Welcome to the Jungle
How literary icon Rita Mae Brown learned about life from animals
Published Thursday, 17-Dec-2009 in issue 1147
Situated on a quiet, rural area of central Virginia, on a sprawling 1,000-acre farm, is Rita Mae Brown – and 70 foxhounds, 19 hunting bassets and 40 horses. Inside the longtime novelist’s home, there are 11 house cats and, she can’t say for sure, but probably seven dogs.
Animals are Brown’s life just as much as Brown’s life is animals, and nothing epitomizes that more than the writer’s memoir: Animal Magnetism: My Life with Creatures Great and Small, in which she riffs on the critters that inspired her, teaching lifelong lessons about love, monogamy, trust and grief.
“All of those memories just came together,” says Brown from her home, seconds after gabbing with a chatty neighbor who was smitten by a phonograph needle, thus delaying our conversation. But sometimes life is about the little things, a mantra Brown’s adopted while spending much of her life in peaceful sectors, away from the hustle-and-bustle of the city. She likes it quiet. She loves to be among nature. And she prefers animals to people.
“They’re not diluted by ideology,” she reasons. “They live in the present, and they accept the world just as it is.”
They also don’t talk (and talk, and talk) about phonograph needles. And yet they can be just as inspiring: her horse, Suzie Q, taught her hard work; a Doberman, R. C., showed her courage.
Ever since growing up on her family’s Pennsylvania farm, and even as she eventually basked in big-city life while living in L.A. and New York City (where she participated in the Stonewall riots), four-legged and feathered friends have remained close. Metropolitan living wasn’t for her, as she feels “the more disconnected you are from nature, the more neurotic you get,” so Virginia became her home in 1988. Then, it was just cutover acres. Now it’s a farm. A big farm.
Of all the animals living there, and many others who have passed, each changed her life in some small – or big – way. One in particular has become the muse for her popular Sneaky Pie Brown mystery series, in which she gives a voice to her cat: “Somebody will come up and say, ‘Oh, you’re too cute,’ and somebody else will say, ‘Oh, no, that’s exactly what my dog would say.’ I just listen – because how do I know?”
She doesn’t, but here’s a lesson – the most valuable, Brown says – that she’s learned from animals: Trust yourself.
“People don’t,” she says. “They over think. I’m a person that tests well, and I appear to be bright if you give me a book to read, but I don’t know if I really am. The more I submitted to the process of education the less, in a way, smart I was, because I began to doubt my instincts; I began to doubt my animal sense – the basic five senses.
“Every big mistake I’ve ever made in my life is because I just didn’t trust my animal self.”
Her animal self, at least in some afterlife, is a thoroughbred, a spirited horse breed best known for its racing skills. Brown’s always been athletic, and “I would love to have the ability that they have. With a thoroughbred you’d get about 1,200 pounds of power and grace and heart – in one package.”
Feeling the love – and hate
Here’s why Rita Mae Brown is a writer: Even when she’s speaking, discussing why – at age 64 – she wanted to share these vignettes, she paints us a poetic analogy.
“When the milkweeds are released, and they float through the air, they’re beautiful,” she muses. “Memories are like that. There are a couple of days when the milkweeds are there, and you can see them, and if you don’t grab them, they’re gone. This just so happened to be a time when they were there.”
Spoken like a true literary icon, an honorary label Brown’s more than earned since the release of Rubyfruit Jungle, a controversial coming-of-age novel released in the early ’70s that changed GLBT literature with its, at least during that rigid decade, overt lesbianism. The name referred to female genitalia, and Brown’s book was the subject of intense controversy and careful scrutiny. Any inclusion of gay and lesbian characters – up until Rubyfruit Jungle – involved suicide or “converting,” Brown says. She dropped a bomb, and she knew it.
“I was just glad to live,” she recalls with a hesitance that signals relief. “It was the focus of so much hate. I didn’t realize how ignorant people were – and I don’t mean that as an ugly word; ignorant as in they simply didn’t know – nor how much anger there would be. Plus, everybody was in the closet, so there I was all alone.”
Sighing, and then continuing with a slight laugh: “Let me put it this way: I’m glad nobody else is going to have to do it.”
We’ve come a long way in the last few decades – some states have legalized gay marriage, a “modern family” – at least according to ABC’s new sitcom of the same name – now includes GLBT units, and being queer is more of a fashion statement than a death sentence.
But Brown was famous for more than pushing buttons. She’s gay, and that was big news: “There were 220 million people in America, but I was the only lesbian,” she laughs.
Was she afraid?
“No, I’m not a coward,” she assures. “I may not be the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but I’ve got guts.”
She’s still bold: As millions of GLBT people steadfastly fight for rights, she’s sitting on the sidelines with an apathetic attitude. Not that she doesn’t understand the need for it; it just doesn’t personally affect her.
“Remember, I’m a farmer,” she says. “I’m really basic, and so the emotional element of gay marriage is not important to me, but I know that it is to others; it’s very compelling to millions of people.”
Even if she were straight, she’d give it a so-what shrug. To her, job security is a priority. So is professional promotion and starting a business with the loan assistance. What about the flack from the gay community – is she worried?
“No, I don’t think anybody gives a crap what I think,” she laughs, “and that’s OK, too. But I want them to have it for them. I don’t want it for me.”
Not that she’s opposed to relationships. She’s been in several – with tennis player Martina Navratilova, actress/writer Fannie Flagg and politician Elaine Noble. Currently, she shares an elusive something with a “friend” who lives 3,000 miles away; she’s happy with what they have – it’s endearing and, when they meet, delightful – and that’s good enough for her, she says. Why? All the love she needs rests in one place – on that long stretch of land in Virginia.