(1946 - 2005)
'They took my body from me and used it'
Last year Andrea Dworkin was drugged and raped in her hotel room. Here the leading feminist describes the devastating experience
Friday June 2, 2000
I was in Europe. I was 52. It was 1999. I was in a garden in a hotel. I was reading a book. French Literary Fascism. I was drinking kir royale. I had two. The second one didn't taste right. I didn't finish it. Then I became sort of sickish or weakish or something, and all I could think about was getting to my bed and not making a fool of myself in public view. I prayed: "Let me get to my room, please let me get to my room." I had ordered dinner from room service and the waiter, who had also made the drinks, had said: "It will be my great pleasure to serve you your dinner tonight." I conked out.
Then a boy was in the room with dinner. He had served me the second drink. I tried to get up and I fell against the far wall because I couldn't stand. I signed the cheque, but could barely balance myself. I fell back on to the bed. I didn't lock the door. I came to four or five hours later. I didn't know where I was. The curtains hadn't been drawn. Now it was dark; before it had been light, long before dusk.
I had internal pain. I hurt deep inside my vagina. I said to myself. "Well, it's cancer, and there's nothing you can do about it now so worry about it when you get home." I went to the toilet and found blood on my right hand, fresh, bright red, not menstrual blood, not clotted blood. I'm past bleeding. I tried to find the source of the blood. My hand got covered in it again. I found huge, deep gashes on my right leg from the middle of the back of the leg to the middle of the front. I couldn't stop the bleeding of the gashes so I tried to keep them clean.
A few hours later, I took a shower. I had a big, strange bruise on my left breast, next to the aureole, not a regular bruise, huge, black and blue with solid white skin in the centre, as if someone had sucked it up and chewed it. I didn't feel good the next day or the day after. I thought I had been drugged and raped, but I felt confused. I couldn't stand the thought of making a wrong allegation. I thought that the bartender had done it, because he had made the drinks and he was on the room-service phone and he had flirted grandly with me, though I had not reciprocated. I thought that maybe the boy, who had brought me the second drink, was supposed to report that I had passed out. I thought the bartender had raped me. I didn't know if the boy had been there or not, but I thought yes.
I couldn't remember, but I thought they had pulled me down toward the bottom of the bed so that my vagina was near the bed's edge and my legs were easy to manipulate. I thought that the deep, bleeding scratches, right leg, and the big bruise, left breast, were the span of a man on top of me. I had been wearing sweatpants that just fell right down. I had been wearing an undershirt. Usually I covered myself, but I had felt too sick to manage it before the boy came in with the dinner. Besides, I don't know how he got inside since the door was dead-bolted. He appeared suddenly, already in.
In my own life, I don't have intercourse. That is my choice. I got an internal infection in the aftermath. How? It was horrible not knowing. I had literally no memory of what the man and the boy had done. It's like being operated on. You don't feel anything until you feel the pain that comes with a return to consciousness. I speculated that my body must have been relaxed, no muscles straining, no physical resistance or even tension. This repelled me.
The hours were gone, missing. My mind went over and over that day and night for weeks and weeks turning into months and months. I couldn't find the missing hours because they weren't there, in my brain. That is why drugs such as Rohypnol and gamma hydroxybutyric acid (GHB) are called amnesiac drugs. (Since I could taste something in my drink, it was probably GHB, called on the street Grievous Bodily Harm.)
I lost all hope. I couldn't defend myself. I had been helpless. I had decided long ago that no one would ever rape me again; he or they or I would die. But this rape was necrophiliac: they wanted to fuck a dead woman. Why? I was scared. I thought that being forced and being conscious was better, because then you knew; even if no one ever believed you, you knew. Most rape experts agree: how can you face what you can't remember? I tried to hammer through the amnesia, but nothing broke. I was so hurt.
A few days later, on a Sunday, at the suggestion of my mate, John, at home in Brooklyn, I placed a call to my New York feminist gynaecologist of more than a decade. I said that I thought I had been drugged and raped. She said that a gynaecological exam wouldn't prove anything one way or the other and that the call from me convinced her that she should have an unlisted phone number. I thanked her (I'm a girl) and collapsed in tears. On the plane trip home, I huddled and shook. I felt overwhelming grief as if I had died. I also felt grief for this sick world.
I started hating every day. I hated seeing the sun rise. I couldn't put one foot in front of the other and I wanted to put a butcher's knife into my heart behind my ribs. I was very lonely. I was consumed by grief and sorrow until I was lucky enough to become numb. I thought I could resist by not dying, but that might be too hard and maybe I was too old and too tired and couldn't do it any more. My body was a curse and had betrayed me. I couldn't figure out why they would want to do this and why they would want to do it to me.
I couldn't be consoled. I couldn't talk to anyone. How could I say the words to the people I loved, most of whom work precisely to stop violence against women: this is what he, someone or they, did to me. Yeah, I know I represent something to you, but really I'm a piece of crap because I just got raped. No, no, you're not a piece of crap when you get raped, but I am. John looked for any other explanation than rape. He abandoned me emotionally. Now a year has passed and sometimes he's with me in his heart and sometimes not.
I don't know why the world didn't stop right then, when the creatures drugged and raped me. I don't know how the earth can still turn. I don't believe that it should be possible. I don't. I think everyone should have stopped everything because I was 52 and this happened to me. I think every person should have been in mourning. I think no one should work or spend money or love anyone ever again. I ask: "Why me?" I say: "It can't have happened to me." I say: "My bad pheromones or karma brought the rapist pigs to me." I blame me no matter what it takes. I go down the checklist: no short skirt; it was daylight; I didn't drink a lot even though it was alcohol and I rarely drink, but so what? It could have been Wild Turkey or coffee. I didn't drink with a man, I sat alone and read a book, I didn't go somewhere I shouldn't have been, wherever that might be when you are 52, I didn't flirt, I didn't want it to happen. I wasn't hungry for a good, hard fuck that would leave me pummelled with pain inside.
And after: I don't want it to have happened. I can't remember it. They took my body from me and used it. They were inside me. I felt for stickiness. There was none. I prayed that meant they had used condoms. (I'm waiting for the outcome of a second round of HIV and other STD testing. Immediately after a drug-rape, as I didn't know then, there are about 24 hours in which to get a urine sample and 48 to 72 hours to get a blood test.)
And then there is that I know too much. Forgive me for saying this, but it makes everything harder. I know a lot about rape. I study it. I read about it. I think about it. I listen to rape victims. I engage with prosecutors and lawyers and legislators. I write about it. I was raped before this. I remember being raped. I say that we're fighting back. I give speeches and say that women and girls are being raped and we need to do this and this and this. I know hundreds if not thousands of raped women.
But this is new. Rape with amnesiac drugs is new. It's so easy. In most studies on rape and pornography, about 30% of men say they would rape if they could get away with it. They can. This is foolproof rape. The gang that couldn't shoot straight can do this kind of rape. You can do this hundreds of times with virtually no chance of getting caught, let alone having anyone be able to make a legal case in any court of law. And smart women with attitudes like myself can't stop these pieces of dog excrement through militance or violence or persuasion or just being reasonably polite.
See, if there were feminist vigilantes, I couldn't even ask a favour. I can't put the bartender in the hotel room with me. I know it was he and his little accomplice, but how do I know? The circumstantial evidence that leads to the conclusion that the rape happened does not identify the rapist(s). One point for prosecutors: this is poisoning as well as rape; always bring both charges.
As for me: about 10 days after I came home, my 84-year-old father broke his knee. He was never out of a hospital or nursing or convalescent home again until he died on December 4 1999. A few days before Christmas, I was hospitalised for bronchitis, pneumonia, cellulitis (an infection of the soft tissues in the legs - lethal if not treated with antibiotics) and blood clots. I had been wandering in delirium from a high fever on New York City streets until a young woman helped get me off the street and called John.
I was in the hospital a month, which caused my leg muscles to atrophy, so I am learning how to use them again. I used to worry about taking a Valium or two to fall asleep in strange hotels. Now I take on average 12 pills to sleep and they only work sometimes. How can I close my eyes and voluntarily become unconscious? For the first time in my life I go to shrinks, a lucid one who prescribes drugs and an empathetic one whose speciality is in dealing with people who have been tortured. I have been tortured and this drug-rape runs through it, a river of horror. I'm feeling perpetual terror, they both tell me. I stare blankly or I say some words. I'm ready to die.
This article appears in the current issue of the New Statesman (£2, available from newsagents; for subscriptions call 0800 731 8496). Andrea Dworkin's new book, Scapegoat, is published by Virago on June 8 (£22.50).
Andrea Dworkin in agony
The anti-porn feminist's strange tale of drugged rape in a European hotel has even her allies wondering.
By Julia Gracen
Sep. 20, 2000 | In an article published in the New Statesman magazine and the Guardian newspaper in June, American radical feminist Andrea Dworkin told a harrowing story. She was, she told her readers, drinking her second kir royale one afternoon in the garden of a European hotel when she became ill ("sickish or weakish or something"). She staggered up to her room and collapsed on the bed. The bartender's assistant brought up her dinner. "I don't know how he got inside," Dworkin wrote, "since the door was dead-bolted. He appeared suddenly, already in." Then she lost consciousness. When she awoke, it was night, the curtains hadn't been drawn and she was in pain. "I hurt deep inside my vagina ... I went to the toilet and found blood on my right hand, fresh, bright red, not menstrual blood, not clotted blood. I'm past bleeding. I tried to find the source of the blood. My hand got covered in it again."
In trying to puzzle out how she could have sustained a bloody injury while she was unconscious, Dworkin gradually became convinced she'd been drugged and raped. She speculated in detail about how her attackers might have done the deed: "I couldn't remember, but I thought they had pulled me down toward the bottom of the bed so that my vagina was near the bed's edge and my legs were easy to manipulate." To a woman who had already experienced the full measure of sexual victimization in her life (her Web site autobiography recounts molestation as a child, beatings and torture as a wife, an assault in jail, rape and prostitution), the idea that she had been used sexually while unable to resist was particularly horrifying. "In my own life, I don't have intercourse. That is my choice, " Dworkin wrote. "I had decided long ago that no one would ever rape me again; he or they or I would die. But this rape was necrophiliac: they wanted to fuck a dead woman ... I thought that being forced and being conscious was better, because then you knew; even if no one ever believed you, you knew."
Given Dworkin's particularly visible and strident brand of feminism -- highlighted by the argument in her provocative 1987 book "Intercourse" that even consensual sexual penetration is a paradigm of oppression -- it's conceivable that there are men in the world who would consider violating her a good evening's entertainment. Dworkin seems to think her story should be taken as further evidence of masculine malevolence. There are those who would be willing to accept it as such, of course, if only they felt sure it really happened. Within a week, on the very day that Dworkin's new book, "Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel and Women's Liberation," was published in the U.K., Guardian columnist Catherine Bennett voiced her doubts about the veracity of Dworkin's story.
In her response to Dworkin's essay, Bennett first spends several paragraphs paying tribute to Dworkin's previous reputation for factual precision, noting in particular her Web site's carefully substantiated statements regarding several Dworkin rumors. But Bennett goes on to question why Dworkin did not seek medical attention for the pain and injuries she described: the unusual bleeding, the "big strange bruise" on one breast, the "huge deep gashes" on her leg. "The reluctance of a rape victim to be further violated by examination and questioning is understood," Bennett writes, "but if this is what prevented Dworkin from seeking help it does not seem consistent with her current decision to relive the ordeal, in vivid detail, for readers of the New Statesman." Bennett also wonders why Dworkin, an anti-rape activist who has devoted much time and energy to battling the crime, decided not to inform the police or hotel security when she realized what had happened to her: "Is this bartender, with his accomplice, to be allowed to continue drugging and raping female guests?" Bennett asks.
Once the first doubts had been publicly expressed, an accusatory pile-on ensued in the U.K. press and on the Web. The rape story was dissected -- and dissed -- by a parade of disdainful commentators. There were nit-picking questions of logistics and logic: Why didn't the rapists close the curtains; did they want to be seen committing the crime? Why would they have drawn her to the edge of the bed as she surmised; wouldn't it be inconvenient for a standing man to try to insert his penis into a woman lying at the level of his knees? How was it that both the bartender and his assistant could be absent from their duties in the hotel without incurring questions -- and what if they had alibis? And so on.
Others, like "Susan Marie" at MouthOrgan.com, were less concerned with the objective truth of the incident than with other parts of Dworkin's story. One of the strangest passages in Dworkin's essay is a descent into mad, despairing, politically incorrect questions about why the rapists might have selected her: "I go down the checklist: no short skirt; it was daylight; I didn't drink a lot even though it was alcohol and I rarely drink, but so what? It could have been Wild Turkey or coffee. I didn't drink with a man, I sat alone and read a book, I didn't go somewhere I shouldn't have been, wherever that might be when you are 52, I didn't flirt, I didn't want it to happen. I wasn't hungry for a good, hard fuck that would leave me pummelled with pain inside."
"Susan Marie" was disturbed not by the last statement's almost sensual preoccupation with the imagery of violent intercourse but by the "checklist" itself, a disquieting mental exercise for a feminist to resort to. To her, it suggested that -- contrary to everything a rape expert should know -- Dworkin somehow still believes that only young, attractive women, or those who take foolish risks, or those who secretly "want it to happen," are raped. "It feels," wrote "Susan Marie," "as though underneath all of everything she's said about rape, there's still the belief that women who are raped had it coming somehow. And that she's different because she didn't do anything to bring it on." At the very least, Dworkin seems to have wanted to absolve herself before her audience, to prove to us that she had done nothing to "deserve" it.
The criticisms of Dworkin's piece ranged from sorrowful head shakings to bizarre speculations about her sex life. Some even made smug and astonishing statements to the effect that if it was true that she had been raped, it was merely her sexual karma coming home to roost, the result of her jihads against pornography and intercourse. Sexologist Susie Bright, who has had her share of virulent intellectual conflicts with Dworkin's famous anti-pornography crusade (which resulted in a notorious body of Canadian censorship law), wrote on her Web site, "Plenty of my peers would say that they are utterly cold to any misfortune that might befall [Dworkin]. 'Just think of all the lives she's threatened, warped, and terrified,' they remind me. 'Canada is still reeling,' my partner interjects."
"Poubelle" on the Spies.com board wrote, "And I guess I feel worse for those who Dworkin has hurt than for her." "REM" at MouthOrgan.com, although subsequently denying harboring any thought of Dworkin "deserving" such a thing, said, "Rape is about violence, and Dworkin makes herself a lightning rod for men with violence on their mind." Dworkin should, therefore, just accept the universe's balancing of her accounts, these critics imply, and, above all, shut up about it. "Jane Duvall," also at MouthOrgan, wrote, "Cases like this do more to damage every credible case out there than anything else. It's horribly irresponsible, and a disservice to women everywhere." She echoes Bennett's observation that the piece doesn't do Dworkin or us any favors. In other words, she should never have published it.
The vehemence with which Dworkin's "sins" -- past and present -- have been illuminated and enumerated by this incident recalls the subject of her new book, which parallels the roles and status of women and Jews as the twin scapegoats of world history. The concept of the scapegoat comes from ancient Jewish rituals enacted on High Holy Days, when two goats would be sacrificed: one slaughtered on the altar of the Temple and the other driven out into the desert, ceremonially laden with the people's burden of sin. To be a scapegoat, then, is to be a proxy, a living effigy punished to assuage others' fear, guilt and shame.
"Scapegoat" the book is an alarming, confrontational, full-tilt boogie through the vast catalog of injustices and horrors, individual and institutional, that have been visited on women and Jews through the ages. In a florid, violent and accusatory synthesis of two different strands of classic victimology, Dworkin makes comparisons between phenomena like rape and pogroms, Nazi hate literature and pornography. The parallels she draws are not particularly original, but no one denies the importance of pointing out the way that the often similar persecution of Jews and women illustrates the dark side of human behavior in situations of unequal power. Yet both groups, the heroes of Dworkin's implied morality play, are analyzed solely as victims -- at least until Dworkin comes to the establishment of the state of Israel. For most of history, Dworkin says, women and Jews have had little or no capability or strength of their own, and thus have simply -- and nobly, and righteously, and innocently -- suffered.
Another of Dworkin's theses is equally banal and simplistic: Evil begets evil. Those who are persecuted will want to persecute others in their turn. When the downtrodden attain their own ugly measure of power, they will -- inevitably, she implies -- begin to abuse others, just as "masculinist" Israel now stomps on its own pitiful women and the helpless Palestinians. Women who are co-opted by male supremacy are like wartime collaborators, or the vicious female guards and doctors in the Nazi concentration camps. They will even victimize other women and thus become, in Dworkin's world, "honorary men."
Dworkin's most original and controversial conclusion to all this is that "women need land and guns." Women must reject pacifism and literally create their own militant, separatist territory (or Lebensraum?). As a practical concept, of course, the idea is nothing short of nuts. But even as an exercise in rhetoric it is unconvincing, mainly because it is unclear why Dworkin believes that Womanland would be immune to the temptations of structural power she has just been at such pains to illustrate. If the Israelis are practicing the sadism they learned from anti-Semites on the Palestinians, won't women also find their own scapegoats?
Dworkin also does not seem to see the inconsistency between her own blistering, demonizing prose and her condemnations of hate speech and hate literature. "Words make killing easier, legitimate, or inevitable," she writes. "Words can kill." Why, then, does Dworkin spew so much intemperate rhetoric herself, rhetoric that overtly justifies violence? Because, it seems, the people she is scapegoating deserve it.
Again, it is easy -- perhaps too easy -- to see the symbolic connections between the subject of Dworkin's book and the way she herself has been publicly vilified -- and pitied -- for her rape story. A common charge is that her essay was just a publicity stunt, that with it Dworkin not only had succeeded in obtaining sympathetic attention for her book but had perhaps deliberately told a questionable story, so that when challenged, she could continue to play the feminist martyr whose agonized cries are never believed. "It reads almost as if Dworkin wants to be doubted," Bennett wrote.
But most think that idea is far too cynical. Bright wrote a surprisingly sympathetic column on the issue. "I could easily believe she had a black-out, and nasty injuries, from an unexpected dose of alcohol and sunburn," Bright said. "I would rather have sympathy for that version of events than to believe she is maliciously making the whole thing up." Bright thinks the truth is probably simpler than that -- and sadder: "By the time you finish reading [her story], you know she has finally completely lost her mind."
Michael Lamport Commons, a researcher with Harvard Medical School's Program in Psychiatry and Law, also sounds a note of caution: "Lying is a concept of free will," he told me. People have to know that they are telling untruths in order to be justifiably called liars. He's not sure that is the case with Dworkin: "While rare, people have dreams of being raped, which appear real to them ... Many character disorders, including borderline personality, involve 'lying' and not knowing one lies." Dworkin's bleak personal history also raises the specter of post-traumatic stress disorder, with its all-too-common dissociative fugues and fragmented flashbacks to earlier scenes of violence.
There is no question that something happened to Dworkin last year, something that has devastated her psychologically, and it seems that the disbelief of even her closest associates has been a significant part of her distress. In her essay, Dworkin writes that she called her feminist gynecologist in New York a few days after the incident. She says the doctor told her that a gynecological exam would prove nothing one way or the other and that being called on a Sunday had made her decide to get an unlisted number. The doctor's coldheartedness toward a patient she had treated for 10 years is not explained further. Even Dworkin's "mate," gay feminist John Stoltenberg, who has made a home with Dworkin for 25 years, did not really believe her. "John looked for any other explanation than rape," Dworkin writes. "He abandoned me emotionally. Now a year has passed and sometimes he's with me in his heart and sometimes not."
To compound her misery -- whatever its source -- Dworkin writes that she lost her beloved father in December and was herself hospitalized a few weeks later, after she was found wandering and delirious with fever on a New York street, suffering from pneumonia, cellulitis (an infection of the soft tissue of the legs) and blood clots. Immobilized in the hospital for a month, her muscles atrophied and she couldn't walk. It would take a heart of diamond-bright stone to remain unmoved by her plight.
"I used to worry about taking a Valium or two to fall asleep in strange hotels," she writes. "Now I take on average 12 pills to sleep and they only work sometimes. How can I close my eyes and voluntarily become unconscious? For the first time in my life I go to shrinks, a lucid one who prescribes drugs and an empathetic one whose specialty is in dealing with people who have been tortured. I have been tortured and this drug-rape runs through it, a river of horror. I'm feeling perpetual terror, they both tell me. I stare blankly or I say some words. I'm ready to die." All of Dworkin's symptoms, the depression, the self-doubt, the free-floating anxiety, are classic reactions to major trauma.
"As I read Andrea's confession, tears came to my eyes," Bright writes. Her comments on the question of the truth of Dworkin's accusations are typical of those of more sympathetic observers: "Let's put the rape story aside -- I don't have to ascertain whether Dworkin has been assaulted on this occasion or not. She is hurting, and something is wrong." That is one truth in this situation, at least. Pain is pain. Even when it is "deserved" or "self-inflicted" (and we never hesitate to judge about that, even in the absence of definitive evidence), it is still pain.
The real bottom line, though, is that Andrea Dworkin -- that ugly, lunatic, "man-hating" feminist -- has publicly cried rape without offering sufficient evidence. In the current political climate of this brave new millennium, women have been forced to concede -- on perfectly logical grounds, of course -- that women do not always tell the truth about rape. So over time the default response to the charge has changed. Now, instead of a tendency toward belief and sympathy when a woman claims she has been raped, there is considerably more caution and doubt.
This may be only right, but there is an ugly lesson in Dworkin's story that all women should heed. It says that if you aren't considered a reliable witness to begin with, or if you are already considered a social outrage, the proof that you offer to overcome that tendency toward doubt had better be utterly unassailable in every respect, or the real gangbanging will begin.
Julia Gracen is a writer and "book doctor" from Charleston, S.C.
Letters to the Editor
Andrea Dworkin in agony
By Julia Gracen
September 22, 2000
Andrea Dworkin and I agree upon one thing: Hardcore pornography is inherently degrading. Aside from that, we agree on nothing. Furthermore, I have always viewed her as an hysterical harpy more responsible for censorious social strife than any other single person, male or female.
Nevertheless, I feel it is incumbent upon me now to come to her aid. Under no circumstances should it ever be implied, let alone overtly stated, that someone whose ideas are controversial "has it coming" if and when they are attacked. The very idea is a moral outrage. -- Rob Anderson
There seems to be an abundance of opinions on the reality or unreality of Dworkin's rape. Her agony, however, may be intensified by other factors. I wonder why no one has focused on the fact that Dworkin may, in fact, have drugged herself. "I used to worry about taking a Valium or two to fall asleep in strange hotels," she writes. (Valium to get to sleep, mixed with alcohol -- often a wicked combination).
Dworkin further avers, "Now I take on average 12 pills to sleep and they only work sometimes." This, in case no one notices, is prescription drug abuse. Clearly anyone who takes 12 pills to get to sleep is chemically dependent and most therapists would recognize this as a form of chemical dependency.
Like many celebrities in distress, she can always count on someone to prescribe a medication, and thus enable her continue her addiction(s). -- Mark Worden
Well I, for one, must have the "heart of a diamond-bright stone," as I am unmoved by Dworkin's "plight." That her article is not universally condemned as an injurious parody of what is otherwise a serious issue, is a tribute to her exploitation of the feminist sympathy vote. Her "plight"? Your writer really needs to get a sense of proportion about the relative importance of plights. The trouble is that all women are potentially liars, so that even when men like me think we're freely and consensually communicating with the Dworkins of this world, we now know they are trying to oppress us. -- Mike Wilcox
Julia Gracen misquotes and then misrepresents my comments at Mouthorgan.com. She writes: "'REM' at MouthOrgan.com, although subsequently denying harboring any thought of Dworkin 'deserving' such a thing, said, 'Rape is about violence, and Dworkin makes herself a lightning rod for men with violence on their mind.' Dworkin should, therefore, just accept the universe's balancing of her accounts, these critics imply, and, above all, shut up about it."
That is absolutely false. My complete sentence is: "I can believe that Andrea Dworkin was drugged and raped -- rape is about violence, and Dworkin makes herself a lightning rod for men with violence on their mind (which is NOT to say that, if it happened, she deserved it -- not even Andrea Dworkin deserves to be raped)." No intelligent person could legitimately construe my point -- that it is completely believable that Dworkin could have been raped because it is completely believable that she could be a target of violence -- to reach the conclusion that I believe that being raped is in any way a "balancing of [Dworkin's] accounts." Salon should invest either in better readers or better fact checkers. -- REM
Doubts about Dworkin
Why the feminist author's graphic account of being raped
last year does her - and us - no favours
Andrea Dworkin's website
Thursday June 8, 2000
Fact: if it weren't for the fictional existence of Mr Gradgrind, the writer Andrea Dworkin's enthusiasm for facts would be second to none. Fact: a while back, in an interview with Michael Moorcock, an admirer of hers, Dworkin said: "A big part of the fight was facing facts; and facts had a lot to do with what men had done to us, how men used us with or without our own complicity." Curious fact: on the Andrea Dworkin website, a whole section, "Lie Detector", is devoted to establishing what, in fact, Andrea Dworkin has, and has not, said or done.
Where possible, detailed evidence is offered. It's not true, for instance, that she once "flipped the finger" in a public debate with the Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz, and the website earnestly sets the record straight: "The photograph of the two them in Alan Dershowitz's autobiography, The Best Defense, actually shows Andrea making a characteristic gesture for emphasis."
Where photographic evidence is not available, the site relies on the author's written or spoken word. It is true, for example, that that Dworkin once prostituted herself on the streets, or as she has put it: "I fucked for food and shelter and whatever cash I needed." This personal experience, the website confirms, "is part of what informs the commitment behind all her writing". When she campaigns against pornography and prostitution, rape and abuse, Dworkin knows whereof she speaks: "The premises of the prostituted woman are my premises."
Her experiences at the hands of men have been more than horrible: diabolical. She was first raped at nine: "Though not legally," she writes in an autobiographical essay, "since fingers and a hand were used for penetration, not the officially requisite penis." She worked as a prostitute. In 1965 she was arrested and imprisoned after joining an anti-Vietnam war demonstration, then assaulted by the two male prison doctors who gave her an internal examination.
"They pretty much tore me up inside with a steel speculum and had themselves a fine old time verbally tormenting me as well." She married a brutal man, an "assassin", who battered and tortured her for several years, beating her with planks and burning her breasts with cigarettes, until a feminist helped her go into hiding: "Every trip outside might mean death if he found me". In 1972 she made a vow, "that I would use everything I know in behalf of women's liberation".
It's a vow she has kept. "Autobiography is the unseen foundation of my non-fiction work", she has written. "When I wrote Intercourse and Pornography: Men Possessing Women, I used my life in every decision I made. It was my compass." Her experience is there again, on the first page of her new book, Scapegoat, published today. Four paragraphs down she alludes to the "beating and torture I experienced in marriage some 30 years ago". It was this, she says, that made her abandon pacificism: "I finally got away not because I knew that he would kill me but because I thought I would kill him."
Only once, it seems, when Newsweek magazine asked that she either publish anonymously, or produce medical or police records to support an account of battery by her husband, has anyone questioned Dworkin's experience. She says she asked Newsweek "when the freedom of speech I kept hearing about was going to apply to me". The article subsequently came out in the Los Angeles Times. Doubt my argument, she challenges, and you doubt the torture of real women, you belittle the torture of me . Even her prose style is a kind of gauntlet, daring you to demur. "I was 10," she writes, "when we moved to the suburbs, which I experienced as being kidnapped by aliens and taken to a penal colony. I never forgave my parents or God . . ."
Often maddening on paper, Dworkin is, in real life, endearing and seemingly vulnerable. Most liberal interviewers, British ones at least, are apt to sympathise, and rarely question why Dworkin's story of rape and torture should be accepted as representative, privileged, for reasons of her seniority in both feminism and misery, over less dramatic personal histories. To argue with her would be not just impertinent, but akin to saying: "I don't give a toss about your tragic life."
This, possibly, explains the deafening silence - from the media, at least - which has followed Dworkin's latest autobiographical fragment: the account of her recent rape published in the New Statesman and in these pages last week. From fellow readers, I've heard about as wide a range of reactions you could get, from horror to bafflement, from pity to frank disbelief. For those who did not see the piece: Dworkin alleges that, last year, at the age of 52, she was drugged and raped in a hotel room by two men, whom she believes - no, knows - to have been the hotel's bartender and a serving boy.
In the New Statesman she was precise about the town, a European city, and the date (although to be pedantic, the date she supplied did not, as she said, fall on a Wednesday). All the police need, then, is the name of the hotel and the men can be questioned. But Dworkin has not been to the police. She came round from the assault to find a "big, strange bruise" on one breast and "huge deep gashes" on one leg which would not stop bleeding.
For some reason she did not call a doctor to staunch the bleeding; neither did she call hotel security nor the police. The reluctance of a rape victim to be further violated by examination and questioning is understood, but if this is what prevented Dworkin from seeking help it does not seem consistent with her current decision to relive the ordeal, in vivid detail, for readers of the New Statesman.
Reflecting on the easiness of this new form of assault, she writes: "You can do this hundreds of times with virtually no chance of getting caught . . ." Well, you can if women you have raped do not call a doctor when they wake up bruised and bleeding. Is this bartender, with his accomplice, to be allowed to continue drugging and raping female guests?
Dworkin says that her "feminist gynaecologist" (whom she called in New York) said "a gynaecological exam wouldn't prove anything one way or the other and that the call from me convinced her that she should have an unlisted phone number". No explanation is offered for this sudden outbreak of hostility.
In the same year as this rape, Dworkin's father died and she herself was seriously ill, becoming delirious. She writes, dreadfully: "I'm ready to die." Maybe, at this grim stage in her life, we should just leave her alone. But her rape claim, like any other, seems to deserve scrutiny before it takes its place in the archive against intercourse. It is Dworkin, after all, who, consistent with her vow, chooses to use this experience for "women's liberation", depicting it as part of a wave of "foolproof rape". Offered like this, as evidence, the article contains so many opacities, begs so many questions, that it reads almost as if Dworkin wants to be doubted.
Most people beginning the piece would expect to find in it, somewhere, facts to verify it. Instead, Dworkin supplies inconsistency ("gashes" become "scratches"), absence of evidence, lack of support. Even the love of her life, John, "looked for any other explanation than rape". Some of her readers will have done the same.
Several have suggested to me that if illness has left Dworkin dangerously overweight and unwieldy, delirious in the streets of New York, the same could have happened in her European hotel. Could she not have fallen and cut and bruised herself? Elsewhere, she has written that: "There is always a problem for a woman: being believed."
True, but this account does nothing to help itself. Sometimes the Gradgrind approach is right. Facts, that's what we need. A horse is a quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth. And a rape either occurred, or it did not.
Scapegoat: Jews, Israel And Women's Liberation, by Andrea Dworkin, is published by Virago on June 8, priced £22.50..
Site de Andrea Dworkin
Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant
By Andrea Dworkin
Basic Books, 224 pages, $24.
Against all odds, feminist firebrand Andrea Dworkin has written a warm and funny book. A strong voice at the extreme edge of 1980s militant feminism, Ms. Dworkin affected a bloodless, Maoist prose style, making the case in such books as "Intercourse" (1987) and "Pornography" (1988) that all heterosexual intercourse was rape and all pornography was in itself violence. But in "Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant," Ms. Dworkin tells the stories that shaped her as a writer and as a woman — which are less about abuse than about her friendships with characters as diverse as Petra Kelly, Allen Ginsberg and Muriel Rukeyser. Growing up in a Philadelphia suburb, Ms. Dworkin was a prodigy of sorts, reading Plato in the school library before the shelves were purged by McCarthyite librarians, and wishing she could sleep at her local bookstore. Her life as a radical began early. In the sixth grade, she didn't want to sing Christmas songs in her public school. So, she writes, "they sent in a turncoat Jew, a pretty, gutless teacher who said she was Jewish and she sang 'Silent Night' so why didn't I?" None of this was lost on the 10-year-old, who still sees most adults, and certainly most teachers, as liars. And prettiness seems a complicated part of her endless resistance, as well as part of her humor. A student at Bennington, Ms. Dworkin was revolted by the casual way professors used the dorms as their harems. She reports a sweet and subtle revenge: sleeping with their wives.
— PETER TEMES
Heartbreak of a Book
By Eric Adler
To devotees of current academic feminism, there must be something faintly embarrassing about Andrea Dworkin. Whereas women’s studies trailblazers—and many of their followers—favor a torturous prose style laden with postmodern jargon, Dworkin’s own writing is as unadorned and unfashionable as it is wrathful. Dworkin, an arch-feminist and anti-pornography crusader famous for claiming that all heterosexual intercourse is tantamount to rape, has been on the scene for some time, and thus her ideological comrades would be loath to ostracize her because of her earlier contributions to the cause of radical feminism. Yet one gets the distinct impression that Dworkin—much like Mary Daly, another old-school provocateur—has outstayed her welcome: to the postmodern crowd Dworkin must seem so vulgar, so retardataire.
Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant, Dworkin’s latest work, is highly unlikely to alter that impression. This short volume, purged of its few references to recent political events, would easily be mistaken for a feminist broadside circa 1972. Not one for the linguistic legerdemain of the lit-crowd, Dworkin instead offers punchy, dime-store sentences chock-a-block with obscenities. One can picture graduate students perusing Heartbreak with bewildered consternation: hasn’t she ever read certified academic gurus like Lacan, Derrida, Irigaray?
Dworkin tells us that “You might say that in some sense I was fully formed in the sixth grade.” This observation offers more insight into Dworkin than she might care to admit. Dworkin’s prose, with its heavy peppering of expletives and a fascination with matters scatological, is indeed puerile. And Dworkin’s description of her career is equally sophomoric. She presents herself as the saintly champion of the downtrodden, fighting a lonely battle against the Forces of Evil.
It is not surprising, perhaps, that Dworkin’s interest in self-hagiography warps her understanding of gender relations in modern America. Indeed, Dworkin presents a very skewed, black-and-white portrait of women’s lives in the United States. To Dworkin, “Men are shits and take pride in it”; “good, civic-minded citizens” have “no empathy” for rape victims. (Dworkin clearly means “sympathy,” and not “empathy,” but no matter: the charge is ludicrously simple either way.) No one, in short, ever believes a woman—save Andrea Dworkin. In Dworkin’s life—at least as she presents it—men, with frighteningly few exceptions, have been nothing but deadbeats, exploiters, and rapists.
This is all particularly unfortunate because it impairs Dworkin from offering cogent analysis of the horrors of rape—a subject with which, by virtue of her position within the women’s movement, she is thoroughly familiar. The frightening stories of the rape victims she has known—which constitute some of the few genuine moments in Heartbreak—are almost lost in Dworkin’s extremist, divisive rhetoric. One is left with the sense that Dworkin, despite all her years listening to the grim tales of raped and abused women, has strikingly little insight into the ghastly phenomena that so enrage her.
Yet even those fiercely in-step with Dworkin’s rancor are unlikely to draw much from Heartbreak. The book’s chapters—vignettes, really—are so short that they present little more than the crudest insights into their topics. Dworkin is content to hurl insults in the place of offering argument. In one characteristic moment of the book, Dworkin tells us that “The backlash against feminism has been deeply stupid,” but then fails—as usual—to offer any explanation. A few angry tirades against equity feminists again demonstrate Dworkin’s modus operandi; she excoriates one writer as a “wife of a multi-millionaire” who “pursues a golden career writing (without talent) about how she wants to be home mopping up infant vomit.” Everyone who disagrees with Dworkin is a sell-out, a member of the “pro-rape contingency,” or an abettor of the “patriarchy.” With the exception of a handful of moderately entertaining tales—a run-in with Allen Ginsberg, and some collegiate hijinks, for example—the chapters of Heartbreak merely chronicle the seemingly endless ire of their author.
Although Heartbreak is clearly intent on ruffling feathers, the appropriate response to Dworkin is not shock, but pity. Hers is a world in which six out of every five women are the victims of rape, and eleven out of every ten men are maniacal troglodytes. Dworkin has paralyzed this rancor into a career as a powerful, famous feminist—now that’s a real heartbreaker.
March 10, 2002,
By Laura Miller
The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant.
By Andrea Dworkin.
213 pp. New York:
Basic Books. $24.
IN her new memoir, ''Heartbreak,'' Andrea Dworkin describes a dust-up she had with Allen Ginsberg at the bar mitzvah of a mutual friend's child. The two writers were very publicly on opposite sides in a contentious debate: Dworkin was rejoicing in a recent Supreme Court decision that, in her words, ''had ruled child pornography illegal''; she saw Ginsberg as ''a pedophile . . . exceptionally aggressive about . . . his constant pursuit of under-age boys.'' Atypically anxious to avoid a scene, Dworkin tried hard to elude Ginsberg at the party, but, she says, he would not leave her alone. ''He followed me everywhere I went. . . . He photographed me constantly with a vicious little camera he wore around his neck. . . . Ginsberg told me that he had never met an intelligent person who had the ideas I did. . . . I couldn't get rid of Allen.'' Finally the encounter got really ugly when Ginsberg complained that the political right wanted to throw him in jail. ''Yes, they're very sentimental,'' Dworkin replied. ''I'd kill you.''
Despite the absence of even an iota of humor in ''Heartbreak'' (unless you're talking about those dry, bitter little laughs certain people emit when their worst opinions regarding human nature are confirmed), there's something comic about the scene, a whiff of Groucho Marx pestering the dowager Margaret Dumont throughout some stodgy event. What's more, just as Groucho and Dumont, the comedian and his straight woman, were fundamentally symbiotic, so were Ginsberg and Dworkin, the libertine and the militant antipornography activist, deeply bound. He could not leave her alone. Like many of Dworkin's critics, he found her to be an itch he just had to scratch.
Yet Dworkin and Ginsberg had once been friends, after a fashion. While Dworkin was growing up rebellious in a ''horrible, awful, stupid suburb'' during the 1950's and 60's, she worshiped the poet. She sent him some of her own poems when she was in high school, and got back a postcard's worth of critique. After meeting her at a reading, he urged her to call him the next time she came to New York; she did, and they spent hours talking. He told her he loved her, 11 times, and she was thrilled.
Ginsberg wasn't Dworkin's only idol. She describes an adolescence spent seeking out jazz records on New York's bohemian Eighth Street, sneaking copies of ''The Catcher in the Rye'' into the school library (where it was banned) and walking around ''with poems by Rimbaud or Baudelaire in my pocket.'' She devoured the writings of Genet and Burroughs. She fled Bennington College -- where she agitated for boys to be allowed to stay in the female students' rooms at night -- with almost nothing in her pockets and a head full of Lorca, James Baldwin, D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, intending to live and write and speculate about ''greatness'' on the island of Crete. She took male and female lovers and protested the Vietnam War.
How did such a quintessential counterculture kid wind up becoming a fanatical antiporn crusader and the sort of woman who thinks rape victims should be allowed to execute their attackers personally? You won't find the answer to that question in ''Heartbreak''; tracing the reasoned evolution of a set of ideas isn't Dworkin's forte. Instead, she appears before us, ravaged and thundering like one of Shakespeare's Plantagenet queens, to deliver her fearsome maledictions. She's got a powerful eloquence, but there's more passion to it than thought. ''Heartbreak'' describes, a bit vaguely, a story of disillusion with the sexism of the 60's left, and alludes even more foggily to past episodes of domestic violence and prostitution, but it doesn't detail the process by which those experiences must have clashed with and transformed the liberationist ideals Dworkin picked up from her early influences. It's a scattered, moody book, a fugue rather than a narrative.
Yet it's not hard to see why Dworkin fascinated Ginsberg; they were kindred spirits even after they became ideological enemies. As Ginsberg was, Dworkin is one of the few remaining specimens of pure countercultural Romanticism: fierce, melodramatic and utterly convinced that all truth can be found in her own roiling, untempered emotions. Nothing she writes is any more daft or monstrous than the thousands of polemics cranked out by her peers in the late 60's and early 70's; she'd just rather kill rapists than ''pigs.'' You could say that her generation grew up without her; she'd no doubt accuse her contemporaries of joining the ranks of ''the compromisers, the mediocrities, the apathetic.'' Those who exhaust themselves in constructing meticulous refutations of Dworkin's ideas are wasting their time; why try to reason with someone who today is every bit as furious with the junior high school teacher who gave her a B on an essay because ''some commas were wrong'' as she was when the insult was first inflicted? In for an extra heaping dose of her wrath are those ''turncoat'' women she calls ''female collaborators.''
In the book's preface, Dworkin rails against such collaboration, condemning most contemporary women for having ''no sense of honor'' and allowing ''triviality and deceit'' to be ''the coin of the female realm.'' She, on the other hand, is ''in most respects but not all'' honorable, particularly in her policy of ''not lying,'' which she explains is ''a hard discipline, a practice of spartan ethics too often mistaken for self-righteousness.'' Those spartan ethics don't, apparently, extend to refraining from grandiosity, whether it takes a common form, like name-dropping (she reports having her company sought by the sculptor David Smith and offering advice to Abbie Hoffman's wife, Anita), or involves more implausible boasts of having consumed several library books per day and read ''most of Freud, all of Darwin and most of Marx'' in high school. (Dworkin also takes credit for toppling ''the ancien régime'' of Mayor Robert Wagner of New York by testifying about conditions in the Women's House of Detention in Greenwich Village.)
Whatever her policy on lying, Dworkin clearly isn't averse to strategic exaggeration -- nowhere less so than in her characterization of her political opponents. She claims that ''librarians actively try to get students Internet access to pornography'' and that those who challenge her antiporn activities argue that ''people are not influenced by what they read or see,'' misrepresentations that belie the praise she gives herself for being a good listener. These statements -- like her assertion that during her college years ''anyone famous who came to Bennington was provided with one or more Bennington girls'' -- are false and still are not without a kind of truth. This close association with falsehood contaminates another, more pertinent truth expressed in her work, which is that some people (young, poor, female) are treated like disposable objects for other people's use and that we should all be ashamed of allowing this to happen. The danger in Dworkin's writing isn't, as she'd like to believe, that it forces us to face this ugliness, but that she makes it easier for us to dismiss.
Laura Miller is an editor at Salon.com.
WOMEN’S REVIEW OF BOOKS
Lives on the line
Sleeping with Cats: A Memoir by Marge Piercy. New York: William Morrow, 2002, 345 pp., $25.95 hardcover.
Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant by Andrea Dworkin. New York: Basic Books, 2001, 198 pp., $24.00 hardcover.
Reviewed by Meryl Altman
JUXTAPOSING THESE BOOKS illustrates two ways to work as a feminist activist writer: Andrea Dworkin the impassioned and lacerating orator, all fire and drama; Marge Piercy the thoughtful sifter, joining no faction and settling no scores, yet capable of wielding as sharp a verbal knife as anyone and directing it unerringly at the heart of the problem. Both of these feminist militant writers, now in their sixties, could have chosen the title "memoirs of a survivor"--except that Piercy does not dwell on the trials she has seen and suffered, and Dworkin writes as though her survival was still continually in doubt.
Andrea Dworkin still spells Amerika with a K--which makes more sense to me now than it would have six months ago--and in every paragraph she writes or speaks she seems to be walking on razorblades, only an inch from annihilation, from the ground zero of the sex war, about to be silenced, about to be shot. Dworkin has always cared less for the drawing of fine intellectual distinctions ("academic horseshit") than for arousing the reader's empathy for the brutalized, even when this requires brutalizing the reader.
Like much of her work, Heartbreak passionately denounces Dworkin's enemies, both some personal political nemeses and her class enemies--rapists, pornographers, pimps and their supporters and sympathizers inside and outside feminism. The book begins as a speech for the defense--"I have been asked, politely and not so politely, why I am myself"--but it soon turns into a speech for the prosecution. Nearly every page reads like a peroration; story after story pits a beleaguered but indomitable Andrea against the forces of sexual violence, racism, gynophobia, feminine self-deception, anti-Semitism, beginning in the sixth grade, through Bennington, an abusive marriage, the sex trade, the sexism of the New Left, the anti-pornography crusade of the 1980s. She never quite loses; she never quite wins; she goes on writing.
No other human being appears in this book as anything but a brief Brechtian type of evil or good, and those who seek personal details and revelations will be disappointed. Heartbreak seems to be the answer to Jill Johnston's old question: How would it feel to be the heroine of your own life? While unwearying self-righteous melodrama may not be to everyone's taste, the writing is often vivid and the testimony will be valuable, particularly to those who already share Dworkin's political positions. And when she tells us that a woman who speaks angry truths to power takes tremendous risks, she's still absolutely right, more than ever.
MARGE PIERCY IS NO TAME PUSSYCAT either. Unforgettable poems like "Barbie Doll" and "For Strong Women" still draw blood; "The Grand Coolie Damn," her 1969 exposé of sexism, the abuse of sexual trust and general male power-tripping in the anti-war movement and the male Left, is still definitive. Piercy was the one who said it wasn't good enough for women to keep making the coffee and running the mimeo machines while the men were off on power trips about theory and leadership. There are no mimeo machines any more, of course, and the term "power trip" sounds as quaint as "groovy," and yet... I expect women who could not define the term "mimeograph" to save their young lives are still emailing it to each other. Vida asked hard questions about what happens to the revolutionaries when the revolution doesn't come; Woman on the Edge of Time blew open the casual abusiveness of the mental health professions and The High Cost of Living did the same for the academy.
Take these lines about her mother from "the good old days at home sweet home":
did you become a feminist
interviewers always ask
as if to say, when did this
virus attack your brain?
...I think it was Tuesday
when she ironed my father's shorts.
Irony sharpens the blow rather than softening it.
But like the great realist novelist she is, Piercy always lets us see enough of the other people in her stories that we remember another point of view is possible. Near the beginning of Sleeping with Cats, she says wryly, "I have tried to make myself look good, but I am aware that sometimes my honesty and my attachment to what happened prevent me from presenting myself as the blameless heroine." All memoir writers flirt with narcissism, but only some of them drown.
There are painful, often terrible stories in Sleeping With Cats. The prostitute high-school friend who died of a heroin overdose, the life-threatening self-induced illegal abortion, the anti-Semitism of her Detroit ghetto grade-school days that turned Piercy into a street fighter. The impatient father slamming the car door on her hand, the casual family violence of poverty, the wrench away from class and family as she crossed into a college where status was measured in cashmere sweaters. The first "what was I thinking?" marriage to a French particle physicist who disliked poetry and feared sex; the beatings and gassings at demonstrations; the faction fights of the New Left in the 1960s that destroyed the dream of a beloved community changing the world; more recently, struggles with painful and dangerous eye operations and the threat of blindness. While the memoir begins and ends with a lyrical evocation of what seems an idyllic domestic life in the present--cats, gardens, the ocean, a wonderful loving husband, more cats--it can never be taken for granted. (I thought of Jane Kenyon's words: "It could be/ otherwise.")
Piercy just tells us what happened in the bad years, as though they were bad enough without embellishment or framing. That's how people like us lived, then: like one's grandmother shrugging, "that's how it happened, don't stare at me like that." History speaks for itself. With a matter-of-fact good humor, and through the layers of seemingly irrelevant detail that serve as guarantors of realism, she communicates the texture of the everyday--and, somehow, makes herself a reliable narrator, a voice we can trust.
BOTH PIERCY AND DWORKIN face a technical problem as they turn to memoir after having mined emotional and actual autobiography in previous work. The risk is that, as with Doris Lessing, the autobiographical retelling will fall flat alongside the brilliant transformations of the earlier art. (One almost feels in Lessing's case that this happens on purpose, since she sometimes seems to write autobiography more from a grumpy impulse to spoil the ground for future biographers than out of genuine enthusiasm for the form.) Dworkin solves this problem formally by giving us a series of quick disconnected vignettes, almost a slide show, rather than a sustained narrative. This succeeds from a dramatic point of view, but the result feels like a series of sketches around the edges of a story we are already supposed to know by heart. Readers who don't may find it puzzling. As in Greek tragedy, much of the real action occurs offstage; if you want to know where her parents came from or what the cops actually did to her in the House of Detention, or if you just need an overall chronological grasp, you have to turn to a piece on her website which remains otherwise unpublished (why?), or to her fiction, or to the early organizing talks collected as Our Blood, where I feel she has used autobiographical material most powerfully.
Piercy too has written so powerfully and honestly about her life that it is hard to see how she could go back over the same ground without disappointing us. In speaking of her turbulent relation to her mother, for instance, how could she go beyond "Crescent Moon Like a Canoe"?
Don't do it, they'll kill
you, you're bad, you said, slapping me down
hard but always you whispered, I could have!
Only rebellion flashed like lightning.
wanted to take you with me, you don't
Well, she couldn't do better, so she reprints the whole poem here. Along with the "spine of cats" that structures this autobiography (more on them in a minute), there is a spine of poems, some familiar and wonderful, some wonderful and new. All show her trademarks: honesty, insight and verbal wit, as well as a skill at balancing line and stanza that shows itself by remaining invisible. Piercy is hardly a "poet's poet" (as the memoir tells us, she turned down the chance to study at Iowa, and it shows), but she's one of the best, a truly transformative figure in feminist poetry who has given voice to so many others--in case this still needs saying.
Sleeping with Cats is worth reading simply for the language, for the occasional one-line zingers that like her best poems stay in the mind long afterwards. Of her parents: "I grew up in the trenches of their war." Of visits to her father's family: "We were always being observed to see if we would do something Jewish like crucify someone in the backyard." Of high school: "a time of pervasive, massive boredom, boredom as thick as peanut butter, as bland as vegetable shortening... My daydreams, the stories I told myself, were like knitting I carried with me and took up at any odd moment." Of the decision to agree with her second husband's desire for an open marriage: "I thought, when you get a second cat, you don't stop loving the first. Why shouldn't it be that way with people?"
Neither of these writers falls into the trap of writing a "recovery narrative." Dworkin is unreconstructed in every way and proud of it; Piercy describes herself as having changed in a general way, become more capable of putting her own writing, and herself, first. "Feminism had given me a spine," she writes of the period when her second marriage was exploding, and "I was no longer the earth mother... everyone's mama." But, to steal Robin Morgan's phrase, she "disowns none of her transformations." She fully conveys the heady excitement of New York in 1968--"like a medieval fair... intense friendships, intense sex, intense politics, intense pleasures, intense terrors." Self-righteousness and score-settling are almost entirely absent: "I hated the factionalism, but I did not hate the people." And when she turns to feminism, she does not tell tales out of school; she seems concerned to keep the peace and preserve the possibility of coalition, rather than to take personal credit. There are many things (specific and general) about the early feminist movement I still want to know, and she could have been more informative or analytical. But I do prefer this approach to the wrangling about exactly who invented which slogan exactly when that has begun to surface elsewhere.
Similarly, Piercy describes the period when she and her second husband chose to "live differently" and yet stay together as a series of politically rational, emotionally sustainable commitments, rather than some crazy youthful phase. "We believed in honesty... We believed we were making a new world in every way, on every level. Nothing could be taken for granted." She ends this section with "To Have Without Holding," the familiar poem about "love with the hands wide open," which conveys better than prose can that difficult dream of building something together, choosing to love differently but (as Rich put it) with all one's intelligence, not with the cunning of the dependent slave who needs the master but with some idea about knowledge, self-knowledge and knowledge of the other. What would a world that truly recognized the idea that most people love and want more than one person, that trying to own other human beings is not the most ethical move imaginable, be like? People trusting each other that much. Well, it was a fine dream in its way, though the world has moved on.
FINALLY, IT IS MY DUTY as a reviewer to say that the title of the memoir is not coy or sly; Piercy does in fact give a very great deal of space to the animals that have shared her life and her various beds from girlhood ("I was an alley child, and my cats were alley cats") to her present menagerie--five at the beginning of the book, four by the end. Cats often understood and comforted and were there for her when humans weren't, and she gives each one full and individual credit. As a woman writing memoir by means of cat life she is far from unique; in fact I was intrigued to learn from the flyleaf that there is even a Library of Congress category called "women cat owners--united states--biography." (This is the number three subject heading given to Piercy's book; number four is "cats--anecdotes." I'm afraid this is not wholly unfair.)
Writing well and seriously about cats is almost as hard as writing well about sex: there's such a tradition of trite and sentimental associations to overcome; so many existing examples are cutesy, or smug, or self-righteously moralizing, or all three at once. Piercy never falls into the worst excesses of Sarton with her "fur person" and her "dear pussies." Still, whether readers who prefer dogs, or tropical fish, will be fully fascinated by the exploits and idiosyncrasies of the various Burmese, Siamese, korats and regular old lovable strays, is a question I am not well-positioned to answer.
I'll admit there are things about Piercy's life and opinions I wanted to know more than I want to know which cat sits where and why. But somehow building the narrative around the cats has helped her avoid any of the more annoying reductive master narratives that are certainly available to frame her life -- from "promiscuity" to true love, from politics to domesticity, up from poverty to the American Dream. Cat stories give the book a lumpier and a different shape, less like a story of willful progress and conversion, more like actual messy life. Perhaps it makes ethical sense to treat one's cats like people, provided one does not treat the people in one's life like pets. Or perhaps cat ownership provides a useful model of independent relatedness--you're necessary to them, but they don't let you get too full of yourself about it. "The love of a cat is unconditional, but it is always subject to negotiation."
What then, to return to my starting place, can we learn about political survival from this finally tranquil portrait of a life in balance? That resistance, like sex, is a part of life, not apart, or instead of. That living in a constant state of emergency is not good for one's body or one's writing. That the ability to live alone is essential, but loneliness is not required, not morally superior. That it's not shameful or selfish to be personally happy, to eat well, enjoy sex, enjoy life. "I don't admire despair," Piercy has written elsewhere. Is this our old adversary, the retreat into the individual solution? I don't think so. Unlike Dworkin, Piercy presents her life, not as the solution to a problem ("I did it, so can you") but simply as a life. She isn't asking us to do anything, one way or the other. She's asking us to remember.
Dworkin asks far more, asks more than most people can give. Elements of a possible feminist intellectual creed in a dangerous time: I will speak truth to power, where I can... and when I have figured out what the truth is. I will not pretend things are simpler than I know they are. I will not pretend to any impressionable person that I understand better than I actually do or am any better informed than I am. It must be possible: some non-terrorized form of mindfulness and some way of breaking through fear and inertia that does not require the constant white heat of irrational rage. But to see with both the red light of anger and the white light of truth you might have to look at both simultaneously--and squint.
Andrea Dworkin, died on April 9, 2005. See obituaries, here.