Monday, April 27, 2015

Book Review: Heaven's Bride by Leigh Eric Schmidt

I’ll admit I have a stringent and at times crazy regime for buying non-fiction books. I research book review sites, the authors, and other books on the topic so I can reduce the likelihood of buying a book that ends up being useless for what I’m trying to figure out.

Not with Heaven’s Bride by Leigh Eric Schmidt. I was perusing books and when I read the full title of the book, “Heaven's Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman” I did that fancy Amazon 1-Click buy thing. I’ve never done that before. I just wanted to read about this person I had never heard of before.

So this book was a huge gamble for me, but I enjoyed it a lot. The topic was fascinating and there were a lot of events and people from history I had not heard about before in the book.

Ida Craddock was never immensely famous. She was denied entrance to the University of Pennsylvania after passing the required entrance exams when the board continued to block admission to women undergraduates in the late 1880’s. Her interests rested in sexuality and spiritualism. She studied and spoke on phallic worship in ancient religions as well as Christianity, defended the spirituality in belly dancing, and opened her own Church of Yoga. She also believed she had a spirit husband, a young man who had tried to court her in her youth who had died. Her mother had her temporarily committed to an insane asylum. Ida wrote pamphlets of advice for married or soon-to-be married couples regarding sexuality. While she encouraged female pleasure and uniting of personal sexuality and spirituality, she was staunchly against masturbation, premarital sex, or excessive stimulation of the clitoris. Still she was charged for breaking laws that banned the distribution of lewd materials through the mail. Her apartment was raided and many of the books in her library and other personal documents were confiscated. She served time in jail and in 1902 was sentenced to five years in prison. She committed suicide rather than serve this sentence.

I enjoyed this book but there were some aspects of the form that some readers may have issues with.

A. The book does not follow a strict chronological order. The book is organized more by topics of interest in her life. One chapter regarded her religion and church, one her sex research and counseling, one her spirit husband, etc. I didn’t mind this as the author lets you know when the events take place in her life and as long as I paid attention I kept the chronological picture mostly in order.

B. There is a lot of history sprinkled throughout the text that has a tendency to meander. For example, the author talks about how Ida was fond of the artist William Bouguereau (whose painting is on the cover of the book). The author then goes on to say that when one of Bouguereau’s paintings was displayed in Omaha in 1890, a rather conservative young man was offended for a myriad of reasons and threw a chair at the painting, tearing the canvas.
I personally liked these little tid-bits of history as they explain the social climate and the odd ways the battle Ida was fighting was the same other advocates and artists were fighting at the time.

C. The academic writing is somewhat dry, considering the at times extreme topics (I mean, seriously, the woman thought she was married to an angel). The author’s style is not as flowing as some history books I’ve read and I found I really had to be paying attention through some passages.

Overall, though, this book is definitely an asset to my collection. I have a ton of tabs stuck in the pages to remember people, places and events.

Even though she was never widely known, I’m still pretty much held in awful sadness that Ida Craddock died for something people now do every day. I have a whole bookcase full of pornography, erotica, sexual health and sociology books. People get porn in the mail all the time and 100 years ago she was sentenced to 5 years in prison for sending sexual advice to married couples in the mail.

Whenever it seems silly to me that we’re arguing over these social vices on all levels – the family, the community, the federal – I can now see why it is important we keep talking about it, keep reading, and researching – Because if left alone, history has a terrible habit of repeating itself.

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