Bye-Bye Barbarella | Book Review | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Book Review

Bye-Bye Barbarella


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


My Life So Far

Jane Fonda

(Random House)

Jane Fonda has a lot of explaining to do--584 pages' worth, to be exact. In her recent autobiography, My Life So Far, she offers a close chronicle of a woman who, in her life as an actress, activist, and fitness figurehead, has been gravely misunderstood. Unlike the average celebrity tell-all, it's no self-congratulatory rehash of costars bedded, millions squandered, rehabs entered, and rhinestone-encrusted Nudie suits worn. Instead, Fonda buckles down to tell a much more common story about a woman's secret struggle for personal agency.

Those old enough to remember 1975 with any sort of clarity may still identify Fonda with her tireless work as a cheerleader for the early women's movement, but the image of Fonda that's etched on the boomer cortex tends to be either the space vixen Barbarella or her alter ego, cannon-straddling Hanoi Jane. And us youngsters are stuck with a vision of her in a striped leotard, smiling, her frosted brown cloud of hair so perfect as she bounced, kicked, and crunched. They're all hard personae to reconcile with "vigilant feminist."

Written with a deep, almost desperate eagerness, My Life So Far is Fonda's attempt to show the world the Jane she knows. Her careful, concise presentation, which idles between wounded and matter-of-fact, says a lot about just how deeply she feels she's been misunderstood; she's painfully aware of just how well a "woman of conviction" goes over. She's not shy or meek, but she pitches slow.

Beginning with her childhood, she outlines the origins of the dynamic that would typify her next 60 years--living in the long dark shadow of a powerful man. Her mother committed suicide when she was 12, leaving her to be raised by her cold and distant father and a series of stepmothers only a few years older than she. Early on in her acting and modeling career she details being taken hostage by Betty Friedan's archetypal "problem that has no name," as well as a problem with a clinical tag: bulimia, which she battled for nearly 30 years. She recounts her attempts to become the perfect dutiful "60s wife" to her first husband, French director Roger Vadim, subverting her own desire and discomfort and directing all her energies into keeping a clean home, supporting Vadim's gambling addiction, and participating in three-ways with call girls he would bring home--so as to avoid reprimand from her husband and his cronies for being "bourgeois." She sought solace in morning-after coffee with the other women, talking at length with them about their histories and what led them into prostitution (this research went on to inform her portrayal of Bree Daniels in Klute, for which she won her first Oscar).

She was inspired to share such explicit, seamy details by the autobiography of feminist activist Robin Morgan. "I had not planned on writing about my own experiences," she writes. "I thought: There are enough people who dislike me. I do not need to give them more ammunition." But, she adds, "I saw that if telling my life story was to matter to other women and girls, I would, like Robin, have to be honest about how far I have come and the meaning of where I have been." This conviction that salvation can be found in unpleasant truths--that women can help each other by "speaking truth to power"--is the heart of Fonda's book.

Her six years under the thumb of a womanizing Frenchman had imbued her with quiet rage, priming her for a political awakening. It came in 1970 via a strange messenger: Black Panthers supporter and devout lefty Al Lewis, better known as Grandpa from The Munsters, who costarred with Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and spent hours a day in her dressing room goading her to become active in social issues. Within the year she would divorce Vadim and become involved with the antiwar movement, the United Farm Workers, the American Indian Movement, welfare rights, and briefly the Panthers, holding press conferences on a biweekly basis, getting arrested at sit-ins, and using her fame to create wider publicity for radical causes.

"I wanted to be a repeater," she writes, "like one of those tall radio transmitters at the tops of mountains that pick up signals too faint in the valleys and transmit them to a broader audience."

This attitude, coupled with her visibility, soon got her deemed a subversive threat, and the FBI, CIA, and the counterintelligence branch of the Defense Intelligence Agency began monitoring her to such a degree that her file amassed more than 20,000 pages in five years. But despite her activist zeal and newfound calling as a self-identified "revolutionary woman," true liberation evaded her for another few decades.

"A persistent assumption about me is that I am a puppet, ready for a new man to pull my strings," she writes. "There is some truth to this. Until age sixty I never

had enough self-confidence to feel validated unless I was with a man, and the men I was with embodied something I felt would make me better than I was. . . . A puppet has no life without a puppeteer."

At several points in the chapters covering the 17 years she spent married to activist-politician Tom Hayden, she returns to the fact that she donated the first $18 million she made from her workout enterprises directly to his grassroots Campaign for Economic Democracy, in part to curb his disapproval of her recent boob job and phenomenal success as a fitness guru and show him that she was still down with the cause. Even more heartbreaking is a story she tells from the decade she frittered away with CNN magnate Ted Turner, where he insists they spend nearly every day fishing together in complete silence on one of his 14 different ranches. Despite "learning to love" fishing, Jane began (symbolically enough) to take her own boat, where she surreptitiously worked on her memoirs.

Her story reaches its denouement deep in the third act, when Fonda is 60 and has a spiritual awakening. Having put her acting, producing, and workout careers to bed years earlier in favor of being Mrs. Ted Turner, she finds a new calling, one close to her heart: instilling in teenage girls a healthy sense of self and their own sexuality. With a $10 million endowment from Turner, she founds the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, an advocacy group aimed at addressing the socioeconomic and psychological roots of teen pregnancy, and throws herself into the cause. But in trying to help women save their lives, she also saves her own. Newly empowered and hopeful, she soon realizes Turner is a controlling asshole and that she's spent her entire life shrinking to the needs of the men in her life.

In short order she leaves her husband, moves in with her daughter, and returns to acting. Single for the first time in decades, she begins to finally get in touch with her true self. "The phoenix that had been on hold for ten years had risen," she writes following the birth of her first grandchild. "I also was being born again." In the last eight years Fonda has campaigned against female genital mutilation, brought attention to the murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, performed in The Vagina Monologues, endowed the Jane Fonda Center for Adolescent Reproductive Health at Emory University's School of Medicine, and been celebrated one of the "100 most important women of the 20th century" by Barbara Walters. Her voice in the chapters covering her latest incarnation is transformed, swollen with confidence. She has cut the puppeteer's strings, and her words are assured and unapologetic. She's no longer got anything to explain.

Add a comment