I first read this book in 2013 when I was still in the early leg of my sex-book-reading journey. At the time I had a stringent regime for buying non-fiction books. I researched book review sites, the authors, and other books on the topic. I did not take any book purchase lightly. I had so much I was trying to untangle and, damnit, I was going to figure it out.
But when I read the full title of this book, “Heaven’s Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman” as I was perusing, I jumped on that 1-click buy button. In fact, I remember quite distinctly that this was the first ever book I 1-clicked. I know you’re impressed.
Ultimately, this book changed my life because it introduced me to a figure that has become a constant inspiration and motivation for my work in sexuality writing and intellectual freedom. This book was also the first to introduce me to lots of different things in the 1800’s, like the Comstock laws, that set historical basis for conversations and battles that are still being waged today.
Ida Craddock was never particularly famous. She was denied entrance to the University of Pennsylvania after passing the required entrance exams when the board continued to block admission to women undergraduates in the late 1880’s. Her interests rested in sexuality and spiritualism. She studied and spoke on phallic worship in ancient religions as well as Christianity, defended the spirituality in belly dancing, and opened her own Church of Yoga. Ida wrote pamphlets of advice for married or soon-to-be married couples regarding sexuality. While she encouraged female pleasure and uniting of personal sexuality and spirituality, she was staunchly against masturbation, premarital sex, or excessive stimulation of the clitoris. Still, she was charged for breaking laws that banned the distribution of lewd materials through the mail. Her apartment was raided and many of the books in her library and other personal documents were confiscated. She served time in jail and in 1902 was sentenced to five years in prison. She committed suicide rather than serve this sentence.
While this is side of her story is fascinating and (to me) compelling enough, Ida also believed she had a spirit husband—yes, she believed she was married to an angel, which was why she could give marriage advice in the first place. She believed her husband was a young man who had tried to court her in her youth but had died and returned to her as an angel. She believed she spoke with several different angels and she writes about this in some of her works. Between the sex stuff and the angel business. her mother had her temporarily committed to an insane asylum at one point and she escaped being committed a couple other times.
Rather than detract from the validity of her work as a sexual educator and pioneer in the sexuality discourse of the 19th Century, I find this aspect of her life and work only makes me more enchanted with her story.
As far as the book goes, it reads a little tedious for being such a sensational biography. I personally really enjoyed this book but there were some aspects of the form that some readers may have issues with.
A. The book does not follow a strict chronological order. The book is organized more by topics of interest in Ida’s life. One chapter regarded her religion and church, one her sex research and counseling, one her spirit husband, etc. I didn’t mind this as the author lets you know when the events take place in her life. As long as I paid attention, I kept the chronological picture mostly in order.
B. There is a lot of history sprinkled throughout the text that has a tendency to meander. For example, the author talks about how Ida was fond of the artist William Bouguereau (whose painting is on the cover of the book). The author then goes on to say that when one of Bouguereau’s paintings was displayed in Omaha in 1890, a rather conservative young man was offended for a myriad of reasons and threw a chair at the painting, tearing the canvas.
I personally liked these little tid-bits of history as they explain the social climate and the odd ways the battle Ida was fighting was the same other advocates and artists were fighting at the time. I’m from Nebraska so that bit about the chair and painting has made it into local talk I’ve given about sexuality. But other readers might not be so endeared to these side-stories.
C. The academic writing is somewhat dry, considering the at times extreme topics (I mean, seriously, the woman thought she was married to an angel). The author’s style is not as flowing as some history books I’ve read and I found I really had to be paying attention through some passages.
Overall, though, this book is definitely an asset to my collection. I have a ton of tabs stuck in the pages to remember people, places and events.
Even though she was never widely known, Ida’s story has had a profound impact on my life and my work. Every time I walk to the mailbox to pick up a sex book I bought, I think about how she was sentenced to 5 years in prison for sending sexual advice to married couples in the mail.
There are many things in Ida’s life I relate to—the amazing power of sexual thought and the longing to connect with others. The way she writes about how books and knowledge comfort and fortify her made my heart ache. As a disabled person growing up, I was isolated from my peers and found solace and empowerment in books.
Whenever I get insecure or afraid or vulnerable about my sexuality writing, I think about Ida. Her time, her story, her life is now over. But I’m here now and I get to have a chance. So, for a while, I’ll keep writing. Because I believe in intellectual freedom and informed sexuality. And, yeah, a part of me does still believe in angels.
If you’re interested in Ida’s writing, this book is an accessible compilation of some of her work: