Dear Readers:

Some history: In October of 1983—Reagan in the White House, Operation Rescue activists bicycle chained to clinic entrances, Fatal Attraction in development at Paramount—Wellesley professor Linda Gardiner published the first issue of the Women’s Review of Books. Her vision: a monthly review to counter male-dominated, influential venues such as the New York Times Book Review and New York Review of Books and a space where books by women and feminist scholars would get their due. It was a hit and a haven.

In 2003, after twenty years of producing the review, Linda Gardiner passed the red pencil to Amy Hoffman. The business side of the review—dealing with subscriptions, printers, bills—had become onerous, so WRB shut down for a year to reorient. Ian Mellanby and Guy Griffiths, the owners of Philadelphia’s Old City Publishing, stepped in, and Hoffman edited the review (now bi-monthly) until fall of 2017, when Wellesley exited its support of the editorial side. Hoffman stepped down, and Old City was scrambling to figure out their next move. Should WRB be totally digital? A different format? Shut down? This is where I come in. 

In December of 2017, I received a serendipitous email from Ian Mellanby. A mutual friend, Linda Stein, told him I had recently left the Feminist Press and might be a good short-term fix for their sudden vacuum in leadership. My publishing house, Dottir Press, was in the works, but the first book wouldn’t be in stores for nearly a year, so the notion of income was attractive. More than that, though, I was excited to assign books and edit the writers I admire. I met with Ian and Guy in Philadelphia a few days later, and we agreed I would step in as editor for the five issues that remained of 2018.

One year became four. Editing the Women’s Review of Books was really gratifying, it turns out, even fun. Publishers Ian and Guy never interfered or second-guessed me, so our relationship was friction-free. The reviewers (hundreds of them, over the years) were professional and so generous with their talent, especially given the compensation. Deep thanks to my colleagues on the editorial side—assistants Kayla Bert, Alice Stewart, and Jackie Zeisloft and photo-essay editor Ellen Feldman. I’ve worked most closely with copy editor Peggy Barlow, poetry editor Katha Pollitt, and my trusted collaborators Charis Caputo and Noelle McManus. Guy, wearing his production hat, was patient and responsive to our many design tweaks. Wellesley Centers for Women has had a reduced role since I worked out of New York, but Donna Tambascio and Megan Cassidy (among others) are enthusiastic, organized boosters of each issue, as is WCW’s director, Dr. Layli Maparyan.

In this, my last editor’s letter, the main thing I want convey is my thanks—to all of the people who subscribe, to the people who write for us, and to everyone who made the Women’s Review of Books the institution it is. In my first editor’s letter, I noted how crucial the role of feminist writing was and is in building this movement. This is still true. The feminist revolution might not be televised, but it has long been published. Let’s all keep reading.

 

Jennifer Baumgardner
New York City
October 15, 2021

P.S. This is the last issue edited by the team of Jennifer, Charis, Noelle, and Katha—but the Women’s Review of Books is continuing. I wish we could tell you more, but at press time, details were still being finalized. Stay tuned!

Dear Readers:

I started working on Women’s Review of Books in February of 2020. For just one month before the lockdown, Jennifer and I worked several hours a week at her dining room table in Greenwich Village. It was a vertiginous time for me. (Needless to say it was about to become much more so.) I’d been in New York only eighteen months and had no contacts outside of NYU. I was adrift after the sudden end of a long relationship and was trying to make a shift in my career, but in which direction I wasn’t sure. I had a background in academic libraries but no MLS, and after my first master's had become disillusioned with academia. I was of course deeply interested in writing, books, and ideas but had minimal experience in publishing. I felt at that time as if I had no professional home. I’ve heard Jennifer say many times now that, in her view, feminism is basically about inclusion. It’s about saying yes to people, inviting them into the tent under the assumption of shared values. Certainly, that’s what she did for me.

And that’s what we’ve tried to do together these last couple of years, even as the world seemed to deal one disorienting blow after another: invite both new and familiar voices into the discussion of those shared values, from wherever we could think to find them. These voices have uniquely blended academic and popular registers and interests in a way it seems has always made WRB special and exciting. The conversations we were able to have—both in these pages and in the many editorial and pitch emails and phone calls that produced them—in a time of insanity and isolation kept me sane and brought me into the fold of an expanding, intergenerational community of feminist intellectuals. I’ve learned so much in the process, not just about publishing but about also about herstory and about the rich tradition of second-wave periodicals of which this journal persists as a proud legacy. I even got to work with some of the women who helped build that tradition and to learn some of that herstory firsthand. (In a recent Zoom call with contributor Shane Snowden, former editor and publisher of the Boston-based magazine Sojourner, Jennifer and I learned that Shane had in fact mentored WRB’s founding editor, Linda Gardiner, in typesetting. It was a nice full-circle moment!)

I am so grateful for the privilege of getting to work on this review: to Jennifer, to all the contributors whose words and images comprised these issues, to the subscribers, to Ian and Guy and the rest of the Old City Publishing crew, to Wellesley Centers for Women, and to the foremothers who made this enterprise and my participation in it possible. Thank you.

 

Charis Caputo
New York City
October 15, 2021

Winter Is Coming: Reading Bryther and H.D. in this Moment By Blanche Wiesen Cook

Some did not believe her; others did not care; nothing was done when much could have been done.

H.D.During this past summer of reflection, tragedy, and continual change, I became obsessed by the works of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, l886–1961) and Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman, 1894–1983). Two of our most dramatic and intriguing foremothers, their many works, generated by the agonies of two world wars, merit our immediate attention.

I began with Bryher’s Visa for Avalon (originally published in 1965 and a new edition via Paris Press in 2004), a prescient and profound “novel of warning” against apathy and complacency during dangerous authoritarian times. From 1933 to 1938 Bryher—philanthropist, publisher, writer, activist—had warned her friends in France, England, and the US about Hitler's astonishing atrocities, which she had witnessed in Berlin and across Germany. Some did not believe her; others did not care; nothing was done when much could have been done.

Visa for Avalon occurs when it is too late and there is hope only in escape. As all freedoms disappear and “people like us have no rights anymore,” there is a frantic effort to leave for a new country. Every page grips the reader as we follow a small group of familiars as they struggle to get on board with a visa for safe passage. Every refugee (European, Afghan, and American) is conjured on every page. Every word is relevant and heartfelt, but the answer to their plight does not appear until the last page.

As we contemplate the struggles of the present and future, we do well to remember the past. Jan Freeman, the visionary founder of Paris Press, recovered and republished this powerful work as well as Bryher’s compelling memoir, The Heart to Artemis (2006). The latter is filled with stunning details of her wartime ordeal as well as heroic successes at saving over one hundred refugees. Bryher, too, presents the wonderment of her life-long relationship with the poet/scholar/ memoirist H.D. The love affair began while World War I still raged, and Bryher was saved from despair by one book: Sea Garden by H.D., whom she assumed was a man. “I learned it by heart from cover to cover,” she writes. “I began the morning and ended the day repeating the poems.” Several months later, she discovered that H.D. was a woman, an American, living in England. They had mutual friends, they lived close to each other in Cornwall. Bryher wrote a note; H.D. invited her for tea. They met on July 17th, 1918. Bryher stared at “the Greek statue” who opened the door. They had surely met before, she thought, in this or some other life. Their lives were changed forever.

Steeped in classical, mystical, magical, psychoanalytic, and creative worlds, H.D. is a bridge from then to now—across time and space, heart and spirit—enraptured by all the elements that might lead us to activism, love, healing, world community.

Many of my friends have been enthralled by H.D. My friend Diane di Prima, for instance, created an ode to H.D. entitled The Mysteries of Vision: Some Notes on H.D. (In 2011, Ammiel Alcalay and the Lost & Found Initiative at CUNY’s Graduate Center reprinted this essay/lecture.) After a lifetime of reading Eleanor Roosevelt and all connected to her, it was a pleasure to enter the worlds of H.D. and Bryher. I became immersed in writings I had amassed over the years from various friends, such as Notes on Thoughts and Vision and The Wise Sappho (City Lights, 2001), gifted to me by Judy Grahn. While most of H.D.’s writings include autobiographical references, her Tribute to Freud includes a contemplative account of her life and work and an engaged glimpse of the father of psychoanalysis in late life.

By mid-summer, I moved on to works about these foundational modernist feminist figures. Truly, to appreciate H.D., I studied the amazing scholarship of Susan Stanford Friedman of UW-Madison, especially her Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D. (Indiana University Press, 1981, 1987), Penelope’s Web: Gender, Modernity, H.D.’s Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 1990), and Signets: Reading H.D. (H.D.’s essays, co-edited with Rachel Blau DuPlessis, University of Wisconsin Press, 1991). After that, I reread every word my friend Perdita Schaffner wrote about her mother H.D. and also reread Herself Defined (Doubleday, 1984), the authoritative biography of H.D. by the late poet Barbara Guest.

I emerged from this study during the last week of summer. Then, two of my pals gave me a surprise, the 2021 Vintage Classics edition of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West: Love Letters, with an introduction by Alison Bechdel. One is not given the name of the editor who provided this most delightful read—with stunning letters embraced by relevant diary entries. I discovered “selection by Lily Lindon” and presumed she was the editor of this short volume that, for romance and pleasure, overshadowed the fuller compendiums. Truly, it was a perfect end to my summer. I offer it to you, now, for the winter ahead.

Blanche Wiesen Cook is a Distinguished Professor of History and Women's Studies at John Jay and the Graduate Center (CUNY) and the author of a three-volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt (Penguin). In 2020, Oxford University Press republished her edited volume Crystal Eastman on Women and Revolution.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? By Kait Heacock

Simone de BeauvooirMinimalist by nature, I am nonetheless uneasy each December, filled with dread about what I don’t have—the traditions I lack, the carols I can’t sing by heart, the merry memories I can’t access. I was raised with the remnants of a religion, one that separated me from the holiday world. My parents were once Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they believed the only way to interact with the world was by evangelizing to it. By the time I was born, they were more or less out of the church—done attending meetings, at least, if not entirely free from the shame many Witnesses feel for any desire to play sports, vote, or celebrate holidays. To appease his still-religious family, my father decided we wouldn’t celebrate holidays, which meant no costumes on Halloween, no Valentines to hand out to my classmates, no Easter basket or letter to Santa. The first time I decorated a Christmas tree was at my older sister’s apartment in 1999. I picked up a box of ornaments and burst into tears.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are the butt of jokes, the weird kids in school whose religion forbids them from saying the pledge of allegiance. Being an outsider turned me into an observer and a seeker. It also made me want to better understand people and how to connect to them. But it is difficult to find your way to community if you’ve been raised to be an outsider. So, in the fall of 2020, I signed up for a course on existentialism, having had an underwhelming introduction to philosophy as an undergrad and a pandemic-induced desire to find more meaning in life. In class, we read philosophers Kierkegaard and Sartre, but none challenged me the way Simone de Beauvoir did.

When Beauvoir wrote “Pyrrhus and Cineas,” her first essay, World War II had just shown how intrinsically, at times horrifically, our fates are linked—a vision of global interdependency made even more relevant by today’s pandemic and environmental chaos. She wrote her essay in response to Voltaire’s assertion that we should tend to our own gardens instead of making ourselves miserable in search of deeper meaning. Beauvoir asked readers to consider what those gardens actually are—our relationships—and how we want to cultivate them. She challenged me to ask myself: Do I want to close myself off to the world with its holidays and rituals like some of my relatives still do, or to look beyond the confines of my experiences to connect with others?

Beauvoir teaches that the meaning of life is to create meaning through our acts and connections. If I had taken this class before the pandemic, while still in my (angry) atheist phase, I would have seen myself in Nietzschean nihilism: Believing that there is no God, it’s hard to find meaning in the world save whatever we make ourselves. I am still that angry atheist, but now I believe that we do not make meaning alone, but relationally; we mean something when we mean something to others.

Digging through a box of old family photos during the winter of 2020, I encountered two black-and-white photos from my mother’s childhood. In one, she and her twin brother are babies tearing open gifts. The second is of a perfect 1950s Christmas tree drowning in tinfoil. I learned that my grandmother didn’t become a Jehovah’s Witness until my mom was seven, so my mom had the experience of having and losing holidays—and the normalcy that connects you to the world. I think often of her stolen childhood whenever I feel too pitiful about mine. Looking at the image of my mother as a joyful baby, open to the world, I wonder how her life would have looked if her mother had chosen a different path. Would my mother have been more outgoing? Would she have gone to college instead of marrying at nineteen? From wondering about her alternative timeline, it’s a short leap to pondering mine. Who would I be without the stifling messages about sex I grew up with? I still resent my parents for the choice they made to remain tethered to a deeply fraught religion. I resent my father for his arbitrary-seeming decision to hold onto some of the rules, but not all of them. It made for a confusing understanding of God, the afterlife, and my place in the world. I knew that as a nonbeliever I wouldn’t make it into the New System that Jehovah’s Witnesses believed was waiting for them. But neither was I comfortable in the world I so desperately wanted to join. How do you unlearn the lessons of your childhood? Beauvoir suggests it is by learning new ways to be in the world.


My partner and I are lucky for the home we have, tucked away on a tree-lined residential street, a Capitol Hill apartment building that once housed the workers who built the Space Needle. We’ve made friends with half of the people in the six-unit building and have regular dinners and pet-sit for each other. We even provided emergency showers when the plumbing broke in two of the apartments. I’ve never lived in a community as tight and nurturing as this. In “The Ethics of Ambiguity,” Beauvoir argues that people bestow meaning upon each other. We begin as “subjectivity that realizes itself only as a presence in the world,” but we do not stop at the Cartesian viewpoint of self. Humans are not inanimate objects passively receiving meaning. A person can put meaning onto a childhood toy or a photograph, but those objects do not in turn grant us meaning. Nor is there a Jehovah or higher power to redeem us and give our lives meaning. As Beauvoir notes, people “bear the responsibility for a world which is not the work of a strange power.”

It is terribly sad to realize the ambivalence of the universe. The human condition is to know that we mortals live in an indifferent universe that and we are all going to die. Despite, and because of that, we search for meaning: Why are we here? What do we do with these lives we’ve been given? This is where Beauvoir’s philosophy takes an actionable turn: A human’s responsibility is to “make it important to be a human.” One can be a subject alone, but one cannot be an object without others. In community, we are each subject and object at the same time, but this seemingly incongruent existence is only possible because “the human can find a justification of their own existence only in the existence of other humans.” We are not born attached to the world or anything in it. We form attachments as we find each other and add value to each other’s lives. Beauvoir advises against remaining unattached: “If I myself were only a thing, nothing indeed would concern me. If I withdraw into myself, the other is also closed for me. The inert existence of things is separation and solitude.” 


“Often during hardship, one thus denies all one’s attachments,” Beauvoir wrote. I knew that Christmas 2020 was going to be subpar no matter what, but because my partner felt more comfortable traveling during the holidays than me, we ended up apart. I was a Christmas orphan. This could have been isolating and depressing, but then my neighbor Anna suggested we eat Christmas Eve dinner together. I had been guilty of pushing people away during past tragedies, but during the holidays, especially during the pandemic, I wanted nothing more than to feel attached. Four of us stragglers came together for Christmas Eve dinner, bundled up to eat on the walkway in front of our building. Anna, who was desperate to visit her widower father in Minneapolis, turned her pandemic-induced anxiety into baking. A Christmas fanatic—the only one in our building with a tree and a wreath on her door—Anna took charge of planning the menu and organized when the four of us would gather. We had dinner on the early side to catch a bit of waning blue light. We were lucky to not have rain. It was Seattle. We bundled up in thick coats and gloves, except for David, my neighbor from Texas, who wore shorts even in the winter. We toasted to each other and to finding community during a time of extreme isolation.

Jehovah’s Witnesses see other people as evil or worldly and must avoid them at all costs, unless when witnessing and trying to save them. Beauvoir, on the other hand, believed that because there is no God, our responsibility to each other is even greater. “Thus our relationship with the world is not decided from the onset; it is we who decide,” she wrote. We may be shaped by others’ choices and scarred from our childhood traumas, but we also have the personal freedom to choose how we want to live in this world. If we live for a future paradise, a New System, we evade our present reality—and ignore our finiteness. Groping my way through the pandemic’s darkness, my best moments came when I reached for other hands to hold, someone to keep me steady. No, our bodies will not last forever, but the legacies we leave and the connections we build do outlive us. Our finite lives transcend into the infinite when we join in communion with our fellow persons. At the end of Christmas dinner, I gave each of my neighbors a book and a bookmark upon which I inscribed the Beauvoir line they made real for me: “One is not the neighbor of anyone; one makes the other a neighbor by making oneself his neighbor through an act.”

 

Kait Heacock is a writer and book publicist in Seattle and a frequent contributor to Women’s Review of Books.

Spring and Autumn Annals By Diane di Prima

Reviewed by Jolie Braun

‘I woke to the sense that there was a lot to do, all of it beautiful, all of it urgent.’

Spring Autumn Annals CoverA few years ago, I was researching poet Diane di Prima’s 1960s publishing venture, Poets Press, an underappreciated but important small press she used to publish the poetry of friends such as Audre Lorde, Allen Ginsberg, and A. B. Spellman, as well as her own work. My project led me to the University of Louisville, whose collection of di Prima’s papers contains material from this period. Looking through the boxes, I was struck by what was and wasn’t in her archives. There was no financial information, business records, or other official items of Poets Press. Instead, there were bits and pieces: mentions in letters and postcards, print runs and potential projects jotted down in notebooks, flyers for a book launch party. Such a motley assemblage is likely because di Prima’s life at the time was one of change and movement at odds with record keeping and saving materials. Spring and Autumn Annals, written during 1964–65 and published for the first time in its entirety this October (the one-year anniversary of di Prima’s passing), is a record of this extraordinarily active and tumultuous period in her life.

She began keeping a journal after her friend, the dancer and Warhol-star Fred Herko, committed suicide on October 27, 1964. He was twenty-eight. Struggling to accept his death, she wrote daily for a year, timing her sessions by lighting a stick of incense and writing until it burned down. Spring and Autumn Annals, the result, is several things at once. Most immediately, it is an elegy for her friend and muse, about whom di Prima wrote many poems, including the collection Freddie Poems in 1972. In Annals, she portrays a charismatic and flawed figure whom she first met on a bench in Washington Square Park ten years earlier. Herko had trained at Juilliard as a pianist before deciding to pursue dance, studying at the American Ballet Theater School and with Merce Cunningham. He was handsome, gentle, and impulsive. She recalls his refrain: “Where’s your sense of adventure, di Prima?” A growing dependence on amphetamines during the last several months of Herko’s life led him to become increasingly unstable. As she recounts their shared apartments, early-morning and late-night conversations, coffee at diners, arguments, and heartbreaks, it becomes clear that for all the uncertainty during their twenties, they were constants in one another’s lives. She feels pangs of his absence, writing “The air is filled with things you would have made.”

Diane di PrimaThe book’s secondary function is as memoir. “This was to be a book of remembrances,” she writes, as she records the events of daily life: running the press, doing household tasks, reading (Virgil, Gertrude Stein), learning Greek, and visiting with friends. Despite the busyness, there is a pervading sense of restlessness and searching, which may be part of what inspires her trips from New York City to the West Coast, dropping acid, and meditation. Di Prima often slips into earlier memories, and as the name suggests, Spring and Autumn Annals is organized by season, with the time of year guiding her recollections. During the fall, for instance, she describes a past Thanksgiving: “ … the shopping I did with Joan on Ninth Avenue. Those stalls at dusk, abundance of food, the chilly red light floating over the Hudson River. Oysters and filet mignon and even duck. Our shot at elegance. Three kinds of wine, soup, pastries, somehow sorrowful. All eaten with chilly hands, fingers always cold.” In July she recalls childhood vacations at the beach or lake, but about the present summer admits, “with the warm air pressing down on us and the sounds of kids out of school climbing on the stoops, jumping on the cars, the dust in the areaways, the cats languid, the flies coming in to see what the garbage is like, it becomes impossible to think or write of summer as an objective fact.” The seasons and their rituals frame di Prima’s portrait of her life in the moment; they mark the passage of time as she reflects on change.

Most significantly, Spring and Autumn Annals provides a window into the underground literary and art communities of the 1950s and 1960s and di Prima’s place within them. She is the most well-known of the women writers associated with the Beat Generation, but di Prima remains far less recognized than her male counterparts such as Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. In his preface, poet and critic Ammiel Alcalay argues for di Prima’s wider recognition, not just for her writing but for the creative labor she performed during this era, particularly her advocacy of other writers and artists. She was engaged in a variety of projects, including editing and publishing the magazine The Floating Bear with LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka), co-founding The New York Poets Theatre (which featured performances by poets, dancers, and other artists), and publishing books through Poets Press (including The First Cities, Audre Lorde’s first collection). Narrated in Spring and Autumn Annals, these endeavors can be a source of anxiety, but they also inspire hope and excitement: “I woke to the sense that there was a lot to do, all of it beautiful, all of it urgent.” While di Prima is primarily linked to the Beats, the book is also a reminder of the interconnectedness of the mid-century literary movements, and her world is populated by an extensive network of individuals from these circles, including poet Frank O’Hara, writer Herbert Huncke, and artist George Herms. Although she was not fastidious about maintaining records for Poets Press, her activities during this period show a dedication to documenting and promoting the work of her friends and contemporaries.

Spring and Autumn Annals, however, is not a romanticized portrait of mid-century bohemian life. Money was often a problem for di Prima, as were rundown apartments and neglectful landlords. She worked odd jobs and frequently moved. Being a mother presented additional challenges. She was devoted to her children but also longed for more freedom and greater mobility. I was reminded of Kerouac’s famous taunt at a party during the 1950s: “di Prima, unless you forget about your babysitter, you’re never going to be a writer.” Perhaps the most perplexing obstacle in di Prima’s life was her husband, actor Alan Marlowe, whom she remembers disliking at their first meeting. They married in 1962, and their relationship was combative until their divorce in 1969.

As Spring and Autumn Annuals began as a journal, the writing is fragmented and impressionistic. Di Prima employs the kind of stylistic shorthand one might use when writing to a friend or for oneself: her thoughts are nonlinear, and people and situations are often discussed with little context. Yet there are many beautiful passages, and di Prima’s simple, direct language and use of rhythm and repetition highlight her skill as a poet. For example, considering her life after Herko’s death, she writes:

My life has split in two … I hold the present and future in one hand, the past in the other, patiently, endlessly trying to mesh the edges. To make some sense of it. To bridge. TO BRIDGE. No go. They slip in and out of different dimensions. The one becomes invisible when I turn to look at the other. Yet thinking of seashells in the rocks of the western mountains, the sea pebbles embedded in the soil some 8,000 feet in the air, I am comforted somewhat. As if the bridge will grow, will spin itself. Out of this intermittent buzzing pain.

Those new to her work may find Spring and Autumn Annals a difficult point of entry. There are several excellent starting places, fortunately, such as Recollections of My Life as a Woman (2001), a captivating and more straightforward memoir of her early life through 1965; Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969), a sensationalized autobiographical novel about her 1950s Greenwich Village life, published by Maurice Girodias of the avant-garde and erotic Olympia Press; and Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems (1990), which includes some of her best early poetry, at turns wry, spiritual, tough, and thoughtful. These writings capture roughly the same era in di Prima’s life, yet they have vastly different approaches and styles—Spring and Autumn Annals being the most experimental—and reading more than one offers compelling variations.

When she began Spring and Autumn Annals, di Prima was thirty and at a turning point her life. The book concludes in 1965 with her preparing to leave New York City, uncertain of her next steps. By the close of that decade, she had ended her relationship with Marlowe, shut down Poets Press, and stopped publishing The Floating Bear. She relocated to San Francisco and moved onto other pursuits, such as helping the activist group the Diggers distribute free food and writing her Revolutionary Letters poems, which she published in underground newspapers (a new edition will be released alongside Spring and Autumn Annals). Di Prima’s writing and interests continued to evolve over the years, and Spring and Autumn Annals is an important document of its time, adding detail to the portrait of a writer who participated in and supported a variety of artistic communities. When asked about the Beats during an interview in the 1990s, she replied, [I]t’s hard to think about oneself as a piece of a movement, because you’re yourself. The movement stays the movement, and you keep changing.”

 

Jolie Braun is the Curator of Modern Literature & Manuscripts at The Ohio State University.

The End of Summer, 2021 By Laurie Stone

streamingI bought five ears of corn for a friend who was coming to visit. She said her front teeth were temporary, and she might need to cut kernels off the cob. It rained, and the grilling was cancelled. When I opened the fridge, I saw a canvas bag in the bottom bin. Inside the bag were five ears of corn. From a month ago? A year ago? There was mold and blackened bits but no smell—five decomposing little corpses, each wrapped in its own shroud. Did I live here?

I remember stepping off the bus from Newark Airport and wheeling my bag through Times Square. I would look out the window of the uptown bus, recalling every shop and patch of green along the route, until I was on my street. Home, in a manner of speaking. I never liked where I lived. Not really. It was a marriage of convenience. When you live in NYC, you love, above all, that you live in NYC.

streamingThe man I live with told me he imagined living on after me. He does this several times a day is my guess. I said, “Don't kill me off so fast.” He said if I died he would sell our house. Last night I was staying with a friend in Massachusetts. I woke up and thought I might not be peeing enough, so got up and peed. I said to my friend, “I wouldn’t sell our house.” She looked past me and said, “You don't know what you’d do.” I wondered when the last time was that I’d surprised myself. I thought it was the other day, when I realized I misread what people are feeling. Once a thought like this forms, it seeps over your entire life like the orange drops used to numb you during an eye exam. Years ago the friend I was staying with divorced me for insulting Shakespeare and having a facelift. Fortunately, I can make her laugh.

The man I live with and I stream movies and TV at night, like everyone else in Pandemica, and maybe like everyone else and maybe not like everyone else, when we watch we like to measure what a woman is thought to be and what a man is thought to be on these shows. This month we watched two movies emblematic of their times, and two current TV series.

One of the old movies was A League of Their Own (1992). The man I live with was all like, “Tom Hanks, you are such a bad actor you can't even play a drunk.” I liked the movie’s sentimental version of feminism, where you look at a forgotten phenomenon, like women in baseball during the war, and show how women—with economic backing and more control over their lives than in domesticity—wake up to the power of their bodies. Madonna is adorable with partner Rosie O'Donnell, when they were besties IRL too. Madonna isn't allowed to take over the film by director Penny Marshall, and Madonna looks like she's having a very good time, diving face-first into home base and dancing with strangers in a bar.

The movie belongs to Geena Davis and to the ambivalence her character feels about claiming her own life. She can't do it, ultimately, and the film shows us the social reasons why. As the credits roll, we see the real players from the league, now aged, in a game, and they are so alive, still walking with butch swagger, still tearing around the bases in a way they might not be able to run for a bus. Movies about female athletes are always thrilling. The body lifts off from the ways it is understood and falls in love with defying gravity.

The other old movie was Rosemary's Baby. I saw it when it was released in 1968, a second time I don’t remember, and a third time last week. In 1966, when I was nineteen, I married a boy. I don't exactly know why. I loved him, but married? I mean, I don't know what I mean. The day I got married I knew I shouldn’t do it.

In 1968 I noticed that, in the movie, Mia Farrow is dressed in the clothes of a child or a puppet, pinafores and Peter Pan collars. She is the yellow of a sunflower, and her apartment in the gray Dakota is yellow. I don't remember if I registered that her husband laughs off raping her while she’s asleep and that it turned him on. She looks more confused than angry. She isn't allowed to show anger in this world until she figures out her husband pimped her to the devil for better acting parts.

There’s so much pleasure in this film. It stays with you days later, like Rosemary’s sense that sex with the devil was real and not a dream. Much of the film’s brilliance is in the casting. Ruth Gordon's performance as Minnie Castevet is genius in the details. The way she twists the fork in her mouth eating cake. The way she sniffs out the price tags on other people’s furniture. As soon as we see the smirk on the mouth of John Cassavetes—it’s permanent, it’s the way he looks at life—we know that nothing that happens to Rosemary is as bad as having married him. Whether or not Roman Polanski consciously set out to do this, he made a movie in which the horror is ordinary bourgeois marriage.

Of course Rosemary will nurse the devil she has given birth to. How much worse can a devil be than her husband and the other humans who have used her? Satan by comparison is bland and meh, like the members of the coven, composed of social strays shunned not for their demonic powers but their awkwardness. In any movie with Charles Grodin, he is going to be a snake. The movie is a comedy. It's why we don't need to see the demon baby.

The trees leafed up earlier this year than last. I think. People are writing to me in dreams who don't write to me in real life. A friend wrote to say he'd grown depressed after the people who were staying in his house during the pandemic went back to their lives. Did they think they were returning to who they’d been before? In Long Beach, during hurricanes, the rain falls sideways. If you step into it, it feels like nails flying at you, and it’s all you can think about. It’s relaxing to think about one thing.

When I read remarks prefaced with a series of identity markers (like bar code)—as a gay, het, trans, white, black, disabled, poor, rich, and so on—as if this is who you are, I think, this is not who you are. I think, who you are is the tomato you grew and served to a friend. I think, you are your face in sleep. You are the way you lick the bowl and hold out your hand for a dog to sniff.

I hate-watched season four of The Handmaid’s Tale so you don’t have to. The chief appeal of this show is Elisabeth Moss doing anything—staring into space with the tips of her front teeth peeking out from the curtain of her lips; testing the sharpness of a knife before a murder of revenge; whispering escape plans in the ear of a young woman whose eye has been gouged out in Gilead—punishment for some damn thing. The powers in Gilead believe in God and the sanctity of motherhood. That’s what’s wrong with the society. In Canada, opponents of Gilead also believe in God and the sanctity of motherhood! That’s what’s wrong with the show. Music that tells you what to feel. Pieties flying at you from every direction. In one bit of dialogue so demented you can see it hurting the underutilized Samira Wiley, her character chides Moss’s for not thinking ahead when she rescued eighty-nine children from a murderous theocracy and packing some Gilead memorabilia for when they got homesick. Like a pillow embroidered with the phrase “Under His Eye”?

I also watched Hacks (HBO)—to check out how feminism is being served these days. The show is enjoyable, owing mainly to the rapport of leads Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder. The most startling sequence occurs in episode eight, the finale, when Smart's character goes to a small comedy club to try out new material and the male MC introduces her with a series of insults. Smart’s character, who is famous and rich, offers to pay him $1.7 million if he agrees never to set foot on a stage again, adding that if he accepts the deal and afterward performs, he will owe her double that amount. He accepts the offer, of course, because his comedy no longer has value, the crowd approves, egging him to take the money and disappear.

The scene follows one in which Smart and a female crony from her touring years recall the club owners who groped them and the slams from male comics they smiled through. The friends are meant to be in their sixties. The young woman they are with, who is in her twenties, is upset that the older women felt they had no choice. She wants to nudge them into a #Me-too moment without blaming them, although she does blame them. Smart takes in what she says. It prompts the way she handles the emcee.

The problem with the incident and with the show as a whole is chronology. It’s as if only twentysomethings get feminism and they also seem to have invented it. Smart plays a kind of Joan Rivers standup, who hawks products on QVC and sells out her intelligence in her act. If Joan Rivers were alive, she would be eighty-eight. Joan was young enough to have become a feminist in the 1960s and 1970s and to have changed her shtick, but she didn't. It doesn't matter.

Smart's character was in her teens and early twenties when the women's movement shook everyone on the planet, whether in excited agreement or raging opposition. A woman the age of Smart’s character would not need to hear about any of this from a twentysomething. She would have heard it from the movement, even if she was outside it. Smart’s character says to the younger woman, who is helping her write a new show, “Yes, yes, I know, I know, but how to make it funny?” Which is always the question.

A visitor came today, and when we hugged our faces touched. The visitor reminded me of people in general. It was like remembering I had once known how to juggle. I had a boyfriend once who was a cheater. I wasn’t with him long enough to lose interest in him. That was his great gift to me.

Every fight I’ve ever had with the man I live with is basically about Bob Dylan.

Recently I had a bout of excellent sleep. It was strange and scared me. It’s about to rain. There is dirt under my nails. I bought a bird feeder at a yard sale. Birds arrive in numbers: tiny yellow finches, birds with red heads that circle, birds that wait their turn. The new feeder is all the birds can talk about. Some try to throw each other off and say, “Quick, turn around, it's Nina Simone," as they fly away with the best seed.

 

Laurie Stone is the author of Everything Is Personal and Laughing In the Dark, among other books. A recipient of the National Book Critic’s Circle excellence in criticism award, she was theatre reviewer for The Nation magazine, writer at the Village Voice for twenty-five years, and critic-at-large for Fresh Air.

Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement By Tarana Burke

Reviewed by Ariel Kim

Unbound Book CoverIn October of 2017, the hashtag #metoo went viral overnight, in light of reporting on sexual abuse cases that were surfacing throughout Hollywood. The Me Too Movement, which Tarana Burke had launched over a decade earlier, quickly broke into the mainstream vernacular in a way that forced everyone to confront the prevalence of sexual abuse. But when Burke woke up on “that Sunday morning in the fall of 2017” after a night out with friends, awash in “the sheer number of people boldly saying #metoo online,” she did not feel thrilled or energized or even legitimized.

Instead, she felt distressed, dejected, and terrified. Burke opens her new memoir, Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement, with a detailed description of this emotional turmoil. She was alarmed “at the thought of inviting people to open up and share their experience with sexual violence online without a way to help them process it.” As she had learned the hard way in her early years as an organizer, “it is wildly irresponsible to make people feel comfortable enough to open up without being prepared with the resources to help them process their experiences and receive continued support.” On a more personal level, in addition to her mounting exhaustion from “trying in vain to amplify [Me Too] for years, with zero resources and little support,” she was now going to have to “fight a viral hashtag that probably wouldn’t be connected to the origins of the work at all.” She feared that everything she had worked toward in her career as an activist and an advocate for exercising empathy to oppose sexual violence would be co-opted, because “they will never believe that a Black woman in her forties from the Bronx has been building a movement for the same purposes, using those exact words, for years now.”

And so, in the wake of #metoo going viral, she called her close friends as well as her child, to vent and troubleshoot and ask them how to navigate the trends and threads on Twitter; she sobbed; she scrolled; she read. And as she read, she realized that, although she had just spent a turbulent twenty-four hours “wringing my hands and pulling my hair out trying to figure out how to save ‘my work’ ... my work was happening right in front of me.” Rather than getting caught up in proving that she had “conducted enough workshops, participated in enough panels, and given out enough t-shirts and stickers to earn the right to say that the work, and the phrase that encapsulated it, was mine,” she was determined to lean into the shared work of this movement with renewed fire. Not because she wanted recognition or because she needed the platform, but because she is “hardwired to respond to injustice.” Burke, in this pivotal moment, reinvented her activism to encompass “all the folks who were using the #metoo hashtag.” The outpouring of survivors’ voices made it clear that the work of uplifting empathy and introducing healing with the burgeoning Me Too Movement was far from done.

Unbound, however, is not the story of what came next—of her ceaseless social justice work, of being named TIME’s 2017 Person of the Year alongside other “silence breakers,” of how the reverberations of “Me Too” continue to shake society today. Unbound is, instead, Tarana Burke’s story of “how we got to those two simple yet infinitely powerful words.” It is her story of what came before, of healing and liberation.

Before there was Me Too, before there was Twitter or news feeds or the definitions and context with which to understand language like rape and molestation, there was ... unkindness. There was a young Black girl, raised in the Bronx, who wrestled and wreaked and lived within and drowned beneath and eventually emerged victorious against that unkindness. “Unkindness is a serial killer,” and there were many versions of a young Tarana Burke who, at each stage of her life, reinvented herself against the backdrop of this emotional destruction, before she realized liberation.

Burke narrates this journey to healing so that each chapter—although they do build upon each other—can stand alone as its own meditation on a subject or an emotion or a focal moment. She takes the time to center each of the many versions of herself in their iteration of a present truth. She infuses her story with reflections in retrospect, and within the present of that given moment with the emotions and the capacity of the person who she was at that part of her life—the seven-year-old survivor of sexual assault, the high school student getting into fights, the recent college graduate determined to organize change, the unanticipated single mother.

The result is that her voice as an activist now, post-Me Too, sounds no more or less fierce than any of her other voices, and it is clear that she holds each of these multitudes, these truths, within her still. During each reinvention, she “didn’t have to start from scratch. I just had to dust myself off, because the best parts were already there.” She is the adolescent who read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and felt like the suffocating secrets that she had been holding within herself for years were finally seen. She is the teenager who listened to a recording of Angelou reading “Phenomenal Woman” in her Honors English class and realized that the same body that could hold pain and anger could also hold joy and beauty. These nascent selves of Burke’s past are also essential components of her present.

Since hers is an emotional journey, the events are not always recalled chronologically; healing requires practice and will not always be linear. She is, thus, a master of pacing. Whether we are entrenched in the details of her first horrible and bewildering visit to the gynecologist or we are tracing her evolving relationship with Catholicism as she moves between different primary and secondary schools, the story never drags.

Instead, the emotional present of each moment wells from the page. When she describes her reactions to the Central Park Jogger case and the murder of Yusef Hawkins, she reflects on how, “I didn’t empathize with the jogger as a rape survivor at the time—I connected with the young Black and Brown boys whose lives were being snuffed out simply because their Black and Brown skin made them expendable.” As a new organizer, she had not yet been forced to confront the reality of her abuse—that came later, when a young girl named Heaven came forward with her own story of sexual violence, and Burke sent her away instead of listening, unable to “meet her at the apex of her courage” and even say “me too.” But, even before this turning point, “standing and fighting against the diminishment and destruction of Black bodies had become a proxy for the diminishment and destruction of my own Black body.” She cultivates this passion for organizing against injustice throughout high school and at Alabama State University—“yet another chance at [the] reinvention” that she craved—where she organized a protest on campus in response to the Rodney King trial by cutting her black headwrap into strips and handing them out for demonstrators to tie around their arms. After college, she moved to Selma, Alabama, to continue community-based activism and eventually founded the nonprofit Just Be, to support Black and Brown girls between the ages of twelve and eighteen. The day before she found out she was pregnant, she was arrested for cursing out city council members at a meeting to vote on appointment powers. She posted bail, then bounced between the law office, the National Voting Rights Museum, and the grocery store in the afternoon: But that was “my life in Selma,” she writes, “I was always ripping and running around town. That was the work. I was used to it.

Unbound is ... Tarana Burke's story of 'how we got to those two simple yet infinitely powerful words.'

And yet, although her work as a community organizer “allowed me the space to channel my rage and hide my shame,” her passion and success only “took me further from the negative parts of my life and recast me as a person who wouldn’t have to deal with such things.” As she realized in the face of her inability—ultimately, unfortunately, hauntingly—to help Heaven, this was a precarious order, built upon reinvention after self-reinvention that failed “to stare down the monster that is sexual violence and call it out by name.” The complex “culture of secrecy and silence” around the cycle of sexual violence that disproportionately impacts the Black community is shaped by a history of false accusations and police brutality, of systemic racism and poverty. It is a “trap in which so many Black girls find themselves, either performing our pain or performing through it.... We didn’t get the air to be reborn and handled warmly.”

So, on the pages of Unbound, she gives herself the air to be reborn, handles each version of herself warmly. Burke closes the acknowledgements of her memoir by writing, “I hope to have a long life with multiple versions of myself, but I will never run out of things to be as long as I am grateful.” She is grateful and proud and loving and celebratory and funny. She speaks deep wisdom plainly and easily. She doesn’t mince words or try to make excuses. In the wake of #metoo, she began to realize that, alongside all of the other sexual violence survivors who she was committed to helping, she herself was not undeserving of “empathy for that dark place of shame where we keep our stories.” Burke admits, “I still didn’t have the resources I needed to help, but unlike all those years ago with Heaven, I was empowered to try ... Even if I had work to do in my understanding that I wasn’t a receptacle for harm ... I had to start thinking of myself as worthy if for no other reason than to not fail these babies—the way I had allowed myself to fail Heaven.” In the true spirit of activism, she is reflective and raw in the service of growth, both personal and collective. Burke’s honesty reinforces #metoo as the work of a movement, not just a moment.

Besides, as Burke contends, “what is the point of a movement for liberation if we can’t reflect the same dignity and accountability between each other that we are demanding from people outside of our communities?” I am reminded of the work of another activist, adrienne maree brown, who writes, “How do I hold a systemic analysis and approach when each system I am critical of is peopled, in part, by the same flawed and complex individuals that I love?”

Burke lives and writes the answer by holding all of her selves to the same standard of dignity and accountability, modeling fierce love. Unbound portrays the complex dynamics of dismantling the harm done by sexual violence: shame and fear are mixed up with care and support; empathy is the work of a community composed of individuals, each on their own journey to healing. At the end of each chapter, I was convinced that Burke had reached absolute wisdom. But with each ensuing chapter she continues to develop her perspective and process her experiences so as to encompass more—more reflection, more healing, more exhaustion and energy and kindness. Growth is a journey for Burke, not a final destination. Unbound tells the story of an important milestone along the way: liberation from that serial killer, unkindness, and the birth of radical empathy. Because this movement is not just a viral hashtag #metoo, but also a vital step towards justice.

 

Ariel Kim is a graduate student at Harvard University and an English teacher. Her interests include education, social justice, and creative writing. She reviewed Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex in the September/October issue of the Women’s Review of Books.

Women's Review of Books

 
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