A chapter from an unpublished novel
by Andrea Dworkin
Copyright © 1978, 1980 by Andrea Dworkin.
Yet if I care to care
It is so hard to write you. Why am I doing it this way, not intending ever to send this letter, still with one eye to publication, a grand concept for a book in some sense, and still with one eye, that poets conscience, to a future which becomes increasingly impossible to imagine. It seems the only way I can bear the passion behind the language, the memory, the desire, the only way not to be burnt up by what I feel. You come over me in waves of memory, especially when I sleep, and I wake up in sweat and trembling, not knowing where I am, not remembering the years that separate us.
So often I wanted to write, dear E, now I am this person, I look this way (you wouldn't like it), I do this, I feel this, lists, details, it was warm or cold on that day when that happened and then my life changed in this way and that—but I cant, I never could, and I cant now. In writing this letter, not to be sent, perhaps I can find the signs that will tell you who I have become.
Dearest E, I loved you. Now that love is memory, sometimes haunting, sometimes buried, forgotten, as if dead. I see yr face, yes, I know, as it was, I remember you as I remember the sun, always, burned in my brain; somehow you are part of me, mixed up in me, for all the days of my life. I left you when you were life to me, when to be physically separated from you was sheer and consuming pain, as if a limb had been cut off, amputated. Leaving you was the hardest, and perhaps the bravest, thing I have ever done.
Dearest E, I want to describe in some way the drive to become that impelled me to go to you and to go from you, that has driven me from person to person, place to place, bed to bed, street to street, and which somehow coheres, finds cogency and true expression, when I say, I want to write, or I want to be a writer, or I am a writer. I want to tell you that this drive to become is why I left you and why I never returned as I had promised.
I didnt have questions in words in my mind. I had instead these surging impulses that welled up and were spent. I had a hunger to know and to tell and to do everything that could be done. I had an absolute faith in my own will to survive.
What I didnt want to do was to say, look Im this height, and I went to school here and there, and then that year I did this and that, and then I knew so and so, and then the next one was so and so, and then this situation occurred, and then that one, and the room was red and blue and three by four, and then I was that old and went there and did that and then that and then, naturally, that.
I wanted instead to write books that were fire and ice, wind sweeping the earth. I wanted to write books that, once experienced, could not be forgotten, books that would be cherished as we cherish the most exquisite light we have ever seen. I had contempt for anything less than this perfect book that I could imagine. This book that lived in my imagination was small and perfect and I wanted it to live in person after person, forever. Even in the darkest of human times, it would live. Even in the life of one person who would sustain it and be sustained by it, it would live. I wanted to write a book that would be read even by one person, but always. For the rest of human time some one person would always know that book, and think it beautiful and fine and true, and then it would be like any tree that grows, or any grain of sand. It would be, and once it was it would never not be.
I imagined that I could write a book that would make such a world possible.
So my idea of my book that I would write sometimes took another turn. It had less to do with the one person who would always, no matter how dark the times, somewhere be reading it, and it had more to do with here and now, change, transformation, revolution. I had some idea of standing, as one among many, my book as my contribution, at one point in history and changing its course and flow. I thought, imagine a book that could have stopped the Nazis, imagine a life strong and honest enough to enable one to make such a book. I began to think of writing as a powerful way of changing the human condition instead of as a beautiful way of lamenting it or as an enriching or moving way of describing it.
I had wanted to make Art, which was, I had been led to believe, some impeccable product, inhuman in its process, made by madmen, inhuman in its final form, removed from life, without flaw, perfect, crystal, monumental, pain turned beautiful, sweat turned cold and stopped in time, suffering turned noble and stopped in time.
But I also wanted to write a book that could be smelled and felt, that was total human process, the raw edges left as raw as any life, real, with a resolution that took one to a new beginning, not separate from my life or the lives of the multitudes who were living when I was living. I wanted to write a book that would mean something to people, not to dead people past or future, but to living people, something that would not only sustain them but change them, not only enhance the world in the sense of ornament, but transform, redefine, reinvent it.
The teachers I had had did not know or tell the truth. They did not care about how artists lived in the world.They seemed to find the lives of artists shoddy and cheap, even as they found works of art marble and pure. They never talked about art as if it had anything at all to do with life. They thought that the texts were there to be analyzed, or memorized, one after another. They thought that art was better than life, better than the artists who made the art and lived their lives. They had no notion of process, how one made something out of the raw impulses of the imagination, how one cried out or mourned or raged in images, in language, in ideas. So they taught that ideas were fixed, dead, sacred or profane, right or wrong, to be studied but not created, to be learned but not lived. They did not seem to know that the whole of human literature is a conversation through time, each voice speaking to the whole of human living.
And I did not understand so much. I did not understand, for instance, that people really die. I did not understand that death is irrevocable. I did not understand the grief of those who remember the dead. I did not understand that the horrors of history, those textbook cases of genocide, rape, and slaughter, would happen in my lifetime to people I knew. And so I did not understand that the earth is real, and that what happens on it happens to real people just like me. I did not understand that as I grew older my life would continue with me. I thought instead that each event in my life was discrete, each person of that moment only. I did not understand that the people I knew I would always know, one way or another, for the rest of my life. I did not know that one never stops knowing anything, that time continues to pass relentlessly, though without any particular vengeance, taking each of us with it. I did not understand then that there is no choice, that one always writes for the living, that there is no other way to create the future or to redeem the past. I also did not know that each human life is precious, brief, an agony, filled with pain and struggle, sorrow and loss.
I love books the way I love nature. I can imagine now that someday there will be no nature, at least not as we knew it together on Crete, no mysterious ocean, no luminous sky, no stark and unsettled mountains. I can imagine now that a time will come, that it is almost upon us, when no one will love books, that there will be no people who need them the way some of us need them now—like food and air, sunshine and warmth. It is no accident, I think, that books and nature (as we know it) may disappear simultaneously from human experience. There is no mind-body split.
I never think of you without remembering the ocean. It is an emblem for me of that time in my life, of the depth and tumult of my feelings, of how my life broke out of my skin and beyond itself into an unknown, primal realm. The ocean does not signify anything whimsical, cheap, romantic, or self-indulgent. It signifies the true mysteries, not the mystifying ones. It signifies the light years between galaxies, as well as ones tie to everything on earth. It signifies ones tie to the enormity of being, to the mystery of this universe—stars, moon, sun, black holes, rings around Saturn. It makes one aware that this universe is a tapestry of the most awesome magnificence. It does compel awe.
It has always been to me, the ocean, overwhelming, monstrous, deep, dark, green and black, so foreign that it requires respect, silence, humility. It is boundless and deep, no human sense of time can circumscribe it, it rumbles with cavernous sounds, it is filled with grotesque forms, luminous colors, shapes that defy imagination. All of the life in it is menacing, compelling, exquisite, with nothing consoling.
I love books too in the same way. They are the human ocean, life before and through and beyond this self, footsteps on the sand in the largest desert, the wind blows, the tracks are sometimes obscured, covered over, hidden, waves of human experience in which one drowns, which carry one, against which one struggles with every life force, forced sometimes under, struggling for any breath, the weight of that water bearing down mercilessly on one, or floating, effortless, calm, at the precise point between earth and sky. They are the human ocean of our time, the quest of people through time to know, ask, feel, survive, to survive beyond the limits of an awful, or insignificant, or invisible, or painful or ordinary life, beyond the limits of this mortal body, sick, needful, the vessel of so much suffering and despair. They are the meaning of life as fully as we can render it. They are the human ocean of everything that has been experienced, thought, felt, wondered, suffered, recognized, realized, imagined, affirmed—messages sent through time from one finite human who asked questions, attempted answers, described, felt, needed, wanted, endured, resisited, to another who is different yet the same.
A book is at once connected to eternity and to one persons mortal flesh. It is whatever this flow is that connects us one to the other throughout human time, but it is also the fruit of one persons specific moment. It is the present, just as the ocean, whatever it was before, whatever it will be later, exists for the one who sees it when she sees it. Think of it, each book is what it is for one person to be alive, in her particular present, what it is, anguish, joy, fear, duration, process, hope. Each person asks the question of her time and place. Each persons life inhabits and informs every word written. Sitting somewhere, ancient Greece or Manhatten 1974, hoping that the words will come and make the feeling in the body bearable, fill the need, make the day or night endurable, that one will be able to give shape to the chaos of feeling, needing, not knowing. The world takes form when one writes, for the writer. The world becomes knowable, its meaning revealed and affirmed. Struggling with the present, with death, with pain, with love, articulating the present, imagining it as it is and as it might be, asking every question but also taking time itself and giving it shape, substance, weight: revealing it to those who share it.
Ive been reading Kafka, his letter to his father, his diaries, his letters to his woman friend Felice. Discovering the person behind those monuments of consciousness, discovering the tortured man who subsumed the person. Discovering the fragile, vulnerable, terrified being behind those monuments of ravaged and ravaging male consciousness. What is it about genius that it can inhabit the body of a tubercular, frightened, insignificant German Jew and that he can then force the world into a new shape so profound, so recognizable, its vision so deeply rooted in the nature of things as they are, so tangled in the gut and psyche of life as we experience it, that one says, I dont know where this story ends and life begins. I dont know the difference anymore between this story and life. I dont know at what point I became part of this story and forgot that it is print on a page. I dont know how these words were ever put together this way, or how these images were formed, but I know that this writing embodies the world as profoundly as a male could embody it in words.
To me, the real mystery is, what made him a writer, how did he become a writer, what in his life determined it, how was it even possible. He was a writer, how can I say it, the way that a fish is a fish. Not fragmented, a bit here, a bit there, sometimes choosing this, sometimes doing that, not with other ways of being, e.g. sometimes we walk and sometimes we sit and sometimes we run. He was a writer as a fish is a fish, always, all the time, knowing nothing else, without any other possiblity. Imagine being a writer like that. (In a footnote I read: "Kafka was survived by three sisters. All three sisters, including Kafka's favorite, Ottla, and the larger part of their families, were killed by the Nazis.")
The first book I remember reading was Squanto and the Indians. The Pilgrims, an austere religious group, came to Amerika from England where they were persecuted for their religious beliefs. The voyage was long and hard and many died and many more were gravely ill. In the new land life was no easier. Winters were freezing and hard, the soil was barren and nothing they planted grew. They suffered terribly, starving and dying. Then an Indian named Squanto befriended them. He showed them how to plant corn and how to live off the land. He helped them to plant their crops. They reaped a good harvest which Amerikans commemorate as Thanksgiving. Then they slaughtered Squanto and his tribe.
On the one hand, the genius, the kindness, the fragile, single human being who can, through an act of being, a simple act of simple giving—writing, teaching, planting—do so much more than endure, who can transform, who can make life both possible and meaningful. Then, always, on the other hand, vicious slaughter, insane, impossible, relentless slaughter.
Squanto, Kafka, the Nazis, those first English interlopers, the tanks entering Athens, my friends, fragile human beings every one, rounded up like cattle, herded into jails, there tortured, there their bodies broken, terror, violation, killings and ravagings on a grand scale, always the grand scale, mad ambition, hundreds or thousands or millions, victims, tanks, rifle butts, machine guns, searches, seizures, arrests, terror, death. I am always asking, will it never end. I am always vowing, we will end it.
I remember one letter you wrote me after the colonels took over. You said that yr life was bitter, that the earth had turned to poison. You said, what do you know about any of this? And, after all, what did I know? I didnt know then most of what I have had to learn—slow, dimwitted, dull, fighting always the romantic self-indulgences into which I was born. I didnt know then that I wont be spared anything. I didnt know then that none of us will be spared anything. Anyway, there is really no way to describe white Amerikan ignorance (and it is not only middle-class, it is Amerikan, an ignorance democratically distributed). Who would believe that this ignorance is real as villages burn and people die? And there is really no way to talk about white Amerikan innocence, except to say that some of us have lost it. Except to say that years later I learned that I was a woman, and so learned most of everything.
I came to Crete. I was 19. I was running from Amerika. I was dislocated, wounded, confused.
I had spent four days in jail, yes, only four days, New York Citys Womens House of Detention, a brutal, dirty, archaic jail. I had been arrested for demonstrating at the United States Mission to the United Nations. Adlai Stevenson, then the conscience of liberal Amerika, walked by us into the building as the police dragged us away. Inside the jail I was given a brutal intermal examination by two male doctors. As a result I bled for 15 days after that, terrified, afraid to go to a doctor, afraid of doctors, afraid to tell my parents, afraid to ask anyone for help. At that time I was living with two men, and they had what Ive since learned to appreciate as a typical male reaction to Blood Down There, a kind of histerical stiffening of every muscle, a stony indifference, a strained withdrawing of mind and body. But at the time I thought that they, two particular persons, were horrified by me, one particular person, who was bleeding, bleeding, bleeding. At that time, I also had another lover, an older black man named Arthur. I liked him a lot, and so on the phone he said, where you been, and I said, the House of D, and they did that and that and that to me, and he said, white girl, thats what they do. I felt his contempt for me, and also knew more than I could stand to know about his real life, and so I never saw him again. Wherever I turned trying to say what had happened to me, I met that same contempt, or silence, or indifference—but of course, I always turned to men. When finally, choked and enraged, filled with fury and confusion, I did turn to two women (I barely knew them), they knew what it had been. But then, in those years, I didnt turn to women very often or understand that men could not dare to know.
I felt alone, enraged, furious, violated, hurt, and so afraid. I did not know how to contain or to understand what had happened to me. I didnt know how to contain or to understand what I had seen happening in that jail to other women. There was no language to describe it.
There are themes in ones life, themes which resonate. One theme in my life, an important piece of who I am, the Nazi slaughter, resonated then. What had happened to me, the blood, my fear, the brutality, conjured up the Nazi doctors who had tortured flesh of my flesh and blood of my blood, and an aunt who had survived to tell me, retching in terror and memory. The doctors in that jail when they were abusing me—my aunts Nazi violation resonated then; in the nightmares I had after—it resonated then. It was what it was, the violation of one woman by two particular men, but it also conjured up that near history of my living flesh and so it had a resonance beyond itself—a sound, an echo, through 6,000,000 bodies.
I didnt know then about the 9,000,000 witches burned alive, or the billions of women raped, abused, bloodied, and abandoned all over this planet. I didnt know then. I felt it, womans fury, but I couldnt name it, or call it out, and so I anguished, isolated, confused, unable to name, the very power of speech, and so of knowing, taken away from me. I didnt know then that we women were a sisterhood united in blood and toil on this earth, each one speechless, experiencing the unspeakable, robbed of the power of naming and so of speaking and so of knowing. I knew then only about the several hundred women in that one jail, each speechless, each experiencing the unspeakable, robbed of the power of naming and so of speaking and so of knowing. This is happening to us, I remember was the phrase that turned over and over again in my mind those days in jail, this is happening to us.
A Jew, a woman, my ties to the dead, my commitment to the living. There is no place on earth, no day or night, no hour or minute, when one is not a Jew or a woman. There is no time or place on this earth that does not resonate through 6,000,000 bodies tortured and gassed, throught 9,000,000 bodies tortured and burned.
I didnt understand this story until many years later. When I knew you, I was a commited leftist. I had seen many women used then abandoned, I had been used then abandoned myself; still, I could not make sense of what I had seen or of my own experience, I did not make sense of it for several more years. The story you told me stayed with me, embarrassed me somewhat because I didnt entirely understand what you had done or why you had done it. Still, I liked you for it.
I did not mistake where I was or what had happened there. Each day there was an echo, almost hissing in the air, the Nazi slaughter. Each day that slaughter was sounded in the bodies of the old women, dressed in black, mourning still, remembering still, faces older than this old earth, faces weighted down with the years of loss and murder. And before that, the Cretans were murdered by the Turks, 400 years of occupation and tyranny. And the Cretans murdered the Jews—each year over the centuries pogroms on Easter avenged the death of that other Jew, Jesus. And of course the women belonged to the occupied or to the occupiers, the living or the dead. The women were murdered and the women were raped and the women were left to mourn their dead. It was the human family, bound together in a web of murder and pain, and each member of that family had murders mark on her.
Living on Crete brought me to a new sensitivity, acute and intolerable. I felt the resonances of those dead, all of them, and the lives of those living, all of them, in my own body, and I came to know who I was—that self tied to the past which was ever present in a way that was not melancholy or romantic. In Amerika, each person is new, like hemp before the rope is made. On Crete the rope was used, bloodstained, it smelled of everything that had ever touched it.
And so we, you and I, in ways so different, each were suffused with Crete. You loved the land, the mountains and what they held, the sea and what it brought and took away. Amerikans for the most part dont know what that means. The land moved you, you knew its story, and you were bound to it. I was Amerikan, Jew, female, who knew nothing at first of the land and what it held—I grew up first in a city, cement, telephone poles, and then in a suburb, boxlike houses, small plotted lawns, an occasional tree. But yr land and its people entered into me and in me I began to discover the memory, passion, and experience of all the peoples of whom I was a part. In that way we touched each other, and in that way we were brother and sister.
I was in Greece (Athens, Piraeus, Crete). I was 19. I wrote. I saw, for the first time, the mountains, the light, that luminous Greek light, the ocean which from the shore was filled with bright strips of color. I had many lovers, all men.
I was a person who always had her legs open, whose breast was always warm and accommodating, who derived great pleasure from passion with tenderness, without tenderness, with brutality, with violence, with anything any man had to offer.
I was a person who always had her legs open, who lived entirley from minute to minute, from man to man. I was a person who did not know that there was real malice in the world, or that people were driven—to cruelty, to vengeance, to rage. I had no notion at all of the damage that people sustain and how that damage drives them to do harm to others.
I was a person who was very much a woman, who had internalized certain ways of being and of feeling, ways given to her through books, movies, the full force of media and culture—and through the real demands of real men.
I was a person who was very much a woman, accomodating, adoring of mens bodies, needful, needing above all to be fucked, to be penetrated, loving that moment more than any other.
I was a person who was very much a woman, who loved men, who loved to be fucked, who gloried in cock, who called every sexual act, tender, violent, brutal, the same name, "lovemaking."
I thought, how can I even explain it now, that life was what Miller and Mailer and Lawrence had said it was. I believed them. I thought that they were creative and brilliant truth tellers. I thought that the world was as they said it was, that to be a hero, one must be as their heroes were. I wanted to be a hero-writer, outside the bounds of stifling convention. I thought that I was becoming as they were by doing that which they admired and advocated. I did not know, or feel, or realize what was being done to me by those who were as they were. I did not experience myself or my body as my own.
I did not feel what was being done to me until, many years later, I read Kate Millets Sexual Politics. Something in me moved then, shifted, changed forever. Suddenly I discovered something inside me, to feel what I had felt somewhere but had had no name for, no place for. I began to feel what was being done to me, to experience it, to recognize it, to find the right names for it. I began to know that there was nothing good or romantic or noble in the myths I was living out; that, in fact, the effect of these myths was to deprive me of my bodily intergrity, to cripple me creatively, to take me from myself. I began to change in a way so fundamental that there was no longer any place for me in the world—I was no longer a woman as I had been a woman before. I experienced this change as an agony. There was no place for me anywhere in the world. I began to feel anger, rage, bitterness, despair, fury, absolute fury, as I began to know that they, those writers and their kind, had taken cruelty and rape and named it for me, "life," "sex," "lovemaking," "freedom," and I hated them for it, and I hate them for it still.
There was a particular part of Sexual Politics that began this change in me, a small moment in a vast book. Millet described Henry Millers depictions of sex acts in a voice I had never heard before. She said, simply it seems now, look at this, this is what he does and then this is what he calls it. Then I saw it—the cruelty of it—as what it was, no matter what others, the whole world, called it. No one who has ever had this experience denies the revolutionary power of language or the absolute importance of naming, or the violation which inheres in being robbed of speech even as one experiences the unspeakable.
E, you see, this is what is so hard to describe to those who have not experienced it: that as a woman, ones body is colonialized, ones flesh is actually taken from one, named and owned by others, all experience their experience, all value their value. The process for a woman of becoming whole, herself, cannot even be described as reclaiming ones flesh (ones land), ones personality (ones land), ones own integrity (ones land), because one has been deprived of both core and vessel for too long, over too many generations and centuries. One can say that the French colonialized Algeria, and conjure up a vision of a free Algeria, because one has a memory that the French did not always own Algeria. But Algerian women have no memory of a time when they were not owned by Algerian men. Algerian women, and all women, have been robbed of any memory of freedom. Our bondage is so ancient, so absolute, it is every inch of the past that we can know. So we cannot reclaim, because no memory of freedom animates us. We must invent, reinvent, create, imagine the scenarios of our own freedom against the will of the world. At the same time we must build the physical and psychic communities that will nourish and sustain us. For in reality, as the Three Marias of Portugal have written, "there is no bread for us at the table of man," that is, unless we are first willing to prepare and serve the meal. And, of course, the men own the bread and the table and the women who serve and the beds we must sleep in at night.
I am saying that my body was colonialized, owned by others, imperialists who robbed it of its richest resources—possessed, taken, conquered, all the words those male writers use to describe ecstatic sexuality. And I am saying that I was that slave woman, that caricature of a human being, that sevant whose core and vessel belonged to those who had conquered it. I was that slave woman who accepted the conquerors naming of my experience and called it, their dreadful brutality, their possessing and taking, "lovemaking," "ecstasy," "freedom." That was the woman you knew.
I tremble when I know that you loved her, and only her. I am afraid, cynical, bitter, when I want to believe that you were also better than that, as I was in some not yet living part of myself; when I think, over these 10 long years, this is a man who could know me now, who could love me now, whom I could know and love. In some part of me—a part I do not dare trust or respect—I believe, but am also afraid to believe, and also do not believe, that in you there lives one who is not commited to oppressing women. I dare allow myself, sometimes, to imagine (or is it remember) that we did touch each other in those hidden parts.
There were so many, and each was the one I was with. One after another, over and over.
I had been on Crete maybe three months when I first saw you. Glorious, a golden moment. I was drinking vermouth at an outdoor cafe. The day was dark and drizzly. You stepped out of a doorway, looked around, stepped back in out of sight. You were so beautiful, so incredibly beautiful, radiating light, yr eyes so huge and deep and dark. I dont remember how we began to talk or when we first made love, but it really did happen that way, I saw you and the earth stood still, everthing in me opended up and reached out to you. Later I understood that you were too beautiful, that yr phsical beauty interfered with yr life, stood between you and it, that it created an almost unbridgeable distance between you and others, even as it drew them to you.
I was happy. I loved you. I was consumed by my love for you. It was as if I breathed you instead of the air. Sometimes I felt a peace so great that I thought it would lift me off the earth. I felt in you and through you and because of you. Later, when you were so much a part of me that I didnt know where you ended and I began. I would still sometimes step back and marvel at yr physical beauty. Sometimes I would think that my life would be complete if I would always be able to look at you.
I dont know what you felt. I never questioned it or thought about it. What was admitted of no other possibility. What was had no words, no language. I remember that a time came when we no longer made love all day and all night, but only twice each day, once in the night and once in the morning, and I asked a woman I knew if she thought you still loved me.
I was ecstatic with you. What are the words? I loved you, I breathed you. What does that mean? What does it mean that two people, a man and a woman, who share no common language, come together and for almost a year share every day in an erotic ecstasy, die in each other, are born in each other, rise and fall and intertwine and cry out, breathe in and through each other, are nourished and sustained by mutual touch, are one in the way that the sun is one, when the coming together of those two people embodies every possible feeling, sound, silence?
And towards the end, before I left, when we began to fight, to have those monstrous wordless fights composed of a passion as large as the love we were—what was that? What does it mean that two people, a man and a woman, who require each other for the sake of life itself, like water or food or air, who do not share a common language, who speak only pidgin bits of French, English, Greek, but know each other completely, understand whole sentences and speeches composed in three languages at a time, begin to tear and rend each others insides—using gestures, fragments, emblems, signs. What does it mean when these two people, a man and a woman, have a fight, a monstrous fight, that lasts all night, through every fury and silence (but he will not leave her, he will not go from her house), a fight that begins when she tries to kill him, literally to tear the life out of him with her bare hands because he dares to touch her (and she would die without that touch), and their pain is so great, so physically unbearable, that still they have only each other, because only they in all the world share that pain and grief? What is that?
I swear I dont know, all these years later I still dont know. When I left you I thought that the pain would kill me, literally, physically. I felt a physical pain so acute, all through my body, in every part of it, for well over a year I felt this pain, it kept me awake, it filled my sleep, nothing around me was as real as the pain inside me, and still, ten years later, sometimes I wake up from a dream that has forced me to feel it again.
I have always wanted to know why I left you. I have wanted to know what in me was stronger than my love for you—what nameless drive, in me but not claimed by me as part of me, moved me to decide to leave you, to make the arrangements necessary to leave you, to walk to the boat, to get on the boat, to stay on the boat even as you called to me from the shore.
I remember that you hated it that I was a writer. It was all right as long as it meant that I had been at home all day, nothing more. But when a small collection of my poetry was privately printed by some friends, on the day I held that book in my hands, you hated me. You were jealous as you never would have been of another lover. (I remember that one night I woke up to find you rifling through my papers, searching fiercely, not able to read English—searching for what?—searching, I think, for the strength that did not breathe in you and because of you.)
I dont know exactly when or why yr anger took explicit sexual forms. You began fucking me in the ass, brutally, brutally. I began to have rectal bleeding. I told you, I implored you. You ignored my screams of pain, my whispers begging you to stop. You said, a woman who loves a man stands the pain. I was a woman who loved a man; I submitted, screamed, cried out, submitted. To refuse was, I thought, to lose you, and any pain was smaller than that pain, or even the contemplation of that pain. I wondered even then, how can he take such pleasure when I am in such pain. My pain increased, and so did yr pleasure.
Once you stopped speaking to me (had I resisted in some way?). When finally (was it a day or two?) you came to me I waited for an explanation. Instead you touched me, wanting to fuck me, as if no explanation were necessary, as if I was yrs to take, no matter what. Had I been strong enough, I would have killed you with my bare hands. As it was, you were weak in yr surprise, and I hurt yr neck badly. I was glad (Im still glad). We fought the whole night long, with long stretches of awful silence and a desperate despair. In the course of that night you told me that we would marry. It was towards morning, and after you had raped me as is the way with men who are locked in a hatred which is bitter, and without mercy, you said, thats all thats left, to get married, isnt that what people do, isnt this the way that married people feel. Bored and dead and utterly bound to each other. Miserable and sick and without freedom or hope. Yr body moving above me during that rape, my body absolutely still in resistance, my eyes wide open staring at you in resistance, and you said, now Ill fuck you the way I fuck a whore, now youll know the difference, how I loved you before and how I hate you now. I said, numb and dead and dying, no, I wont marry you, I cant stand this, its worse than anything. You said, we cant be apart, youll see, it wont be so bad. I remember that then you lay between my legs, both of us on our backs, and we didnt move until dawn. Then you left.
The next day I took my razor blades to a woman friend and I said, keep these, I dont want to be silly but I think that at any minute I wont be able to stand it anymore, to stand this excruciating pain, to take one more second of this being alive without him, and I will be happy to be dead before the next second comes, but I dont want to be dead, and I need help not to be. She knew that it was the truth and my friends didnt leave me alone for one minute after that. I was in despair. I had no hope. Time was anguish. I learned how many seconds there were in a day.
I left Crete a few weeks later. Somehow we endured. Somehow we survived that agony. Somehow only we had suffered it and all the others were outside of it. Somehow we became tender with each other again. Somehow we made love again, with such great sadness and softness that it was new. It was as if either of us might break into a million pieces at any minute, as if there was nothing to save or to hide or to redeem either, as if the only parts of us still living were as fragile as dust in the wind.
And it was very important, I think, that our last week together was spent celibate. You had, after that terrible night, gone to Athens and there gotten the clap from some young man, and me from you, and so our last week together we didnt make love. We went to Athens in yr fathers truck full of tomatoes to take the tomatoes to the market. I cried the whole time, hysterically, doubled up on the car seat, from market to market, howling, wailing, screaming like a banshee, the tears never stopped. You were very kind, tender, and so we began to laugh together again, and on the day I left we were closer than we had perhaps ever been.
If you loved him, why did you leave him? My friends asked me that often, and it was strange that I had left, that any woman would leave a man she loved the way I loved you. I answered in many ways. Sometimes I said that I had become sick. It was true. I had gonorrhea, and my ass had been torn apart. I had an operation on my rectum and as I lay in the hospital wracked with pain, I received letters from you which were completely indifferent to my physical condition. You did not want to know. A woman who loves a man accepts the pain. I did accept it, but not gracefully. Sometimes I told people that I had left because we had begun to fight. That too was true, though when I left I knew that I could stay, that you would not leave me, that we could even marry, if I wanted.
The decision to leave was not rational. It was made, in fact, long before the worst happened. It was a feeling, an impulse, that inhabitated my body like a fever. Once I felt it I knew that I would leave no matter what. I describe it to you now as the drive to become that lives in the part of me that did not breathe in you, that is a writer, and that even my identity as a woman could not entirely silence. It is that part of me that enraged you even as it enthralled you, the part that could not be subsumed by seduction or anal assault or any sort of domination. It is that part that could not even be conquered, or quieted, by tenderness. It is the part of me that was, even then, most alive, and that no man, not even you who were for me the air I breathed, could ever take from me.
If you had truly loved him, you never would have left him. Some have said that to me, but I say no, I loved you, and I left you. I had a drive to become, to live, to imagine, to create, and it could not be contained in what took place between us.
I wanted to come back. I expected to come back. I planned to come back. I started to come back. But I never did return to you.
Two years after I had left, as I had promised, I started on my way back to you. I went to Amsterdam. I wrote you, Im coming back. I received a letter from you that said, my life is bitter, you dont know whats happening here, Amerikans are stupid and you are an Amerikan, tanks and death are everywhere, my friends are being imprisoned and tortured and killed, come if you can bear it, I cant promise you anything. You said that you yourself knew only bitterness, and, indeed, yr letter was bitterness.
I had exactly enough money for fare one way, nothing more. I had wanted you to say, come, come now, I need you now, now in this time of desperate trouble I need you.
I did not return. A few months later I married.
I was married for three years. During those years, I dreamed of you. I would wake up in a cold sweat, desperate just to hear the sound of yr voice. I never understood why I had not gone to you.
A year after my marriage ended, talking with a friend, I understood why I had not gone to you. Whatever the false (male-determined) values that still infuse my judgement of myself—e.g. I betrayed you, abandoned you, deserted you, had no right not to return to you given yr desperate situation—I discovered, in my failure to return, the dimensions of my own cowardice. I had been so afraid, E, so afraid of the reality of what had happened/was happening to you. The real guns. The real police. The real torture. The real dying. I had stayed in Amsterdam to pursue a life of "radical" pleasure—smoking dope, fucking, the romance of radical ideas without the reality of dangerous opposition. And I realized too that I had not been able to accept the letter you had written me—"I am only bitter"—no image of romantic love was there to propel me toward you, toward self-sacrifice, toward bravery.
I wrote to you then, after my marriage ended, saying, I am living alone, writing a book, and in November I would like to come see you if you are still willing to see me. Miraculously, you wrote back, saying where you would be, warm, saying to come.
But as I worked on my book and struggled with this new clarity, I saw that in Greece I could do nothing, and that my struggle was in Amerika. I saw that I had to come back here, to Amerika, to hone my book into an instrument of revolution. I had to confront the real danger here—not give myself in service to the romance of Amerikas male "radicals," but instead to confront the hatred of women, male power over women, from which, I believe, all other illegitimate power is derived. Here, knowing the language, I could take responsibility. Elsewhere, I would be still running, still hiding. I saw that this assumption of responsibility must be at the center of my life. I saw that I could not be any mans woman, not even yours; that I myself must act in the world directly, develop and use all my strength in the pursuit of my vision, a vision no male could have birthed. I knew that I had discovered my true faith.
I wrote you again, saying, E, I am returning to Amerika, when I finally do come to Crete will you see me? No answer from you. I ask our Greek friends in Paris for news of you, but there is none.
Now, more time has passed. I dont think that I will ever come back to you or see you again. Sometimes I wish that were not so. But I have one choice to make in life, to make and to keep making—will I seek freedom, or will I dress myself in chains? I am on a journey long forbidden to women. I want the freedom to become. I want that freedom more than I want any other thing life has to offer. I no longer believe that yr freedom is more important than mine, that yr pleasure or pain is more important than mine. I no longer believe that the torture of a man in prison is worse than the torture of a woman in bed.
I began this letter in desire; I end in anger. I dream that love without tyranny is possible.
"First Love," copyright © 1978, 1980 by Andrea Dworkin, is a chapter from an unpublished epistolary novel, Ruins, and first appeared in The Woman Who Lost Her Names: Selected Writings by American Jewish Women, compiled and edited by Julia Wolf Mazow (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1980). Lines from "Credo," copyright © 1972, are from Monster: Poems by Robin Morgan (New York: Random House and Vintage Books, 1972) and are used with permission.
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