, in which what is allegedly sexual pleasure is really painful rape, and what is allegedly liberation is really sexual slavery.

Ordeal is smart in another way—it’s an early example of a genre now more numerous, the memoir of abuse. One of the ground rules: reassure the reader that his life is better than the writer’s. Nothing goes down so well as a memoir that shows that the rich, famous, beautiful, or adventurous writer’s existence has actually been shot through with misery, insecurity, pain, and fear. Think being a young, sexy porn star is enviable? Think again, Ordeal tells us. Tina Turner’s I, Tina, released in 1986, was another early instance.

The pleasure that Ordeal provides the reader isn’t arousal, but self-satisfaction. D. A. Miller has explained the phenomenon as it applies to popular novels of the nineteenth century. He argues that the limitations of the inner lives of the more sympathetic characters contrast with our own “less violated inwardness.” “Though they are pathetically reduced beings,” Miller writes, we find Dickens’s characters charming because “their fixity” gives us “our freedom.” We enjoy reading about them because we feel more powerful in comparison.

Linda’s life after Ordeal needs no embroidery to arouse pity. It was a slow spiral back to the lower-middle- class tedium of her family history, and then down from there. Linda married a construction worker, became a born-again Christian, and a mother; she endured hard times, even a stint on welfare, a liver transplant. In 1996, after twenty-two years of marriage, Linda divorced her husband, claiming that he was an alcoholic who abused her. She was cleaning offices at night by the time she died in a car accident at fifty-three. Her daughter was herself an unwed mother at seventeen.

Perhaps what would hurt Linda most, could she come back to life, is that it’s almost impossible to find Deep Throat for rent in a video store today. The dreadful copy I bought online seems to have been pirated directly from the screen. It may be that in fifty years or so, Deep Throat will be a minor footnote to students of the Watergate scandal, and Linda Lovelace’s name nearly lost to history. But Deep Throat and Lovelace’s account of it in Ordeal continue to ripple through American culture, from daytime TV to the best-seller lists to how we say we give and take pleasure.


Anne Koedt, The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm (London, 1970). Linda Lovelace, Inside Linda Lovelace (London, 1974); Ordeal, with Mike McGrady (Secaucus, NJ, 1980); Out of Bondage, with Mike McGrady (Secaucus, NJ, 1986). Linda Lovelace and Carl Wallin, The Intimate Diary of Linda Lovelace (New York, 1974). D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police (New York, 1988). Clotaire Rapaille, The Culture Code (New York, 2006). Filmography: Deep Throat, directed by Gerard Damiano (1972).

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