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March 8, 2018 by

May Her Memory Be For a Blessing: A Tribute to Cynthia Heimel

If you heard traces of a collective gasp a few days ago, it may have been related to the news that writer Cynthia Heimel had died. She was 70 years old—far below an age where her fans might have been prepared for this.

The cause of death was early-onset dementia. She had not published much at all in recent years; but she’d been prolific in the past, and it had seemed a reasonable hope that she’d just decided to turn her energies elsewhere, at least for a while.

I knew that I love Heimel’s work, and I knew that the women to whom I’ve given her books over the years (“This. You have to read this!”) love it too. But I didn’t know, until she died, how many fans she has among my acquaintances. Though she left the public eye, her trailblazing writing about everything from offices to orgasms remained and remains widely cherished. She was a humorist, and she was funny; but like the best wits, she was also profound.

An assignment to highlight some of the wisdom and advice from Heimel’s work brings with it a major problem: Her books are so absorbing that they’re hard to skim. Indeed, my friend Janet remembers poring over Heimel’s columns in the SoHo Weekly News (where she worked in the 1970s, before she became a regular columnist at The Village Voice) as someone might read Talmudic text. I’ve been wrapped up in Heimel’s writing for a few days now. So many of her insights were prescient; others were simply timeless.

Given the intimate and openhearted qualities of her work (her first book, 1983’s Sex Tips for Girls, cheerfully offers many actual, detailed, and honestly useful sex tips), Heimel came across as a very best friend; and she leaves behind masses of readers who feel personally bonded to her. I met her once, in the 1990s, and she was as amazing as I’d hoped; I only wish I’d gotten to hang with her a million times. “No human (or dog) is an island, we need each other desperately, we need to be needed desperately,” she wrote in an essay about the false equating of singlehood and loneliness. “But to listen to the propaganda, to pin all our hopes on husbands or wives and nuclear families, is self-defeating. To find love, give up searching. Just look right in front of you.” I hope she felt fully the truth of these words. We love you, Cynthia Heimel, and we always will.

Heimel on female self-esteem:
“Test this for yourself. Walk up to any woman on the street and say, ‘You know something, sweetheart? You’d look an awful lot better if you lost fifteen pounds. And do you really think that hairstyle is becoming? Don’t you know anything about bone structure? Anyway, with ankles like yours, I wouldn’t bother to leave the house.’

Instead of the proper response, which would be to deck you, nine out of ten women will apologize, burst into tears, and run away.”

And on some of the havoc wreaked when we don’t value ourselves:
“You know how people are always saying that nobody will love you until you love yourself? Presbyterian ministers say it all the time. Well, it’s not true. Utter rubbish, in fact. Even if you totally despise yourself, you can always scratch up a few suckers who will love every hair on your unworthy head.

But you’ll hate them for it. If you think of yourself as a loathsome excrescence, the only man who will satisfy you is one who treats you accordingly.”

On ideas that come to us in the shower:
“When you’re in the shower, your unconscious is a witty, problem-solving, delightfully playful guardian angel. You shampoo your hair and the next thing you know an advertising campaign that will make you one billion dollars has sprung into your brain.” (This is correct, I’ve found. Pay attention to your shower ideas.)

On where to live in the U.S.A.:
“There are some perfectly gorgeous states, like Colorado and Oregon, but we can’t live there because of the rednecks who hate drag queens. No, we have to stay ghettoized in nasty tree-less cities full of sirens and smells because that’s the only place we can see movies we like and find a coffee shop open at 4 A.M. I say we take over the pretty states.” 

She predicted (in the mid-90s) the whole Portland, OR, explosion:
“We should all move there now before somebody makes a movie called ‘Pacing in Portland’ and ruins everything.”

On responding to someone who critiques the calorie content of your food:
“Tell her to do diet infomercials, that she looks more and more like Richard Simmons every day.”

On surviving holiday-shopping crowds:
“Buy a present for you, then a present for a friend. Then another present for you. Then a present for a friend. Then two presents for you. Then a present for a friend.”

On, alas, those relatives who hide hurtful intentions behind faux support:
“You think they love you and want what’s best for you, but they’re destroying you! They’re making you into the scapegoat of the family so they can feel better about themselves!… Listen, you don’t have to hate your family just because I do. But please don’t listen to them anymore.”

And on the trap of conventional “femininity”:
“Being feminine means you always smell good, which means you never sweat which means you never exert yourself which means you never go after what you want.”


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.