Living with Andrea Dworkin
by John Stoltenberg
Copyright © 1994 by John Stoltenberg.
When I was 29, in the spring of 1974, I walked out of a poetry reading in Greenwich Village because it had turned hateful toward women (a benefit for War Resisters League no less). Outside on the sidewalk I ran into Andrea, then 27, who had walked out for the same reason. We began to talk, then talk deeply--and our conversation has continued until today.
Andrea and I had been introduced earlier by a mutual friend, a theater director, at a meeting of the then-fledgling Gay Academic Union. Her first impression of me, she has told me, was as a rather dim blond beach bum. We were an unlikely match.
That spring Andrea's first book, Woman Hating, was published. One day she visited me at my Upper West Side apartment, thrilled to have received her first author's copies. She gave me one, and I read it immediately, enthralled and laughing out loud with joy. I especially remember where Andrea writes that "'man' and 'woman' are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs" and that "we are . . . a multisexed species." As I described it 15 years later in my own first book, "that liberating recognition saved my life."
Who can explain how anyone recognizes that they have fallen in love and that life apart is simply unthinkable? All I know is that's what happened to me. Our conversations seemed to want to go on forever--so we decided to live together. In August 1993 we celebrated our 19th anniversary--with orchestra seats to Angels in America.
We never make a big deal about our personal relationship--in fact we are always quite private, even among our closest friends. Without a private life, one does not have a private life. I have used autobiographical material in my writing--both obviously and obliquely--and so has Andrea. But often in respect of Andrea's privacy or ours, I make decisions I might otherwise not if I lived alone.
Once we agreed to give a joint interview to the New York Times Style page--surely not the smartest thing we have ever done. Its editor refused to allow the writer to identify us as gay and lesbian, as we had asked. The article appeared on Women's Equality Day 1985; the photo and excerpts later showed up in pornography magazines. Once Andrea was defrauded by a woman into giving an interview that touched on our private life and that then appeared sensationalized in Penthouse. So I state only the simplest facts publicly: yes, Andrea and I live together and love each other and we are each other's life partner, and yes we are both out.
Andrea has taught me a great deal about the meaning of home. She writes frequently and eloquently about women who feel homeless or are potentially homeless because they lack a man's earning power, or a lover or husband abuses them, or there seems no choice but to exchange sex for a place to sleep. I have come to understand that home means something to Andrea that many women long for but can rarely take for granted.
I grew up not having to think about home that way at all. I can easily fall asleep whenever I am tired (I do not have Andrea's memories of trembling in a downtown storefront with a knife beside her bed to fend off an intruder). I can generally sleep soundly through the night, except to pee, with no bad dreams (I do not have Andrea's nightmares of being violently awakened by an abusive man coming home drunk and wanting something). Living with Andrea has taught me most of all that the world I grew up in and live in as a man is a world that most women can only dream of. And so home has to be the place where that dream is true.
Andrea has completed nine of her ten major works while we have shared home. Andrea has steadfastly improved and grown in stature as a writer during this life together--and I am proud that living with me has been a help, not a hindrance.
Over time, "home" has been seven different places, including an apartment in Northhampton, Massachusetts, where we scraped by on food stamps; a mold-growing bunker on a buggy island in the Florida Keys; and a rat-ridden, fumy walk-up on Manhattan's Lower East Side. We are now fortunate to own our own house, a Victorian brownstone in Brooklyn, filled with warm colors and woodwork and walls full of books. We feel almost blissfully happy here--partly because it is our snug harbor against the storm, but also because Andrea and I have completely different writing rhythms: She sleeps by day and works all night long, a teapot and our cats for company. I do my best work first thing in the morning, coffee cup by coffee cup, after a night's sleep. We found exactly the house to accommodate our syncopation: work, sleep, meals together, ever more conversation.
Another difference between our writing methods is that I tend to talk a great deal about whatever I am working on: Andrea is usually the first person to hear the idea--often because it originates in one of our conversations--and she is the one person I show all successive drafts. I tend to chatter on, full of enthusiasm (however occasionally overinflated) about each session's output. Andrea's way is to show me what she has done once she has really done it.
While Andrea is working on something new, our talk tends not to be about her evolving text so much as the emotions that have come up in the process: her visceral reactions to the primary sources she used writing Pornography; her still-raw memories of multiple rape while writing Mercy; and these days, as she researches her next book, the meaning of the Holocaust.
Andrea's writing has been deeply influenced by other novelists and writers of serious nonfiction; she reads the greats and succès d'estimes voraciously; she shops in bookstores the way an addict buys drugs. I come from an avant-garde playwriting background complicated by 15 years in commercial publishing: I apprenticed as a comma-wonk at a national men's lifestyle magazine then took my copy-editing skills elsewhere, becoming managing editor of three national women's magazines. So at a certain point I decided--in the self-righteous manner of a publishing-industry serf--that I should teach Andrea Dworkin the correct use of "which" and "that." And I did. Several years ago she was invited to join the American Heritage Dictionary's Usage Panel--for which she fills in periodic questionnaires with antiauthoritarian aplomb. And she and I have a deal: I get to see the questionnaires, but only after she has answered them. They fascinate me. Andrea's ear for language is of course laissez faire and acutely attuned to real-life human speech (we both abhor the ingrown prose of academics)--but she still assiduously adheres to the distinction between "which" and "that."
Andrea's work and mine are sometimes "about" the same themes, but expressed in very different ways. The complex cultural and interpersonal meaning of male-male intercourse, for instance, is a subject we have both explored--Andrea most profoundly in Intercourse where she parsed that intimate intersection of literature, life, and law. I am rather in awe of the intellection in that book, and I crib ideas from it shamelessly. But I am more likely to treat of assfucking more puckishly--in rhymed quatrains and limericks, for instance, as in my book debunking "manhood."
In the early days Andrea and I talked endlessly about the double standard, and we still do, because it is a constant theme of her life, not mine. Had I lived with another man, I doubt I would ever know so much about it. I have often wondered: Is there a living male writer and political dissident whose work is comparable to Andrea's in terms of his contribution both to letters and to international human-rights discourse? does he have the same trouble getting published? is he similarly ridiculed and reviled?
I try not to think about all the slanders and attacks on Andrea that are regularly printed in Playboy, other pornography magazines and journals of opinion funded by sex-industry revenue, such as the Village Voice. I try not to; but the truth is, it sometimes really hurts. When Hustler vilified Andrea with cartoons that were anti-Semitic and sexually explicit, she brought a libel suit against the publisher. Andrea's and Larry Flynt's lawyers deposed me, and I found I could not get through the interview without breaking down in sobs.
It also sometimes gets to me when women smear Andrea--vengefully, spitefully, misogynistically--women academics, women journalists, even self-styled feminist ones. When I first began to identify as a radical feminist nearly 20 years ago, one of the hardest things for me to accept was that male supremacy gives so many people rotten characters--both male and female. I had to find a core feminist faith for myself that did not stand or fall based on any individual woman's character. I had to find for myself an inner conviction about sex and fairness and gender and civil equality that could withstand onslaughts even in the name of so-called feminism--pro-pornography, pro-prostitution, pro-sadomasochism "feminism," for instance.
I believe that I have found such a conviction--a coherent and cogent political vision--that depends neither upon women's perfectibility nor mine. I am grateful to Andrea Dworkin that her life and work have taught it to me. And I am grateful to Andrea for the love that has shown me how it can come true.