Being Facebook friends with someone you greatly admire but know only through their creative work is weird. You feel compelled to interact through a sense of false intimacy, like when you inadvertently say “Hi” to an actor on the street who you’ve vaguely misfiled as a neighbor. This is especially true if their work has made you privy to their inner workings for decades.
So when I learned on Facebook that Cynthia Heimel, a renegade feminist writer and one of my formative literary idols, passed away in February, it hit me like a shit-filled brick. As one of her sanctioned social-media voyeurs, I knew she was living in a California assisted-living facility and suffering from early-onset dementia — I'd read about it in numerous posts from her real friends, detailing visits and blow-by-blow updates on the status of her declining health. It took everything I had not to jump in to offer her or her family solace IRL, for Facebook was the only way we were very loosely acquainted.
It was a few years ago when she accepted my friend request, likely a why-not click for her and a thrill for me. Ask my friends from the ’80s and early ’90s, and they’ll testify in court they received their copies of Sex Tips for Girls, If You Can't Live Without Me, Why Aren't You Dead Yet?, and Get Your Tongue Out of My Mouth, I'm Kissing You Good-Bye! from me in acts of post-breakup morale-boosting and sisterly solidarity.
That same sisterly solidarity drove Heimel to write unapologetically, frankly, and rip-roaringly about sex, yet the act was a mere byproduct of her endgame: staunch feminism. She used the travails of her own life to systematically dismantle the status quo from deep within the female psyche. She contextualized the joy and pain of being female with a sharp and salty fuck-it-all turn of phrase in the form of a self-help tome that mocked the hell out of well-worn tropes while dispensing heaps of practical wisdom — wisdom we so badly needed back then.
For example, in Sex Tips for Girls, she advises: “‘Stop treating my nipples like chewing gum, you abysmal wart hog’ won’t get you nearly as far as ‘I simply crave you when you suck on my elbows in that gentle way of yours. And my nipples, which are very sensitive, would like to be treated in exactly the same way.’”
For the time, Heimel was a renegade, a deft wordsmith in leather pants who discussed the merits of muff-diving, Quaaludes, back rooms at clubs, and Manolos before Carrie Bradshaw even got her period (well, Sex and the City creator Candace Bushnell was probably just wrapping up college). It was quite enough for Cynthia to be Cynthia, revered for her mind and the words that poured out of it as her quotable coterie of devout gal pals, Rita, Cleo, and Lynn, served as both sounding boards and a Greek chorus.
As a sheltered, straight teen raised by Middle Eastern parents who taught me absolutely nothing about being a woman (other than that it was a painful exercise of self-sacrifice), Sex Tips for Girls, an amalgam of Cynthia’s Village Voice columns published in 1983, was a revelation. Those columns, “Problem Lady” and “Tongue in Chic,” positioned her as sort-of a Dear Abby for the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll set, a medium later mimicked by Bushnell and in “Female Trouble,” the New York Press single-girl-about-town column by writer Amy Sohn. As for me, I finally had a big sister to boost my self-esteem when I blew a guy and when he blew me off.