"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
As we near the annual Christian celebration of a chaste birth, it seems like a fitting time to have a conversation with a woman who has just published a book touting the joys of Christian chastity: Dawn Eden.
Thirty-eight-year-old Dawn Eden Goldstein, who dropped “Goldstein” from her byline back when she was 16 and writing for the Jersey Beat music fanzine, did not start out chaste. She started out writing music journalism and liner notes and enjoying, to hear her tell it, puh-lenty of sex. But in her late 20s, Eden began a series of religious transformations, first becoming a Christian, and by her early 30s, a devout Catholic with extremely conservative politics. Slowly but surely, she began to lay off the sex.
Eden eventually segued from her career as a freelance writer to copyediting for the New York Post, a job from which she was fired in 2005 for changing the language of a story about in vitro fertilization to reflect her extreme antiabortion, pro-fetus stance. Her dismissal made her a media circus freak of sorts: the woman too conservative for Rupert Murdoch.
Eden got mileage from her firing — in her book, “The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On,” she thanks Post editor Col Allan, as well as Susan Edelman, the woman whose copy she changed, writing that “without them, this book would not exist.” Now she is a deputy news editor of regional editions at the New York Daily News, and she maintains her religious, pro-life blog, the Dawn Patrol, through which she engages in fierce Internet skirmishes with combatants from the liberal and feminist blogosphere.
“The Thrill of the Chaste,” published in December by Thomas Nelson, chronicles the history of Eden’s sex life and her new, no-sex life. Eden maintains that after a few stop-and-start attempts, she has been chaste since the end of 2003, and she says she doesn’t masturbate. To hear her tell it, chastity cures everything that might ail a single woman and might as well clear up acne. Salon talked to Eden about how keeping her legs firmly shut has changed her social life, opened her up to the possibility of motherhood and aided her lifelong search for a husband.
How did this book come about?
Over the past few years I went from living the “Sex and the City” lifestyle to striving for chastity. The motivation came from becoming a Christian in October ’99. Before that I was a Reformed Jew, agnostic. I had not been taught chastity as a kid. My parents split up when I was 5; I was brought up by my mother, who was dating — and the impression I got growing up was that men come and go, and you can’t expect one to stay and value you, and you certainly can’t expect one to marry you if you don’t have sex with him. I really wanted to get married, and I believed that the only way a man would marry me was if I had sex with him.
So when did you start having sex?
I didn’t start having sex until I was 23. But I lost my innocence well before that, because very early on I would try to get a man to care about me, to fall in love with me, by giving myself to him physically.
I delayed full sex in part because I tended toward depression and feared that if I had sex with a man who didn’t stay with me, I would fall into deeper depression. Which of course is what wound up happening. I got into my 20s, past the age when most people got married, and my dating life had not resulted in marriage. So I became cynical. I thought, “If I’m not able to get what I really want, which is marriage, I should get whatever pleasure I can.” And so I fell into this vicious cycle: being lonely and depressed, having low self-image, having sex, thinking it would make me feel attractive and better about myself, and the man would leave, and I would feel more depressed and lonely.
So when I received my faith, I was transformed from this agnostic Jew and a fairly liberal person (I was reluctantly pro-choice, which will be a surprise if you read my blog now) into a Christian. I started absorbing conservative values and realized I had to become chaste.
So you just stopped having sex?
It was a process that took a few years. It was about learning to be chaste without feeling uptight, depressed and deprived. I had a couple of years when I was trying very hard to be chaste, but I was really more just abstinent.
What’s the difference?
[When I was abstinent] I felt deprived; I thought about sex a lot and the sacrifice I was making for God and how he better darn well appreciate it because it was no darn fun! Then I had a couple of affairs and one relationship that lasted nine months. That’s with the character I call Tom in the book. Then after that, I had one brief rebound. And then, oh, wait, I’m forgetting some. Anyway, it was at the tail end of 2003 when I just finally got serious about chastity and got over the hump, so to speak.
So now that you’re chaste and not just abstinent, you don’t think about sex anymore?
I do, but I’m more conscious of it and better able to steer my thoughts away from it. I recently started dating someone very special and he is committed to remaining chaste as well. I am so attracted to him that I’ve sometimes caught myself fantasizing about him. But I’m able to stop myself and think, “Is this really how I want to envision my relationship?” Because even if I did fantasize every kind of sex imaginable with him, I would be limiting our relationship. If it’s God will that we are to be married, then I risk thinking “Oh, I hope it’s like [my fantasies]!” And it will disappoint me if he doesn’t touch me where I imagined him touching me at the moment I imagined him touching me there.
But don’t our fantasies about life — or love or sex — help drive us toward the things we want?
It’s important to have fantasies and to have hope, but there’s a difference between imagining a man putting a ring on my finger, kissing me in front of my friends and family, and imagining a man moving two inches to the right.
But isn’t it possible that he might not put the ring on your finger exactly how you imagined it? Then don’t you also risk disappointment in fantasizing about your wedding?
There is that possibility. Chastity isn’t just about avoiding sex or sexual fantasy; it’s about being open to all the blessings that others have to offer and not trying to fit people into pigeonholes. I have all these things I’ve been hoping a boyfriend would do with me — holding my hand in public and going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have a five-page mental list, and some he’ll want to do with me and some may not be his style. He might not be the kind of man to hold my hand in public. He may express his affection in other ways. In that sense, it can be just as objectifying to picture [how he would behave at the wedding].
Who is your ideal reader for your book?
A woman who’s been dating and likely been sexually active, and who finds that the kind of lifestyle she’s been told would bring her closer to happiness — and I don’t even mean just casual sex, but a woman who has had some monogamous relationships that were sexual that didn’t pan out — and who doesn’t feel she is any closer to having the marriage she wants. Instead of following the pop-culture prescription, to single-mindedly pursue a man who’s going to make you happy, I am suggesting women should be singular and concentrate on being the best people they can be and displaying grace as individuals and as women. In doing that they will become more giving, more appreciative of everyone around them, so not only will they be better able to have meaningful friendships and relationships, but they will also be able to enjoy this time they have as singular women.
It seems clear that having sex in casual relationships made you unhappy. But is it inconceivable to you that lots of women enjoy having sex with men they may not marry?
Don’t misunderstand me; I had quite a great time doing it. There were times when I would count how many men I had had sex with in one two-week period and thought, “I must be this really hot, attractive chick to attract so many men.” And men would compliment my technique and were thankful that I had read the Kama Sutra. But I said something recently on a panel discussion on chastity that made everybody groan but that is perfectly relevant: That is — when thinking in terms of “How I can be happy without settling down with one person?” — when you’re 80 years old and an invalid, who’s going to wipe your butt? I spent so much time as a rock journalist, interviewing people who really lived the sexual revolution. And the most youthful, happy people had found one husband or wife.
But I’m not talking about rejecting commitment for your whole life. I’m talking about women who get pleasure from having sex before they settle down with someone.
It’s been found that the individuals in America who have the most frequent and most orgasmic sex are married couples who worshipped once a week.
As far as people getting enjoyment from it, I’m sure that there are men who could come forward and relate to you all sorts of contortions that my face has gone through as a result of their prowess. But the important thing in life is not sex per se but relationships. Not just with someone you’re having sex with. The message of “Thrill of the Chaste” is about making love to the world, so to speak, so you can be in love with one person. It’s about having substance as a person, seeking out friends who have depth and substance.
Do you believe that people who aren’t chaste can have those same kinds of deep friendships?
No, I don’t believe they can. I know that sounds painful and judgmental. But the nature of sex is it’s a physically sacrificing act: I give myself entirely to you. If you’re giving your entire body to a person without giving yourself emotionally, you’re creating a dichotomy. You’re setting yourself up to compartmentalize all your relationships into transactions.
Look at “Sex and the City.” There was the artistic friend, the sex kitten friend, the flaky friend. It’s about, what does she get psychologically from each one? rather than experiencing each person for who they are.
But “Sex and the City” was fiction, and those are stock characters — the flaky friend and the smart friend and the sexy friend — found in everything from “The Group” to “The Golden Girls.”
Sure. And it’s true that I have artistic friends and quiet friends. But when I was having casual sex, I would look at my friends and think, “Kate is the friend who I can go to concerts with” and “Janet is the friend I can talk to about boys.” I’d look at friends in terms of what they were giving me rather than what I am giving them and sharing with them.
So you’re saying that now that you’re chaste, you don’t have certain friends who enjoy going to concerts with you more than others?
I do. But I have a circle of friends who I enjoy on every level, because I sought people of substance who share my values, though some may like concerts more than others. I’m not saying that my old friends weren’t nice people, weren’t giving people. But when you’re not chaste, at base your friendships are transactional, and there may be sparks of real give-and-take, but never like the kinds of friendships you can have when you’re taking the focus off the superficial.
But if you’d found something else in your life besides chastity that was important to you and made new friends who shared your passion for it, wouldn’t you also have more intense friendships with them?
No, it’s really not possible. When I was listening to music and just sought out friends who shared my musical passions, I didn’t really feel on a deep level that they were friends who were going to be there for me no matter what. I felt that they were friends with me because I did things that interested them. But interests don’t make a friendship. I think that it’s shared values. And the deeper your values get, the deeper friendships you are going to have, and the more your physical acts are united with emotions, the more everything you do in your life is going to be infused with an emotional depth that will enrich you spiritually.
OK, but I don’t feel like I have any friends with whom I have those transactional relationships you describe.
I think I was too judgmental earlier by implying that people who are unchaste can’t have deep friendships. If it were possible for me to take a red pen to this interview I’d put a red line through that. That’s one of those bold generalizations that should never come out of my mouth. And I apologize. What I’m trying to say is that whatever you’re doing in your sex life is going to impact your ability to give emotionally in other areas. And if you have a sex life where you’re married and you don’t have the hangups that come from having sex outside of marriage, you will be able to give more fully in your friendships. This is one of the few things that might only be true for me personally and might not be true for other people. For me personally, I did not understand friendship until I became chaste, because it was only then that I personally understood how to give and to seek out people who are real givers.
I feel bad that I rambled when I was talking about my friends Janet and Kate. I made it sound like they’re not good friends to me and that I’m above them because I somehow know how to be friends, and that’s just so wrong. Literally when I go into the confessional today I’m going to confess puffing myself up and pretending that I’m a better friend than my friends. Because these are friends who probably would have put themselves on the line for me much more than I would have for them. The real quote is that I am simply better capable of being a friend now. But not that they weren’t good friends.
OK. You write about your fear of being left and your interest in marrying practically every guy you’ve ever met. Have you ever slept with a guy you didn’t fantasize about marrying?
Certainly I have slept with guys who I knew wouldn’t marry me. And I have slept with guys I really didn’t like very much but they were there and they found me attractive.
But even the guys you didn’t like very much — did you want them to keep liking you?
Yes, I did. I wanted them to keep wanting to have something to do with me, because it would make me feel like I was a better person.
Is it your belief that every woman goes into romantic, sexual or flirtatious encounters with that same level of anxiety about her own self worth?
No. I don’t believe every woman goes into it the same way. But I believe the act of sex and the act of separation after sex causes a woman to feel attached, and she can respond to that in different ways. She can try to do like Carrie Bradshaw and have sex like a man, without attachment, or she can try to hold on to the man. I tried it both ways and found that for me, trying to have sex like a man didn’t work; I still felt attached. And even in those times, like with Tom, where the man was willing to stay with me and wanted to marry me — I had a sense that our relationship was based on the wrong foundation: that I had slept with him too soon and that we wouldn’t be able to have the kind of real love that I wanted. But I didn’t know how to change things once we had started having sex. [Someone once said to me], “Well you can’t just deny a man sex!” The message to me as a single woman having had sex too early in relationship was that if I stepped back, it meant I was somehow denying the man.
It seems that a lot of your ideas — about denying a man — put a lot of focus on pleasing a guy, getting him to stay with you. How much are you focused on pleasing the man and how much are you focused on pleasing yourself?
I would say that chastity is really about pleasing the other person and yourself at the same time. I was, as you say, focused on pleasing men, but I was also very narcissistic — I had simply tied sex up with my self-image and thought, “If a man is not going to necessarily stay with me, then at least he can show me I am valuable in some sense by having sex with me.” I was confused and sought the advice of people and magazines and television shows and movies that said, when in doubt, just put yourself out there, make yourself sexually available, and if someone you find attractive thinks you’re attractive, then go for it and hope that love comes.
You write about lots of plans to get yourself married, including taking the advice of television shows and movies. Since you see chastity as a way to meet your soul mate, isn’t it possible that this just another in your long line of schemes to get hitched?
That’s a great question. The real elephant in the middle of room with regard to my book is the fact that I never discuss what is going to become of me if I don’t get married. The reason why is because as I was writing, I didn’t want to think of what would become of me if I didn’t get married. It was too frightening to imagine.
Yes, I’ve read on your blog that you used to think you’d kill yourself if you didn’t get married.
It’s terrible to think that I used to feel that way. But whereas before I was trying to control my relationships with other people, now I’m just trying to control my life: who I am, how I express myself to others. And I have a greater sense of purpose in life, so that whatever I do with my time is the best thing to do in terms of leaving the world a better place than when I found it.
So I do have a hard time imagining myself at age 40, 50, 60 not being married — and when I think forward that way, that is scary. But if I look backward where I was three years ago, 10 years ago, I see that my life has really been getting better in so many ways. I want a man’s heart. But I feel like I’m doing everything I can to make my own heart bigger, so that I’m not gonna be some bitter old spinster, jaded and hating the world.
And if you never get married you’re committed to not having sex for the rest of your life?
I am committed because I believe that, as Christopher West said, when you have sex outside of marriage, you’re telling lies with your body. And I can tell the truth with my body to people all day just by giving them love. I can spend time with my friends, I can volunteer, I can actually try to be nice to people at my work. And all these things are very truthful, and I’m getting a lot more pleasure and happiness and joy than I would if I were just jumping into bed with some guy who didn’t value me enough to say vows.
Do you want children?
I’ve never really wanted children. With my parents having divorced when I was a kid, I never had a fervent desire to have children. I was afraid of not being a good mother. I have to say now because of my faith — and you can hear me swallowing here — I don’t believe in using contraception. What I would hope is if I do marry someone I love, that in being loved by him I will feel more confident in my abilities to be a good mom. I’m certainly better mother material now than I was five or 10 years ago. God willing, my heart will change more, and I’ll want kids more, when opportunity comes.
As someone who says she doesn’t want to have children, I find it odd that you have felt comfortable tossing the word “childless” around as an epithet at some of your on-line feminist blogging adversaries.
Can I apologize for that? It’s Christmastime and it’s a good time to apologize. I really am sorry because it’s not right to toss that as an epithet. If I wanted to make a comment, I could say that it’s easy for someone who doesn’t have kids to make generalizations about people who have kids. But to just toss around “childless” like it’s some kind of pejorative is wrong.
Can I make a comment that it’s easy for someone who doesn’t have sex to make generalizations about people who do have sex?
Yes! You can make that comment and I will accept that comment.
Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.More Rebecca Traister.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)