Review: ‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman’ revealed

Posted in Blog by - July 31, 2018

The Secret History of Wonder WomanThe Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Secret History of Wonder Woman can’t be judged by its cover. Adorned with a vintage-style illustration of its subject discarding her civilian togs to reveal her superheroine bustier underneath, it could be mistaken for a lighthearted pop culture book, or even a graphic novel.

Instead, Jill Lepore’s book is a meticulous and scholarly history of not only the most iconic female character in comic bookdom, but also of American feminism, the invention of the polygraph, the development of psychology as an academic discipline, and more.

But just because the book is carefully researched doesn’t mean it’s dry and dull. It’s not, because more than anything else, The Secret History of Wonder Woman is the story of her creator, William Moulton Marston: half genius, half huckster, a bigger-than-life American original whose real life was as outrageous (and as kinky) as the comic-book adventures he wrote.

A Phi Beta Kappa Harvard graduate who went on to a checkered career as an academic, lawyer and pop psychologist, Marston devised the earliest version of the lie detector (which appears in his comics in the guise of Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth). As his academic career foundered, he inveigled his way into Hollywood as a psychological consultant on movie scripts, and eventually found his destiny in the fledgling comic book industry by creating a female answer to Superman — a potent (and instantly popular) mix of pin-up girl and feminist icon, a beautiful and powerful Amazon princess out to inspire the world to abandon the folly of war for a benevolent utopian gynarchy.

Marston’s feminist idealism was sincere, but also paradoxical: He believed that violent male nature needed to be put in check by what he regarded as the feminine virtue of submissive love. That paradox is represented in his comic books by Wonder Woman’s “bracelets of submission,” which, if chained together by a man, cause her to lose her mighty powers.

In fact, Marston’s Wonder Woman stories are rife with bondage – she and other female characters are constantly getting captured, tied up, chained, enslaved and even spanked. To young readers it came across as innocent cowboy-style action, but the fetishism was not lost on adult fans with similar proclivities, nor on Marston’s editors and critics.

But what no one suspected was the secret of Marston’s personal life: that he lived in a ménage à trois with his wife and fellow psychologist Elizabeth Holloway Marston, who had helped him develop his prototype lie detector, and his former research assistant Olive Byrne (who, not coincidentally, frequently wore bracelets similar to Wonder Woman’s), niece of birth-control activist Margaret Sanger. Two of Marston’s four children (two with Elizabeth, two with Olive) were raised in the same household without even knowing he was their father.

Thus Lepore’s book becomes a detective story as well as 20th-century history, as she interviews witnesses and assembles clues to uncover the truth about a colorful and remarkable life. And she did it all without a lie detector or a Lasso of Truth.

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Rick Schindler grew up in the idyllic northern suburbs of Buffalo, N.Y., a psychic stone’s throw from Archie Andrews’ hometown of Riverdale. His writing career began at age 15 when he won a New York Times award for a short story published in his high school literary magazine. At 19 he interned on the copy desk of the Buffalo News, where he discovered a knack for headline writing that has served him in good stead until the present day. He went on to a checkered media career that has included stints at HBO, TV Guide and NBC News Digital, where today he is a writer and editor for the website of the venerable American TV show TODAY. Schindler shared a 2012 Sigma Delta Chi award in online reporting with NBC News’ Bob Dotson for the “American Story with Bob Dotson” features on TODAY.com. He also won two 2012 awards in headline writing from the American Copy Editors Society, another in 2014 and two more in 2015. Schindler lives in White Plains, New York.