When the details of Lillian Faderman's new book—Naked in the Promised Land: A Memoir—became public knowledge a few years ago, many of her colleagues and readers found it difficult to believe. Could it actually be true that Faderman, a highly praised academic who pioneered lesbian and gay studies as well as ethnic studies, had a secret past? Was it possible that, while as a teenager in Los Angeles, she modeled nude for men's magazines like King under the name of Gigi Frost? Or that as Mink Frost, she was a stripper in San Francisco's Tenderloin district, billed as "The Most Beautiful Body in Burlesque"? Faderman had shocked readers before—her groundbreaking books of lesbian history, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (1981) as well as Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-century America (1991) and To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America (1999), caused considerable alarm in conservative academic circles—but uncovering the threads of past Sapphic desire was nothing compared to confessing to being a stripper decades ago.

But the revelations of the '50s California demimonde in Naked in the Promised Land are nowhere near as shocking, or as intensely powerful, as the rest of Faderman's remarkable story. Born in New York in 1940, the illegitimate daughter of a Latvian immigrant who was prone to intermittent psychotic episodes, Faderman grew up in crushing poverty. They, along with her mother's sister, moved to Los Angeles, but their world didn't change. The poverty continued; her mother worked long hours in a sweatshop; and Faderman nearly dropped out of high school and became involved in the often dangerous, street-savvy Los Angeles world of butches, fems and hustlers. Out of this cauldron of instability, she managed to put herself through college—often stripping to scrape together money to live—get her Ph.D. and become a distinguished professor and administrator. But for all of the feminist Horatio Alger qualities of her story, the true center of this memoir is her complicated, often emotionally harrowing, love for her mother. It is a love so complicated that it almost prevented the book from being written.

"I started writing this memoir about 10 years ago," Faderman says, speaking from her home in Fresno, Calif. (where she also teaches literature and creative writing at California State University), "but after 80 pages, I knew it was awful. I simply hadn't reconciled with my mother, even 12 years after her death in 1979. I just remember flying to Los Angeles when she was dying and feeling that when I was with her in her hospital bed, I was so withholding, so unavailable to her." Faderman pauses for a moment, then resumes. "But that was all wrong."

Wrong? "It was four years ago, six years after I put aside my first attempt to write this book," Faderman continues, "that I was talking on the phone in my library and spotted my old diary, bound in deep red velour, tucked away on a shelf. I had not seen it for 20 years. When I began reading it, I realized that all of my memories of my mother death's were wrong. I had misremembered them completely. There was an incredible connection between us. The last page of Naked in the Promised Land is taken word for word from my diary."

The sheer, unintentional perversity of this misremembering is really the key to Faderman's memoir. "Why did I make it so much worse then it was?" she asks herself. "I guess I needed to guard myself against the terrible crushing anguish that I felt. Because no matter what I had done in my life, I never saved my mother from, well, her life." After this epiphany, Faderman began writing; she finished the memoir in just over three years. (It was originally scheduled for publication last September, but Houghton Mifflin postponed it because of the plethora of September 11 books.)

While Faderman's inability to save her mother forms the incredibly painful core of the book, much of the memoir deals with her ongoing struggle to save herself. Much of this revolved around inventing and trying on new identities. While the basic narrative of the memoir movingly traces how the child "Lily" (her mother's name for her) grows into the teenage rebel "Lil" and finally blossoms into the professional academic "Lillian," the dramatic tension is propelled by the details of how Faderman fabricates and forges each new identity, many of them centered on sexuality, to free herself from her past. Indeed, much of Naked in the Promised Land involves Faderman performing newly improvised "roles." As she begins leading a double life—the dowdy repressed "nice Jewish girl" at high school, but the heavily made-up actress-manqué at night—Faderman starts her "modeling" jobs, at first to pay for professional publicity pictures, and then for plastic surgeries (including a nose job) that would launch her acting career. Giving up on acting—it is clear that she has no future in Hollywood—her double life continues when she becomes involved in L.A.'s gay nightlife and then evolves in even more labyrinthine ways when she marries, for a short time, Mark, a gay man—whom her mother sees as a "nice Jewish doctor"—in order for both of them to pass as heterosexual in the world. Even while getting her undergraduate degree at U.C.-Berkeley, Faderman moonlights as a burlesque queen, but has to hide her identity as a student from the other strippers and her identity as a stripper from her fellow students.

While the details are fascinating and even dramatic, Faderman never lets us be easily seduced by their theatricality. She repeatedly impresses upon us that a double life in the 1950s and '60s was not easy: lesbians were frequently sexually assaulted by police; rape and sexual harassment were integral to the modeling business; alcoholism and drug use were rampant (Mark was a violent alcoholic); and a raid on a gay bar could easily lead to the loss of a job or even a college education. There is no romanticization of the double life here.

The power of Naked in the Promised Land comes from the ongoing spectacle of Faderman reintegrating her life and finding a cohesive voice that combines "Lily," "Lil" and "Lillian." And while the memoir is very revealing—it's hard to think of any other work by an esteemed scholar that takes the same risks—Faderman didn't experience its writing as particularly intimidating. "Friends have read it and said it is so brave," she admits, "and while it is more personally revealing than my other books—although I did include some of my personal life at the end of Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers—I never felt scared writing it, maybe not as scared as I should have been. Certainly not as scared as publishing an academic book about lesbians in the early 1980s."

The prospect of students or colleagues reading it doesn't faze Faderman, either. "There are photos of me in the book posing for men's magazines," she notes, "but they are over 40 years old. I'm 62 now. And any descriptions of sexual activity are very mild. I'm really not worried about any of that. The book is really about much, much more."

But there is a clear connection between the intimate revelations of Naked in the Promised Land and Faderman's earlier work. "This is less cerebral than my other books, but the impulse is the same," she claims. "In the past, I really wanted to re-create lesbian history by looking at other people. Here, I look at myself. A great deal of my work—from Speaking for Ourselves: American Ethnic Writing, a 1967 anthology I compiled, and Surpassing the Love of Men—was about giving public voice to people who had been silenced. This memoir is really about giving so many private parts of myself a public voice."

While much of Faderman's published work has been viewed by readers and critics as "political" writing, she sees this memoir as a definite break from that. "Of course, the personal is the political, as the feminist aphorism has it, but I feel that my books about ethnicity and sexuality are my political books." She pauses for a moment, then continues thoughtfully. "I wanted to somehow figure out for me, as well as the reader, how these diverse parts of my life fit together. How did I get to where I am now—from pin-up girl to professor, with a sometimes psychotic mother, no father, no money. It was really a process of self-discovery."

In many ways, Naked in the Promised Land reads like a mystery—not unlike one of those thrillers in which the protagonist has amnesia and has to find out who she really is. Only here the past isn't obscured, but populated with numerous selves. "There were so many parts of me—Mink Frost was really the best-kept secret of my life. I wanted to find out what was inside Mink Frost and allowed her to pose for those photos and then go on to become the same person who would write lesbian history. I didn't really understand how that could be until I began writing."

Faderman's expedition to self-discovery is, in one sense, a confirmation and continuation of her role as groundbreaker. "I've always functioned somewhat outside of the system," Faderman says. "I've seen myself as an outsider and that has allowed me to do my work, whether it be ethnic studies or lesbian history. Growing up a poor Jewish girl with an immigrant mother and no father, I thought, 'What the hell do I have to lose? What investment did I have in society?' " It's this valiant, almost combative attitude that permeates Naked in the Promised Land—and underlies most of Faderman's other work.

But what makes Naked in the Promised Land different from the rest of Faderman's writing is that the reclamation of the silenced voices here is so personalized and directed so clearly to her mother. In many ways, the memoir is a love letter to Faderman's mother. Yet as the book unfolds, this powerful love is so often denied expression. Even while there are moments of tender, compassionate affection between mother and daughter, there are also painful episodes of tension and fighting as Faderman refuses to attend high school, to come home at night, to dress in a proper fashion, generally refusing to act like "a good Jewish girl." At the heart of this struggle is Faderman's mother's fear that her daughter will end up as she did—a single mother living in poverty with no prospects and no future—while Faderman herself flees what she views as her mother's unbearable life from which she is unable to rescue her. This painful dynamic—driven by Faderman's conflicting need to save herself and her mother—drives the book to disturbing emotional depths.

As a historian, Faderman has uncovered a vast history of how women lived and loved in the past. Here she does the same for her own past. The ongoing personal drama of Naked in the Promised Land is really the subtext of much of Faderman's more academic work. It illustrates and animates her desires and interests as a scholar. "I wrote this because it was important to me, because it interested me. That is really the only reason I have ever written anything."

By the end of the memoir, Faderman has found a secure life with her lover, Phyllis, and with her son, Avrom, born in 1975 after being conceived through artificial insemination, but the history of her mother's life, and of their life together, haunts the memoir's final chapters. "My mother is at the center of this book," Faderman notes. "From earliest childhood, I understood how difficult my mother's life was. And it fueled my desire to save her. It was my love for her—even when we fought so terribly—that allowed me to open myself up to the love of other women."