Organic mixed media artwork by Kay Sexton
I am driving up to southern Oregon to visit my ex in the memory care ward of an assisted living residence. I've made this trip every two to four months over the last two years. On my first visit in the spring of 2020, Zack was able to function in independent living. He could still prepare food but no longer use his computer. I helped him complete the novel he'd been working on for 20 years and published it for him on Amazon. Now, he doesn't always remember it exists.
It's a beautiful and familiar drive north over the coastal mountains on highway 101 with very little traffic and plenty of time to think about our long relationship. When we were young, we traveled all over Europe twice (hitchhiking and in a camper van). We were dirt poor in a cabin in the woods. We were lucky to wind up in the Haight-Ashbury when it was an affordable and vibrant community. We collaborated on film projects, and after seven years, we separated amicably and continued to work on films together.
I am wondering now why I still hesitate to tell anyone, even after half a century, the films Zack and I produced and occasionally acted in were pornographic.
Around the turn of the century, when Zack's writing was blocked, rather than remain idle, he asked and received my permission to transcribe my diaries from the 70s, along with his. The result is a 600-page, single-spaced document. What saddens me, when I read through this text, is how often he was angry, irritable, paranoid, fearful, or self-castigating. Of course, I knew about it then. I didn't understand though how deeply wounded he was or why.
I didn't know until 20 years ago that he had been sexually assaulted in the military, as well as while serving a six-month sentence in the Presidio stockade for desertion (rather than be shipped to Vietnam). Zack phoned from Oregon to tell me he'd be getting a sizable disability-based pension. He had signed up for a VA hospital therapy session and learned he wasn't alone. Plenty of soldiers, both men and women, had been brutalized and traumatized, not only in the Vietnam era. Back in 1969 when we first met, he frequently had nightmares he didn't want to talk about. It was 20 years ago he was diagnosed with PTSD, which remained largely untreated and now has developed into mid-stage dementia
Some might suspect a link between being sexually abused and pornographically involved. In Zack's case, I am certain his strong libido predated his military trauma. But he might have needed to suppress the shame of abuse by flaunting his enjoyment of sex as a good and natural activity. In that sense there is a causal link.
In my case, I never was sexually abused. I was curiouser and curiouser.
I believed and still believe what I do with my body is my business. Yet, after I no longer was involved in adult film production, I encountered very few people to whom I could mention my adventures in the skin trade, much less that before Roe v. Wade, I had an illegal abortion, and once it was legal, I had two more. Three!? I recall my own reaction to a European friend who told me when we met in 1970 that she'd had five abortions. How could she have been so careless?
In my fictional narrative of that era, Libidoland (a novel in stories), a porn actress decides to carry her love child full-term rather than abort it. Claire quits the "Biz" and struggles to raise her son on a limited income. She is a braver woman than I ever was. I have only experienced motherhood vicariously while writing her story. I chose not to become an impoverished single mom.
That era was the 1970s, the so-called "golden age of porn films" in San Francisco. Zack and I didn't consider ourselves flower children, and we bridled at the term "hippie"; nevertheless, we were churning out low-budget, triple X-rated movies in fabled Bagdad by the Bay, and this was, by virtue of the time and place, a radically different experience than that of our contemporaries in New York or Los Angeles (at least, as portrayed in The Deuce and Boogie Nights). We were not involved in prostitution or Mafia deals, nor did we or anyone we worked with aspire to stardom of the Hollywood ilk. We were embracing new freedoms, rejecting conventional values, casting off prudery. And we aspired to produce erotic art. Zack wanted to be the Bertolucci of porn films. It was Last Tango in Paris, among other films, that inspired him to concoct the script for our second feature, Deep Tango. I was eager to work as a production manager and film editor (more so than as an actress). The "Biz" was a huge improvement over temp typing jobs, it was never boring, and it paid considerably more.
Our friends and neighbors in the Haight supported our venture enthusiastically, offering their homes as locations and even volunteering to appear as extras in nonsexual roles, such as the Deep Tango dance marathon scene, the filming of which went on all night till the dawn. Our actor-friends were as exhausted as the characters in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Exactly what we wanted. A year after the film was released, the same friends rented a theater space for a Deep Tango anniversary screening party and invited everyone they knew.
In that time and place, I felt free to talk about what "my partner in slime" (as Zack put it) and I were up to. It was another matter, though, to broach the topic with family. Neither set of parents ever knew what our film business was about. We told them we were making films for small businesses, what would be called infomercials today. By the time my widowed mother moved to California to live with me in 2000, though I would have liked to confide in her, there was no compelling reason to do so. She was a modest woman and might have been embarrassed.
Or she might have been curious.
Aside from our pornographic day jobs, we were not much different than our friends and neighbors. We volunteered in the Haight-Ashbury Food Conspiracy. I organized our neighborhood's weekly food divide and belonged to the Adding Collective. It was a busy, socially hyperactive period in my life. I recall a steady stream of visitors to the flat where Zack and I lived. I spent a lot of time in that kitchen preparing pots of soup and woks of stir-fry or baking loaves of bread.
I also did plenty of childcare for friends who were single parents. I loved those kids and still do – they're in their mid-40s by now. We enjoyed quality time in the park, on the beach, on camping trips and at bedtime reading aloud. And then I'd go home, smoke weed and write poetry. I didn't have the hard job.
I knew how tough it was to raise a child alone. But lack of money was not the only reason for my three abortions. Mainly, it was lack of faith in my own ability to be a good parent.
By 1976 Zack and I had split up—he was not the father of any of the children I never had; that would have been a different story, for he loved children and would gladly have fathered one. While we were living together, I never could decide whether to try to have a baby with him. I hadn't even decided to marry him; we'd had a "mock wedding," not sanctioned by church or state.
In our wedding photos, he looks cherubic. My cherubic pornographer resembled his mother—the same high cheekbones and dimples. The third of five children, Zack felt unloved and ignored. Yet he was the only one of his surviving siblings to care for their mother when she was old and ill (and had dementia). That is why he moved back to Oregon.
Perhaps we were both damaged goods. We came from low-income, dysfunctional families, his much more than mine. His father was alcoholic and never held a job for long. Years before Libidoland became a book, I concocted a tale about Zack's parents accidentally finding out what sort of films their son was producing. The story is a total fiction. It could have happened, but thankfully never did.
Libidoland is chiefly about the people who lived and loved in that complex '70s subculture. It chronicles an odyssey from sexual liberation through the gritty and sometimes hilarious underside of the industry to disillusionment at the onset of the AIDS epidemic.
By the '80s, that free-spirited and uncensored adventure had utterly changed. Porn became the prerogative of big business, and our friendly, neighborhood porn Biz fizzled and folded. And just like that, it was no longer something I felt free to discuss with new friends or casual acquaintances. I'm still not comfortable with the notion. I've thought about using a pen name for the book and this essay, what we once called a "nom de porn." Mine was Molly Seagrim in the day. Ring a bell? Probably not, unless you are a fan of 18th century novels. Molly is a minor character in Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, the trollop Tom frolics with in a ditch at the beginning of the novel (and in the 1963 film starring Albert Finney). I chose that name because I'd written my master's thesis on Fielding not long before moving to San Francisco and immersing myself in the underground economy. I fancied myself a 20th century picaresque libertine.
In fact, "Zack" is a nom de porn of my ex, one of several. He dropped that name when he moved back to Oregon. His novel (Figures in a Mirror) is about the bleaker porn film scene of the '90s and his own personal demons. It may be he hasn't forgotten about the book he wrote. He may be ashamed of his career in porn and the book about it, despite my urging him not to be. Well, he can't remember that, either.
As for me, I'm going to come clean now that I'm an old woman, wearing purple and speaking my mind, while I still have one. Graphic erotica isn't for everyone, granted. But I'm not ashamed of anything I did, including the book I've written about it.
I'm not ashamed either of the three abortions. Each was necessary, especially the first when I was young and clueless and still living at home with mom and dad. (They never knew about that, either.) I remember telling the fetus, NO, you will not ruin my life, go away, come back another time. Life is cyclic, we go in and out of being, and it's not your turn. I had been careless, it's true. The only birth control I knew of then was a rubber, which I thought was the man's responsibility. That was 1965. When I finally saw a doctor about birth control pills later that year, he sneered at me, as if I were a slut. Or a sex worker.
By the '70s I had a diaphragm, which functioned well until the night a good friend and occasional lover visited me, and for several minutes we risked intercourse minus the diaphragm. We stopped and I inserted the diaphragm before he climaxed, but it wasn't soon enough. Who knew that was even possible? By then, I'd left Zack and was living in a tiny studio apartment I could scarcely afford. I had five jobs, none of which paid much. (Film work never brought me a steady income.) Neither my friend nor I were prepared to be parents. He had been a cameraman on our earliest films and now was making serious environmental documentaries. Sadly, he was also getting into crack.
I elected to remain conscious during the procedure, determined to face the consequences of my decision. A friend who'd had three abortions and then a C-section after 26 hours of labor told me later an induced dilation is more difficult because the hormones that prepare a woman for birthing haven't built up sufficiently yet. She was the friend and eventual neighbor whose son I helped raise.
It was not a matter of pain, though the cramping was severe. I felt as though I were dying, that my own life was being sucked out of me. Clammy and nauseated, I lay on an operating table like a beached fish. My blood pressure dropped abruptly, and I turned ghost white, I was told. I went home and didn't get out of bed for three days. I dreamed my breasts were ugly and drooping with dark burnt scars.
I will never do that again, I told myself.
Only a year later, I indulged in so much sex with the man I was madly in love with, we blew a hole in the diaphragm I'd been meticulously using. (This time I opted for anesthesia.) It is this last abortion I regret, in part because it would have been a love child, but chiefly because I never got pregnant again. I was certain I would have another chance. The fourth one would be a charm. My single-mom friend and I would raise our children together. As life turned out, I had an unusually early menopause plus my next serious inamorato had had a vasectomy before he met me.
Had I carried the third pregnancy full term, I'd have had zero support from the father, who moved halfway across the country and many years later confessed he never did want to have a child. So, it would have been very difficult, and my life would have altered drastically. In retrospect, years later, I thought, yes, I could have handled that, I'd have done a decent job of it. Instead, I wound up caregiving my mother for 14 years. Closing a life down rather than opening one up. I will certainly never regret that. Those 14 years were among the happiest and most rewarding in my life.
It was midway through those years with my mother when I began working on early drafts of Libidoland, writing new stories and novellas and overhauling earlier material written closer to the original events. My writer friends who encouraged me to finish this book were initially astonished to learn the nice woman who was taking care of her 90-plus year-old mother full-time had once-upon-a-time been a pornographic priestess. (Boy, she was a naughty girl, she let her knickers down!)
Some of the films we made or appeared in are considered cult classics and have been remastered and re-released by Vinegar Syndrome. This means anyone can look at my 20- or 30-something-year-old body on a computer monitor or a cell phone in intimate detail. Fine with me. I looked at them myself not too long ago. Three DVDs of films not seen in years came in the mail one day compliments of Vinegar Syndrome because I had consented to be interviewed for some of those releases.
Nowadays I'm a book designer, so first I examined the cover layouts carefully. I googled the process involved in transferring 16 mm film to video formats. I made a fresh cup of coffee and looked at the clock. Oh, what the heck, I'm retired. So, I put a disk in my laptop. Nothing happened. A DVD player is required for this format. So, I took that disk over to a friend who is curious about porn films and has a DVD player hooked up to a big screen, and we watched it together,
There I am toward the beginning of Deep Tango, naked, aside from a floppy black straw hat and purple sunglasses. That nice shape I used to be in, although breathing, isn't moving, I'm supposed to be a living statue, whatever that means, I'm part of the decor in the lobby of the building where the protagonists will conduct their steamy trysts. (It was our neighbors' front hall.) And there's the concierge – Jerry Abrams, our cameraman and problematic friend, whose equipment we were renting, who is no longer alive, who toward the end of his life was living in a cheap hotel in the Mission district and driving a cab.
Jerry also produced and directed his own films, including Subrosa Rising and Confessions of a Teenage Peanut Butter Freak, the latter staring Zack as a shy teenager obsessed with peanut butter and girls. His best friend was played by the well-known porn star John Holmes, an affable fellow who had trouble remembering lines, to Jerry's chagrin.
I'm not certain after almost 50 years, but I think Jerry's concierge scene in Deep Tango was largely improvised.
He is wearing a pink bathrobe, way too tight for his imposing girth, open at the throat to display the black hair curling on his chest. His beard is trimmed for this occasion, He grins toothily into the camera and croons, Gee but it's great after eating your date, walking your baby back home.
Young Molly thinks it's hilarious, but she can't smile. She's a statue.
Old Molly? I'm thinking everything in this film is bizarre and outrageous, especially the sex. Most of the characters are nut jobs, including the concierge. Zack wrote the script, not I. But I was privy to the proceedings. And I did write one tiny part of it, the song for Annette Haven on the soundtrack for her sex scene. She would soon become a porn star, but this was only her second film. (She appeared in over 80 films, e.g., The Autobiography of a Flea.)
Red-headed lady, our blue movie queen,
we love you, we love you, we love you between
your deep pale thighs.
All of America only has eyes for you.
This is in the film within the film where I play the "camera human" (per the credits), issuing directions in voice-overs to Annette and her paramour on the couch and a second couple frolicking on the floor. (Angle to the camera! No, don't look at the camera!) The two on the floor aren't having an easy time. That's our assistant cameraman, Jack Wilson, doubling as an actor and chewing a big wad of gum. Dear madcap Jack who five years later would inadvertently knock me up. Who also is no longer alive. Who is much missed, not only by me. He isn't at all aroused by the somewhat ditzy young woman playing opposite him.
Finally, young Molly pleasures herself with the 16 mm, hand-held Bolex. In my memory, the screen goes black at that point, POV of the Bolex, but no, it's a close-up of my face, eyes wildly rolling. Yet another nut job.
Meanwhile, back in the future, my friend whose DVD player I've requisitioned is not amused. "You call this porn?" he scoffs and begs me to fast forward. We land on the scene where the leading lady stuffs a loaf of French bread up the leading man's anus, and it emerges from his mouth.
"That's not sexy," huffs my friend, "It's ridiculous." And he's right, of course.
I found a review of this Vinegar Syndrome release online calling it "pretentious hippie nonsense... but at least it's weird." That's about right, too.
Yet, I still get a kick out of Deep Tango, precisely because it is so weirdly nonsensical and slapstick-pretentious with its cinematic allusions to several foreign films Zack admired. Even the preposterous and puzzling tragic ending is comical. But mainly it's the high jinks, the spirited, if misguided, attempt to make a porn film like no other that holds my interest.
I confess I don't much like porn. The graphic sex seems mechanical and redundant to me, possibly because I spent untold hours cutting and editing such footage.
The only erotic scene I can recall is the first "loop" Zack and I performed in, near the beginning of our relationship. A loop was a 10-minute film showed between features in seedy Mission Street theaters. In 1969, they were soft core with no soundtrack other than music. The set was our bedroom in a flat on Potrero Hill. The lighting was sunshine streaming in the window. The crew was a solitary cameraman. We were newly in love. That untitled piece of 16 mm erotica has long since vanished, so all I have is my memory of it. It's perfect.
At least I won't have to explain any of this to my grandchildren.
On the other hand, there are no children to care for me in my dotage and/or drop off the delightful grandkids whose pics I could post on Facebook. If Zack and I had decided to have children, they might be driving up to Oregon with me now. Or they might have moved there to care for the old man, as he did his mother, and I, mine. The kids I took care of in the '70s and '80s aren't having children, either. All of us are doing our bit for zero population growth, I suppose.
Zachary looks up from the book he is reading, surprised, and pleased to see me walking into his room. When he smiles, his cheeks dimple. At 75, he is still cherubic.
We hug, we jump up and down together, we call each other by our now half-century old, pet names, Quackery Duck and Feather Duck. (My middle name is Heather, and our production company was Canard Films, French for duck.)
The room is comfortable: a small desk, a bookshelf, a few treasured photos, including a framed black and white print of our mock-nuptials, a hospital bed, a large easy chair-lounger and a 42-inch TV screen he doesn't know how to operate.
One of the activities I engage him in is reading aloud, which I think is empowering. He reads much more easily than he speaks; he can't remember words to express himself, but he recognizes them in a book. Most often he reads to me from a Paul Theroux novel. On my last two visits we got through two-thirds of My Secret History. And sometimes we sit before my laptop screen and take turns reading our '70s diary entries, which he transcribed over 20 years ago.
I search the file, avoiding anything likely to upset him, and decide to read about our sojourn in Greece in the winter of 1974 when we rented a small cottage near Kalamata for three months. It was across the road from a beach and cost about $65 a month. We could see the Aegean from our terrace. It would've been paradise if not for the broken toilet.
J: Fri 12/20—First really clear sunny day since before Pilos. Pattern set for warm days: tea on back patio, or ouzo & olives while watching the sun set — glorious every night, getting richer as the evening gets colder. Z made bean delight on stove in van & I did potato tortillas on camping gaz burner. Z discovered toilet apparatus is in shambles.
Z: Fri 12/20—By the weekend the weather changes & I can sun myself. Investigate the beaches nearby & find them unused & relatively unseen so can sunbathe in nude. The beach is below a turnout where we spent our first 2 nights & where periodically we discover Canadians & Aussies camped. Jo invited over some Canadians who came by. They had a 4-year-old boy.
I find his summary for the end of 1974. He reads slowly, stumbling at times.
'74 was an above average year in which I succeeded in putting Deep Tango together & gained a lot of experience & dedication to film work & editing. Also, it was the year Confessions of a Teenage Peanut Butter Freak was finally put in the can & I did my independent venture with Portrait — re-titled later perhaps Visions of Claire, in which I asserted my abilities more dramatically if not successfully... It was the hardest working period of my life to that point. I finally made my "last" adolescent travel move, long brewing in my mind, only to discover what I already knew — travel can put some distance between you & your illusions but doesn't stop them. Noticeably I am freer with my money, & do not brood over foolish costs although I am nonetheless aware of them. Film budgets must have affected my perspectives on this... Read much journalism up to August. Nixon's plight & eventual resignation occupied much of my thoughts. Undesirable discharge is changed to honorable, thereby making me eligible for GI benefits. By year's end, contemplate one term a year in school & also of producing a baby this April or next — for an Aquarius baby.
"Whoa!" I interrupt. "I don't remember that."
I really have no recollection, while we were in Kalamata, of us planning to conceive a child. Could I have forgotten we talked about it? Was he making a New Year's resolution he never got around to telling me about? Did the couple traveling with a four-year-old inspire him? He won't remember any of that.
"Aquarius baby," Zack repeats, and he gazes fondly at me.
"You wanted an Aquarian duckling did you, Mr. Duck?"
"Sure," he says wistfully. "Didn't you?"
Though all these events are true, the names of all individuals and specific locations have been changed to protect privacy.
Read "The Ballad of Zachary and Molly: The Untold Story of Zachary Strong / Youngblood" on The Rialto Report, an oral history, audio, photo, and documentary archive from the golden age of adult film.