Leigh Eric Schmidt

 

On his book Heaven’s Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman

Cover Interview of January 17, 2011

A close-up

If a reader were just dipping into the book, I hope that he or she might first browse the fourth chapter.

Against all odds, Craddock went about her work as a marital advisor and sex expert.  She recorded notes on those she counseled, and these cases offer a startlingly frank and often painful look into the distress of her clients.  Here is an example:

Eunice Parsons, a young nurse newly engaged in the summer of 1902, was worried about her fiancé, a piano-tuner, and had sought out Craddock for a lesson on married sexual relations.  The couple had recently had “some frank talks,” and it turned out her betrothed, “a very pure-minded man,” was of the opinion that “people should have intercourse only for childbearing.”  Parsons, taken aback, objected, “Suppose I don’t want any children; what then?  Are we never to have intercourse?”  As their discussion turned into a quarrel, her intended life-partner reproached her for being too passionate, and now she wondered if their apparent sexual incompatibility made it necessary for them to call off the wedding.

“I have made up my mind never to marry any man until he can look at the sex relation as a pure act and a sacred act,” Eunice vowed.  Her would-be husband, however prudish he sounded, held the stronger hand in this dispute:  Most marital advice literature of the period, religious or not, refused to disjoin the pleasure of sex from the purpose of procreation and would have seen this particular stand-off as a worrying reversal of the usual relation of male desire and female modesty.  Parsons, fortified by Craddock’s teachings, nonetheless pressed her fiancé to reconsider his views and even convinced him to go in for a lesson himself.

Meeting with Craddock could not have been comfortable for the young man, a resolute virgin.  For her pedagogy to be effective, Craddock thought it essential to explore the sexual history of her clients with a battery of diagnostic questions, including blunt inquiries about masturbation (yes, he had done that “to some extent when a boy”) and erotic dreams (yes, he had experienced a few).

The piano-tuner tried to shift the tenor of the exchange through religious argument and scriptural citation: “Quoted the Bible very earnestly,” Craddock wrote in her case notes, “about there being a war between the spirit and the flesh, to prove his contention that coition should take place only for child-bearing; say once every few years; . . . marriage was intended for the replenishment of the earth.”

Unfortunately for him, Craddock wanted nothing more than to have their sex-talk turn spiritual, and soon she was explaining how in her understanding of the divine “God was feminine as well as masculine.”  “I told him to think of his wife’s yoni as containing a chapel, into which he was to enter to worship—not worship the woman, but worship God,” Craddock instructed.  That lesson left him red-faced; he kept sputtering “his one idea of no coition except for child-bearing” and even insisted that his fiancée’s physical affections were supposed to be purely maternal in expression.  Eunice need only dote on their prospective children, not satisfy (let alone incite) his sexual desires.  “Well, well,” Craddock concluded, “if he doesn’t manage to rid himself of his idée fixe, he’ll find himself minus his sweetheart before long.”

Only at the insistence of his betrothed did the piano-tuner return for three more lessons.  He bristled at his fiancée’s newly acquired “independence of thought and action” in pushing him into this disagreeable situation, but criticizing a woman for “thinking for herself” was a non-starter with Craddock who greeted this male presumption only with barbs.  Forced quickly into retreat on that point, he found himself losing ground on the main argument as well, finally acknowledging that sex for non-procreative purposes could be “pure and holy and perhaps ‘normal’ after all.”

By the close of the fourth session Craddock had gone a long way toward saving the engagement.  If the piano-tuner remained wary of Eunice’s alliance with Ida, he at least had begun displaying a new appreciation for his lover’s sexual appetites and was ready to reconsider his own religious asceticism.