Andrea Dworkin Autobiography

From Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series,
volume 21 (New York: Gale Research Inc., 1995)

Copyright © 1994 by Andrea Dworkin.
All rights reserved.

(Continued from PREVIOUS PART)

It was in Amsterdam in 1972 that I made the vow, which I have kept, that I would use everything I know in behalf of women's liberation. I owed the women's movement a big debt: it was a feminist who helped me escape the brutality of my marriage. Escape is not a one-time run for your life: you keep running and hiding; he shows up out of nowhere and beats you, menaces you, threatens, intimidates, screams a foul invective at you in broad daylight on crowded streets, breaks into wherever you find to live, hits you with his dirty fists, dirtied by your pain, your blood.

I left the marital home toward the end of 1971, some two months after I turned twenty-five. I fled the country in which I had been living for five years in November 1972. I have no continuous memory of the events of that year. Even with the events I can remember, I have no sense of their sequence. I was attacked, persecuted, followed, harassed, by the husband I had left; I often lived the life of a fugitive, except that it was the more desperate life of a battered woman who had run away for the last time, whatever the outcome.

I have written about the experience of being a battered wife in three nonfiction essays: "A Battered Wife Survives" (1978) and "What Battery Really Is" (1989), both of which are included in the U.S. edition of Letters From a War Zone; and "Trapped in a Pattern of Pain," published in the Los Angeles Times, June 26, 1994. I wrote "A Battered Wife Survives" to celebrate my thirty-first birthday. I still shook and trembled uncontrollably, but not all the time; had nightmares and flashbacks, but less. I had published two books: Woman Hating (1974) and Our Blood (1976). I had survived and was not alone in a universe of pain and fear. The other two essays were written in behalf of other battered women: Hedda Nussbaum and Nicole Brown Simpson. I felt the need to try to make people understand how destructive and cruel battery is--and how accepted, how normal, how supported by society. With enormous reluctance, I revisited the site of this devastation in my own life. I had to say what battery was from the point of view of the woman being hurt, since I knew.

Everything I have written in these nonfiction essays about myself is true. It would be wrong, however, to read my fiction as if it were a factual narrative, a documentary in words. Literature is always simpler and easier than life, especially in conveying atrocity. As the infrequency of my nonfiction essays about battery suggests, I am extremely reluctant to write about it: partly because I can't bear to think about it; partly because I feel physically ill when I literally trip over absent memory, great and awful blank areas of my life that I cannot recover--I am shaky with dread and vertigo; and partly because I still hide.

But the year of running, hiding, to stay alive is essential to the story of how I became a writer, or the writer I am, for better or worse. He kept our home; I was pushed out. This was fine, since I just wanted not to be hit. I had no money. I was isolated as battered women usually are but also I was a foreigner with no real rights except through my husband. My parents refused to have me back. His family was his--I was too afraid of him ever to tell them anything, though I believe they knew. I slept first on the floor of a friend's room--his friend, too--with her two dogs. Later, I slept where I could. I lived this way before I was married but not with an assassin after me, nor having sustained such brutality that my mind didn't quite work--it failed me in everyday situations, which it no longer recognized; it failed me with ordinary people who couldn't grasp my fear.

A feminist named Ricki Abrams helped me: gave me asylum, a dangerous kindness in the face of a battering man; helped me find shelter repeatedly; and together she and I started to plan the book that became Woman Hating.

I lived on houseboats on the canals--a majestic one near the Magere Brug, a stunningly beautiful bridge, a plainer one infested with mice. I slept in someone's kitchen. I lived for a while in the same house as Ricki, a narrow, teetering building on a cobblestone street that ringed a canal in Amsterdam's historically preserved old city. I hid on a farm far outside Amsterdam with a commune of hippies who made their own cloth with a spinning wheel and a loom. I slept in a cold and deserted mansion near the German border. In one emergency, when my husband had broken into where I was living, had beaten me and threatened to kill me, I spent three weeks sleeping in a movie theater that was empty most of the time. Experimental movies were shown in a big room where I hid. The whole building was empty otherwise. On some nights small audiences of artistes would sit and watch formless flashes of light. When the avant-garde cleared out, I was allowed to open a cot. I lived in a state of terror. Every trip outside might mean death if he found me.

No one knew about battery then, including me. It had no public name. There were no shelters or refuges. Police were indifferent. There was no feminist advocacy or literature or social science. No one knew about the continuing consequences, now called post-traumatic stress syndrome, which has a nice dignity to it. How many times, after all, can one say terror, fear, anguish, dread, flashbacks, shaking, uncontrollable trembling, nightmares, he's going to kill me?

At the time, so far as I knew, I was the only person this had ever happened to; and the degradation had numbed me, disoriented me; challenged me; lowered me; shamed me; broken me.

It was Ricki who first gave me feminist books to read. I remember especially Sexual Politics by Kate Millett (whose class at Barnard Ricki had taken), The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone, and the anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful edited by Robin Morgan. I had left the United States in l968 a second time (the first being in 1965, after a rapelike trauma in Manhattan's Women's House of Detention, where I was taken after an arrest for protesting the Vietnam War). I had not read or heard about these books. I argued with them in Amsterdam. I argued with Ricki. Oppression meant the U.S. in Vietnam, or apartheid in South Africa, or legal segregation in the U.S. Even though I had been tortured and was fighting for my life, I could not see women, or myself as a woman, as having political significance. I did know that the battery was not my fault. I had been told by everyone I asked for help the many times I tried to escape--strangers and friends--that he would not he hitting me if I didn't like it or want it. I rejected this outright. Even back then, the experience of being battered was recognizably impersonal to me. Maybe I was the only person in the world this had ever happened to, but I knew it had nothing to do with me as an individual. It just never occurred to me that I was being hit because I was a woman.

Woman Hating was not a book written out of an ideology. It came out of an emergency, written half underground and in hiding. I wanted to find out what had happened to me and why. I knew only that it was impersonal. I made a list of what I thought might bear on what had happened to me, and that list became the table of contents in the published book. I looked at fairy tales--what did they teach about being female; at pornography--I was part of a generation that used it--what did it say about being female; at Chinese footbinding and the persecution of the witches--why was there culturally normalized violence against females; at androgyny--the myths and contemporary ideas of a community not organized on the principle of gender, the falseness of gender itself. I wanted to examine the culture: sex roles; sex; history; mythology; community.

Somehow, I had been given a key and access to a space in the basement of Paradiso, one of the clubs the Dutch government sponsored for counterculture, hashish-smoking, rock-and-roll-addicted hippies. The basement under the huge church building was dark and dank with a colony of misfits and homeless, mentally disoriented strangers, most of whom were hiding from someone, often the police. I was allowed to work there on the book--I had a desk and chair--but I was not supposed to sleep there, and I tried not to. My cohabitants did not inspire confidence and my husband, who worked upstairs at night when Paradiso was open, was dangerous for sure. Like other escaping battered women (I have since learned), I lived in a shared or overlapping social and economic world with the batterer; I tried to believe it would be all right.

The book Ricki and I were going to write together became, of course, very important to me. I don't know if the attempt was interrupted by the violence or the violence was interrupted by the attempt. I know that I devoted myself to the book, even though it was hard for me to concentrate because I lived in constant fear. I held on to the book as if it were a life raft, even though I was drowning in poverty and fear. There were times of hope, near normalcy. At one point my husband got a new apartment and offered me our old one. I took it, for all the obvious reasons. He left a mattress; someone gave me a small radio; and I lived on potatoes. Then he started breaking in; and it was there that he bloodied me and said he would kill me, run me down when he saw me, and I knew it was true finally, and I had to hide in the movie theater after that for three weeks, the time it took to get a restraining order. My lawyer, assigned by the court, at first didn't believe me or didn't care when I told him about the beatings or how dangerous my husband was; but later my husband apparently roughed up the lawyer's secretary. This time, when driven from the apartment by my husband's threats to a phone in a store around the block, the lawyer told me to go somewhere else for a while, though he didn't know where or how and didn't care. I had had to go to the store to use the phone because the apartment phone was in my husband's name, and he had it disconnected and it was a two-year wait for a new line. As I came out of the back room of the store where the phone was, the woman who owned the store opened her cash register, grabbed a handful of bills, pushed them at me, and said: "Run for your life. Now." I did.

Through all this, I held on to this idea of a book; and I kept working on it. Ricki and I did research together and some writing together. But then she pulled away from it. The book itself, in taking on counterculture pornography, brought us into conflict with friends and acquaintances in the exilic, counterculture community in Amsterdam. Some of these folks produced a pornography tabloid called Suck. Ricki and I drafted a chapter on Suck and gave it to them to read. I, at least, believed that they would see the insult to women in what they were publishing, and that there was danger in some of their photographs--I remember in particular a photo of an Asian woman inserting a huge, glass, bowl-shaped jar into her rectum. I had begun to identify with other women. Our friends, the makers of the pornography, reacted with outrage to our effrontery in challenging them. They said they had always been for civil rights (against segregation based on race) and this was sex--what kind of chicks were we anyway? We thought we were perfectly fine chicks at the time, even though the word "chick" itself was beginning to have an ugly sound to it. Ricki decided that she couldn't take the social ostracism these folks threatened. We agreed that I would finish the book and get it published. I had to get out of there anyway or I'd be killed. I knew I had to disappear and that there could be no mistakes. I planned a secret escape and in November 1972 I disappeared suddenly.

The vow that I made--out loud, to myself but with Ricki as witness--was that I would become a real writer and I would use everything I knew to help women. I didn't know how much I knew, how valuable it would be; nor did she. But we both did understand that in 1972 what I knew was not part of feminism: what I knew about male dominance in sex or rape in marriage, for instance. The knowledge about male dominance in sex came not only from this one marriage but from several years of prostituting before I got married. I called it "being on the streets," and it consisted of equal parts whoring, poverty and homelessness, and just being a tough girl. I had never kept it a secret, not from my husband, not from any friend. Ricki and I both understood that I had experience that could be knowledge. I made a vow to use it for women.

Writers need to be damned hard to kill. So do women, of course. I have never believed in suicide, the female poet's alternative to standing her ground and facing down the power of men. I don't like it that Plath and Sexton wrote strong and beautiful poems capturing the horror and meanness of male dominance but would not risk losing socially conventional femininity by sticking around to fight it out in the realm of politics, including the politics of culture. I always wanted to live. I fought hard to live. This means I did something new. I have been bearing the unbearable, and facing men down, for a long time now.

I began messing with men when I was in high school, though, sadly, they began messing with me earlier than that--I was raped at nine, though not legally, since fingers and a hand were used for penetration, not the officially requisite penis. That ended up in my hand as he twisted and contorted with a physical omnipresence that pinned me and manipulated me at the same time. This breach of a child's body does count. It does register. The boundary of the body itself is broken by force and intimidation, a chaotic but choreographed violence. The child is used intentionally and reduced to less than human by the predator's intelligence as well as his behavior. The commitment of the child molester is absolute, and both his insistence and his victory communicate to the child his experience of her--a breachable, breakable thing any stranger can wipe his dick on. When it is family, of course, the invasion is more terrible, more intimate, escape more unlikely. I was lucky--it was a stranger. I was lucky by the standards of today: neither kidnapped nor killed. The man became part of the dark--not "the dark" in its usual symbolic sense, bad, with a racist tinge, but part of the literal dark: his body, almost distinct, got folded into every dark room like the one in which he hurt me and he got folded into the dark of every night I had to get through, with eyes open, waiting. I didn't like to sleep, because then I couldn't guard my mother against death. So I kept my eyes open. I could feel that the night was occupied with tangible creatures, and the man, hiding, was one of them.

As a child with an immense ambition to live, to know, to feel, I moved toward everything that frightened me: men, night, the giving up of my own body. I wanted to be an artist, by which I meant a writer. I despised commercial writing. My heroes were Rimbaud and Baudelaire. I had a paperback of Baudelaire's poems with me, in French with an English prose translation, when the man molested me. A few years later I had a high school teacher who said that most girls of my social class who worked (the ideal was not to work) became hairdressers, but I was so smart that I could become a prostitute, which at least was interesting. He was my tutor in sex; a guide; a charlatan and an exploiter. But he made the sameness of art and opening my legs palpable, urgent: there wasn't one without the other. I thought he was a philosopher and someday we would found a school of philosophy; I would be his acolyte. He introduced me to Camus and Sartre. I was a motherless child with spirit and intelligence in a world that abhorred both in girls. I wanted knowledge but distrusted formal education because the adults were enforcers and transparently wanted to break my spirit; except for the seducer. He wanted to appropriate it for his own purposes but I didn't begin to imagine that. I would find ways to go to New York City to find poems and on the bus I would find a way to get money from old guys who liked teenage girls to touch them. I'd use the money to go to Greenwich Village and buy mimeographed collections of poems. I loved Allen Ginsberg especially. More than anyone he expressed the sense of pain I felt, the anger and rebellion, but also the undifferentiated infatuation I felt for the world of possibility around me. I had no sense of evil and I didn't believe that harm could defeat me--I'd make poems out of it. High school was hell, to be endured, the teachers behavior-police who took books away and tried to shut the mind down. For instance, a tenth-grade teacher in a study hall confiscated my copy of Hamlet, which I had been reading. She said we weren't allowed to read it until the twelfth grade. I told her that I had already read it several times so why take it from me? She did take it and countered with her certainty that one day she would read about me in the newspapers. In those days only politicians and criminals made news. Girls didn't become politicians. I was bad for reading Hamlet. Each day the enforcers pushed me into a sustained rage laced with contempt; and each day the seducer manipulated my anger and loneliness, pushed me further into experiencing intelligence as a sexualized mark of Cain and artistic ambition as a sexualized delinquency.

Meanwhile, my father worked hard so that I could have a formal education that would be excellent, not mediocre, on the college level. The high school guidance counselors wanted me to go to a state college for girls to get a teaching degree "to fall back on when your husband dies." My intelligence had no significance to them; my desire to write, which I confessed, was beneath consideration. My father knew I would not stay in any college that was high school redux. In September 1964 I went to Bennington College on scholarships and loans, loans he took out, not me. I did have jobs there for money but not enough to carry any of the real economic burden. I stayed there one year, left, returned for two years, left, mailed in my thesis from Amsterdam. In 1969 my father, fittingly, attended my graduation and picked up my diploma. I am considered a graduate of the class of 1968, however, because that is how Bennington keeps track of students. In those years, so many students left--some of the richer ones to Austin Riggs, a mental institution not too far away, some taking other detours--that the college always reckoned you a member of the class in which you entered and optimistically added four years to signify graduation; it would be hard for an already overtaxed administration to know who returned when, for how long, and to what end.

Bennington had a reputation for academic excellence and a bohemian environment. In fact, Bennington trained mistresses, not wives, for artists, not businessmen. To illustrate the ambiance: the year before my first year, seniors in literature had, as a group project, recreated the brothel scene in Joyce's Ulysses, themselves the whores. A lot of the faculty preyed on the nearly all-female student body; and the deep conviction of most of the faculty that these girls would never become artists themselves was openly articulated when, in my third year of attendance, coeducation was discussed and eventually adopted. Students, including me, got to hear how useless the mostly male faculty felt teaching girls. We never became anything, they said, each a dozen times in a dozen ways. We seemed to be fine for fucking and serial marriage, some faculty actually going through as many as four marriages with successive students and countless adulteries. But we could never become what in our hearts we thought we were: creative, ambitious, risk-taking doers and thinkers and makers. I had three brilliant teachers at Bennington, each of whom was ethically scrupulous with respect to me; and I owe them a lot. They taught me with an astonishing intellectual generosity; they supported my aspirations; they even protected me, from other faculty and sometimes from myself. They extended friendship without the sexualization. The rest of it was intellectually boring. After my first few weeks there, my philosophy professor telephoned me at the student house where I lived and asked me please not to leave: she knew I was bored. I distracted myself with drugs, sex, and politics.

Bennington had a nine-week work period in the winter--a long two months--and long Thanksgiving, Christmas, and spring breaks, a big problem for a girl with no real home and no money. For my first work period in December 1964 I took marginal political jobs in New York City and fucked for food and shelter and whatever cash I needed. I worked with the Student Peace Union and the War Resisters League opposing the war in Vietnam. I had other jobs, too, for instance as a receptionist at a New York University institute for remedial reading. In February 1965 I was arrested outside the United States Mission to the United Nations for protesting America's involvement in Vietnam. I had a book of poems by Charles Olson with me when I was arrested. I spent four days in the Women's House of Detention before I was released on my own recognizance. While in jail, in addition to the many strip-searches by hand that police and nurses made into my vagina and anus, I was brutalized by two male doctors who gave me an internal examination, the first one I ever had. They pretty much tore me up inside with a steel speculum and had themselves a fine old time verbally tormenting me as well. I saw them enjoy it. I witnessed their pleasure in doing it. I couldn+t understand why they would like to hurt me. I began to bleed right after. When I came out of jail I was mute from the trauma. I wandered around the city, homeless and resourceless, silent and confused, for several days, until I showed up at the apartment of a stranger who had taken a bag I had packed for jail from me when, toward the end of the day, it seemed as if we would not be arrested. I sort of vaguely remembered her name and looked it up in the phone book when I needed underwear badly enough. She was the writer Grace Paley and this was before she herself had gone to jail to protest Vietnam. She made me come in and sit; I stared silently. Grace got me to talk but instead of normal talk I said what had happened to me. I didn't even know the words for speculum or internal examination, so I was exceptionally blunt and used my hands. She thought that what had been done to me was horrible and she immediately called a woman reporter to say that this monstrous thing had been done to this girl. The reporter said: so what? But that night I went to the Student Peace Union office and typed letters to newspapers to tell what had happened to me in the jail: blunt letters. The antiwar boys, whose letters I typed during the day, whose leaflets I mimeographed, laughed at me; but I mounted a protest against the prison. The New York Times, The Daily News, and the New York Post carried the story. The city was forced to conduct a grand jury investigation. An assistant to the governor also investigated. A liberal Republican, John V. Lindsay, challenged entrenched Democratic incumbent Robert Wagner for mayor partly by holding Wagner responsible for the corruption in the jail and promising to shut it down. Lindsay won. Television news shows did documentaries on the prison, which had a long history of brutalizing women, some of whom had died. Eventually, the grand jury vindicated the prison, and the governor's assistant was defunded by the legislature. My parents were ashamed of my arrest and of the way in which I had been hurt. They were enraged with me and pretty much abandoned me. I left school, my parents, the country. I went to Greece with less than a hundred dollars in my pocket. I gave most of it to an old woman, Mildred, whom I met on a train. She said she had lost hers but had money waiting in Athens. I showed up at the appointed place, at the appointed time, but she never came. That night, my nineteenth birthday, I picked up a Greek army officer: I needed food and money. Since the hill overlooking Athens was beautiful and the night sublime, it was easy to pretend this was romance. I remember saying to him after, -You really hate women, don't you?" I hadn't anticipated woman hating but I recognized it in his abrupt post-coital tristesse. I learned not to voice the observation however many times I made it, whatever the post-coital mood. Men don't like to be seen or remarked on by what my friend Judith Malina, director of the Living Theatre, calls "talking women." I wrote poems and a novel called Notes on Burning Boyfriend, a surrealistic screed against the Vietnam War built on the self-immolation of protester Norman Morrison. I published a small collection of poems and Genet-like prose called Child (Heraklion, Crete, 1966). It wasn't until I published Woman Hating in 1974 that I became a talking woman who could say with some authority: you really hate women, don't you?

The authority was never my own plain experience. I always thought other people's lives worth more than mine. As a matter of temperament I had an interest in the collective or communal, not the personal. I thought psychology was a phony science, and I still do. I didn't think something was important simply because it happened to me, and certainly the world concurred. I had learned that I would not be believed. I knew that from the world's point of view, though never my own, I was trash, the bottom. The prison authorities said I lied and the grand jury claimed to believe them, not me. No one really believed me about my husband. I had a deep experience of the double standard but no systematic understanding of it. The writers I had loved and wanted to emulate--Baudelaire or Artaud or Dostoevsky or Henry Miller or Jean Genet--were apparently ennobled by degradation. The lower they sunk the more credibility they had. I was lowered and disgraced, first by what was being called sexual liberation, then by the violence of domestic sexual servitude, without any concomitant increase in expertness: I paid my dues, baby, I know the price of the ticket but so what? When I emerged as a writer with Woman Hating, it was not to wallow in pain, or in depravity, or in the male romance with prostitution; it was to demand change. I wanted to change the power structure in the social world that had made degradation a destiny for many of us, or lots of us, or maybe even all of us--for women. I didn't want to write the female suicide's poem nor did I want to write another male-inspired lyric celebrating the sewer. I wanted to resist male dominance for myself and to change the outcome for other women. I did not want to open my legs again, this time in prose. I did not believe that to do so would persuade or bring change. I found, then and over the next twenty years, a stubborn refusal to credit a woman with any deep knowledge of the world itself, the world outside the domain of her own introspection about romantic love, housekeeping, a man. This refusal was so basic and so widespread that it could stay an unspoken assumption. Women who wanted to write about social issues did it through anecdote. Books that could only have been written out of an extensive and significant knowledge of what it meant to be pornographized or sexually colonized--my books--were dismissed by patriarchy's intellectual ruling class as Victorian or puritanical--empirical synonyms for ignorant.

Instead of using my own experience as the immediate subject of discourse, I used a more complex method of exposing bone and blood: I found the social phenomena that could be pulled apart to show what I knew to be the essential heart of the experience--rape, prostitution, battery, for instance; woman hating, sexualized insult, bias, discrimination--and I found the language to carry it: to carry it far, way past where critics could reach or, frankly, most men could imagine. I had the luck of having my books last over enough time to reach women--not elite women but grassroots women and marginalized women. Slowly women began to come to me to say, yes, that's right; and I learned more from them, went deeper. I used writing to take language where women's pain was--and women's fear--and I kept excavating for the words that could bear the burden of speaking the unspeakable: all that hadn't been said during the rape or after, while prostituting or after; truths that had not been said ever or truths that had not been said looking the rapist, the batterer, the pimp, the citizen-john, in the eye. This has been my contribution to literature and to the women's movement.

I saw my mother's strength. Illness seems a visitation, a particular affliction to test the courage of the stricken person, a personal challenge from God. It is hard to know what one can learn from the example even of someone as heroic as my mother surely was. In my mother, I saw Herculean strength in the face of pain, sickness, incapacitation, and the unknown. I have never thought that much of it rubbed off, because I am a coward in that realm: any minor illness makes me feel as if life has stopped. The heroic person, as I saw from my mother, never accepts even the suggestion that life might stop. She keeps pulling the burden, illness as a stone weight; she never stops pulling. Nothing in my mother's life suggested that women were wimps.

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