Breathe: A Letter to My Sons By Imani Perry
Reviewed by Bridgett M. Davis
To read Imani Perry’s new book, Breathe: A Letter to My Sons, as an African American mother of a teenage son is both an excruciating and exhilarating experience. It is not unlike raising a Black boy in America. It prompts a complex rush of emotions. I highlighted so many passages, lines that I wanted to remember, to use as inspiration—including those that made me wince in uncomfortable recognition—I simply decided to reread the book as soon as I’d finished it.
The book evokes so well the myriad ways in which Black parents and children alike must be intentional about how we inhale and exhale. And frankly, given this moment in which we live, the book reminds us all to take a deep breath. It is so startling and apt and timely that you will likely devour it the way a swimmer takes a giant gulp of air as she cracks the surface of the water—greedily and gratefully.
Right from the start, Perry states her position directly to her two Black sons, Issa and Freeman: Between me and these others—who utter the sentence—the indelicate assertion hangs midair…. But no matter how many say so, my sons, you are not a problem. Mothering you is not a problem. It is a gift. A vast one. A breathtaking one.
She goes on to give the truth to her sons straight, no chaser. And here is where she takes our breath away:
I have known from the first day of your lives that I cannot guarantee your safety…. Racism is in every step and every breath we take. It has been proven over and over again … you are always under the watchman’s eye … the insult is incessant … you are remarkable boys, but we are all at risk of falling under the sway of a much too cruel world … feeling deep love and complete helplessness to protect the beloveds is a fact of Black life.
We’ve not seen this intimacy from Perry’s writing before. She is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and prolific author of several books, including the award-winning Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry. But the interrogative, intellectual writer we’ve come to know makes her presence felt throughout these pages as well. That Perry can navigate so seamlessly between interiority and the interrogation of American culture is astonishing. There’s something so tender and vulnerable about Perry’s voice here, yet I would not call it “raw.” It’s refined and honed, each word burnished and given to us with care, as a hand-carved, African sculpture might be bestowed by its creator; it’s a loving gesture, this book, mindful of its recipient.
You will likely think of Breathe as the companion piece to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World And Me, his letter to his son, which laid out his own coming-of-age as a Black man in America as a way of instruction and warning and guidance. Perry’s letter to her sons is that, too. At its stripped-down core this is a manual for living, replete with sound advice for Freeman and Issa. We are cognizant that Perry’s oneword advice to her sons, “breathe,” is a way of insisting they stay alive, that they do what Eric Garner plaintively repeated over and over that he could not do against a policeman’s chokehold, a cutting off of breath that ultimately stopped his heart. But Breathe is so much more than a guide or a caution, and more revealing. It is a layered meditation, one that fluidly moves through memory, history, “wild-eyed” whiteness, faith, ancestral inheritance, community, freedom, and grace … a kind of holistic, textual nebulizer Perry provides to her boys, a lifeline she knows they will ultimately need.
To be clear, we’ve never seen a book like this before. This is a beacon for any young African American trying to swim through the waters of that unique antagonism that America has long held for its Black citizens, be they man-child or woman-child. In fact, in her acknowledgments, Perry says that had she written this book for girls her advice would be much the same. And as the mother of a teenage daughter, I find a lot here to glean for helping my fifteen-year-old make her way in the world.
Breathe also transcends race-specificity, just as Perry’s own personal narrative does, just as her own boys do. It’s for any person of color, and for any mother looking for articulation of her own doubts and fears and hopes; and this book is for anyone who resides in difference, and/or is rearing a human being who does, i.e., that wide family of us who are not white, male, and straight.
Amidst the advice and eloquence and shimmering honesty is Perry’s own story folded in via pivotal anecdotes. We learn some stark facts about her, almost in passing: that in Black spaces she has always become physically indistinguishable; her struggle with asthma and lupus (what she calls “hallmarks of an inherited vigilance”); that she had a white daddy who was not her biological father; that she is a “born mama,” a nurturer by disposition. We also learn that as she toggled between her life in Birmingham and Chicago and Cambridge, there were moments of joy.
And in a passage that prompted me to do likewise, she tells her sons what she loves. She lists 21 different things—from drinking limeade and being outside in the summertime, to reading and people-watching to laughter and silliness to sitting in solitude and crocheting—that personally bring her joy. Because she understands that as mothers, giving our children the chance to really see us for who we are as individual women is important, too.
Its bruising honesty comes most powerfully when Perry admits her mistakes, her missteps and uncertainties as a mother. Who among us as mothers hasn’t once lost a child in a public place, or questioned our decision to not offer up religion to our offspring (“I haven’t raised you in the church, and I probably won’t now … I wonder if this isn’t another area in which I have failed you when it comes to discipline….”) or felt the guilt that comes when a child has an accident, when a child falls, bleeds, hurts? She speaks to that conundrum all parents face, complicated for Black parents by a real and present danger, of not wanting to clip their children’s wings in the effort of trying to keep them safe. We can hear her reminding herself to heed her own advice as she tells her sons, “Yes, we are afraid but we cannot wear terror around our necks like cowbells for our own denigration, no matter how lost we feel, no matter how dangerous the poisons.”
And yet, what also comes through is what she has gotten right, how sensitive and conscious her sons are, how the arc of their moral universe already bends toward justice. She has allowed them to be her guides, her teachers even as she parents them, understanding that children are not extensions of the parent. She does not gloss over their particularities, nor present them as perfect boys. She is too honest for that; but she does show us what it means to see each child for who he is, in his specificity, and to love him for that, full stop, so that you can give him the tools to protect his selfhood, his self-worth. “Freeman, you arrived as an independent fugitive … you can see another world,” she tells her oldest. “Issa, you called my refusal to let you pierce your ears inconsistent with my feminist identity,” she tells her youngest. “True ... Be better than me with respect to that.” She lays out for her boys what her hope is for their future, for their becoming:
You have been running from lies since you were born. But the truth is we do not simply run away from something; we run to something…. I want you to be appreciated for your labors and gifts. But what I hope for you is nothing as small as prestige. I hope for a living passion, profound human intimacy and connection, beauty and excellence. The greatness that you achieve, the hope I have for it, for you, is a historic sort, not measured in prominence.
Oh, that we’d all receive such a letter of boldfaced, unconditional love from our parents; Oh, that we as parents would take the time to craft such a letter to our children.
“She was devoted to the human race, but she was not romantic about it,” James Baldwin said of Lorraine Hansberry. This line came to me as I finished reading Perry’s book the second time. Imani Perry also is not a romantic, but she is a woman of deep devotion, and that is what will bring you back to this slim, penetrating book many times, like rereading your favorite psalm; or perhaps more precisely like a morning meditation, deep breaths filling your lungs with air, leaving you in a state of grace.
Bridgett M. Davis is the author most recently of the memoir, The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life In The Detroit Numbers, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. She is Professor of Journalism and the Writing Professions at Baruch College, CUNY, where she teaches creative, film and narrative writing.
What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance By Carolyn Forché
Reviewed by Joann Gardner
Taken from the opening line of her poem “The Colonel,” What You Have Heard Is True is the title of Carolyn Forché’s recently published memoir. It concerns her involvement in events leading up to and including the civil war in El Salvador (1979–1992) and the relationship between that experience and her development as a Poet of Witness. Although Forché cites children of Salvadoran refugees (“who want to know more about their country”) and her own son Sean-Christophe (“so he will know this part of his parents’ past”) as her audience, this text has a much wider reach, including US citizens seeking to understand their country’s involvement in Central American politics, students of literature measuring the relationship between creative selfexpression and activism, and poets who must decide about their own place in an increasingly violent world. It also addresses women, singularly and as a group, for whom war has traditionally been considered a masculine undertaking. While this account offers no direct answers to the questions it raises, it does provide a number of details from which one may draw conclusions. What we know from the beginning is that it is factual, all the more gripping for the shock that it really happened—this way.
Forché’s account of her poetic re-education begins in El Salvador with a scene in which she and her guide, Leonel Gomez Vides, encounter a dismembered corpse in a cornfield. He has told her to wait, to stay behind, but the poet is not good at waiting, and her urge for immediacy takes her to a situation that is difficult to absorb. She notices flies and turkey buzzards humming about a corpse. A man’s crotch is covered with tar. His legs and one of his arms are gone, as is his head. Silently, hypnotically, the campesinos who accompany them collect the head, which is missing its eyes, lips, and tongue, and the severed limbs and reposition them around the mangled torso. They take off their straw hats and pray over the remains. “Why doesn’t anyone do something?” the poet thinks she asks.
This nightmarish event sets the stage for scenes teaching job in Southern California, to a country on the brink of collapse, where poverty, violence, and corruption are the norm. It depicts a flurry of encounters with figures who occupy the various sides of this conflict: from the military strongmen who live opulently off confiscated US aid, to public servants who make do with little to no resources, to the simple farmers who occupy the champas in the Salvadoran countryside and whose mutilated bodies are regularly displayed in public places as a warning against dissent. Such encounters are interspersed with memories from her own past in order to discern what she, a young American woman, could bring to bear on this suffering. It’s all part of a process, founded in a belief in words; a way of internalizing experience, so that it can be rendered with the immediacy and emotional accuracy that Witness requires. “Mira” (“Look, …”), Leonel would say at the beginning of each exchange, and there would follow explanations, clues that would lead her closer to understanding. Other senses were also engaged—hearing, smelling, tasting—and, after that, entries in her notebook, a shorthand of responses, written in pencil “so the words evanesce.” Here, one finds personalities, images, and encounters to help the poet remember. One also encounters silences: emotions and events for which there are no words, and in those cases, the page is left blank.
Identity is a recurring theme in this saga, pushed forward by the question as to why Forché would go to El Salvador in the first place. What was her goal? And who is this Leonel, really? The man who showed up at her door unannounced with papers and maps and convinced her to join him on this perilous journey? Who is she, a twentyseven- year-old woman, enjoying early poetic success, who sets aside concerns for her own safety for reasons that are not quite clear? To those closest to him, Leonel is a puzzle, a person not to be discussed. He seems to have no active employment, no fixed abode. He shows up and disappears unpredictably, sometimes in the company of another person, sometimes by himself. He takes her to meet peasants, dignitaries, soldiers, and men of the cloth; leaves her at various safe houses, apartments, flophouses, champas; depends on relatives and acquaintances to take him in. He uses pseudonyms, too, on one occasion, going by “Hermano” (Brother); on another, “Christos” from the movie Z. On yet another, he acknowledges that one faction of the guerillas calls him El Gordo because they think him fat. Even his aunt, Forché’s mentor Claribel Alegria, doesn’t know who he really is. “So who is Gomez?” Leonel says to Forché, “Nobody knows.”
Forché assumes various identities as well: Papu (adopted granddaughter of Grandpa Goodmorning), journalist, girl, nun, CIA operative, doctor, nurse ... poeta. This shape-shifting comes partially from her own lack of self-knowledge, partially from the various roles Leonel has her play. On one occasion, she poses as a doctor in a local hospital. On another, she is an emissary from the US government, trying to get information on an American citizen thought to have been “disappeared.” On yet another, she is a nun working with the resistance to locate the desaparecidos. Sometimes, she resents Leonel’s manipulations, sometimes she goes along with them, not fully understanding where it all will lead. She herself is a cipher, a collection of impulses that don’t quite add up. “Listen to me, Carolyn,” her friend Margarita tells her. “I’m going to try to explain you…” The poet seizes on this phrasing. ‘“Explain me,” I thought to myself, “good luck.”
In the course of several visits, the poet does learn from her experiences, not only about the political dynamics of El Salvador, but her relationship to the people who suffer under military rule. She moves from a condition of fear and disorientation to a determined focus, discovering in herself the courage not to look away. One stage in this process comes after a visit to a prison, where she is confronted with the stench of human waste and sees in a darkened room “wooden boxes the size of washing machines” in which men are kept in solitary confinement. Unsteadily, she returns to the van where Leonel is waiting, vomits, sobs, and says she has had enough. “Papu, listen,” he tells her. “You are always asking me why people don’t do something… Could you fight back at this moment?”
This lesson is followed immediately by another. She wants to cancel her meeting that evening with a group of local poets. She waits outside as Leonel goes in to deliver her regrets. One of the participants comes out and tells her that the meeting has been cancelled; the wife of one of the poets has just had a baby. She goes inside to see and discovers a woman lying on a blanket on the floor, her new baby next to her in a cardboard box. They have named her Alma, (meaning “spirit” or “soul”).
The spokesman presents her with a sheath of freshly mimeographed poems. “We were hoping that if you publish them in the United States,” he tells her, “you will be careful not to say who gave them to you.” This experience stays with her, guiding her responses to future challenges:
That night I knew that something had changed for me, and that I wasn’t going to get tired or need a shower or want to call something off … and I hoped that if I forgot this I would somehow remember Alma in the cardboard box in the barrio, and the mimeographed poems.
The final section of this memoir is devoted to returning. The poet has spent some time at the Catholic University, working on human rights. She has made the acquaintance of Monsen͂or Oscar Romero, the activist priest who shelters the poor and speaks out against the brutal practices of his government. She has survived several close calls with the death squads, including one in which she and an unidentified photographer prevent a massacre of refugees by threatening to record the event for the American press. Seemingly, she has earned a place in this world and a growing sense of her own worth, but even Leonel believes it is time for her to go home.
She returns to the United States a week before Monsen͂or Romero is assassinated and the civil war begins. She experiences what she describes as a period of great personal turmoil, in which she relocates to the East coast, teaches briefly at two universities, and publishes her new book of poems, containing her iconic prose poem about “The Colonel,” with his bag of human ears. The implicit question for this phase of her existence is: can a young American woman experience such atrocities and not be permanently marked by them? Can she put aside these images and live?
The answer comes in the form the American photojournalist whose path she crossed during a raid in El Salvador. Having been assigned to write the narrative for a book of photographs, she works with him to communicate the truth about events leading up to the Salvadoran civil war. They go on to marry and have a son, exchanging cartons of cigarettes and mugs of black coffee for juice boxes and Legos, strategies of evasion for scheduled play dates, and a fixed abode. But there is always a sense of disassociation for her between what Americans assume about El Salvador and what she has learned from her experiences there. A young defector from the Salvadoran army comes to stay with them while seeking asylum. He testifies before Congress as to the brutality and corruption of his government and is repaid for his efforts by being sent back to the Generals and to his death.
This is a compelling memoir, poetically written. It offers important contexts for Forché’s second book of poems, The Country Between Us, and it raises essential questions about the role of poetry: whether it can contribute to positive change; whether the cost to those writing it is worth the sacrifice. What is clear here is that it holds promise for those who believe, providing emblems by which they live and work. Even within a context of extremity, there is continuance: a baby in a cardboard box; words scrawled on a page.
Joann Gardner is associate professor of English at Florida State University, where she regularly teaches Contemporary Poetry, from both a critical and a creative point of view. She is the author of two prize-winning chapbooks, including, most recently, The Deaf Island.
The Yellow House By Sarah M. Broom
Reviewed by Bridgett M. Davis
For several months I’ve been on book tour for a memoir I wrote about my mother, and much of it centers on the red brick fourbedroom Colonial house she bought, which was the symbol of our middle-class life. Audience members often say to me about the inspired descriptions of my family home: “Wow, it makes me wish I’d grown up in that house.”
Sarah M. Broom’s evocative and startling memoir The Yellow House is also about a family home that her mother bought in the same year my mom bought ours, 1961, but that’s where the similarities might seem to end. Broom describes the modest wooden shotgun house with the screenedin porch that her mother Ivory Mae bought at age nineteen, with $3200 cash, as an ever-challenging physical space in which to live and grow up. The falling-down, fragile house was tended to and patched up constantly by her father, Simon Broom; but by the time of his death when Sarah was six months old, the house remained decidedly unfinished. Where there should be walls was just framing; a naked ceiling exposed unfinished beams. The house suffered mightily from electrical problems, with the lights in the “add-on” her father had built shorting out; a sister ’s “amateur carpenter” boyfriend laid linoleum on the kitchen floor that started curling, which led to holes in the floor, which likely led to the rats that took up residence; the plumbing never worked right, so they kept buckets under the kitchen sink to catch the dishwater. The one bathroom with a lock on its door also had an ever-broken faucet, prompting the brood to boil water on the stove and fill the tub for the baths they loved. Some nights, Sarah and her siblings returned home to find termites or flying cockroaches gathered in their rooms.
“This is how your disappointment in a space builds, becomes personal,” writes Broom. “You kitchen do not warm me. You living room, do not comfort me. You bedroom, do not keep me.”
And yet, Broom tells us this unwieldy house with its yellow siding was her mother’s first and only house, and that “within its walls, my mother made its world. Twelve children passed through its doors.” As she worked hard to make her home tenable, sewing curtains to cover door-less cabinets and putting up pretty Christmas decorations and scrubbing everything clean and trying to repair things herself, Ivory Mae wrestled to tame the Yellow House like it was her thirteenth unruly child. “To describe the house fully in its coming apart feels maddening,” Broom tells us. “Like trying to pinpoint the one thing that ruins a person’s personality.”
Over time, battling against the brutal elements of nature, poor construction, time and heavy usage, Broom’s mom became ashamed of the house she’d so diligently nurtured, that once held her dreams in its potential; she began to see it through others’ eyes. She voiced that shame by saying You know this house not all that comfortable for other people. It was uncomfortable for Sarah and her siblings, too. “The evidence stared back at us,” writes Broom. “We became more private then. In a way, you could say we became the Yellow House. Here is a riddle: What was worse? The house or hiding the house? Shame is a slow creeping at first, a violent implosion later.”
What elevates this memoir from an account of growing up in and getting away from a crumbling house in a depressed neighborhood of a mythologized city is Broom’s language. Her descriptions are tactile and redolent, her observations stunningly astute. The writing itself conveys a dignity that permeates Sarah and her family members’ lives despite the tenuousness, and the poverty that hovered, threatening to engulf. You come to know and understand the inhabitants of the Yellow House, even as you come to know the ways in which the house shaped and defined them, and the ways it didn’t:
“There was the house we lived in and the house we thought we should live in,” she tells us. There was the house we thought we should live in and the house other people thought we should live in. These houses were colliding. And the actual house? My memories of the house’s disintegration have collided, the strains impossible to separate, its disintegration a straight line always lengthening, ad infinitum.
You understand exactly what her mother Ivory Mae means when she said, “This house doesn’t reflect who we are.”
But it did reflect a New Orleans steeped in exploitation, neglect, and racial bias. The family home was bearing witness to that truth. Its location in the city is a case in point: Far removed from both the much-featured Ninth Ward and the touristy French Quarter, the Yellow House was located in New Orleans East, a section of the city that’s seven miles from the French Quarter and fifty times its size. New Orleans East, as a development, was supposed to be an ideal community, rising, like a space-age city within a city, from its cypress swamp wetlands, what Bloom describes as “a rural village right in the middle of building up.” A place whose potential her mother allowed her dreams to get tied up in. Broom places us there beside her in the East, as it was called—“that abandoned suburban experiment”—most vividly in her description of the harrowing Chef Menteur Highway, a treacherous four-lane road that she and her siblings had to cross, the very one which a car dragged her sister Karen down when she was eight years old.
The section of the memoir that describes the impact of Hurricane Katrina, what Broom calls “the Water,” on Broom’s family members is the most haunting. To read her brothers’ firsthand chronicles of harrowing escape, now, fourteen years after, is in some ways more profound for its distance and simplicity of fact: Her brother Carl rode out the Water for seven days atop a roof after axing himself out of an attic; her brother Michael joined fourteen other people in a two-bedroom apartment in the Lafitte Projects, walking or swimming the streets daily to forage for food; once finally rescued, all fifteen of them were flown to San Antonio. The rest of the family didn’t know Carl or Michael’s whereabouts for eleven days. Before Katrina, Broom had six siblings living in or near New Orleans, as well as her mother and seventeen nieces and nephews. After the storm, only two brothers remained in Louisiana. Her extended family became part of that third of the city’s population (over 92,000 people) that didn’t return to the city after the Water. The Yellow House itself did not survive post- Katrina, torn down less than a year later by the city for “imminent danger of collapse.” (After waiting eleven years, her mother finally received a grant for the property, and the lot where the house once stood was auctioned off).
In the intervening years, Sarah grappled with how a phantom Yellow House, how New Orleans itself, had penetrated her psyche, and invaded her dreams. “Absences allow us one power over them: They do not speak a word,” she writes. “We say of them what we want. Still, they hover, pointing fingers at our backs….”
For years, Broom travelled to faraway places. Apart from living at various points in California and Texas and New York, we learn that she spent her 31st birthday riding a camel in Cairo, that she visited the Khmer Rouge site in Cambodia, and travelled to Berlin and Istanbul. She moved to Burundi for several months at the suggestion of Samantha Powers (who later became US ambassador to the UN), a move she now admits was an “urge to distance myself from the fate of my family, which of course was my fate, too.”
She also continued to feel the pull of home, moving back more than once, even living briefly in the French Quarter, in an apartment featuring an iron balcony railing with designs hammered out by slaves.
Toni Morrison once said, “Black women seem able to combine the nest and the adventure … They are both safe harbor and ship; they are both inn and trail. We, black women, do both.”
Morrison could be describing Sarah Broom, moving often to places far from New Orleans (“What adventure you on now?,” her siblings would ask when they called her), she who felt without a home. Yet Broom kept creating “beauty out of ordinary spaces,” perfected mini yellow houses, wherever she went. Her memoir is ultimately a story of nest and adventure, of home and away, of where you come from and what you’re headed to, and how it makes you who you are. The depth and nuance of this story is a tribute to Broom’s patience in waiting to tell it, in letting it nest so to speak, for more than a decade after the Water. This is a story that has marinated, steeped itself in time and distance and maturing black womanhood to emerge as an arresting narrative on its way to becoming a classic.
“When you are the babiest in a family with eleven older points-of-view, eleven rallying cries, eleven demanding and pay-attention-to-me voices, all variations of the communal story, developing your own becomes a matter of survival,” Broom tells us. “There can be, in this scenario, no neutral ground.”
This memoir is the story of Sarah M. Broom’s surviving, and thriving, which is to say the full emergence of her voice. You will want to hear everything she has to say.
Bridgett M. Davis is the author, most recently, of the memoir The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers (Little, Brown and Company; 2019). She is Professor of Journalism and the Writing Professions at Baruch College, CUNY, where she teaches creative, film and narrative writing and is Director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program.
Valerie By Sara Stridsberg, translated from Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner
Hating Valerie Solanas (and Loving Violent Men) By Chavisa Woods
Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote Scum (and Shot Andy Warhol) By Breanne Fahs
I Shot Andy Warhol (including full text of SCUM Manifesto) By Mary Harron and David Minahan;
SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas
By Laurie Stone
For centuries the world writes learned studies proving the biological inferiority of females and depicts them as contaminants. The world devises social and religious policy propped by the certainty of female inferiority. In 1967, at age 33, Valerie Solanas self-publishes SCUM Manifesto, a brief, funny screed asserting that males are biologically inferior, owing to their damaged Y chromosomes. She argues that males should be treated as inferior, and her writing is pronounced crazy, perverse, and dangerous. She sells mimeographed copies on the street, charging men a dollar and women 25 cents.
At age seven, her father begins raping her on the porch swing when her mother leaves the house. She retains a memory of counting roses on the seat cushion and finding gum in her hair. By fifteen, she is homeless. During this period, she falls in love with a sailor and gives birth to a son she does not see after he is born. In 1954, at eighteen, she enrolls at the University of Maryland, where she is openly lesbian, likes talking about jazz and art, and supports herself through prostitution. After graduation, she’s accepted on scholarship to a PhD program in psychology at the University of Minnesota. She doesn’t complete the degree, and in 1965 sets off to be a writer in New York City. Through Candy Darling, she gains entrée to Andy Warhol and the Factory world. Andy sees something in her he recognizes. Both are shy, ambitious, from Catholic, working class backgrounds, dubious about sex, and awkward in front of cameras. She agrees to perform in his movie, I, a Man (released in 1967), improvising all her dialogue. She makes him laugh. She never stops pushing him to produce her play, Up Your Ass. Ultimately he tires of her and misplaces the only copy of her play. In 1996, after both are dead, the play will resurface in a trunk owned by (Factory archivist) Billy Name.
In 1988, Mary Harron, a researcher for the BBC, happens upon a copy of the manifesto in a London bookshop, and it takes hold of her. In 1996, the film I Shot Andy Warhol premieres, directed by Harron and cowritten with Daniel Minahan, featuring Lili Taylor as Solanas and Jared Harris as Warhol. In the introduction to her shooting script, published to debut with the film, Harron says Valerie’s text “reached a core of anger I didn’t know I possessed.... It made me wonder about blighted talents, vanished possibilities, and what might be lurking in the great host of humanity we call failures.”
On June 3, 1968, Valerie waits outside the Factory on Union Square, rides the elevator up with Andy, then shoots him three times with a .32 caliber pistol, wounds the art critic Mario Amaya in the hip, and tries to shoot Andy’s manager, Fred Hughes. After the gun jams, she rides the elevator to the street and gives herself up to a cop at Times Square, explaining she is lonely and wants to talk to someone.
In 2006, Swedish writer Sara Stridsberg’s novel Valerie is published to acclaim in Sweden. It depicts the life of Solanas in a collage of fictional and documentary scenes that skillfully jump between locations and time periods. In 2019, it is translated into English by Deborah Bragan-Turner and published in the US. Why the time gap? The backward glance is always about now. In 1988, Valerie dies alone of pneumonia in a welfare hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Stridsberg sets many scenes of her book during Valerie’s final days, inventing a narrator who interviews Valerie and tries to comfort her. Valerie’s body will be found days after her death, covered with maggots. Her last writings will not be saved. Close to the end of the book, the narrator says to Valerie, “I love you.” Valerie says, “Fuck you.”
On June 6, 1968, three days after shooting Warhol and gaining headline fame, Valerie is again whisked to the margins when Bobby Kennedy is assassinated.
In September of 1968, Maurice Girodias, the publisher of Olympia Press, rushes into print an edition of SCUM Manifesto. Olympia Press has published some of the great works of suppressed literature, among them: Lolita, Candy, Naked Lunch, Story of O, and books by Bataille and Beckett, among many others. Girodias recreates the title as an acronym, Society for Cutting Up Men, that Valerie does not endorse. He has written an introduction to the book, and Paul Krassner writes an afterword. Valerie, confined in Elmhurst Psychiatric Hospital and awaiting trial for attempted murder, is unable to correct the distortions made to her work. Although she had come to his office to shoot him before staking out the Factory, Girodias offers to pay her legal fees. She declines his offer.
Ti-Grace Atkinson, the president of New York NOW, calls Valerie “a heroine of the women’s movement.” Ti-Grace visits Valerie in jail and is criticized by Betty Friedan, NOW’s founder. At the invitation of my teacher Kate Millett, I am present at the meeting where this shit flies. It’s my first time there, and I don’t exactly know what’s going on, but I see there are women like Ti-Grace and Flo Kennedy who embody a raucous approach to feminism—in some ways modeled on the freedom of Warhol’s aesthetic—where you do politics as an in-your-face throw down, not caring whom you offend, counting offense as a plus. And there are women like Friedan, who want to make a revolution without disturbing anyone. In time this stripe of feminist will swap the word abortion for the word choice, and while they will rightly strive to include racism as a grievous social ill, they will not protest the erasure of women’s rights from everyone else’s agendas.
Valerie calls the women’s movement “a civil disobedience luncheon club.” She has measured these categories in SCUM Manifesto, writing,
The conflict, therefore, is not between females and males, but between SCUM—dominant, secure, self-confident, nasty, violent, selfish, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, free-wheeling, arrogant females, who consider themselves fit to rule the universe, who have free-wheeled to the limits of this “society” and are ready to wheel on to something far beyond what it has to offer—and nice, passive, accepting “cultivated,” polite, dignified, subdued, dependent, scared, mindless, insecure, approval-seeking Daddy’s Girls, who can’t cope with the unknown ... who feel secure only with Big Daddy standing by ... and with a fat, hairy face in the White House ... who ... can have value only ... as soothers, ego boosters, relaxers and breeders....
“All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun.”—Jean-Luc Godard, 1991
I Shot Andy Warhol aims for the fragmented, verité style of Warhol’s films. It sends a tender love letter to the down-and-out street girls of the lesbian demimonde who, even after Stonewall, will remain unwelcome in many quarters. Lili Taylor plays Solanas as tough, grandiose, deranged, funny, and poignant.
Taylor wears floppy pants and loose jackets, camouflaging her slender body in an effort to look more formidable. She’s a hustler, an aggressive panhandler prowling the East and West Village. In one of the film’s most revealing scenes, she approaches Warhol at Max’s Kansas City. She’s been made a pariah at the Factory for staging a violent fit when she isn’t paid enough attention to, and she stands on the edge of the group who are seated at a long table, a clique of intimates who will make no place for her. She hops from foot to foot, wanting to poke them and also will them to include her. She’s hardened and softened by the rejection. She has steeled herself to it a long time ago, but she can’t control the impulse to beg, and she thrusts creased, mimeographed copies of SCUM Manifesto at them, which they refuse, shrinking back as if she smells.
Warhol has said he will pay her $25 to appear in a film, and she asks for an advance. He says in his slow drawl that makes him sound dimwitted and shrewd at the same time, “Valerie why don’t you get a job?” She says, “I can’t do that, I’m an artist.” He likes people who work, preferably for him, and he asks around the table if anyone has money, and no one offers any, so he withdraws a crumpled five dollar bill from his pocket and extends it to her so she will go away. She takes it with a look of shame and triumph on her face.
In another scene, she has the odd good luck to panhandle Maurice Girodias (Lothaire Bluteau), unaware he is the publisher of Olympia Press. She asks him to pay her fifteen cents to say a dirty word, and he’s amused and takes her to lunch and gives her a dollar for the thirty minutes of conversation they exchange. In time he offers her a contract and an advance of $500 to write a novel in the tone of bored ease with which she describes turning tricks (i.e., “Ten for a fuck, five for a blow job, two for a hand job. No kissing. No fingers. No licking”). He will publish a book if she will write it, and it must feel like a gun to the head. What happens when you are not a genius and someone says: I will encourage you, I will engage with you, all you need to do is the work?
Until this point in the film, Valerie has been appealing in her over-the-top, butch irreverence and street-rat energy, but now she grows frantic and paranoid, and she stalks Girodias and Warhol. She thinks men are out to get her, and some are, but not these two men in the ways she imagines. She goes to shoot Girodias, but he’s not there, so she continues to the Factory. In Valerie, Stridsberg’s narrator brilliantly distills the next moments in the form of an address to Valerie: “You hold your life in your hand.... The moment you shoot Andy Warhol, you throw away all possibility of being someone other people listen to, the only thing you dream about, the writer, artist, revolutionary, psychoanalyst, rebel.” The bullets damage Warhol’s liver, spleen, esophagus, and lungs. He never completely recovers physically, and afterward suffers from lasting terror she will return to finish him off.
You hold your life in your hand
The narrator of Valerie imagines Valerie with her mother and former lovers, scenes Solanas did not document. The writing is sentimental, fevered, and dream-play poetic. Like this address to Valerie: “To write now would be to throw yourself into an ice-cold tidal wave and drown in the searing pain of salt and self-hatred.” Skip these sections. Nothing will be lost.
The book comes alive when we hear Valerie’s voice (often extracted from SCUM Manifesto) and when the narrator dwells not on why Valerie acted but on the things she did, lining up moments—like exhibits at a trial that has no verdict. Valerie’s position on prostitution: “charging for rape.” Drugs: She used “amphetamine, cocaine, heroin, benzodiazepine, and LSD.” Her recollection of her early days at the Factory:
I liked being there so much, I wanted to be one of those needle junkies and fag-whores who sat along the walls, sweating and mumbling and waiting for Andy to come and make art out of them. They were very happy days. Andy laughed at everything I said. I read aloud from the manifesto.... I wanted the Factory to swallow me up forever.”
She is tried in June 1969 and sentenced to two years in prison in addition to the year she has served for the attempted murder of Andy Warhol and his associates. Stridsberg’s narrator again:
What is regarded as an extremely lenient penalty is probably due to Andy Warhol’s refusal to appear in court, the demonstrations outside the courthouse every day in support of your release from hospital, and not least Florynce Kennedy’s blazing defense.
The book skillfully situates Valerie’s life in a historical framework, reminding us, for example, that in 1955 the Hiroshima Maidens arrived in New York City for free reconstructive surgery and in 1953 nuclear testing occurred on Bikini Atoll and the Rosenbergs were executed by electric chair, a fate Valerie might have faced, according to New York State law at the time, had she killed Warhol instead of wounding him.
And the novel is at its strangest—most murky? most mysterious?—when Stridsberg pits her Daddy’s Girl narrator against her own private Valerie, who always comes out on top, telling the narrator to quit romanticizing her and instead,
Stop in the subway and talk to the psychotic hookers. Don’t walk away when she starts raving about nothing.... Ask what she has in her notes, if you’re so interested in dying crack whores. Visit hostels, mental hospitals, drug ghettos, red-light districts, jails. The world’s out there waiting for you, baby. The material is called SHE’S EVERYWHERE.
Abused crackpot with 15 minutes of fame
In a recent essay in the literary journal Full Stop, critic Chavisa Woods compares Valerie’s status in social memory to the status of male artist-felons, among them William Burroughs, who in 1951 shot his wife Joan Vollmer dead in Mexico, and Norman Mailer, who in 1960 stabbed his wife Adele Morales in the chest, nearly piercing her heart. Pablo Neruda raped a “servant” while visiting her country as a diplomat. Charles Bukowski is on video, Woods reports, “kicking and punching his girlfriend during an interview about his writing, and was said to have been physically abusive to multiple female partners.” French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser strangled his wife to death in an act of cold-blooded murder. Woods does not include the unwitnessed murder in 1986 by sculptor Carl Andre of his wife, artist Ana Mendieta, who plunged from a 33-story window, following a violent argument witnesses heard. Andre said they were arguing about his greater artistic success.
Burroughs was not arrested, and he left Mexico. Mailer claimed that if he hadn’t stabbed Adele, he would have gotten cancer from repressed rage. He walked away from the stabbing with a suspended sentence for third-degree assault and spent fifteen days in a psychiatric ward. Neruda wrote about the rape as a no-big-deal episode in his memoir I Confess that I have Lived (1974). In the Wikipedia bio for Althusser, Woods notes, the murder of his wife is mentioned in the last paragraph and only in the context of his mental illness: “Althusser’s life was marked by periods of intense mental illness. In 1980, he killed his wife, the sociologist Hélène Rytmann, by strangling her.” In 1988, Carl Andre was tried and acquitted of Mendieta’s murder on the grounds of “reasonable doubt.”
All these men continued to work, publish, and collect praise. Adele Morales did not press charges. I lived next door to her from 1967 to 1973, and we became friends. I wondered but did not ask her why, after the stabbing, she spent two more years with Mailer before leaving him. In 2014, I joined a protest organized by the performance artist Christen Clifford against a giant retrospective of Carl Andre’s work at Dia art gallery. Similar protests dogged the show as it traveled.
Does anyone still read Mailer? Woods quotes a passage from Advertisements for Myself (1959) that sounds like something Valerie might have written as a parody of male rage:
I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today.... I do not seem able to read them. Indeed, I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale.... I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn.
Dykily psychotic! A new height to aim for!
Every backward glance is about now
There are people who declare they are a genius—Gertrude Stein comes to mind—then produce enough work to qualify for recognition. What might Solanas have become if she’d had Stein’s money and been less nuts? Warhol was famous, and he was a man, and Valerie wanted him to help her, and she went for him the way hustlers go for you, with a hand out and a push, without embarrassment and nothing but embarrassment, with bravado that is not earned and is everywhere on the landscape of advertising the Factory fed on. The culture of branding and self-promotion and marketing is Valerie shaking you down at an ATM. At the end of the 1970s she’s sighted at Tompkins Square Park and at St. Mark’s Place: hungry, dirty, alone, selling sex and the manifesto, threatening to kill Kate Millett and to throw lye in the face of Robin Morgan because they defended her.
SCUM Manifesto is a performance of Valerie’s personality, not a kit for murdering famous men. “I didn’t want to kill him. I wanted him to pay attention to me. Talking to him was like talking to a chair,” she is quoted in Breanne Fahs’s 2014 biography as saying when asked for the umpteenth time why she shot Andy Warhol. SCUM is a manifestation of rage few people want to believe exists in the female heart. I would say it exists in the heart of every woman who has lived in a body interpreted as female. I would say it’s small potatoes beside the rage at women considered ordinary in the codes of every religion and in the writings of man after man after man.
Reading Chavisa Woods’s essay, I was at first uncertain about the comparison she was making between writers and artists of considerable achievement and Solanas, who wrote clumsily and very little. But who attracts us now, and who do we care to think about? For the vast part, when I read the books of men, it doesn’t matter what century, I find I do not exist in them, nor does anyone like me exist in them, and it is like reading the literature of a lost civilization.
Laurie Stone is author most recently of My Life as an Animal: Stories. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and critic-atlarge on Fresh Air. She won the Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle and has published numerous stories in Tin House, Evergreen Review, Fence, Open City, Anderbo, The Collagist, New Letters, Tri- Quarterly, Threepenny Review, and Creative Nonfiction. Her website is: lauriestonewriter.com.
Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality By Jennifer Nash
Reviewed by Chelsea Johnson
Intersectionality is perhaps the most popularly embraced, discussed, and debated concept to emerge from black feminist thought. Like many ideas with broad explanatory power, intersectionality has inspired, expanded, traveled, and morphed. Many generations after intersectional thinking appears in women of color activism, and three decades after the term was coined in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s legal work, intersectionality has become a research method, an academic discipline, a call for representation, a diversity and inclusion initiative, a benchmark for feminist organizing—and it has become a target of virulent critique.
Two recent books, Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality by Jennifer Nash and Undermining Intersectionality: The Perils of Powerblind Feminism by Barbara Tomlinson, grapple with the forces talking about intersectionality. In Undermining Intersectionality, Tomlinson writes as a self-identified white embodied feminist defending intersectionality against power-blind white feminism. In Black Feminism Reimagined, Nash writes as a self-identified black feminist asking black feminists to let go of their defensive hold on intersectionality as the exclusive property of black women. Both books tackle three interrelated, overarching questions: What does it mean for intersectionality to be institutionalized within women’s studies, when the university is precisely the type of neoliberal and hierarchical social system that black feminism critiques? What does it mean if popular applications of intersectionality separate the theory from black women, when their experiences and labor—intellectually and otherwise—have historically been exploited, misrepresented, and devalued? How should intersectional feminists feel about intersectionality becoming a target of academic politics and critique? Tomlinson’s and Nash’s answers to these questions are productively at odds.
First, a note on style: Nash and Tomlinson treat upper-case and lower-case Black vs. black differently and do so with implicit purpose that seems to align with their core world-views on race and theory. Nash uses lower case, while Tomlinson uses lower case to refer to black bodies but upper case to refer to Black feminism. Moving forward, I follow the authors’ leads when writing this review.
Given that black women scholars continue to be one of the most underrepresented and overworked groups in the academy, shouldn’t black feminist academics stake their claim to a concept and an emerging discipline that has become the standard of good feminism for women’s studies departments? In Black Feminism Reimagined, Jennifer Nash responds with a definitive no. Three decades after intersectionality took women’s studies by storm, Nash finds black feminism’s preoccupation with defending intersectionality to be exhausting and toxic.
Black Feminism Reimagined is Nash’s account of the state of black feminism within the discipline of women’s studies, based on discourse analysis of black feminists’ reflections about intersectionality and their own work. She observes that black feminists have assumed a disciplinary role within women’s studies, literally and symbolically showing white women the limits of their thinking in scholarship, organizing, and activism. Intersectionality’s analytical disruption of mainstream feminist assumptions about universal sisterhood has most visibly and effectively accomplished this disciplinary work. But as intersectionality took hold in the field, black feminists have largely responded in a protective way, fearing that their contributions might be undone or appropriated by institutionalization, varying interpretations, and use by non-black women. Nash speculates that black feminism’s current conceptual foci on death, representation, and care exacerbate and maintain a defensiveness of intersectionality, and that these strands of black feminism rationalize black feminists’ treatment of intersectionality as a property under threat, a disciplinary tool, and a love to be protected.
Black Feminism Reimagined concedes that misinterpretations of intersectionality are common. The university’s conflation of intersectionality with diversity and the politics of inclusion, for an example, has been a constant point of frustration for black feminists. In response, it has become conventional for black feminists to tell “origin stories” that remind others that true intersectionality is a product of black feminist social justice work, and that white feminists would know this if they only read the “right” readings. Such corrective discourses reduce intersectionality to an imagined single history and foreclose generative debate. From Nash’s point of view, treating intersectionality as if it is property that has been lost or stolen on account of idea migration, transformation, or critique wastes energy that black feminists might productively spend beyond the “intersectionality wars.” She implores black feminists to separate their care for black feminism from ownership over intersectionality, and to “let go” of their impulse to control what black feminist thought inspires in and from others. Nash points out that “[while] black feminist theory has brilliantly captured the ways in which the US academy has been a killing machine that cannibalizes black women, it has yet to fully capture the toxicity of defensiveness, and how exhausting— physically, spiritually, psychically—the defensive posture can be.”
The second half of Black Feminism Reimagined wonders what it would mean if black feminists told the story of intersectionality differently. What if black feminists included women’s studies’ turn to transnationalism in their reflections about intersectionality’s impact on the field in the 1990s? Nash argues that black feminists’ investment in keeping black women at the center of intersectional analyses prevents intimacy and solidarity with other women of color feminists, who likewise challenge feminism’s imagined hegemonic white Western middle-class feminist subject. Instead of feeling competitive or being isolated by the academy’s tokenization of women of color, Nash encourages black feminists to practice the politics of solidarity and community that are so central to black feminist thought. Doing so, she envisions a reimagined black feminism that pushes back against women’s studies departments’ narrow and tokenizing tendencies to associate intersectionality with black women’s bodies, and transnationalism with brown women’s bodies.
As someone who has fought for funding and recognition in the neoliberal academy and opted out from exhaustion, I understand the defensiveness Nash observes in and of black feminism. I’ve felt defensive for years. However, as a black feminist trained in sociology and not in women’s studies, as a scholar who has never been committed to the Ivory Tower, and as someone who finds black feminist thought more powerful in applied rather than academic settings, I find Nash’s descriptions of black feminists in Black Feminism Reimagined otherwise peculiar for a few reasons. First, most sociologists use intersectionality as an analytic to think about the relationship between interlocking social structures and lived experiences, without limiting analysis to black female subjectivity alone. Second, many black feminists do take up intersectionality in relationship to transnationalism and decolonialism, and in collaboration with differently racialized women of color, both within and beyond the United States. Moreover, many black feminists are not positioned within nor loyal to the academy, and are working for impact rather than intellectual ownership.
Though the black feminists and scholars of intersectionality in my world do not fit Nash’s descriptions, and even if I don’t always agree with her, what Nash does in Black Feminism Reimagined is new, brave, and important. For skeptical readers like myself, it will likely be the book’s last analytical chapter that inspires a change of heart. In “Love in the Time of Death,” Nash models the vulnerable love she preaches in her loving undoing and reinterpretation of black feminism’s relationship to the state. She draws upon June Jordan, Patricia Hill Collins, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Patricia J. Williams to apply a black feminist politics of love to intersectionality and the law. Noting that the law produces black women’s invisibility, Nash considers what it would mean for black women, for all people, and for the earth if the law sought justice for injury rather than property loss. Here Nash shows readers how to “let go,” and how to reimagine black feminism in this contemporary moment.
In Undermining Intersectionality, Barbara Tomlinson does exactly what Black Feminism Reimagined begs black feminists to abandon doing—she lays down a forceful defense of intersectionality’s contribution to knowledge and of women of color’s ownership over “true” intersectional thought. Tomlinson meticulously analyzes popular feminist discussions about intersectionality and their discursive strategies, finding that the most vocal critics tend to neglect any meaningful engagement with intersectionality’s original texts, the racial studies literature, the history of European imperialism and slavery, or their own positionalities. Most criticisms, Tomlinson argues, are color-blind, contextblind, and power-blind, implicitly reinscribing white women as the central subject of and authority over mainstream feminism. For this reason, Tomlinson names intersectionality’s critics white feminists, a discursive move that makes visible what is too often invisible—the hierarchical racial power relations of neoliberal academia and mainstream feminism.
The first half of Undermining Intersectionality focuses on white feminists’ critiques of intersectionality, which tend to misinterpret intersectionality’s key texts and metaphors. For example, a popular criticism dismisses the theory’s use of social categories as outdated and rigid, when in actuality, the logic of binary either/or categorization is the product of white male elites via European imperialism, not Black feminism. Tomlinson points out that when Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the term intersectionality, she used the intersection as a metaphor to describe the contextually situated and mutually constitutive nature of social categories and systems of oppression in order to make black women’s unique experiences at the nexus of anti-black racism and patriarchy visible to the court of law. Undermining Intersectionality reminds readers that Crenshaw’s intersectionality was deeply shaped by her own training and method as a critical race legal scholar. Broader reading of critical race theory would likely clarify to white feminists that intersectionality views identity as fluid, and more importantly that it strategically takes up categories to understand them. Intersectionality subverts categories through a both/and logic in order to to free subjugated people from oppression. Much of Undermining Intersectionality is such a corrective, laying bare the misinterpretations, misquotes, misreadings, and mistakes that white feminism makes in impressive detail.
The second half of Undermining Intersectionality argues that the white feminist scholarly conversation about intersectionality amounts to what Tomlinson calls an epistemic machine, a system of training, description, argumentation, citation, and publication that devalues, condescends, excludes, and dismisses women of color ’s contributions to feminism. Tomlinson notes that when white feminists take up intersectionality, they tend to colonize it by neglecting to attribute the theory to the women of color from whom it originated, misrepresenting it so they can take credit for solving its imaginary defects, or emptying it of its anti-racist political imperatives. Feminists-in-training are expected to cite and build upon such white feminist discussions of intersectionality in order to be taken seriously as well-read in the field, and such “contemporary citational practices operate as a conservative force, so that contemporary critical discussion of intersectionality ultimately congeals around powerblind strategies deployed in the past to reinforce white women’s symbolic domination of feminist studies.”
Tomlinson includes Google Scholar citation metrics for many examples she presents, persuasively showing the reader that this white feminist version of intersectionality is dominant within women’s studies. For example, she notes that Leslie McCall’s article, “The Complexity of Intersectionality,” is “one of the most widely cited feminist critiques of intersectionality (with nearly 4,500 citations in Google Scholar as of May 10, 2018),” but points out that McCall erases the racial specificity that is central to intersectionality’s original intervention. Likewise, the 2,000 citations and 870+ reprints of “Doing Difference” by Candace West and Sarah Fenstermaker perpetuate out-ofcontext white feminist misreadings of Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought as essentialist. If we take the numbers in Undermining Intersectionality seriously, the intersectionality most people know bears little resemblance to the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde, and the Combahee River Collective. As a result of the epistemic machine, this next generation of graduate students is not only being trained to attack women of color ’s intellectual labor, but also to treat it as a flawed thing of the past.
Undermining Intersectionality begs readers to see that critical debates and discourses are not solely ideological; they are also material. Black women working in women’s studies contexts must participate in the neoliberal corporatized university and play by its rules to make a living. Scholarly citations have implications for tenure, the credibility of intersectional work by and about women of color, and effecting social justice. Tomlinson concludes by insisting that feminists turn off the epistemic machine, listing thirty comprehensive strategies for responsible scholarship and reading practices, such as not undermining the claims made by intersectional scholars of color in order to rescue the concept or elevate a new view, not misconstruing the nature of metaphor, not assuming white women are the normative subjects of feminism, and choosing to work in collaboration with scholars of color.M
If Black Feminism Reimagined implores readers to let go, Undermining Intersectionality fastens the reins and redirects the ship.
Chelsea M. E. Johnson, PhD, is the co-author of IntersectionAllies: We Make Room for All, a children’s book that offers intersectional feminist theory to people of all ages.
Q and A with Eve Ensler
By Jennifer Baumgardner
I first encountered the playwright and activist Eve Ensler in 1996, when she was starring in her pivotal work, The Vagina Monologues, Off-Off- Broadway at a small Soho theatre called HERE. Her play was a revelation to me—part-exegesis of the vagina as site of pleasure and trauma, and part-exhortation to stop masking the body part with euphemisms and to instead acknowledge the misogyny and violence hiding behind our unwillingness to “say the word,” the eventual tagline for the show. That Off-Off Broadway show was a hit, but Ensler recognized that it was a piece of theatre that could become a movement.
Indeed, the V-Day movement has racked up thousands of productions over the last two decades at most colleges in the US and countries in the world. Ensler, now 66, has long traveled the world, working with activists to end sexual violence. In addition to V-Day, she co-created the One Billion Rising global campaign, City of Joy (a therapeutic and leadership center in the Congo), and several books and plays.
Her most recent contribution to this movement took her inward, to the origins of her activism: her abusive father. Her new book, The Apology (Bloomsbury, May 2019), is an emotional and insightful imagining of a 112-page letter from her now-deceased father to “Evie.”
Jennifer Baumgardner: How did you get the idea to write the apology you had never gotten from your father?
Eve Ensler: I was thinking about how many times I have heard women tell their stories in twenty-one years, how many silences I’ve heard broken, how many V-Days, Take Back the Nights, marches, protests I’ve attended. I was thinking that survivors have done so much work that was never our work to do as violence against women has always been a men’s issue. And then I was thinking that in all these years and with the recent escalation and iteration of #MeToo, I have never heard a man make a thorough authentic public apology for sexual abuse. Ever. Maybe in sixteen thousand years of patriarchy. And it hit me that if it has never happened, it must be central to what needs to happen.
Where are the men who will be brave enough to enter into this new time of reckoning, the practice and journey of the apology? To face themselves in deepest self-interrogation, look at their childhood histories acculturated in patriarchy and toxic masculinity, examine what brought them to place where they could rape or batter or incest or harass, investigate the why of what they’ve done and the details of what they’ve done, and then to feel what it felt like and feels like inside their victim? I’ve been waiting for an apology from my father for sixty years. He’s been dead for half of that time. But still that yearning was there. So, I decided to write my father’s apology to me for him. To say the words I longed to hear. I imagined it might be freeing and I hoped it might serve as a blueprint for men who are looking for a pathway to make their own apologies.
JB: What happened when you began “channeling” him?
EE: He told me things about himself I’ve never known before. He told me about his childhood and how through a process of being adored instead of loved, he was essentially severed from his heart. He showed how patriarchy had progressively robbed him of his humanity and eventually allowed him to become a sexual abuser and a sadist. And I discovered how deeply I have carried my father inside me. How whether I have been conscious of it or not, I have been in constant dialogue with him. Because once a person rapes you or beats you or invades you, they become embedded in you. I learned through this process that it is possible to change the narrative of your perpetrator inside you. For sixty years I lived in this frame of being victim to my father ’s perpetrator. Through the exercise of this book, this monolithic monster inside me became an apologist. This towering and terrifying entity was transformed into a broken, vulnerable little boy.
JB: In your book, your father recounts a time when your cat was hit by a car. Your dad cradled the cat and allowed his broken parts to come out. It reminded me that some of the most stern or patriarchal men that I’ve known have had this mysterious soft side for little kids and animals.
EE: Somehow animals offer men a place where they are allowed to feel and express tenderness. In my father’s case, and I think in the case of many boys, that tenderness is eradicated, judged, and annihilated. All those feelings of vulnerability, neediness, sorrow pushed underground. After time they begin to congeal into an alternative persona who often surfaces at some crisis moment and is out of control.
JB: It seems that people with a lot of privilege or entitlement have almost no capacity to deal with scary feelings like guilt and shame. Your father obviously knew that he molested you and that he treated you cruelly, undermined you, and said you made things up. These can’t be things he was proud of. Would it have annihilated your father or his self-image to apologize?
EE: My father says in the book, “To be an apologist is to be a traitor.” I think that’s how men feel. If one man admits he’s wrong, that he knew what he was doing was wrong, the whole story of patriarchy would to crumble. What we need is for ten per cent of the men to begin to come forward, to move us into a new time of reckoning. To devote themselves to the practice of sincere, deep, rigorous, humble apologies.
It took me sixty years to write this book—it didn’t happen overnight. If we sincerely want to end sexual abuse and all the forms of violence that destroy women’s lives, men have to move to this next stage of humility, honesty and accountability.
Jennifer Baumgardner is the editor of the Women’s Review of Books. She is also the director of the documentary It Was Rape.
An essay by Sarah Dougher
The first time a stranger called me grandmother of my own child, I was in a midwestern airport, hauling my two-yearold to a connecting flight. I was purchasing a bottle of water; the baby was having a tantrum. I put her on the floor to let her shriek and flop around, as you sometimes have to do, and calmly made my purchase. The clerk, giving me a sororal smile, leaned over the counter, peered at my snotty creature, and said, “Grandchildren are a handful, that’s for sure. I’ve got four of my own!” I smiled and said, “Yep, a real handful!” Then I picked up my daughter, who arched her back like she was possessed and shrieked “NO!” again and again as we walked out.
The clerk’s misunderstanding of my relationship to my kid is one that will be repeated for the rest of my life, I’m fairly certain. This is one of the consequences of having my first child at forty-five, and my second at forty-nine.
You can be a grandma at thirty-eight. You can be a mom and a teenager. Saying that I have small children makes me seem younger to people. People have children during a wide age range, but our cultural conception of the correct age for a new mother is somewhere between twenty and forty. Someone might think I’m fifty-ish but when they see me breastfeeding, dial it back to forty-five. Because I’ve never been a younger mother, I can’t say what is different about being an older one. I can say that I did not seriously consider children until I was in my early thirties. I had the privilege of easy access to birth control, as well as to abortion had I needed it. Not having a child when I was younger allowed me to focus on the things I wanted to do then: I got a doctoral degree, for instance. I traveled, lived communally, and toured as a musician.
My initial plans for children with my then girlfriend were disrupted by a breast cancer diagnosis at thirty-five. Getting a form of cancer that doesn’t hurt, except when excised, has a different impact than do other, more sudden and exhilarating brushes with death. It exacerbated what felt impossible: that I would ever live long enough to parent children successfully in a loving partnership. Dependent on this same philandering partner ’s health insurance for treatment, my approach to mortality was shot through with tradeoffs; I stay with her and keep the insurance, look away when she fucks other people, drink myself to sleep and pretend I’ve had a healing night’s rest. Instead of compelling me to live each moment with a clear-eyed zest for life, I was a lackluster cancerbattler. My alcohol dependence increased as my friends and family tried to rally me from deep depression. My drunkenness was an inarticulate demand: “Recognize my suffering! See me!” But no one could see my cancer and my physical debilitation and drinking was read as a moral failing. I had radiation treatment on one cancerous breast, and five years of the estrogen-suppressant, tamoxifen. Eventually, I was in remission, and I quit drinking. By then I was forty.
My children are the result of a partnership I never thought I would be so lucky to have, with a man whose commitment to family matched my own. We determined we’d have children on our third date, when I was forty-one. By the spring of my fortysecond year, I was making notes in a book about “Clomid mood swings” and “Follistim,”—the drugs that stimulate follicles to produce multiple eggs per cycle. The reality is that even between forty-one and forty-two, your reproductive odds drop sharply, and your egg supply is low. We optimistically started with intrauterine injection, which basically just saves the sperm part of the trip to the fallopian tubes. After this failed, we ratcheted up quickly, to IVF, and my notes became more dire: “anxious,” “aching,” “weepy,” “overwhelmed,” “thirsty,” “dumb,” “headache-y,” “spaced-out,” “crampy,” “sleepy,” “fragile,” “gassy,” “tender,” “bloated,” “insomniac,” “crazy.” As unpleasant as this all was, it was less horrific than my life as a drunk cancer victim had been. When you do IVF, you think you are going to be the miracle person whose eggs just needed a little prodding. I learned I am no miracle person: after two IVF rounds, we decided to pay someone young for her eggs, a process gently mislabeled “donation.”
Through an agency, we chose a person whose family history did not include breast cancer, alcoholism, or mental illness. She looked sort of like us, northern Europeans, and her photographs demonstrated a penchant for dressing in costume— pirate lass, fortune-teller, clown. The reasons people value extremely good looking, high achieving egg donors seemed strange to me, but the whole thing was very strange so we thought we would choose someone who at least liked to have fun. We didn’t know why she wanted to get paid for undergoing a physically uncomfortable, time-consuming, and, in the scheme of things, not-that-lucrative process. Platitudes about helping others with the gift of life? Maybe to pay for community college? Or to buy the best fortune-telling costume of all time? This mysterious blonde person had a crucial part in making our family possible, but I know her just from blurry snapshots on the egg donation database. She could just as easily be that person with the baby crying the next time I board a plane.
I know that I am more patient and tolerant of both my own foibles and the shortcomings of others than I was when I was young, and this is a very useful trait as both a parent and as a person. I care a great deal less now about what others think of me, but care very deeply about the needs and opinions of my family. I’m more concerned with regular practices related to health and well-being, and prioritize this. I have very limited time to myself but that time is exceedingly well-spent.
How others gauge my fitness for parenting is really their concern based on their own biases. If they choose to look upon the choice as unfair to my children, who will eventually (as we all will) become parentless, they need only look to the experiences of people whose parents are already out of the picture because of fundamental disagreements, addictions, or tragic circumstances. Sometimes, for millions of reasons, parents and adult children don’t get along to the point of estrangement, and yet these people often thrive and make excellent parents themselves. How we lose and gain family is never ordinary.
Motherhood ushered in a sudden connection to other, much younger, women with kids. This was not something I had anticipated. I’m a college professor who works in public high schools teaching in a dualcredit program, so I am in regular contact with young people. This new, specific closeness I feel to younger moms in my classes is not something I verbalize to them; it is, however, something I try to support structurally. I don’t need to understand the details of their lives, but I want to use what small powers I have to give them options—I can be in touch by email when they can’t come in; I can lend them the school computer and encourage them to write about their experiences in the context of our class. I try to use my role as their teacher to help them value the work they are doing as moms, and to let them know I see that work, and I see them, too. I can’t forget the elation and relief in the face of a mom who sees her seventeen-year-old daughter graduate as she holds her daughter’s baby, all three generations younger than me. Maybe this identification is what the shop clerk felt when she treated me kindly at the airport.
Sometimes when I tell the story of the clerk in the airport, friends remark that I should have gotten angry for her assumption, “How rude!” they say. Other times when I tell this story, my friends will assure me that I don’t look at all like a grandmother. But what, really, does this look like after all?
I remind them that what happened in that exchange was only that I was pegged for what I am, an older woman. Hers was a verbalized example of the ways in which we all use visual, socialized cues to size each other up, and operate in the flow of received ideas of gender and role. To interrupt that to say, “No, I’m not her grandmother, I’m her mom!” would have rejected the kindness that the person thought she was offering. Do I have a responsibility to let the clerk know that older women can be excellent mothers? This must be proven only to my children. Do I have to represent, call her out on her assumptions about femininity or reproductive fitness? This would only cast unneeded doubt on the support she was trying to communicate, trite and pro forma as it was.
I choose to hold on to the kindness of this woman, not her misreading. Is it really on her that reproductive science is not cheaper and more widely accessible, or more common? Her fault, unloading Cosmo and Shape magazines all day, that she might have conventional assumptions about age, reproductive capacity, and vitality? That she might view my slightly androgynous, cardiganwearing, and greying form as a “grandma”?
I came to understand the airport incident as a consequence of my unique path: I will be misread; my experiences will be assumed, not seen, unknown. Contained within this path is an opportunity to experience deep empathy and connection. In that harried airport moment, when I put my child down on a dirty floor and let her scream and cry, making everyone uncomfortable, it didn’t matter what people thought about me or my role in my family. For her part, the clerk’s comments suggested to the other people (who were likely uncomfortable or irritated by us) that it is difficult to care for a screaming child, and that a screaming child is not out of the ordinary. She signaled that she knew this was a challenging situation for any person, and that she saw my work. Grandmother or not, I was seen.
Sarah Dougher is a writer, teacher, and musician, currently working in the University Studies program at Portland State University and writing short stories in the early mornings.
The Farm By Joanne Ramos
New York, NY; Random House 2019, 336 pp., $27.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Katherine Ouellette
Just as the publishing industry became fatigued by the onslaught of dystopian fiction brought on by the success of the Hunger Games franchise, titles like 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale eked their way back onto bestseller lists before sales exploded after the presidential election. The seemingly extremist views explored in these books were suddenly not as distant as white readers had previously perceived. But the circumstances that white readers have long considered as “dystopian” have often been realities for people of color. When faced with harmful political rhetoric that could affect white people personally, privileged readers (like myself) finally realized this was never a fictional phenomenon. The Farm by Joanne Ramos is firmly rooted in a contemporary setting, but the events that unfold could have easily been a primer for The Republic of Gilead.
The protagonist of The Farm, Jane, is not a heroine who reluctantly challenges a fascist regime, but a new mother who is struggling to support herself and her six-week old daughter Mali. She works for minimum wage and lives in dorm with her seventy-something-year-old cousin, Ate Evelyn, and half a dozen other Filipina immigrants like them. Since Jane can’t count on her cheating husband to contribute to childcare, Ate suggests a potentially lucrative opportunity at Golden Oaks as a surrogate. The financial bonuses granted to the surrogates—or “Hosts” as Golden Oaks calls them—for the successful completion of first trimester, second trimester, and delivery would be life-changing for Jane and Mali. And after Jane gets fired from two jobs within the span of a month, she doesn’t have many other choices for gainful employment.
The author alternates between the perspectives of Jane, Ate, Mae (the woman who runs Golden Oaks), and Reagan (a white Host). Ramos writes with equal authority over the voices of a desperate young mother, a no-nonsense nanny with a knack for securing loyalty from wealthy employers, a college-educated daughter of a Chinese businessman, and a white photographer wracked with guilt for living a privileged life. The story is made all the richer by having the motivations for each character laid out for the reader, instead of limiting the reader ’s understanding of Golden Oaks to Jane, who just wants to fly under the radar and get paid. Ramos describes their individual worldviews with striking precision, addressing unconscious taboos about class with such frankness that it forces the reader to reconcile with these unwritten social rules.
For example, when Ate gives Jane advice about nannying, she says the parents, “will tell you to call them ‘Cate and Ted,’ very American, very equal— but it is always ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am.’ They will tell you to ‘make yourself at home’—but they do not want you to make yourself at home! Because it is their home, not yours, and they are not your friends. They are your Clients. Only that.” This distinction between the Client’s purview and Jane’s foreshadows how far systemic inequality will be carried out.
The rhetoric used in The Farm is not dissimilar from what you might find in a corporate licensing agreement. Mae tells Jane that Golden Oaks wants her to, “understand fully what you’re committing to. Because once you’re impregnated—once there’s another human living inside you—it’s no longer just about you. There’s no going back.” Not only does this philosophy echo the concerning rhetoric of “life begins at conception,” but it also paints a sinister illustration of the class divide between the uber-rich and the working class. It’s made abundantly clear that Golden Oaks bestows preferential treatment towards the fetus over the Host’s own health because the fetuses belong to billionaires and the Hosts would never be able to afford lawyers to protest less-than-ideal working conditions. As another Host puts it, Golden Oaks is “a factory, and you’re the commodity.” (Or in another world, this is the Commander’s household and you’re the Handmaid.) Even though the Hosts theoretically sign this employment contract willingly, they have as few rights as the Handmaids who are forced into sexual slavery.
Similar to how Handmaids suddenly receive luxury treatment when they finally conceive, a repeat Host advises Jane that she will receive more lenient treatment from Golden Oaks about their rigorous schedules and limited family visits if Jane gets her Clients invested in her individual wellbeing. The key is to portray herself as a virtuous vessel for their unborn baby, as opposed to just someone who deserves a comfortable living wage. But Jane doesn’t get the opportunity to woo her Client like this, so she gets sucked into a factory-like system that effectively removes her bodily autonomy. Hosts receive focused diet plans, specialized exercise classes, and frequent doctor’s appointments—where the doctor talks to the Client over the phone about the fetus instead of the woman who is actually receiving the examination. (This draws an unexpected parallel to The Handmaid’s Tale, when the wives try to simulate the conception and the birthing experience while the Handmaid does the real work.) If that isn’t disconcerting enough, when the doctor discovers a lump on Reagan’s breast, she keeps Reagan in the dark about the potential risk. When the doctor is finally forced to acknowledge this health concern to Reagan, she tries to assure Reagan it’s nothing to worry about. Sensing something is amiss, Reagan tries to search for other symptoms of Hodgkin’s lymphoma on one of the Golden Oaks computers, only to find that term is blocked by the network.
If Golden Oaks is a factory and the Hosts are the commodity, the commodification of the female body is facilitated by censorship and constant surveillance, much like 1984. Hosts are forced to live on the premises for ten months—away from home and loved ones without any cell phone service or WiFi. Reagan brings her camera to take photos of the lush Hudson Valley surroundings, but that’s also confiscated upon arrival. Hosts can make video calls home during the scheduled technology room hours, so long as the slow connection doesn’t freeze, and Hosts don’t mind a group of other women at their own computers overhearing their conversations.
The Hosts don’t suspect foul play at first, but the reader sees through Mae’s eyes that every moment of the Host’s life is monitored by a surveillance system appropriately called the Panopticon. If a Host has an emotional outburst or appears to get too chummy with known troublemakers, the Golden Oaks staff employ techniques to convince the Host to “behave optimally” of her own accord, whether that’s through schedule changes or subtle emotional blackmail. Mae dangles visits with Jane’s daughter as a reward for her ideal behavior, and the visits are taken away just as quickly as a punishment for Jane, which makes a reader wonder if the visits were ever really going to happen. And Reagan can’t research for herself if she’s developing a life-threatening condition because treatment would be harmful to the fetus.
Later, this lack of consideration for the Host’s health is extended to grim extremes. When one of the fetuses shows signs of trisomy and therefore presents a risk of Down syndrome, the Client chooses to have the fetus aborted. Reagan is horrified about how swiftly Golden Oaks terminates an otherwise healthy pregnancy without consulting the affected Host, but other Hosts expected nothing less. “‘Do you understand: they forced Anya to abort... It’s a complete violation—’ ‘Not of the contract.’” Reagan comes from a family of privilege, so she never experienced catering to the will of a rich employer before. But by this point, the reader has practically received an instruction manual (via Ate’s voice) for how working class women—often women of color—have to appear non-threatening to mothers who don’t want to admit caring for their own child is difficult. Women of color have long been nannies and wet nurses for white children for hundreds of years. Becoming the surrogate for upper class women who want to control everything—and up until that point, have succeeded in controlling everything due to their wealth—is the next logical step. They don’t have a say in how a Client runs their household or their pregnancy, even if the pregnancy is being carried out by someone else.
Even though most of the Hosts are women of color, some Clients “are willing to pay a premium for Hosts whom they find pretty, or ‘well-spoken,’ or ‘kind,’ or ‘wise,’ or even: educated,” which is code for: white. As Ramos puts it, “Most Clients cannot help but feel that the Host they choose is not only a repository for their soon-to-be-baby but an emblem of the lofty expectations they have for the being to be implanted inside,” even though the Hosts are not contributing their DNA to the fetus. As a college educated white woman, Reagan is considered a “premium” Host, but she does want to be hired for the sake of a Client’s vanity. She has aspirations to carry for a woman who had biological difficulties conceiving a child for herself. Because Reagan the commodity is more profitable than the Filipina and Caribbean Hosts, Mae is willing to appease Reagan and hires a stand-in client to make Reagan think her position was more meaningful, and therefore behave more optimally.
The Farm ultimately centers around Jane’s fierce desire to protect and provide for her daughter, though it’s intriguing to contrast her experience with Reagan’s rude awakening to her performative altruism in a capitalist structure. (After all, Reagan still needs and accepts her salary as a Host.) Jane astutely observes that “people are not as free as Reagan thinks they are,” which is especially obvious when we also compare Jane’s journey to that of Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, who is assumed to be white. Jane doesn’t have her credit cards and bank accounts stripped from her name to remove her financial agency and independence, she barely had any savings to begin with. Mali isn’t kidnapped from Jane to remove her from her own family obligations, she is safely under the care of Ate while Jane is at Golden Oaks—but Jane’s burning questions about Mali’s health and safety provide just as strong emotional tension as Offred’s concerns about her own daughter. Jane isn’t raped in order to provide an heir to a powerful family, but she is still under lock and key and surveillance of an isolated household. The Farm isn’t a dystopia, it simply highlights the very real desperation of the working class versus the luxurious accommodations and “experiences” catered to the ultra-wealthy.
Katherine Ouellette is a freelance writer with bylines at Bustle, The Hippo, and Women’s Review of Books. She lives in Boston, MA.
No Walls and the Recurring Dream: A Memoir By Ani DiFranco
New York, NY; Viking, 2019, 298 pp., $28.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Hannah Wallace
When I first heard Ani DiFranco sing about her abortion at a small auditorium in the Pioneer Valley during the spring of 1992, I felt as if my head would explode. A freshman at Mount Holyoke, I had never had an abortion, but I’d had several close calls (who hadn’t?). The honesty with which she wrote about her experience in “Lost Woman Song”—how she linked it to the anti-abortion politics that were (and still are) so pervasive in parts of this country—was brave and righteous. My friend Grace and I were hooked. After that, we saw DiFranco wherever we could, driving to Boston or New York to see her perform in bigger, flashier venues. We were high on her lyrics—which were as urgent, feminist, sexy, and independent as (we hoped) we were.
For many budding feminists in the early 1990s, Difranco’s lyrics were more than just songs. They were a roadmap for how we wanted to live our lives—or, in some cases, affirmation for how we were already living. Her music was powerful, addictive—watching her on stage produced feelings of euphoria the likes of which I haven’t experienced often in my forty-five years. Her small size—she stood five foot two—belied her power as a singer and a performer. She belted out her songs; she attacked her acoustic guitar, playing percussively and loud and used fake nails reinforced with electrical tape instead of a guitar pick. Her sound was exciting, but her lyrics were electrifying. DiFranco sang about topics no one else our age dared to speak about: abortion (“Lost Woman Song,” “Tiptoe,” “Hello Birmingham”), periods (“Blood in the Boardroom,” “My IQ”), sexual assault (Gratitude), atheism (What if No One’s Watching), and women who settle (“The Slant,” “Fixing her Hair,” “Worthy,” etc.). And, like any self-respecting folksinger, she sang about heartache, love, and sex—sometimes all in the same song. Though on the surface DiFranco came across as angry and provocative (especially to her male listeners), her songs were also poetic, reflective, and downright seductive. “Overlap,” a brooding song on Out of Range, starts,
I search your profile / For a translation
I study the conversation / Like a map
‘cuz I know there is strength in the differences
and I know there is comfort where we overlap
Because she was so prolific—producing, on average, one new album each year—we fans never had to grow tired of what DiFranco had to offer. First there was her eponymous album (I still have the worn-out cassette version) then—in quick succession—Not So Soft (1991), Imperfectly (1992), Puddle Dive (1993), Like I Said (1993), Out of Range (1994), and Not a Pretty Girl (1995). We haven’t even gotten to Dilate—which may be my favorite of her albums, full of righteous anger—or Little Plastic Castles.
DiFranco’s fans were legendary for their intense identification with her and her music. When I took my male cousin with me to see her perform at New York City’s Irving Plaza in the late 1990s, he marveled at how her audience knew all the words to all her songs. “That doesn’t happen at a Liz Phair concert,” he said. In her new memoir, No Walls and the Recurring Dream, she expresses gratitude to these very same ardent fans:
Even in deepest obscurity, I was blessed with listeners who supported and affirmed my existence in the way that I so craved, but also, right from the beginning, I was challenged by their high demands. The intensity in me, naturally found its likeness in the world.
Ani (pronounced “AH-nee”) DiFranco was born Angela DiFranco in Buffalo, New York, in 1970. Her father was the first American-born son of an Italian family from Campobasso (near Naples), and her mother, who studied architecture, was Canadian. In the memoir DiFranco provides an indelible image of a kid who embraced being different from an early age.
I was the wildly expressive girl with the rainbow socks pulled up over my overalls and pigtails in my hair. A bright smiling clown. I was my wildly expressive mother’s understudy and I earned the label “weird” from the other kids.
DiFranco expressed her independence from a young age. At eight or so (she doesn’t give an exact age), she read about a horse camp in the back of the Sunday New York Times and negotiated with her parents to pay half. (She earned the remaining half by selling pressed-flower greeting cards, babysitting, and busking.) At age 15, she became an emancipated minor, renting a room from a Lebanese woman in Buffalo, while gigging around town with Michael Meldrum, her first musical mentor. (She relied on her dad’s Social Security check to pay rent, but later got a job waiting tables at a Greek diner.) In high school, she told the principal that if he didn’t allow her to graduate in three years (still squeezing in all her needed credits), she’d quit and get a GED. He assented, as long as she promised to be discreet. “It was a theme that was just starting to appear in my life: Okay, I will let you be the exception, just don’t tell anyone,” she writes. “I didn’t know it at the time, but this theme was to carry all the way through to my eventual relationship with the music industry and its gatekeepers.” She recorded her first demo tape in 1990, the same year she founded Righteous Babe Records, her label. She was not yet twenty years old.
She moved to New York and attended the New School in Greenwich Village, studying poetry with poet/musician Sekou Sundiata, a lasting influence on her writing. She also took Feminism 101, where she read Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Ntozake Shange, and Carol Gilligan. “I knew it right away: I am a part of the feminist continuum. I am entering myself,” writes DiFranco of that education. This class was also where she re-discovered the poetry of Lucille Clifton, whose “lost baby poem,” about having an illegal abortion, helped her put words to her own abortion. Difranco’s Lost Woman Song is dedicated to Clifton and she’d often recite “lost baby poem” on stage as an invocation before singing her own.
DiFranco’s memoir is as bold as her songwriting. In straightforward, vivid prose, we learn about her brother’s mental illness, the circumstances surrounding her two abortions, and details about past lovers. She opens one early paragraph with this revelation: “I’m not sure if this is typical but I, personally, had seen a lot of penises by the time I was ten.” Men exposing themselves to young girls “seemed like the kind of thing that just happens, like thunder, to make you suddenly jump out of your skin.” She and her friend Ingeri develop a sixth sense for flashers and learned how to avoid them—an experience which is perfectly conveyed as both horrifying and utterly normal.
On the question of musical influences, DiFranco reveals that she’s always been “somewhat sincerely stumped.” “For one thing, who stops and examines themselves in the middle of a journey?,” she asks, quite wisely. But I enjoyed learning that the man she refers to only as “First Boyfriend” exposed her to Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Joni Mitchell, “and a host of other heroes of the hippie cosmos.” Joan Armatrading and British singer/songwriter John Martyn got deeply under her skin, especially Martyn’s record, Solid Air. “I believe his guitar playing resides deep inside mine and his circular, jazz-inflected grooves wove their way slowly into my DNA,” DiFranco writes. She also met and listened to Suzanne Vega (“something about her presence provided me with subliminal proof of my own difference”) and absorbed John Fahey and the Beatles. Later, she would discover jazz (coincidentally around the same time she discovered cannabis)—specifically Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Betty Carter—and groove music and West African musicians like Baaba Maal, Mansour Seck, and Farka Touré. Even Prince, who she eventually meets while on tour with saxophonist Maceo Parker, is an influence. (I’ll never forget DiFranco’s rapturous cover of When Doves Cry at a concert in Edmonton, Canada.)
Meanwhile, the memorable backstory to her first abortion is a tender reminder of how easy it is to get pregnant—even when you’re educated and responsible and trying so hard not to. She begins by recounting her pre-sex preparations:
I must have been the only teenage virgin to ever walk into the Buffalo Planned Parenthood to properly plan for having her first run-in with a penis because I was an instant celebrity. The nurse practitioner took me around the whole office and introduced me to everyone. They all acted proud of me and it felt like I was giving them hope. Maybe some of the educational efforts they had been putting forth were having an effect on society. Maybe the world was changing for young women.
DiFranco leaves with a prescription for the pill and general approbation, but “in those days the pill was like a hormonal sledgehammer” and she feels dizzy every time she stands up. Predictably, she stops taking it and, well— “Instantly I was pregnant,” she writes.
“Why, why would you stop taking it?” the nurse asked me as I cried in her office. “I don’t know,” I whimpered, “I just made a mistake.”
In the end, severely depressed, she opts for an abortion—“This was a solvable problem, not the end of my life”—and returns to writing poems and songs, playing her guitar, and becoming the significant musician we know her as today. Later in the book, after a profound philosophical disquisition about when life starts, and the admission that she’s happily carried two children to term, DiFranco re-affirms a belief in the right to abortion. “Every situation is unique and every woman is right when she decides what is right for herself,” she writes. “Reproductive freedom should be understood as a civil right.”
Her fan base loved her bold declarations about abortion; her complexity was less tolerated. As DiFranco described in her early (somewhat meteoric) rise, she grappled with the power of her iconography and what she represents to her mainly young and female fans. When she fell in love with and later married Goat (her male sound engineer), for example, a certain portion of her vocal dyke fans felt betrayed—and let her know. Though she now concedes that the media probably gave the conflict outsized attention, DiFranco was hurt by the relentlessness of the criticism. In the memoir, she sums it up:
There had really been no more backlash against my marriage than there had been to every other thing I’d ever done but, after a certain number of repetitions, I doubted even the weight of my own experience.
Even though DiFranco writes that she finds it insulting that someone might ask her who a song is about, one of the great joys of reading her memoir is hearing echoes of her lyrics in the stories she shares. “My parents were patriotic about paying taxes and taught me all of what you get for it in America,” she writes in the first chapter. “They not only voted, but my mother volunteered her time to local candidates she believed in. I sat with her stuffing envelopes and licking stamps in circles of laughing women and I went canvassing door to door holding onto her hand” (a story I’d heard in “Paradigm,” from her album Knuckle Down). I’d always wondered about a lyric from “Cradle and All”—and now I know its origins: the Trico plant she refers to in the song (which moved to Mexico) is a windshield wiper factory, based in Buffalo. Later she talks about the end of her relationship with First Boyfriend, and how his resistance to breaking up included punching things. “There were holes in the plasterboard right next to where my head had been,” she writes, an image that devoted fans will remember from Out of Range. Sometimes, she even tells us who she wrote a song about. For instance, “If He Tries Anything” was about her Mexican road trip with Shawnee.
No Walls and the Recurring Dream is a delightfully picaresque memoir, but there are some glaring omissions. For one thing, though the book is chronological (for the most part), she’s not consistent about giving dates. Also, DiFranco only glancingly mentions her two children—Petah and Dante. (And we never learn who their father is, or if he’s still her partner.) I didn’t expect them to be the centerpiece of this story, but I was curious—as I assume many of her fans are—to hear whether motherhood has changed her priorities and informed her songwriting and activism.
As a parent of a teenage girl, I was eager to know how she navigates the twin issues of screen time and sugar: is she like her dad, who said, “Let them eat a box of donuts! They will get sick and throw up and they will learn!,” or like her more structured mom? And how does an artist like DiFranco encourage the kind of boredom that leads to hours of creative exploration, the kind of solitude that she herself knew well as a teen, but that few children experience these days due to the siren song of social media, video games, and Netflix? I’m afraid we’ll never know, although there is one clue to her parental prerogatives. On page 167, after describing the Mexican adventure with her friendturned- lover Shawnee, she does give a word of advice to her daughter: “It’s all okay but the hitchhiking. That shit’s just too dangerous.”
In her final pages, she divulges that her children have always been jealous of her music. “Both my kids looked instantly upon my guitar as the enemy,” she writes. “Goddess forbid Mommy should start playing and get that faraway look in her eyes … If I am in the same city with them, and they are awake, songwriting is forbidden. It would be like taking air out of their lungs.” Other than that hint, DiFranco doesn’t reveal much of anything that happened in her life after 2001—including the nine albums she’s produced since then. DiFranco writes,
You’ll have to forgive me. I only ever intended this book to be the “making of” story. I probably should’ve warned you at the onset. The remake is a story that is still writing itself, right now. A story so much in motion that words couldn’t even begin to nail it down. But rest assured, the greatest happiness, fulfillment, and accomplishments of the girl in this book are still ahead of her.
The inside dope of DiFranco’s life remains hers to reveal to her fans, or not. Her honesty, it’s clear, still shines brightest in her songs—which continue to evolve, as she does.
Hannah Wallace is a freelance journalist who writes primarily about food, health, and sustainable agriculture. Whenever she gets the chance, she also writes about strong women—be they activists, artists, entrepreneurs, winemakers, or chefs.
Please Read This Leaflet Carefully By Karen Havelin
New York, NY: Dottir Press, 2019, 280 pp., $16.95, paperback
Reviewed by Kira von Eichel
We live in a noisy time. The noise of culture, politics, identity—and that particularly noisy place where they all intersect. It’s the era of voices once silenced being heard—shouted from rooftops, celebrated and liberated. Women, people of color, LGBTQ, and survivors of violence, sexual or otherwise, are for the first time speaking and writing about their experiences. Inherent to narratives of suppressed voices is pain. The pain is at the hands of an oppressor or a predator, either individual or a system or group, and clearly villainous. The best of these narratives can carry us, their readers, into, through and, finally, to triumph over that pain. Our hearts ache and soar alongside of a hero/heroine’s journey, as we align ourselves with them and revel in their successes. It feels good.
Karen Havelin’s debut novel Read This Leaflet Carefully is a different beast altogether, but no less potent. It is quiet and its transcendence comes not from the triumph over the villain, but from something else, something that challenges us to bravery in the face of no clear end. We are dropped into the life of a woman in her early thirties, Laura Fjellstad, who has long suffered from allergies to almost everything and, since her late teens, chronic pain from extreme endometriosis (a condition wherein the lining of the uterus spills out and creates a web of painful scar tissue throughout the pelvic cavity and sometimes beyond, resulting in everything from gastrointestinal issues to pain throughout the body to infertility). In this story, the villain is a lifetime of illness and pain—invisible to the outside world, as the body attacks itself from the inside. There is no visible handicap or assailant, save for moments when pain becomes unbearable and results in collapse. Internally, though, it is crashing noises and blinding white hot flashes. Externally, it’s a life of “grin and bear it” and being rewarded for not taking up space, not being a victim. The great accomplishment of this book is how it navigates what is created by the friction between the two.
The character of Laura is perfectly rendered in Havelin’s steady, unflinching prose as a real human being, simmering with rage at not being seen or heard or wanted as she is. Chronic pain is not unlike mental health in that it can elicit judgment and fatigue, even from the most loving and well intentioned among us. Society rewards the noble sufferer. The afflicted is dependent on everyone: doctors, family, friends, even strangers on a subway train. Havelin deftly navigates the murky waters of what the true voice of chronic physical pain is, and moreover, what simply being human and loving is. There’s a thrilling ferocity to this character. She simply is. She is brave, she is afraid, she is petty, she is resentful, and she is noble. About her divorce, Laura says,
The failure of our marriage hinged on him giving in to the temptation of secretly believing my illness was my fault. That there was some abstract, heroic, grand gesture to be performed, but I refused to do it.
That is at the crux of this story. Who is allowed to call herself brave, who is a victim and how should she behave to be deserving of love, pity, and empathy?
The novel moves back in time through Laura’s life, and through Laura’s body, from 2016, when she is a single mother of a toddler in New York City, all the way to 1995, at which point she is an underweight but strong fourteen-year-old figure skater in Bergen, Norway, beset by deadly allergies and illness since infancy. The narrative device is particularly effective—and poignant—because the reader becomes omniscient; we know what happens, what young Laura has ahead of her, as we move back in time. We know what each decision will result in, and we ache or rejoice all the more for it. The book is interspersed with passages from a book about figure skating and as we travel back in time with Laura we learn that she was once a competitive skater. That her brain had such control and symmetry with her body, that she could train and then will a form of perfection on the ice. Her body was once hers, it once obeyed her. We first meet Laura as a New Yorker, a European runaway from the shackles of being the family member who is sick and must be cared for, and the attendant guilt. In America, she is not simply the patient. She is the graduate, the mother, the writer; she has movement, hope, love, marriage (then divorce) to a man possessed with what she calls “rude health.” Laura embraces New York because New York is not afraid of hurting her. It’s refreshing. In New York there’s a freedom to the rough anonymity and the shoddy healthcare.
It turns out that the rest of the world is more like me than it’s like Norway. I’m more at home around people whose lives seem as hopeless and disrupted as mine does. My long list of allergies, which made me a freak growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, barely raises an eyebrow in New York City.
We are in Laura’s body from the moment we first see her in the gynecologist’s office, legs in stirrups. The prose is not heavy handed, but simply suffused with the physicality of the experience, familiar to any woman who has endured the necessary prodding and awkward conversation over paper draped across the knees. Havelin writes, about the female body, “there are so many things that swell, ache, cramp and drop.” That body remains a mysterious inner landscape in this culture, understood by some, but only partially, especially when it comes to pain, allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities. Women occupy a strange no-woman’s-land of intolerance and ridicule on one end and pious judgment on the other. Things like the wellness website GOOP and its like have arisen, in large part, to address the murky hinterlands of pain that describe much of women’s experience. They explore alternative treatments to ill-researched and puzzling afflictions because women’s health concerns have long been ignored or easily dismissed as based in mental illness. Women have been trained, as Laura has, to “behave” with doctors and accept it when they’re told it’s nothing. At age 25, before Laura is finally diagnosed with endometriosis, her doctor treats her for depression and psychosomatic stomach issues.
In real life, endometriosis itself has only recently been identified and treated as a real condition. Lena Dunham has very publicly written of having a hysterectomy as a long-shot solution to the pain of her own endometriosis. On the other extreme, current, earnest, wellness fascism asks, have you done enough acupuncture and steamed your vagina as well as invested in extremely rare mushroom potion and organic biodynamic kale? Laura is conscientious in her care for herself, availing herself of the laundry list of alternative modalities alongside of the regular doctor ’s visits. Meditation, acupuncture, yoga, therapy, the list goes on. There is a sense, though, throughout the novel, that she is to blame no matter what.
As the story progresses (or retrogresses) we travel through the landscape of pain and love and where Laura falls on that spectrum. We meet lovers—men and women—family, friends, all of whom do their best in love and care and still casually humiliate Laura with asides and judgments. Perhaps most bittersweet and painful is the effect on love. Love will always be a hurdle for those who have to juggle need with being perceived as too needy. Either the lover or the loved will push away, disengage. Laura is left by lovers. But then, Laura also rejects the man who does stand by her side, who will take care of her. As we move back in time we find out that she saw herself as freeing him from that role of caretaker. Laura, like anyone, wants to be loved as she is, taken care of, but also to be free. The shame of illness and its effects are explored with generosity here: the, to put it bluntly, stupid, stupid, sad choices we make around shame. The stupid things people say. The stupid decisions to leave a loved one, to “free” him from caring, only to realize years later, that that may not have been the kind thing. There is a beautiful muscular physicality to the book, pulsing through cities and bodies and between characters. Some of the book’s best moments are when Havelin carries us into Laura, describing the sensations of walking, holding a child, having sex, being poked and prodded. There is something of a fever dream to it. It’s almost as if the plot is beside the point. It enhances the science fiction-like quality of pain, how it takes over the body, how it renders a woman helpless when she defiantly does not wish to be helpless, and how it is invisible. (Sigourney Weaver in Alien came to mind reading this book, in a good way.)
Perhaps I would have a better life if I could manufacture more meaning from it all. Through illness, you mostly just get screwed. You lose so much time, putting in full days of misery and there is really no end to how bad it can get. Time spent suffering didn’t teach me anything I wanted to learn. But perhaps as time passes, it’s possible to learn not to blame yourself. Life is hard enough. Take what is offered, because it might not always be around. You can’t be harder and harder, stronger and stronger, more and more disciplined until you compress into a diamond. People aren’t mineral or metal. They are soft flesh, where love and pain echo through the body. Sometimes you have to ease up, to let go. You never know what will be able to help you. Compassion and gentleness are also endless. There are limitless possibilities inside other people. They could possibly say something other than what you expected.
Although there is a very palpable lack of silver lining to the pain, there is still hope to be found in these pages. The story is bookended by Laura figure skating, first as a grown woman and then as a teenager with everything ahead of her. It is her strength, her sense of control over her body and how she finds beauty in her body. We know when we read the final part, set in 1995, what the young teenager will experience and we know it will be awful. But we also know that this character is triumphant in her way. That even with all the loss, she will love and be loved. She will find joy in being clung to and needed by her own child. It’s a story that not only gives voice to the invisible specter of constant physical pain, but it also challenges our notions of what constitutes happy endings and how meandering and messy the whole picture can be, with joy and pain interwoven. This book is ultimately not simply a view into chronic pain; it is also a close-up of how we love. How we see ourselves in the eyes and actions of those we love, and how we negotiate the freedom to take up the space we deserve. Of what could have been and how we wrestle with what is.
Kira von Eichel is a writer in Brooklyn.