Reading Group Guide

  1. Book ImageBad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave

    Ellen Sussman

    “Makes for seriously sexy (and smart) summer reading.”—Elle

From the Author

I’ve just come home from my first book club meeting about Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave. At one point in the evening, the fine women who were gathered in someone’s living room began to recount their own bad girl stories. One woman had worked as a stripper while in her twenties and never told a soul. Another had had a summer affair with both a man and his son—neither one knew of the other romance! A very refined woman used to break into her ex-husband’s house in the middle of the day and steal mementos from their marriage. Oh my god. The women howled with laughter. The discussion lasted far past 9 PM when all good girls go home. And once the shock of these confessions wore off, the real conversation began. Why do women act out? What does it take for us to break out of our role as dutiful wife, daughter, mother, working woman—and cut loose? What do we feel afterwards—celebration or regret? This was far better than any book club meeting I’d ever attended!

At the beginning of the evening the host of the book club asked me why I had decided to put together an anthology of essays about bad girls. I told her that I had started writing personal essays three years ago, after a lifetime of writing fiction, and that I found the process very rewarding. And when I looked at the many essays I had written over a three-year period I realized they all shared one common thread—they were about my bad girl escapades. Why, I wondered, did I keep coming back to that theme? Why, in fact, have I spent much of my life rebelling and acting out? The questions interested me—and I almost immediately thought: What would other writers have to say about this?

And so I asked them. I asked writers with reputations for being bad girls: Erica Jong, Pam Houston, Kim Addonizio, Maggie Estep, Kaui Hart Hemmings. I asked writers who were good girls but had a few secrets they might share: Roxana Robinson, Madeleine Blais, Elizabeth Rosner, Lolly Winston. I asked well-known writers like Joyce Maynard and Susan Cheever, and emerging writers like Michelle Richmond and Tobin Levy. They all shared my enthusiasm for the subject. And they were all willing to dig deep—what it is about women, our society’s rules, and our wild defiance.

Then came the real fun. Once the book was published the readers began to respond. My email inbox is flooded with notes from readers who not only want to tell me how much they loved the book, but they want to add their own thoughts about this meaty topic. They sometimes even share their own tales.

Now the book has begun to appear on the book club circuit. Last night I got a first taste of what that experience is like. The woman began their discussion by talking about the essays that most moved them—sometimes they loved an essay and sometimes they were furious about an essay. All of it led to fascinating discussion about the questions I wanted to raise: what does it mean in our society for women to break the rules? And in the end, the political is personal. We ended the evening by sharing our own stories and sharing our own insights. And man, did we laugh.

Discussion Questions

  1. We’ll start easy. Which is your favorite essay? Why?
  2. Which essay shocked you? Upset you? Enraged you? Excited you? Talk about it. Sometimes we learn the most from our strongest emotional response to what we read.
  3. Are bad girls born or made? A few of the contributors claim they were bad from birth—some claim that they aren’t very bad by nature. What do you think?
  4. Kim Addonizio writes about a one-night stand, Caroline Leavitt and Maggie Estep write about their affairs, Tobin Levy writes about her sexual wish list. Why do women often act out sexually? Is the bedroom our battlefield?
  5. Both Kaui Hart Hemmings and Lolly Winston write about the phases in their lives—from bad girl to wife and mom, or from bad girl to middle-aged worrywart. Both of them seem determined to claim something important from their bad girl days—their gutsiness, perhaps, or their disdain for the rules. Do bad girls grow up and become good girls?
  6. Elizabeth Rosner rebels against the rigid rules of orthodox Judaism, especially the ones written for women. Madeleine Blais writes that at her Catholic school “occasions of sin lurked everywhere.” Mary Roach imagines a priest she can lust after. How does religion bring out the bad girl in us?
  7. Sometimes “badness” is hard to define. Is Pam Houston misbehaving at her father’s funeral? Is Laura Lippman fighting for her rights at work or behaving like a pest? Can we interpret Joyce Maynard’s decision to end her silence about her affair with J. D. Salinger as a bold attempt to reclaim her own story? What’s so bad about that? (Just ask her critics!)
  8. Ann Hood describes how she reinvents herself through lies; Susan Straight speeds down a country road in homage to the brother she lost; Susan Casey cuts out on family Christmas in search of something more personally meaningful. These might be looked at as small transgressions. What are the ways in which we misbehave in order to find ourselves? Is acting out a way of looking in?
  9. Is “bad” really a feminist issue? Elizabeth Benedict wants her boyfriend’s perfect daughter to boldly use the F-word. Daphne Merkin dares to talk about the penis. Erica Jong asserts: What is a bad girl, after all, but a full human being? Are these writers (and maybe even the women you know) striking out against the rules of society that still don’t give women the freedom they need?
  10. OK, fess up. You’ve got a few secrets. Bring to the book club meeting a list of three things your book club friends would never guess about you.

About Ellen Sussman

Ellen Sussman is the author of the novel On a Night Like This. She has two daughters and lives with her husband in Los Altos Hills, California. She, too, is a bad girl.

Books by Ellen Sussman

  1. Book CoverBad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave

    “Makes for seriously sexy (and smart) summer reading.”—ElleMore