The Incredible Case of the Stack O' Wheat Murders
(This speech was given in May, 1980 when I faced felony conspiracy and malicious mischief charges at the University of California in Santa Cruz, California that stemmed from my destruction of the "The Incredible Case of the Stack O' Wheat Murders.")
Throughout my schooling I have remained an outspoken critic of all forms of official repression and have rigorously worked to halt university censorship, which wore the guise of "selective education."
I attended Eastfield Junior College in Dallas, Texas from 1971 to 1973. During my enrollment there, one administrator arbitrarily removed an "offensive" painting from a hallway exhibition. This painting portrayed two men and one woman, nude and in suggestive postures. I and other students confronted the administration about the removal. Our organizing resulted in a public hearing at the college, and an apology from the administration.
One semester I denounced our school newspaper when they refused to print a poem because the editor found one word to be "objectionable." That word was uterus.
Six years ago this month I was almost arrested (as you will find documented in a past issue of Ms. magazine) by the Richardson, Texas vice squad for sponsoring a showing of a "pornographic" film series entitled "The Best of the New York Women's Film Festival." After review by one administrator, it had been banned. I attempted to persuade the administration to show it, and when that failed, I ordered the film and arranged to have it shown at my own expense.
Later that year I was denied administrative permission (in the form of the student activities stamp of approval) to distribute a satirical essay I had written entitled, "An Ex-Eastfield Student Reflects on Fornication Flicks, Philodendrons, and Female Pudendals," an indictment of censorship practices of those same college bureaucrats.
As you can see, no one need impress upon me the importance of a free exchange of ideas. At times, civil disobedience is necessary to insure this free exchange. People who feel a moral urgency about an issue have a responsibility to do all they can to bring what they consider to be matters of life and death to public attention. Many of us felt that way about the war in Vietnam. Those of us who have been arrested for trespassing onto the property of nuclear power plants feel this way. We need this process to keep people thinking. It keeps us free. This is how personal and political change takes place.
The decision to destroy library property was not an easy one. It was made after a great deal of reflection and concern about my moral responsibilities to myself, my community, and this university.
I remain a serious ceramicist in the ASM program here at College V. Therefore, the realization that my education at this institution has been jeopardized is quite disturbing. Letting the existence of these prints slip from mind as most people at this university were prepared to do would have been easier than the choice I made. Unfortunately, there were just too many daily reminders.
The day after I viewed these prints, I read on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle of the murder of Barbara Schwartz, who was stabbed to death while jogging on Mount Tamalpais. She was described as "curled in the fetal position, the front of her blouse drenched in blood as she lay in the shadows under the redwoods--her dog's nose pressed against her lifeless arm."
I was reminded of another Chronicle story about another San Francisco area jogger, Mary Bennet, 23 years old, who died after a violent struggle defending herself against a "frenzied killer" rapist. She was stabbed 25 times, with multiple stab wounds on her face, neck, and chest. Golfers stated that they heard her "long, agonized screams," but did not investigate because they saw a police car in the area. Her body was discovered "much later by a party of hikers when they followed a trail of blood and saw one of the woman's feet protruding from a shallow grave of leaves."
As I continued reading the grisly account of Barbara Schwartz's death, I remembered the satirical pamphlet I had seen in the University library the day before: "Of course, the epitome of the series' humor resides in all the chocolate syrup used as blood." I remembered the description of "arrays of utterly exquisite corpses."
In the same Chronicle article the chairman of the San Francisco Council on Physical Fitness warned all women of the "extreme danger of jogging in any city during the day..." and advised all women to jog in groups, preferably on specified jogging tracks.
I went jogging that day--I wondered what beach I should go to--which one was safe. As I jogged I was wrenched by the images of "long, agonized screams" and of Barbara Schwartz "curled in a fetal position." I felt Mary Bennet's screams, those "long, agonized screams" that went unanswered, to be the screams of all women everywhere.
It was then that I decided to destroy the Stack O' Wheat prints in the McHenry library. The Stack O' Wheat prints were destroyed as they were born: with chocolate syrup poured on torn pieces. Les Krims has taken the torn pieces of all womankind, poured chocolate syrup on them, and served them on a platter to reinforce the preconceptions of a violent, woman-hating society. I have taken torn pieces of Les Krims' work, chocolate syrup over them, and served them to make an artistic statement, to bring some very vital issues into focus, and to change the circumstances of women's and men's lives.
What I have done has been referred to as "censorship." But there is a distinction between official censorship and a moral decision by one individual to destroy a publicity packet that violates all of humanity. And, as should be clear from my earlier remarks, my insistence that such illustrations of the mutilation of a woman's body and spirit are not art does not mean that I feel it should be subject to governmental censorship.
Official censorship is dangerous--it can be used against all of us. And my own action, apart from the educational process that accompanied it, would have been inexcusable. I am not opposed to the use of these prints for educational purposes: they were shown at the Forum at my insistence, and I have displayed them at tables I have set up on campus. In fact, I have requested their public display in the lobby of the library. But as they were in Special Collections, they were without a context other than the accompanying promotional pamphlet which makes such bizarre comments as, "There is a chance that discrete pleasure will be received from this portrayed transgression of another body--a profound ecstasy..." In this light, their presence is inappropriate and offensive, itself violence against women.
Although I continue to object to official censorship, I support at this time illegal actions, such as this one, undertaken by individual women and groups of women and men who commit themselves to these acts--not taking them lightly, but evaluating creatively their responsibility: to other women and men, to their communities, to the world, and to themselves. Those who choose these actions must consider every possible consequence they may incur, personally and politically, longterm and immediate; and it is of utmost importance that they be willing to take moral responsibility for their actions, whether publicly as I have done, or privately, as some will choose to do.
I will support the actions of Red Zora in West Germany, who stole $50,000 worth of merchandise from sex shops, leaving a leaflet signed, "avenger of the oppressed;" I will support the Bluebird Five who spray-painted and pasted leaflets on a local porn shop--as I support all women who realize the urgency of our circumstances and take responsibility for dealing with the sexual violence that is pervading our daily lives. These efforts, our energy, our time, our money, and our lives, we give to change the course of history. We do this so that our children and their children will not be forced to live with the same fear that women of past generations have grown to accept.
If I have learned anything in my years of volunteer social service work in this area, it is that the chore of stopping the rape, mutilation, and murder of women rests in our hands. Even after reading the grisly headlines, society in general, and, perhaps, men in particular, may have uttered a dutiful "how terrible;" but little active interest has been shown in the battle against this violence and its climate of fear. And until stopping this violence becomes a societal priority, we are left with the enormous task of finding a solution. Our desperate attempts may be controversial and at times illegal. However, no matter how we choose to deal with this monstrous burden, until drastic changes occur in attitudes and the way we are forced to live our lives each day, we have little to lose.
I hope my commitment to this issue has been made clear. I have spent over $700 of my own money, and incurred significant debts, in making this action possible. One month of my life has been consumed in making the educational impact that was my intent from the beginning. My intent was not to repress or silence; quite the contrary. I have acted in the spirit of total creativity and have encouraged all to explore this realm within themselves.
I refuse to align myself with any individual or group whose goal is sexual respression. I will work to defend freedom of access to any information or expression of any ideas concerning honest sexuality or erotica of any kind. Explicit sexual material has its place in literature, art, science, and education, and most of all in the public domain. What I do think is that we need a new definition of obscenity that focuses on violence, not sex--on the intent to degrade and dehumanize the female body for sexual stimulation. What I am unalterably opposed to is the female body being stripped, bound, raped, tortured, mutilated, and murdered in the name of entertainment and free speech.
As long as we continue to read of women like Karen Mondic, Diane Wilder, Laura Collins, Yolanda Washington, Judith Ann Miller, Lisa Theresa Kastin, Kitty Genovese, Jill Barcomb, Kathleen Robinson, Kristina Weckler, Mary Vincent, Sonja Johnson, Dolores Cepeda, Mary Bennet, Jane Evelyn King, Laura Rae Wagner, Kimberly Diane Martin, Cindy Lee Hudspeth, Edda Kane, Barbara Schwartz, Andrea Joy Hall, Jackie Doris Gilliam, Jaqueline Leah Lamp, Lucinda Schaefer, Shirley Linett Ledford, Mary Ann Pesce, Anita Luchessa, Aiko Koo, Cynthia Schall, Rosalind Thorpe, Alice Liu, Clarnell Strandberg, Sara Hallett, and Diane Steffy, we must seriously examine the portrayal, by all forms of media, of women as unwilling victims.
It is not just a matter of our personal distaste for this material. It is a matter of our very lives resting on the false conceptions about women that Les Krims has perpetuated in his series. Even though there is a debate as whether there is in fact a direct correlation between violent acts and pornography--and I happen to believe there is--women cannot afford to wait until definitive results come in. No matter how pornography affects men, in order to maintain our self-respect, we must refuse to allow anyone to portray us as victims in the manner Les Krims did. And we must attack all others who financially profit at our expense from this type of degradation.
We all make moral decisions. Every day, librarians make moral decisions as they choose "suitable" material, and this activity is not called censorship.
A librarian's task is a difficult one. I would not want to undertake it. I have deliberately chosen not to work in an official capacity where I would be expected to define art and its purpose. However, even though I have chosen not to work as an "official censor," when an issue cries out as this one does, I must take some action out of moral responsibility. The University, too, had a responsibility to act; as a teaching institution, it has taken on the obligation to shape attitudes as well as to simply catalogue and defend the status quo.
On more than one occasion, I have supported the library's refusal to remove the Stack O' Wheats publicity packet. I do not want librarians to bend to any special-interest pressure groups. When the dialogue first began over these prints, the library did what it could to respond: among other things, librarians compiled and distributed a thorough guide to researching violence against women. What I could not accept was the retention of the prints in the library without some kind of explanatory context, and this context was not forthcoming.
Perhaps it is not the library's responsibility to prevent the current trend of violent pornography creeping from the curtained booths of what were once isolated porn shops and theaters. It is our responsibility to keep it from gaining social respectability.
Even though I had strategic and political problems with certain aspects and possible effects of my action, it was impossible for me to allow myself the rigid, simplistic approach of "Oh, I just don't believe in censorship" (as Terry Terhaar said to me on April 2). As I struggle with these complex issues, I emerge from this controversy with more questions than I had before I created it. I have learned that there are no certain answer`s or clear-cut definitions. A black-and-white view may be easier, but I have found my most penetrating insights when I have accepted shadings and colors as part of the complex realities responsible thinking must consider.
I do not regret my decision to destroy the Stack O' Wheats publicity packet. What I do regret is that I was forced to take such a drastic action before this university would take notice of its role in the complicated issues of pornography, violence, and women. In all fairness, this forum should have taken place when it was first learned that the prints were held in Special Collections--but the university remained silent.
I wonder, too, where our indignant defenders of civil liberties were in January, when it was revealed that less than a city block from our university library, a sensuous reclining male nude was removed from Katy Moore's senior art show in the Stevenson Coffeehouse. Her painting was removed at the insistence of the Stevenson administration, on the grounds that it was "aesthetically inappropriate." This was clearly an act of repression--its intent was to stifle. Yet Katy Moore was left in isolation to deal with this insult to her right to personal expression, while this university remained silent.
I fear this indicates a confusion of priorities on the part of the university administration and community. It saddens me deeply that this campus has been in more turmoil over the symbolic destruction of a three dollar set of prints than over the murder of Diane Steffy last November. Diane Steffy was a student at our university and she was silenced forever.
I agree that censorship is a deadly menace. It silences us and destroys our spirit. When it is enforced, people live in fear of expressing themselves. But violence against women is the ultimate silencer--it destroys women's lives. It makes us afraid, not only of expressing ourselves, but of being ourselves. And when night closes in, it comes like a prison.