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.