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essential cinema



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Opens everywhere in January
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number fifteen winter 2013
how to quit
dead white magazines
gangs of baltimore
the trial of anders Behring breivik
the passion of anthony kennedy
in memoriam: shulamith firestone
www. fsgbooks. com
“One of the best memoirs
I’ve read in years.”
—Mary Karr, author of Lit
“A farewell to a bygone Jewish American
culture—polyglot, intellectual, Europhile,
psychoanalytic—and simultaneously a renewal
of that culture. It’s both moving and tough-
minded, a book of high intellect and deep feeling
the like of which nobody else could write.”
—BenjaMin KunKel, author of Indecision
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i ssue 15 wi nter 2013
the intellectual situation
1 Listen Up, Ladies
Te Atlantic Monthly period
2 Let Them Eat Print!
Harper’s in the wilderness
5 Back from the Dead
Harriet Beecher Stowe
6 Complacencies of a Beach Towel
Te Paris Review lifestyle
11 Politicopsychopathology benjamin kunkel
Neurotocrats vs. the Grand Old Psychosis
109 Maidenhair mikhail shishkin
My good Nebuchadnezzasaurus!
number 15
winter 2013
lawrence Jackson Slickheads
Charm City, 1989
julia Grønnevet Letters from Oslo
Te Anders Behring Breivik trial
nikil Saval The Long Eighties
Duran Duran in China
kristin dombek How to Quit
Sex, drugs, and Ryan Gosling
in memoriam
On Shulamith Firestone
Tis is what a feminist looks like
jeremy kessler On the Affordable Care Act Decision
hannah tennant-moore On Jeanette Winterson
anand vaidya On Katherine Boo
Bourgeois psychodrama
Carla Blumenkranz
Keith Gessen
Mark Greif
Nikil Saval
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The Intellectual Situation
A Diary
Every magazine’s death should be one with its
life! Just because an industry is dying does not
make it something else. We always interpret a
medium’s death by its life.
Listen up, Ladies
Every time a plane flies over New York,
we think, “Oh my God — is it another Atlan-
tic think piece?” We mean, “an Atlantic
think piece about women.” Te two have
become synonymous, and they descend
upon their target audience with the regu-
larity and severe abdominal cramping of
Seasonale. “Why Women Still Can’t Have It
All,” “Te End of Men,” “Marry Him!” Tese
are articles intended to terrorize unmar-
ried women, otherwise known as educated
straight women in their twenties and thir-
ties, otherwise known as a valuable mar-
ket, if not for reliable lovers then at least
for advertisers. Teir purpose is to revive
one formerly robust man of the house,
who for years has been languishing on his
deathbed: the cigar-smoking, suspender-
snapping, mansplaining American general
interest magazine.
Listen up ladies, these articles say. We’re
here to talk to you in a way that’s limited and
denigrating. Each female author reports on
a particular dilemma faced by the “mod-
ern woman,” and offers her own life as
a case study. Power Mom Anne-Marie
Slaughter regrets that she couldn’t help
her son with homework while working at
the State Department. Straight Talker Lori
Gottlieb admits she wishes she had married
just about anyone. Single Lady Kate Bolick
suggests that it may be possible to live alone
and be happy, but only relative to the night-
mare of trying to have it all. “Having it all,”
or having what you thought you wanted, is
never presented as a plausible option; these
are stories of living with disappointment.
Te problems these women describe are
diferent, but their outlook is the same: tra-
ditional gender relations are by and large
bound to endure, and genuinely progres-
sive social change is a lost cause. Gently,
like a good friend, the Atlantic tells women
they can stop pretending to be feminists
now. (Gottlieb: “We aren’t fsh who can do
without a bicycle, we’re women who want
traditional families.”) Te sensible path for
ambitious women is to downsize — excuse
us, restructure — their ambitions before
circumstances force them to do so. Tese
arguments are so constricting, so contro-
versial, and so anxiety-provoking that they
routinely attract hundreds of thousands of
readers. Last summer, Slaughter’s article
brought record trafc to the Atlantic web-
site with 1.7 million hits.
The first of the woman-baiting sto-
ries — Gottlieb’s “Marry Him!”—was pub-
lished the same year that the then-f lac-
cid Atlantic implemented its “digital-frst
strategy.” As Justin Smith, named Atlantic
The Intellectual Situation 2
Consumer Media president in 2007, put it:
“We decided to prioritize digital over every-
thing else. We were no longer going to be
the Atlantic, which happens to do digital.
We were going to be a digital media com-
pany that also published the Atlantic mag-
azine.” Tis meant removing the website’s
paywall, developing additional blogs and
aggregators, and instructing salespeople
that it didn’t matter what percentage of their
sales were for print ads. Tey just had to hit
their target fgure, and digital was fair game.
What do women have to do with the
internet? We submit that, at least in the
eyes of media executives, women are the
internet. Women, we mean the internet, are
commanding a larger share of the tradi-
tional print market. Te internet, we mean
women, is less responsive to conventional
advertising than to commenting, shar-
ing, and other forms of social interaction.
Women, we mean the internet, are putting
men, we mean magazine editors, out of
work. Te internet, we mean women, never
pays for its content — or for their drinks! Te
only dignifed solution for publications like
the Atlantic is to die, alone and unread, in
the ghost town of the printed word. But the
Atlantic has chosen the survivalist alterna-
tive: abandoning the old settlement for the
domestic, we mean digital, realm, where
it gives women what they want and, even
more than what they want, what they fear.
Now we don’t even have to wait until that
time of the month for the latest pop-neuro
stats about the female brain extrapolated
from studies on rats. Te Atlantic allows us
to check them daily on its new online verti-
cal Te Sexes, dedicated to stoking a “con-
fusing” and “even perilous” conversation
about contemporary gender roles. In her
introductory message, the editor promised
not to bait readers with “pseudo-provocative
posts like ‘Is Tis Dress Making Us Look
Fat?’” while a few inches down the screen,
two women writers were already wonder-
ing, “Is It Weird That Politicians’ Wives
Are Wearing Dresses Instead of Suits?” Spi-
noff talkbacks and livechats continue to
offer advice about optimizing one’s time
and “working diferently,” and blog posts
raise new and related fears: Do parents get
more colds than non-parents? Do stressed
men seek larger women? Why do successful
women feel so guilty? Tat last one is a rhe-
torical question. Here’s one for the Atlantic:
What if you stopped posing these patroniz-
ing, asinine questions and then asked us how
guilty we feel? What if we told you, not one
goddamn bit?
But like the guy who just won’t take no
for an answer, the Atlantic will never stop
asking. Guilt is a gold mine. “Marry Him!”
They might as well say, “Subscribe!” The
Atlantic takes one reactionary impulse
and sublimates it with another, hoping it
can persuade us to make the same error in
reverse, substituting our freshly provoked
anxiety about fnding a fuckable husband
with an intense desire to commit to a reli-
able magazine. So far, this strategy seems to
be working. Te Atlantic had its frst prof-
itable year in decades in 2010, and in 2011
made more than half its ad revenue from
digital sales, while print ad sales were the
highest they’d been in years. In fact, since
we married our deadbeat boyfriend, quit
our job, and accidentally had quadruplets
through in vitro fertilization (all boys, thank
God!), we’ve realized we could use some of
that cash, so we’re thinking of pitching an
article: “Why You’re Failing the Daughters
You’ve Never Had and Probably Never Will.”
The Intellectual Situation 3
Let Them Eat Print!
Women are the internet, and the internet
is women. How else to explain male writ-
ers’ terror about taking it with them to the
ofce? Women writers may admit they have
a hard time working while online, but for
men this appears to be a much more pro-
found issue, and in some cases a hardware
problem. (Zadie Smith thanks the inter-
net-blocking application Freedom on the
acknowledgments page of her latest book,
but she didn’t name an entire novel after it.)
Men tear the ethernet cord out of the socket,
they hot-glue the socket, they use comput-
ers so old they say they were made without
a socket. Tey claim they must avoid the
internet so as not to masturbate all over
their computers (see “Te Porn Machine,”
Issue Five). But their stories of covering up
and gluing shut suggest that for men the
internet is in fact the site of a perverse fear
of penetration. Tey have withdrawn into a
cult of the unplugged.
Te magazine for these men is not the
Atlantic, which treats the internet like a
woman and placates it, but Harper’s, which
treats the internet like a woman and ignores
it. Te defning diference is that Harper’s,
in the person of publisher Rick MacArthur,
doesn’t have to worry about making a liv-
ing. While the Atlantic hustles women for
page views, Harper’s can maintain a courtly,
old-fashioned afect and a decorous remove
from reality. It remains almost entirely male
and for all practical purposes appears exclu-
sively in print, where it pursues its passion
for solving arithmetic problems, arranging
newspaper clippings, and recounting logis-
tically complicated vacations.
MacArthur’s grandfather was the bil-
lionaire John D. MacArthur; his father
became a millionaire in his own right when
he started the Bradford Exchange, which
makes almost all the world’s collectible
ceramic plates, and later purchased the gad-
get manufacturer Hammacher Schlemmer.
(Harper’s employees reportedly receive dis-
counts at Hammacher Schlemmer; no word
if they’re getting deals on ceramic plates.)
In 1980, when Harper’s was on the verge
of closing, Rick MacArthur used his fam-
ily’s resources to save the magazine. Today
his Harper’s Foundation is its only source
of fnancial support; in 2009, he contrib-
uted more than four million dollars to cover
the magazine’s losses that year. Even as
newsstand sales and ad revenues declined,
MacArthur refused to consider any online
strategies or allow his foundation to accept
money from other donors, who might try to
impinge on his reign. He would remain the
magazine’s sole benefactor, no matter what
the cost.
We heard MacArthur speak at the
Columbia Journalism School in Febru-
ary, when he took a trip down memory
lane to explain his refusal to put Harper’s
online. When MacArthur was a young
reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, thirty
years ago, “the copy-desk chief was a bril-
liant and acerbic man named Tom Mofett.
Mofett thought that reporters were lazy
wimps . . . and he dared me one day at the
Billy Goat Tavern . . . to work for him. Was
I man enough? Over my fourth Old Style I
insisted that I was.”
Permitted to spend six weeks on the
copy desk, MacArthur found that Mofett’s
“sink-or-swim boot camp for copy-editing
and headline writing was brutal.” But he
was determined to prove himself an able
recruit, and eventually received affirma-
tion from Mofett: he was man enough for
the job. But MacArthur didn’t want to be a
copy-editor — he just wanted to prove that
The Intellectual Situation 4
point was Harper’s books columnist. (In
2006, then-editor Lewis Lapham realized
he would never be able to get enough dead
people into Harper’s, so he founded his own
magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly: “by and
for the dead.”) Te July Harper’s featured
an article by Albert Camus and a letter by
Ernest Hemingway on what it’s like to kill
a cat. For those more interested in contem-
porary afairs, there was an interview with a
man who enjoys eating fermented meat.
What else? Tere are transcripts of trials,
pieces of evidence. Short stories about peo-
ple getting into fghts. Tere are accounts
of the moon landing and the assassination
of Archduke Ferdinand. Tere is masculine
preciousness, belles lettres about rough liv-
ing — an essay about trees and a memoir by
an older man from another country. Some-
one writes an article about “listening for
silence.” If you would stop talking I could
listen for some silence!
With enough money, you can force the
past into the present, or at least hold the
future at bay. Harper’s, it turns out, is the
Petit Trianon of publishing. Marie Antoi-
nette had her artifcially aged cottages and
working dairy farm, and MacArthur has
his fully operational magazine, which both
embodies and celebrates the values of his
old Chicago newsroom. At Harper’s, the
administrative staf is largely female, the
board is entirely male, the writers are almost
all male, and the internet barely exists.
It would be one thing if Harper’s nostal-
gia were only a question of ofce culture
or distribution. But it permeates the pages
of the magazine, determining not only the
approach to subject matter but what sub-
jects are worthy of being included at all.
Although Harper’s circulation is small, its
reputation is such that it continues to have
a say in what counts, and what subjects are
worthy of serious thought by serious people:
he could be, that he was not a boy among
men — and Mofett, seeming to expect his
response, smiled and said, “Someone’s got to
keep the ads from bumping into each other.”
From this anecdote, MacArthur drew
the following conclusion:
To the extent that commercial newspapers
and magazines are advertising
catalogs — with writing wrapped around
them — they are vastly more effective in
purveying commercial messages because
with paper, you can’t help bumping into
the ads on the way to reading the articles in
between. . . . At some point you’ve got to turn
off your computer or your iPad, but the mail
and the brochures and printed matter just
keep coming.
Tis complete mischaracterization of the
nature of daily existence is the basis for
MacArthur’s belief that eventually print will
triumph over the internet. “In the long run,
I think I’ll be vindicated, since clearly the
[online] advertising ‘model’ has failed and
readers are going to have to pay . . . if they
want to see anything more complex than a
blog, a classifed ad, or a sex act.” (“Sex act!”
We can’t help it, the phrase makes us fanta-
size: MacArthur is prone on a chaise lounge,
and he’s not alone. Tere’s another person in
the room, and it’s his analyst, who’s having a
feld day with that phrase, “sex act.”)
So that’s where the women are: hav-
ing sex on the internet. We were look-
ing for them, but we couldn’t find them
in Harper’s. We saw one there from time
to time — Marilynne Robinson or Fran-
cine Prose or Barbara Ehrenreich — but
almost never together. Harper’s seems to
publish twice as many dead men as living
women. Since he died, Roberto Bolaño has
had nearly as many pieces in the magazine
as Smith, who is not only alive but at one
The Intellectual Situation 5
English periodicals, serialized English nov-
els (Jude the Obscure, Return of the Native,
Dickens, and more Dickens), and published
a dispatch from Tackeray on his visit to
Tintern Abbey.
While Harper’s was trying to reproduce
the culture that New York didn’t have, the
Bostonian Atlantic, founded in 1857, was
trying to create one that didn’t exist. An
early Atlantic prospectus declared that
“the best interests of this nation demand
of literature a manly and generous action,
and . . . an elevated national American spirit
will always be found illustrated in these
pages.” When that masculine ingenuity was
imperiled, one hundred and ffty years later,
by the collapse of the American magazine
industry (which the Atlantic had practically
founded), it revived itself by dredging up cer-
tain truths about its origins. Te infamma-
tory, fundamentally conservative cover sto-
ries the Atlantic now runs to provoke female
readers are not an arbitrary last resort. Call it
the B-side to the “Battle Hymn of the Repub-
lic”: cashing in on stereotypes about female
readers, and female nature, is the foundation
on which the Atlantic was built.
When the Atlantic was founded, most
readers of popular magazines were female.
So, too, were their writers, and Atlantic
editor James Russell Lowell took women
writers — among them Louisa May Alcott
and Harriet Beecher Stowe — and their con-
siderable name recognition on board when
putting together early issues of the maga-
zine. Others involved in the magazine, like
Toreau, considered such work beneath the
Atlantic’s mission. Charles Eliot Norton
allegedly informed Lowell that “he heard
the Atlantic roundly abused in some aca-
demic circles for publishing second-rate
love stories.” Norton did not have to spell
out for Lowell that these stories were writ-
ten by women.
in other words, what constitutes the nation’s
public life — and, by extension, which lives
constitute “the public.”
We imagine asking Harper’s, What about
women? Teir response would probably be,
Well, what about women? Te voice of Harp-
er’s is pitched such that the question can
only be asked rhetorically. Matters of gender
and sexuality do not actually matter. In one
of the few instances where they were even
raised, when Thomas Frank wrote about
abortion in October 2011, the case was actu-
ally made that the pro-life movement is inef-
fective, and that abortion rights are a non-
issue. Frank suggests that what happens on
the state level just doesn’t matter, because
it’s not on the national stage — an argument
that willfully overlooks decades of pro-life
activism that has strategically and deliber-
ately built the movement state by state, and
that this tactic has accounted for much of
its growth and many of its victories.
Does Frank not know about states? Of
course he knows about states, he wrote a
whole book about Kansas! The guy loves
states. But this is the Harper’s way, to will
things out of existence, to hope if you say
it doesn’t matter — whether “it” is women’s
status as equal citizens under the law, as
autonomous individuals, or “it” is the entire
internet — that it won’t actually matter. And
that would be great, because if it doesn’t
matter — if the culture wars are just imagi-
nary, ignorable skirmishes, and the inter-
net is only a passing fad — then nobody, and
nothing, will ever have to change.
Back from the Dead
We are not filled with hope for Harper’s
when we recall that it was founded, in
1850, to import English cultural life to New
York. Early issues syndicated articles from
The Intellectual Situation 6
men and women continue to belong in par-
ticular social roles, and that this traditional
structure of gender relations will never be
transcended — that such a transformation is
not only impossible, or improbable, but fun-
damentally unimaginable.
Complacencies of a
Beach Towel
So what’ s an old magazi ne to do?
Should it be like the New Yorker and just . . .
it’s hard to say what exactly the New Yorker
does on the internet. Tey do not post their
best pieces, except when they do. Tey do
not have their best writers blogging, except
when they do. Really, what the New Yorker
has done online is remain totally unem-
barrassed by everything they have done
online. Did they spend one zillion dollars on
a “digital reader” for subscribers that must
have looked great at the pitch meeting but
shrinks the 10.5 Caslon type just past the
point of readability? Yes, they did. Did they
hold a pet photo contest on Halloween? Yes,
they did. But do they care? No, they don’t.
Tis may be a model for others, or it may
just be something this one magazine can get
away with. Hard to tell.
Anyway, we were very upset, and to add
insult to injury our dog lost the Halloween
contest to two little gerbils reading tiny dic-
tionaries, but then we realized we could just
take a Xanax and read the Paris Review. We
love the new Paris Review, partly because it
always makes us forget what year it is, but
never in a depressing way, like Harper’s. We
opened a recent issue and found all our
favorite hits from the archives: poems from
an ancient civilization, an experimental
short story by a woman, some brightly col-
ored art that must have been very expensive
Even Beecher Stowe, often identifed as
part of the magazine’s founding circle, was
put to the use women contributors often
have been: when early attempts to fund
the magazine faltered, prospective donors
were encouraged by “the cheering news that
Mrs. Stowe would be among the frst con-
tributors.” When the magazine celebrated
its twentieth anniversary, Mrs. Stowe was
not invited. No woman was. Reporting
on the event, the New York Evening Post
refected that
the Atlantic Monthly’s staff of writers is much
more largely masculine than is that of any
other magazine in the country. It is, in a
certain sense, our masculine magazine, and
has always been so. A bigoted bachelor
insists that this is because the Atlantic Monthly
confnes itself more wholly than any other
magazine does to literature in the strict
sense of the term, neglecting all the little
prettinesses of household interests and all
the gushing sentimentality which . . . women
mistake for literature.
A hundred and ffty years has not been long
enough to throw off this association: of
the masculine with the serious, the femi-
nine with the frivolous. And it is this origi-
nal schism — original sin — that simmers
beneath every article extolling the virtues
of print and lamenting the waning of its
empire. For what was it that made maga-
zines so good, anyway? What was their pri-
vate and singular claim to the truth, and the
authority to tell it? Tat they were not like
the stuf women read, or wrote.
And so it is that two magazines, which
have responded to the advent of online pub-
lishing with two entirely diferent models,
nevertheless manage to reproduce in their
responses an identical worldview. It is that
The Intellectual Situation 7
Te magazine supposedly was half-based in
Paris because the prewar avant-garde seces-
sion had occurred there, but the real plea-
sures of expatriation, for William Styron
and Peter Matthiessen and George Plimp-
ton, were fashion and tourism, narcissism
and cognac. In the blasé letter that stood in
for a founding manifesto, Styron pretended
not to know the meaning of zeitgeist.
The Paris Review was anti-intellectual,
but not philistine. A truly great consumer
can’t afford to be. If Bergdorf ’s is selling
Gaddis this season, you must wear him.
And the Paris Review has always done one
thing that literary scholars and literary
fantasists have thanked it for: it has pub-
lished interviews with great writers, writ-
ers famous for their careers elsewhere. Te
“Writers at Work” interviews have always
been lovingly informative about the vanities
of the sufering artist — whether he writes
with a pen or a typewriter, at one time of
day, under what mystical inspiration — and
if these facts often seem as wonderful as fc-
tion, it is because the interviews famously
are turned over to the writers themselves to
correct and rewrite, to make over as what-
ever self-portraits they like — and why not?
It’s like asking a sculptor to do his own bust.
Better still: when taking a meal at the Tour
d’Argent, one does not burden the chef with
one’s opinions on seasoning.
One way to deal with a limited, parochial
legacy is to ironize it. You could say that the
new Paris Review queers the sensibility of
the midcentury magazine by recreating it so
appreciatively and so lavishly that the result
looks like the literary equivalent of a Todd
Haynes flm. When it comes to the print
magazine itself, it is clear that a product this
beautiful is not meant to be read, but to be
eaten, and so the Paris Review is now what
print always feared the internet would force
to print, and obscene fction by a Jewish per-
son. But what satisfed us most was the feel-
ing that we were enjoying a product with a
past, and with the distinction of an earlier
age. Where did that feeling come from? Was
it the Xanax (or maybe it was Valium) that
made us suspect that if the issue had been
released in 1959, no one would have noticed
that it came from the future?
We were so absorbed in the Paris Review
that we almost forgot about the internet,
where, as it happens, the magazine main-
tains a very attractive website. We have so
much fun looking at the Paris Review blog,
with its pictures of bookshelves and book
covers and many items about children’s
books, for some reason. Our favorite part
of the website, though, is the online store,
where the magazine has recently branched
out into adult apparel, infant apparel, intern
apparel. Tey’ve done seasonal cofee mugs,
notepads, fountain pens. Te Paris Review
beach towel never fails to send us into an
admiring trance, with its line drawing of
two Bolaño characters (or are they Paris
Review readers?) lounging on what must
also be in their universe a Paris Review
beach towel.
We were familiar with heritage brands,
but we had no idea until we saw the Paris
Review store that a literary magazine could
become one. Now, though, it makes per-
fect sense: the editors have an even richer
legacy to work with than the late ’90s reviv-
alists at Abercrombie & Fitch. Founded in
1953 by members of the declining American
aristocracy, the Paris Review was an attempt
to recover fiction and poetry from “criti-
cism,” which is to say from Jewish critics
and other middle-class strivers. Tese were
people not rich enough for leisure, and so
leisure, for the Paris Review, became the
place from which literature must spring.
The Intellectual Situation 8
(a man whose literary greatness resides in
having been born too late for glory, missing
World War II for Korea, missing the Lost
Generation for sex with French chamber-
maids, missing Fitzgerald’s Hollywood for
Downhill Racer)—perhaps while writing a
thank-you note to James Salter on a cus-
tom letterpressed note card — and it doesn’t
look so bad. Exhausted publications have
done much worse.
it to become: a consumable, a lifestyle prod-
uct, and, in this case, one of many oferings
in a literary-themed specialty store.
And what’s wrong, exactly, with the
lush-looking catalog being put out on
White Street? We like to imagine ourselves
on one of its pages, surrounded by fresh
f lowers and watercolor portraits of our-
selves while celebrating the special voice
and talents of elder statesman James Salter
w a n t s o m e t h i n g d i f f e r e n t ? T h e n + 1 F e m i n i s t
R e s e a r c h C o l l e c t i v e F i l m S e r i e s C o - h o s t e d b y
W o m e n M a k e M o v i e s a n d J o a n ’ s D i g e s t S c r e e n i n g s
e v e r y o t h e r W e d n e s d a y a t S p e c t a c l e
T h e a t e r 1 2 4 S o u t h 3 r d S t r e e t , B r o o k l y n , N Y
F o r m o r e i n f o r m a t i o n , v i s i t
s p e c t a c l e t h e a t e r . c o m / r a d i c a l - f e m i n i s t s
danh vo, we the people (detail), 2011, kunsthalle fridericianum. Photo by nils klinger.
Our unanimous opi ni on i n favor of
freedom of expression conceals a certain
confusion between two main rationales. Te
frst is negative: because everyone has a right
to speak, speech should go uncensored and
unpunished. Te second principal rationale
is a positive one: unconstrained expression
is not only freedom from ofcial persecution
but also freedom to consider all points of
view. And, as with our adversarial system of
justice, the exchange of opposing arguments
is thought to beat a path to the truth.
Tis second rationale fgures much more
prominently than the frst in the classic vin-
dication of freedom of expression in John
Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859). Mill was
of course a philosopher, and in essence he
conceived of democracy as a philosophical
method: “Complete liberty of contradict-
ing and disproving our opinion, is the very
condition which justifes us in assuming its
truth for purposes of action; and on no other
terms can a being with human faculties
have any rational assurance of being right.”
Free expression, in other words, doesn’t just
protect all speech but tends to improve its
general truthfulness and rationality. Touch-
ingly, Mill seems to imagine a society escap-
ing from the dismal hush of censorship,
through a period of noisy argument, into a
new quiet produced, this time, by rational
accord: “As mankind improve, the number
of doctrines which are no longer disputed or
doubted will be constantly on the increase:
and the well-being of mankind may almost
be measured by the number and gravity of
the truths which have reached the point of
being uncontested.”
Mill’s essay today sounds both antique
and contemporary. Pre-Freudian and pre-
Edisonian, it doesn’t consider the possibility
of deep psychic attachments to error or, nat-
urally, the manipulations of opinion enabled
by photography, radio, flm, TV, and, these
days, electronic audiovisuals of all kinds.
(An account of the special power of these
media might begin with two observations:
their production and distribution is more
easily concentrated in a few hands than that
of written language, and, being partly non-
verbal, these media more easily circumvent
rational consideration.) And yet Mill is also
contemporary, or at least current: debates
around the First Amendment continue to
take place with allusions to his arguments
and even invocations of his name.
In its 2009 Citizens United decision,
the Supreme Court described free speech
as “the means to hold ofcials accountable
to the people.” Moreover, the 5-4 major-
ity added, quoting a prior opinion, politi-
cal speech is “indispensable to decision-
making in a democracy, and this is no less
true because the speech comes from a cor-
poration.” Tis was an argument, then, not
so much about the right of corporations,
construed as people, to say what they like
regardless of efects, but about the useful-
ness of corporate speech to the citizenry.
Te Supreme Court, composed of political
12 Politics
the systemic scandal appears here only as a
sexual smear against a particular woman.)
Tese TV spots may be unusually philis-
tine, homicidal, and sexist. In other respects
they are only typical of contemporary Amer-
ican political speech as it appears in those
fora to which citizens have most access, at
least as spectators: debates, press confer-
ences, speeches, political advertisements,
cable TV, talk radio. Campaign strategists,
pundits, politicians, and Super PACs tend to
be as dishonest and vacuous as they can get
away with, and at the level where the public
sphere is most truly public we rarely if ever
encounter an argument — say, that the US
should invade Iraq, or balance the federal
budget — in anything resembling its most
articulate, rational, and best-documented
form, let alone one set against the opposing
case in its highest form. Arguments, to call
them that, instead obey two main rules: mis-
represent your own position, and miscon-
strue your opponent’s. So the public sphere
(again, where it’s most open to the public as
spectators, contemporary democracy being
little more than a spectacle) represents pol-
icy in particular and the world in general not
through rational discussion but by way of lies,
fantasies, innuendo, and at best categorical
propositions that no one bothers to defend
and that are probably mere smoke screens
for other propositions.
In math class they ask you to show your
work, so that if you get the wrong answer
you can later see where you went astray. In
American political life today, you never show
your work. So the answer to any question
we take to be code for a hidden dream-work,
to use Freud’s term for the impacted logic of
dreams. In this way, for instance, even Mitt
Romney’s pledge to relieve mass unemploy-
ment by cutting taxes for “job creators,” in
the question-begging term, seems to refer
not to any underlying economic theory,
which he would never in any case elaborate,
appointees whose task is rationalization,
not reasoning, may have been cynical in its
arguments; but it paid homage to a vener-
able ideal in claiming that untrammeled
corporate expression (which involves
soundtracks and visual images as much as
literal “speech”) would improve the intellec-
tual judgment of citizens and the practical
decision-making of their representatives.
Last year Jane Mayer wrote a story for the
New Yorker about a wealthy North Carolina
businessman named Art Pope, who, thanks
to the Citizens United decision, bankrolls a
few nominally independent political groups
that run ads promoting Republican and
attacking Democratic candidates for state
office. Pope says about himself: “Politi-
cally, I would describe myself as conserva-
tive, and philosophically I would describe
myself as a classical liberal, which you had
in John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stu-
art Mill.” Yet the messages Pope emits into
the public sphere, on the basis of his private
wealth, aren’t arguments in their best forms,
as Mill imagined would come to prevail, but
lies. One TV ad suggested that a Democrat
who voted to cut spending on a Shakespeare
festival was increasing the budget for such
“pork projects,” since he didn’t try to elimi-
nate arts funding altogether. Another ad
portrayed a Democrat who supports the
death penalty as eager to let murderers of
death row. A veteran state senator named
Margaret Dickson was also targeted by one
of Pope’s groups: “Tey used an actress who
has dark hair who was fair, like me. She was
putting on mascara and red lipstick. She
had a big ring and a bracelet.” Te narra-
tor of what Dickson called “the hooker ad”
then intoned “Busted!” as the actress’s hand
grabbed a wad of bills. (Of course the US
system of campaign fnance requires that
all politicians be hookers or rent boys, who
sell their favors for cash; but a tidy combina-
tion of misogyny and hypocrisy means that
13 Politics
but to a concealed preference for the rich to
get richer. Such a motive is not even, how-
ever, comprehensibly economic, since Rom-
ney himself is so rich already; it could only
emerge out of some obscure compound of
class loyalty, self-admiration, cultural nos-
talgia, power hunger, or other elements
altogether. Romney would anyway deny the
motive we impute to him, and his denial
might be sincere. Te point is only that if
we listen to his words — or to almost any
contemporary political speech — we find
ourselves not in the position of a rational
interlocutor, but in that of a shrink faced
with a patient: here is a someone who either
doesn’t believe what he says or says it for
other reasons than he gives, and yet whose
real reasons and motives are inaccessible to
us, and may be to him, too.
Not that politicians and pundits are
mentally ill in a clinical sense, but politics
in American national life today can only be
presented in pathological form. Politics no
longer involves the public use of reason; it
is instead a matter of psychopathology, and
is already treated as such by politicians and
the public alike. Only this can account for
the political centrality of the “gafe” or slip of
the tongue, an eminence that verbal inadver-
tencies have not enjoyed since the early days
of psychoanalysis. But verbal or other sym-
bolic blunders (Michael Dukakis looking not
macho but dweeby in a battle tank; George
W. Bush standing before a hubristic Mission
AccoMplished banner) are only the raw
material or starting point for the practice
of politicopsychopathology. Te end result
is an analysis — usually an accusation — of
the “true” meaning not only of a politician’s
words but of his hidden nature and undis-
closed program. Almost invariably the true
meaning reveals a taboo intention or identity.
Thus Obama, saying to business own-
ers “You didn’t build that” to remind them
of the government’s role in providing
infrastructure and educating the workforce,
is in fact a Marxist who subscribes to the
labor theory of value. Or Romney and Ryan,
for all their libertarian talk of economic
freedom, would, if elected — as Vice Presi-
dent Biden said to an audience in Virginia—
“put y’all back in chains,” being adherents of
the slavery theory of value. Tese slurs then
become fodder for the same operation as
performed by the other side. To brand the
mildest talk of economic fairness as socialist,
we liberals or leftists believe, surely shows
radicalism not of the Democrats but of the
Republicans. Te Republicans for their part
complain that allusions to the obscenity of
slavery are the real obscenities that, in the
words of the Romney campaign, “disgrace
the ofce of the Presidency” (already, in the
subliminal implication, disgraced by a man
who, by reason of his African descent, had
no right to it in the frst place).
There exist both plausible and implau-
sible, fair and unfair interpretations of the
occult signifcance of banal political speech.
Either way, politics these days often consists
of such interpretations, and is always poten-
tially the object of such interpretations. Te
general procedure is virtually classical in its
psychoanalytic logic. From the symptom
(the telltale slip) we proceed to diagnosis (of
the underlying sickness) and from the diag-
nosis to the remedy, which, since our oppo-
nents are always terminal cases — here we
depart from standard clinical practice — can
only be their banishment and defeat.
A tri cky thing about this otherwise
simple, not to say tedious game is that it’s
played at once by cynics and crazies, or
people who are cynical one moment and
crazy the next. Sometimes, in other words,
my diagnosis of the other person is a delib-
erate and cynical misconstrual of his words
(I know he doesn’t actually believe that,
but it’s convenient to pretend he does) and
14 Politics
and orient their behavior not toward reali-
ties but toward fantasies. Te Democrats
are neurotic because they are aim-inhibited,
as an old-fashioned shrink might say: their
anxieties, hang-ups, and insecurities mean
that they can’t attain satisfaction, since in a
basic way they won’t even allow themselves
to know what they want.
Many features of the Republican psy-
chosis are well known: global warming isn’t
caused by humans; Fannie Mae and Freddie
Mac are responsible for the fnancial crisis;
the President, who may be a foreign-born
anticolonialist undermining America at the
bidding of his father’s ghost, has eliminated
the work requirement for welfare; and so
on. Tere’s never much point in talking to
psychotics, though we can speculate about
the particular delusions they exhibit. Most
of us probably subscribe to an interpreta-
tion of the Grand Old Psychosis (GOP) that
goes something like this: the trauma of
American decline as experienced by white
people, older people, and men — and above
all older white men — has caused a psychic
break producing a classic paranoid delusion,
in which that segment of the population
which through its race, culture, and creed
embodies the American virtues responsible
for the country’s former greatness is being
attacked by a composite monster (dark-
skinned, sexually deviant, non-Christian,
and anticapitalist) bent on stigmatizing
family as patriarchy, religion as ignorance,
and free enterprise as predation. Here, as
in many cases of persecution delusion, we
might suspect the displacement onto others
of a terrible guilt, in this instance surround-
ing war, racism, climate destruction, and so
on. Tis interpretation of Republican loss of
contact with reality is cartoonish and spec-
ulative but, in my considered opinion as a
democratic ecosocialist and citizen-clini-
cian, probably true as far as it goes.
sometimes it is a sincere exercise in politico-
psychopathology (I do think he believes that,
though he refuses to admit it, except by
accident); and the same holds true for my
opponent when he talks about me. But true
craziness is fundamental, while cynicism
is only tactical. Tis leaves the citizen-cli-
nician with two tasks: to attempt to dis-
cern the distinct pathologies that animate
America’s two main political parties, and
to guess at the sane (if contemptible) pro-
grams that must, at other times, motivate
their common cynicism.
According to Adorno, in psychoanaly-
sis only the exaggerations are true. If you
wished to characterize the Democrats and
the Republicans in terms of true exaggera-
tions, you might say that the Republicans
have become the Party of Psychosis while
the Democrats have become the Party of
Neurosis. The Republicans are psychotic
because they have lost contact with reality,
15 Politics
our) political unconscious. In deference to a
punitive public superego, they sweep under
the rug their real urges — which we’d like to
think are for truth and justice — and thus
come across, in classic neurotic fashion, as
more or less castrated. In a way, the citizen-
clinicians of the GOP agree with us: they
too suspect that Obama is a radical at heart.
The difference is that we doubt whether
Obama is in communication with his heart.
Unlike the Democratic neurotic, the
Democratic cynic would not harbor
unacknowledged pol itical desi res. He
would instead be a mild upper-middle-
class reformist, basically content with
society as it is, only feeling that it could
attain its ideal form with a few more char-
ter schools and/or somewhat fewer unin-
sured people. Tis is a person so morally
and intellectually null, so libidinally feeble,
with so little to repress, that his inner life
is more difcult to imagine than a serial
killer’s. But let us suppress a shudder and
suppose that such people exist throughout
the center left.
The main tactic of both parties, in
any case, and of all political camps, is the
same: anathematization of the opponent
on grounds of taboo-violation. Whether
or not we sincerely believe that our oppo-
nents believe and practice vile crazy things,
we must claim that they do. (For my part, I
do think the Republicans believe and prac-
tice vile crazy things, while I consider the
Neurotocrats mainly pathetic and confused,
even when vile.) Here the realm of anthro-
pology is superimposed onto that of psy-
choanalysis. At no point do we cross into
the territory of liberal democracy as imag-
ined by Mill or Habermas; we stray instead
through a weird, uncanny zone where we
can tell which side people are on not by the
reasons they advance but by their propaga-
tion and violation of taboos.
Yet many Republicans must only be
psychotic north-by-northwest. Tis is our
impression of a figure like Mitt Romney,
who will say that he’s unsure about anthro-
pogenic climate change or make a joke about
Obama’s birth certifcate but is assumed to
know better. Te genuine creed of the fake
psychotics we suspect to be what one might
call patriarchal militarist libertarianism:
Te role of government should be restricted
to enforcement of contracts and the mainte-
nance of public order, with exceptions made
for the control of women’s bodies and the
bombing of foreign countries. Still, there’s
no reason to talk to Republicans about any
of this. Faced with an outright lunatic or
someone who insists on imitating one, you
can only hope he goes back on his meds,
jumps out a window, or (as the Republican
base is doing today) dies of old age. An early
principle of psychoanalysis was that psycho-
sis couldn’t be treated with the talking cure,
while neurosis could be. Te frst proposi-
tion at least seems to have been correct.
Clinical psychi atry no longer uses the
term neurosis, but it remains a vivid word.
As Freud summarized the condition: “Te
ego has come into confict with the id in the
service of the super-ego and of reality.” Te
neurotic has the feeling that he wants some-
thing, can’t say what it is, and is neverthe-
less frustrated not to get it. Satisfaction hav-
ing been foreclosed long ago, he becomes a
kind of hesitant, recessive, bemused person-
ality. You might think of Woody Allen but
it would do just as well to picture Al Gore,
John Kerry, or Barack Obama. We liberal or
left-wing citizen-clinicians feel that these
men are decent, intelligent, and somewhat
principled — that their desires are basically
the right ones, their intentions more or less
good — but that in the service of reality they
must ignore the desires latent in their (and
16 Politics
Anthropologists explain that taboo-vio-
lators appear unclean, tainted; and some-
one who flouts a tribe’s taboo ultimately
can’t belong to that tribe or never did. For
this reason it will be implied, as in 2008,
that Obama pals around with terrorists,
or, as in 2011, that the Occupy movement
is pervaded by anti-Semitism. Or that a
candidate winks at murder or (like Romney
the private-equity warlock) aficts people
with cancer, or is a prostitute of the sexual
instead of legislative kind. If once upon a
time people imagined a public sphere of
more or less reasonable and honorable peo-
ple leading one another toward ever greater
reasonableness, this entailed a tacit anthro-
pological specification: namely, that the
citizens of a liberal democracy belong, as
it were, to the same tribe or people. Not so
today, when the object of politics is to place
your opponent in another and non-Ameri-
can tribe entirely, defned by its repugnant
customs and insane beliefs. To be associ-
ated, fairly or not, with terrorism or social-
ism or murder or slavery is to be polluted,
and with the polluted there can be no real
dealings. (Tis may explain the American
fxation on adultery, conventional marriage
being organized around just this taboo.)
Not that the half of the electorate that
casts a ballot — and isn’t thwarted by new
laws suppressing the vote of minorities and
the poor — necessarily believes the innuen-
dos in ads and sound bites. But pollution-by-
association may be efective anyway. If every
time my name came up my friends were
shown a picture of some of-putting sexual
or dietary practice, they wouldn’t all want to
hang out with me anymore. In the same way,
depictions of the electoral Other’s deprav-
ity — whether lies or only half-lies — reinforce
at once the lunacy of the psychotics (who are
confrmed in their mad beliefs), the caution
of the neurotics (who are reminded of how
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17 Politics
journalists by fact-checking the cynical lies.
But it’s a mark of Gradgrind’s philistinism
in Hard Times when he says, “Facts alone
are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and
root out everything else.” Facts are not all
that’s wanted in a reality-based community;
they only acquire meaning within a struc-
ture of narrative and desire. Te elaboration
of such a structure — analytic in retrospect,
utopian in prospect — is, of course, just what
the Democratic neurosis precludes. It is also
what the left needs to do. After all, to know
your mind it’s not enough to reject the cra-
ziness of others; you also have to ask what
your own sanity would entail.
Te relative ideological coherence of the
right has given it an inestimable advantage
in recent decades. The right’s analysis of
American decline was as clear as it was false:
excessive government deserved the blame
for its interference with the market and its
unfair promotion of racial minorities and
single women. Te right’s utopia, a lodestar
for its policies, was also magnifcently lucid,
if often hypocritically advanced: liberation
of the market would secure the best social
outcomes, in terms not only of aggregate
wealth but its concentration in deserving
hands and its promotion of “the traditional
family,” reliant now on two adult incomes.
Te left, with more honesty and intelli-
gence, can tell its own story about Ameri-
can fortunes since the Sixties. And we also
have, at least latently, a utopia to promote.
Our retrospective analysis of course centers
on neoliberalism as a project of class domi-
nation (and, in the US, white and masculine
domination) and the upward redistribu-
tion of wealth, in which all institutions of
American society have been made to con-
spire: from banks and businesses to courts,
schools, and jails. Our utopian project is
much less well defned. It may be possible,
though, to suggest a few lineaments. Mainly
quickly they would be shamed for revealing a
genuine desire), and the cynicism of the cyn-
ics. For the cynical politician, his repetition
of lying accusations may, helpfully, turn him
into a genuine psychotic: as Hannah Arendt
pointed out in “Truth and Politics” (1967),
“Te more successful a liar is, the more likely
it is that he will fall prey to his own fabrica-
tions. . . . Current moral prejudice tends to
be rather harsh in respect to cold-blooded
lying, whereas the often highly developed art
of self-deception is regarded with great toler-
ance and permissiveness.” Not only will the
apparently self-deceived politician be more
readily forgiven than the plainly dishonest
one, as with those who promoted the fab-
ricated casus belli for the Iraq War, but he
will retail his falsehoods more effectively.
Te cynical citizen — whose role is not to tell
lies but to listen to them — will, on the other
hand, merely feel his cynicism deepen. Te
subject of repeated attempts at brainwashing,
as Arendt noted in the same essay, is more
likely to stop believing anything than to go
over to fanaticism.
no one on the left can want to be a psy-
chotic estranged from reality or a neurotic
exiled from desire. And because we are
contemporary American leftists, it’s impos-
sible for us to be cynics in the sense of
wanting power for its own sake: no one like
that would enlist with such a marginal, ill-
defned, and disorganized cause. What psy-
chology can we develop, then, that would
place us in line both with the reality prin-
ciple and the pleasure principle?
The Republican psychosis hardly con-
cerns us in any practical way. Arendt, to cite
her once more, warned forty-fve years ago
that politics increasingly took place in “a
world without facts,” and the GOP bears out
her prophecy every day. Fake news outlets
respond by mocking the crazy fantasies, and
18 Politics
hope of achieving “truth for purposes of
action.” At the moment our own political
speech rests more squarely on negative jus-
tifcations for free expression: it’s part of a
person or a movement’s dignity to be able to
know and say what it wants, with or without
hope of satisfaction. Besides, as both psy-
choanalysis and ordinary conversation teach,
speaking your mind often comes before
knowing it. It would therefore be worth talk-
ing about the society we on the left want,
no matter what we’re likely to get. Nor can
a movement without a program have much
hope of implementing one, should history
provide an opening, as it just might do.
We know, after all, that history consists
largely of surprise turns and unexpected
consequences. But this law is so easy to
forget that illustrations of it — as well as
of the chance usefulness of little maga-
zines — are always welcome. Te other day
I came upon the following passage in Wil-
liam Morris’s short essay “How I Became A
Socialist” (1894):
When I took that step, I was blankly ignorant
of economics; I had never so much as opened
Adam Smith, or heard of Ricardo, or of Karl
Marx. Oddly enough I had read some of Mill,
to wit, those posthumous papers of his
(published, was it in the Westminster Review or
the Fortnightly?) in which he attacks Socialism
in its Fourierist guise. In those papers he
put the arguments, as far as they go, clearly
and honestly, and the result, so far as I was
concerned, was to convince me that Socialism
was a necessary change, and that it was
possible to bring it about in our own days.
Te same lines point up the promise — or
danger — of fair-minded discourse and no
doubt suggest why we are exposed to so
little of it.
—Benjamin Kunkel
these trace limits on what the market should
be allowed to decide.
Ecology is more fundamental than eco-
nomics or politics, since no society can
accomplish what its natural environment
and resource base won’t allow — and, eco-
logically, our frst principle would be long-
term sustainability. After ecology, as a
matter of logical though not necessarily
political priority, comes economics, since
the wealth and income of a society aford
society as a whole and its individual mem-
bers their scope for action. In the service
both of overall prosperity and individual
fulfllment, we want a far more equal distri-
bution of wealth, with a minimum income
for everyone, as well as, probably, a maxi-
mum for anyone; the total income of soci-
ety would meanwhile derive from full
employment. As for positive political free-
doms, the rights to health care and educa-
tion (through college) as free public goods
would be insisted on. As for negative politi-
cal liberties, we would demand the repeal
of War-on-Terror ofenses against civil free-
doms, the end of mass incarceration, and
the restored right to assemble (as denied
by Bloomberg’s New York and many other
municipalities in recent years). Another
item is the creation of public fora that make
freedom of expression an actual capacity of
citizens rather than a mere alibi for corpo-
rate dominion over speech. Our current dif-
fculty in imagining how this last right — of
genuine free expression — could be specifed
and enforced ofers one explanation for why
the rest of the program, easier to imagine,
still seems like such a pipe dream. To whom
could we address our minimalist sketch of
utopia? Our small portion of the public can
hardly communicate with the preponderant
remainder, even to be jeered at.
Tis means that we can’t begin debating
the outlines of our utopia in the immediate
maryland driver’s license. courtesy of Lawrence jackson.
Lawrence Jackson
round my way we really tripped over two things: the beef with
them Woodlawn whores in ’85; then four years later, when stick-up
boys shot Sonny.
In high school, me, Charm Sawyer, and Piccolo Breaks got up a
social club called the Oxfords. More or less just the little guys with
round glasses from our block, plus an off-brand or two from the Ave-
nue — North or Wabash — or from the Heights — Liberty or Park.
I pimped in the fine honey from church to the jam. Tanya, Carla,
Kim, Lisa, Stacy, all of them dying to get out of the house. I was about
15 when I booked out, and it took every bit of two years to get snug. But
it had started in middle school with me and Rodney Glide freaking the
white girl in the basement and him working her skirt up.
I wasn’t really built like that. Check it out. Back in the day I loaded
dirt and wood chips at a garden supply store on Wabash. One time, a
church girl gave me a ride home after work and I told her wait while
I caught a quick shower. Since the old-school play was to answer the
Jehovah Witness knock at the door in a towel, any girl at your house
was supposed to get open-fly treatment. Church girl called her mother
telling her why she was hold up. Her old mother, an ex-opera contralto,
started fussing. “Kim, use common sense. Even little Lair’s trying to get
some!” I took it as a compliment. Her mother didn’t think I was gay the
way her unafraid daughter did when I stepped from the shower, still in
a towel. That’s when I started liking older women, because they always
act like, given the chance, you might knock them down. And I got it
backwards, since all what she said really did was start me on eating out.
22 Lawrence Jackson
The Oxford clique came together for an obvious reason. When we
still footed it to parties and up Rhythm Skate, we needed a whole crew
or a connect to get by in the world of yo boys and slickheads. As time
went on, the Oxfords put it together for real. Even though all us from out
the row house — a snatch of grass in front and the #51 bus chugging by,
floods and bugs in the basement, alleyways of blackness out back — all
us little men had turned out the next Timex Social Club.
Woodlawn niggers called us the Pajama Crew for spite, because we
draped our fathers’ old trench coats, that winter of ’85. Them County
slickheads wore tight their Adidas nylon sweat suits, silk BVDs, and
herringbone gold chains, flexing power. But the real Oxford contri-
bution to the B-More scene was the DC Go-Go haircut — the flattop — or
sometimes just faded, Jerseyed, Phillied. Bear in mind that your average
yo boy from off the corner cut his naps down to the scalp. That’s why we
called them unremarkable niggers slickheads.
To me, slickheads lacked imagination, and their haircut was only
the beginning of that emptiness. When I was first learning about it,
slickhead behavior seemed inhibited, closed down, and reactionary.
Like when I was prancing at the Harbor with my merry-go-round honey
Sade, me ragging in a cycling cap, moccasins, bleached jeans, and an
Ocean Pacific tee of a man surfing on a beach I had never seen, and
some slickhead called to her, “A yo, drop that Prep and get with this
Slick.” They had no class, and if I hadn’t thought he would have shot me
I might have banged him in his mouth. Then again, he wasn’t talking to
me, and I was into women’s lib, eating out and everything.
The Oxfords went for exhibition and fullness, the whole way, and
took it straight to those break-dancing older slickhead clowns from
Woodlawn. Yeah, they was popping and breaking, helicopter and all
that, but that shit is for tourists. Our thing was the leg dances, speeded-
up jigs. I copped our step from this old head who rocked coach’s shorts
and a touring cap, and who gave up the flow downtown every summer.
At the Inner Harbor, near the water-taxi line, seven or eight of us would
break into the Oxford Bop, a crisscross reel, while we shouted the lyrics
to Status IV’s “You Ain’t Really Down.”
“Said you were my lady . . . And your love was true . . . !”
More attention than pulling your thing out.
23 Slickheads
he Oxfords liked a Roman holiday. Pretty Ricky brother crashed
through the top of the telephone booth at the Harbor. Charm jumped
from the second-floor balcony onto the reception desk in the Comfort
Inn lobby. James Brown leapt through a car windshield, hind parts first.
But mainly we threw cranking jams and released our boredom into the
laps of the Oxford Pearls. All them was getting down, especially the girls
from Catholic school. Even though we modeled ourselves on the old-
time Negro fraternities, chanting “O-X!” through dim basement corri-
dors pulsating with Chip E. Inc. stutter-singing “Like This,” the Oxfords
could also function like that — like a gang. Coming up in 21215 — Body-
more, Murderland — attending public schools, we only did what we had
to do. Anyway, a homeboy of a homeboy kicked some slickhead in the
chest over a girl at a high school party at a fraternity house on Liberty
Heights, and the war against Woodlawn jumped off.
The jam was a cranker, Darrin Ebron spinning “Al Naafiysh,” “Set
It Off,” and “Din Da Da” over and over; naturally it was honey heaven. I
was wedging my knees between so many willing thighs that I never saw
Pretty Ricky cousin Jerome and Ron J guff. First thing I knew the music
cut off and Pretty Ricky and Mighty Joe Young were shuttling back and
forth from the Kappa House to the phone booth in the 7-Eleven parking
lot and Charm Sawyer was popping cash shit. I looked out into the mild
May night, and it was enough shell-toes and silk BVDs to stop four lanes
of traffic. Me and my homeboys were wearing moccasins and corduroy
shorts. I had a pound of Dax in my hair, dripping like Shabba-Doo’s, but
faded like a prep’s.
I loaded all of my men into the car and left the scrum thinking I
was just helping out, like Jesus would do. I had a Monte Carlo, an orange
EXP, an IROC-Z, and a Cressida on my ass — a slickhead caravan in hot
pursuit. Then I thought I got lucky.
Northwest Baltimore’s finest had been called about the scrap and
I braked when the blue lights spun behind me. I pulled over and I told
the police everything I knew, which was that some grown men were fol-
lowing me and I was scared. But you know how Five-O handled his bit.
“I want you out my ju-risdiction! Get your ass out of my sight!”
You know how Five-O cuss you when he through with you. Then
he drove off.
It was six of us in the AMC Sportabout, a car about as good for
driving as open-toed shoes for running ball. Besides the fact that the
24 Lawrence Jackson
starter on my people’s car was iffy, the windows didn’t operate, and the
door handle on the driver’s side was broke. That night I put that old
yellow wagon to the test. I headed down Liberty Heights back to Gar-
rison Boulevard, and I learned what Pretty Ricky had been doing on the
telephone. He had reached out to his wild cousins, some hoppers who
ain’t mind popping tool. I took Garrison and that baby right turn by the
firehouse to Chelsea Terrace, to fetch some gun-slinging boy from out
his house. After Five-O shammed on me, I was needing Ricky’s cousin
to appear with that .357 Magnum that Hawk carried on Spenser: For
Hire. Instead a jive compact cat hopped into the old station wagon with
barely a .25 in his dip.
Now, I had seen some young boys around my way with tool. I think
one of them even got into Time for showing up strapped at Garrison
or Pimlico, the local junior high schools. In fact, it had been the cats
from my year at middle school, the twins from Whitelock Street now
going up Walbrook with Charm, who had brought tool to #66, setting
the trend right at the beginning of the 1980s. They had got put out for
a couple of days for that stunt. The next year, at Harlem Park Middle,
them boys had burned up a cat for his Sixers jacket. I had seen a couple
niggers pulled off of a public bus and beaten before. I held my ground
standing next to a boy from Cherry Hill who had got his head opened
up with a Gatorade bottle at a track meet, and I had gone with Charm
to square off at some boys’ houses who had been running their mouths
too much. And of course I had fought with everybody in my crew except
Ricky, who was getting too much ass to fight, because if he won he could
double destroy your ego. The best one to fight was Sawyer’s brother
Chester, who was always threatening you with a nut session or worse. I
hoped that the beef would get squashed, but I thought that it would take
a big-time older head to do it, and I thought he would have needed a .12
gauge or something with some heat. Because on that night, Woodlawn
was coming thick.
We were just idling in the middle of the street, nigger shit, every-
body talking at once, planning to fail, when the IROC-Z came up from
behind, and the Monte Carlo and the EXP drove up from the other
direction. The motherfuckers had some kind of CB or headphone com-
munications. A crabapple-head big boy marched out of the Monte Carlo
shouting, got up to my face and started yanking on the door handle. I
know it: I had that pleading, begging look on my face. He swung on me
25 Slickheads
anyway and then tried to rip me out from the AMC Sportabout, but the
broken door handle saved me. My people, my people. Mighty Joe Young
was riding shotgun, and he shouted at me, “Drive!” I hit the gas and
thread a needle through the IROC-Z–Cressida–EXP posse, racing my
way down Chelsea Terrace. It was ride-or-die down the hill to Gwynns
Falls Trail, Walbrook Junction, the briar patch for Charm, Pretty Ricky,
and Knuckles.
Knowing the Junction better than our foes, we got back to our block
unscathed. I let out Ricky and his cousins, and then we cooled out in an
alley. First the slickheads got Ricky’s address from some girl and tried
to raid his people’s house, but they were in the middle of the block and
Woodlawn couldn’t get to a window or through the front door. I thought
I had made a safe passage until the next morning my father woke me up
and asked did anything happen. I told him no, and he walked me out-
side to the ride. Late that night, them damn County yos had chucked a
wedge of concrete through the windshield of the wagon.
A couple of days later a homeboy who worked at the McDonald’s
on Liberty Heights, just over the line in the County, got banked. Charm
and Knuckles stopped going up the ’Brook because Simon, the concrete
thrower, had promised them a bullet. A week after that Pretty Ricky
fought the cruelest of the host, Carlos Gallilee and Dante Rogers, in the
middle of Reisterstown Road. For a cat known throughout the city as a
gigolo, a guy with slanted eyes and a Puerto Rican look, Rick had a whole
lot of heart. He knocked the knees out of his jeans beating those dogs
off and he stayed with his cousins in Philadelphia for a couple of weeks
after that.
The war went on at high schools, parties, football games, festivals,
and public events. About two weeks after the chase, in the parking lot
of the all-girls public senior high school where Muhammad, Dern, and
I chilled out every day after track practice, this boy Meechee was sitting
in the back of a green Thunderbird steady loading a .38 while his home-
boys, a lanky bastard about six foot nine and some other culprit, leaned
on us. They cornered Muhammad on the hood of his Sentra.
“Where Ricky at? Where your boy at?”
I was wanting to run away with my whole body, but my feet got so
heavy in the quicksand of his pistol that I could only look longingly in
the direction of the administration building. My heart was pumping
Cherry Coke the whole way but I was proud of Muhammad for how he
26 Lawrence Jackson
kept the fear out of his voice. The next day Muhammad and Dern got
their family arms and we went all tooled up to high school. They took
it as far as slinging iron in their sport coats. The day after that, we cut
school altogether for marksmanship class in Leakin Park, an abandoned
grassland just west of the Junction that had become a desolate zone. The
Pearls were jive giddy. I just blasted into the creek, but I had to stop Saw-
yer, who never had a whole lot of sense, from shooting the pistol right
behind my ear. To my mind, nothing is as loud as the roar of that .38.
The war changed the landmarks of our scene. Up to that time I
had been keen to play in the County, and I could have cared less about
my grimy, down-on-its-heels hometown. Now that we had to go every-
where in groups for safety, Reisterstown Road Plaza Mall and Security
Mall in the County, the places where we used to flock to scoop out the
honey, were less inviting. Our neighborhood mall, Mondawmin, became
safe — if we toned our flamboyance down a little — and we started falling
through Mondawmin, the Harbor, even Old Town Mall on the East Side.
We kept linking up with city cats we’d gone to school with or had been
in summer programs with, guys I had known from church at Lafayette
Square, or the Druid Hill Avenue YMCA, where my father had been the
director. Plus the girls I knew from those parts of town were slinging
enough iron to take care of a boy. We went to our cousins and neighbors
from around our way to get our back, to hustlers I had worked with at
minimum-wage jobs all over the city, who came from tiny-ass streets
crammed with thousands of brick row houses. The kind of music a cat
listened to, or how he cut his fade, became unimportant compared to if
he was from the city, how good he was with his hands, and, especially,
if he had heart. That was how Sonny got down with the clique, because
even though he was a young boy, he had all of the above.
Heads from around my way cut their teeth on the Woodlawn beef.
The hoppers, the young boys we never had room for in the car, they
headed straight up to Bell and Garrison to build themselves up. The
hustle on Garrison, or, even more big-time, Park Heights and Wood-
land, was strictly Fila and Russell. Man, them cats bumped. From then
to now it must be something like three thousand cats shot on Garrison
between the Junction and Pimlico — that’s one boulevard in one section
of one chocolate American city. Plus, ain’t nobody ever see a bustling
swaggering yipping corner like Park Heights and Woodland in its prime.
Serving ’em well, boy and girl, serving ’em well. Knuckles and Mighty
27 Slickheads
Joe Young knew how to get by around there. I never caught on and only
went up to The Lot, the neighborhood McDonald’s on Reisterstown
Road, a couple of times. I wouldn’t throw quarters away on Pac-Man
or Space Invaders. I was spending my money on rugged-sole Timber-
lands and 12-inch records so I could become a club dancer. Same as
slick, the corner was insular and monotonous, unless you had a taste for
street fighting and raw booty. Anyway, the hoppers wound up getting
tight with cats who the corner was all they had. Like Ringfrail’s brother
Clyde, who wore brass jewelry, or Taiwan, an adolescent beggar who
graduated to being a teenage beggar. Or Little Toby, who had started
smoking too early and would always be short and skinny. I think (and
was glad) Wookie was already gone by then. I know, and was sad, that
Monty was. Every time I go home and walk to the Korean store to get
some Utz or Tastykake, I run into them all.
The young boys of course had to take it serious. I only had a year
left of high school, but they were going to be in this thing for a long
time. Pretty Ricky’s younger brother Maceo started going to war on his
own, against anybody at all. At the corner store on Wabash and Sequoia
he stabbed Richard Franklin, who then followed Maceo back to his
house and sent him three-quarters of the way to their family’s funeral
home with the same knife. Some vet’s old bayonet. Kind of intimate,
being punctured with the same steel that still has your victim’s blood
on it. When Five-O locked up Chucky Blue that same night, Chucky, on
something like love boat, almost turned the paddy wagon over. That was
pure dee Chuck Blue, living out the Myth. I’d never seen a motor vehicle
rock from side to side on two wheels like that before.
It was curious. I found out a lot more about my neighborhood, and
was surprised to know that I had a place in it. Slickheads from around
the way, cats known for hanging on the corner, mad ill dynamite-style
cats like Darius, who rode his Honda Elite scooter in Fila slippers — they
respected preps from the city, as long as us cats carried that thing origi-
nal, which was to say never perpetrated no fraud. It meant taking pride
in where you’re from. And we did. The Oxfords off Wabash were gaudy
preps: pink shirts, green pants, bright-colored track shoes, and Gumby
haircuts. Plus, there was no bourgeoisie contingent at the schools we
mainly attended. Loyola, Walbrook, City College, Carver, Cardinal Gib-
bons, and Forest Park. To go to school there, you couldn’t stand out
more than to be an African American prep from the city. I might have
28 Lawrence Jackson
eaten humble pie on a bus ride or two, but plenty of times I strutted the
city like the word “Hero” was stitched on my chest. And the best-known
cat in the clique for that air of confidence was Sonny.
ut then our style became a casualty in the war that went off and
on for years. On account of the Woodlawn beef, everybody began to
ease on down the road to slick, Russell sweats and Filas, bald head and
sullen, gold in your mouth, pass the reefer. All of a sudden, it seemed like
slick had something serene you needed to get through life, a good way
to not mind being an outlaw. I didn’t like it on a number of levels. And
I was always the historian — the identity “yo” was too much connected
to the “yo-ski” thing from the 1970s, when the kids ran “What’s up yo-
ski?” into the fucking ground. And as I got more black and proud, the
“ski” part of it sounded too close to the Polack-Johnny level, the citywide
hot dog stand. Corny for us to follow the hick klan from Dundalk and
I never even knew all of exactly how we survived. I had a play cousin
from Edmondson Village, slick as a wax floor and known throughout
the city as The Ninja. He had jumped with the airborne in Grenada. One
story went that he jogged up at a park on Woodlawn with an Uzi and
told them to lay off. Another tale had it that the big-time boys from up
the top of our street, who owned Yummy’s at North and Gold, took an
arsenal up to the courts at Bedford, where everybody from the County
ran ball, and said they was holding so-and-so personally responsible for
whatever went down. I admit, a couple of years later, one night we did
have Carlos Gallilee all by himself up at Club 4604 on Liberty Heights.
Darius, who had the distinction of having popped tool at the LL Cool J
concert, wild Chuck Blue, and the ill James brothers were there, really
wanting to hurt somebody. I just talked to Carlos, not feeling it was
sporting to bring all of that wrath down on him on a night he was acting
humble. But then again, he was an actor and today he’s set himself up
in Hollywood.
Funny how the slickheads didn’t fare well in the end. Rocky, the
mastermind — who had said up the Kappa House, not to me, just in my
general direction, “You and your homeboys is just fucked!”—shot in the
head. Muscleman Dante, whose girl I stole, ended up strung-out after
sitting down for ten at Jessup. Simon, the lunatic concrete-block man,
29 Slickheads
gunned down at a police roadblock. I think pistol-loading Meechee fell
into the dirt too — and, if he did, then that’s too much like right.
Then again, now that I think of it, these were mainly city guys, who
had hung strong with Woodlawn, 18 and 19 and, like me, trying any-
thing to get out to the suburbs. Slickheads and their expensive tennis
did win the style war; but, really, it was just that the city guys lost.
hat summer, about ten weeks after the beef got underway, I learned
that the police was the slave patrol and the Confederate Army
extended. I had been surprised when they refused to protect me from
the Woodlawn slickheads, but I hadn’t known that my category was on
their assassination list.
My father replaced the yellow wagon with a Japanese compact car,
used, but with a tape deck and a sunroof, a real surprise. Somehow I had
the car in the early afternoon, and me, Charm, and Mighty Joe Young
were skylarking around the neighborhood, telling lies about the fine
honey, bumping “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight.” I noticed two white
guys and a brother in a Chevrolet Cavalier near the library on Garrison,
but I wasn’t on the corner so it only seemed odd, not a personal threat.
We stared them down and, three deep, drove off to the Plaza, doubling
back and through, around Garrison Boulevard and Wabash Avenue.
At Reisterstown Road and Fords Lane I reached the traffic light. All
of the sudden it seemed like a car was smashing into the side of me. A
Highlandtown cracker pushed a heavy revolver through the sunroof and
up to my head, his other hand reaching for the steering wheel. I could
count the bullets in the chambers, and see the tiny indentations in the
cones of the soft lead. I wet my lap. For real. I was preparing to die. The
angry man was shouting, “Move over!” and “Git out the car! Git the fuck
out the car!” Then, with some time, I thought to myself that he must be
a damn bold car thief. It was broad daylight. And even though we had
just bought the sporty little Toyota, I couldn’t see why he’d be so amped
up for a $7,890 car. In a minor key, I thought that a cool hustler would
probably find some way to drive off.
I tried to throw the car in park and slide away from the gun at the
same time, but I couldn’t get past Charm Sawyer’s legs in the passenger
seat. Charm had been yoked halfway out of the window by the black
gloved hand of . . . Five-O? I heard commotion in the back, and next thing
I knew Mighty Joe Young had his teeth on the asphalt. Then I noticed
30 Lawrence Jackson
a silvery patch swinging from the chest of the man from Highlandtown
with the dirty beard, and he demanded my license and registration.
After about fifteen minutes the dirty white man came back to the car.
“You ran a red light back there but my buddy doesn’t have enough
time to write you a ticket. Beat it.”
I looked around fumbling with my mouth open and managed to
get the Toyota away from the intersection. We got to the next block and
pulled over, me and Charm shaking and crying from relief and shame
and Mighty Joe Young mouthing Who-Struck-John. Never will get that
dirty white man and that giant .38 from my mind.
When I told my father about it, I could see in his face and his
demeanor that there was no authority to appeal to. When I was just a
kid, I had been robbed by some bullies and had reluctantly confessed
that humiliation to my dad. In his house shoes he stalked out into the
middle of the avenue, attempting to find the boys who had wronged
his child. But this new violation was just a new burden to shoulder. I
knew enough to sense him crying on the inside. We were father and son
inside of our house, but outside we were black males in America, with
the same honor and respect as No. 1 crabs in season.
I guess Prep or Slick wasn’t all that.
The Pell Grants and the Maryland scholarships got cut off around
this time, and all of a sudden nobody was going to college out of state.
The money went out as fast as the dope came in. That ride to Edwin
Waters or Cheney or Widener, that had been wish fulfillment in the
past. By the second half of the ’80s, if you went to school, it was either
down the street to the community college or up to Morgan, the old state
college for Negroes where my parents and Charm’s parents had been
sent, at the end of the #33 bus line. Most of my homeboys, their parents
would let them try it out for a semester. Our people believed in control.
In our neighborhood fathers would brag to each other, “I’m never letting
that nigger drive my car,” meaning their own sons. Young boys like Dan
Redd and Darryl and Mark were smart, but they couldn’t get to school
out of state and get that big jump on life from out the neighborhood. I
got into college three hundred miles away — and those last weeks when
the beef was running fast and furious, I tried not to be so simple-minded
as to jeopardize a chance.
About two weeks before I was supposed to go off to Connecticut,
a year now after the chase, the fellas wanted me to drive the brigade
31 Slickheads
down to the Inner Harbor to square off against Woodlawn one last
time. Remembering how my father’s car had got kissed by the concrete
block, I chilled. I heard that when it went down, it wasn’t like a Murphy
Homes versus Lexington Terrace scrap. Woodlawn had sent mainly the
little boys. The police got into the fight before anybody got stomped, or
thrown into the water. Still, everybody began their adult criminal record
that night in ’86, and later it helped me that I wasn’t there. But I saved
the car one night and burned it up the next. When I got back after my
freshman year in college, still dropping off into sleep after six weeks on
line for Kappa, I passed out at the wheel and hit a neighbor head-on. I
never drove again until I was on my own.
hey were dog years between the end of high school and the end of
college. Time folded every summer: scrapping in ’86, macking in ’87,
bent in ’88, and banging a gun in ’89. I wouldn’t want to live through ’89
again, bringing all of that time together. We weren’t Oxfords so much
anymore — just homeboys now — and only rocking the prep style as a
kind of occasional comment on the absurdity of our condition. The
world had turned Slick with a capital “S.” To me the hi-top fade had its
funeral rites when the cornball Toms at Duke started wearing it. I even
stopped collecting house music and let the Blastmaster speak for me
with that record “Ghetto Music.”
We knew what time it was, but used the powerful narcotics to
keep ourselves from the numbers. Heroin was flowing like water that
summer, and Saddlehead and Jidda, Paris and Los, all of them good ole
North and Poplar Grove boys could get it. Poplar Grove. Longwood.
Bloomingdale. The Junction. Then we started falling further down. In
the wee hours we used to slumber outside some spot at Lombard and
Arlington, not far from ole H. L. Mencken’s, blunted, waiting for Troy
and Stanley to finish sniffing that dope. The world of joogy. Around my
way they call it “boy” or “joogy.” “Girl” is “Shirl” caine — after Shirley
Avenue where you go get nice. If you live in a town with a lot of joogy,
everything else, like girl, seems real regular, jive legal. Joogy got me
down from the psychedelics that they pumped up at college. Put it like
this: in a world of disarray, joogy helps you to carry that thing.
That summer, back from college, every time I left out the house I
saw somebody with tool, and one time I’m making eye contact with this
lean slickhead, shooting a .45 into the air to keep street fighters tearing
32 Lawrence Jackson
up a park festival from scratching his Benz. When I caught his eye I
thought he was going to finish me. No question, joogy helps keep that
begging, crying look off of your face. It got to the point where the police
would be detaining me for walking down the street, and I’m getting ill to
handle the stress, which everybody say is imaginary. That summer of ’89
people was cross and fussing and we used to wear our Africa medallions
at these pro-black rallies organized by Public Enemy. The next summer,
all the music was about killing each other over colored rags.
The summer Sonny got shot my right hand Charm Sawyer had to
hit a boy who was holding a pistol on him, and even though I was mak-
ing speed toward a degree, I doubted it was fast enough. Hanging out
with Sawyer was scrapping every night, which wasn’t really my style,
especially after he busted my head on Muhammad’s basement floor.
Plus it’s tough on your gear, my main way to get notice from the ladies.
“A yo, Lair, hold my glasses,” he’d say as he sized up someone for a scrap.
“Imma piece that nigger.” I would take them. Then he’d smirk and start
throwing the dogs. He started out with skinny light-skin boys, but he
was working his way up to short, wiry, dark-skin men. When we went
out, he would always say that he would either get some pussy, beat a
nigger, or get blind ill by the time the sun came up. I didn’t understand
his rage at the ceiling of possibility until a little later.
Charm got took over by the Myth, which had a couple of ingredi-
ents. The Myth meant crazy outrageous athleticism in every activity. It
helped the style of it if the head of your thing went past your navel, but
it all came together in an attitude of defiant obdurateness that we called
Hard. I would try to cool him out, because I was being taught something
different at school, but every time I wasn’t around, he would trip the fuck
out. At a party he shucked off all his gear and swung around ill until he
got what he was looking for. One night Charm fouled a catatonic girl’s
mouth to stop niggers from running a train on her, but she still had to
leave the city. He was getting known and some people were afraid of
him. He had mastered the art of drilling any girl, no matter her look, no
matter her size, at any time. Like, Pretty Ricky had written a book on
the art of seduction. He had this snake-like way of peering into the eyes
of the slinkiest, the trickiest, the flyest — the LaShawns, Letitias, Sheilas,
and Keishas — the girls who had had so much exposure to slick that I
didn’t even know what to say to them. I only tried to win by light touch.
But Charm didn’t work in a whole lot of small talk or eye contact or
33 Slickheads
hand-holding. He went on the Mandingo principle. He knocked down
big China up against the freezer in my basement and she clawed grooves
into his back. It took years for me to know what he did to make her cry
out and lose control like that. She was so wide open every time we went
with armloads of Guess apparel to the department store counter where
she worked, it was like cashing a check.
I got a strong dose of the Myth too, the dreamworld life of supernig-
ger. One night of the dream me and Charm drank a couple of quarts of
Mad Dog and picked up some wild ill broads from the Brook down at
the Harbor. I only had one condom, used it on the girl I knew was out
there, and ran raw in Sheba, thinking the odds were better because it
was her time of the month. I thought another threshold of existence was
at hand. Even the girls laughed about it, lil Lair happy cause he trimmed
twice. The ill vibe kept clicking, though. At a party in the Junction
Charm hit this boy in the face and broke his nose, and the jam was at the
house of the broke-nose boy cousin. We had to fight Charm to get him
out of there. Then, sitting five deep in a two-door Sentra trying to cool
out, two hoppers came up on us. One skinny boy was on the street side,
and a bald-headed light-skin boy with a shimmer in his mouth stood in
the back. Skinny boy tapped the window with something metal. I heard
a crack and the glass breaking, and we were all shouting to Pretty Ricky,
“Drive!” “I’m hit!” I was pushing Charm and Knuckles so hard to peel
away from that hot one searching for my ass. Decades of nightmares
about that gunman.
About a week later, Sawyer and Sonny were throwing a cranker on
Maryland Avenue, the little club district anchored by old-school Odell’s
(You’ll know if You belong, the T-shirt used to say), house music
Cignel’s, and citywide Godfrey’s Famous Ballroom. All the young hus-
tlers and fly girls hung out in that zone. I was a little late getting to
the jam.
I’d get the feeling of supreme confidence and contentment, just
walking up the street and wading into a real players’ crowd. Hundreds
deep with hustlers and fly girls — herb bumping — passing quarts of Mad
Dog and Red Bull malt liquor. Knowing my hair was faded right and
I was getting dap from the players and intimate touches from Sheila,
Kim, Lisa, and Tanya. “The Sound” by Reese and Santonio filling the air
with our versions of the djembe, dundun, kenkeni, and sangban. Taking
everybody way back. It’s better than caine. Demerara. Ouagadougou.
34 Lawrence Jackson
Mighty Joe Young and me was nice, dipping up Murlin Avenue,
near the bridge, gandering over to the zone from the Armory subway
stop. All of a sudden, Ed from Bloomingdale drove by us and shouted,
“Sonny got shot!” Old school, we ran the mile or two down the street.
Ten minutes later we’re outside the operating room at University Shock
Trauma, screaming on the state trooper and the young Asian lady doc-
tor who said, “Your friend didn’t make it.” She spat out that shit to me
like I put the gun on Sonny.
I felt like the hospital was run by people with the slickhead mental-
ity, that mentality that claims a nigger ain’t shit. Me, I always wanted
to redeem a nigger. The state trooper, a brother who understood, saved
that bitch’s Chinese ass. I wanted to do something. Sonny’s parents
came in a few minutes later. Crushed. Crying scene. Me and Mighty Joe
Young walked down to the central police station where they were taking
Sawyer’s statement. We were amped up, spreading the word at hangouts
like Crazy John’s and El Dorado’s, where we ran into some of our people.
Sawyer had been standing next to Sonny when they got stuck up.
Sawyer’s antsy brother Chester had a few dollars on him and gated up
the alley, so Sawyer and Sonny, on the other side of the car, booked for
it too. Rodney, Birdman, Dern, and Rock could only stand with their
hands in the air while the runners gave it up. Sonny and a guy sitting on
some steps got shot by a .22 rifle.
A lot of people blamed Sawyer for Sonny’s murder, but I told him
I was happy he had made it. He was my boy. We had been lightweight
wilding up until then. No QP, no Z, no eight ball, no stick-up, no home
invasion, no pop-tool, no cold-blooded train. Sawyer, James Brown, and
Rock had taken a white boy for bad once. And Sawyer had been seen
running down the street with a television, which had kind of got the
police looking. Omar had taken a girl’s telephone and her father’s horse
pistol. Sawyer and I had run a couple of gees on some wild young girls,
and one time a grown woman did start fussing, but it was his cousin. I
remember, because I left my high school graduation watch at her house.
I thought if you were going to do the do, you had to take off everything.
One night a little boy who had connections had tried to kill James Brown
with a bat down at Cignel’s, and we beefed over our heads, but James
Brown let the thing go. I don’t know how many times I got in a car with
folk I ain’t really know, on their way from or to do I don’t know what. It
was all right there. Rock, Darius, Worly, Chucky, Taft, Fats, Paris, Wood,
35 Slickheads
Flip, Yippy, Champ, Ringfrail, Hondo, Reds. A whole lot of people got
caught up in the mix.
What really hurt everybody was that Sonny had a whole lot of
heart. He was a stand-up cat who had the will to make a difference.
Shirt-off-his-back type of cat. Break a bottle over a big nigger’s head
for you cat. If the police looked for the killers, three men and a woman,
they never found anybody. I had been in the Five-O palace on Baltimore
Street and seen them lounging like they were on the whites-only floors.
I had seen an office with a Confederate flag in it and some other of that
old-timey, Frederick County shit. They always acted like Sonny’s murder
was “drug-related,” like half of three hundred other murders that year. It
hurts to think about his unsolved killing, twenty years later.
After Sonny’s funeral, we started linking with cats who had hurt
people, hoping to luck up onto that stick-up boy with the letter G on
his hat who had gunned him down. The night after they shot Sonny we
ganged into a dark room lit by the dutchy going around. A powerfully
muscled old head addressed the mourning circle. “I gits a nut every time
I pull the trigger.” None of us ever forgot his sincerity. He said it to us
like he was confessing something deep and personal, something that
came out of the soul. I believed him.
Since Sonny had finished a year at Morehouse, the less stand-up
guys figured that life wasn’t worth struggling for. They started to get ill
after the funeral like it was a paying job. I knew I didn’t have as much
heart as Sonny, so I did my share in the dim rooms. The morning after
the funeral me and Clifton tried to run a gee on a young girl with a glass
eye, not knowing she was five seconds from tricking on the corner — and
Clifton months away hisself from the cemetery. Sometimes you would
even pity a cat and bip half that bag of dope so that they wouldn’t get
hooked. One reason I stopped getting high was that Rock, my man from
the bus stop days, pulled me up strong about looking weak, chasing.
Sometimes you need to see yourself through the eyes of someone who
has looked up to you. Then he got caught with a package and sat down at
the department of corrections at Jessup, so I really tried to pull my pants
up. After about eighteen months, overdoses began and cats started head-
ing out of state to get away. Then there were the guys among us who
thought that joogy wouldn’t get to them, since they weren’t shooting it
up. But next thing, they started flashing pistols to the countergirl at Roy
36 Lawrence Jackson
Rogers. That gets you a seven-year bit at Hagerstown, or you could get
lucky and go to Jessup where people at least can visit you.
A couple of the cats really tried to make a fortune. If Sawyer was my
right hand, then Muhammad was my heart. When I decided to make a
break for school in 1990, after my father went back to Guinea, Muham-
mad told me soberly, “Lair. Imma make a million dollars this year.” The
hustler thing was in the air. All of the rap music was trying to help you
know the I Ching of Rayful and Alpo and our hometown man Peanut
King. We all knew by heart the DC anthem “Stone Cold Hustler” and
G Rap’s “Road to the Riches.” But I was so deep into reading about the
COINTELPRO thing and what they did to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
that none of the stories about stacking chips could reach me. Besides the
fact that all the New York cats at school would be flipping out over the
Bodymore stories I was telling, or the time my homeboys fell through
for a visit, joogy-deep. Anyway, Muhammad acted hurt when I looked
away from him.
For about two years, we didn’t have that much rap for each other,
a homeboy blood problem. Meanwhile, Muhammad tried to get water
from the rock with Rodney Glide. They stretched out until they tripped.
Eventually, the state of Pennsylvania took the wind out of Glide’s sails
for eight years, twenty-nine miles west of Philly at Graterford. I remem-
ber reading the newspapers about the old crew when I was in graduate
school in California, a million miles away.
Sawyer turned the Myth in a new direction. He laid up with a
Jamaican sister, got back in school, and earned a degree. He won an
internship with a congressman from the streets who knew where he
was coming from. He started working with the hoppers at George B.
Murphy Homes high-rises, before it got blown up to make way for con-
dos and the university hospital, where they work on getting the bug out.
Just going down to Murphy Homes was a trip to us back in the day,
where life and death, crime and punishment was wide open, like at my
cousin’s house on Myrtle Avenue, where Carmello’s from. “Fat Boy’s out!
Fat Boy’s out! Girl on green. Girl on green,” is how the touts would run
it down.
Sonny dying like he did definitely motivated me to finish graduate
school and teach at the university level. But going to college for eleven
years was, no doubt, the most sterile experience I had known. It was
feeling all balled up like an English walnut. An experience that seemed
37 Slickheads
designed to make me question who I was, if I was a man or not, if I was
doing something worthwhile or not. On top of it all, it trained you to
appreciate everything about old master and them, right down to study-
ing their trifling distinctions, which is why I guess not that many broth-
ers, when they know this thing about the war, bother with school.
After some years in the trenches, Sawyer got hooked up by George
Soros. Now he has a company trying to help “at risk” young people. I
guess he helped himself. Sawyer stood for one thing, and I got down with
him on it. “Just put it out there. No matter who it hurts, whether it’s a lie
or not, right or wrong, good or bad. Never stop putting it out there.” +
Esther maria bjørneboe, anders behring breivik at the oslo courthouse, pencil drawing, 12 × 17".
courtesy of the artist.
Letters From Oslo
Julia Grønnevet
April 22
omorrow i s Monday and the start of week two of the Breivik
trial. I’m covering it for the Associated Press. This time last week
I was biting my nails and packing all the wrong things in my bag. Now
I know to bring twice as big a lunch as any normal day would require,
snacks, a big bottle of water (unopened from the store), my more robust
computer power cord, and good luck charms. It bothers me a lot that
I can’t find my favorite talisman, a gold souvenir coin from the Sacré
Coeur in Paris.
Anders Behring Breivik in court is a still and compact man. He
wears a dark suit and over the past week has sported three different
ties. The large tie knot he favors doesn’t look out of place on him, with
his broad frame. When he sits in the witness box, he leans backward
and his hands hang straight down in an unnatural position. When I
first saw him, on a broadcast in the courthouse pressroom, I asked my
editor, who was seated in the courtroom, if Breivik was shackled to his
chair. Later, when the prosecutors started asking him questions, Breivik
brought his hands up onto the little witness box desk, and I was able to
see that he wears French cuffs but appears to be missing his cuff links.
The courtroom is laid out something like a Quaker church. Three
unequal rows of pews come together to create a small open space, where
the witness box faces the judges’ dais. Two black-robed professionals sit
with three lay judges at their sides. Between the judges and the witness,
facing outward like the judges but at floor level like the rest of us, sit
40 Julia Grønnevet
the four psychiatrists who evaluated Breivik’s mental state. Working in
pairs, they came to opposite conclusions about whether he is fit to be
held responsible for his crimes.
He is so fair you can barely see his eyebrows. He blinks and flutters
his eyes in an uncomfortable way, as one might to adjust contact lenses.
His face appeared so immobile while the prosecutor, Inga Bejer Engh,
read the charges against him that he reminded me of a newborn. You
know the look, when they’re too immature to consciously form expres-
sions: they’re blank except for the little frowns and smiles that flit across
in twitches. Engh, who at 41 is beginning the case that most likely will
define her career, takes a teacherly, somewhat exasperated tone when
she questions Breivik. She often places her right palm flat across her
collarbone as she listens.
The charges against Breivik include the murder of eight people
who died when he set off a homemade bomb in central Oslo, which
wrecked several government ministries, and the attempted murder of
nine more people who were seriously injured in the blast. After set-
ting off the bomb, Breivik put on a police uniform he had bought piece
by piece on the internet and drove thirty-eight kilometers to the ferry
between the mainland and Utøya Island, where a Labour Party youth
retreat was being held. The ferry captain believed Breivik was a police
officer and took him to Utøya; several people there for the retreat helped
him ashore, with his heavy case of ammunition, and became his first
victims on the island.
Breivik is charged with the murder of sixty-nine people on Utøya,
sixty-seven of whom he shot and killed and two who died while attempt-
ing to escape him. One drowned, one fell to his death. He is charged
with the attempted murder of thirty-three more people who were shot
but survived. He is charged with terrorism, and it is the first time this
charge has been used in connection with a homicide in Norway.
Throughout the first week I sat in the pressroom, while my editor
and another AP reporter were in the courtroom with Breivik. I didn’t
envy them. I was nervous enough being in the same building as the
guy. One time he became a bit defensive during questioning, when
Engh asked him who gave him the authority to kill all those people. He
grabbed the pitcher of water on the table before him and started fiddling
with its plastic cap. I lost focus as I watched his hands twist the cap, tun-
ing out his voice as he uncharacteristically struggled to phrase himself.
41 Letters From Oslo
I felt that he was about to smash the pitcher on the table and use a shard
to slit his own throat, suddenly, like in Michael Haneke’s Caché. I had
to take a deep breath and look away for a second. When I looked back,
Breivik was sipping water from a white plastic cup and calmly answer-
ing Engh’s question.
This anxiety about what might happen next grows in me the more
I study Breivik. At the beginning of the week I watched him avidly,
taking notes on his tie and his cuffs, and by the end when he fidgeted
I flinched. I think I crossed the line between “interested and disdain-
ful” and “compulsively fascinated and scared” on the second day, when
Breivik took the stand. Before his hour-long prepared monologue, his
actions spoke for themselves as the work of a madman. Afterward, it
was possible to consider his actions from his perspective and see that
they made a sort of sense.
Breivik believes that Norwegians are Christians and Norwegian
Muslims are foreign. These two groups are locked in conflict: one must
destroy the other. A third group comprises the Norwegian “collabora-
tionists,” who are facilitating the extermination of all that is good and
Norwegian by allowing Norway to become multicultural. This group
includes in particular anyone connected to the Labour Party, which
since World War II has encouraged Muslim immigration and suicid-
ally indoctrinated Norwegians into multiculturalism by making May
1 a national holiday, teaching the song “Children of the Rainbow” in
public schools, and silencing cultural conservatives by saying they lost
legitimacy after World War II. Breivik also calls the collaborationists
“cultural Marxists” and sees them as acceptable targets in the war.
Breivik gave his speech from the witness box, seated and reading
from a sheaf of notes. A judge interrupted him several times after he
exceeded his allotted half-hour, but he went on, insisting, just a bit more,
this is important.
“I stand here today as a representative of the Norwegian and Euro-
pean resistance movement. When I speak, I speak on behalf of many
Norwegians who don’t want the rights of our indigenous population
to be taken away from us. Norwegian media and the prosecution have
claimed and will continue to claim that the reasons for the attacks I car-
ried out were a coincidence and that I am a pathetic and evil loser, that
I have no integrity, that I’m a notorious liar, lack morals, am insane and
that I’ll therefore be forgotten by other cultural conservatives in Europe.
42 Julia Grønnevet
“I of course am not surprised by these characterizations. I expected
this and wrote it down ahead of time, and it’s turned out I was right. But
it’s important that everyone understand why the journalists, lawyers,
and even the prosecutor in this case will continue to lie about me. The
answer is simple. I have carried out the most spectacular attack com-
mitted in Europe since World War II.
“About 30 percent of Norwegians and Europeans are against multi-
culturalism. But not a single news service represents our view. In reality,
30 percent of news services should take our side and represent our view.
More and more, cultural conservatives realize that democratic struggle
is useless. It’s impossible to win when there’s no true freedom of expres-
sion. When more people realize this over the next decades, the path to
taking up arms will be short.”
Breivik had plans to bomb a national journalism conference. He
wanted to chop off the head of a former Labour Party leader with a
sword while reading an al Qaeda–inspired declaration of war and broad-
casting the event on YouTube. He wanted to kill Barack Obama during
the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, but security was too tight. When I
think about what he didn’t do I feel the shakiness of someone who has
dropped something valuable and grabbed it back out of the air at the
last instant. What did not happen is in some sense more accidental than
what did.
Tomorrow I leave the pressroom and enter the court. The other
reporters are not a particularly collegial group — there’s been a lot of
shoving and antisocial breaking of the cell-phone rules — but it has
protected me so far to be among them. Every now and again, when
Breivik says something unambiguously bonkers, the pressroom erupts
in laughter, and it feels good to be part of an “us” against him. On the
second day, he singled out a reporter by name and said she “feels such a
hatred against our cultural heritage that she chose to convert to Islam
and spawn Berber-Arabic offspring with a Muslim.” There was baffled
laughter in the pressroom as we sought one another’s eyes to make sure
we had heard him correctly. Of course we had.
43 Letters From Oslo
April 30
econd week of the trial, and it feels like it has gone on forever and
will keep going on forever. I have the beginnings of a routine. I wake
up before my alarm clock, have coffee and muesli, and hop into clothes
laid out the evening before. I take the tram and go through courthouse
security. It’s almost like airport security but not quite, so newcomers
(bereaved people, mostly) always lose some object on their way in while
I’m standing with my shoes in one hand, computer in the other, tap-
ping my feet, waiting to go through the detector. I’ve discovered that
my black oxfords set it off even though they have no visible metal, but
my turquoise ones don’t. I’ve stopped wearing a bra because the under-
wire makes the machine beep and then I have to be invasively wanded.
I take my jacket off before they request it and show them the seal on my
water bottle without being asked. I show them the sandwiches in my
metal lunch pail so they can be assured they’re not explosives. I hang the
gigantic orange and red pass around my neck and let one police officer
inspect it and two court security people optically scan it before I settle
into my front-row seat and wait for the rest of the cast of characters to
trickle in. I plug in my power cord, place my tin of Italian licorice in line
with the grain of the wood desk, and log in to Gchat so I can commu-
nicate with my editors, who are scattered all over Scandinavia. The ses-
sion starts at precisely 9 AM, or sometimes even a minute or two early.
The purpose of this trial is to have a reckoning with Breivik, to go
through his actions and try to understand them. What happened, how
did those kids die, and why? There is also the problem of deciding an
appropriate sentence — either sanity and an initial term of twenty-one
years in a penal institution (likely followed by many more) or insanity
and commitment to a mental ward.
When the trial date was set last year, no one knew that psychia-
try would play such an important role in this reckoning. But then the
first psychiatric report — which found that Breivik is a paranoid schizo-
phrenic, was psychotic at the time of the attacks, and is unfit for a prison
sentence — was leaked to the press. Public outrage about these findings
was so intense that the court took the exceptional measure of appoint-
ing a second team of psychiatrists. The second team observed Breivik
for several weeks in pretrial detention and released their report just
before the trial started: they found that he had antisocial personality
44 Julia Grønnevet
disorder and narcissistic personality disorder but did not meet the
insanity threshold. And so the two teams of psychiatrists sit beside each
other in court, and the insanity question sits awkwardly next to the
moral culpability question.
In a normal criminal case, it would be considered favorable for the
defendant to be found not guilty by reason of insanity. But Breivik has
said that finding him insane would be a way to avoid engaging with his
politics, and has insisted that his lawyer, Geir Lippestad, above all try to
convince the court that he is sane. This makes the prosecution’s task even
more complex. We assume that they will argue for finding Breivik insane,
since they opposed having him reevaluated after the first psychiatric
report. But they have made no announcement, and may not declare which
sentence they are seeking until the final moments of the trial.
The two prosecutors, Engh and Svein Holden, took turns grill-
ing Breivik about his motivations, his execution of the attacks, and his
thoughts about what he did. They also asked him how he manages to
appear so calm and unaffected. Bushido meditation, he said. Some think
he simply feels no emotions. The alternative is that he is maintaining an
almost superhuman self-control. In response to questions about specific
victims, he often was able to reel off how many times he fired at them
and where on their bodies he shot them. He had a rifle and a pistol, a
Glock. He used the latter “from ten centimeters away to ten meters.”
Breivik took us through his actions on Utøya, his voice calm and
smooth, unbroken by ums or ahs.
“I guess I went in an eastern to western direction, and it was just a
coincidence that I saw a head sticking up from that pump house. Then
I understood there were many people there, and then I caught sight
of more people. And I think I started by saying, ‘Have you seen him?
Do you know where the shots are coming from?’ and then one of them
pointed in a direction. And that was to lure them out so I could execute
them. And then they’re maybe five meters away, five to seven meters
away. And then I said, ‘There’s a boat to take you to safety over there,’ I
think I said. And then . . . they seemed very skeptical. But some, two or
three of them, seemed very relieved. . . . And then I said, ‘Yes, you have
to come now.’ And then three of them came towards me, and then I
raised the Glock and shot a woman in the head.”
Thursday’s testimony consisted of more witnesses to the bombing,
which would not have justified another Breivik story for the AP. But I
45 Letters From Oslo
had heard there would be a demonstration where people would sing
Lillebjørn Nilsen’s “Children of the Rainbow,” a version of Pete Seeger’s
“My Rainbow Race,” the song Breivik thinks is part of a Marxist plot to
brainwash Norwegian kids into being multiculturalists, and an editor
suggested that I go and write about it.
I grew up in Bergen and only moved to Oslo a few months ago, so
I don’t know the first thing about the city. I had to look at a map to find
the place where the demonstration was being held, and it turned out to
be only two long blocks from the courthouse. When I arrived, I saw that
it was the same big square my cousin, her boyfriend, and I had crossed
every night walking home from a summer music festival in 2004. After
the shows wrapped up, we walked an hour back to my cousin’s house
through the dark, warm streets, always stopping at 7-Eleven for chewy
chocolate cookies. There’s a natural place for a stage at one end of the
square, and one had been erected there for the demonstration.
I kept busy walking around the square, chatting with people, with
my Dictaphone and notebook, until I heard Lillebjørn tuning up. The
clumps of people who had been there when I arrived had turned into a
crowd of tens of thousands. It felt like Times Square on New Year’s Eve,
except there was no pushing or shoving. It started raining, but no one
left, and when everyone began singing they were magically on key, the
way large crowds always seem to be.
Almost all the singers were dressed in sensible rain gear, with boots
and hats. A woman in a wheelchair had arrived with a special rain cover
already stretched over herself and her chair. There were many groups of
kindergartners in fluorescent vests. Construction workers in safety gear
mingled with the rest of the crowd. The scene looked like a panorama
from Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day?, my favorite picture
book as a child. Many people carried roses, which until last July were a
symbol of the Labour Party, but since then have come to represent peace
and national unity. I found it all so moving that I stopped and stared for
a while, before returning to duty and gathering quotes from the police
doing crowd control.
I returned to the pressroom to write up the story, with the song
going around and around in my head. “A sky full of stars . . .” Like
Breivik I learned it in elementary school (along with “Nkosi Sikelel’
iAfrika,” which my class learned when Nelson Mandela was released
from prison), but unlike Breivik I never thought about its multicultural
46 Julia Grønnevet
message. It was just background, one of a million attitude-building
things I learned in elementary school — not to be racist and not to litter,
how to write in cursive and eat according to the food pyramid. As a
kid, and perhaps still, I was much more concerned about environmental
degradation than racism. The song has a line about how some people
think we can live off “synthetic food.” That was the only line that meant
anything to me, until this mass killer made me see the whole text with
fresh eyes.
I had to stay late at the courthouse waiting for edits, until only a few
other foreign correspondents were left hanging around. We talked about
the breathtaking sweetness of the singing. None of us had managed to
find a curmudgeon to provide some balance for our articles. “The Nor-
wegians!” the AFP guy said with awe in his voice. “They’re like panda
bears!” It was good to hear him express the same amazement and bit of
alienation I had felt about the crowd’s unrelenting goodness. “Yes!” said
the SvD guy. “They’re like seal cubs!” and he mimed a clubbing motion.
We all laughed rawly. Eight more weeks to go.
May 6
unday in the l and where it doesn’t get dark anymore — 6 pM and it
looks like noon outside. I spent the afternoon at my cousin’s house,
battling my interminable laundry problem. Norwegians have figured
out many things but laundry isn’t one of them. Almost everyone owns
a washing machine, so there are no laundromats, but no one owns a
dryer! Instead everyone dries their clothes on flimsy drying racks, and
this takes so long that these racks are out on display all the time, even
though they’re constructed so that you can fold them away. It mystifies
me why Norwegians, who tend to arrange their lives for maximum con-
venience, treat laundry as though it were a passing issue. It looks terrible
to leave underwear and socks on display in one’s living room, yet the
design-loving Norwegians tolerate this or rather appear not to see the
drying rack or hear it rattling as they attempt to edge their way around
it. I don’t have a washing machine, so every weekend I stuff a canvas bag
full of clothes and take it to my cousin’s house. The wash cycle alone
takes two hours. My clothes have never been cleaner.
47 Letters From Oslo
Norway: a group of bearded men on paternity leave sitting around
an outdoor table, sipping early-afternoon pints, surrounded by stroll-
ers. Norway: so efficient people get anxious when the streetcar is two
minutes behind schedule. Norway: extremely expensive coffee at cafés
and cured moose sausages at the grocery store. They’re tasty in a gamy
way — I’m nibbling one as I write this. This country, even though I’m
from here, seemed richly exotic to me when I returned after several
years in New York, but now I sense myself becoming more Norwegian
again with every day that passes.
Last Friday, as I started a story on how Norwegian Muslims feel
about the Breivik circus, I spoke to an imam who invited me to meet
his congregation after Friday prayers. I followed my Google Maps direc-
tions to his mosque, one of the largest in central Oslo, and was sent
down a street, Tøyengata, that with its long row of Pakistani and Indian
shops looked just like 74th Street in Jackson Heights. The sidewalk was
crowded with people running errands after work, almost all of them
African or South Asian; it was disorienting to see a native Norwegian
here and there, tugging a blond kid dressed in wool and the special
waterproof playsuit Norwegian children wear. The congregants were
mostly Sufi Muslims of Pakistani origin, and they were even more out-
raged than most Norwegians that Breivik might be found insane. To
them this would represent a failure to acknowledge that terrorism can
be perpetrated by people claiming to defend the West. “Nobody ques-
tioned Osama bin Laden’s sanity,” one man said.
This Friday I arrived in court to find a human-sized gray doll on
a stand next to the witness box. Pathologists were going to present the
victims’ injuries to the court. They started their testimony by laying the
doll on the floor while describing the parameters of their work. I was
shocked by how this looked: it was as though they had laid a dead body
on the ground in the space between the perpetrator and the judges.
The pathologists showed pictures of bullets fired through gelatin,
which they said offers about the same resistance as human flesh. They
explained how a bullet enters a person by neatly perforating the skin.
Then, inside, it starts spinning and tumbling, tearing and tunneling
through the flesh before either exiting or fragmenting into shards that
can scatter throughout the soft body. This introduction finished, they
held up the doll and used two pointers to show where bullets went in and
out, translating the medical terminology for body parts for the court.
48 Julia Grønnevet
A boy born in 1993 was “shot three times with the pistol and/or
rifle, of which one shot was to the head and one to the back. The shot
to the head entered through the left eye into the brain, causing fracture
injuries to the cranium and substantial crush injuries to the underside
of the left frontal lobe. The shot to the back entered the rear of the right
thoracic cavity into the upper lobe of the right lung. [He] died of the
gunshot injuries to the head and back/chest.”
A girl born in 1991 was “shot three times with the pistol and/or
rifle, of which one shot was to the head and one to the chest. The shot
to the head entered the right side of the occiput and left through the left
temple, causing substantial damage to the brain. The shot to the chest
grazed first the right side of the head, and the projectile fragmented so
that a fragment entered the chest, into the left thoracic cavity, damaging
the left lung. [She] died of the gunshot injuries to the head and chest.”
A boy born in 1989 was “shot four times with the pistol and/or rifle,
of which one shot with the rifle was to the back and one shot with the
pistol was to the neck. The shot to the back damaged the left lung and
caused hemorrhaging in the left thoracic cavity. The shot to the neck
ruptured the spinal column at the level of the third cervical vertebra.
[He] died of the gunshot injuries to the neck and chest.”
These were the injuries of a few of the people found dead at the
pump house on Utøya. The pathologists detailed the damage done to
each of Breivik’s seventy-seven victims; after each description, the vic-
tims’ attorneys and families spoke briefly and showed photographs.
The attorney for Trond Berntsen, a security guard who was Breivik’s
first victim on Utøya, started to cry while reading notes from Berntsen’s
family. “You were the best in the world, Daddy,” a letter from Berntsen’s
10-year-old son said. The attorney for the second victim read from a
eulogy given by the victim’s daughter. At her mother’s funeral, the girl
had said, “Instead of hating the terrorist, show care and love for your
fellow people.” The attorney for Lejla Selaci broke down in tears as he
read her family’s note. They said Lejla’s motto was, “I want to be part of
everyone getting better.” Her parents and her three brothers said they
loved her and missed her and were proud of her, and would fight for her
ideals and never give up.
I kept typing and the screen swam with tears. There was no space
at that moment to think about politics or what is at stake in this trial.
There was just seeing and feeling her family’s raw grief at having lost her.
49 Letters From Oslo
And in the middle of this shared grief — which made a question-
able alliance of the prosecution, the bereaved, many reporters, and one
weeping judge — that block of ice sat at his desk, just waiting for the day
to be over. Breivik’s presence seemed provocative and wrong, as though
by hearing this testimony and remaining unmoved he was challenging
all the difficult work these families were putting in, coming here every
day like a job they don’t get paid to do. I don’t think they really care
whether Breivik is found sane or insane. I think what they most want is
to take part in the last shred of their children’s lives.
May 13
unday afternoon, salt rain against the windows. I’m at Sunnmøre
for the confirmation of my older cousin’s twin girls. As soon as I left
court on Friday, I threw my stuff in my satchel and hopped on a plane
to Vigra. I left Oslo sweltering in three sweaters and a jacket, and when
we landed a gust of wind mixed with frigid rain blew me sideways as I
climbed down the aluminum staircase. Welcome home.
I spent Friday afternoon in court trying to wring a story out of the
fact that a grieving man threw a shoe at Breivik. “You killed my brother!”
he screamed as he was led out of the courtroom, “disintegrating into
tears,” as the Norwegian media put it. I got the quotes I needed from
the lead security officer, who downplayed the whole thing and showed
great understanding for the man who threw the shoe. A 20-year-old
Iraqi, he’d come to the trial from Baghdad out of respect for his 19-year-
old brother, who had been given political asylum in Norway and was
killed on Utøya. Then court was back in session, with another survivor
describing in as much detail as he could conjure how he ran for his life.
Bjørn Ihler, 20, told the court about how as he ran away from
the sound of shots, he came upon the youngest kids on Utøya, the
10-year-old sons of two of the security guards. Ihler stayed with the
boys and helped them hide as Breivik stalked around, shooting others.
At one point, Ihler said, he covered one of them with his own body,
fearing that the boy would panic and run out of their hiding spot like
a grouse. After Breivik was captured, Ihler said the scene on the island
was “like a disaster movie.” He tried to distract the boys from looking
50 Julia Grønnevet
around them by asking what they wanted for Christmas, staying with
them until rescue personnel arrived.
At first I tried to write down every word the survivors said. One
of the youth group leaders, a smooth politician in the rest of her testi-
mony, seemed transformed as she described how she was able to carry
a gravely injured girl to safety “because she was just so small.” Instead
of seeing a future government minister, I suddenly recognized a young
person who had been incredibly brave. But the longer I listened to the
survivors’ stories, the harder it became to process details like this one.
It’s like Alice Walker’s parable of painting the tiger’s eye. Try too many
times and you’re painting stripes instead of eyes. And “too many stripes
and the tiger herself disappears.”
At the end-of-the-day press conference on Thursday, some report-
ers went pretty far in questioning the attorneys’ sentimental approach.
Showing happy family photos and reading letters from Mommy and
Daddy: the Danish journalist sitting next to me told the prosecution
that in Denmark they call this “emo-porno.” A gasp went through the
audience of reporters as she used such blunt words to name it. Then I
realized how much this implicated us as well, how many of our stories
are written for readers seeking a specific emotional response, of sadness
and pity and pain.
I went home and wrote a note to one of my editors, carefully echo-
ing the Danish journalist’s concerns: Are we indulging ourselves and the
public in an emotionally satisfying display when we should be taking a
more high-minded approach to the trial? Ten minutes later I received
a crisp, professional response, saying that we do not put “emotional
porno” on the wire and not to worry that my journalistic integrity was
being compromised by the case, which may be the biggest story ever out
of Norway. I felt as though I had confessed impure thoughts and deeds
and been absolved of them, even though I knew very well that I had
sinned with abandon.
Next week we’ll have even more testimony from survivors. I don’t
know how I’m going to find news in their stories. I hear kids explain how
they ran, how they hid, how they escaped. Then there’s an anticlimax, as
they describe having trouble sleeping, being unable to go to school. For
many of them, random survival has been a sort of death: their under-
standing of what mattered, what was certain, and what was dangerous
51 Letters From Oslo
has disappeared. As survivors, they are expected to resume their previ-
ous lives, but what if for them those lives no longer exist?
Sometimes I can’t imagine what they want from the trial, or what
anyone wants from it. Every time I try to talk to my family and friends
about it, I get shudders and hunched shoulders. No one wants to hear
a word about the Breivik case, which they are keeping up with all the
same. It’s as if we all believe that if the trial follows that day down to
the bloodiest details, and if we subject ourselves to all of them, then
somewhere along the way we’ll experience a catharsis that will allow us
never to think of it again.
The Norwegian word for this is oppgjør, and the most direct trans-
lation is reckoning. It’s the word that was used to describe the postwar
trials of Nazi collaborators, which led to the execution of forty-seven
Norwegians. It also refers to the mob violence that followed the occupa-
tion. At the beginning of the Breivik trial, I spent some time reading
about Vidkun Quisling, the infamous Norwegian collaborator who led
the occupation government. Quisling also had a highly symbolic trial
that transfixed the public for weeks. He was found guilty of treason and
executed by firing squad.
Everyone I spoke to about this remonstrated with me for making
the comparison. Quisling was a politician who seized power as part of
an international political movement; Breivik is a lone killer who never
finished high school. But oppgjør describes not crimes against society
but how society reacts to them. In Norway it relates, among other things,
to the treatment of the thousands of children born to German soldiers
and Norwegian women, who along with their mothers were imprisoned,
institutionalized, abused, and discriminated against for decades. I sus-
pect, though I cannot say for certain, that our anxiety about responding
correctly to Breivik is informed by the memory of the Quisling trial and
postwar oppgjør. We understand that Norwegians are not above lashing
out in revenge.
Oslo seems far away from Vardal, a small village on the Sunnmøre
region’s weather-hard coastline where the old family farmhouse stands
unchanged. It even smells the same as when I was a child and this was
an unsupervised paradise, the adults too busy spending time together
to mind the kids. We ran around in a muddy gang until dark and they
sat up chatting until the early hours. Now I’m one of the adults, but the
52 Julia Grønnevet
routines remain the same. Last night we stayed up until two over red
wine and bacalao.
This afternoon, guests are arriving for my aunt’s 60th birthday, and
I’m in the kitchen writing while my uncle stirs the sauce for dinner. The
others are in the living room, where Aunt Marit reads aloud my grand-
mother’s diary from the 1930s. It’s mostly about food and the weather.
“Today we got salted butter on our bread.” When I look out the window
I see the fjord slate-colored with little white-tipped waves.
May 19
hi s was the fifth week, the midway point, and we finally got
through all the autopsies. Some survivor testimony remains, and
then the rest of the trial will be devoted to trying to understand Breivik.
There will be testimony from his mother, his former friends, the
psychiatrist who evaluated him when he was a child, and finally the
court psychiatrists, who will give their conflicting opinions about
whether he is fit to be criminally sentenced. The defense has also come
up with a more far-flung list of witnesses: right-wing extremists to prove
Breivik isn’t alone in his convictions; philosophers to enlighten the
court about free will; Islamists to show that Breivik’s fear of a Muslim
takeover is not entirely delusional. Witnesses for the prosecution are not
itemized in the handout the court has given us, so we can’t infer their
strategy from their witness list.
I proposed to my editors that I cease covering the autopsies in
detail. I got my wish, which may have been theirs as well, and was only
sent to sit in court on Monday. But the longer the autopsies and survivor
stories went on, the more I felt compelled to listen to them, even when
I wasn’t in court. One girl described what it was like to be shot through
the hands. A girl who was shot to bits but survived recalled being taken
back to shore in a boat. She told friends who were on the boat not to look
at her, that it would traumatize them to see her wounds. But one of them
said, “No, Ina, you are very beautiful.”
Why was I forcing myself to listen to this when it caused me pain?
When I am most honest with myself, I have to admit that when I cried
as I heard what happened to the victims, I also felt relief that this
53 Letters From Oslo
reaction separated me from Breivik, who sits there like a stone, day in
and day out.
At the same time, I am becoming convinced that no deeper mean-
ing can be found in putting Breivik on trial. He says he knows what he
has done and describes his motivations and actions in rational-sound-
ing words. He often sounds sane, but appears to lack certain qualities
that would allow me to recognize him as a normal person. His words
seem less representative of a consciousness than of an inchoate political
mood, a xenophobic weather system in the form of one furious man.
Then I’m brought back to earth, where I see the weeping, suffer-
ing people in court, pushing themselves through these ten weeks in the
hope that something will be revealed to them, that some puncturing of
Breivik’s politics will explain why their loved ones died. Do they want
him to be found sane or insane? The bereaved have no single answer to
this question. Some want Breivik to be found insane, for the court to
say that his politics have no place in the world. Others want to see the
killer struck down with responsibility for the deaths of their loved ones,
and that’s only possible if he’s found psychologically competent to be
May 28
t’s broad daylight at 10 pM and I’m sipping red currant saft. It was
a strange week. In court, the survivor testimony continued, and the
AP didn’t send me to cover it. I spent the days on call, nervously check-
ing the wire service cell phone every ten minutes to see if anyone had
thrown anything, crashed anything, or set themselves on fire. But noth-
ing happened. The witnesses kept testifying, adding their voices to the
chorus of running, jumping, hiding, bleeding, texting, swimming, freez-
ing, and terrified kids, painting their tiny figures into the Hieronymus
Bosch hellscape of it all. Viljar Hansen, shot in the head, touched his
own brain as he lay trying to stay conscious. Ylva Schwenke lay waiting
to die after Breivik shot her four times. Mohamad Hadi Hamed thought
he was back in Baghdad and shouted for help in Arabic. He slumped
over the witness box, acting out for the court how he had tried to cover
himself, but the court had to imagine it because Hamed no longer has
the arm he hid beneath.
54 Julia Grønnevet
On Friday I returned to court for the last of the victims’ testimony.
“You haven’t been here for ten days,” a Swedish reporter grumbled as I
kicked her out of my assigned seat.
Those who have covered the trial for the long haul, every day and
every victim, seem more subdued than before and rather damaged. They
curse more, even in the coffee line. In the middle of a dull testimony
from a police officer who helped apprehend Breivik, I turned around
and my eyes fell on a harrowed-looking man behind me. Bereaved per-
son, I thought, then noticed he was wearing a press badge. Who knows
what he’s seen and heard, during the last two weeks of autopsies and
testimony from wounded kids.
On Friday an interrogation specialist gave a paragraph-long
description of Breivik that pulled together many unclear ideas I’ve had.
Breivik is calm and serious, the interrogator said, and prepares written
notes before every session. He’s careful with his fluid intake so as not to
become dehydrated. He is cooperative on all matters except those that
relate to Knights Templar, the group to which he claims to belong. He’s
somewhat reticent about his family. He’s good at articulating ideas, and
early in the sessions used a lot of complex vocabulary, but this abated
after a while. When one assumes Breivik’s worldview he is logically
easy to follow. He thinks analytically and strategically, and has a good
memory. He is cold and pragmatic in his descriptions of Utøya. He is
preoccupied with providing reasons for his gruesome actions, and that’s
the word he uses to describe them, “gruesome.” He presents as narcis-
sistic and self-critical. He can be self-deprecating.
Breivik has a special look when he comes into court in the morning,
solid, stomping, with great natural authority. But he only maintains it
for the first five minutes, while the photographers are allowed to take
pictures. Once court is in session he seems to close down, like a blown-
out candle. He remains absolutely still, except for the few occasions
when he writes something down. It’s almost as if he switches to a lower
metabolic rate when the cameras aren’t on him.
55 Letters From Oslo
June 4
ack home in Bergen, approaching 2 AM, watching the dawn. I just
returned from an evening spent drinking whiskey on Jan’s wooden
sailboat while he patiently pumped salt water out of the diesel engine.
He was supposed to sail to Amsterdam on Tuesday, but with the engine
trouble he wasn’t sure. The last time I lived in Bergen, I was a teenager,
and Jan and I were friends then too. Continuity like that, although it
means a lot to me, isn’t something we would ever talk about. So I read
aloud from his old sailing manuals while he worked and laughed at the
salty terms. “If the yacht can be so steered as to keep just the suspicion
of a little smile rippling its luff below the throat of the gaff, it will be
the perfection of sailing ‘close-hauled,’ or ‘by the wind.’” At home it’s so
quiet I can hear a clock ticking.
I missed this past week in court, with the testimony by Breivik’s
former friends and the first of the experts on right-wing ideology. The
friends refused to face him, so they spoke in the courtroom while he
watched their testimony on a screen in a back room. They went after
him a bit, saying he used to wear makeup and be overly concerned about
his appearance. He had a nose job at 20 because he thought his nose was
too large and “Arabic-looking,” they said. Breivik himself claimed he had
surgery after his nose was broken in a bar fight with a Muslim and that
the makeup was to cover pimples, not because he was effeminate.
The week ended with the right-wing ideology experts, who as wit-
nesses for the defense testified that Breivik is participating in larger
misunderstandings of Norwegian history. The defense’s third witness,
an academic named Lars Gule, said he had debated Breivik online
before the attacks and didn’t find him any more or less extreme in his
viewpoints than thousands of other Norwegians. The populist Progress
Party, currently the second-largest party in Parliament, has a far-right
wing that maintains many of the same beliefs as Breivik, Gule said.
The idea that there is an ongoing war with Muslims who intend to take
over Europe and establish a caliphate is not unique to Breivik. Only his
actions are his alone.
After the lawyers finished questioning Gule, Breivik spoke. Did the
police thoroughly search Gule’s briefcase? he asked, trying to make a
joke. No one laughed. Breivik was referring to the fact that in 1977 Lars
Gule was arrested in the Beirut airport, where he was about to board
56 Julia Grønnevet
a flight to Israel with 750 grams of explosives in his luggage. He had
been trained by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine to
carry out a terrorist attack on the tenth anniversary of the Six-Day War.
When Gule was released several months later from a Lebanese prison,
where he said he had been tortured, he returned to Norway, attended
graduate school in philosophy, and eventually became secretary general
of the Norwegian Humanist Association. No one else in the courtroom
made any mention of Gule’s terrorist history.
June 10
spent eight focused hours in court on Friday taking notes on the
testimony of a prosecution witness, psychiatrist Ulrik Malt, who pre-
sented a new theory of how to understand Breivik. Malt suggested that
Breivik suffers from Asperger syndrome, and that this combined with
his right-wing ideology is why it made sense to him to kill kids, how
it was possible for him to do it in a machinelike manner, and why he
appears to feel no emotions although he intellectually understands the
horror of the situation. Malt also proposed that Breivik has narcissistic
personality disorder, and that his smirk is a Tourettic tic that emerges
during stress. Breivik smirked more often during that explanation than
at any point in the trial.
This was the beginning of a series of proposed diagnoses for Breivik,
who seemed to cry out for a psychological explanation as he sat there,
unmoved, during the long weeks of autopsies and witness testimony. If
politics could turn him into that, then in the abstract none of us is safe
from becoming him. But if a psychiatric dimension can be added, it will
confirm our perceived distance. The sanity question, the only aspect of
this trial that will directly determine its outcome, looms even larger as
the end approaches.
There were also the nonpsychological, or political, explanations,
which came across as equally persuasive. The more complex and con-
tradictory the testimony becomes, the more I am convinced by each
successive witness. Immediately after Monday’s testimony by academ-
ics who study right-wing extremism and terrorism, I felt theirs was the
appropriate diagnosis. But then Breivik asked to add his own perspec-
tive. He sat in the witness box and read from a document he had spent
57 Letters From Oslo
the whole day preparing, writing in his minuscule handwriting with the
special soft pen they give him. The document was a litany of every slight
a Muslim had ever committed against him, beginning when he was 7
years old and a friend’s Turkish father allegedly wrecked his bike. Several
years later, the same man grabbed a woman’s arm very hard because she
was out walking her dog and he was unfamiliar with the custom. When
Breivik was 15 years old, he was caught hanging on the outside of a sub-
way car by the driver, who slapped him in the face. According to Breivik,
the man was a Pakistani Muslim. The list went on at the same level of
detail, describing parties Breivik went to as a teenager where Muslims
were rude to him, late nights at fast-food restaurants where Muslims
offended him, and incidents at tram stops where Muslims threatened
him, until at 23 Breivik decided to seek out “militant nationalists,” as he
put it. At the end of the day, I filed a completely deadpan story listing all
of Breivik’s allegations.
The other right-wing extremists who testified did not express quite
the same level of personal woundedness, but they all claimed they had
been persecuted by Norwegian society. Tore Tvedt, the founder of the
Nazi-inspired group Vigrid, claimed that police had persuaded young
people in the group to turn away from him with the promise that they
would be allowed to express racist and violent sentiments more openly.
“The police told them to cut out Tvedt, then they could go scream sieg
heil and fight, and the police would protect them,” Tvedt told Breivik’s
attorney, Geir Lippestad. “Fourteen days later Hermansen was killed . . .
and you defended the one who did it.”
Tvedt was referring to the murder of Benjamin Hermansen, a
15-year-old Norwegian-Ghanaian boy who was stabbed to death in an
Oslo suburb in 2001. Three teenagers associated with Tvedt were con-
victed in what was considered Norway’s first race-related murder trial.
Long before he agreed to defend Breivik, Lippestad was known to most
Norwegians for representing one of the defendants. A longtime advo-
cate for the rights of the disabled, Lippestad is portrayed by the press
as representing the civic values his clients despise. Shortly before the
Breivik trial started, Lippestad told Le Monde, “I feel I have lost my soul
in this case. I hope to get it back once it’s over — and that it will be in the
same condition as before.”
58 Julia Grønnevet
June 17
t long l ast, the first team of psychiatrists, Torgeir Husby and
Synne Sørheim, the ones who found Breivik insane, presented their
report. Husby and Sørheim surprised me by not giving an inch in their
assessment, despite all the public outrage and all the witnesses who have
contradicted their conclusions. Their report, which has been roundly
abused and yet contains so many obvious truths, is worth quoting
at length:
The observed maintains that it was fair that the victims died, doesn’t regret
it, and feels no guilt. He reckons the victims died as a consequence of his love
for the Norwegian people. Asked to assess his own actions, his statements
are without empathy. The observed assesses the importance of the murders
in relation to his own reputation and future infuence, and further how the
murders will affect and accelerate the political project of a future takeover of
power in Europe. The observed is not able to consider the victims’ or society’s
perspective in relation to the recent acts.
The observed doesn’t express emotions in relation to those closest to him.
He describes all subjects, from his own childhood to the “execution” of the
recent acts, in an operational language, without any emotional component. The
observed presents a signifcant affectlessness and serious failure of empathy.
The observed has a slightly fxed look and blinks a bit. He appears to have
a somewhat attenuated demeanor and slightly stiffened body language, as he
moves very little in the chair during the examinations. The assessors evaluate
this as a slight psychomotor retardation.
The observed uses unusual concepts, exemplifed by words and phrases
such as low-intensity civil war, military order, military court, executioner, and operation. The
concept use is wholly connected to the observed’s belief that there is a civil
war in this country, and is evaluated as an expression of underlying, all-
encompassing paranoid delusions. . . .
The observed presents his own invented words such as national
Darwinist, suicide-Marxist, suicidal humanism, knightly magistrate, knightly magistrate
commander, knightly magistrate master, and knightly magistrate grandmaster
[ridderjustitiariusstormester]. The concepts are evaluated to be neologisms.
The observed believes he has seized control of the organization Knights
Templar, which has a mandate to be a “military order,” “martyr organization,”
“military court,” “judge, jury, and executioner.” He thinks he has the
59 Letters From Oslo
responsibility to decide who should live and die in Norway. The responsibility is
experienced as real but burdensome. The phenomena are evaluated as bizarre,
grandiose delusions.
He thinks a considerable number of people (several hundred thousand)
support his recent actions. He thinks he has an overdeveloped sense of love. He
thinks he is a pioneer in a European civil war. He compares his situation to that of
historical fgures such as Tsar Nicholas and Queen Isabella. The phenomena are
evaluated as grandiose delusions.
It took Husby and Sørheim a full day to present the report. They insisted
they were correct to ignore any political dimension of Breivik’s psyche.
“One doesn’t go searching for theological expertise every time a new
Jesus is admitted” to the psychiatric ward, Husby said. “And neither does
one go collecting historical expertise when a new Napoleon is admitted,
even if he arrives in full dress uniform.”
In his questioning Lippestad pressed them immediately on Breivik’s
politics. “I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that it’s the fight
against Muslims he’s concerned with. It’s the ‘Muslim danger’ he talks
about all the time. There are no other things I’ve heard him say he fears
except Muslims. So, is there in your opinion any doubt that it’s Muslims
he’s thinking of when he talks about saving us from danger?”
Sørheim and Husby were seated beside each other at their desk in
the center of the courtroom. When Sørheim speaks, she sounds like a
person used to making official statements. Her dialect is perfect stan-
dard Norwegian. It sounds as though someone has left on the TV.
“We haven’t included in this understanding anything other than
what he said himself, that this is the battle between good and evil,” she
said. “And we think this is — what shall I say — he chose to sum it up that
way, and we take him at his word.”
Lippestad tried again.
“But I think that if he had been sitting there saying that he has done
this to prevent a Martian invasion, or prevent totally impossible things
from happening, then I understand this logic. But he has said quite liter-
ally, from day one, that he has done these things to prevent a Muslim
takeover of Europe. Is there a difference if he’s afraid Muslims will take
over Europe or if he thinks, for example, that a million hedgehogs are
coming to take over Norway?”
60 Julia Grønnevet
Sørheim hesitated a bit—“it’s clear that it’s terribly different to
worry about Muslims than hedgehogs”—but did not modify her answer.
For the purposes of a psychiatric evaluation, there was no difference
between Muslims and hedgehogs. “How he should then sacrifice him-
self for this fight in principle could have been the same.”
I first read Husby and Sørheim’s report when it was leaked to the
press late last year, and it didn’t occur to me that their conclusions could
be wrong. But when I started attending the trial, nothing I saw fit with
what I had previously assumed. Still, so much in Husby and Sørheim’s
report rings true that it’s impossible to discount it. And one comment
Husby made seemed so striking and clarifying that I tried and failed for
days to get it into a wire story:
“There’s been a lot of talk about how much he should be allowed to
speak in court, that is to say, how much the court should be a soapbox,
and so on. From a psychiatric perspective it would almost be an asset . . .
to have him speak more . . . because he is in many ways his own worst
enemy. When he opens his mouth, people understand there’s something
wrong with what comes out.”
June 24
he final week of the tri al came at last, and the second team
of psychiatrists presented their report. Terje Tørrissen and Agnar
Aspaas, who were appointed to evaluate Breivik after the first report
caused such an outcry, came to the opposite conclusion, that Breivik
does not have a severe mental illness and was not psychotic at the time
of the attacks. Their report carefully described the distinctions between
their approach and Husby and Sørheim’s:
The assessors would emphasize that the observed presents as a special case.
The actions he is on trial for and the callousness he shows toward the killings
and acts of terror he acknowledges having committed make him stand out from
everything else the assessors have seen in their psychiatric practice. In this way,
he challenges the current system of classifcation and understanding, especially
in the border area between fractured reality and political fanaticism. . . .
Through this, the border between law and psychiatry is questioned, too. The
61 Letters From Oslo
assessors will not hide the fact that this represents general uncertainties in the
psychiatric evaluation.
Tørrissen and Aspaas’s report, with its insistent humility, was much less
controversial than Husby and Sørheim’s, and so was not dissected to
nearly the same degree in court. It’s also drier reading, and the many
times I’ve settled down with it I’ve abandoned it after a few pages.
Thursday and Friday I walked to court through the still, early morn-
ing streets, arriving in time to stop for an espresso. I sat in the window
seat of the café beside the courthouse, watching people tie one last batch
of roses to the barricades. When I arrived, I told the Stockholm editor
that it was easier to type in the pressroom, and stayed out of Breivik’s
presence. Enough is enough.
On Thursday the pressroom was as full as it was during the opening
days of the trial. As soon as a judge gaveled the day to a start a hundred
reporters leapt into typing. The woman sitting across from me placed a
box of tissues on her desk before proceedings even started. (That and a
box of snus, a kind of smokeless tobacco to which all Norwegian journal-
ists seem to be addicted. They look like llamas with those little packets
tucked under their lips as they work.) The question of the day was whether
the prosecution would ask that Breivik be put in psychiatric care and not
be held criminally responsible. Would they really, as they have indicated
all along, claim he was motivated by insanity, not politics?
They did, and attempted to shore up the argument by focusing on
the problem of doubt. Any doubt about whether the accused is sane
or insane should cause the court to favor the interests of the accused,
the prosecution said. And “in our opinion, it would be worse if a psy-
chotic person were sentenced to prison than if a nonpsychotic person
were sentenced to compulsory psychiatric care.” In other words, they
were making an argument about least harm — but their concern was not
harm to Norwegian society, but harm to Breivik.
Friday was the last day of the trial. Geir Lippestad was not at his
best as he gave his closing arguments. The tabloid headlines would
claim he hadn’t slept the night before. Yes, doubts should count in favor
of the accused, he said, but whether a sanity or insanity verdict was in
Breivik’s favor was open to evaluation. He repeated the words of one
of the psychiatrists who observed Breivik, and said that “it is just as
bad to treat someone who is well as it is to not treat someone who is
62 Julia Grønnevet
ill.” It would violate Breivik’s rights, Lippestad claimed, to discount the
motivations he has claimed for his actions. “If we . . . take as a starting
point that the accused has a radical political project, to pathologize his
actions takes away a basic human right from him — the right to take
responsibility for his own actions.”
At the end of his three-hour closing statement, Lippestad forgot
to ask that his client be found not guilty. Breivik had to remind him to
do it. “Sorry, sorry, I took my glasses off a bit too soon,” Lippestad said.
“Not guilty.”
The defense attorney was followed by four bereaved women. Kristi
Løvlie, who lost her daughter Hanne in the Oslo bombing, moved the
entire court to tears one last time. How horrible it was to inherit house-
hold items from her child, she said. How terrible Christmas was without
her. How difficult it was to come to court each day and face Breivik.
There was a feeling of finality and extraordinary honesty to her words,
as though she were channeling something collective.
“I decided that I wouldn’t fear this man. That I wouldn’t be afraid
to meet him in court. I was going to court to follow Hanne. I wouldn’t
back out, and I managed not to. I felt I owed that to Hanne. I wanted to
follow her all the way here. And I managed, I’m actually quite proud of
that. . . . Now we’ve reached the end. This has been the trial for me, and
if there’s an appeal I don’t want to be part of that. I’ve come to think that
this man won’t scare me. I think I’ll be able to live with what’s happened
here. I’ve gotten some answers, even though not everything has been
cleared up. Now, we move on.”
When Løvlie finished speaking, everyone started clapping. That
had never happened before, and it wouldn’t again. The show was over. I
stuck around for the final press conference, and packed my bag slowly.
Coming out of court, I loosened the bow tie my cousin Dorte gave me
for my birthday. Tying it on this morning, I texted her to tell her I was
wearing it. Dorte’s office building was hit hard in the bombing, and she
has no memory of how she got out. Given how tortured I have been by
other “what if?” scenarios, it was a surprise to realize during the trial that
I hadn’t once imagined what it would have been like if Dorte had died.
It’s strange to find that the mind doesn’t circle around an event when
it gets what it wants — namely, that the people you love keep on living.
And the Utøya parents, what will happen to them? And the brothers
and sisters, the boyfriends and girlfriends, the best friends and the secret
63 Letters From Oslo
crushes. All of the families, all of that death and silence, hundreds of
people missing their loved ones for years and years to come. No sense,
just loss.
On this muddy note, let me close this series of letters from Oslo.
Did you know that the trial ended on Midsummer’s Eve, what we call
Saint Hans Eve here in Scandinavia? It’s the shortest night of the year,
and people stay up burning bonfires and acting like pagans while the
birds chirp and the sun refuses to set. There will be no night tonight.
n August 24, Anders Behring Breivik was found sane. He was
sentenced to twenty-one years of preventive detention, the longest
sentence allowed under Norwegian law, which can be extended as long
as Breivik is deemed a danger to society. In the ruling, a judge wrote that
“although twenty-one years is a very long punishment, the court finds
it unlikely that the duration in and of itself would reduce the danger of
another attack. At the time of release, the democracy he wishes to abol-
ish will still endure.” Breivik did not appeal the sentence. +
From Still Life, Jia Zhangke, 2006. Courtesy of Richard Lormand Film Press Plus.
The Long Eighties
Nikil Saval
pend time among the Chinese intelligentsia today and you’ll hear
many frank expressions of nostalgia for the 1980s. “Our Eighties
are like your Sixties,” someone inevitably will say — in other words, the
moment when the possibility of tremendous political transformation
flared up only to be extinguished, sending shocks of longing through
the dark years that followed. It was an emancipatory era, at once joyous
and deadly serious. An entire Chinese generation now describes itself
as “post-’80s.” And there’s the detritus of kitsch, too: if the gleaming
efficiency of the Shanghai subway system gets you down, you can buy
postcards with photos of old ’80s buses, their riders masked by the thick
square eyeglass frames once again popular in the West.
Unlike most ’60s nostalgia in the West, which is anodyne and deco-
rative (and forgets, among other things, the influence of the Chinese
Cultural Revolution on the American left), the Chinese ’80s still opens
painful wounds. Much of the country’s predicament today can be traced
to those years, when a mass movement for democracy coincided with
a nascent capitalist economy, the mass movement frustrated, the eco-
nomic juggernaut rolling on. Much of China’s future depends on which
of these ’80s wins out, the democratic or the capitalist one, or whether
they can be combined. In the aftermath of 1989 — with its successful
revolutions against the Communist parties of Eastern Europe and its
failed rebellion against the Communist Party ruling China — capitalism
and democracy were held, at least by most Westerners, to be natural and
inevitable allies. This no longer seems so certain, in China or elsewhere.
66 Nikil Saval
Nothing testifies to the power of the Chinese ’80s like its total
absence from official party discourse. A recent exhibit at the Beijing
Capital Museum detailed the changing fortunes of Tiananmen Square,
from its dusty, cramped beginnings in the Qing era to the wide, smog-
choked expanse of the People’s Republic. Each year gets a photo. Years
in the 1950s witness the appearance of a thin Chairman Mao above the
entrance to the Forbidden City. Parades during the Great Leap Forward
advertise impossible farming outputs: growth by 300, 400, 500 percent!
By the years of the Cultural Revolution, the sea of little red books colors
the pictures pink, and Mao has grown doughier, balder, his smile diffi-
cult to read, his hair ringing him like a halo. Your heart quickens as you
reach the ’80s — 1985, 1986, 1987 . . . but the image for 1989 is small and
quiet, focused on an arrangement of roses that spells out “1949–1989,” in
honor of the fortieth anniversary of the People’s Republic. The square,
appropriately enough, is empty.
ver two days in 1989, June 3 and 4, the People’s Liberation Army
(PLA) was ordered by the Central Committee of the Politburo to
clear Tiananmen Square of thousands of democracy protesters. The
army’s stolid brutality in executing this order left the fate of the coun-
try’s Open Door policy, introduced ten years before by Deng Xiaoping,
momentarily in doubt. George H. W. Bush expressed “deep regret” over
China’s actions and threatened to withdraw the US ambassador; the
Italian Communist Party informed their comrades in Beijing that mas-
sacres have no place in a Communist movement; François Mitterrand
issued a statement claiming that a country that shoots its young has no
future. But Deng, who had emerged from retirement to crush the stu-
dents, was unmoved. “This little tempest is not going to blow us over,”
he declared with characteristic nonchalance in a Politburo meeting two
days after the massacre. “We’re not trying to offend anybody; we’re just
plugging away at our own work. Anybody who tries to interfere in our
affairs or threaten us is going to come up empty.”
Deng’s confidence did not seem altogether warranted. By 1989, the
market mechanisms he had introduced early in the decade were fal-
tering. These measures initially benefited the struggling countryside.
Farmers had been exploited under Mao, kept at or beneath subsistence
in order to support urban workers. From 1958 to 1961 they suffered one
of the great famines in history, caused by the forced collectivization of
67 The Long Eighties
agriculture. Deng made things easier on farmers: the old rural com-
munes were dismantled, and land redistributed among families. Not
only did agricultural productivity rise, but farmers were allowed to sell
at higher prices. Meanwhile the Chinese countryside prospered in other
ways. Rural industrial collectives, producing such things as cement, fer-
tilizer, iron, and farm tools, became known as “township and village
enterprises” and were permitted to operate relatively free of central
directives. With industrial and agricultural output rising together, rural
Chinese began to make money. This led to a steady increase in rural
incomes, diminishing the sizable wealth gap between city and country
that had long characterized the People’s Republic.
Deng had approached reform with zeal and a “whatever works”
improvisational attitude. A hardened veteran of the revolution, he had
endured successive rounds of abuse and demotion from Mao, his close
comrade on the Long March, which ended with Deng’s exile in 1969 to
Jiangxi, where he toiled in a factory during the Cultural Revolution of
the late 1960s and early ’70s — in theory an attempt by Mao to deepen
the revolution by eliminating the Communist bureaucratic caste and
curtailing the power of cultural elites, in practice an excuse for Mao
to strengthen his hold over power while sanctioning social chaos and
episodes of mob violence throughout the country. Deng became the
object of mass derision, condemned in one lurid Red Guard poster after
another. His son was pushed from a window by Red Guards, render-
ing him a paraplegic. It is an understatement to say that the experience
scarred Deng. Much of his tenure as premier would be devoted to tamp-
ing down the political arguments and passions for which he had once
been prepared to die. Deng watched millions starve to death during the
Great Leap Forward; he also saw the Party bureaucracy scythed by the
Cultural Revolution and its grotesque Mao cult. Perhaps most impor-
tantly, he had traveled — as an aged president visiting Jimmy Carter’s
United States, where he was wowed by NASA; and also in the East,
where he envied East Asian “Tigers” like Singapore, with its thriving
authoritarian capitalism. What mattered to Deng in the end was wealth
and practical expertise in getting it: things Maoism promised but deliv-
ered inconsistently. “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, as long
as it catches mice,” was one of his maxims, delivered in support of a
pragmatic agricultural policy in 1961 and later recalled as a justifica-
tion for abandoning certain aspects of the planned economy. But his
68 Nikil Saval
anti-ideological approach concealed an unyielding commitment to the
Communist Party and its unquestionable authority to carry out reforms
free from democratic input. The success of growth-promoting reforms
would bolster the authority of the Party, and the Party could therefore
carry out more reforms.
These early reforms focused on the countryside boosted growth,
but they were not enough. In 1985 the government shifted reform to
the cities, beginning with the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in urban
industry. For a generation the SOEs had turned out goods according
to a central plan, and “sold” them to the government at or near cost.
This reserved the right of the central administration to determine the
general tempo of productivity growth and the possibility of any indi-
vidual enterprise’s expansion. Now the running of SOEs was increas-
ingly delegated to local managers, who were permitted to produce — and
sell — beyond state quotas and retain much of the resulting profits. Many
SOEs came, in other words, to resemble private businesses. At the same
time, the government allowed the entry of small entrepreneurs into the
industrial sector. Together the managers of the SOEs and the entrepre-
neurs formed a new bourgeoisie, encouraged by and often overlapping
with the Communist Party. The corruption of party officials, previously
minimal, also became extensive and blatant in the 1980s; many bought
industrial goods at “plan” prices, at or below cost, and sold them on the
open market. Rather than raising the incomes of the poor, as the rural
reforms had done, the urban reforms produced garish inequality. The
Communist Party recognized the poverty of Chinese workers as the
country’s greatest asset. Before the 1980s, Chinese industry had been
almost exclusively oriented toward domestic consumption: goods made
in China mainly stayed in China. In the late ’80s this began to change, as
a handful of “special economic zones”—cities accorded special tax and
investment privileges — were established in coastal southern China, with
the aim of producing exports for the global market. The world-beating
competitiveness of these goods had everything to do with the cheap-
ness of Chinese labor in comparison to that of industrial workers in the
developed world. In 1986 Deng spoke of the need for political reform,
heartening the intelligentsia, before reversing course and engaging in
censorship and repression with renewed vigor. The antidemocratic push
of 1987 to 1988 coincided with significant inflation, which erased the
wage gains of urban dwellers.
69 The Long Eighties
By this point, nearly everyone was angry. Students brought their
call for democracy and human rights to a fever pitch; economic liber-
als were upset by corruption and economic mismanagement; workers,
devastated by inequality, increasingly recognized the official language
of socialism — still enshrined in the Chinese constitution and ritually
invoked by cadres — as pious nonsense. Only farmers, who continued
to benefit from liberalization, remained content. Hu Yaobang, the Party
general secretary and supporter of the reforms, was purged after being
blamed for inspiring a wave of student protests in 1987; two years later
he died, and on April 22, 1989, 50,000 students gathered in Tiananmen
to perform an unofficial funeral — they had seen Hu as sympathetic to
their cause — carrying with them a petition requesting a more official
ceremony. Their petition was rebuffed, and so, having nowhere else to
go, they stayed.
Like Solidarity in Poland — which inspired a great deal of fear in the
upper levels of the Chinese Communist Party bureaucracy — the 1989
protesters challenged the legitimacy of the state by voicing liberal ide-
als that the Communist Party had proclaimed but found it convenient
to forget: democratic representation, freedom of speech and assembly,
an end to bureaucratic privilege. One portion of the movement wanted
steps toward democracy without challenging the Party; another wanted
the Party overthrown; and in both of these groups were those who
wanted to see economic reform intensified. Viewed in the broadest
sense, the movement was calling for democratization — for a broader
section of the public to determine the country’s course.
But in retrospect (as the movement activist Wang Hui has argued)
the movement’s aims appear contradictory in a way none of its partici-
pants were able to grasp fully at the time. The pressure the movement
exerted on the Party created an opening through which the nascent
capitalist class could push its own causes, such as further privatization
and the expansion of temporary contracts. The heads of private compa-
nies, which had emerged after the reforms, cannily saw that the move-
ment was right to challenge the Party’s monopoly on power; it was only
wrong in thinking that the “people,” rather than the companies, should
govern instead. This wing of the movement, which we would now rec-
ognize as “neoliberal,” also took to denouncing the left’s calls for social
equality. Egalitarianism, they argued, was a rhetorical throwback to the
bloodstained Cultural Revolution; one minute you’re calling for higher
70 Nikil Saval
wages for workers, the next you’re calling on the young to kill the old.
The students wanted democracy and equality, though they may have
had trouble articulating exactly what this meant, while the neoliber-
als knew exactly what kind of “democracy” they wanted: the kind that
would give capitalists more freedom to direct government policy. Recent
Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo embodied these contradictions.
One of the brave leaders of the student hunger strike at Tiananmen, he
was also a lover of Hayek and an ardent defender of the sanctity of pri-
vate property. The biggest contradiction, though, was the lingering one
between city and country: the protests counted no rural participants
among them. Deng recognized the lack of coordination between city
and country. “The economy is still the base; if we didn’t have that eco-
nomic base, the farmers would have risen in rebellion after only ten days
of student protests — never mind a whole month. But as it is, the villages
are stable all over the country, and the workers are basically stable too.”
It was the military, of course, and not political contradictions,
that put an end to the movement of 1989. But rather than precipitat-
ing a crisis in China’s market reforms and threatening its improving
international reputation, the brutal violence at Tiananmen would give
these processes, and the Party’s role in them, an unexpected legitimacy.
The movement was ultimately seen as threatening the stability of an
emerging Chinese capitalism—“stability overrides everything” (wending
yadao yiqie), Deng had said — and stability had no better guarantee than
the heavy hand of the Party. The spontaneous alliance in Tiananmen
between economic liberals and social democrats dissolved. The social
democrats’ arguments were shunted into marginalized “aboveground”
political journals, and those of the liberals (many of whom, as Liu
Xiaobo himself would note, endured softer prison sentences than the
average worker who participated in the protests) were repurposed by
corporations, which found the shaken Party bureaucracy newly hospi-
table to their aims.
By 1991, at least 72,000 members of the Chinese Communist Party
had been expelled. These were the officials seen as too sympathetic to
the protesters; they also happened to be those who had pushed hardest
for rural reform. Tiananmen had cracked the Party, as the students had
hoped, but the crack was only wide enough to let in those who wanted
to intensify economic reforms without instituting political reforms.
The replacements for the softies were neither reformers nor hard-liners,
71 The Long Eighties
but rather hard-line reformers, who would remake China as a haven
for globalizing corporations. Since communism soon collapsed almost
everywhere but China — thanks in part to the spirit of Tiananmen
spreading across the globe — the failure of the 1989 movement would be
interpreted as a mere hiccup in the neoliberal advance of free peoples
and free markets. History was ending, and China would have to arrive
at “liberal democracy” one way or another. China’s liberals knew better:
property rights, let alone democracy, were still nowhere to be found. But
their demands for more reforms and more thorough capitalist develop-
ment lost force when the government simply took these demands on
board, so to speak, by incorporating the capitalists themselves (private
entrepreneurs, employees of foreign-funded firms, self-employed and
freelance professionals) into the Party.
China not only failed to become more politically liberal (not a
single political reform was undertaken in the 1990s), it also failed to
become more economically liberal. In fact, in an important sense Chi-
na’s economic liberalism was not liberal at all. As the economist and
management theorist Yasheng Huang has documented in his impor-
tant Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics, the direction of reforms
shifted drastically after 1989. In place of the jettisoned rural reformers
came technocrats from coastal cities, who sensed the possibilities latent
in globalization. They shifted their attention to the cities, with foreign
direct investment in business-friendly places like Shanghai becoming
the preferred model. This was meant to solve the problems that plagued
previous urban reforms: the state’s shedding of SOEs had increased
unemployment and depleted workers’ buying power, but now the influx
of foreign investors would more than make up for the shortfall. And
it worked. Under the new Party–capitalist coordination model, China
soon became the scene of the most extraordinary economic boom
since Europe’s postwar reconstruction, posting GDP numbers that were
the envy of everyone. Skyscrapers bloomed all along the coastline. A
middle class developed distinctly uncommunist buying habits. Factories
flooded unprotected markets with their cheap wares. The cities grew
prosperous with pollution. On summer days you can hardly see from
one end of Tiananmen to the other. Mitterrand was wrong, and Deng
was right: a government that shot its young turned out to have the most
promising future of all.
72 Nikil Saval
n the sphere of culture, too, the legacy of the 1980s has been
ambiguous. The founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 did not
stimulate the same outpouring of avant-garde art and literature that fol-
lowed the Russian Revolution of 1917. China’s modernist moment had
come earlier, during the crack-up and fall of its last imperial dynasty,
out of which emerged a panoply of utopian visions and programs from
reformers (including Communists) and a thorough renovation of the
literary language by its greatest 20th-century writer, Lu Xun. A sarcastic
excoriator of his country’s backwardness and conformist tendencies, Lu
lived until the very cusp of the revolution, in principle committed to
socialism but fearful of its costs to intellectual life.
His fears proved well founded. Upheld as the father of the country’s
writers by Mao (himself an accomplished poet in classical Chinese),
Lu would cast a long shadow over the increasingly barren field of writ-
ers in the early years of the People’s Republic; his habit of disturbing
received doctrines became even less common in a doctrinaire time.
Mao Zedong may have admired Lu Xun, but by the 1950s all that was
left to anyone else was basically to admire Mao Zedong. A harsh pattern
of repression and relaxation characterized the three decades of Mao’s
tenure: relaxation during the “Hundred Flowers” era of 1957 (“Let one
hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend,”
Mao proclaimed), followed by the repression of “rightists” who had
been unwise enough to cultivate their garden; an opening in scientific
research following the catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward (1958–61)
was closed by the single-minded Mao adulation of the Cultural Revolu-
tion (1966–76). In the ’60s and ’70s, the universities were shut down, and
Quotations from Chairman Mao—the “Little Red Book”—became the
basic substance of literature. Theater was limited to model “Red” operas
and theater; some of these works, such as the Red Detachment of Women
ballet performed for visiting President Nixon, were in fact extraordinary
in aesthetic quality. Ideologically, they suffered from a certain repeti-
tion compulsion, celebrating again and again the ideals of the Chinese
Communist Party’s resistance to the Japanese invasion: stoicism, com-
mitment, hatred of the class enemy.
The dampening of the Cultural Revolution, and Mao’s death in
1976, led to a period of uncertainty. Students, many of them still lan-
guishing on the farms to which they had been “sent down,” groped
toward a different world. In 1978 Deng came to power, reopened the
73 The Long Eighties
universities, and announced his reforms. The horizons of China were
shifting away from the third world toward the first; away from “Red”
culture toward culture in general. The ’80s continue to be the center
of much art and thought in China, and the limitations and betrayals of
that first period of hope continue to be remembered with pain, embar-
rassment, and most of all fondness. “We were in a state of extreme spiri-
tual hunger,” wrote Liu Xiaobo. “Our thirst to absorb new ideas was so
great that we devoured anything and everything, indiscriminately.” Yet
memoirs of the ’80s disclose not a cultural plenty but a few endlessly
recurring examples: the love songs of the Taiwanese chanteuse Teresa
Teng, transmitted through smuggled Japanese radios and listened to in
large groups late into the night; the rebelliously allusive and obscure
poems — named the “Misty” school by their detractors — of the short-
lived literary journal Jintian (Today), where Bei Dao’s famous lines from
“The Answer” made their first appearance:
I came into this world
Bringing only paper, rope, a shadow,
To proclaim before the judgment
The voice that has been judged:
Let me tell you, world,
I — do — not — believe!
If a thousand challengers lie beneath your feet,
Count me as number one thousand and one.
The effect of poetry like this was galvanizing. “Belief,” once enforced by
a centralized doctrine, had given way to open and liberating disbelief.
“Between the hazy lines of Misty poetry,” wrote Lijia Zhang in Socialism
is Great!, her memoir of the ’80s, “the dignity of individualism and self-
expression were clearly being restored.”
The Party encouraged exposure of the horrors of the Cultural
Revolution: the physical humiliation of “capitalist roaders,” the lost
years of students “sent down” to the countryside. Many Party members,
especially Deng, had viewed it as a colossal mistake back when it was
happening, but now, as China entered the world economy, there was
a new reason to denounce the past: to do so served as a kind of loyalty
oath to Western modernity. “Scar” literature and cinema, which told
the stories of people traumatized by Red Guard violence, proliferated
74 Nikil Saval
under official sanction. Less heralded were the debates, in newly formed
journals, on nontraditional subjects. Translations of Georg Lukács’s
Marxist writings inspired a wide-ranging discussion of the concept of
“alienation,” and whether such a thing could be said to exist in a socialist
society like China’s. Kant and Rousseau became important figures for a
group of writers advocating a “New Enlightenment,” who attempted to
trace a path toward Western modernization that recent Chinese politics
had abandoned.
All these thoughts, currents, and dreams came to a head in Tianan-
men in 1989. A protest and an encampment, Tiananmen seemed to offer
a glimmer of an alternative society: one characterized by open and often
endless debate over all aspects of everyday life. But beyond that there
was confusion. As Wang Hui has argued, the question was not whether
people wanted reform or not; the question was what kind of reform
they wanted. The answers differed — from students who wanted liberal
constitutional rights to workers (sometimes excluded from the protests
by the students) who sought better social guarantees. The movement,
unable to debate or proclaim its goals publicly, could not pose its ques-
tions clearly. The lasting Western image of the protests — noble indi-
viduals arrayed against the tyranny of the state, wanting market and
democratic freedoms — minimized the complex relationship many pro-
testers had with the Communist Party and with socialism in general.
From outside one saw the brinksmanship of hunger strikes, the
erection of the “Goddess of Democracy,” the panoply of red flags, ban-
ners declaring “All Power Belongs to the People,” students’ heads circled
by white bandannas. But inside there was also tension and tedium, as the
students became pawns in a power struggle within the government over
what to do. “Why do we have to use such boring methods?” complains
one of the students in Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma (2008). “There are more
exciting ways of resisting violence than sitting on the ground!” Between
the declaration of martial law and the crackdown lay fourteen days of
waiting; then deep into the night of June 3, the PLA stopped firing their
guns into the sky and trained them horizontally. The government has
since claimed no one died on the square. Testimonies from In Search of
the Victims of June Fourth suggest otherwise:
75 The Long Eighties
Chen Renxing, a 25-year-old student at People’s University, was about to
withdraw from the square when a random shot felled him. He collapsed at the
base of the fagpole that faces Tiananmen.
Dai Jinping, a 27-year-old MA student at Beijing Agricultural University, was
shot to death around 11 PM on June 3, 1989, right beside the Mao Zedong
Memorial Hall.
The crash of a hundred million hopes led to soul-searching, the inevi-
table flurry of recriminations, and hurried flights into exile. An endur-
ing wave of disappointment inundated intellectual life; even the PLA
suffered a steep drop in morale, suggesting that deep guilt followed their
enforcement of martial law. Meanwhile Chinese growth rates began to
skyrocket — as the industrial growth and international relations that
China invested in throughout the second half of the ’80s began to yield
plum contracts from American textile and sneaker manufacturers, if
not yet Apple and IBM — and the choices facing Chinese artists and
intellectuals began to change.
he contradi ctory legacy of the 1980s can be seen in a single
artist’s career. Born in 1970, Jia Zhangke is often called one of the
greatest filmmakers alive. The most famous of the so-called “sixth gen-
eration” of Chinese directors (grouped together because they attended
the same film school around the same time), his early works departed
from the Zhang Yimou style of epic costume drama — the international
face of Chinese cinema in the ’90s — to examine marginal lives in his
native Shanxi province. In a country where everything was happening,
these were towns where nothing happened, places ambitious people left
to go to Beijing, Shanghai, or elsewhere. The third of his “hometown”
movies, Unknown Pleasures (2002), told the story of two would-be gang-
sters, unemployably arch and melancholy, too self-conscious even to live
the enjoyable low life on offer, but perennially aware of the presence of
real money entering the country. In love with a C-list pop performer
and inspired by Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, they attempt to rob a bank to
impress her and get arrested. Like others in his generation, Jia developed
a meditative, lingering camera style, focusing on empty scenes or repeti-
tive actions long past the point of comfort, as if he were always waiting
for something to turn up.
76 Nikil Saval
Jia’s second and best film, Platform (2000), narrated the history
of a Maoist theater troupe as it endured the humiliations of privatiza-
tion in the 1980s. The theater troupe, which once performed Cultural
Revolution classics about the life of Mao, devolves into an Allstars Rock
and Breakdance Electronic Band and then gradually falls apart under
its own failure. Both faintly nostalgic for the transition era of Chinese
socialism and full of longing for an impossible future, Platform captured
the promise that the ’80s generation once felt — along with its constant
boredom, its desire for a quicker, deeper life, its sense of waiting for
some messianic moment that would never come. (“The long and empty
platform/ the wait seems never-ending” run the lyrics of the kitsch ’80s
love song that gives Platform its title.) Scattered throughout Jia’s films
were stories about more traditionally working-class people — miners,
construction workers — who found plentiful but extremely unsafe work
in the new China. While his middle-class characters were often self-
indictments, each careless death of a worker, suffocated by a gas leak or
buried by a caved-in mine, indicted the deregulation of state enterprises,
and, implicitly, the government’s failure to protect the people. For this
reason his films were distributed underground, without approval.
A number of Jia’s fellow underground filmmakers felt deeply
betrayed when Jia began to seek government approval for his films. His
first sanctioned effort, The World (2004), was an excellent parable of
globalization, about a theme park of world monuments; aside from the
superior production values, you wouldn’t have known anything had
changed. But by the time he released 24 City (2008), the costs of complic-
ity were clear. A mix of documentary and fiction, the film covered the
transformation of the Chengfa factory from a military aircraft producer
into a luxury condominium complex. So far, so good — except the film
was financed by the developers of the complex. Jia’s usual themes (and
talent) were on display: nostalgia for the socialist past, the irrepressible
forward motion of China’s modernization and its disregard for spatial
and environmental constraints. But the anger and ambivalence had
vanished, replaced by seeming reverence for luxury and affluence. At
the end of the film, the young heroine, a child of Chengfa workers who
has returned with an art historian’s degree to become a luxury shopper
for the local nouveaux riches, weeps with joy at the thought of buying a
condo for her parents — in the factory where they once worked! “I can do
it,” she concludes through her tears, “I’m the daughter of a worker.” The
77 The Long Eighties
affirmation is bizarre, suggesting continuity, rather than violent disrup-
tion, between the tough world of her parents and the luxury blitz of the
present. But it also reportedly caused many audience members to burst
into tears themselves. Despite charges of commercialism from fellow
filmmakers, Jia continues to insist on his artistic integrity. Among his
latest projects is a film sponsored by Johnnie Walker.
riters, like filmmakers, face the problem of accommodation:
each major city in China has a “writers’ association,” which guar-
antees an income to writers who produce a certain quota of words every
year. Other options include compromising one’s writing to achieve
“bestseller consciousness” (changxiao yishi), or boxing oneself into an
experimental “modernist consciousness” (xiandai yishi). Some, like
Ha Jin and Ma Jian, leave China altogether. Liao Yiwu, the great inter-
viewer of Chinese society’s lowlifes and castoffs, has fled to Germany;
Liu Xiaobo, the country’s most famous liberal, languishes in prison. A
startling number of recent breakout books have been urban sex novels,
along the lines of Sex and the City. But writers who have found both
respect and commercial success have tended to look for their stories in
the countryside, and in the movement of migrant workers to the factories
of the southern cities — far beyond the spaceship towers of the Shanghai
skyline and the endless expanse of hermetic Beijing compounds. A few
of these — among them, the recent Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan — have
been widely translated. Some are too acute in their depictions of state
violence and deprivation to get past censors, but enough make it, or
circulate in samizdat or in editions pirated from Hong Kong and Tai-
wan, to give readers a vivid picture of the underbelly of the new China.
Western recognition can help. Mo Yan’s The Garlic Ballads (1988), an
extraordinary novel full of loving encomia to the Chinese countryside,
was initially banned for its depiction of corruption by local cadres; later,
as Mo’s fame grew abroad, it was republished with state approval.
As in other Communist countries, there are avowedly dissident
writers, and the grandest of them is Liu Xiaobo. With his recent corona-
tion in the West as China’s leading oppositionist, older anticommunist
figures have been conveying the sense that they are passing the torch
from an earlier generation. Vaclav Havel contributed the foreword to
a recent translation of his essays; the Dalai Lama did the same for his
June Fourth Elegies, a book of poems commemorating the Tiananmen
78 Nikil Saval
massacre. The praise centers around Liu’s “moral passion.” One writer
claims that, like Havel before him, he “lives in truth.” This may be true
enough, but it’s also a hand-me-down that eludes Liu’s real complexi-
ties. A man of letters in the old-fashioned sense — disseminating ideas
through whatever form he finds convenient — his style is unexpectedly
sarcastic, sometimes unstable, veering constantly between rhetorical
and emotional extremes and rarely shying from obscenities. His Tianan-
men elegies are not especially successful as poetry, but they are impres-
sive monuments of political rage:
Refuse to eat
refuse to masturbate
pick a book out of the ruins
and admire the humility of the corpse
in a mosquito’s innards
dreaming blood-dark dreams
peer through the steel door’s peephole
and converse with vampires
no need to be circumspect
your stomach spasms
will give you the courage of the dying
retch out a curse
for ffty years of glory
there has never been a New China
only a Party.
At the same time, he represents a distinctly different brand of dissident
from the Walesas and Havels of the past. Their veiled neoliberalism
made a certain rough sense in countries decaying under state socialism;
Liu, by contrast, advocates a harder laissez-faire line in a country that
has already made substantial moves toward capitalism. He rarely has a
harsh word for America, and has expressed his support and admiration
for a number of violent American adventures: Afghanistan, Iraq, even
Korea and Vietnam. And yet, despite a certain convergence between
his economic opinions and those of the government, Liu remains one
of the government’s highest-profile enemies. He has been jailed several
times for his activities and opinions, most infamously on the day he
79 The Long Eighties
was to accept the Nobel in Oslo, and has become a cause célèbre across
the world.
Meanwhile the Chinese “New Left”—a loose assemblage of intel-
lectuals that formed around the journal Dushu (Readings)—occupies the
opposite position. The “New Left” is highly opposed to the country’s
economic direction, yet its members are not only not in jail, but in some
cases socially affiliated with the government. Its leading figure, Beijing-
based intellectual historian and social theorist Wang Hui, has criticized
intellectuals like Liu for remaining fundamentally unopposed to the
neoliberal direction of the country. Wang argues that while China has
the opportunity to craft an “alternative modernity,” a form of social
democracy opposed to the creeping of market logic into every corner of
existence, Chinese liberals simply accept a teleology of modernity that
basically resembles America — a model that is visibly failing. Not that
Wang is in fact against markets. On the contrary, following Braudel’s
distinction between markets and capitalism, Wang argues that “a cri-
tique of an actual market society and its crises cannot be equated with
repudiation of the mechanisms of market competition, as the principal
task of critical intellectuals is to disclose the antimarket mechanisms
within market society and to bring to bear a democratic and social-
ized conception of markets to counter the antimarket logic of actual
market society.” Wang espouses, in other words, a kind of market
socialism, which would preserve competition on a local, small-scale
level, in contrast to China’s rather ostentatious collusion of government
and business.
Unlike Liu, Wang has managed to stay aboveground and out of
prison. (Though he is no longer editor-in-chief, Readings was and is
published with state approval.) He teaches frequently in the US, and
outside China his writing — unfailingly intelligent, though dense and
laborious where Liu is fleet and lucid — has been best received among
left-wing English and American academics, who are naturally skeptical
of the liberals. (The liberals, meanwhile, attract the attention of every-
one else.) Part of the reason Wang stays out of jail is the attitude he and
his comrades display toward the political scene. Where Liu sees general-
ized abjection and totalitarianism, Wang and his collaborators see hope
for criticism and a margin of openness in the political atmosphere. But
they may be kidding themselves. The recent government has been in
the habit of adopting “New Left” rhetoric while doing little to prosecute
80 Nikil Saval
its aims. High-placed officials speak unctuously about equality and the
continuing project of socialism, while silently (but blatantly) cultivating
their relations with factory owners and financiers.
or the past thirty years, Chinese pop music has been a vehicle
for the political moods of the young. The ’80s especially were a
haven for the union of schlock and protest, after years of nothing but
Red songs (and the occasional Bollywood hit). Straight love songs like
“Platform,” and those of Teresa Teng, could crystallize in a few bars
the hopes of an entire generation. The heavily orchestrated strings and
breathy, pliant voices, heard at the right time, stayed with people their
entire lives. (“‘Platform’ is . . . the very first rock-and-roll song I ever
heard,” Jia Zhangke wrote. “For me, that song represents a key to unlock
my memories of the ’80s. . . . I always loved the title of that song, which
captures the exhaustion and sadness of life.”) The genius of Chinese
rock in the ’80s was to convert erotic and commercial satisfactions into
the politics they were already on the verge of becoming. Most famous in
this regard was Cui Jian, the “godfather” of Chinese rock, whose anthem
“Nothing to My Name” was an allegory of lost youth after the Cultural
Revolution posing as a love song. It was popular among the 1989 protest-
ers, sharing aural space in Tiananmen Square with the Internationale. It
had the symbolic heft of one of Bruce Springsteen’s songs but was about
a political landscape more abstract than the deindustrializing mid-
Atlantic. Anguished and macho, filled with ominous silences, straining
gutturally to land its notes, “Nothing to My Name” had an emotional
resonance that overlapped with listeners’ political yearnings. It helped,
too, that pop music on the Chinese mainland was still a novelty, not yet
consolidated into a soul-crushing industry.
Post-Tiananmen repression, and the renewed push for globaliza-
tion, changed all that. As the Chinese economy accelerated, the divide
between commercial pop and underground cred widened. Mando- and
Cantopop, which came from Taipei and Hong Kong (with Shanghai
an emerging third center) kept the kitsch and consumer ethos but dis-
carded the politics; a popular heavy metal band called Tang Dynasty,
which sometimes mixed in traditional Chinese instruments, exempli-
fied a new, conservative nationalism. Meanwhile a network of rock clubs
in Beijing maintained an intransigent and marginal subculture (subsi-
dized, in some cases, by Western émigrés), with angry noise rock and
81 The Long Eighties
introverted post-punk strumming sounding the dominant mood. The
post-Tiananmen era in Chinese underground rock is audible in a recent
cultish (and, sadly, dissolved) band, Carsick Cars, who in their simple hit
from 2007, “Zhongnanhai”—built around a repeating, vaguely dance-
able five-chord melody of grinding guitar distortion — numbly lament a
favorite brand of cigarettes:
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai . . . Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai . . . I only smoke Zhongnanhai
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai . . . I can’t live without Zhongnanhai
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai . . . who fucking smoked my Zhongnanhai?
The sentiment and sound are reminiscent of the microtonal Sonic
Youth that once sang, “Takes a teenage riot to get me out of bed right
now” at the end of the American 1980s, broadcasting a worldview at
once political and resigned. Lost on few Chinese listeners is the fact that
“Zhongnanhai” is also the name of the main government compound in
Beijing. “Zhongnanhai” becomes the name of the consumer object, and
also the institution that guarantees consumption — the sense of freedom
in smoking, and the imprisonment of addiction. But the gap between
political allegory and blank desire remains. Is it really a song about the
government, which the singer “can’t live without”? Or does the endless
verse promise nothing but a cycle of consumption — smoking, loving
cigarettes, abjectly needing more? “Zhongnanhai” remakes the special
hybrid of the ’80s. Rather than a coded title, the song gets an obviously
political one; but the point of politics may turn out just to be to buy
more stuff.
he China depicted by its artists is different from the one depicted
by the Western press. In a society renowned for its dynamism, Chi-
na’s artists mostly lament industrial decline, vacuous overconsumption,
and political stasis; in cities bursting with new residents, the intelligen-
tsia is skeptical and involutionary. In the country that most Americans
see as the future, whose economy is widely and erroneously believed to
have already overtaken that of the US, one encounters many expressions
of national self-doubt, even despair. This might simply be a reaction
to the self-satisfaction that attends garish economic growth. But it also
82 Nikil Saval
suggests a deep recognition, among activists and intellectuals, that the
current Chinese path is unsustainable.
To find the clearest expressions of this recognition, one must go
underground. There, among filmmakers whose work never reaches the
censors’ eyes, the impulses of the protesting ’80s have been preserved,
its concerns amplified. Since the early ’90s, China’s left-wing docu-
mentary movement has served up harsh, unpalatable stories from the
New China: thousands of factory workers jettisoned into unemploy-
ment; residents of rural towns forcibly uprooted, the streets where their
homes once stood flooded by newly dammed rivers; peasants’ grievance
petitions denied day after day by unfeeling courts. Sustained by sur-
reptitious internet circulation and local screenings by cinephile groups
across the country, these messages from the dispossessed spread.
Among a host of excellent documentaries — including one by Jia
Zhangke, Dong (2006), about a painter depicting the construction of the
Three Gorges Dam — two masterpieces stand out. Wang Bing’s West of
the Tracks (2003) is a monumental chronicle (nine hours long) of the
lives of factory workers in China’s rust belt who are being forced into
unemployment. The other, Zhao Liang’s Petition (2009), sums up Liang’s
thirteen-year effort to document the fates of rural Chinese seeking legal
redress in Beijing for abuses by cadres. These filmmakers, and oth-
ers like them, commit to living with and exploring family and worker
dynamics over many years; they expose themselves to the possibility
that the story they are looking to tell will disappear, or that no story will
emerge at all. In their hands, filmmaking becomes a kind of listening,
an art of silence and slow time, in which days go by without apparent
consequence: another part of the factory is dismantled; another petition
rebuffed. Yet this is precisely what makes these films a form of resis-
tance. They record not the extraordinary event of a mass demonstra-
tion, but the slow wearing away of proletarian identity. The filmmaker
becomes analogous with his subject in his willingness to contest, to
hear and make oneself heard. Above all, he stays in place; he waits it out.
These two films refract the best analysis of recent Chinese history,
Ching Kwan Lee’s extraordinary Against the Law: Labor Protests in Chi-
na’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt. Based on her fieldwork in the deindustrializ-
ing north and on the transnational corporations that set up shop in the
south, Lee’s book examines the logic of labor protest in the old and new
China. The older members of the working class, like those depicted in
83 The Long Eighties
West of the Tracks, revive the Maoist language of fraternity and solidar-
ity that the state is betraying; younger workers in the south use China’s
new labor laws to lodge their claims, like the protesters in Petition. If
West of the Tracks shows the dissolution of one political identity, Peti-
tion shows the birth of another. Chinese law was erected to harness and
contain protest, but it has proven instead to be a weapon in the hands
of younger people who, contrary to the government’s expectations, have
come to understand it. In strikes throughout the south, workers demand
legally promised wage rates, pensions, and overtime pay. If their peti-
tions stall in court or are summarily dismissed, they often take to wild-
cat strikes or machine sabotage. The number of labor petitions brought
to local bureaus was 78,000 in 1994; by 2003, it had jumped to 800,000.
Meanwhile incidents of labor unrest have grown from 10,000 in 1993 to
87,000 in 2005 — which was the last time the government released fig-
ures. (A leaked report from 2008 revealed an official count of 127,000.)
Another looming change may contribute to the country’s instabil-
ity. At the time of this writing, the Chinese government is going through
a once-in-a-generation transfer of power as the president and premier
step down. Even if the transition continues to be orderly, it will be
marred by the spectacular downfall of Bo Xilai, the party’s former chief
in Chongqing, who was recently implicated in the murder of a British
businessman named Neil Heywood. Bo had become notorious for lead-
ing mass revivals of Great Leap Forward– and Cultural Revolution–era
performances and songs, and these displays weren’t mere show; under
Bo’s leadership, Chongqing strove to diminish inequality through hous-
ing provisions and infrastructural development. In 2009 Bo launched a
highly publicized campaign to fight organized crime and corruption; in
2010 he began promoting plans to give rural migrants more access to
urban welfare benefits. He encouraged a relative amount of open debate
and participation. Chongqing in 2010 began to bring back memories of
Beijing in 1987. As a consequence, internal ill will against him seemed
to grow; many politicians felt he had become too proud for his own
good. What happened next remains murky: this February, Bo’s chief of
police sought asylum in the US consulate; he left a day later in Chinese
custody. Online rumors — the basic substance of Chinese politics for
ordinary citizens — proliferated, suggesting Bo had had a power struggle
with his police chief, or, worse, had attempted a coup. Websites dis-
seminating these rumors were shut down. A day later, Bo was fired. His
84 Nikil Saval
wife confessed (truthfully or not) to planning Heywood’s murder, and is
expected to serve at least nine years in prison. Bo’s own trial is upcom-
ing. But the political message has been sent: an editorial in the Party-
run Guangming Daily declared that with Bo gone, there was no longer
any fear of the Cultural Revolution returning.
This language was code. In China, “Cultural Revolution” has
become a byword for any kind of mass activity — in other words, for the
terror of Tiananmen. To talk about the Sixties is to talk about the Eight-
ies. Attempts to revive the era of Mao raise images of the era of Deng;
workers’ songs suggest democracy protests. The memory of what hap-
pened in Tiananmen and elsewhere, in cities and squares now ringed
with silence, refuses to go. Outside the city walls, on the outskirts, in
the factories, the number of disturbances mounts. Often these are put
down, the people’s grievances dismissed. The Party’s fear is what may
happen when one day the people are turned back, but they choose,
instead, to stay. +
ofer wolberger, untitled, 2012. courtesy of the artist.
How to Quit
Kristin Dombek
We do not know how to renounce anything, Freud once observed. This type
of relation to the object indicates an inability to mourn. The addict is a non-
renouncer par excellence.
Avital Ronell, Crack Wars
The way of life is wonderful; it is by abandonment.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles”
wo blocks east of the river, beside the Williamsburg Bridge,
stands a white factory building, seven stories tall, whose windows
look onto the bridge and across the river to Manhattan and over the
neighborhood’s low rooftops and famous water towers. It is 2011, but
this building hasn’t yet been cubed up into condos. Inside, it still looks
like 1994, each floor a maze of ad hoc lofts, studios, galleries, and work-
shops, the stained hallways thick with strange smells and years of dust.
A couple of years ago during a party a kid from some band jammed
the freight elevator between floors, tried to jump out, fell, and died; the
elevator still isn’t working. So to get into the building, you climb steep
factory flights of gray stairs up away from the basement, where a giant
machine rumbles. By the fifth or sixth floor, it is hard to breathe. It is
winter, and the rumbling is a steam heater. Every few hours, it blows
scalding-hot, wet air up through clanking pipes into the lofts. All over
the building tenants open windows, and long white curtains flutter in
the hissing steam. Outside, people are climbing up the steep slope of
the bridge’s pedestrian walkway, on foot or skateboard or bicycle. Only
a few look at the building, and even fewer try to glimpse inside. I am in
here, watching the bridge and chain-smoking.
88 Kristin Dombek
The sun sinks down behind the bridge, filling this big white room
with warm red light. When a J, M, or Z train passes, the room dark-
ens and then flushes red again. The sky turns red, then orange, then
indigo, then starless, like every Brooklyn night. It’s happy hour. Half the
neighborhood is already drunk on two-for-one drafts or shot-and-PBR
deals. All week, the kids in lofts and storefronts who do under-the-radar
marketing for creative agencies in other lofts and storefronts have been
chasing Oxy with Adderall and Adderall with Oxy. Now they’re pulling
bottles of tequila from their desk drawers and texting their dealers. A
country band is carrying banjos into the Rod and Gun Club. They’re
sound-checking at Trash Bar and lighting the fire at Union Pool. The
Shabbos siren sounds across the south side. It’s almost time to go out.
now came on Halloween weekend this year, fat slow flakes falling
on the bridge, turning the scene outside the windows all industrial
Courier and Ives, the Gretsch Building just a wide gray ghost beyond the
trains. There was a cold wind blowing the slush around, and I watched
people breaking their umbrellas against it and struggling to walk, slid-
ing carefully on the sidewalk. This was the day the heat turned on. First,
a clanking from below and up through the walls, then the sound of
rushing water, and then, in the large sculptor’s studio that I’ve turned
into my writing room, a sound like a teapot ready to blow. Steam shot
upward from the end of one of the pipes, and water poured and pooled
on the floor. I braced for an explosion but it turns out this happens every
time the building warms up. It only sounds catastrophic.
That afternoon a guitar player on a dead-mother bender was walk-
ing over from Bushwick in the snow to fuck me, his feet wrapped in
plastic bags inside his Converse because he’s too broke to buy boots. I
walked down six flights to let him in. I hadn’t seen him sober before,
which was why I’d requested the afternoon appointment, but I’d stashed
a fresh liter of Jack Daniels above the fridge. The lighting in the stairway
was pulsing and dim. Snow from the roof was melting down the yel-
lowed walls and pooling on the landings. We didn’t kiss in the entry-
way. We made small talk as we wound our way up around the puddles,
through the industrial waterfall. A few minutes later I was on my knees.
The next week I bought new boots myself — short black boots that lace
up, boots from the time of coal and steam, but with heels so high they
are always sexual.
89 How to Quit
am in this building but I am thinking of another white factory build-
ing, ten blocks behind me, beside the river. In 1999 I was living with
a friend in a railroad apartment on North 7th by the Brooklyn–Queens
Expressway that smelled of cheap floor varnish and mildew, no matter
what we did. After we moved in, the upstairs neighbors told us that the
landlord had kicked out a Puerto Rican family with four children and
doubled the rent to $1,200, which was almost too much for us. Then a
bike messenger we knew heard some friends of his were building lofts
in an old textile warehouse on North 3rd. We walked to the river and up
five flights of stairs, into a massive room with a wall of windows look-
ing out onto the river and the whole bright city, a place as thrilling as a
cathedral, as beautiful and sad as the person you fall in love with when
you already know he will break your heart. We knew we’d be kicked out
and priced out, just as we’d kicked out and priced out the Puerto Ricans.
But we had to get into this building anyway, and to afford it we had to
get our deposit back.
This was our plan: the bike messenger would ride by our apartment
and throw a brick through the window wrapped in a note that read,
Yuppies go hoMe. I’d call the cops, file a police report, and then call
our landlord crying, saying the neighborhood was unsafe and could we
get our deposit back. But the day before we were to execute this inge-
nious conspiracy, my boyfriend at the time, a sweet-eyed punk kid from
New Orleans who was a drug dealer and had some experience with the
police, convinced me that I’d never make it through the report because
of what a bad liar I am, according to him. So we gave up, lost our deposit,
borrowed money from the bike messenger (who somehow always had
more than we did), and moved in.
My share of the rent was $650. I cannot hope to capture for you the
happiness of sitting by those windows and watching slow barges guided
down the river by bright red tugboats, the buildings of Manhattan trans-
formed every hour by different sunlight, and the mesmerizing plows of
the waste transfer station next door, pushing around piles of garbage
among beautiful brightly colored dumpsters. There were five years of
potlucks and parties, bands and shows, cross-genre multimedia inter-
active technology performative collaborative art projects. The towers
collapsing across the river, military tanks rolling down Bedford Avenue,
then all the war protests. A man to fall in love with, a beautiful ex-junkie
and sometime pain-reliever addict who moved in next door. All our
90 Kristin Dombek
nights spent in bars, the fucking in bathrooms, the lines snorted in back
booths after close, the shouting on sidewalks, fucking all the way up
those five flights of stairs as the sun came up. You have been young,
or you are young, and you know that story, and you know the story of
this neighborhood, or you think you do. The landlords began trying
to force us out so they could build multimillion-dollar condos, and I
moved east with the ex-junkie, as everyone was having to do, east to the
Williamsburg of the Italians, in our case. My rent tripled, and soon the
world felt like it was ending. I started dreaming of a quiet garden apart-
ment in Boerum Hill or Prospect Heights, away from 22-year-olds and
condo buildings. But when I left him, I moved back here, to the old but
now unrecognizable neighborhood, into this building that looks like the
building where I met him, or how it used to look.
Beyond the bridge, the Gretsch Building lights up. Inside it rich
people are having cocktail hour, or something. I can’t see them. The
Gretsch was a musical instrument factory, then full of artists. In 1999,
the management company began to turn the water and electricity and
heat off, then on again, then off. In this way, they drove the tenants
out. Now it has a granite lobby, glass elevators, a meditative waterfall,
and units with Sub-Zeros and exposed concrete beams and floating
fireplaces framed in Pietra Colombino limestone. Some people think
Beyoncé lives in there. I haven’t seen her, but I’ve seen the rest of it,
thanks to the dullest New Year’s Eve party ever. Starting in the late ’90s,
dozens more loft buildings pushed out their live/work tenants. Our
old textile warehouse was one of the latest, in 2006. After the eviction,
architects carved out an atrium and built a lobby out of 2001: A Space
Odyssey—glossy white and grand, flanked by strange asymmetrical
hallways. They leveled the waste transfer station and built The Edge
and then Northside Piers, thirty-some stories each of tacky glassy con-
dos, and in their basements were pools, “golf systems,” screening rooms.
These buildings gave you the feeling that when the apocalypse came to
Williamsburg, they’d float up into space in luminous self-sufficiency
and orbit the wrecked planet while their residents gathered in the bil-
liards room, drank complex cocktails, and eyed each other’s neoprene
skinny jeans.
But gentrification is the opposite of the apocalypse. The apocalypse
would pause history, level the built world to a pile of trash, and most
likely lower rents considerably. Gentrification churns history forward,
91 How to Quit
takes out the trash, carts away rubble, hides the poor, makes you work
more and more to manage your rent, and encrypts the past, when you
didn’t have to work so many jobs just to fucking live here, behind its
glossy surfaces. To distract us from this decimation of the past and the
poor it opens restaurants and bars that simulate other pasts. The old
beer and liquor outlet on the corner of North 3rd and Berry, where we
used to rent kegs for parties, is now an old-time German beer garden, its
waitresses’ breasts plumped cartoonishly by little German beer garden
corsets. Across the street, where Slick’s motorcycle repair shop was for
years, there’s a gleaming skate and surf store. There are half a dozen
speakeasy-type cocktail bars with handlebar-mustached bartenders.
There are three diners quaint enough to make your heart ache. There’s
Marlow & Sons and the rest of the country-living places, where you eat
surrounded by animal trophies and decorative farm tools. There are
old-time ice cream shops, general stores, old-time down-home barbecue
joints, old-time down-home fried chicken joints, and rustic ski lodge–
style restaurants. There is every past you could ever imagine, but little
you remember.
When a neighborhood changes this much this fast it feels like either
the old neighborhood was the real one and this one is some kind of
monstrous double, or if this neighborhood is real, then that old one
must always have been a lie.
If the old neighborhood was real, this building is a steam-powered
time machine. If the new neighborhood is real, this building is a dream,
or a crypt.
In other words, all this building makes me want to do is drink and
fuck. I’m in here, sipping whiskey to blunt some postcocaine jitters, and
rolling Bali Shag cigarettes to save money.
he musi c of thi s winter is the soundtrack to the movie Drive.
Everyone in the neighborhood is talking about it. The bartender
across the street plays it every time he works. I see the movie by myself
one afternoon at the Nitehawk on Metropolitan, where the sound is
good and you can get food. I order a Bloody Mary, carefully, not sure
how my voice sounds or if my face looks right, because I’ve been fuck-
ing the guitar player for the past twenty-four hours. We’re on MDMA,
which has turned us into a science experiment. We get within a foot of
each other and we have to fuck again. He goes down on me indefinitely.
92 Kristin Dombek
At first it’s normal, and then he drops down into some deep, quiet place
of absolute and perfect concentration. He is patient, he waits, barely
moving, but he turns us from two people into liquid, and I come and
come. Finally we stop because he has to go to band practice, and so I
go see this movie. In the theater my legs are weak and I keep checking
to make sure I’m fully clothed and my face is burning and everyone
seems to be looking at me curiously. The ecstasy is tingling out gently;
it’s not going to be one of those suicidal E hangovers; everything is lus-
cious and precise. When the music starts, I can feel it in the seat. Soft,
thumping bass beats, pulsing in and out in waves, sometimes with sweet
synthesized little-girl voices singing on top of them. College and Electric
Youth’s “A Real Hero”: “You have proven to be/ A real human being and
a real hero.” Desire’s “Under Your Spell”: “I don’t eat/ I don’t sleep/ I do
nothing but think of you.”
The driving is perfect. Ryan Gosling’s silent maneuvers, his watch-
ing, his listening. The first driving scene is remarkable for its pauses — the
way he waits, the way he doesn’t drive, hiding the car under an overpass,
parking on a side street while the cops drive by. He says nearly nothing
and he moves only as much as he absolutely has to. He barely speaks to
Carey Mulligan, who has the face of a very young girl. But he takes her
on a drive and smiles at her and helps her with her groceries and her car
and her son and presumably they fall in love. Their scenes pulse with
nothing being said, the way the scenes in Twilight pulse with nothing
being done, when the girl and the vampire can’t fuck because he might
accidently kill her if they do. It’s so hot.
Once Gosling and Mulligan hold hands, or rather she puts her hand
on top of his gloved driving hand, which is on the gearshift. That’s all we
get of sex until finally, two-thirds of the way through the movie, they’re
in an elevator in their building, the same elevator where they met, and a
man beside them is reaching under his coat for a gun. Gosling turns to
Mulligan and kisses her for the first time, really deeply kisses her. The
lights start to glow and the electronica is soft and pulsing, and the kiss
is in super-slow motion and lasts a really long time. Then he pushes her
into the corner, smashes the man’s head against the elevator buttons,
throws him to the floor and stomps on his head until it’s muck and
blood sprays all over and the man is dead but Gosling keeps stomping
anyway, like he wants to cover himself in blood. Then the elevator doors
open and Mulligan backs out and just stares at him.
93 How to Quit
When someone changes that much, that suddenly, it feels like either
the old version was the real one and this new one must be some kind of
monstrous double, or if the new one is real, then that old version must
always have been a lie.
The guitar player starts fucking another girl and suddenly won’t
speak to me when I see him in the bar across the street.
The tragic reversal makes you ache to turn back the clock.
On the other hand, the tragic reversal is already a time machine. It
throws you into the past to see everything again but differently, makes
you pose questions you can never answer. In the elevator, Mulligan sees
that the man who seemed so different from her temperamental criminal
of a husband is the same as him, just as violent or worse. So was she
doing something different, in loving someone who seemed so sweet, or
just repeating the same thing? She’ll never know the answer, but it will
probably bother her forever, unless she’s the kind of woman who can
just forget about things and move on.
My favorite residents of Williamsburg are machines of the tragic
reversal, the kinds of people who always turn away and disappear into
their secret lives — people who pose certain intense problems of inter-
pretation, in a place where no street stays the same for more than a few
weeks at a time.
This building is a question about how you live after a tragic rever-
sal, thrown back into history and wondering what can be recovered by
returning to the scene.
It was the loveliest hangover I’ve ever had, watching Drive. Every
time I try to do molly again, though, the hangovers are so bad they
make me want to hurl myself out these windows onto the Williamsburg
Bridge just to make the hangovers stop making me want to die. But
every next day I wake up resurrected, because this building is full of joy.
runks, drug addicts, sex addicts, compulsive gamblers, and/or
people on or recovering from deep, life-threatening benders: these
are the only people who really hold my interest, which means that I
usually am friends with or fuck and/or love people with a dead parent or
two, bipolar or otherwise depressed people, musicians, writers, and/or
pathological liars. Even so, I never know when I meet them. They always
just seem to me like the best people in the world. At some point, a week
or two into the friendship or the affair, I find out, but by then I’m already
94 Kristin Dombek
hooked, because the things these people do to ensure they don’t have to
live in the straight world are wonderful. They turn ordinary nights into
wide electric universes that snap in the head like a new beat, get and
give pleasure like they’ll otherwise die, make music what music is and
art what art is. Because they cannot do all the things it takes to marry,
they can bring a whole marriage’s worth of intimacy into one night of
fucking, and you can let that land square on you, like you’re the only girl
in the world, to quote Rihanna. You’re almost definitely not the only
girl in their world, but that’s the thing about addicts: they are endlessly
optimistic, and they can make you believe anything.
I am not unfamiliar with the reasons it is considered unhealthy
to love people who can’t get through a day without getting shitfaced.
They get in stupid fights in bars with guys they think are hitting on
you, and you have to hug them until they calm down and sneak your
number to the other guy later. When you start fucking someone else,
they come to your house in the middle of the night, wasted, and let all
the air out of the new guy’s tires. They make you stop being friends with
all the friends you fucked before you met them, that’s how much they
love you. And yet they always turn out to be plagued by focus problems
when it comes to you. They’ll eye-fuck you all through their set and
then sit down right next to you and start making out with your friend.
They’ll say they’re not fucking the girl who fills your shared kitchen
with baked goods every time you go out of town, until you make out
with her boyfriend and force her to angrily admit they’ve been having
an affair. There is the moodiness, the way they’ll suddenly start shout-
ing at you on street corners in foreign cities because they can’t handle
stress and they’re too high to read a map. They’ll steal tobacco from
your purse on the way out of your apartment and then pretend they
didn’t know it was yours. They’ll leave a stolen wallet by your bed and
then break back into your building to retrieve it, and have the nerve,
when confronted, to pretend that it’s not stolen but theirs, and that it
is you who has forgotten their real name and how different faces can
look on government-issued ID cards. Not to mention how when you ask
why their eyes are half-closed all the time, they keep saying they’re just
really relaxed and happy to be with you, and all the rifling through their
shit to find the Oxycontin they say they don’t have, the way that even
when they’re vomiting and slimy on the floor of the casino hotel on your
only vacation of the year, and you’re trying for three days to get them to
95 How to Quit
eat even the smallest piece of room-service bagel, they still don’t admit
they’re in withdrawal again, and you still believe they just have a really
bad stomach, that they’re just so sensitive.
The problem is that I find these ways of behaving charming — infi-
nitely more interesting, somehow, than the things that sober people do.
go out. In the bar across the street they are playing Kavinsky and
Lovefoxxx, from the Drive soundtrack, his scratchy metallic synthe-
sized voice singing: “I’m going to show you where it’s dark/ But have no
fear.” I can start out arguing about geography with a drunk from South
Carolina and fall briefly in love with a floppy-haired cokehead who’s
straight out of Winesburg, Ohio and end up giving a blowjob in the bath-
room to a French businessman, and I can carry all these people into the
next day, each one stretching the regular world just a little bit. I can stay
exactly where I am and see what happens, or I can follow some drunk or
drug addict to some other bar or party in Bushwick or Bed-Stuy. Even
in the hipster bars they are playing Rihanna’s song about pill-popping
romance, over and over: “We found love in a hopeless place.”
There are things you will never know unless you follow these kinds
of people around. Here is one of them: you can drink enough whiskey that
the hangover feels opiate, and when you finally make it outside at twilight
the next day, the world is soft and purple and shifting and the faces of the
people on the sidewalk are lit up with possibility and mad peace.
It doesn’t always work out. I bring home a wild long-bearded drunk
who fucks me within an inch of my life and then doesn’t call. I pick up
a drunk on the street who says he works for the UN, and that he was
trained by the FBI to establish perimeters during explosives investiga-
tions or something, whom I don’t call. I see a dirty strung-out man on
the G train platform with a canvas under his arm and the eyes of a
pervert or a man on a cross and we share a look I will never forget, of
recognition and sex and the exact shining thing I enjoy mistaking for
love, but I am on the train, passing, and soon he is out of sight. Another
night I try to pick up a drummer in a country band. He looks like Kid
Rock, and, if I squint, like David Foster Wallace, and I’m sure he means
to come home with me. But something’s off about him. I tell him he
looks bored while he drums. He says his back hurts because he was
recording all day. I don’t think drummers should talk like this, especially
drummers who look like Kid Rock, and I berate him for being tired and
96 Kristin Dombek
bored. He should be sexy but he’s just not. It’s frustrating. Berating him,
however, does not turn out to be a good tactic for seducing him. The
next day it occurs to me what was so off about him: he must have been
How do sober people get close to one another? No one knows, at
least no one I know does. In the movies, they ask each other out on
dates. One person says, Do you want to hang out tomorrow night? The
other one says, Yeah, eight o’clock? And that’s it. They never say what
they’re going to do, or where they’re going to meet. I worry about them
wandering around the city, watches unsynchronized, wishing they’d
remembered to make a fucking plan. It’s so much easier to get com-
pletely wasted and just go home together that very night.
I’ve been doing this since college, and I’m not just in it for the
rapture. I do the other part, too. I’m the friend who will let you crash
in my bed for three days and nights when you’re ready to go through
the shakes, sit with you while you moan, try to get you to eat toast,
oatmeal, anything, force water down your throat while you sweat all
over my sheets. And a year later, I’ll help you buy your week’s supply of
malt liquor in your New Orleans grocery store, pretending not to see
the people looking at our shopping cart full of clinking forties, and my
heart will be breaking, but I’ll do it. I’m the friend who will walk with
you down Metropolitan Avenue at a pace of a block an hour because
you’re so doped up and bendy that you have to hold onto each lamp-
post and mailbox for a while, considering, joking, nodding off, doubling
over, until you’re ready to move on to the next one. I understand that. I
appreciate the way it slows down time. The way there’s nothing for me
to do but be with you. You make me feel very calm. I’ll walk with you
when you’re so drunk you’re screaming at me all the way home. How
many times my job has been just to get someone from one street corner
to the next, I do not know. I should have been a crossing guard. Because
I do not say no, I do not say this is fucking ridiculous. Something in me
just goes quiet and I’m right there with you. Later, when I’m sure I’ve got
you, I’ll say change, please change, but what I really mean is, look at you,
what would you do without me, you’re falling apart, you would fucking
die without me, I’m the most important person in the world to you.
Don’t die. Stay with me. Never leave.
Repeating the same words over and over again, claimed Gertrude
Stein, is the only way to make sure they will actually mean something
97 How to Quit
different. I’ve hung a photograph of her in my bathroom to remind me,
as I’m putting on my eyeliner and getting ready to go out, that I’m sup-
posed to be fucking girls instead.
I invite home a woman to sleep on my sofa bed. I know she is shy,
so I am careful not to flirt with her. I make up the sofa bed, and then I
make her an omelet. We drink Miller High Life and she lies down on
the bed and curls over on her side and asks me to “cuddle” her, and then
I have these perfect, hard-nippled breasts in my mouth. Soon enough,
I remember. Sometimes when you are making a woman come it’s like
you’re trying to get her to sound like she’s being hurt.
can see the Gretsch Building and I know what’s inside it but for the
most part, when I look out from inside this building, the gentrifica-
tion is to the north and behind me, like nothing ever happened. I write
to the sound of the trains, fast and wholehearted. It’s like I’m back in the
neighborhood I moved to out of sheer dire love, like I stayed too long at
the fair but I keep winning huge stuffed animals at the water-gun game.
A loophole. Friends come over whenever they want, in the afternoon or
when the bar closes, and we play music and lie on the floor and talk. We
dance. I dance when I wake up, and before I go to sleep, and smoke too
many cigarettes, and don’t care.
It’s November when the water turns off for the first time. For years,
the building and its tenants have been in a legal battle over an endlessly
impending mass eviction. I’m instructed by email to follow the pipes
out of the apartment until I find the problem, without drawing manage-
ment’s attention to the fact that I’m in here, instead of my friend. But the
pipes are always disappearing into the walls, and I’m too shy to knock
on apartment doors. It’s easier to work around the problem. In the old
loft building where I met my ex, we didn’t have a shower or stove for
six months once, and we got by. As a child, I spent a month pretend-
ing I was Laura Ingalls Wilder. I’d wear a floor-length patchwork skirt
my mother made for me and do my chores pioneer-style, the slow way,
washing my clothes by hand and beating them with sticks. Sometimes
to keep it interesting I imagined I was doing this on television. So I know
how to handle this. I bring in buckets of water from the hallway bath-
room to flush the toilet, fill up the Brita, line the kitchen and bathroom
with glasses and Tupperware containers of water for brushing my teeth
and wiping down the kitchen counter. I cart the dirty dishes out to the
98 Kristin Dombek
hallway bathroom and wash them under the faucet in icy water. On days
when I might bring someone home, I walk down the stairs and a few
blocks to the place where the messenger lives now and take a shower,
shave my legs, press warm water on my face, and walk back, my hair
wet in the winter air, past the broken elevator, up the six flights. There
is less and less time for working and writing, but I don’t mind. Soon the
bathroom begins to smell awfully of shit, though, and I worry that the
sewage is coming up, working its way up these six floors to flood the
loft. After two weeks, the super goes down to the basement and turns
the water on again, which he must have known how to do all along.
I’m in here getting all pioneer-style with my water, but it’s pioneer
style they’re selling in the form of hand-spun woolen socks for $80 a
pair at the general store in Marlow & Sons, across the street from the
Gretsch Building. Even so, I cannot resist the happiness of being back
here, in the old world, if I am really back, if one can return to the scene.
I buy a fake shearling coat like we used to wear in the ’90s, a dark
druggie coat with a big collar.
In Paradise Lost, it’s Satan who thinks the mind can make a heaven
of hell, a hell of heaven. He is, famously, the best character in the movie.
I just treat the physical neighborhood itself as if it is on drugs. When
I look at it like that, I love it.
n Al-Anon, the doctrine of renouncing addiction to addicts is the
same as the doctrine of renouncing addiction: the repetition is a
symptom that the disease is beyond your control, that you are power-
less in the face of it, that the antidote is to shift your dependence to a
higher power, seek forgiveness, develop a moral conscience and some
boundaries, put yourself into some abstract category — addict, alcoholic,
enabler — and then, because you are powerless, you’ve got to leave it all
behind. You can’t go into the bar, you can’t go on the internet and even
look at the escort ads, you can’t try to help your drunk of a husband
or your crackhead wife. Instead, you have to weave around yourself
this network of strangers who are in your addict category, exit the
alternate world you made, go back into the dull real world you were
trying to escape, and just take it one day at a time. It’s one world or
the other — though you get out through one small excruciating step at a
time, and you must always and forever, from now on, consider yourself
“in recovery.”
99 How to Quit
Programs that reject AA for its puritanical attitude toward intoxi-
cants tend to treat that opposition of worlds as precisely the problem.
When you’re trying to quit something, this is exactly the double bind:
should you view the thing you’re addicted to as so powerful that you
need to marshal every weapon you can against it, as if it is some over-
whelming, apocalyptic force of evil? Should you disavow as false every
moment of total transcendence the thing ever gave you? Or would you
by means of that disavowal be giving the thing more power than it
actually has, and was that exactly the problem in the first place? You
thought it was the drug or the person or the place that transported you,
subjected you, dominated you, lit you up, disappeared you, raptured you,
loved you, but was it really you all along?
The double bind is a fake, too, of course. It’s not one or the other.
These are the kinds of questions addicts ask, because they are impos-
sible to answer, so we can keep holding on to them forever.
ri ve isn’ t pl aying at the Nitehawk anymore so I go see it again at
Village East. The sound is bad and there are no Bloody Marys. It’s
just a film noir. The city’s shiny surfaces barely contain the violence
underneath, and maybe Gosling is like the city, a dissembler and mon-
strous. When you know that for the last third of the film he’ll be smash-
ing dudes’ heads with his boots and drowning them in dark oceans
and shoving bullets down their throats in strip clubs and ripping their
eyeballs out with hammers or whatever (I had my eyes closed), every
early minimalist line, especially the sweet ones, sounds excruciatingly
fake, like it’s in quotes, like he’s just saying whatever everyone wants
him to say but just barely. Maybe the kiss is violent in the first place,
since Gosling knows he has to steal it before he reveals his secret self.
Even worse, maybe the kiss is a cover-up. He uses her, so he can catch
his victim off-guard. I don’t want it to be this, not this interpretation. It
seems like a real kiss, a good kiss, but why does he want her to have the
taste of his tongue in her mouth while she watches him become a vision
of pure brutality, have the feeling of that perfect chest pressed against
her (as Emma Stone’s character says to Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love
when he takes off his shirt, “Seriously? You look like you’re airbrushed!”)
as she learns everything she believed about him is false?
Trying to figure out whether someone’s evil or good is like trying to
figure out whether cigarettes are evil or good. It’s a way to procrastinate.
100 Kristin Dombek
They’re just plants and chemicals wrapped in paper. You’re the one
smoking them.
Gosling is everyone’s favorite male lead these days. He’s every-
where. A friend said the other day, I wish Ryan Gosling would just leave
me alone. Because he had most of his dialogue taken out of this film,
it’s easy to project onto his character the Gosling of Half Nelson and
Blue Valentine, working men who teach public school and do construc-
tion while wearing impossibly hipsterish clothes. Men who look at their
female leads with a kind of searching intimacy that will be shattered
or cemented by the secret yet to be revealed: the drug problem, the
drinking problem, the brutal temper that we have to decide whether
or not to forgive. Is his nameless character in Drive also The Notebook’s
long-suffering workingman romantic hero, quiet ’cause he’s sweet, or is
he the Crazy, Stupid, Love womanizer, sweet ’cause he’s about to break
your heart? The film’s music is about him. Is he a “real hero,” as the
soundtrack says? Is he a “real human being”?
These are the kinds of questions I’m talking about. Asking them is a
way of not renouncing or mourning. This is the way to make the man or
the drug or the place uncannily powerful, infused with one’s own con-
tradictory interpretations. To love what one has made magical, in this
way — at least when it comes to loving addicts and the kinds of drugs that
can kill you — is widely considered to be a terrible thing, something to
heal from. But our favorite recent romance — 100 million copies sold and
over one billion dollars at the box office — is about a girl heroic enough to
love a vampire who stalks and bosses her around and is addicted to her
blood. She keeps wondering: Is he an asshole? But then how can he be so
beautiful? Is it possible that he’s being an asshole because he loves her so
much? In this case, love for the otherworldly addict totally pays off. Twi-
light’s Edward Cullen solves the elevator scene problem, rewinds the tragic
reversal: his initial coldness and violence turn out to be totally explained
by his own heroic efforts not to kill her. He loves her so much he feigns
hating her to protect her. So in this case it’s the sweetness that’s the secret,
the surprise. One reads these books like they’re crack, or some women do.
Finally, he turns her into a vampire, so that she won’t ever have to die.
keep seeing the dead body of my father in the corner of the studio,
naked and blue and cold like a corpse in a morgue. In reality I have
never seen his body like that. I’ve seen him naked and I’ve seen him dead,
101 How to Quit
but not at the same time. When he died, in a nursing-home bed, I’d been
sitting with him for three days, talking to him about our whole lives,
not knowing if he could hear me, because he was in a coma, just talking
anyway. For twenty years he’d been on a cocktail of drugs for diabetes
and epilepsy that made him have moods that were always opposite of
one another. My mother and my brother and I were always trying to
anticipate whether we’d get the sweet or the brutal, but there was never
really any way to know, and it could turn in a second. I couldn’t blame
him for the bad moods because it was the drugs, or it always might be;
there was never any real way to know what was the drugs and what was
him. It wasn’t really fair to feel things about what he said or did. The
most important thing was to keep him from having seizures.
As a child, when I wasn’t pretending to be Laura Ingalls Wilder, I
was narrating what happened in my head like we were in a novel; after
someone spoke I’d say “he said”; after I spoke, I’d say “she said,” in my
head where no one could hear. It was better not to feel things during
the later years, either, when the epilepsy drugs took the meanness away,
made him as soft and tearful and wild-smiling as a doped-up bum or a
child. I sat with him for the last three days and talked to him about all
this, and told him that I’d hated him because he was mean or cold as
fuck half the time, and thanked him because the other half he was kind
and wise and taught me how to think and how to be.
I was holding his hand when I felt his blood slow. I put my hand on
his wrist and felt his heartbeats separate. I put my hands on his legs and
felt the blood stop; there was one last thick pulse and then there was
none. I put my hands on his neck and there was one last pulse and there
was no pulse. As a child, when incomprehensible things happened, I
used to panic, and my parents would give me sips of wine to calm me
down. But now I was as quiet and calm as could be. I put my hands on
his chest and felt him completely still, and I put my forehead against
his forehead and cried onto his face. My poor father. What he would be
doing back in the corner of the studio looking like a corpse on Law and
Order I do not know. He’s not a metaphor, a reason, or even a clue. He’s
just a dead body encrypted inside this new life.
I buy a bright red hoodie from fucking American Apparel and wear
it every day. On the third day I realize it’s yours, the one you were wear-
ing every day under your leather jacket when I met you. I’m the drunk
102 Kristin Dombek
now, when I want to be. I’m the addict. I’m the one to follow around the
neighborhood, the one who changes things, over and over again.
The building is getting louder. There’s clanking in the eastern wall,
sometimes the sound of a small dog inside the western wall. The water
goes off, comes on again. Someone is banging on the pipes at four in the
morning, but who would do that? Sometimes the clanking sounds like
it’s right inside the wall beside my bed, but it is not possible that there is
anyone in there. Sometimes the steam heater makes the building so hot
I’m opening all the windows, leaning out the window looking over the
bridge in a tank top and underpants and burning my legs on the pipes.
The real tenants are in court with management, fighting to stay, but
the building is winning, they’re going to build their multimillion-dollar
condos, and I stop being able to look out the window without wondering
when this will end and where I will go. I would like to decide to leave,
myself, before they throw us out, but I don’t know how to stop wanting
to be here.
The second and only other time it snows this winter, I’m so high
that I can’t understand why everything is white. I’m taking a walk with
friends, everyone alarmingly stoned from pot brownies, arms linked,
and finally I announce that we should decide that the whiteness is snow,
though I don’t believe we have any real evidence for it. The pot had made
it so that to believe in and state the obvious required a giant leap of faith.
That same day, on a long car ride, some of us were reading aloud
Stanley Cavell’s book on film and love and marriage, Pursuits of Hap-
piness, where he talks about wrestling with the meaning of films as a
practice joined to “checking one’s experience,” which he describes as
“momentarily stopping, turning yourself away from whatever your
preoccupation and turning your experience away from its expected,
habitual track, to find itself, its own track: coming to attention. The
moral of this practice is to educate your experience sufficiently so that it
is worthy of trust.” To have authority in the interpretation of your own
experience is a paradox, he says, because “educating” your experience
can’t come in advance of the trusting.
Loving a place that is always disappearing before your eyes, lov-
ing people who are always disappearing into secret lives, and doing this
drunk or high — these can be ways of making it extra difficult to learn
to trust your own interpretation. You can think that to come to atten-
tion means to get sober. This can be a useful thing to think. Or you
103 How to Quit
can think that love and intoxication are themselves ways of stopping,
abandoning oneself to the lush and impossible moment between experi-
ence and interpretation, where it might be possible to let what is dead
be dead.
I bring home a cokehead chef who has to get to his restaurant early
in the morning, so we decide to stay up all night. He has the face of a
child and at one point he is on top of me and I say, How are you able
to do this? And he says, I’m 25. (No one ever says, It’s the drugs! They
make me feel immortal!) How old are you, he asks. I put my hands on
either side of his face and look at him. Older. I put my hands on his neck
and I can feel his blood pulse while he fucks me, too gently, but it’s OK.
I put my hands on his chest, and his skin is warm and smooth. I don’t
even like him that much but I put my legs on his shoulders and I put my
hands on the back of his thighs and pull him into me and all is well. And
then, because he is young and can’t say what he wants, I guess, turn over.
He puts his hands on my ass and kisses my back. Afterwards I put my
forehead against his forehead and feel his alien 25-year-old brain, here
for the moment and then gone, on its way to work, and I kiss him.
These are the most singular, unrepeatable kisses in the history of
kissing, the one in the Drive elevator and the ones happening in my
bed these days, because they are exactly on the edge of what’s already
happened and what will happen next, how I have seen things and how
I will see them.
t is important to know that there are things that end. Things you
can’t change with your mind or even your body or even chemicals. As
spring draws near, the building wins the lawsuit. We’re getting evicted,
the tenants who have lived here for ten or twenty years, and the sublet-
ters like me hiding out in these labyrinthine halls. “The last of the starv-
ing artists who colonized Williamsburg two decades ago and began its
transformation into the hipster capital of New York could soon find
themselves out on the street,” begins the article about it in the Post. It’s
headlined, nonsensically, “W’burg has art attack: Hipsters facing boot.”
There’s no chance of an appeal. My neighbor makes a banner to hang on
the front of the building: ten hoMes lost! She’s been here since 1994,
like most of the residents of the ten lofts. It’s not a machine or a dream
or a crypt for her, just her home, made impossible by money. Police cars
come, sirens wailing, to remove the banner. There will be condos.
104 Kristin Dombek
This is one way to quit: wait until the bitter end, when you have
done all you can to make the time machine keep working. You have
learned its inner systems, improvised workarounds, carted in the water
yourself, but it becomes harder to keep it alive than leave it. What they
call hitting rock bottom. The final tragic reversal may be slow, boring,
and horrible. The time machine has turned into a crypt, but it is not a
crypt if you go inside with the body. If you must raise it from the dead
again, know the power it has is your own: bend over it like a vampire,
fire it up like Dr. Frankenstein. When you are able to stop, there will be a
moment when you have to just walk out of the building. It’s not that liv-
ing will be the opposite of addiction now; there can be more life because
you know how to stretch out time, more joy because you have practiced
the art of reanimation. You are a professor of transformation; you just
need new tools. There is no outside or inside to it, no opposition, no
right way to go, just this new way of seeing.
And I do not mean by “seeing” that this is a matter of the mind or
the brain or the eyes. The best thing would be if you could figure out
what felt good about your particular drug and do it in some other way,
with your body, like in your bed.
I am thinking of the Italian. The first time we saw each other, in
the East Williamsburg country bar where I was cursing out the home
state of the guitar player town by town, he did not ask but told me that
I should take him home. Big wild hair. Divorce bender. Massive quanti-
ties of whiskey. Naples, where he got very specific and rigorous training
in how to boss women around. When I met him I was very scared and
after he came home with me, I couldn’t very easily stand or sit for any
reasonable period of time. The second time, we began to play a game.
I tell him, in the morning or early afternoon, that he has to go home.
That I have things to do, I have so much writing to do, so much work.
This makes him angry. In anger he stimulates every possible erogenous
zone on my body he can at the same time, like a violent scientist of my
body, until I’m like some kind of retarded gangbanged cheerleader/Anaïs
Nin–type woman, kind of muttering in weird high voices, and he’s like,
really, you want me to go home, and I’m like, yes, go home, and he hurts
me with the pleasure of pretending I have no choice.
But everywhere else I choose things now. The third time there is,
at some point before the leaving game begins, a tear coming out of his
eye. A tear so singular I just look at him, because I can’t help him, I’m
105 How to Quit
just not interested in helping anyone anymore. I say, What’s wrong, what
is it, and he shakes his head, and I let go of it. It’s not my tear. And no
longer is the suffering of the benders of others my suffering.
he first drug I took was acid, in an upstairs room in my col-
lege house with four girlfriends, all of us naked and wrapped in
sheets because it was a Michigan heat wave — 110 degrees and too hot
for clothes in Eastown, Grand Rapids, the kind of neighborhood where
when it’s hot enough you can smell the weed as you walk into that part
of town. When the acid slowed everything down, I was watching my
friends climb out the window onto a rooftop to smoke cigarettes, and I
started crying, terrified that they were trying to get away from me, and
that they were going to fall and die. From what I’d heard there were
going to be twelve more hours of this, which basically meant the rest of
my life. Then a friend put her arm around me. I found my way to some
edge, thin as a thread, where the panic turned into laughter.
This is the diamond of the mind, this ability. A lot of people know
about it, but I didn’t know about it.
From then on when the panic crept in I could just push over the
thread-thin edge to the other side, feeling the way to joy.
Joy is the knowledge that the thread is there.
A thread runs through the middle of your life, and if you find it, the
second half can be comedy instead.
A place can make you want to die and then you can turn it over
into the sweetest thing. You can do this yourself, if you have found the
diamond in your mind.
Addiction is sometimes the attempt to raise the dead by returning
to the scene. If you can’t yet abandon the dead, at least you can practice
abandonment, and will perhaps in that way be on your way to finding
the world.
omething like summer comes early to the building by the bridge,
seventy restless degrees in early April. The girls are walking up
and down the pedestrian walkway in thin retro dresses, the men with
their shirtsleeves rolled up, warm air on freshly bare skin. All over the
building people have opened their windows and a breeze is fluttering
the curtains, scattering projects and stacks of receipts. It’s tax time, but
106 Kristin Dombek
there are a few more days to put it off, to walk around instead in the
pretty light.
It’s Easter morning, and this year it’s Passover too. All week people
have gathered to read the story of the liberation of slaves, of plagues
that purchase freedom, and to ask, as always, how this night is different
from every other night. The occupiers from Zuccotti Park are gathering
again in Union Square and so people are walking around the neighbor-
hood in T-shirts that say stop everYthing. Everyone thinks addiction
and being addicted to addicts is a terrible thing. Yet most of the people
in this country, on this morning, believe in a story about resurrection,
about a body that never dies because you put it in your mouth once a
week and it takes you higher, beyond death and time. It’s the structure
of addiction seen as redemptive, and maybe it is. But there are some
moments, and this is one of them, when it’s only in letting what’s dead
be dead that you can learn from your body the resurrection of the mind.
I am less interested in zombie stories, though, than I am in this
neighborhood’s particular light. The thing I most want to tell you is how
the sunlight is here, but I don’t know how to describe it. It’s obviously the
same sun that lights the rest of the city, but there is something different
about it. Maybe it’s our lack of trees, or the reflection of the river, or
the lowness of most of the buildings, or the supersaturated colors, deep
reds and greens, the bright wild complicated graffiti. We don’t have the
trees of South Brooklyn, the shady corridors of stoops, the tall stately
brownstones of Fort Greene or Park Slope. We don’t have cobblestone
streets. What we have is this naked golden light. It’s a thin, big-sky light,
kind of Western, cinematic. Since the first day I saw it, it has alternately
flustered and comforted me. Today its particular quality will have half
the people in the neighborhood drinking in the afternoon. By five or
six, some of the couples will already be fighting on the streets, one of
them wrangling the drunker, more belligerent one home, because there
is always a drunker, more belligerent one, and one who needs to feel like
he or she is taking care of someone.
At the moment, though, a really tall guy on roller skates is coasting
down the long steep slope of the pedestrian walkway with his legs and
arms spread wide and the wind in his fingers. He has the biggest satis-
fied grin on his face. There are always a few people a day who roll like
this, on bikes or boards or even just running, arms wide, falling down
the bridge into Williamsburg, in the pretty light. +
Sonja Engelhardt, Untitled, 2011, gelatin silver print, 6.3 × 4.7".
courtesy of the artist and Desaga, Cologne.
Mikhail Shishkin
arius and Parysatis had two sons, the elder Artaxerxes and the
younger Cyrus.
Interviews start at eight in the morning. Everyone’s still sleepy,
crumpled, and sullen — employees, interpreters, policemen, and refugees
alike. Rather, they still need to become refugees. For now they’re just GS.
That’s what these people are called here. Gesuchsteller.†
He’s brought in. First name. Last name. Date of birth. Thick lips.
Pimply. Clearly older than 16.
Question Briefly describe the reasons why you are requesting asy-
lum in Switzerland.
Answer I lived in an orphanage since I was 10. Our director raped
me. I ran away. At the bus stop I met drivers taking trucks
across the border. One took me out.
Question Why didn’t you go to the police and file a statement against
your director?
Answer They would have killed me.
Question Who are “they”?
Answer They’re all in it together. Our director took me, another
kid, and two girls, put us in a car, and drove us to a dacha.
† A person who has filed for asylum. (Ger.)
110 Mikhail Shishkin
Not his dacha, I don’t know whose. That’s where they all
got together, all the bosses, the police chief, too. They were
drinking and made us drink, too. Then they put us in dif-
ferent rooms. A big dacha.
Question Have you cited all the reasons why you are requesting
Answer Yes.
Question Describe your route. What country did you arrive from,
and where did you cross the border of Switzerland?
Answer I don’t know. I was riding in a truck and they put boxes
around me. They gave me two plastic bottles — one with
water, the other for piss — and they only let me out at night.
They dropped me off right here around the corner. I don’t
even know what the town’s called. They told me where to
go to turn myself in.
Question Have you ever engaged in political or religious activity?
Answer No.
Question Have you ever been tried or investigated?
Answer No.
Question Have you ever sought asylum in other countries?
Answer No.
Question Do you have legal representation in Switzerland?
Answer No.
Question Do you consent to expert analysis to determine your age
from your bone tissue?
Answer What?
111 Maidenhair
uring breaks you can have coffee in the interpreters’ room. This
side looks out on a construction site. They’re putting up a new
building for a refugee intake center.
My white plastic cup keeps sparking right in my hands. In fact, the
whole room is lit up by reflected sparks. A welder has set himself up
right outside the window.
There’s no one here. I can read quietly for ten minutes.
And so, Darius and Parysatis had two sons, the elder Artaxerxes
and the younger Cyrus. When Darius was taken ill and felt the approach
of death, he demanded both sons come to him. At the time the elder son
was nearby, but Darius had sent Cyrus to another province, over which
he had been placed as satrap.
The pages of the book are flashing in the reflected sparks, too. It
hurts to read. After each flash, the page goes dark.
You close your eyes and it penetrates your eyelids, too.
Peter peeks in the door. Herr Fischer. Master of fates. He winks:
it’s time. And a spark lights him up, too, like a camera flash. That’s how
he’ll be imprinted, with one squinting eye.
Question Do you understand the interpreter?
Answer Yes.
Question Your last name?
Answer ***.
Question First name?
Answer ***.
Question How old are you?
Answer Sixteen.
Question Do you have a passport or other document attesting to
your identity?
Answer No.
Question You must have a birth certificate. Where is it?
Answer It burned up. Everything burned up. They set fire to our
112 Mikhail Shishkin
Question What is your father’s name?
Answer *** ***. He died a long time ago. I don’t remember him at all.
Question The cause of your father’s death?
Answer I don’t know. He was sick a lot. He drank.
Question Give me your mother’s first name, last name, and maiden
Answer ***. I don’t know her maiden name. They killed her.
Question Who killed your mother — when, and under what
Answer Chechens.
Question When?
Answer Just this summer, in August.
Question On what date?
Answer I don’t remember exactly. The 19th, I think, or maybe the
20th. I don’t remember.
Question How did they kill her?
Answer They shot her.
Question Name your last place of residence before your departure.
Answer ***. It’s a small village near Shali.
Question Give me the exact address: street, house number.
Answer There is no address there. There’s just one street and our
house. It’s gone. They burned it down. And there’s nothing
left of the village, either.
Question Do you have relatives in Russia? Brothers? Sisters?
Answer I had a brother. Older. They killed him.
Question Who killed your brother — when, and under what
Answer Chechens. At the same time. They were killed together.
113 Maidenhair
Question Do you have other relatives in Russia?
Answer There’s no one else left.
Question Do you have relatives in third countries?
Answer No.
Question In Switzerland?
Answer No.
Question What is your nationality?
Answer Russian.
Question Confession?
Answer What?
Question Religion?
Answer Yes.
Question Orthodox?
Answer Yes. I just didn’t understand.
Question Briefly describe the reasons why you are requesting asy-
lum in Switzerland.
Answer Chechens kept coming over and telling my brother to
go into the mountains with them to fight the Russians.
Otherwise they’d kill him. My mother hid him. That day
I was coming home and I heard shouts through the open
window. I hid in the bushes by the shed and saw a Chechen
in our room hitting my brother with his rifle butt. There
were a few of them there, and they all had submachine
guns. I couldn’t see my brother. He was lying on the floor.
Then my mother lunged at them with a knife. The kitchen
knife we use to peel potatoes. One of them shoved her up
against the wall, put his AK to her head, and fired. Then
they went out, poured a canister of gasoline over the house,
and lit it. They stood around in a circle and watched it
burn. My brother was still alive and I heard him scream-
ing. I was afraid they’d see me and kill me, too.
114 Mikhail Shishkin
Question Don’t stop. Tell us what happened then.
Answer Then they left. And I sat there until dark. I didn’t know
what to do or where to go. Then I went to the Russian
post on the road to Shali. I thought the soldiers would help
me somehow. But they were afraid of everyone themselves
and drove me away. I wanted to explain to them what hap-
pened, but they fired in the air to make me go away. Then
I spent the night outside in a destroyed house. Then I
started making my way to Russia. And from there to here.
I don’t want to live there.
Question Have you cited all the reasons why you’re requesting asylum?
Answer Yes.
Question Describe your route. What countries did you travel
through and by what means of transport?
Answer Different ones. Commuter trains and regular ones.
Through Belarus, Poland, and Germany.
Question Did you have money to buy tickets?
Answer How could I? I just rode. Avoided the conductors. In
Belarus they caught me and threw me off the train while it
was moving. Good thing it was still going slowly and there
was a slope. I fell well and didn’t break anything. I just
tore the skin on my leg on some broken glass. Right here. I
spent the night in the train station and some woman gave
me a Band-Aid.
Question What documents did you present upon crossing borders?
Answer None. I walked at night.
Question Where and how did you cross the border of Switzerland?
Answer Here, in, what’s it . . .
Question Kreuzlingen.
Answer Yes. I just walked past the police. They only check cars.
Question What funds did you use to support yourself?
115 Maidenhair
Answer None.
Question What does that mean? You stole?
Answer Different ways. Sometimes yes. What was I supposed to
do? I get hungry.
Question Have you ever engaged in political or religious activity?
Answer No.
Question Have you ever been tried or investigated?
Answer No.
Question Have you ever sought asylum in other countries?
Answer No.
Question Do you have legal representation in Switzerland?
Answer No.
o one says anything while the printer is printing out the inter-
rogation transcript.
The guy picks at his dirty black nails. His jacket and filthy jeans
stink of tobacco and piss.
Leaning back and rocking on his chair, Peter looks out the window.
The birds are chasing down a plane.
I draw crosses and squares on a pad, divide them into triangles with
diagonal lines, and fill them in to create relief.
There are photographs on the walls around us — the master of fates
is crazy about fishing. Here he is in Alaska holding a big old fish by the
gills, and over there it’s something Caribbean with a big hook poking
out of its huge gullet.
Over my head is a map of the world. All stuck with pins with multi-
colored heads. Black ones are stuck into Africa, yellow ones poke out of
Asia. The white heads are the Balkans, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Rus-
sia, and the Caucasus. After this interview one more pin will be added.
The printer falls silent and blinks red. It’s out of paper.
116 Mikhail Shishkin
y good Nebuchadnezzasaurus!
You have already received my hasty note with my promise of
details to come. Here they are.
After a day spent in a place with bars on the windows, I came home.
I ate macaroni. I read your letter, which made me so happy. I began look-
ing out the window. The wind was driving the twilight. The rain fell and
fell. A red umbrella lay on the lawn, like a slit in the grass pelt.
But I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
It is not every day, truly, that the postman spoils us with mis-
sives from foreign lands! Especially one like this! Amid the bills and
ads — unexpected joy. Your letter. In which you describe in detail your
Nebuchadnezzasaurus realm, its glorious geographic past, the ebbs
and flows of its history, the ways of its flora, the habits of its fauna, its
volcanoes, laws, and catapults, and the cannibalistic inclinations of its
populace. It turns out, you even have both vampires and draculas! And
so, this means, you are emperorizing. I am flattered.
True, your writing abounds in grammatical errors, but really, what
does that matter? You can learn to correct your mistakes, but you may
never send me a missive like this again. Emperors grow up so quickly
and forget about their empires.
I cannot get my fill of the map you included of your island home-
land, the painstaking labor of your inspired imperial cartographers. And
you know, I just may pin it up here on the wall. I’ll look at it and try to
guess where you are there right now, among those mountains, deserts,
lakes, felt-tip bushes, and capitals. What have you been up to? Have you
already moved from your summer residence to your Autumn Palace? Or
are you already asleep? Your unsinkable navy guards your sleep. There
go the triremes and submarines in file around your island.
What a glorious name for a benevolent sovereign! And in multicol-
ored letters! I even have a few guesses as to where you got the idea, but I
will keep them to myself.
In your missive, you ask me to inform you about our distant power,
which is as yet unknown to your geographers and explorers. How could
I fail to answer your question!
What shall I tell you about our empire? It is promised, hospitable,
skyscrapered. You can gallop for three years without galloping all the
way across. For number of mosquitoes per capita during the sleepless
hours, it has no equal. For fun, the squirrels run along my fence.
117 Maidenhair
Our map abounds in white patches when snow falls. The borders
are so far away no one even knows what the empire borders on: some
say the horizon; according to other sources, the final cadenza of the
angels’ trumpets. We know for a fact that it is located somewhere to the
north of the Hellenes, along the coastline of the ocean of air where our
unsinkable cloud fleet sails in file.
There is still flora, but all that’s left of the fauna are the tops of
those trees that resemble schools of fry. The wind frightens them.
The flag is a chameleon, every law has a loophole, and I personally
have no knowledge of any volcanoes.
The main question that has occupied imperial minds for more than
a generation is this: Who are we and why are we here? The answer to it,
for all the apparent obviousness, is muddled: in profile, Hyperboreans;
en face, Sarmatians — in short, either Orochs or Tungus. And each is a
fiddle. I mean riddle.
The beliefs are primitive but not without a certain poeticism. Some
are convinced that the world is an enormous elk cow whose fur is the
forest, the parasites in its fur are the taiga beasts, and the insects hover-
ing around it are the birds. Such is the universe’s mistress. When the elk
cow rubs up against a tree, everything living dies.
In short, in this empire, which someone has deemed the best in
the world, your humble servant — do you care if I’m not a chief?—well,
I’m no chief. How can I explain to you, my good Nebuchadnezzasaurus,
what we do here? All right, let me try this. After all, even these fly out
the window, who form a school and have no inkling that it’s just the
wind, are convinced that someone is waiting for each of them, remem-
bers them, knows their face — every last vein and freckle. And there’s
no convincing them otherwise. And here each of the celestial beasts
pushes forward, two by two: blunderers and glowerers, truthseekers and
householders, lefties and righties, mobsters and taxidermists. And no
one understands anyone. And so I serve. An interpreter in the chancel-
lery for refugees in the defense ministry of paradise.
And each person wants to explain something. He hopes they’ll hear
him out. But here we are with Peter. I’m interpreting the questions and
answers, and Peter is taking notes and nodding, as if to say, Of course
I believe you. He doesn’t believe anyone. Some woman comes and says,
“I’m a simple shepherdess, a foundling, I don’t know my parents, I was
raised by an ordinary goatherd, poor Drias.” And so the hoodwinking
118 Mikhail Shishkin
begins. The trees are in fruit; the plains in grain; there are willows on
hills, herds in meadows, and everywhere the crickets’ gentle chirp and
the sweet scent of fruit. Pirates lie in wait, the enemy at the gates. Well-
groomed nails blaze up in the lighter’s flame. “After all, I grew up in the
country and never so much as heard the word love. I pictured her IUD
looking something like a couch spring. Oh, my Daphnis! They separated
us, ill-starred that we were! It was one showdown after another. First
the Tyre gang attacks, then the Methymna hosts insist on their rights.
Daphnis accompanied me like a guard when I went to see clients. A
hairstyle affects how your day goes — and your life as a result. But do you
see what they did to my teeth? My teeth weren’t all that great to begin
with. But that’s from my mama. She used to tell me how she would flake
plaster off the stove when she was a child and eat it. She wasn’t getting
enough calcium. And when I was carrying Yanochka, I’d walk off with
the teachers’ chalk at the institute and gnaw on it. Love is like the moon:
if it’s not waxing, it’s waning, but it’s the same as the last time, always
the same.” Peter: “That’s it?” She: “That’s it.” “Well then, madam,” he
proposes, “your fingerprints.” “What for?” She’s dumbfounded. “You’ve
been tracked down in our imperial-wide card file.” And he knees her up
the ass. But she’s already shouting from the elevator, “You aren’t human
beings; you’re still cold clay. They’ve sculpted you but they haven’t
breathed a soul into you!”
Whereas another couldn’t string two words together properly at all.
And his diction was like a water faucet’s. I agonize, trying to sort out
what he’s gushing about, while Peter, still at his desk, is laying out pencils
and toothpicks in a row, as if on parade, as if he were the desk marshal
reviewing a parade. We’re on the clock. No one is in any hurry. Peter
likes order. And this GS is muttering something about open sesame and
shouting for someone to get the door. He’s babbling about white circles
on gates, then red ones. He starts assuring us that he was sitting by him-
self in the wineskin, not touching anyone, not bothering anyone, but he
got the boiling oil treatment. “There,” he shouts, “you see? Is that really
right? Boiling oil on a live person?” But all that’s necessary to refuse the
rogue is to find discrepancies in his statements. Peter gets a little book
off his caseload shelf and things start moving. “Tell me, dear man, how
many kilometers from your Bagdadovka to the capitals? What is the
piaster’s rate of exchange against the dollar? What national holidays are
celebrated in the country that abandoned you besides the Immaculate
119 Maidenhair
Conception and the first snowman? What color are the streetcars and
wineskins? And how much is a Borodinsky loaf?”
Or say the Jews are returning from Babylonian captivity, and
they start singing the chorus from the third act of Nabucco, and our
chief asks them: “What language do they speak in the Chaldean king-
dom?” They: “Akkadian.” He: “What is the temple to the god Marduk
in Babylon called?” They: “Esagila.” He: “And the Babylonian tower?”
They: “Etemenanki.” He: “To what goddess are the northern gates dedi-
cated?” They: “Ishtar, the goddess Venus. And the Sun is personified by
Shamash, the Moon by Sin. Mars is Nergal. The scoundrel Babylonians
see Ninurt in Saturn, Nabu in Mercury, and Marduk himself is iden-
tified with Jupiter. By the way, the seven-day week comes from these
seven astral gods. Did you know that?” He: “I ask the questions here. The
illegitimate daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, second letter b, seven letters.”
They: “What kind of fools do you take us for? Abigail!”
Before Peter, Sabina was our chief. She, on the contrary, believed
everyone. And didn’t ask questions from the omniscient book. And
never used her stamp Prioritätsfall. So she was fired. But Peter lets nearly
everyone have it. On the first page of their file. This means an expedited
review of the case in view of its obvious rejection. Here the GS signs the
transcript, says goodbye, smiles ingratiatingly at the master of fates, at
the interpreter, and at the guard with the halberd who has come for him,
and hopes that now everything will be all right, but as soon as the door
closes, Peter stamps it.
This paycheck was not for Sabina. When the interpreter used to go
to the café across the street with her during break, she would complain
that when she got home from work and sat down to eat, she would see
the woman who had wept at the interview that afternoon telling her
how they had pulled out her son’s nails while this same little nail-less
boy was sitting next to her in the waiting room. Children are questioned
separately from their parents.
“You can’t take pity on anyone here,” Sabina said once. “But I take
pity on them all. You just have to know how to detach, be a robot, ques-
tion-answer, question-answer, fill out the form, sign the transcript, send
it to Bern. Let them decide there. No, I have to find another job.”
Sabina was very young to be our chief. After she was fired, she left
for the opposite end of the empire and sent the interpreter a bizarre
120 Mikhail Shishkin
postcard. But none of that matters. Maybe I’ll explain later someday.
Or not.
I think we’ve been sidetracked, my good Nebuchadnezzasaurus.
What else makes our empire glorious? Just imagine, we have sub-
marines, and deserts, and even a dracula — not a vampire, the real thing.
Basically everything here is the real thing.
What else? The wound in the grass scabbed over — darker.
Oh yes, I forgot to say that cannibalism has not gone out of style
here. Moreover, people are consumed not just by anyone but by the
autocrat personally — I don’t know if it’s a he or she, I haven’t checked
the court calendar in a long time, and after all, gender is all a matter of
dialect. In short, there’s just one Herod the Great, but if you don’t think
about it all the time, then you could burst into song for sheer joy. At the
streetcar stop by the train station today, someone got out, whistling.
It’s funny. Years from now you’ll receive this letter and may not
even remember that there was once an emperor of this marvelously pin-
studded empire.
otepad, pen, gl ass of water. Sun outside. The water in the glass
lets a sunbeam in — not just a little sunbeam but a big fat one. It
spills over the ceiling and suddenly, for a second, looks like an ear. Also
an embryo. The door opens. They bring the next one in.
Question Briefly describe the reasons why you are requesting asylum.
Answer I used to work in customs on the Kazakhstan border. Sol-
diers would bring in drugs in their vehicles, and my supe-
rior was in cahoots with them. We were supposed to look
the other way and write them up properly. I wrote a letter
to the FSB. A few days later a truck ran over my daughter
on the street. They called me and said this was my first
Question Briefly describe the reasons why you are requesting asylum.
Answer I actively supported the opposition candidate in the guber-
natorial elections and took part in protest rallies and col-
lected signatures. I was called into the police, and they
demanded that I stop coming out with revelations against
the provincial leadership. I was beaten up several times by
121 Maidenhair
plainclothes police. Attached to my application for asylum
I have medical certificates about my broken jaw and arm
and other consequences of the beatings. Now, as you see,
I’m disabled and can’t work. My wife, who came with me,
has stomach cancer.
Question Briefly describe the reasons why you are requesting asylum.
Answer I have AIDS. Everyone in town shunned me. Even my wife
and children. I got infected when I was in the hospital,
during a blood transfusion. I have nothing now: no job,
no friends, no home. I’m going to die soon. This is what I
decided. If I’m going to croak anyway, why not do it here,
with you, in humane conditions? After all, you’re not going
to kick me out.
Question Briefly describe the reasons why you are requesting asylum.
Answer There was a voivode by the name of Dracula in the Ortho-
dox land of Wallachia. One day, the Turkish pasha sent
envoys to him, and they demanded that he reject his
Orthodox faith and submit to him. While speaking with
the voivode, the envoys failed to remove their hats, and
when asked why they were insulting the great sovereign
in this way, they replied: “Such is the custom of our land,
sovereign.” Then Dracula ordered his servants to nail
the caps to the envoys’ heads and sent their bodies back,
ordering that the pasha be told that God is one, but cus-
toms vary. The enraged pasha came to the Orthodox land
with an enormous army and began plundering and killing.
The Voivode Dracula assembled his entire modest host
and attacked the Muslims one night, killed many of them,
and fled. In the morning, he organized a review of his
surviving soldiers. Anyone wounded in the front had great
honor bestowed upon him and the title of knight. Any-
one wounded in the back was ordered impaled, as he said,
“You are a wife, not a husband.” Learning this, the pasha
pulled the remnants of his army back, not daring anymore
to attack this land. So the Voivode Dracula went on to
live on his possessions, and at that time there were many
poor, destitute, sick, and feeble people in the Wallachian
122 Mikhail Shishkin
land. Seeing how many unfortunate people were suffer-
ing in his land, he ordered them all to come see him. A
multitude without number — unfortunates, cripples, and
orphans, hoping for great mercy from him — gathered,
and they each began telling him of their misfortunes and
pains: one about a lost leg, another about an eye poked out;
one about a dead son, another about an unfair trial and an
innocent brother thrown in prison. Great was the lamen-
tation, and a wail hung over the entire Wallachian land.
Then Dracula ordered them all assembled in a single edi-
fice, built for the occasion, and ordered that they be given
fine comestibles and plenty of drink. They ate, drank, and
made merry. Then he came to them and asked, “What else
do you want?” They all replied, “Only God knows, and you,
great sovereign! Do with us as God instructs!” Then he
told them, “Do you want me to make you without sorrow
in this world, so that you want for nothing, so that you do
not bemoan your lost leg or poked-out eye, your dead son
or unfair trial?” They were hoping for some miracle from
him, and they all answered, “We do, sovereign!” Then he
ordered the building locked, surrounded with straw, and
set on fire. And the fire was great, and all in it burned.
y good Nebuchadnezzasaurus!
I checked my mailbox. Nothing from you.
—Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz
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Shulamith Firestone at Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, Israel, 1968. Photo by Andrew Klein.
On Shulamith Firestone
Jo Freeman, Carol Hanisch, Alix Kates Shulman, Ti-Grace Atkinson,
Anselma Dell’Olio, Rosalyn Baxandall, Ann Snitow, Phyllis Chesler,
Kate Millett, Chris Kraus, Elisabeth Subrin, Jennifer Szalai, Nina Power,
Andrew Klein, and Tirzah Firestone
The writer, artist, and feminist thinker Shulamith Firestone died in August
2012. In Firestone’s honor, we—along with her friend Beth Stryker—have
assembled the following reflections on her life and work by friends, critics,
and fellow travelers.
first met Shulie over Labor Day weekend in 1967, at the National
Conference for New Politics — an unsuccessful attempt to unite the
organized left behind a presidential ticket that would campaign against
the war in Vietnam. A couple of women had persuaded the conference
organizers to give them some space for a women’s caucus. Black cau-
cuses at such meetings were common and accepted, but one for women
was in itself radical.
Shulie was one of about four dozen women who met daily to ham-
mer out a resolution that called attention to women’s issues — equal
pay, child care, abortion on demand, and other things that today don’t
seem very radical. She didn’t say much, but what she did say stuck in my
mind. I would now characterize her views as radical feminism uncon-
taminated by left-wing rhetoric — something one didn’t encounter much
in those days.
When we took the women’s caucus resolution to the resolutions
committee, we were told that we were too late: the agenda already had a
resolution on women, and there was only time for one. That resolution
had been written by members of Women Strike for Peace, none of whom
had attended the women’s caucus; it was about peace, not women. I
walked out mad. I probably would have gone home had I not run into
126 Jo Freeman
Shulie. At first she didn’t believe what I told her. But after she found out
for herself, she was angrier than I was.
Alone, neither of us would have done anything, but together we fed
on each other’s rage. We decided to propose a substitute resolution when
the Women Strike for Peace language was read for discussion before
voting the next day. We stayed up all night revising our resolution. The
more we talked, the more radical it got.
We printed copies and passed them out. By the time the agenda
reached the women’s resolution, a handful of us stood at the micro-
phone, our hands stretched high, waiting to be recognized to propose
our substitute. After reading the ‘women’s resolution,’ meeting chair
William Pepper didn’t recognize any of us. “All in favor, all opposed,
motion passed,” he said. “Next resolution.”
As we stood there in shock, a young man pushed his way in front
of us. He was instantly recognized by the chair. Turning to face the
crowded room, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I want to speak for the
forgotten American, the American Indian.” Infuriated at being “forgot-
ten,” we rushed the podium, where the men only laughed. When Shulie
reached Pepper, he literally patted her on the head. “Cool down, little
girl,” he said. “We have more important things to do here than talk
about women’s problems.”
Shulie didn’t cool down, and neither did I. We put together a list of
every woman we knew who might be interested in women’s issues and
invited them to a meeting at my Chicago apartment. What came to be
called the West Side Group met for seven months. Shulie only stayed a
month before moving to New York; her sister Laya took her place in our
group. Shulie left with a list of names of some New York women. With
them, she founded the first women’s liberation groups in New York.
For the next couple years we stayed loosely in touch. When The
Dialectic of Sex was published in 1970, she inscribed the copy she gave
me, “For Jo: With Whom It All Began.”
By 1975, Shulie had faded away. I had to track her down to give her
a copy of my first book. Years later, I was told by others of her mental
illness and its effects, but I didn’t see it myself.
We reconnected for a few years when her next book, Airless Spaces,
was published in 1998. She invited several old friends to celebrate. She
seemed fine, but others told me that she wasn’t.
127 On Shulamith Firestone
The last time I saw Shulie was in 2000, at a party Gloria Steinem
hosted for my latest book. Even though both were early feminists, they
had never met. Gloria told her how honored she was to meet the author
of such an important book. They hugged, and they talked.
Shulie and I managed to stay in touch through 2003. Afterward, I
only got her voice mail when I called, and no reply to my emails. Carol
Giardina and Kathie Sarachild kept me apprised of her ups and downs
through 2007. The next time I heard of Shulie was when I got word of
her death.
Thinking back on those years and Shulie’s contribution to the
Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM), I see Shulie as a shooting star.
She flashed brightly across the midnight sky. And then she disappeared.
—Jo Freeman
first met Shulie in the fall of 1967 in New York, at the apartment of
Bill Price, a writer for the independent left movement newspaper the
National Guardian. They both had been at the NCNP in Chicago, where
Bill witnessed Shulie being patted on the head and told to make way for
“more important issues.” Shulie was livid about how the feminists were
treated at the conference and she wasn’t afraid to show it. Her anger was
right on target. She was obviously a doer and an organizer, as well as a
As a result of our meeting, I became an early member of New York
Radical Women, which Shulie was organizing with Pam Allen. Kathie
Sarachild and I had been talking about the possibility of a movement
for women’s liberation, but it was Shulie and Pam who called that first
meeting in New York that made history and changed the direction of
many lives, including mine.
New York Radical Women’s first action was at the Jeanette Rankin
Brigade, a women’s peace march in Washington DC in January 1968.
Shulie was very clear from the beginning that we should go there to
point out the futility of women protesting the war when we had so little
real political strength ourselves. Others were not so sure this was the
right tack to take, but Shulie, as always, stood her ground. She also took
a leading hand in shaping the details of the protest, bringing her humor,
her creativity, her political insights, and her passionate insistence that
the oppression of women be on the front burner. Then she followed
128 Carol Hanisch
through with a public analysis of the action, printed in Notes from the
First Year, for others to learn from.
She had such courage. I listened in awe as she spoke on the steps of
a New York City cathedral about what unwanted pregnancies are like
for women and the need for legal abortion. It was at a demonstration in
support of Bill Baird, who was facing a jail sentence for his abortion and
birth-control activism. This was early 1968, before abortion was some-
thing you talked about in public or even with friends. Instead of berat-
ing women who didn’t show up at the rally, she publicly acknowledged
her own fears about coming out for free abortion and pointed out how
real social power was brought to bear against women who stepped out
of line.
Notes from the First Year was her baby, but she didn’t try to control
its content by editing or vetting contributions, as far as I know. Most
women brought their articles to the Southern Conference Educational
Fund office mimeograph machine ready to run. Shulie did write several
of the articles, which showed the range of her knowledge. There was
an eye-opening history of the 19th-century women’s rights movement
and also “Women Rap About Sex”—a seriously funny piece based on
a consciousness-raising meeting. It was unsigned but really captured
her wit.
Shulie went on to help found Redstockings and then New York Rad-
ical Feminists, and to edit Notes from the Second Year with Anne Koedt,
all by 1970. The second Notes carried a broad roundup of the thinking
and actions evolving in the WLM and added to the Movement’s amaz-
ing upsurge. Many people consider The Dialectic of Sex Shulie’s major
contribution, but I believe these early writings and actions are even
more valuable; they’re crucial to understanding the early WLM and her
leadership in it.
I’ve heard that later in life Shulie preferred the more formal
Shulamith. But Shulie was what she called herself back when she made
a big impact on my life. I hope she would forgive that she lives in my
memory as Shulie.
—Carol Hanisch
129 On Shulamith Firestone
had seen her at meetings of New York Radical Women. I didn’t
know the name of that fierce presence with the thick dark mane and
piercing eyes, but among the fifty or sixty women who met regularly in
a large downtown hall to talk about the new ideas of women’s libera-
tion, she, with her startling opinions and analytical prowess, made an
impression on me.
After NYRW grew too large for everyone to be heard, we decided
to meet in smaller groups. With Ellen Willis, she cofounded the group
called Redstockings. When I attended my first Redstockings conscious-
ness-raising meeting, I learned her name: Shulamith Firestone.
The subject at that first meeting was sex — always a hot topic, but
one that in the early days of WLM so roused women’s resentment about
being mistreated by men that there was barely room to sit on the floor
of that small East Village apartment, across the street from a concur-
rent meeting of WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy
from Hell) and down the block from the New York headquarters of
Hells Angels.
Seated in our rough circle, I was about four people ahead of Shulie.
When it was my turn to speak, I described how, when I became preg-
nant with our second child, my husband took up with other women, and
I eventually responded by taking a lover of my own. I spoke of my fear
that he would abandon our children if he discovered my affair. In the
room I felt sympathetic vibes for my “testimony,” but what Shulie took
from it was entirely unexpected. An attractive, forceful heterosexual
woman, she’d had any number of lovers (though not, apparently, at that
moment). None, she said, had treated her as an equal. She was enraged
by the power disparity between the sexes that enabled men to treat her
any way they wanted and get away with it. If she — if women — made
demands, men could simply walk away and find someone else. Then she
fixed her piercing eyes on me, pointed her finger, and said, “You have
two men and I have none. It’s unfair.”
I didn’t take it personally. She was addressing the question of scar-
city, and pointing out that just as there was no justice in the conduct
of sexual relations, there was none in its distribution. Who but Shulie
would be able to step back and see it as another aspect of what we then
called male supremacy?
She was energized by righteous anger. More than anyone I’ve known,
she was able to harness negative emotions around her — resentment,
130 Alix Kates Shulman, Ti-Grace Atkinson
outrage, confusion, sadness, hurt, and more — and turn them into the
kind of rage needed to fuel a movement.
After another summer or two, our Redstockings group died of burn-
out and attrition. Shulie had long since decamped to cofound yet another
important WLM organization, New York Radical Feminists, which I
joined upon the demise of our group — as usual, several steps behind her.
Three of the most important movement organizations in New York City
were founded by her and might not have existed without her.
Soon afterward, she left the movement. I lost sight of her until 1997,
when she came to Barnes & Noble for the launch party for the twenty-
fifth anniversary edition of my first novel, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen.
I had written it back when I was in the groups she founded, and it burned
with the insights her work had sparked. I have a photo of us together from
that party, posing with two more old Redstockings, Irene Peslikis and
Corrine Coleman, who, too, are now deceased. Shulie was writing her
own collection of short stories then, the spare and moving Airless Spaces,
based on her time in and out of mental hospitals. Debilitated by medica-
tions, she could do little to publicize her new book. I had the honor of
helping to arrange a group reading. Her inscription in my treasured copy
of Airless Spaces shows her generosity: “To Alix, With enormous thanks
for a wonderful reading and for being a great role model.”
I, her follower, a role model? For what? Persistence? Survival? She
was the visionary whose organizing passion helped create the move-
ment that forever changed our lives.
—Alix Kates Shulman
remember Shulie once saying to me: “The revolution will begin when
women stop smiling.” She sure had that right.
I met her in September 1967 at the NCNP in Chicago — I had come
from New York with Florynce Kennedy and Peg Brennan — where
I encountered both her and Jo Freeman for the first time. We intro-
duced ourselves at the mimeograph machine, running off copies of our
feminist resolutions.
What else was happening in the summer and fall of 1967? There
was the Columbia–SDS sit-ins and university takeover; the black power
conference in Newark; the March on the Pentagon in October. Histori-
cally, women’s movements have arisen within the context of widespread
131 On Shulamith Firestone
social unrest, and ours was no exception. We were greatly influenced
by the civil rights movement — the National Organization for Women
(started in 1966) called itself the NAACP for women — and by 1968,
many of us were inspired by black power.
I came to know Anne Koedt better than Shulie, but they were often
together. I remember both from early 1968, when Anne called me to
compare notes on women’s rights. (I was president of the New York
chapter of NOW at that time.) We discovered right away that there was
a natural alliance between some members of Radical Women and some
of the younger women in NOW. This alliance initially focused on our
willingness to take public stands on so-called “sexual” issues, begin-
ning with abortion. I remember both Anne and Shulie came with me to
Philadelphia the day after Martin Luther King was killed; I was deliver-
ing a speech entitled “Vaginal Orgasm as a Mass Hysterical Survival
Response.” I was very grateful for their support! Radical Women was
also in general much less freaked out by Valerie Solanas than NOW
was. I remember Shulie and Anne both came up to my place for Valerie’s
birthday party. It was a small party.
Later, for the 1970 Ladies’ Home Journal sit-in, a group of women
in media put out a call to the general women’s movement for support.
Shulie and I both responded. The editor, John Mack Carter, ended up
sitting atop his desk, with some one hundred women seated at his feet
on the floor. Many hours dragged on with little progress for the media
women’s demands. The situation was ghastly. Shulie and I were there
in support, but were forced into this humiliating position: the sultan
on top, his harem below. What to do? Finally — I don’t remember why
or how — Shulie and I threatened to throw this guy out the window (we
were many floors up). Some of the women in media protected him.
I most fondly remember Shulamith Firestone as never a “patient”
woman. She didn’t take shit. At least — never with a smile.
—Ti-Grace Atkinson
here were two major divisions of the Women’s Liberation Move-
ment: the uptown women and the downtown women. Kate Millett
and I were founding members of NOW NY. She and Fumio Yoshimura
were artists and lived in a loft on the Bowery, but somehow she landed
uptown in NOW. When we first heard of Radical Women and read its
132 Anselma Dell’Olio
magazine, Kate said, “Let’s go, I’ll join any feminist group around.” I hap-
pily agreed, and took off with her, miniskirt, eye makeup, and all, and
sailed into a possibly rent-controlled flat south of 14th Street.
I was impressed with Shulie’s writing, as most people are: it’s
cogent, original, stimulating, and bursting with brilliance. It was Shu-
lie who marched up to me, as the other downtowners eyed me warily,
and got straight to the point: “I’ve heard so many terrible things about
you, I knew I had to meet you.” Already captivated by her mind, I was
bowled over by her beauty. The masses of curly, dark hair and sensuous
mouth, set above a curvy, well-proportioned body: she could have been
an adored icon of European cinema. Big, all-seeing, black-brown eyes,
magnified by granny glasses, held a steady gaze as she looked at my
face, in my eyes; none of that invasive, insulting old up-and-down we get
from too many women, sizing up the merchandise or the competition,
so to speak.
I fell in love with all of her, and though we rarely met, we would
speak for hours on the phone about everything. Mostly we spoke of
ideas, ours and those of other feminists. She approved of my feminist
theater project (pronouncing it theetur) and we often discussed how she
might best honor her ambition. She absorbed Mailer’s Advertisements
for Myself, and explained her strategy for making her mark as an artist.
She felt the book she was writing would put her on the map, easing her
transition to recognition as a painter. She anguished over a New Yorker
article about a Redstockings CR group: names and professions had been
changed, but she felt she was recognizable and that the ironic tone of
the piece would damage her credibility. Often hard up for money, she
told me about interviewing for a topless waitress gig. The guy in charge
eyed her boobs, asking, “Are they firm?” She said she gasped mentally,
thinking, “Oh God, you mean I’m not even qualified for this?” After the
first dough came in from the book, she was mugged on the street by
some homegirls with a knife. She told them that she lived in the neigh-
borhood (Alphabet City in the raw), and was far from prosperous. They
rifled through her waist pack anyway, and waving in her face the little
checkbook they found, said accusingly, “So what’s this?”
I talked myself hoarse to get her to stop feeling guilty for the little
bit of success she had earned with her hard work. And it did cost her.
I lost her for weeks and months as she kept the phone unplugged to
concentrate on writing. Then she’d surface again. One day she left the
133 On Shulamith Firestone
country and vanished altogether. I grilled everyone I could think of but
got only vague answers. I received the odd postcard, always with a terse
message, like this one from Africa: “Hi Anselma. Bye. Shulie.”
I never stopped looking for her. In the ’80s Susan Brownmiller said
she’d seen her wandering around an organic restaurant with paperbacks
falling out of her pockets. When at long last I found her a few years ago,
she was curt on the phone and said she had no interest in seeing anyone
“from back then.” It was a body blow. Not long after, she wrote to say
that after my call she felt a surge of love for me in her heart. Mine leapt.
On my next trip to New York we met downtown, but my Shulie was
AWOL for good. She said her medication destroyed her ability to think
and write. I was unable to get through the thick curtain of blues she
drew around her like a shroud. I asked if I could take her book to an Ital-
ian publisher and she quickly sent it, along with one written by her sis-
ter. Even in her misery, she was thoughtful. We never met again. Then,
I mourned the loss of her élan vital, hostage to implacable forces. Now
that she is dead, I grieve anew with fresh sorrow. She burned so bright,
the flames consumed her; yet the mark she left on the world — and on
my soul — is indelible. I love you, Shulie. Bye. Anselma.
—Anselma Dell’Olio
first read about the Women’s Liberation Movement in the fall of
1967, in an article in the Guardian—the article either mentioned Pam
Allen or was by Pam Allen. I was immediately excited and called Pam
and asked to join. I was tired of engaging in peace movements domi-
nated by men. She never told me about a meeting — I think, in retrospect,
because I sounded too radical and anti-male. But I went to the Jeanette
Rankin Brigade march, where I saw the Burial of Traditional Woman-
hood and made contact with Jenny Gardner and Kathie Sarachild. We
talked the whole train ride back. Kathie said they were looking for a
meeting place and I volunteered my apartment (a fact verified in my FBI
file). At that first meeting I remember Anne Forer, who was winding
her underarm hair and asking how exactly were we all oppressed. The
answers were exciting.
My memories of Shulie start with our meetings at the Southern
Conference Educational Fund office, at Broadway and 10th Street. I
loved her fierce, definitive statements, especially because I was an “on
134 Rosalyn Baxandall
the one hand, on the other hand, this and that” type. I used her as a
role model and tried to imitate her militant convictions. Afterward, we
Lower East Siders — Anne Forer, Shulie, Irene Peslikis, Linda Feldman,
Judith Duffett, and others — would go to Ratner’s and rehash the meet-
ing. I was married and had a young kid and a regular job, and that made
me different. But I loved the talk, especially about the subtle and not-so-
subtle ways we had been oppressed since childhood, probably because
I was weighed down with responsibility. Shulie talked a lot about men,
especially Abbie Hoffman — she knew all those guys intimately. I know
it doesn’t sound like the serious Shulie, but boy talk and sexuality were
part of her life then. I also remember talking about having a party of
all us radical feminists. Shulie and I were the only ones who voted for
having men at the party. We thought it would be more fun.
My next clear memory of Shulie was of her visiting Paris and want-
ing to tell Simone de Beauvoir about our movement. She organized us
to write articles for Notes From the First Year to bring to de Beauvoir. I
hadn’t seen Shulie as a leader of the group, but she was the spark that
made things happen. She solicited articles, helped edit them, and put
them together. She didn’t think she should share in the menial tasks,
like collating and stapling, as she was the brains behind it, but I think we
convinced her to take part in all aspects. As I remember, Shulie told us
de Beauvoir was underwhelmed. Nonetheless, the effort was important
and made us all consider the significance of the movement we had made.
She understood from the beginning that the WLM was revolutionary.
I believe it was Marilyn Webb, whose husband Lee was a honcho in
SDS, who convinced the Mobilization Committee to allow a woman to
speak at the giant march and Anti-Inaugural Ball in 1969. Shulie wrote
a speech that was militant and eloquent — an indictment of men who
benefited from the age-old oppression of women and a call on women to
revolt. But neither Shulie nor Marilyn Webb could speak because SDS
guys swarmed the stage, saying, “Take her off the stage and fuck her!”
The stage began to sink and David Dellinger, the MC, called for order,
but he didn’t demand that the men behave or allow the women to speak.
This confirmed to Shulie, Ellen Willis, and others that male chauvinism
was alive and well on the New Left. After that disaster, Shulie and Ellen
started Redstockings.
Both left after a short while. They wanted more militant action and
less consciousness-raising, and to do other things. By this time Shulie
135 On Shulamith Firestone
had begun work on The Dialectic of Sex, the major book of second-wave
feminism. I remember reading it and marveling at how it contained the
material we had been discussing for years, but Shulie drew new conclu-
sions, put the insights in a new framework.
I hardly saw Shulie after that, except at Anne Forer’s, and then they
were discussing astrology. Shulie wasn’t easy. I remember that when she
told me she was writing her book, I mentioned Philippe Ariès’s Century
of Childhood. She wanted to borrow it. When I asked for it back, she said
she had better use for it than I did. She did, as I saw in her book.
The next time I saw Shulie was in the ’90s, after she had been hos-
pitalized. I was part of a support group that visited her and kept tabs on
her whereabouts. The group was made up of her family, a nurse, a social
worker, and a few friends. Until about 2010 I’d visit Shulie, or she’d visit
me, and we’d go to museums, poetry readings, and movies, maybe once
every two months. She still painted, and had written a formally innova-
tive book after The Dialectic of Sex on art and feminism, but she told me
her publisher had rejected it. She wrote something else and showed it
to people, who said it wasn’t good, and though I volunteered to read it I
never saw it.
By this time Shulie was much changed, low-key and mellow, but she
still had interesting insights and was good company. We spoke much of
her dilemma: if she took the medicine she was sane, but couldn’t create;
if she didn’t take the awful drugs she was creative but self-destructive.
Her later paintings were abstract, with greens in them; they weren’t the
wonderful, dark portraits and drawings from her early years. She wasn’t
too interested in feminism, and she grew quiet when more than three
people were around. But she still went to the Left Forum and poetry
readings and out to dinner with me, and liked seeing old feminists.
I feel awful that Shulie is being so much more honored and cared
for in death than she was in life.
—Rosalyn Baxandall
his is how i t is: I could maunder on vaguely and sentimentally
about that astounding year after I attended the founding meeting
of New York Radical Feminists in November 1969. But, to my eternal
regret, I took no notes. I remember so few specifics. I attended the
meeting at the insistence of an old friend, Cellestine Ware, who told me
136 Ann Snitow, Phyllis Chesler
something important was happening. Within those few hours I became
a feminist activist, the start of what has become a lifetime of engage-
ment. Shulie was central to that intense beginning. Her presence was
luminous; she was a knife cutting through everything.
But what exactly did we tell each other during all those hours and
hours? I don’t know. One of the hardest things to remember is earlier
states of mind. The best source is Alice Echols’s Daring to be Bad. A
great historian, Alice picked patiently through piles of evidence, faith-
fully reconstructing what she could of who we were then: sometimes
naïve or silly, often original and wonderful.
I do remember the excitement, the joy of that brief time when we
met every week and Shulie was writing her great book. I have written
about Dialectic twice: first for the radio show Womankind in 1970 and
then, twenty-five years later, for Dissent on the occasion of Dialectic’s
long overdue republication. Both times I found the book remarkable,
though the melancholy of the longue durée did invade the second piece.
In the years between these two takes, Shulie’s book had often been
demonized. I argued in Dissent that people were missing the genre in
which Shulie was writing. She was a utopian visionary: “This sort of
person appears (is created? is momentarily heard?) at the beginning of
movements. Magnificent and stunned by insight, they tell us . . . the way
we live is intolerable. Then they stagger off, leaving [the rest of us] to try
to live the insight out.”
But there is something more than praise that I’ve never written
about: my deep sense of indebtedness to Shulamith Firestone. She dared
in a way I never could have dared. When I think of Shulie, it is not
to those now-mythical meetings I return, not even to the astonishing
book, but to the very beginning of our movement for women’s libera-
tion, that scene in Chicago in 1967, when Shulie and Jo Freeman faced
humiliation, sexual insult, and ridicule, and responded to men of the left
with rage and magnificent indignation. Where did they find the nerve,
the strength to confront male contempt?
I’ve wondered about this for many years. It was a time of outrage,
indeed, but their rage was a special, personal brew; out of a complex
amalgam of private reasons and individual genius they stepped outside
of our common female desire to be acceptable to men, to stay in their
good books, dependent on them for either love or livelihood. Shulie
and Jo invented an indignation and a new vision of how women are
137 On Shulamith Firestone
oppressed that we all embraced ten minutes later. But I, for one, could
never have made that leap into rage and new hopefulness without them.
Like many women, I simply was too ashamed, too vulnerable to male
insult to contemplate what they imagined. They made honorable and
magnificent a claim that most men then assumed was stupid, narcis-
sistic, vaunting, girlish, shameful, and sad. Does this characterization
of the gender scene back then sound exaggerated? It’s not. Again, one
of the hardest things to remember is earlier states of mind. The sexism
and female self-doubt of those times is hard to recall, even for those of
us who were there.
I loved Shulie, but it was hard to stay close. Jo Freeman has quoted
what Shulie wrote in her copy of The Dialectic of Sex, and this embold-
ens me (as she and Shulie will always embolden me) to do the same:
Sept 1970
Dear Ann—
I want you to know — though I still urge you for your sake to try a little masculine
selfshness — that I too basked in your kindness and rare understanding all the
long winter that I wrote this book.
All love and good wishes, Shulie
I wouldn’t mind having this as my epitaph. She identified my habit of
compliance — of, alas, all-too-female self-sacrifice — but so kindly. She
urged me to be more like her, willing to take off and be free.
—Ann Snitow
or a long time, our movement was haunted by the terrible absence
of Shulamith Firestone. The disappearance of so shining and bril-
liant a star always reminded me of Sylvia Plath’s sudden demise — young
genius cut down too soon. Only in this case Shulie was very much alive.
Either she was holed up in her fifth-floor apartment in the East Village
or holed up in a hospital. She was still here, without really being here.
I remember reading The Dialectic of Sex when it first came out
in 1970. I was writing Women and Madness and her book inspired
and challenged me to dare even more. The work is fierce, as sharp as
a diamond — logically precise, somewhat frightening, and extremely
138 Kate Millett
liberating. I will never forget how her chapter on love (as an illness)
made me laugh out loud with relief.
We — and the rest of America — had never seen anything like us
before. Cracked, belligerent, misguided, and strangers to one another,
radical feminists were giants on the earth. Since the mother-daughter
relationship had been painful and humiliating for many of us, we called
each other “sisters.” But as Ti-Grace Atkinson quipped, “Sisterhood is
powerful — it kills sisters.” Although we knew that this was true, most
feminists denied that it was really true.
Once, Shulie called and asked me to visit her in my capacity as a
psychotherapist. I immediately agreed. However, she said I would need
to come to the fifth floor by climbing up the fire escape. She would talk
to me through the window.
I told her I couldn’t. I might fall to earth and shatter. Still, I could
not persuade her to open her door.
Her second book, Airless Spaces, is a small and tender gem. Humbly,
carefully, she wrote about her madness and her time in various asylums.
When it was published, she asked a small group of us, myself included,
to read aloud from it and we did. I remember that Shulie stood off a bit,
watching, listening, perhaps approving of her words and of our reading.
But she remained silent, at a remove. Always removed.
For many years now I’ve kept a list of the feminists we’ve lost. At
one memorial service in 1987, in a large West Village courtyard, I saw
the faces of many second wavers: they were ashen, shocked, stunned,
frightened. We have lost so many dear friends. And now, Shulie has
joined them.
—Phyllis Chesler
remember Shulie. We all do. Even people who never met her — only
read her. Probably they remember her best. We always put the best
part of ourselves in our books. The rest is gossip and trash. Opinions,
even disdain.
There was a lot to object to in her books. After all, Shulie was mak-
ing the case for Marxism and for sexual freedom. Reshaped entirely,
with the kibbutzim writ large; even group infant care by both sexes so
the female would not be weighed down by the “barbarity” of pregnancy
and child care. It was, of course, just “poppycock” and “dream vision.” It
139 On Shulamith Firestone
was also a huge paradigm shift, to imagine liberating human sexuality
from millennia of patriarchy.
We all had notions like that once. We had all been driven by the
cruelty of sexual abuse and predation, and cried out that it stop. At once.
We hadn’t yet entered upon rape and genital mutilation, the enslave-
ment of women as property. We didn’t even have a good idea of what we
were up against. It seems Shulie did.
Which was odd. She was one of the youngest among us when The
Dialectic of Sex hit print. Way too young for the onslaught.
I was ten years older than Shulie when Sexual Politics came into
print, teaching English up at Barnard and married to Fumio, a Japanese
sculptor who had been through the War and was even a feminist.
Still, I went a little crazy too, endlessly having to repeat myself.
The real problem with patriarchy: it’s an entire social system of status,
temperament, and role — centuries old. We regard it as “nature.” The
Movement, but also Fumio, cheered me on; we all had a hilarious time
laughing at the conceit of Mailer and Miller. It was outrageous fun even
to say these things aloud. The wind blew hard at times: my family tried
to control me with psychiatry but finally gave up. Eventually, I went off
to England to make a movie.
But imagine what Shulie went through in America. She took on the
whole show of capitalist society. How was it for her with the malice of
the critics, the talk-show hosts, anti-Semitism, the residual mess of anti-
communism? Shulie had lived inside the Movement; she had no idea yet
of the “real world.” It destroyed her, overwhelmed her. Burned her alive.
We tried to get together once to help, with the American Civil Lib-
erties Union — even just to get them to leave her in peace, to leave her
alone. We lost. It’s hard to argue against family power, against doctors,
against a whole society, crying this person is mad and has no rights.
Finally a text did emerge, an experimental thing pretending to be
fiction. Airless Spaces. Unheralded, unadvertised. It was her account of
the useless days on the ward, without any rights or voice or purpose. It is
a terribly sad and harrowing account of a fine mind, wasted. It tells more
than any other book what we do to “people with a few ideas.”
In other places you get lined up and shot. In America you get
drowned out, locked away, made even less authentic. Shulie looks back
at us, the beautiful long hair she seemed to hide behind, her owl-like
glasses she used to take off when everyone talked at once and wouldn’t
140 Chris Kraus
listen to her speak. She was beautiful and somehow inscrutable, with
something fragile and youthful about her — a mystery. I remember her
from so many meetings; then she disappeared.
Other feminists dominated the scene; other voices, other books,
other fads and figures; secondary sources. The New York Times pre-
dicted feminism’s death very solemnly. Twice already. So far.
Strange how much of it has come true without our even noticing it.
How maliciously it has been applied: babies are purchased by blue-eyed
Americans at a price in order to avoid the “trouble” of pregnancy; male
medicine rules the world, charging more and more for its services. If
you’re rich, you can buy any organ. Not what Shulie had in mind at all.
Maybe we could reconsider how we have turned her utopian vision
into our own nightmare, as we converted her bright promise at 25 into
the voices in her head that made her life hideous.
I recently read of a young man who kept “beating up his refrigera-
tor,” pummeling it with cobblestones, calling it “St. Frigid.” A silly thing
to do. Of course, he’s an artist and now famous. Good thing Shulie never
tried that; she’d have been carted off in a moment. Consider what a
refrigerator means to a man versus what it means to a woman. Women
were not rolling much steel in Shulie’s time; few of us had even heard of
Kelvin or had any notion of how the damn thing ran.
Shulie went on writing and painting. The world continued to call
her crazy. All authorities agreed: she was a “paranoid schizophrenic.” By
that time she was mostly on “meds” and resigned to her fate; silenced
effectively. In the enormous despair of your last days, Shulie, what of
that solitude? You wrote other things: what were they? Whom, what, did
you choose to paint? What were your paintings like? What will happen
to your work?
—Kate Millett
141 On Shulamith Firestone
ometi me i n 1997, the artist Beth Stryker wrote me to ask if
Semiotext(e) would like to consider a new work by Shulamith Fire-
stone for our Native Agents series. My heart leapt. The timing seemed
almost magical. For the last couple of years, I’d been obsessed with
researching the histories of second-wave feminist critics, artists, and
writers. I’d just published my first book and at the time, it seemed like
the worthiest goal of any life was to appear. Where are they now? I won-
dered. The answers, as they arrived, formed a nauseous testament to
the personal cost of American activism. Some had become New Age
shamans and healers, living in tepees and tents in the Southwest. Some
had been institutionalized. Some, when I managed to reach them, were
impossibly bitter and cranky, having been backed so far into a corner
they could no longer speak to the world. Others had simply stopped
working and dropped off the cultural radar.
Throughout this research, I’d wondered what had become of
Shulamith Firestone. The most intellectually brilliant and bold of her
contemporaries, surely she hadn’t succumbed to these disappointing
conciliations. When it arrived, Firestone’s manuscript seemed to answer
the question. Airless Spaces is a series of pointed vignettes about the
lives of the poor inside and outside public psychiatric institutions. And,
I must confess, at that time I misread the book. Like the obituary writers
who choose to memorialize Firestone through the lens of her mental
illness, I found it heartbreaking proof of the isolation suffered by women
pursuing ideas when they are no longer popular.
Fifteen years later, I’m struck less by the fact of Firestone’s
death — frankly, 67 is a ripe old age among the indigent, mentally ill
population — than by the book’s astonishing literary achievement. Far
from a rehab or hospitalization memoir, Airless Spaces makes no men-
tion at all of the author’s diagnosis and treatment. Its first person merely
observes, in impeccable, damning detail, the small and large acts of
brutality imposed by the patients themselves and by the institution that
must eventually culminate in the annihilation of personality and will.
No one outside of this world could have written the book; no writer I
know who’s undergone the experience has ever described it with Fire-
stone’s lucid sangfroid and dispassion. Airless Spaces is singular testa-
ment not only of madness, but of the psychic condition of poverty and
all forms of institutionalization. The book is a miracle.
—Chris Kraus
142 Elisabeth Subrin
never met Shul amith Firestone, but I’ve been immersed in a repre-
sentation of her for seventeen years. While researching second-wave
feminism in graduate school at the Art Institute of Chicago, I saw a doc-
umentary portrait of her filmed when she was a student there in 1967.
The 16mm film, Shulie, was produced by four Northwestern graduate
film students. In it, Shulamith Firestone, 22, argues confidently for a life
on the margins. The filmmakers document her waiting for the train,
photographing trash and workers at a dump yard, painting a young
man’s portrait in her studio, working at the US Post Office, and endur-
ing an excruciating painting critique by an all-male panel of professors.
She discusses her views on art, religion, language, men, motherhood,
and race. Because the filmmakers had a mandate to document the so-
called Now Generation, questions about time, generations, and what
constitutes the “now” recur throughout.
The directors had no way of knowing that Firestone would go on to
become a key figure in the Women’s Liberation Movement and produce
one of its most radical texts. Still, the seeds of her nascent feminist theo-
ries are embedded in the film. So too is her bold vision of how to live
as an artist. Employing an intimate, lyrical, cinema verité approach, the
directors captured a young woman’s complexity and fervor during that
critical historical moment. And while Firestone notably chose to with-
hold information about her political activities, it’s all there: the intensity,
the irreverence, the challenges to religion and gender roles, and her self-
described alienation. On camera she is intense, funny, flirtatious, ironic,
driven, audacious, coy; an intellectual badass.
After watching Shulie so many times it should have staged a revolt
in my VHS deck, I was given permission to work with the material. In
1997 I completed a Super 8 fictional adaptation starring the uncanny
lookalike Kim Soss. Also titled Shulie, it was a shot-by-shot remake with
intentional deviations and slippage, and an introductory section that
sets up the film with contemporary footage.
As a graduate student and then an instructor at the Art Institute in
the ’90s, I was troubled by how Firestone’s experiences there reflected
my own and those of my female students. The resonance seemed a sad
testament to the work that remains unfinished. Resurrecting that era
across exactly thirty years of history felt like urgent and essential work.
But after sending Firestone a rough cut of the film via her friend Robert
Roth, I learned that she didn’t like it. Roth told me Firestone said that
143 On Shulamith Firestone
as an artist she appreciated it as a labor of love, but she hadn’t liked the
1967 version and didn’t see how mine was any different.
Crushed and conflicted, I decided not to screen the film pub-
licly — not for legal or ethical reasons, but for emotional ones. Five
months later, a mentor and feminist intellectual challenged my decision.
She argued that we have a right in this culture to contemplate, cite, and
respond to public figures without authorization, and that in the spirit of
Firestone’s own revolutionary call to arms — her argument that women
must “dare to be bad” and resist the tyranny of niceness — I should share
my own work. In the spirit of Firestone’s incendiary writing and activ-
ism, I decided to show the film. Being, perhaps, an obedient bad girl,
I allowed it to be screened only conditionally: in arts and educational
contexts, with extensive educational materials, limited publicity, and
other strict presentation conditions.
It’s complicated to address someone’s brilliance when she claims to
no longer want that recognition. And it’s a delicate decision to present
someone in a moment of becoming. One of the most enduring legacies of
second-wave feminism is its insistence on respecting multiple perspec-
tives and ways of being. As Firestone and I never met, such an oppor-
tunity to hear each other was lost. Over the years, Firestone’s friends
reported her varying reactions to the film, from begrudging approval
to much distress. It is heartbreaking to think that a reverent film that
reignited interest in her work caused her pain, and for that I’m deeply
sorry. Now I’ve been asked both to show the film in her honor and to
withhold it in her honor. Once again, the dilemma: which Shulamith
Firestone do we honor? There’s the artist, the trailblazing activist, and
the writer of important, provocative books; and there’s the author who
alternately published and withdrew these books from publication, the
woman who suffered from mental illness. Was her withdrawal from
public life another prescient and willful insight? Or in complying with
her (occasional) wishes, are we allowing the slow erasure of another
brilliant woman’s voice from history?
A few weeks ago, the feminist writer Jennifer Baumgardner, who
made rigorous efforts to republish The Dialectic of Sex, told me that in
her conversations with Firestone she seemed neutral about my film, but
felt I hadn’t captured her spark. Clearly her objections were stronger
at times, but I love that she still knew this about herself. Shulamith
144 Jennifer Szalai
Firestone was completely out there. She was on fire. And that passionate
flame is irreducible, and irreproducible.
—Elisabeth Subrin
somehow managed to get pregnant and have a child without ever
having read The Dialectic of Sex. (Or, I suppose Firestone might say,
I managed to get pregnant and have a child because I never read The
Dialectic of Sex.) I’d first heard of her in college; her memorable name
for many years brought to mind vague notions of cyborg wombs. “The
Women’s Movement,” Joan Didion’s withering assessment of Seventies
feminism, reserved particular scorn for Firestone’s proposal to “tran-
scend, via technology, ‘the very organization of nature.’” Reading Didion’s
piece in my early twenties, I felt that my reflexive suspicions of a certain
strand of radical feminism had been confirmed. Joan Didion sounded
reasonable to me. Shulamith Firestone, in her rendition, did not.
I recall my early response to Didion’s essay — wholehearted agree-
ment, an almost sensual pleasure in seeing a woman writer skewer “the
women’s movement” with such clinical efficiency — and recognize that
I was working through some issues of my own at the time. I might have
called myself a feminist, but not without some awkward attempts to
distance myself from a radical feminism that always sounded either too
angry or too idealistic to my ear. I had a near-pathological aversion to
sentimentality in any form. Didion was my kind of writer. In fact, she
still is. But that doesn’t mean I can continue to deny how completely her
contempt in that essay misses the point.
The Dialectic of Sex is an utterly unreasonable work of historical
inquiry, philosophical reverie, and sci-fi speculation. Firestone’s take on
pregnancy (“barbaric . . . the temporary deformation of the body of the
individual for the sake of the species”) and educating a child (“retard-
ing his development”) reflect what seems to be a weird combination
of techno-optimism and biological essentialism. To extricate yourself
from the thicket is an impossible task. Nature demands that women
have babies, but they shouldn’t; nature demands that children be free of
adult supervision, and they should. According to Firestone, a pregnant
woman invariably provokes revulsion among everyone, including the
woman herself: “The child’s first response, ‘What’s wrong with that Fat
Lady?’; the husband’s guilty waning of sexual desire; the woman’s tears
145 On Shulamith Firestone
in front of the mirror at eight months — are all gut reactions, not to be
dismissed as cultural habits.”
It’s worth noting, however, that Firestone’s outrageous pronounce-
ments — which made her both revered and reviled — are the least inter-
esting part of The Dialectic of Sex. Woven throughout the book are more
acute and altogether searing observations. Firestone had much to say
about the plight of the woman artist, who had to anticipate the expecta-
tions and interpretations “of a tradition she had no part in making” if she
wished to be taken seriously. To do otherwise—“to participate in culture
in a female way”—was to court condescension or neglect, to be labeled a
“Lady Artist” or else grudgingly acknowledged as “good but irrelevant.”
To Firestone, Didion’s attack must have seemed a prophecy fulfilled. In a
society that revolves around men’s aspirations and desires, it is the plight
of every woman to feel the lure of male approval. A woman with any
ambition would be especially pressed to ignore the situation she shares
with other women, to insult “others like herself, hoping to thereby make
it obvious that she as an individual is above their behavior.”
There is something bracingly, distressingly contemporary in Fire-
stone’s insights, and the subjects of love and sex seemed to compel her
most. We might have come a long way from the Fifties fantasy of the
aproned hausfrau that incited much of her ire, but when I first picked
up Dialectic not long ago, I expected a treatise on bionic reproduction
and got this commentary on the dark side of sexual revolution instead:
“Emancipated” women . . . were imitating [men]. And they had inoculated
themselves with a sickness that had not even sprung from their own psyches.
They found that their new “cool” was shallow and meaningless, that their
emotions were drying up behind it, that they were aging and becoming
decadent: they feared they were losing their ability to love.
You don’t have to agree with what she’s saying to marvel at her mind at
work. Firestone, who elsewhere in Dialectic writes hopefully about true
love and “pansexuality,” sometimes sounds like a brilliant contradiction
in terms: an antimisogynist Michel Houellebecq. The comparison per-
haps argues Firestone’s point. Why associate certain ideas with a louche
male novelist rather than the female artist who struggled with them
thirty years prior?
—Jennifer Szalai
146 Nina Power
he seventies seem a long time ago for those of us not yet born, and
even for those who were. Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex,
which appeared in 1970 alongside Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, is never-
theless filled with the promise of the future. It envisions a world in which
the id can “live free” and technology finally liberates women from the
“burden” of their biology. Nature may have produced inequality, but wide-
spread application of reproductive technologies would, Firestone claimed,
release women from the dangers of childbirth, destroy the family once
and for all, and herald a new era of total political and sexual equality.
As a vision of human emancipation, Firestone’s brief tract is unpar-
alleled, for better or worse. Her “materialist view of history based on sex
itself” sought to go further than Marx and Engels — to seize the means
not only of production but of reproduction. Firestone today seems
unusual and controversial for taking the position that sex difference is
a question of biological difference, not social construction, and for her
claim that female biology is fundamentally nightmarish. (Anyone who
has experienced an “ecstatic’” birth or is indifferent to menstruation will
find her claims that women are at the “continual mercy” of their biol-
ogy and that pregnancy is “barbaric” bemusing.) Rather than suggesting
a revaluation of cultural values, Firestone takes negative assumptions
about female biology all the way to their conclusion: history has treated
women poorly precisely because of their biology, or at least their biology
has been used as an excuse to generate oppression and social imbal-
ance. Sex difference lies at the root of all other inequalities: “The natural
reproductive difference between the sexes led directly to the first divi-
sion of labor at the origins of class.” But, Firestone believed, with the
advent of birth control and the possibility of many more reproductive
(or “cybernetic”) technologies, this historical excuse for female oppres-
sion would expire.
Firestone’s turbo-Enlightenment approach to the emancipatory
dimensions of these technologies was prescient but ultimately incom-
plete. The technologies she predicted and celebrated — IVF treatment,
wide access to contraception and abortion, test-tube pregnancy — are
here, at least in richer parts of the world; but their effects on the nuclear
family have been negligible, or at least nowhere near as revolutionary as
Firestone predicted. IVF treatment, which in most cases is extremely
expensive, is still seen as an alternative to “natural” childbirth, not its
replacement; and while birth control undoubtedly has revolutionized
147 On Shulamith Firestone
the ways in which women live and work, it hasn’t ushered in a new era
of widespread genderless pansexuality. Unfortunately, perhaps.
For me, Firestone deserves to be read alongside the feminist sci-
ence-fiction writers of the ’70s — Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Ursula
LeGuin — who are similarly imaginative and equally radical. Not because
Firestone’s arguments are somehow utopian, impossible, or idealistic:
on the contrary, they are radically materialist and remain relevant,
despite some dubious and dated dimensions. (Firestone’s comments on
race in The Dialectic of Sex came in for heavy criticism from Angela
Davis, among others.) What Firestone shares with these other visionary
writers is the belief that anything is possible in this brave new world,
and that the old patriarchal, biological, social, and political tyrannies
could, and would, be overturned. The cyber-feminism that reemerged
in the ’90s with the advent of the internet owed much to Firestone’s
techno-positive approach — even if the theoretical terrain shifted from
the fleshly to the virtual.
We are accustomed to regarding pronouncements like Firestone’s
with a kind of world-weary sigh-smile: Well it wasn’t to be, was it? Per-
haps it wasn’t, but as an attempt to imagine things otherwise, it remains
mind-altering. “If there were,” Firestone says of her project, “a word
more all-embracing than revolution we would use it.” We may still be
waiting for that word, but Firestone need wait no longer.
—Nina Power
had a feeling early in our friendship, around 1963 at the Art Insti-
tute of Chicago, that painting would not demand the greater part of
Shulie’s attention. One day she asked me if I would like to see some of
her poetry. I expected the kind of postadolescent efforts that I had also
engaged in. (She was 18, and I was 23.) What she presented me with were
reams of pages written in a large bold hand, running uninterrupted
across the pages, threatening to set the paper on fire. The thoughts were
wild and apocalyptic, as Shulie herself was at that time.
On one of my visits to New York to see Shulie, thirty years ago, she
invited me to see a mural she was completing. Because she was inter-
ested in all of the world’s tragedies, Shulie had approached the Goethe-
Institut of New York with an offer to paint a commemorative mural
of the General Slocum Ferry Disaster of 1904. More than a thousand
148 Andrew Klein
recently arrived German immigrants, on a holiday outing on the East
River, had drowned when the ferry caught fire and sank only thirty min-
utes out of the harbor. The Institut had accepted her offer and provided
a schoolroom for her to use as a studio. Besides this, they only paid for
her materials. Shulie had declined remuneration; for her, painting the
mural was an act of retrospective compassion.
Shulie asked me to critique the mural, with the caveat that if I
thought the work bad, she would never paint again. I protested that she
was putting me in an impossible situation. I considered her a talented
painter, and I would never lie to her. I said that I would rather not look
at the work than risk her never painting again. She would not relent.
She insisted that a friend was obliged to give an opinion regardless of
the consequences.
I gave in, and went to see a large canvas, thirty feet wide and six feet
high, tacked to a wall. I told her what I thought of it with great trepida-
tion, watching as her face dropped. She said she would try to finish it,
but would make no further attempts at painting. I couldn’t argue with
her; she had made her decision. She followed her convictions to the bit-
ter end. Half measures were not a part of her repertoire. This was Shulie.
She grew indifferent to the pressures of speaking about her days
in the feminist movement. On one occasion, perhaps in the ’80s, she
accepted an invitation to speak at a university. While onstage she real-
ized that the subject bored her to exasperation and drifted into a talk
about Jewish mysticism — a subject she was investigating at the time.
The audience was appalled and she was gently escorted off the stage.
Regardless, she was paid! When she shared this story with me, we both
burst into hysterics. It was not that she had lost respect for the radical
feminist movement; she simply didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
Shulie experienced disappointment, bitterness, and great sadness in
her life, and not only because of an illness over which she had no power.
When I last saw her, she confided matter-of-factly that her mental state
had long been flat on account of medication — and what infuriated her
most was the effect on her creative work.
—Andrew Klein
149 On Shulamith Firestone
oday my sister’s body was lowered into a deep mud hole. It was a
simple affair. No fanfare, not even chairs or a tent to cover us from
the sun. Just the deep trench, a pile of earth pierced by four shovels, and
a few family members standing together sadly; women in long skirts,
men in black hats and suits. And Shulamith herself, of course.
First the men trudged her in from the hearse, reciting a Hebrew psalm
in low tones, and pausing their procession the customary seven times to
show reticence in this act of burial. Then, before placing her on the straps
that would lower her into the earth, someone asked us, her three siblings:
Do you want to ask her mechilah, forgiveness? This was when fifty years
of primitive feelings and memories came roaring through me.
We placed our six hands on her box and sobbed.
To ask forgiveness? The very thought elicited a lifetime of failures
(for there was no correct way to love this woman). Nevertheless, I asked
Shulamith’s forgiveness: for expecting this moment, for dreading it
without preventing it, for not bearing her suffering, for betraying her
again and again, for trying to make her fit into this world, for misinter-
preting her, for oversimplifying her ideas, for pandering, for apologizing
for her, for not living up to what she stood for, for forgetting her for
months and even years at a time, for not breaking through to her, for not
understanding her disease, for not understanding her brilliance. Would
there ever be an end to my need of forgiveness?
A small knife appeared. I saw my brother’s lapel being cut and
heard a loud rip as he pulled the fabric apart with force. I was next. No
little black ribbons for these people; it was all or nothing. The knife
approached and I did not demur. My collar was cut. I ripped it further,
listening to the shrill sound that mimicked the wail within me.
The men lowered the casket carefully into the earth. I peered down
the deep hole. How remarkably austere it all was. The simple unvar-
nished box that held her remains was like something pulled out of an
old studio warehouse; just like my sister, without façade or apology. Sur-
prisingly, a paper label with her name on it had been stuck on the casket
lid. As if to make no mistake that she was contained inside, I thought,
lest she elude us, evade us, slip away from us one more time.
But of course, she had slipped away, this time for good. The sound
of dirt hitting hard on her casket brought me back. I grabbed a shovel.
I don’t know how it works, whether our diseases fall away with our
troubled bodies when they die. But I am counting on Shulamith finding
150 Tirzah Firestone
herself again as her soul navigates its way into the upper chambers of
this universe, her unobscured self, the one that might have flourished
had she found enough understanding and love in this world: the wildly
creative, overwhelmingly generous being, voracious for change, desper-
ate for a redeemed feminine principle.
When my turn came to say some words, a verse from the Torah
popped into my mind. It felt too dark to speak aloud at that moment, but
I see now that it has her name on it, just like the label on her box:
Tov Shem mayshemen tov v’yom hamavet miyom hivaldo.
A good name is more precious than fne oil, and the day of one’s death better
than the day of one’s birth. (Ecclesiastes 7:1)
Shuley, you are finally released from this harsh world. Time for rest. It
is due you.
—Tirzah Firestone
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Nothing but Freedom
National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius.
Supreme Court of the United States. 2011–12 term.
Duri ng t he past t wo decades of con-
servative Supreme Court dominance,
Anthony Kennedy has won liberals’ grudg-
ing appreciation for the swing votes he pro-
vides in close cases involving individual lib-
erties. In his frst and perhaps most famous
swing, Kennedy cast the crucial fifth
vote in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992),
a case that saved Roe v. Wade from invali-
dation even as it limited abortion rights.
Back then, Kennedy wrote that “at the
heart of liberty is the right to defne one’s
own concept of existence, of meaning, of
the universe, and of the mystery of human
life.” Twenty years later, Kennedy joined the
Court’s three most conservative Justices in
a dissent that warned that another public
health regulation, the Afordable Care Act
(ACA), would break liberty’s heart once and
for all.
By declaring the ACA an unlawful
encroachment of public power on individual
economic choice, the dissenters made clear
how little distance separates government
coercion of the individual from democratic
control of the economy. For decades, legal
liberalism has insisted on the difference
between the two, resisting the state’s power
to violate the civil liberties of its citizens
while defending the state’s power to regulate
social and economic inequality. Te Ken-
nedy minority has now denied that such a
distinction is possible, reframing economic
regulation as the paradigmatic violation of
civil liberty.
Te health-care dissent ends on an apoc-
alyptic note widely attributed to Kennedy
himself: “Te fragmentation of power pro-
duced by our structure of Government is
central to liberty, and when we destroy it,
we place liberty at peril.” In this odd piece of
rhetoric, the dissenters accuse the majority
of destroying “fragmentation.” Te destruc-
tion of fragments certainly sounds like a
strange pursuit, and stranger still is the sug-
gestion that a primary function of Ameri-
can government is to disempower itself.
According to this antidemocratic vision, the
freedom to wield political power is no free-
dom at all.
Reports suggest it was also Kennedy
who led the unsuccessful attempt to con-
vince Chief Justice John Roberts to support
this repudiation of government. Roberts
demurred, saving the centerpiece of the
ACA, the individual mandate that penal-
izes those who do not buy health insurance.
Writing for himself and the four liberal Jus-
tices, Roberts found that the mandate was
functionally a tax and therefore constitu-
tional under Congress’s broad taxing power.
Reviews 158
Tree years before he joined the Supreme
Court, Kennedy wrote that “neither law
nor logic deems the free market system a
suspect enterprise.” Sitting as judge on the
Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1985, he
held that Washington State had not vio-
lated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by paying
its female employees 20 percent less than
men working jobs of “comparable worth.”
Because this inequitable formula matched a
preexisting inequity in market wages, Ken-
nedy found nothing discriminatory in the
state government’s payment practices. To
hold otherwise, Kennedy argued, would be
to suggest that there was something inher-
ently discriminatory — and unlawful — about
the free market. Tis the law could not do.
In an ironic turn, Kennedy’s “neither law
nor logic” defense of the free market alluded
to Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous maxim,
“Te life of the law has not been logic, it has
Yet in other parts of his opinion, Roberts
agreed with the four dissenters that Con-
gress could not use its regulatory power
under the Commerce Clause to compel
people to purchase health insurance. In
this way, the Chief Justice made clear that
he shares the Kennedy faction’s view that
government is frst and foremost a threat
to freedom. As the Court’s conservatives
coalesce around this intensely negative
concept of liberty, liberals remain difdent
about the alternative: a substantive account
of liberty rooted in social and economic
equality and realized through public power.
That liberals find themselves jilted by
Anthony Kennedy tells us more about the
complexities of liberal legal thought than
about any inconsistencies in the swing Jus-
tice’s jurisprudence. Kennedy’s economic
conservatism has never been in doubt.
Reviews 159
minorities and the poor. In the 1970s, the
women’s movement joined this struggle for
social and economic independence through
public power.
While the guiding motif of progressive
realism from the New Deal to the Great
Society was the authority of public power
to equalize social and economic goods, the
midcentury civil rights revolution intro-
duced notes of libertarianism to the pro-
gressive score. The legacy of segregation
was a constant reminder of the violence that
could be done by public power, and much
of the rhetoric of the Second Reconstruc-
tion emphasized (as all revolutionary move-
ments must) the priority of natural rights
over unjust institutional designs. Early civil
rights leaders and their partners in Wash-
ington knew that the path to a greater
society ran through federal intervention
in both state government and the private
sphere. But when the Johnson Administra-
tion failed to make good on its promises
of social and economic equality — instead
becoming an engine of violence at home
and abroad — public power grew ever
more suspect.
Te procedural and sexual revolutions
cemented this critique of government. In a
series of celebrated 1960s decisions, a liberal
Supreme Court upended the criminal law by
protecting the homes, vehicles, and persons
of mostly poor and minority citizens from
overzealous policing and prosecution. At
the same time, the Court confronted regu-
lations subordinating the private choices
of women to the public judgments of men.
In its 1960s contraception rulings and
the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the Court
used the language of privacy to identify
several relationships (husband and wife,
male and female lover, doctor and patient)
that merited special protection from state
interference. Te Court’s decisions were a
been experience.” Holmes’s experiential def-
inition of law was a harbinger of legal real-
ism, the dominant school of 20th-century
jurisprudence. One particularly infuential
strand of legal realism argued that judicial
decisions should be responsive to the social
and economic needs of society, not mired
in scholastic distinctions. Tis progressive
realism appealed to what law professor Wil-
liam Forbath has called America’s “distribu-
tive Constitution.” A conception of govern-
ment dating back to the Founding era, the
distributive Constitution recognizes that
“gross material inequality” is an unaccept-
able threat to both democracy and liberty.
Progressive realists in the frst half of the
20th century sought to constrain the ineq-
uities of the free market system that earlier
lawyers and judges had considered synony-
mous with law and logic. Justifed by progres-
sive realism and empowered by the indus-
trial labor movement, the New Deal created
a host of legal entitlements — the right to
strike, minimum-wage and maximum-hour
laws, and Social Security among them. FDR’s
call in 1944 for a “Second Bill of Rights” went
further, announcing that the nation was
constitutionally committed to the social and
economic well-being of its people, a com-
mitment that included jobs and health care
for all. “True individual freedom,” FDR said,
“cannot exist without economic security
and independence.”
Even though a coalition of Southern
Democrats, business elites, and liberal
anticommunists defeated this constitu-
tional vision in the postwar years, advocacy
for positive rights continued through the
1950s and ’60s. Te civil rights movement
sought more than an end to formal segre-
gation; it also intended to use government
to curtail the “economic freedom” of pri-
vate businesses to discriminate, and to win
educational and economic resources for
Reviews 160
Kennedy’s path to the judiciary not only
tracked the riotous ascent of the modern
Republican Party; a devout Roman Catho-
lic, he also lived through a time of great
upheaval in the Church. The election of
John F. Kennedy and the Second Vatican
Council’s liberalization of Catholic doctrine
during the 1960s occasioned a coming out
of sorts for a new generation of American
Catholic intellectuals, among them William
F. Buckley, Garry Wills, and Michael Novak.
At the time, these thinkers represented
a range of political and religious views.
Buckley condemned left-leaning papal pro-
nouncements on political economy while
Novak called for armed resistance to Amer-
ica’s racist, capitalist order. All three men
stood in the Catholic mainstream in urg-
ing the Council to modernize the Church’s
teachings on contraception. A 1965 issue of
Buckley’s National Review was dedicated to
the dangers of overpopulation and included
a contribution from the president of the
Planned Parenthood Federation.
Both Kennedy’s political and religious
backgrounds exposed him to the incon-
sistency of ideology. When the Pope
announced a blanket ban on artifcial con-
traception in 1968, many American Catho-
lics were outraged, and within a decade the
percentage of Catholics who used birth con-
trol closely tracked the rest of the American
population. Early in his governorship, Rea-
gan signed the Terapeutic Abortion Act,
which partly legalized abortion, only to
recant a few years later under pressure from
increasingly vocal pro-life activists. Michael
Novak, former left-wing radical, came to
celebrate the spiritual basis of American
capitalism. Living through these transitions,
Kennedy may well have developed the ten-
dency to compromise that he has exhibited
on the Supreme Court. At the same time,
the Justice’s Republican and Catholic roots
substantive victory for women’s access to
reproductive health care. But its focus on
privacy put legal liberals in the increasingly
common position of supporting the retreat
of public power.
Over the past forty years, as Presidents of
both parties have deregulated industry and
markets and ended “welfare as we know it,”
the critique of public power has stood out
as one area of liberal legal thought that does
not seem outmoded — and it is mostly in this
area that legal liberals have found a some-
time ally in Anthony Kennedy. Te Justice’s
suspicion of public power and celebration of
a hard to articulate yet essential aspect of
the individual (alternatively termed liberty,
autonomy, personality, or dignity) has led
him at crucial moments to join liberals in
the defense of sexual freedom, free speech,
racial preferences, and the rights of the
accused and convicted.
Kennedy’s political and religious upbring-
ings help clarify the sorts of compromises
he has struck while on the Court. Born into
a well-connected Republican family in Sac-
ramento, California, Kennedy returned to
the state capital after Harvard Law School
to take over his father’s private law prac-
tice. Te young lawyer’s 1963 homecoming
put him at the scene of an epochal political
struggle: within the next few years Califor-
nia saw the nomination of Barry Goldwater
at the San Francisco Republican Conven-
tion, Ronald Reagan’s frst gubernatorial vic-
tory, and the rise of the New Left, the coun-
terculture, and Black Power. Amid this swirl
of revolution and counterrevolution, Ken-
nedy’s Sacramento circle introduced him
to Governor Reagan and Reagan’s Chief of
Staf Edwin Meese, the two men who would
be responsible for Kennedy’s nomination to
the Supreme Court in 1988.
Reviews 161
Similarly, in the context of race-con-
scious public regulations, Kennedy has
sought a middle path. While “race conser-
vatives” tend to view all public racial clas-
sifcations — even those involved in afrma-
tive action and desegregation programs — as
unlawful discrimination, “race liberals” fnd
such classifcations aboveboard when their
goal is to end the social, economic, or politi-
cal subordination of minorities. Kennedy’s
decisions, Siegel argues, focus instead on
the goal of “social cohesion.” Race remains a
fractious reality in American life, Kennedy
tells us, and government should do what it
can to allay rather than exacerbate racial
tensions. Unlike race conservatives, Ken-
nedy is inclined to uphold race-conscious
public programs that alleviate the margin-
alization of minorities, but only if those pro-
grams do not generate too much resentment
elsewhere in the population.
Siegel’s patient analysis of Kennedy’s
approach to abortion and race demon-
strates how the Justice has placed the liberal
pursuit of emancipation in an ecumenical
frame. Tis frame has enabled consensus
on important issues, but it also downplays
the essence of citizenship: political action.
While individuals are encouraged to be dig-
nifed and to cohere, they are rarely encour-
aged to wield power. Kennedy’s tendency to
view cases involving political rights through
the prisms of speech and expression con-
firms this almost aesthetic approach to
politics. Although the Justice is often more
sensitive to social realities than his conser-
vative colleagues, a longing for an elegant
synthesis pervades his opinions. From his
perspective, the struggle for public power
represents a passing f law in the natural
order, not the rough path to justice.
In Justice Kennedy’s most recent
abortion decision, Gonzales v. Carhart
(2007), the darker tendencies of this
run deep, and help explain the dominant
motif of his judicial philosophy: the protec-
tion of private individuals and close-knit
communities from the menace of the state.
Many stories can be told about Anthony
Kennedy’s place in recent legal history, but
in light of his health-care dissent, two stand
out. Te frst is a story of reconciliation, in
which Kennedy has struggled to bridge the
gulf between the individual rights move-
ments of the 1960s and the Reagan revolu-
tion that began that same decade in Ken-
nedy’s home state. The second is a story
of subtle sabotage, in which Kennedy has
gradually incorporated the democratic proj-
ects of racial, sexual, and economic equality
into a legal language unfriendly to the col-
lective action that is essential to egalitarian
democracy. Of course, both of these stories
could be true — the synthesis achieved in
the frst could be the vehicle for the sabo-
tage described in the second.
A spate of recent scholarship has
attempted to identify the principles behind
Justice Kennedy’s swing votes. Law pro-
fessor Reva Siegel’s illuminating Yale Law
Journal articles on Kennedy’s abortion and
race decisions — decisions in which the
Justice has actually supported government
regulation — identify two major guideposts:
“human dignity” and “social cohesion.” Sie-
gel argues that Kennedy’s abortion decisions
seek to vindicate the multifaceted value of
“human dignity,” which requires respect for
liberty, equality, and life. Since the dignity
of women — their freedom of choice and
equality with men — must be respected,
abortion cannot be outlawed. Nonethe-
less, government may regulate abortion in
order to express respect for the dignity of
life. Only by regulating but not eliminating
abortion can society acknowledge the full
meaning of human dignity.
Reviews 162
search for a harmonious natural order
became clear. Gonzales reneged on Ken-
nedy’s promise of balance, vindicating the
dignity of nascent life while undermining
the dignity of living women. In uphold-
ing the Partial Birth Abortion Ban of 2003,
Kennedy agreed with the law’s authors (its
Senate sponsor was Rick Santorum) that
such restrictions could protect women from
“regret” and “depression.” In doing so, Ken-
nedy deferred neither to the legislative will
nor to medical evidence but to his own intu-
itions about maternal nature.
While Kennedy’s decision in Gonzales
upheld the use of public power — the par-
tial birth ban — it did so on metaphysical
grounds rather than democratic ones. Ken-
nedy’s holistic search for dignity led him
to subordinate the autonomy of adult citi-
zens to an imagined natural order peopled
by innocent babies and grieving mothers.
While Kennedy’s tendency to ground his
opinions in prepolitical naturalism is par-
ticularly pronounced in the context of abor-
tion-related cases, it could afect almost any
area of legal doctrine. If Kennedy were to
become convinced that economic regula-
tion seriously disrupted the natural order,
his default suspicion of democratic power
would become a powerful new tool for eco-
nomic conservatism.
L aw professor Randy Barnett, the mas-
termind of the antimandate campaign,
frst noted the radical political economic
possibilities of Justice Kennedy’s apparent
moderation in 2003. In response to Kenne-
dy’s majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas,
which struck down a Texas law criminaliz-
ing homosexual sodomy, Barnett suggested
in the Cato Supreme Court Review that
Kennedy had launched a “constitutional
revolution.” Barnett interpreted Kenne-
dy’s opinion as rejecting the “presumption
Reviews 163
“presumption of liberty.” Under this new
standard, any law that could plausibly be
said to encroach on individual liberty (as
almost all laws do) would have to be justi-
fed before the Supreme Court.
Te new age seemed at hand when, dur-
ing oral arguments in the health-care case,
Kennedy announced that the individual
mandate “changes the relationship of the
Federal Government to the individual in a
very fundamental way.” Kennedy was echo-
ing an argument that Barnett had devel-
oped two years earlier, seeking to hasten
the revolution he frst glimpsed in Kenne-
dy’s Lawrence opinion. In “Commandeering
the People,” published in the NYU Journal
of Law & Liberty in 2010, Barnett wrote that
“a newfound congressional power to impose
economic mandates to facilitate the regu-
lation of interstate commerce would fun-
damentally alter the relationship of citizen
and state.”
Barnett made several arguments sup-
porting this claim, but the one that gained
the most traction in court and with the
press rested on an alluringly naturalistic
distinction between human “activity” and
“inactivity.” Since the New Deal, the Court’s
“presumption of constitutionality” has been
particularly strong when applied to federal
laws regulating interstate economic activity
under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause.
But, Barnett insisted, this line of prec-
edent only supports Congress’s authority
to regulate existing economic activity. Te
purpose of the ACA individual mandate,
on the other hand, was to reach individu-
als who were not currently engaging in eco-
nomic activity — that is, not buying health
insurance — and force them to act.
In the early 20th century, opponents of
the welfare state maintained that federal
economic regulation violated individual
economic liberty. Teir arguments became
of constitutionality” that the Supreme
Court had adopted during the democratic
upheaval of the Great Depression. Tis pre-
sumption broke with an earlier era in which
the Court had looked with constitutional
suspicion on government regulation, espe-
cially where such regulation seemed to favor
one economic class over another. According
to the presumption of constitutionality, the
Court should generally defer to legislative
and executive decisions about what was and
wasn’t constitutional.
Over time, Barnett explained, the
Supreme Court modifed but did not aban-
don this deference: only when legislation
threatened certain “privileged” or “funda-
mental” rights, or was the result of an insuf-
fciently democratic process, would it recon-
sider the presumption of constitutionality.
By the early 1960s, a pattern had emerged
in which the Court would carefully exam-
ine laws afecting minorities and restrict-
ing individual expression while treating
economic regulations with a light touch.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the
Court invoked a “right to privacy” to strike
down bans on contraception and abortion,
it added a new set of restrictions on govern-
ment action but did not fundamentally alter
the civil rights pattern.
In Lawrence, however, Barnett sensed
that Kennedy was shaking of this midcen-
tury consensus. Confronted with a man
convicted of sodomy, Kennedy did not ask
if that man had, as a matter of precedent,
a fundamental right to engage in sodomy,
but only if the state’s ban infringed on his
liberty, properly construed. Finding that
the law did, the Justice “asked the govern-
ment to justify its restriction, which it failed
to do adequately.” Perhaps, Barnett specu-
lated, Kennedy was replacing the presump-
tion of constitutionality established in the
early 20th century with a 21st-century
Reviews 164
have created a new “presumption of liberty,”
making the Supreme Court the fnal arbiter
of the justness — or unjustness — of demo-
cratic control of the economy.
It thus remains to be seen whether
Chief Justice Roberts’s decision to uphold
the health-care law as a tax — rather than
a commercial regulation — was a “states-
manlike” concession to the democratic will
or an act of revolutionary patience. When
the Supreme Court strikes down a law, it
risks undermining its own legitimacy in the
eyes of the people who voted for that law.
By preserving much of the health-care act*
Roberts may have avoided an immediate
democratic backlash while stockpiling anti-
democratic arguments for a future standof.
Conservatives have spent the last thirty
years constitutionalizing their political-
economic vision. Rather than respond in
kind, liberals have insisted that the Con-
stitution is largely silent on what William
Forbath has called “the rights and wrongs of
economic life.” Tis attempt to declare our
nation’s highest law a neutral zone when it
comes to political economy has failed, as
conservatives have successfully associated
our fundamental legal documents with an
absolutist defense of private property and
the restraint of government power over the
so-called private sphere. Teir legal analysis
does political work, branding government
regulation not just unwise but illegitimate:
the Constitution means economic freedom
and economic freedom means freedom
from government coercion.
There is a counterhistory that liberals
might have used, and still might use, to
disrupt this chain of libertarian associa-
tions: the tradition of Forbath’s “distributive
* Roberts did convince two liberal Justices to join his fellow conservatives in limiting the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid.
legal losers as New Deal courts began to
assume the constitutionality of regulations
under the Commerce Clause. Barnett’s
activity/inactivity distinction, however,
managed to cloak an outmoded defense
of individual economic liberty — the free-
dom of an individual not to buy — in the
cloth of modern Commerce Clause doc-
trine. His distinction had the added rhe-
torical beneft of putting Kennedy’s digni-
fed, natural individual at the center of a
legal analysis traditionally focused on less
emotional policy questions. A majority of
the Court bought this romancing of the law,
and the fve conservative Justices now stand
at the cusp of the “constitutional revolu-
tion” frst glimpsed by Barnett in Kennedy’s
Lawrence decision.
While Congress is unlikely to pass
another law that tries to compel individu-
als to buy things, the roots of the conser-
vative Justices’ antiregulatory stance run
deep, nourished by a philosophy of individ-
ual economic liberty that has lain dormant
for seventy-fve years. In its pre–New Deal
incarnation, this libertarian philosophy
restricted both the government’s power to
regulate and its power to tax. To the extent
that Congress restricts individual liberty
by requiring people to pay money into a
common pool, liberty sufers whether that
requirement is called a tax or a regulation.
Tere can be little doubt that the next legal
conservative crusade will be to do for Con-
gress’s taxing power what Randy Barnett
did for its power to regulate interstate com-
merce. Barnett used the activity/inactiv-
ity distinction to read individual economic
rights back into the Commerce Clause. If
conservatives manage to impose such a
limit on the taxing power, they truly will
Reviews 165
and denaturalization of dissidents, fought
for the safety and freedom of labor and civil
rights activists, and won new rights for the
criminally accused. Today, liberal advocates
seek to reform the prison system, end the
death penalty, check police brutality, and
impose more transparency on the War on
Terror. These efforts are essential to the
cause of justice, but they are also unavoid-
ably libertarian. Criticisms of malign forms
of government power cannot help but cast
a shadow over government more generally.
Te dialectic in which left-wing criticisms
of government coercion feed into right-
wing criticisms of government regulation
is a perennial problem for the distributive
Constitution and its defenders.
How can liberals escape this dialectic?
Tey could start by focusing less on the ugly
means of public power and more on its ugly
ends. Liberals should insist that the problem
with public power is not that it is too power-
ful but rather that it too often defends rather
than combats social and economic inequal-
ity. A harsh criminal justice system stigma-
tizes the young and the marginal; abortion
and contraception restrictions force women
into positions of dependency; our adven-
turist foreign policy and paranoid surveil-
lance apparatus sap the nation’s resources,
prey on populations without adequate eco-
nomic opportunities and legal protections,
and distract from domestic threats to our
general welfare, from big banks to big pol-
luters. The problem, as this litany shows,
is not the coercive nature of public power
but the unjust distribution of power in the
so-called private sphere. To the extent that
public power perpetuates such misalloca-
tion, it must be rerouted to progressive ends.
At the same time, to the extent that public
power overcomes inequality, progressives
should not fear that such power is coercive.
Constitution.” Proponents of this constitu-
tional vision, from Madison to FDR, have
denied that “economic freedom” simply
means private freedom from public power,
a definition that affirms the status quo,
no matter how unjust. Tey have argued
instead that the freedom promised by our
Constitution guarantees material well-
being and the real autonomy that comes
with it, an autonomy threatened as much
by the market as by the police on whom the
market depends.
Why have legal liberals been reluctant to
use such constitutional arguments to defend
their political economic commitments?
One possible answer is that the substance of
liberal political economy has changed — that
over the past few decades, liberals have
become increasingly skeptical of govern-
ment regulation of the private sector. But
even among those who unambiguously sup-
port the use of public power for progressive
ends, there is another obstacle to the adop-
tion of the distributive vision: the specter of
violence that haunts progressive governance.
The same 20th century that brought
major advances in social and economic
rights also brought the militarization of the
American state. Tose administrations that
best exemplify the redistributive potential
of public power — Wilson’s New Freedom,
Roosevelt’s New Deal, Truman’s Fair Deal,
Johnson’s Great Society — also pioneered
our nation’s grand experiments with pub-
lic violence, from mass military mobili-
zation, to mass surveillance, to nuclear
war. In keeping with this historical ten-
dency, the Obama Administration has both
passed national health-care reform and
celebrated the automated assassination of
American citizens.
Legal liberals have long sought to temper
state-authorized violence. During the last
century, they have opposed the deportation
Reviews 166
the market would set the outer limit to the
meaning of emancipation. As a former Con-
federate general once remarked, “Emanci-
pated slaves own nothing, because noth-
ing but freedom has been given to them.”
Because of this cramped reading of the Civil
War’s legal legacy, Verrilli’s comparison of
illness to slavery remains metaphorical.
It is unlikely that legal liberals could ever
recast the Tirteenth Amendment into a
contemporary weapon against social and
economic inequality. Before they did so, a
great political awakening would have to
occur. Still, the prehistory of the Amend-
ment reminds us what a great political
awakening can accomplish. The federal
government once found the Southern slave
system suspect and tore it down. While
“neither law nor logic deems the free mar-
ket system a suspect enterprise,” experience
suggests otherwise, and history has yet to
deliver its verdict.
—Jeremy Kessler
Tey should ask, which is the greater form
of coercion, a tax you can aford to pay or a
hospital bill you cannot?
To defend the ACA, legal liberals mainly
relied on precedents from the New Deal
era, when the federal courts ratifed a broad
vision of economic justice. Yet the event in
American history that best synthesized pub-
lic coercion and individual empowerment
was the Civil War. Te New Deal’s reform-
ist energy quickly dissipated in the military
buildup of World War II, as the country
turned from social democracy toward the
national security state. During the Civil
War, however, state violence acted directly
on the interior, equalizing a host of political,
social, and economic relations. In a strik-
ing turn, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli,
who defended the ACA before the Supreme
Court, alluded to this benefcent history of
violence at the end of oral arguments in the
health-care case.
As a result of the ACA, Verrilli said, unin-
sured citizens who would otherwise sufer
from untreated illnesses “will be unshackled
from the disabilities that those diseases put
on them and have the opportunity to enjoy
the blessings of liberty.” As Jack Balkin and
Sanford Levinson have argued, Verrilli’s
use of the word “shackles” alluded to the
bloody role the federal government played
in freeing the slaves, an emancipation rati-
fed in the Tirteenth Amendment. After
the Civil War, blacks, women, and workers
tried to use the Amendment to reform the
unjust social and economic relations that
the Union army had left untouched, from
the feld to the factory to the marriage bed.
But the federal courts generally confned
the reach of the Amendment to the imme-
diate vestiges of chattel slavery, denying the
relevance of emancipation to other forms of
social and economic bondage. By the 1870s,
it had become clear that the freedom of
Love and Glory
Jeanette Winterson. Why Be Happy When You Could Be
Normal? Grove Press, March 2012.
Jeanet te Wi nterson was rai sed as a
fanatical Pentecostal in the mill town of
Accrington, Lancashire. Her only childhood
companion — one does not endear oneself to
secular 10-year-olds by embroidering the
suMMer is neArlY ended And we Are
not Yet sAved on one’s gym bag — was her
adoptive mother, a “famboyant depressive”
who punished Winterson by locking her in
the coalhole for hours and telling her that
“the Devil led us to the wrong crib.” Win-
terson inured herself against loneliness
with the conviction that she was destined
for religious greatness: she began writing
Reviews 167
her introduction to the world in an inti-
mate tone that mimics, to funny efect, the
accidentally fabular speech of working-
class people raised on the Bible. “Not for
her the meek and paschal Lamb,” Jeanette
observes of her mother, “she was out there,
up front with the prophets, and much given
to sulking under trees when the appropriate
destruction didn’t materialise. Quite often it
did, her will or the Lord’s I can’t say.”
Fairy tales and medieval myths also pro-
vide the emotional backdrop for Jeanette’s
coming-of-age. Te story of her exile from
the church is interspersed with a telling
of the quest for the Holy Grail, in which
knights left the comfort of King Arthur’s
court in search of a vision whose value they
could sense but not describe.
Winterson knew too well the violence
and suffering religious fundamentalism
brings in its train, and she rejected it; but
she did not reject the yearning she saw at
religion’s core. A proper mode or medium
for this yearning became the subject of her
fction. In contrast to the reigning novelis-
tic attempts to capture the modern failure
of connectedness, Winterson’s frst novel
chronicled an earnest quest for the sublime.
Oranges won the Whitbread Award for
Best First Novel. Just a few months after it
was released, Winterson published a silly
comic book called Boating for Beginners — a
harbinger of the prolifcness and variabil-
ity that would defne her career for the next
thirty years.
Winterson’s second and best novel, Te
Passion, is about a pair of lovers caught up
in the Napoleonic wars. It is narrated in
part by Henri, a former soldier in Napo-
leon’s army, who comes from a small French
village governed by manual labor and bore-
dom. Submissive and myopic, the villagers
are nonetheless restless with a longing their
sermons and preaching to her congregation
when she was still a child. But after Winter-
son’s mother discovered her romantic love
for another girl, her church subjected her to
an exorcism that involved being locked in
a room with no food or heat for three days,
while church elders alternately prayed for
her and beat her. At 16, Winterson left home
and turned to literature.
Living sometimes out of her car and
sometimes with her high school English
teacher, Winterson worked her way, alpha-
betically, through the fction in the public
library. She applied to Oxford twice before
she was accepted to read for a degree in Eng-
lish at St. Catherine’s College. She supported
herself by doing odd jobs in the theater and
working at an insane asylum.
It was 1975 when Winterson left home.
Martin Amis had just won the Somerset
Maugham Award for The Rachel Papers.
Within the next few years, Ian McEwan and
Julian Barnes would earn the same prize
for a frst work of fction — First Love, Last
Rites and Metroland, respectively — prom-
ising the continued reign over Britain’s lit-
erary scene of witty, misogynistic cynics.
McEwan and Barnes’s antiheroes, if less
hateful than Amis’s Charles Highway, were
also self-consciously intelligent young men
preoccupied with sex and distrustful of
love, who used raunch and grotesquerie as
their preferred weapons in the battle against
bourgeois adulthood.
Winterson had been shown a differ-
ent face of the adult world, and for her frst
novel she produced a very diferent coming-
of-age story. Published in 1985, when Win-
terson was 25, Oranges Are Not the Only
Fruit is the story of a teenage girl’s rejec-
tion of her adoptive parents’ evangelical-
ism as she develops a romantic interest in
other girls. Te narrator, named Jeanette,
describes the religious spectacle that was
Reviews 168
uninspired priest cannot satisfy. “We’re
a lukewarm people for all our feast days
and hard work,” Henri tells us. “Not much
touches us, but we long to be touched. We
lie awake at night willing the darkness to
part and show us a vision. Our children
frighten us in their intimacy, but we make
sure they grow up like us. Lukewarm like
us.” By the time the children have outgrown
their defenseless closeness with their sur-
roundings, they are old enough to enlist.
Napoleon’s army is fooded with recruits.
By a stroke of luck, Henri is given the
honor of serving as one of Bonaparte’s per-
sonal cooks. For the frst time in his life,
he is enraptured. “Tere was a feeling of
urgency and privilege” in Bonaparte’s pres-
ence, he says:
He woke before us and slept long after us,
going through every detail of our training
and rallying us personally. He stretched his
hand towards the Channel and made England
sound as though she already belonged to us.
To each of us. That was his gift. He became
the focus of our lives. The thought of fghting
excited us. No one wants to be killed but the
hardship, the long hours, the cold, the orders
were things we would have endured anyway
on the farms or in the towns. We were not
free men. He made sense out of dullness.
“Sense out of dullness”: this is the most an
ordinary person can hope for. But after a
few months of watching soldiers die and
starve and be driven mad for someone else’s
idea, Henri understands the mistake of giv-
ing away one’s yearning to the frst thing
that seems to make sense. He comes to
lament the ease with which the soldiers for-
get about other possibilities:
Here, without women, with only our
imaginations and a handful of whores, we
promising young women by suzanne
scanlon “About ten lives occur in this
very short novel. One swiftly becomes
the background of the next, then that
one looms up fast and for a moment you
think oh this is the life. And it is ending.
I like the swift consciousness with which
Suzanne Scanlon orchestrates all of it and
even more I admire the true (and maneu-
vered) intimacy that holds me here on
the page despite the fact that inside and
out of this volume of Promising Young
Women there are so many of us, lives, and
women and female writers. You wonder
if we matter at all and Suzanne Scanlon
says in a multitude of quietly intelligent
and felt ways that we do, helplessly, all of
us do, no matter.” —eileen myles






















$16/book or 2 for $25
on our website
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by women
a publishing
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Reviews 169
romantic love. There are exceptions and I
hope they are happy.
Winterson often depicts men as incapable of
the surrender that true love demands; even
sensitive Henri eventually drives away Vil-
lanelle with his possessiveness. It’s worth
considering negative feelings toward men
as a facet of Winterson’s fction, just as it’s
worth considering misogynistic passages by
thoughtful male writers like Henry Miller
and Philip Roth, who also treat the frustra-
tions of living with people whose idea of
intimacy can seem irrelevant to one’s own.
Despite Winterson’s sympathetic portraits
of many male characters, the husbands
in her novels are nearly always “brilliant”
automatons who care only for their careers
and social standing. Tey represent what
Winterson sees as the fundamental cause
of pain in human relationships: “indulgence
without feeling,” as one character puts
it in Art and Lies (1994). “Strange to be both
greedy and dead.”
Winterson often conveys the “failure
of feeling”—which she cites in her mem-
oir as the cause of her own biggest mis-
takes — by depicting marriages that are
maintained only for convenience. On
the whole, her work argues for the rejec-
tion of the prescribed social roles that are
satirized by writers like Amis and consid-
ered philosophically by writers like Barnes.
Winterson would prefer to do away with
social prescriptions completely, to let each
life decision stem from inner need rather
than conformity.
But of course even the most noncon-
formist decision has social implications.
And by idealizing love based purely on
desire — as opposed to love based on a for-
mal contract — Winterson is subtly endors-
ing a diferent kind of social order, one that
can’t remember what it is about women
that can turn a man through passion into
something holy. Bible words again, but I am
thinking of my father who shaded his eyes on
those sunburnt evenings and learned to take
his time with my mother.
Filled with a new hatred for Napoleon that
“longs to be proved wrong,” Henri meets Vil-
lanelle, who herself made a desperate calcu-
lation when she married a man she despised
with the hope of escaping her love for a
married woman; her husband then sold her
into service as a prostitute for Napoleon’s
generals. Henri falls in love with Villanelle
and together they escape to Venice, which
Winterson presents as a maze of endlessly
appearing and disappearing waterways.
When one of these canals leads them to Vil-
lanelle’s husband, Henri murders him and
is confned to an insane asylum. Villanelle
visits him but does not return the love that
defnes his life.
As a series of events, Henri’s life is a trag-
edy; as a clinical case, he is insane. But Henri
is more content to be alone with his sense-
less love than he was living out notions of
honor and progress. In the asylum, he sleeps,
eats, gardens, and thinks of Villanelle.
Like Henri, Jeanette of Oranges finds a
sense of purpose — which she once planned
to fulfill through missionary work — in
devotion to a romantic ideal:
Romantic love has been diluted into
paperback form and has sold thousands and
millions of copies. Somewhere it is still in the
original, written on tablets of stone. I would
cross seas and suffer sunstroke and give
away all I have, but not for a man, because
they want to be the destroyer and never
the destroyed. That is why they are unft for
Reviews 170
this freedom to homosexuality, Winter-
son divorces sex from social considerations
entirely. Although erotic and romantic love
between women often fgures in her novels,
the concept of lesbianism is never raised;
sometimes we don’t even know the gen-
ders of sexual partners. In Oranges, where
the lovers are women, the narrator depicts
her lust for her frst lover Melanie as con-
fusing or shameful only insofar as the help-
lessness of lust is confusing and shameful:
“We were quiet, and I traced the outline of
her marvellous bones and the triangle of
muscle in her stomach. What is it about
intimacy that makes it so very disturbing?”
And when Jeanette’s pastor accuses her in
front of the church of loving Melanie “with
a love reserved for man and wife,” Jeanette
answers, “To the pure all things are pure.”
Winterson’s conviction of the purity of
desire separates her work from much auto-
biographical writing about love and sex
by women. For Winterson, to love to the
point of self-destruction is not the mark of
a girl whose father mistreated her, as it was
in her contemporary Kathy Acker’s Blood
and Guts in High School (1984): “I love to
be beaten up and hurt and taken on a joy
ride. Tis SEX — what I call SEX — guides
my life.” Charlotte Roche, Catherine Millet,
Chris Kraus, Sheila Heti: in diferent ways,
all portray willingness to surrender to the
lover’s will as debasement; all are more con-
cerned with explicit descriptions of sex acts
than with the reasons this erotic impulse
fgures so strongly in their sense of self. For
Winterson, sexual desire is never a matter
of self-degradation or casual consumption;
it is a yearning for escape, a saving grace in
a world distrustful of graces.
Of course, t he worl d caught up
with her. In 1990, Winterson was hired
to turn Oranges into a television series, and
sees heterosexual marriage as antithetical
to true love.
Throughout her career, Winterson has
taken pains to distance herself from the
label “lesbian writer,” which she under-
standably worries will limit her readership.
But there is no question that her experience
of sexuality has something to do with the
idealization of transcendence in her novels.
She is not alone in this. Eileen Myles,
Dorothy Allison, Spalding Gray — other
queer writers who came of age profession-
ally in the 1980s — share Winterson’s inter-
est in portraying sex as a spiritual con-
nection. Te metaphysical charge of their
sexual descriptions stems in part from the
sense that simply to articulate their desire at
that time was to transgress a cruelly restric-
tive social order; it is the same charge pres-
ent in D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller.
But if by the 1980s much of the heterosex-
ual coupling depicted in popular fiction
was defned by the shock value of insouci-
ance — sex portrayed as just one more good
to acquire — for many queer writers sex
remained sublime. Tey were able to infuse
erotic desire with the yearning for a freedom
their narrators don’t quite understand. Dor-
othy Allison, in Trash (1988): “I jerked and
pushed against her, wanting to fght, want-
ing to give in, wanting the world to stop and
wait while I did it all.” Eileen Myles in Chel-
sea Girls (1994): “Te frst woman put her
head between my legs and the complete sin,
the absolute moment of sex came back and
I was all in one piece coming apart. I was
willing to sacrifce all for that moment. Even
I guess my vagina, that jar.”
For these writers, as for Winterson,
good sex demands the rejection of habitual
behaviors and expectations, a willingness
to be molded by each new encounter. But
while Myles, for example, explicitly links
Reviews 171
asked when a teenaged Winterson tried to
explain her romantic involvement with a
woman — is written so casually it reads like a
rough draft of the credos that allowed Win-
terson to make something greater than bit-
terness out of her wounds: “Tere are mark-
ings here, raised like welts. Read them. Read
the hurt. Rewrite them. Rewrite the hurt.”
Winterson’s straightforward account of psy-
chological healing is a worthwhile docu-
ment of recovery, but it is not art.
But then Winterson does not believe doc-
umentary writing is art. “I’m not happy for
words to simply convey meaning,” she once
told a journalist. “[Tey] can if it’s journal-
ism and it’s perfectly all right if you’re doing
a certain kind of record or memoir, but it’s
not all right in fction.” Te “true efort” of
art, she argued in her 1996 essay “Imagina-
tion and Reality,” is essentially religious: to
“open to us dimensions of the spirit and of
the self that normally lie smothered under
the weight of living.”
The weight of living, for an author, is the
old dull stuf of reading reviews and doing
publicity, trying to keep friends and fam-
ily from being angry, and then starting all
over again each time. For Winterson, these
difculties were compounded by familial
rejection and a chaotic romantic life. She
accepted her struggles with other people as
intrinsic to her art, and her early master-
pieces owed much to a kind of radical self-
trust. But the refusal to sublimate emotional
ideals into practical realities caused Winter-
son the person a good deal of sufering. In
her memoir, she describes emerging from a
suicidal breakdown with a new understand-
ing of her former belief in the supremacy
of immediate desires: “My sexual reckless-
ness — not liberation. Te fact that I did not
value myself. I was always ready to jump of
the roof of my own life. Didn’t that have a
it was a hit. Winterson became famous for
shocking grandmums by showing girls kiss-
ing on the telly, and was ensured the full-
time devotion to literature she had dreamed
of when she abandoned what Te Passion
calls “the trappings of God.” Ten she fell
out of critical favor. Winterson’s fourth
novel, Written on the Body (1992), about a
genderless chronic philanderer who falls in
love with a married woman, was the frst of
her books to be lampooned by the British
press, even as it sold far better than any of
her previous ones. Just past 30, the subject
of both adulation and scorn, Winterson had
a hard time coping with the attention.
“After Written on the Body was pub-
lished, I went mad,” she later told an inter-
viewer. To the press, Winterson’s madness
was megalomania. She declared herself her
favorite living author and Written on the
Body the best book of the year. She upstaged
other authors at readings. She showed up on
the doorstep of a critic who gave her a bad
review, leather-clad and “literally roaring,”
according to Winterson’s own account. She
goaded the press with tales of her roman-
tic adventures, including an afair with the
renowned literary agent Pat Kavanagh, who
was married to Julian Barnes.
These led to the period Winterson
describes in her new memoir, Why Be Happy
When You Could Be Normal? As part of her
recovery process, Winterson devoted one
hour a day to therapeutic talks with “the
creature,” as she calls the part of herself “so
damaged that she was prepared to see me
dead to fnd peace.” Te memoir’s strength,
much like Orange’s, is its funny rendering of
the religious and emotional fanaticism that
defined her childhood home. “Every day,
Mrs. Winterson prayed, ‘Lord, let me die.’
Tis was hard on me and my dad.” Still, Why
Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?—
this is the question Winterson’s mother
Reviews 172
consolation and refuge from the bitterness
of everyday living.
And, also in the religious tradition, she
sought to make her books serve as a warn-
ing. Te narrator of her novel Lighthouse-
keeping (2005) decides that most people
waste their lives chasing ideas instead of
feelings: “We’re here, there, not here, not
there, swirling like specks of dust, claim-
ing for ourselves the rights of the universe.
Being important, being nothing, being
caught in lives of our own making that we
never wanted.” At its best, Winterson’s
enterprise manages to safeguard something
unknown, something intangible, in a society
that, as she once put it, “recognizes nothing
but itself.”
At the end of Oranges Are Not the Only
Fruit, Jeanette goes up the hill overlooking
her town after she has left her church and
parental home.
Right to the top I climbed, where I could
watch the circling snow fll up the town
till it blotted it out. All the black blotted
out. I could have made a very impressive
sermon . . . . ‘My sins like a cloud hung over
me, he blotted them out when he set me
free . . . .’ that sort of thing. But where was
God now, with Heaven full of astronoughts,
and the Lord overthrown? I miss God. I miss
the company of someone utterly loyal.
I’ve read this passage many times, but the
switch to present tense never fails to stop
me. Jeanette did not miss God in that
moment, watching the town that was no
longer hers blotted out by snow. She misses
God, now and always. Te yearning is much
bigger than Jeanette, and will abide no mat-
ter what she does or fails to do.
—Hannah Tennant-Moore
romance to it? Wasn’t that the creative spirit
unbounded? No.”
Wi nterson decided that pursui ng
“extremes” of emotion and experience was a
distraction from the real “intensity of life.”
Now she lives in a cottage in Gloucester-
shire, gardens, reads fve hours a day, enter-
tains her godchildren, and shares a “sane
steady love” (though not a home) with the
psychotherapist Susie Orbach. She has also
gone far to distance herself from her ’90s
histrionics. “About 1992 I should have had
an operation to sew up my mouth, and
kept it closed till about 1997,” Winterson
told the Guardian a few years ago.
This newfound stability has not been
good for Winterson’s writing. She has writ-
ten several smart, delightful children’s
books in the last few years, but her last adult
novel — Te Stone Gods (2007), which chron-
icles a love afair between a sexy space robot
and a scientist accused of terrorism — con-
veys Winterson’s vision of transcendent love
too explicitly through plot, with little atten-
tion to language. Most disappointing is the
memoir before us, which has the simplistic
truthiness of therapy rather than the com-
plex precision and lyricism of fction, and of
Winterson’s fction in particular.
The value of that fction has been in its
subtle depiction of humans as greater than
social beings, greater than bundles of pref-
erences and characteristics. Tat Winter-
son portrays this greatness through roman-
tic love makes her a rare postmodernist.
Amid a parade of novelists who sought to
convince readers of (and shock them with)
the pure disposable materiality of love and
desire, Winterson attempted to reinstate
their mystery, and that of literature, in the
old tradition from which literature once
emerged: as a replacement for religion, as a
Reviews 173
have titles, what we can and can’t do with
our property is subject to negotiations with
others. We can’t occupy spaces for long with-
out the support of many others—and when
people take property by force, they never do
it alone. When people occupy property with-
out legal titles — when they simply squat on
land — the coordination needed to retain that
property is even greater.
In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine
Boo narrates the lives of several people liv-
ing without titles in Annawadi, an informal
settlement on the enormously valuable land
beside Mumbai’s airport. Annawadi was
settled three decades ago by Tamil-speaking
migrants from South India; they have since
been joined by Marathi-speaking migrants
from outside Mumbai and Hindi- and Urdu-
speaking migrants from North India. From
her research Boo pulls out a number of
individual trajectories: How Abdul and the
rest of the Husain family attempt to fnd a
way out of Annawadi and into “the overcity”
through Abdul’s skill at sorting garbage.
How Asha, the Marathi-speaking political
leader of Annawadi, tries to gain power and
wealth through her connections to politi-
cians and charitable workers. How Asha’s
daughter Manju tries to improve her lot by
studying hard and going to college. Some
move up in the world (though most don’t),
some die, and some move from Annawadi
to other poor neighborhoods. What Boo
leaves us with is an intricate and empathetic
picture of how, even in the wealthiest city
in fast-growing and fast-changing India, the
bulk of the poor remain poor.
Te book was met with a storm of praise
in both India and the United States — for the
extent and depth of Boo’s research, for her
empathy for her subjects, and for avoiding
the trap that several recent “big India books”
fell into when they took the entire country
the journalist
and the poor
Katherine Boo. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death,
and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. Random House,
February 2012.
With a report from McKinsey in hand
and the goal to “make Mumbai into Shang-
hai” in mind, the chief minister of the state
of Maharashtra launched Operation Clear-
ance in December 2004. Te initiative was a
joint venture between investors wishing to
free land for private development and poli-
ticians eager to clean up Mumbai’s slums.
Illegal settlements that sprang up before
1995 were protected by an amendment to
the state Slum Rehabilitation Act; by 2004
the settlements built since then numbered
in the tens of thousands. During the frst
two months of Operation Clearance, at
least 90,000 homes were destroyed, leav-
ing some 400,000 people homeless. Over
the following months, state government
ministers protested; opposition politicians
protested; slum residents protested as they
were being evicted; and the Nivara Hakk
Suraksha Samiti (NHSS) and other slum
dwellers’ rights groups held large protests
in Azad Maidan park and the state govern-
ment building. By February 2005, Operation
Clearance had been called of: structures
built before 2000 would not be destroyed.
Still, the NHSS continued its demonstra-
tions, demanding that the government allow
evicted residents to return to their homes.
Tose who moved back to their neighbor-
hoods after Operation Clearance ended were
able to do so thanks to large-scale, messy, but
coordinated action. In Mumbai, as elsewhere,
property is social: we buy it from other peo-
ple, using money acquired from another set
of people, and our claim is recognized by
people who act for the state. Even when we
Reviews 174
as their subject and ended up capturing
nothing. An almost solitary discordant note
came from Mitu Sengupta, a political sci-
ence professor in Canada. In a review pub-
lished on the progressive Indian blog Kafla
(and later republished on the Dissent web-
site), Sengupta charged the book with hav-
ing a “subtle alignment with the neoliberal
narrative”—that is, a muted but consistent
anti–welfare state and pro-market agenda.
Te chief evidence of Boo’s neoliberalism,
according to Sengupta, is the curious fact
that none of Boo’s characters participate in
any kind of collective activity; when some-
one does attempt to assert control over her
life, it is always in isolation.
It’s true that collective action, which
has been necessary to the continued exis-
tence of Mumbai’s informal settlements
andse successfully challenged Operation
Clearance two years before Boo’s arrival
in Annawadi, is noticeably absent from
Boo’s book. Her narratives instead capture
individuals struggling amid their physical
environment — shacks, trash heaps, gleam-
ing skyscrapers — and broader political
and economic processes. Institutions and
groups — the political party represented by
Asha, for example, and the various charities
she defrauds — evaporate upon inspection;
when we look closer, we see only another
striving individual. In one scene, Asha tries
to rally Annawadi residents to the neighbor-
hood temple in order to display her pull to a
local politician in the Shiv Sena, Mumbai’s
powerful right-wing Marathi-chauvinist
and Hindu-nationalist party. Her crowd
inadvertently materializes when a hijra,
a member of the stigmatized trans- and
third-gender community, begins to dance
in the temple. Te politician arrives in the
middle of the show and is pleased to see the
extent of his support; Asha in turn is happy
to have demonstrated her following in the
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Reviews 175
that harbored the snakes, digging up dirt
in drier places and packing it into the mud.
After a month, their bamboo poles stopped
fopping over when they were stuck in the
ground. Draping empty cement sacks over
the poles for cover, they had a settlement.”
Teir homes gradually came to be built from
the sturdier materials on hand in the city.
In one of the book’s scenes, Asha touches
her new ceramic foor tiles and refects on
her upward trajectory: “Eight years back,
when Annawadi was a fimsy encampment,
her three children had jumped truckbeds to
steal the wood and aluminum scrap from
which the family had hammered up a shack.
Now the hut had plaster walls, a ceiling fan, a
wooden shrine with an electric candle, and a
high-status, if nonfunctioning, refrigerator.”
Annawadi consists entirely of these small
homes, some with their plaster walls painted
peach or sky blue, some with their brick
structure left exposed. Tere are small shops,
factories, a school, and a temple on the street
that faces the road to the airport, but the
rest of the neighborhood is largely residen-
tial. Huts cluster around small clearings with
wells or common toilets. Boo explains that
only six of the approximately three thou-
sand people who live in Annawadi are for-
mally and regularly employed. Te rest labor
informally on work sites and in factories, or,
like the Husain family, sell scrap, wringing
exchange value from what “the overcity” no
longer has use for.
I wandered down an Annawadi alley,
past kids playing in the temple courtyard
and toward a clearing where women were
drawing water from a well. Across the way,
a neatly dressed man in his thirties chat-
ted with an older man and woman who
were ironing his clothes. Te man turned
out to be a doctor who lives in the zopad-
patti; the couple had moved from the state
of Uttar Pradesh a few years earlier and
neighborhood (and thereby her necessity to
the politician). But the following isn’t real;
it’s an accident. Te collective turns out to
have been a mirage, a mistake.
Boo’s defenders, among them a number
of Indian critics, argued that it wasn’t fair to
fault Boo for not including what she hadn’t
seen. If in four years Boo saw no collective
activity in Annawadi, how could someone
who hadn’t been there argue with her? Yet
the question Sengupta raised about Boo’s
account lingers: no Indian city has seen col-
lective action on the scale that Mumbai has.
Few cities anywhere in the world have. For
many years the city was the home of the
Indian left, its mills and docks were the sites
of the country’s largest and most radical
labor unions, and it was in Mumbai that the
country’s powerful Dalit movement — the
movement of the former “untouchable”
castes — was born. If these are mirages, they
are mirages with powerful efects. If they
aren’t, then what has happened to Mum-
bai’s collectives?
One muggy July morning during this year’s
rainless “nonsoon,” I visited Annawadi to
try to understand this absence. Annawadi is
what in Marathi is called a zopadpatti, an
arrangement of huts. A zopadi, a village hut,
is made from hay or coconut tree branches
sealed with cow dung. In rural areas it usu-
ally has some space around it — farmland,
dirt paths, forests — but in the new settle-
ment huts were built right next to each
other, often sharing walls. In this way places
like Annawadi resemble densely populated
villages — scenes of rural life among towers
of concrete, steel, and glass.
Migrants from the South Indian state of
Tamil Nadu settled what is now Annawadi
in 1991, on a “sodden, snake-filled bit of
brushland.” Boo describes how “the Tam-
ils set to work, hacking down the brush
Reviews 176
found Annawadi an ideal place to start an
ironing business. Land prices were relatively
low, and though few locals had clothes that
needed ironing, the surrounding neighbor-
hoods were richer and full of professionals.
Te couple bought the land from an older
man who was leaving the city, and over the
years had been able to save enough to build
a solid and comfortable hut for themselves
and their two daughters. Tey vote for the
Congress Party, they told me, but the rival
Shiv Sena dominates Annawadi.
Private developers looking to build on
Annawadi’s land have strong ties to the
Sena and to the Congress Party, and are
already beginning to redevelop the neigh-
borhood. To lure residents of desirable ter-
ritory, the developers are ofering Annawadi
residents new apartments with legal titles in
other parts of the city. Te couple told me
that the Congress is negotiating their (still
unsatisfactory) resettlement package: in
exchange for their land, the builders want
to give them a crumbling apartment fur-
ther north in the city, isolated from middle-
class customers. I asked about the electricity
powering the ceiling fan and the irons. Tey
told me that the local chawl committee (a
generic name for informal and nongovern-
mental residents’ associations), to which all
residents belong, had negotiated for a con-
nection about a decade earlier, as it had also
negotiated for water, toilets, government
schools, and paving stones that would keep
their feet clean if it ever rained.
In other words, an infrastructure of col-
lective agency does exist in Annawadi — in
political parties, chawl committees, and pre-
sumably other forms as well — and it keeps
the settlement in existence. Boo somehow
doesn’t see this infrastructure, or rather she
sees it but reduces it to the individuals who
comprise it. Tere’s no reason to think Boo
is hiding anything. She is palpably honest,
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Reviews 177
Sen’s model has many merits. It’s a cor-
rective to purely rights-based understand-
ings of justice, which either determine a
universal set of rights without taking into
account the lives people would like to live
or set legal rather than practical rights as
the horizon of political action. Te capabili-
ties of collectives, however, have no place
in Sen’s vision. Boo takes this normative
framework for what people should be able
to do, and maps it onto a description of
what people actually do. Boo’s “subtle align-
ment,” then, isn’t with the pro-market and
anti–welfare state agenda of neoliberalism,
as Sengupta argues, but with the individual-
ist approach of economists like Sen.
Of course, collectives make trickier
objects of study than individuals. Tey don’t
exist in every moment, for one thing, so
they can only be observed when their mem-
bers are brought together. Collectives also
don’t experience the world as individuals do,
so when a collective acts, it’s meaningless
to speak of its intentions. For this reason,
so-called “methodological individualists,”
among whom Sen might be counted, argue
that the basic unit of social-scientifc expla-
nation must be the acting individual.
Social-scientifc writing has struggled to
fnd ways to describe collectives — but what
of other kinds of writing? Nearly everyone
who praised Behind the Beautiful Forevers
praised it for reading like novel, and in fact
the ability to grant access to another’s con-
sciousness accounts for both the book’s
power and its limitations. Written almost
entirely from inside the heads of its charac-
ters (“Te smell of the one leg’s burning was
fainter in the shed, given the competing stink
of trash and the fear-sweat that befouled
Abdul’s clothing”), the book manages, unlike
a conventional work of social science, to
move the reader when one character is sent
to jail unjustly or when another dies.
to the extent of providing the real names
of all of her characters — all of whom, with-
out exception, break at least one law in the
course of the book. And contrary to Sengup-
ta’s claims, she does not advance a neoliberal
agenda: Boo records the failure of the market
to bring justice to her characters at least as
frequently as she records the failure of the
state to do the same. Te police are corrupt
and the neighborhood school is a scheme for
Asha to make money, but the greatest threat
to Annawadi’s residents is private developers
looking to raze their illegal settlement and
build legally and proftably in its place.
Boo does have an agenda, though, which
she explains in an author’s note. After visit-
ing India with her husband, the political sci-
entist Sunil Khilnani, she wanted to under-
stand how and why poverty and inequality
persist in India, and why the market and
state policy have failed to reduce both.
“What is the infrastructure of opportunity
in this society?” she asks. “Whose capa-
bilities are given wing by the market and a
government’s economic and social policy?
Whose capabilities are squandered?” Tese
are the questions of a policy-oriented devel-
opment economist — and specifcally those
of the economist Amartya Sen, whose work
Boo has said she admires (and who gave the
book a very favorable blurb). Sen’s capabili-
ties approach (originally outlined in papers
coauthored with the philosopher Martha
Nussbaum) holds that the aim of develop-
ment policy should be neither a narrow
focus on GDP growth nor the expansion
of fxed legal rights, but rather “the expan-
sion of the ‘capabilities’ of people to lead the
kind of lives they value — and have reason to
value.” A larger national economy or a new
legal right to education, for example, does
not make a society more just unless it actu-
ally contributes to an individual’s ability to
gain access to education.
Reviews 178
In limiting its scale to the experienc-
ing individual, however, Behind the Beauti-
ful Forevers shares the novel’s tendency to
neglect depictions of larger groups. Histori-
ans of literature have argued that the 18th-
century rise of the European novel was a
complement, and correlate, to the rise of
pre–French Revolution “bourgeois individu-
alism.” In these accounts, the European novel
fostered in readers an imaginative empathy
with unknown individuals, who could then
be understood as having rights. Tis is not
to say that novelistic techniques only allowed
the rendering of individuals: the later his-
tory of the novel ofers plenty of examples of
characters belonging to an invisible, intan-
gible network (as in Dickens and Balzac) or a
“seamless web” (as in Middlemarch); a single
character may even stand for an entire nation
(as in Midnight’s Children). But all of these
aggregates appear to the reader through their
individual representatives or members; col-
lectives as the novel tends to portray them
are hostile to interiorities and often appear
(as with the railroad strike at the climax of
Sister Carrie) as exceptional events.
Whether or not the individual is the
only possible subject of rights or object of
empathy, action isn’t always individual, and
collective action can never be reduced to
the intentions of those who partake in it.
A number of social scientists have fought
against the inheritance of methodological
individualism. For example, the anthro-
pologist Marc Edelman, in Peasants Against
Globalization, captured the way associa-
tions and movements in 1980s Costa Rica
formed in response to the structural adjust-
ments mandated by the IMF. For Edelman,
the terms and forms of Costa Rican col-
lective action were not simply a reaction to
the situation at hand, but drew upon a his-
torical grammar of political action: as any
accurate depiction of halting, discontinuous
Reviews 179
members of society — often in order to isolate
the poorest and most vulnerable.
The Shiv Sena (the name means “the
army” of the 17th-century Marathi-speaking
King Shivaji) was founded with a 1966 rally
in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park that drew a crowd
of 250,000 people. Bal Tackeray, the move-
ment’s leader, denounced the government of
the state of Maharashtra — created only six
years earlier to unite Marathi speakers — for
its failure to protect the interests of its con-
stituents, who he said were losing jobs and
housing to recent migrants. Te Sena, which
has explicitly invoked European fascist
movements from the outset, describes itself
in its founding documents as a “volunteer
organization” rather than a political party
or union; it was created to defend a Marathi
claim to Maharashtra and to Mumbai. Tis
claim was initially defended at the expense
of South Indians and Communists. Later, as
an ideology of Hindu nationalism became
ascendant in national politics, the Marathi
claim to Maharashtra and Mumbai was
made at the expense of Muslim inhabitants.
Te Sena spread through the city’s neigh-
borhoods, establishing shakhas (neighbor-
hood organizations) in zopadpattis and
chawls. For the Marathi-speaking people
they represented, the shakhas succeeded in
obtaining services from local ofcials that
the state had never before provided: water
connections, electricity, even employment.
For non-Marathi speakers, the Sena was
at best exclusionary; at worst, it boycotted
their stores, harassed them on the street,
and smashed their windows.
As the Sena made its way into the
Marathi-speaking parts of Mumbai, it
began an assault on the city’s Commu-
nists, at the polls and on the streets. Shiv
Sainiks attacked the Mumbai Communist
Party headquarters in 1967 and are assumed
to have been responsible for killing the
collective action must, the book extends its
scale to reach back in time. Experiments in
the novel, too, have attempted to cast of the
“bourgeois individualist” inheritance of the
European classics — whether through depic-
tions of crowds, like those pulsing through
Victor Serge’s Conquered City, or of social
transformation, as in the development of
the peasantry into a working class in Ngugi
wa Tiong’o’s Petals of Blood. In these works,
collectives become agents, social forces. But
they are exceptions. Little social-scientifc
writing matches Boo’s in sheer power, and
the novels that depict collectives are rare.
We have yet to see a form that both con-
veys collective agency and tells an engag-
ing, empathetic story. Collectives are tricky
things: inhuman, and sometimes inhumane.
The case of Mumbai’s missing collectives,
however, has another wrinkle. When Asha,
Annawadi’s aspiring political boss, acci-
dentally conjured a mirage of collective
support for Sawant, she was attempting
to strengthen her position in the Marathi
chauvinist party, the Shiv Sena. Te Sena’s
rise since the late 1960s has led to the city’s
ofcial renaming as Mumbai and — through
riots, pogroms, and boycotts — has redrawn
the city’s religious and linguistic boundar-
ies. Te Sena represents a new form of col-
lective in the city, but it’s one that has nearly
destroyed the progressive groups that left-
wing social scientists like Sengupta would
like to see. It’s easy for progressives to for-
get that collectives exist on both the left and
the right, and that the decline of left-wing
collectives doesn’t necessarily result in the
absence of collectives more generally. His-
tory in Mumbai and elsewhere has shown
that it doesn’t take long for empty space to
be occupied by other groups, often from the
political right. Tese right-wing collectives
in turn can unify otherwise disorganized
Reviews 180
local organization, the one most able
to both represent neighborhoods under
threat and profit from their clearance.
Te housing-rights movements that arose
in the middle of the century have folded
in the face of a powerful real estate lobby
almost identical to the city’s political class.
Te NHSS, which helped defeat Operation
Clearance, now negotiates for the displaced
to receive apartments in private develop-
ments, not for a general right to decent
housing. Te people who were left out of the
unions and associated groups — the unem-
ployed, small business owners, white-collar
workers — were the Sena’s first constitu-
ents. Eventually the Sena replaced the old
collectives altogether.
Te Shiv Sena has a strong presence in
Annawadi. Te couple who run the ironing
business were themselves excluded from
the committee that keeps their neighbor-
hood in existence and that won their elec-
tricity, water, schools, and paving stones.
“We don’t go to the chawl committee meet-
ings,” the husband told me. The two are
native Hindi speakers from Uttar Pradesh,
and the meetings are “only for Marathi peo-
ple.” Te doctor was born in Uttar Pradesh
too, and he didn’t go to the meetings either.
Two autorickshaw drivers I spoke to had
migrated from Bihar; they spoke Bhoj-
puri, and they also said they never went to
the meetings. Except the aspiring political
leader Asha and her daughter Manju, none
of Boo’s central characters are Marathi
speakers: the Husains are Muslims from
Uttar Pradesh who speak Urdu, as is Fatima,
with whom the Husains get into a fght early
in the book. These, the poorest of Mum-
bai’s poor, are left out of the chawl commit-
tee, the group that makes their existence in
Annawadi possible, and so they survive in
the only way allowed them: as individuals.
—Anand Vaidya
Communist state assemblyman Krishna
Desai in 1970. As anthropologist Tomas
Blom Hansen has pointed out, the working
population of the city was growing rapidly
during this period — it doubled between
1951 and 1971 — and as the historian Juned
Shaikh has argued, this labor surplus both
weakened the left unions, as any strike eas-
ily could be broken, and provided a fertile
substrate for the Shiv Sena.
The Sena initially was beaten back by
the strength of Mumbai’s organized work-
ing class. By the close of the 1970s, the Sena
had lost its hold on the city government and
failed to dislodge the left from the mills.
As recently as 1982, independent and left
unions in Mumbai were able to hold a strike
of 250,000 workers from ffty textile mills
for eighteen months. Demanding official
recognition of unions and regularization
of contract workers, the striking workers
were able to keep the mill gates shut — not
a single scab or manager entered — for six
months. But the mill owners never con-
ceded to their demands. Instead the own-
ers began building new mills in the docile
neighboring state of Gujarat, and ultimately
produced more during the strike than they
had before it. Te owners also made plans to
sell their valuable Mumbai real estate, push-
ing out the city’s industrial economy and
ushering in a new era of real estate specula-
tion. Today most of Mumbai’s eighty mills
are closed, and the land they were built on
is quickly being turned over to malls and
luxury apartments.
Te failure of the 1982 strike killed both
the mills and the unions, leaving the city
with an even larger unemployed population
and base for Thackeray’s Sena. As Mum-
bai’s economy shifted from manufacturing
to real estate, and as mills and slums were
cleared for redevelopment, the Shiv Sena
emerged as the party with the strongest
our contributors
Ti-Grace Atkinson is a writer, philosopher, and activist. Her frst book was Amazon Odyssey (1974).
Rosalyn Baxandall teaches at CUNY Labor School and Bard’s Prison Project. She is coeditor of
Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement (2001).
Phyllis Chesler is the author of Women and Madness (1972) and Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (2002).
Anselma Dell’Olio is an Italian flm critic and a columnist for the women’s magazine Grazia.
Kristin Dombek is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her review of the musical The Book of Mormon
appeared in Issue Twelve.
Tirzah Firestone is a Jewish Renewal rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer.
Jo Freeman is an activist, writer, and political scientist. She is the author of eleven books,
mostly on women.
Julia Grønnevet is a writer living in Oslo.
Carol Hanisch is an activist, essayist, and editor. Her essay “The Personal is Political” was frst
published in Notes from the Second Year (1970).
Lawrence Jackson is an English and African American Studies professor at Emory. His essay
“The Ledger” appeared in Issue Fourteen.
Andrew Klein is a painter living in Boston.
Alix Kates Shulman’s latest books are the novel Ménage, published by Other Press in May, and
A Marriage Agreement and Other Essays, published by Open Road in April.
Jeremy Kessler is a JD/PhD candidate in the Law School and Department of History at Yale.
Chris Kraus is a writer, art critic, and founder of the Semiotext(e) Native Agents series. Her
latest book, the novel Summer of Hate, was published by Semiotext(e) in September.
Kate Millett is a writer, artist, and human rights activist. Her frst book was Sexual Politics (1970).
Nina Power is a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Roehampton in London and
the author of One-Dimensional Woman (2009).
Mikhail Shishkin lives in Moscow and Zurich. His novel Maidenhair was published in English by
Open Letter in October.
Ann Snitow is director of Gender Studies at the New School and coeditor of The Feminist Memoir
Project (reissued 2007).
Beth Stryker is a writer, artist, and curator based in New York.
Elisabeth Subrin is a flmmaker, artist, and assistant professor of Film and Media Arts at Temple.
Jennifer Szalai is a writer living in Brooklyn.
Hannah Tennant-Moore is a writer living in Brooklyn.
Anand Vaidya is a graduate student in social anthropology at Harvard.
stay in school
Dear Editors,
Te spectacle of a clique of Ivy League
alumni loudly renouncing the conditions of
their own success — a familiar enough piece
of bourgeois psychodrama — might pass
without comment. But “Death by Degrees”
betrays a deeper state of political disorien-
tation. While there can be no doubt that
institutions of higher education refect and
reproduce existing class divisions, they do
not create them. Te overrepresentation of
Ivy League graduates in the higher spheres
of government and fnance is a symptom,
not a cause, of larger inequities. To argue
otherwise is to indulge the infationary atti-
tude being criticized.
Te fact is that the best American uni-
versities really do educate students and
accredit skills, even as they abet class triage,
and this is what makes inequality of access
to them so cruel. Te piece admits as much.
If degrees are merely simulacra, signs with
no connection to their purported referents,
then a correspondingly irreal politics seems
to be called for: licentia docendi ablaze,
valedictorians on strike. If we acknowledge
rather that universities provide a real social
good, then the remedy to existing dispari-
ties between those who gain entry and those
who do not must be the opposite of what n+1
advocates: to demand the provision of excel-
lent post-secondary instruction to all those
who want it.
Tis is a political position. In its place,
n+1 peddles an unwholesome mélange of
maximalist rhetoric and bathetic prescrip-
tion, “commit suicide as a class” or “ask
the Democratic Party to refrain from run-
ning any candidate for national ofce who
holds a degree from an Ivy League school.”
One wonders what to make of the story of
Hong Xiuquan, the hapless young man who
despaired over his failure to join the ranks
of the credentialed Chinese bureaucracy. Is
this meant as a cautionary tale? However
far-fetched its millennial inspiration and
disastrous its fnale, the Taiping Rebellion
undertook a program of land reform, sex-
ual equality, and the redistribution of pri-
vate property. Te historical example only
underscores the feebleness of a critique of
“meritocracy” that envisions political action
in the form of abnegation.
Students have not remained silent in
the face of spending cuts and fee increases.
In Davis, in Santiago, in Montreal, young
people fighting to defend high-quality,
affordable education for all have risked
imprisonment and brutalization by police.
Provocations like “Death by Degrees” risk
nothing but the reputation of those who see
ft to publish them.
—Grey Anderson and Danilo Scholz
Letters 185
For the birds
Dear Editors,
I’m the internet. You might have heard
of me.
I often take a shallow, feeting interest in
what your magazine posts. But since noth-
ing interests me as much as the subject of
myself, I was particularly fascinated by
“Please RT.” Twitter is more and more one of
the main ways I express my multitudinous
self, and I’ve never retweeted an n+1 article
more than this one about Twitter. I assume
that as a self-interested creature like me you
might want to know some of what I said
about you. In a word, your article conveying
mixed feelings about Twitter inspired some
mixed feelings itself.
OccupyRhetoric: What oft was thought
but ne’er so well expressed! Fenneke: You
had me at “this scrolling suicide note of
Western civilization.” Kasadarko: This
@nplusonemag piece is the best thing I’ve
ever read about Twitter. Lovely writing,
and lovely about writing. Erika Arroyo:
Fav your favs, eat your own shit. Bon appe-
tit. Ricky Sprague: I actually didn’t read
this article all the way through. Casey
Walker: First tweet! Happy to have joined
this “scrolling suicide note of Western Civi-
lization.” Pavel Hardos: n+1 has the lay of
the land on Twitter, writing, and the cul-
ture it wrought. Culturetrap: A revival
of “terseness and impersonality” on Twit-
ter? Tis is smart stuf. Bert Archer: Dif-
ference of opinion is one thing; cluelessness
something else entirely. No excuse for this.
Diego Sorbara: Want to read something
hilariously overwritten about Twitter? sky
frostenson: It’s like, how can I not RT this.
David Hayes: Infnite loop defned. Article
on Twitter tweeted. Steve shaner: Tought-
provoking sanity about Twitter. You will
think twice before your next tweet. Me too.
against ageism
Dear Editors,
I am surprised by the ageism of “Big
Babies,” in a magazine that otherwise seems
conscious of social injustice and the power
of language.
The authors adopt old age as a meta-
phor for the stupid and repugnant, as
women long were used as a metaphor for
evil. Adjectives such as “old” and “retired”
are thrown around as insults; “senilely” is
meant to ridicule. Te image of old people
with “suit sleeves fopping” (yes, many of
our wrists become skinny and bony, as the
authors’ may, should they live to old age)
is taken to be patently repellent. I thought
that was the worst until I came upon the
sneering depiction of the “Autocrat of the
Senior Center” in a “second childhood” in
which “someone wipes his spills.” Te dis-
abilities often associated with old age, “con-
fusion and impotence” and being “forgetful,”
are invoked to demean, while “Napoleon in
Depends” is presented as the ultimate insult.
It’s not the old who are disgusting but
this rhetoric. Te authors condemn misog-
yny and the war on women but happily
enlist in the war on the old and disabled.
I wish on those who wrote that section a
long old age in which they — without, I hope,
confusion, impotence, or Depends, but don’t
bet on it — will have to slowly chew, swallow,
and expel their indigestible words.
—Alix Kates Shulman
Letters 186
thesis about what she sees as the forced
and oozy camaraderie on ladyblogs. I think
Fischer has me in her argument until she
writes about the interview, which I feel she
did not read with much context or nuance.
Te conversation, however, is an important
one, perhaps at the heart of online feminism,
in its messy, ambivalent, and nascent state.
The literary contest at the Morning
News in which Zimmerman wrote about
my novel Green Girl is called the Tourna-
ment of Books. Zimmerman’s piece was
not simply a review, as Fischer describes
it. Rather, the idea of the ToB is to mimic
March Madness, and so it has a competi-
tive, sometimes bloodthirsty vibe, encour-
ages gleeful reader participation, and really
isn’t a careful conversation about books
(although that can happen as well). Zim-
merman’s take on Green Girl was at times
funny, but it wasn’t a thorough review.
Among other things, it didn’t mention that
there is a narrator observing the main char-
acter, with whom Zimmerman took issue in
her evaluation.
Te ToB defnitely created a coliseum
atmosphere, especially when it came to my
little deer of a character and novel, which
commentators mostly viscerally hated. So
I felt pretty wounded from that experience.
And then I saw that a few commentators
also tore into Zimmerman’s review. I real-
ized after reading some of the comments
that both of us were feeling “intimate and
exposed,” as Fischer writes in her essay, and
as opposed to just dismissing Zimmerman
and her review, I wanted to reach out to
her, and so I emailed her, and she quite gra-
ciously replied, “hey! this is totally weird! but
let’s talk about things and do an interview!”
How can Molly Fischer consider this
anything less than a feminist moment? I
don’t think of what Zimmerman and I were
doing as creating a “space for disagreement”
cinnamon_carter: Te worst overview of
twitter ever LOL. Q. Le: Te displayed nar-
cissism on twitter; in layman terms, why
I don’t give a shit about your lunch or full
time job whines. Edgar Alan Gatica: I like
this just for the term “blogorrheic.”
In the person of another avatar I referred
to “Please RT” as representing the “event-
horizon of jagof intellectualism.” But now
I can’t fnd that tweet. My memory is really
good but in another way it’s not. Tanks for
the read, in any case. Or fuck you. Whatever,
—Te Internet
having a moment
Dear Editors,
I want to weigh in on Molly Fischer’s lat-
est piece (“On Ladyblogs”), which uses Edith
Zimmerman’s interview with me on the
Hairpin as a case study in her continuing
Letters 187
so much as acknowledging that perhaps that
previous space wasn’t the thoughtful, care-
ful one we would have preferred, where the
other’s feelings were taken into consider-
ation. I think moving that conversation to
the Hairpin ultimately was cathartic, and
that really was the goal of our conversa-
tion, as we talked about how strange it is to
be talked about on the internet and I think
mostly recognized each other’s vulnerability.
I honestly don’t see Zimmerman as
backing down or muting dissent in our con-
versation. She acknowledged that perhaps
she didn’t read Green Girl super thought-
fully, but nowhere did she recant and say she
liked the book. Zimmerman mostly asked
me about my experience of having a book
out, and her tone was humbled, as Fischer
points out (“you wrote a novel, I only wrote
a review”), but I think that was because she
was trying to acknowledge that she was
appreciative of the work that goes into a
novel, even one she didn’t dig, personally.
I really wish that Molly Fischer’s first
essay on ladyblogs had been treated with
such respect and openness. I thought she
made some interesting points about the
dividedness and complexity of online fem-
inism, which point to the dividedness and
complexity of current feminism in gen-
eral. We are living through an interesting,
vibrant, crazy time to be a girl or woman,
after the second or maybe even third wave
of feminism, and I feel the ladyblogs refect
that. I don’t think we can read them on the
same level as the women’s magazines Betty
Friedan and later Naomi Wolf decried. Not
only do I fnd the ladyblogs on the whole
more democratic and anticorporate, I also
think it’s possible now to be an oppositional
consumer — and not to accept the current
critical model of looking at girls as vic-
tims of capitalism. And as Helen McClory
has pointed out, in both essays Fischer
Letters 188
openness, of play, a more potentially gen-
erative and generous one? Why can’t this
girlish epistemology also be a feminist
one? Why do these two ideas have to be
absolutely opposed?
—Kate Zambreno
ad education
Dear Editors,
I recently purchased your new ebook, “Bad
Education.” I have not read it yet, but I have
noticed that there are several embedded ads.
When I read a magazine, I have no qualms
about ads accompanying the text — it is even
something that I expect from the medium.
However, when one designates a product as
an ebook, there are certain expectations that
accompany such a designation, one of them
being that advertising, if there is any, should
be at the end of the text — not embedded. Te
only time that ads are embedded in ebooks
is when such products are free. Charging
$4 and having embedded ads, however, is a
betrayal of the ebook designation. What’s
done is done, but perhaps in your future
ebooks you could place any ads — whether
they refer to your own publications or those
of a third party — at the end of the book.
—Ian King
doesn’t take into consideration the playful-
ness of these websites — they play at being
girly, and this is refected in their language
and rhythms. And yes, there is a niceness
involved in this, which I often think of as
an awareness of others’ vulnerability. I don’t
think it’s a bad thing — I think it’s actually
a f lawed yet positive outcome of online
feminist discourse.
I do understand what Fischer means
when says she couldn’t imagine inhabiting
a chatty (girlish?) tone and writing for the
Hairpin. A lot of writing online, or any-
where, is about inhabiting voices. For exam-
ple, the contentious tone that Fischer inhab-
its in her piece, which seems very debate
club to me, is in a way more of a masculine
rhetorical mode, and I think it can often
shut down discourse, unless you’re willing
to play that argumentative game. I like how
online we can counter it with our feelings
and our experiences. I think there’s some-
thing really wonderful about refusing to use
a more patriarchal language, and recogniz-
ing the validity of feelings in criticism.
Part of the discomfort I have with the
authoritative stance is its pretense of know-
ing, of already having known from the
start. What about a feminist epistemol-
ogy? Or even an epistemology of the girl?
Isn’t a mode of not knowing, of doubt, of
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essential cinema


starts december 21 in new York & los angeles
Opens everywhere in January
“Jack kerouac’s peerless anthem to the romance
of youthful freedom and experience has fnally
made it to the screen with its virtues and spirit intact.”
-Kenneth turan, Los AngeLes Times

number fifteen winter 2013
how to quit
dead white magazines
gangs of baltimore
the trial of anders breivik
the passion of anthony kennedy
in memoriam: shulamith firestone