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)

In school--grade school and college--my female friends were rebels with deep souls: bad children in adulthood; smart adults in childhood; precocious; willful; stubborn; not one age or one sex or with one goal easily advanced by a conforming marriage and inevitable motherhood. Despite the best efforts of parents, teachers, to bind our feet Chinese-style, we kept kicking. Ain't none of us got out with unbroken feet; we all got some bones bent in half; we got clipped and pushed and stepped on hard to make us conform; and in our different ways we kept walking, even on the broken hones. It was a time when girls were supposed to be virgins when we married. The middle- class ideal was that women were not supposed to work; such labor would reflect badly on our husbands. Anyone pregnant outside of marriage was an outcast: a delinquent or an exile; had a criminal abortion or birthed a child that would most likely be taken away from her for adoption, which meant forever then. In disgrace, she would be sent away to some home for pregnant girls, entirely stigmatized; her parents ashamed, shocked; she herself a kind of poison that had ruined the family's notion of its own goodness and respectability. She would be socially reprehensible and repulsive--and the social ostracism would be absolute. I had close friends who resisted, who never quite gave in, despite appearances to the contrary. The cost was high sometimes; but it is my impression that my friends, like most women, paid the highest price when they did give in, not when they resisted. The cost needs to be spread out over time: the many marriages and the midlife depression. On the streets there were women who were both strong and fragile at the same time: immensely strong to bear the continuing sexual invasion, consistent brutality, and just plain bad weather (no joke); immensely strong to accept responsibility as the prostituting persona--I want this, I do this, I am this, ain't nothin' hurts me; and much too fragile to face either the cost of prostituting or its etiology. The cost was physical disintegration and mental splitting apart. The cost was getting dirtier and lonelier and anesthetizing pain with more and meaner drugs. The cost was accepting the physical violence of the johns, moving through it as if it didn't matter or hadn't happened, never facing that one had been hurt, then hurt again, nor asking why. Some girls were straight-out battered and forced. But even without a violent man in sight, the etiology always had to do with sexual abuse, in the present or in the past; also with homelessness and poverty; with the willingness of men to use any girl for small change; with abandonment--the personal abandonment of family, the social abandonment choreographed by the users. It may be harder to face abandonment than to endure exploitation; and there were no models for articulating the realities and consequences of sexual abuse. The point of dealing with political oppression has never been that the oppressed are by nature weak, therefore pitiful: the more injustice on one's back, the stronger one must be. Strong girls become strong women and use that strength to endure; but fighting injustice requires a dynamic strength disciplined to resistance, focused on subverting illegitimate power, eventually to level it. In a system valuing men over women, girls with piss and vinegar carried a heavier burden than girls brimming over with sugar and spice; the stronger were punished more, and still are. In this world, female friendships, deep and sustained loves, romances and infatuations, also love affairs, helped keep one's heart alive, one's sense of self, however unratified by the larger universe, animated and sensate. The political use of female strength to change society for the benefit of women is a different choice: a harder, better choice than endurance, however noble (or stylish) the endurance.

In my early adult life as a writer, there were three women especially who helped me and taught me and believed in me: Grace Paley, Barbara Deming, and Muriel Rukeyser. Each one sort of took me in and took me to her heart for some significant period of my life. Each one was mother and sister and friend. Each one was a distinguished and powerful writer, a social rebel, an original moral thinker. Each lived a life that combined writing and political action. Each put herself on the line for the oppressed, the powerless; was repelled by exploitation and injustice; and was devoted to women--had deep and intimate friendships with women and fought for women's rights. I met Grace in 1965, shortly after I got out of the Women's House of Detention. She fed me and gave me a bed to sleep in; I went to her when I was distressed, exhausted, in trouble--or more trouble than usual. She helped me when I came back from Greece; then again later when I came back from Amsterdam. I met Barbara in 1965 a few months later than Grace, on a television program about the Women's House of Detention, where she too had spent some time as a political protester (see "Letter to M.," Lavender Culture, edited by Jay and Young); and then we met again and became close after Woman Hating was published. In 1976, my friend John Stoltenberg (about whom more later) and I went down to Sugarloaf Key in Florida to live on shared land with Barbara and her lover, Jane Verlaine. I couldn't tolerate the subtropical climate so after five months John and I moved north to the Berkshires. I met Muriel in 1972 after I had returned to New York City from Amsterdam at an antiwar meeting. She tried very hard to help me survive as a writer, including by hiring me as her assistant (see "Introduction,"Letters from a War Zone). My apprenticeship to her had a slightly formal quality, because she paid me for the duration. She opened her home to me and her heart; she advised me and counseled me; and she made sure I had a bare minimum of money. She was attuned to the concrete necessities. A woman who has been poor and entirely on her own, as Muriel had been, knows that one's life can slip through a crack; good intentions can't match the value of a dime.

These friendships were of enormous importance to me; I doubt I would have survived without them. But the friendships went far beyond any utility for survival. Each of these women had faith in me--and I never quite knew why; and each of these women loved me--and I never knew why. It was a lucky orphan who found each of these women and it was a lucky striving writer who found each of these writers. They are all taken more seriously now than they were then; but I had the good sense to know that each was an American original, wise with common sense and plain talk, gritty with life; they were great craftswomen, each a citizen and a visionary. I know what I took; I hope I gave enough back.

It is hard to say what keeps a writer writing in the face of discouragement. It helps to have had a difficult childhood; to have a love of writing itself, without regard to the outcome; and eventually to have an audience, however small, that wants you, wants those troublesome books, is like a lover to you, very intimate with enormous expectations--embraces you through the language you find and the truth you are willing to tell. I have had that audience, which I meet when I travel to lecture or to give readings, a U.S. underground unrecognized by the media in small towns, on college campuses, at political rallies, tender, luminous, brave women of all ages, and mostly but not exclusively young men who want fairness for women. They have shown me respect and love.

One can be derailed by savage reviews, certainly poverty, a ubiquitous cultural contempt, violent words or violent gestures or violent acts, invisibility as a writer or, in the American tradition, too much fame or notoriety. My own view is that survival is a matter of random luck: the right blow, the one that will finish you, does not hit you at the right time in the right place. I have not made money nor had an easy time publishing my work, which has been anathematized. I had a hard childhood, which is good; and I have the audience that wants my work, which is essential; and I love to write regardless of the outcome in publishing, which is damned lucky or I'd have died of a broken heart. But especially I have had the love of John Stoltenberg, with whom I have lived now for twenty years, and the love and friendship of Elaine Markson, who has been my agent for the past twenty-two years. They are fierce and brilliant friends. Neither has been intimidated by the anger against my work or against me. Each has stayed with me when I thought they would leave or should leave. I love John with my heart and soul; but what is more extraordinary is the way in which he has loved me (see his "Living with Andrea Dworkin," Lambda Book Review, May/June 1994). I never promised him anything; but he promised me right from the beginning that he would stay with me for the rest of his life. I am just entertaining the idea that he might. He undertook to live the life I needed. He has taken on my hardships as his own; indeed, they have become his own. We share the circumstances created by the antagonism to my work on Grub Street. We share the politics of radical feminism and a commitment to destroying male dominance and gender itself. We share a love of writing and of equality; and we share each and every day. He is a deeply kind person, and it is through the actual dailiness of living with him that I understand the spiritual poverty and the sensual stupidity of eroticizing brutality over kindness. Elaine has been a loyal friend and colleague in circumstances both complex and difficult. She has stayed loyal to me and to my work through years when she didn't make enough in commissions to cover the postage she spent sending out my manuscripts. Pornographers and their flunkies have tried to bully and intimidate her; so have publishers, as if silencing me would further freedom of speech. She has kept sending out manuscripts of mine for years as publishers stubbornly refused them. It was she who finally made it possible for me to publish my work in England when U.S. publishers were a dead end. Ice and Fire, published by Secker & Warburg in the United Kingdom in 1986, was the first of several books to have widespread British distribution while remaining unsold in the U.S. I had written a good first draft in 1983, which Elaine tried to sell in the U.S., then a final version in 1984. Ice and Fire was finally published here in 1987-- by an English company; but was never brought out in a paperback edition. The paperback is still in print in England. These are trying difficulties that no slick, money-driven agent would tolerate. Elaine will tell you that she doesn't always agree with me; but why should she--and why should anyone assume that she does? The assumption comes from the lazy but popular stigmatizing ploy of guilt by association, a form of hysteria that pervades any discussion of me or my work in publishing circles. She refuses to give in to this discrediting ruse. Her faith in me has sometimes had to stand in for my faith in myself: I have become shaky but she stands firm. Many times, in the quiet of the room where I work, I have had to face the fact that I would not still be writing-- given how hard the hard times have been--were it not for Elaine's passionate commitment and integrity. We've walked many miles together.

So the right blow may still strike in the right place at exactly the right time: to break my writer's heart and stop me in my tracks. I do believe that survival is random, not a result of virtue or talent. But so far, especially in knowing John and Elaine, I have been blessed with monumental grace and staggering good luck.

On April 30, 1992, at the age of forty-two, my brother Mark died of cancer. This was exactly eighteen years after the publication date of Woman Hating, an anniversary that will never make me happy again.

He was living in Vienna when he died, a molecular biologist, married to his wife of ten years, Eva Rastl, also a molecular biologist, forty at the time of his death.

He was chair of the department of molecular biology at the Ernst Boehringer Institute of Vienna. He and Eva worked together there and also earlier at Columbia University in New York City. He had done post-doctoral work in biochemistry at the Carnegie Institution in Baltimore, the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, and the University of California at Davis. At the time Mark got ill, he and Eva were doing research on the metabolism of cancer cells. They were wonderful together, sharing love, friendship, and work. She, a Catholic from Austria, he, Jewish, born in Camden in 1949, reconciled cultural differences and historical sorrow through personal love, the recognition of each other as individuals, and the exercise of reason, which they both, as scientists, valued. A belief in reason was key to a world view that they had in common.

When my brother died, part of me died. This is not hyperbole or clich. I could feel some of the light that is life going dead inside me and when he died, it went out. He was a gentle boy, the one life I knew from infancy. I had a utopian memory of loving him, a kind of ecstatic love for him that was nonverbal, inexplicable, untouched by growing older. Although we were separated from the time I left home to go to college--there was a period of eleven years when I didn't see him at all, although we wrote each other--the closeness of early childhood never changed, his emotional importance to me, mine to him. But he didn't remember his early childhood or his later childhood; he didn't remember anything from childhood. This terrified me. Because we had usually been sent to stay at separate places when my mother was ill, I had no idea what might have happened to him. As an adult, he had recurrent nightmares that he couldn't understand. I was able to explain or identify the elements of one of them for him. He saw a big man dressed in black carrying a black bag and coming into the house at night--then he woke up in fear. This was my mother's doctor, a cold, frightening figure. I always thought of him as death but I did know who he was. My brother didn't. The childhood years were still blank when he died.

He was the kind child, the nurturer of my parents. As they grew older, he took care of them, with his company, his true concern. My mother died a year before Mark and I don't believe he recovered from her death before his own. Like my father, like John, he was a good and giving man.

I saw him about three weeks before he died. He had asked me to come to Vienna in October 1990 to visit. I didn't want to go to Austria ever, but put these feelings aside to see him. Told he had cancer in November 1991, he submitted to a major operation in which a large part of his esophagus near his stomach was removed. He recovered from the surgery but lost the use of his larynx. There were signs that the malignant cells had spread. I found myself the bearer of this knowledge, a confidant for Eva, the one who had to keep my father hoping and eventually the one who had to tell him that Mark would die soon, probably within a few days. In our childhood, Mark and I had learned to be alone with our troubles whatever they were. Mark undertook to die the same way. Eva was with him and they were close, tender, inseparable; but he didn't want family or friends to make the journey to see him. I told him that I was coming to Vienna and he didn't have to see me but I would be there; I had made the arrangements. I believe he was glad, but he got sicker much faster than he or Eva or I anticipated. When I went he was unbearably ill. He had asked me to bring him Skippy peanut butter, which was our staple as children. He was starving to death, a not unusual effect of cancer, and so Eva and I hoped he would eat it. But he couldn't. I also took him marbles, especially cats' eyes, which we had played with when we were children. Marbles and bottlecaps were currency among the kids in our neighborhood. Once he had stolen all mine and my mother had let him keep them because he was a boy--they were boys' wealth, not girls'. He smiled when I told him but I don't think he remembered. He kept the marbles near him.

I sat with him during the day for as long as he would let me. Sometimes he could whisper--it was air, not sound, shaped by his mouth. But sometimes he was too weak for that, and I sat at a table in the same room--a modern living room with a large picture window that looked out on trees and bushes, a room filled with daylight--and read, or tried to read. I think it was only after he died and Eva sent me some photographs of him from those days of my visit that I realized how frail he had been, how much I hadn't seen--how hard it had been for him to appear clean and groomed and calm and smiling. The cancer had spread to his liver. Tumors were growing on his neck, which he kept covered, and on other parts of his body.

Then I'd go back to my hotel and I would wail; I'd scream and cry and wail. I would call John--it would still be late afternoon in Vienna, too expensive to call--and I'd howl and keen and cry wildly, again and again, until I was worn out. Then I'd take a walk in the park across from my hotel. The cold air would be bracing, and my head would stop hurting. Then I would return to my room and sit down to write. I had brought a legal pad with me and also an article that John Irving had recently published in the New York Times Book Review castigating feminists for opposing pornography, charging that we were purveyors of a new puritanism (see John Irving, "Pornography and the New Puritans," March 29, 1992). I knew that to survive the pain I felt on seeing my brother dying I would have to find a way to use the pain. I truly thought that otherwise it would kill me. I decided, coldly and purposefully, to confront the most painful theme in my own life--repeated sexual abuse. The logic of my answer to Mr. Irving was that no one with the kind of experience I had could be called a puritan; and maybe I and other women actually knew more about sexual violence than he did; and it was the pornographers, not feminists, who punished women in the public square, as puritans had, for being sexual. The narrative was a first-person detailed telling of rapes and assaults (see the New York Times Book Review, May 3, 1992). The day my piece was published as a nearly full-page letter edited from the article I had intended, my father and I were on a plane to Vienna to bury Mark at the Central Cemetery. The chief rabbi of Vienna conducted the service. My father simply refused to sit with the men, as is orthodox practice, and sat with Eva and me. My brother wasn't religious but he loved walking in that great European graveyard. He was someone who walked miles for pleasure; and the Central Cemetery, miles from where he lived, had been one of his favorite places to walk to, then wander in. What does a man with no memory of childhood think of on long, solitary walks to the civilized, well-tended graves of the Austrians, the abandoned, overgrown graves of the Jews? My brother had taken me there on my first trip to Vienna--he had wanted me to see this place that was special to him. I had reacted with horror to the sight of the neglected Jewish graves, the latest stone I saw dated 1938. On my 1992 trip back to Vienna when Mark was sick, I saw on television that the mayor of Vienna had just made a speech acknowledging the importance of Jews, always, to life in Vienna, to its greatness as a city, and that a committee of non-Jewish Austrians was trying to make some restitution by cleaning up the abandoned graves and trying to find out what had happened to the families. Because of this change, we felt able to bury Mark in the Central Cemetery, in the contemporary Jewish burial ground, where he could rest near Eva, though she cannot be buried with him. I have gone back to visit his grave. Eva says it has helped her to have Mark buried there.

I am less alive because I lost my brother. Yet I used what I felt while I watched him dying to write something I considered necessary. I think this is a deep and perhaps terrible truth about writing. Surely, it is a deep and terrible truth about me. As long as I can, I will take what I feel, use it to face what I am able to know, find language, and write what I think must be written for the freedom and dignity of women.

Brooklyn, New York
July/August 1994

Copyright © 1994 by Andrea Dworkin. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, volume 21 (New York: Gale Research Inc., 1995).