My fourth book, and first full-length work of nonfiction will be released by Seven Stories Press in June. 100 Times (A Memoir of Sexism) is a 240-page memoir, written as in-scene vignettes, telling the stories of one hundred experiences of sexist discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual violence I have personally experienced and witnessed, beginning at age five, through the present day.
I recently shared an excerpt of this book on social media, and immediately an old friend who I’d long ago lost touch with, a man from the Midwest, began arguing with me, and compared me to Valerie Solanas. I could tell from the tone of his comment, he expected me to recoil at the mention of that name — Valerie Solanas — the direst of insults; queer female hysterical violent “femi-nazi” insanity personified. This name was meant to summon shame in me, like invoking some Goetic demon to bate and restrain my crazed feminism.
He’s not the only one who sees her that way. When so many people think Valerie Solanas, they think, “bat-shit crazy, violent, murderous, ridiculous, woman.”
In a recent season of the popular television show, American Horror Story, for instance, Solanas was depicted by Lena Dunham as a demented serial killer who led a cult of murderous feminists to kill heterosexual couples — kids hooking up in cars, happy newlyweds and such — in a bloody, nationwide feminist murder spree. This, of course, is a completely fictional narrative, and for the purposes of this show, Solanas’s epitomal work, The Scum Manifesto, was interpreted as a literal, earnest text. Dunham portrayed Solanas as a frumpy, grumpy, clownish homicidal lesbian.
In the mainstream media and collective consciousness, Solonas has been written off as a worthless artist, and remembered only for her violent act against Andy Warhol.
All of this got me thinking about unconscious bias, and what it takes for us to denounce a female artist’s historical worth, versus what it does for a man.
William Burroughs shot and killed his wife while drunk and high, playing a game they called “William Tell,” wherein his wife placed an apple on her head, and he shot it off. He missed, killed her, and later wrote about it, implying it was possible he subconsciously wanted to kill her, because he was gay and resented having a wife. He served only two weeks in jail for this slaughter. Because the homicide occurred in Mexico, and through a combination of bribery and fleeing the country, he avoided serving any prison sentence.
Burroughs, of course, is still widely celebrated as a great author. I, in fact, had a poem published in a literary magazine a few years ago, the cover adorned with a photograph of him holding a rifle. This image was considered darkly humorous.
Almost every other author I’ve spoken with about the ethics of celebrating Burroughs and his art points me in the direction of compassion; he had a drug problem, he and his wife were “in it together.”
After the murder of his wife, he served as a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters. His body of work still remains relevant, is widely taught in English and Writing curriculum in colleges, and is written about reverently in current scholarly articles and in major media outlets worldwide. He is generally thought of as good man. In his bio on Wikipedia, the slaughter of his wife doesn’t even come in until the sixth paragraph. (I am citing Wikipedia, because it represents the most current, popular, collective opinions of the general public, not as a scholarly reference.)
Valerie Solanas, on the other hand, shot Andy Warhol, not killing him, but severely injuring him. He died twenty years later from health complications possibly exacerbated by the injury, as well as a speed addiction.
Solanas and Warhol had a documented horrible working/personal relationship, rife with insult. She saw Warhol as constantly demeaning her privately and publicly, even after featuring her in one of his films.
Warhol agreed to look at a play she’d written, possibly to produce it. She gave him the only manuscript to read, and he (claimed he) lost it, though she believed he threw it away to spite her. This was the catalyst for the shooting.
Pablo Neruda raped a servant while he was visiting her country as a diplomat. He wrote about it quite matter-of-factly and unapologetically in his memoirs (I Confess that I have Lived, first published in 1974, in English in 1977):
One morning, I woke earlier than is my custom. I hid in the shadows to watch who passed by. From the back of the house, like a dark statue that walked, the most beautiful woman that I had ever seen in Ceylon entered, Tamil race, Pariah caste. She wore a red and gold sari of the cheapest cloth. On her unshod feet were heavy anklets. On each side of her nose shone two tiny red points. They were probably glass, but on her they looked like rubies.
She solemnly approached the toilet without giving me the slightest look, without acknowledging my existence, and disappeared with the sordid receptacle on her head, retreating with her goddess steps. She was so beautiful that despite her humble job, she left me disturbed. As if a wild animal had come out from the jungle, belonging to another existence, a separate world. I called to her with no result.
I then would leave some gift on her path, some silk or fruit. She would pass by without hearing or looking. Her dark beauty turned that miserable trip into the obligatory ceremony of an indifferent queen.
One morning, I decided to go for all, and grabbed her by the wrist and looked her in the face. There was no language I could speak to her. She allowed herself to be led by me smilelessly and soon was naked upon my bed. Her extremely slender waist, full hips, the overflowing cups of her breasts, made her exactly like the thousands year old sculptures in the south of India. The encounter was like that of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes open throughout, unmoved. She was right to regard me with contempt. The experience was not repeated.
No one remembers him for this.
Charles Bukowski is on video kicking and punching his girlfriend during an interview about his writing, and was said to have been physically abusive to multiple female partners. He is still celebrated worldwide as a great poet.
Louis Althusser strangled his wife to death in an act of cold-blooded murder. In his Wikipedia bio, he’s described as, “A French Marxist philosopher, whose arguments and theses were set against the threats that he saw attacking the theoretical foundations of Marxism.”
As I write this, the murder of his wife doesn’t receive mention until the last paragraph, and then it simply says, “Althusser’s life was marked by periods of intense mental illness. In 1980, he killed his wife, the sociologist Hélène Rytmann, by strangling her.”
He is widely celebrated. The murder of his wife is mentioned only in the context of his mental illness.
Valerie Solanas suffered from Schizophrenia. She was also a victim of childhood incest. Her father repeatedly raped her, and then she was sent to live with her grandparents as a teenager, and then her grandfather raped her, and then she ran away from home and became a sex worker.
The shooting of Andy Warhol is currently the first sentence of her Wikipedia bio. She is widely regarded and repeatedly portrayed as a worthless, angry, bat-shit crazy piece of human garbage. Where is this compassion that we are asked to have for male artists, for her?
She was a brilliant artist. The SCUM Manifesto is a masterwork of literary protest art, which is often completely misread. Much of it is actually a point-by-point re-write of multiple of Freud’s writings. It is a parody.
In his essay The Psychogenesis Of A Case Of Homosexuality In A Woman, Freud suggests that a good treatment for lesbians would be having their (most likely already hermaphroditic) ovaries, and genitals removed and replaced with grafted “real” female genitals.
Freud’s exact words:
The cases of male homosexuality which (have) been successful fulfilled the condition, which is not always present, of a very patent physical ‘hermaphroditism’. Any analogous treatment of female homosexuality is at present quite obscure. If it were to consist in removing what are probably hermaphroditic ovaries, and in grafting others, which are hoped to be of a single sex, there would be little prospect of its being applied in practice. A woman who has felt herself to be a man, and has loved in masculine fashion, will hardly let herself be forced into playing the part of a woman…
In The SCUM Manifesto, Solanas posits that a good “treatment” for straight men is to get their dicks chopped off: “When the male accepts his passivity, defines himself as a woman (males as well as females think men are women and women are men), and becomes a transvestite he loses his desire to screw (or to do anything else, for that matter; he fulfills himself as a drag queen) and gets his dick chopped off. He then achieves a continuous diffuse sexual feeling from ‘being a woman’. Screwing is, for a man, a defense against his desire to be female.”
Freud’s texts are rife with suggestions of female castration and hysterectomies as treatments for all sorts of psychological troubles suffered by women, and in response, The SCUM Manifesto is infamous for suggesting castration might improve the behavior of men.
Freud posited that heterosexual women are sexually passive, engaging in sex only because they want children. He invented the theory of “penis envy.” He claimed that because girls do not have penises, girls come to believe they have lost their penises, and eventually, seek to have male children in an attempt “to gain a penis.” He believed women, on some deep, subconscious level, viewed themselves as castrated males. In his theory of psychosexual development he posited that for women, sex (with males) may also be a subconscious attempt to gain a penis.
In his essay, The Taboo of Virginity, Freud writes: “We have learnt from the analysis of many neurotic women that they go through an early age in which they envy their brothers, their sign of masculinity and feel at a disadvantage and humiliated because of the lack of it (actually because of its diminished size) in themselves. We include this ‘envy for the penis’ in the ‘castration complex’.”
Solanas, replaces the envy of the penis, not only with envy of the vagina, but most often, with women’s emotional openness, complexity and individuality as the focus of men’s envy. She writes of men: “The female’s individuality, which he is acutely aware of, but which he doesn’t comprehend, and isn’t capable of relating to or grasping emotionally, frightens and upsets him and fills him with envy. “
At the time of the writing of The SCUM Manifesto, Freud was a celebrated figure in psychology, and his theories were being widely touted in academic and popular spheres alike. Solanas took issue with this, and wrote The SCUM Manifesto as a parody, mocking the popular, sexist, and hetero-centric thinking on gender and sexuality at the time. But the text is a reversal. In The SCUM Manifesto, Solanas directs everything Freud said with an equal amount of vigor and confidence back at men. So, instead of “female motherhood” being a primary drive, she reverses this to attack/analyze the “male sex drive” through the same line of thinking as Freud.
In his essay, Leonardo Da-Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood, Freud hypothesizes that homosexuality in men stems from their relationship with their father and mother. He proposes that homosexuality (which he assumes is a bad thing) is caused by a relationship with a mother who is too tender to her son (as in all his texts, he repeatedly states that children are naturally sexually attracted to their parents of the opposite sex), and a mother who is, at the same time, too assertive and independent in relation to her own husband (the boy’s father.) This causes the boy to see his mother figure, who’s also an object of his sexual desire in childhood, as a man, not a woman. And this makes the boy gay. He writes:
In all our male homosexual cases the subjects had had a very intense erotic attachment to a female person, as a rule their mother, during the first period of childhood, which is afterwards forgotten; this attachment was evoked or encouraged by too much tenderness on the part of the mother herself, and further reinforced by the small part played by the father during their childhood. Sadger emphasizes the fact that the mothers on his homosexual patients were frequently masculine women, women with energetic traits of character, who were able to push the father out of his proper place. I have occasionally seen the same thing, but I was more strongly impressed by cases in which the father was absent from the beginning or left the scene at an early date, so that the boy found himself left entirely under feminine influence. Indeed it almost seems as though the presence of a strong father would ensure that thee son made the correct decision in his choice of object, namely someone of the opposite sex.
In The SCUM Manifesto, Solanas takes this analysis and flips it on its head through an extreme feminist lens, where becoming a “real (straight) man” is already assumed to be a bad thing. She writes: “The effect of fatherhood on males, specifically is to make them, ‘Men,’ that is, highly defensive of all impulses to passivity, faggotry, and of desires to be female. Every boy wants to imitate his mother, be her, fuse with her. So he tells the boy, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, not to be a sissy, to act like a ‘Man.’ The boy, scared shitless of and respecting his father, complies, and becomes just like Daddy, that model of ‘Man’-hood, the all-American ideal — the well-behaved heterosexual dullard.”
While Freud accuses the mother of being to blame for the horrible fate of a boy becoming a homosexual, Solanas accuses the father of being to blame for the horrible fate of a boy becoming a straight man.
As you can see from the above, The SCUM Manifesto in many places is an almost line-by-line mockery of Freud’s writings on women and homosexuals, and was never meant to be read as a literal, earnest text throughout. This does not mean it is intended as a joke or to be taken lightly, though. As some may have noticed in the above text, it is not without serious, meaningful and resonant critiques of patriarchal institutions. There is a lot of truth in this parody. It is a political satire. It is simultaneously dead serious, yet written with a nod and a wink. In keeping with the protest art of the time, if you didn’t get it, she wasn’t going to explain it to you. She was happy to make cocky comments, like, “I mean every word of it,” knowing, and indeed, hoping that the “squares” who didn’t understand the sarcasm inherent to the foundation of the text, would be that much more shocked at her effrontery.
Valerie Solanas just said, in a modernized (now dated) vernacular, exactly what Freud had said about women, only about men, and everyone freaked out, because when we talk about men the same way men have talked about women for centuries, it reads as grotesque and insanely violent, un-compassionate, and shocking, which was exactly her point.
Her work is still misinterpreted as a literal text by many to this day.
After shooting Andy Warhol, Solanas turned herself in to the police. She was charged with attempted murder, assault, and illegal possession of a gun. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and pleaded guilty to “reckless assault with intent to harm,” serving a three-year prison sentence, including treatment in a psychiatric hospital. In a darkly ironic twist of fate she was subjected to a nonconsensual hysterectomy during her hospitalization. Shortly after her release from prison, she became homeless, and never published another work.
Michael Alig, known for being a famous party promoter and club kid in the 1980s (in the film about his life, Party Monster, he was played by Macaulay Culkin), brutally murdered his friend, Andre “Angel” Melendez, over an argument about a drug debt.
Alig cut his friend up into pieces and threw him in the Hudson River. He’s been released from prison and is currently working as a club promoter in New York City.
Since his release, he’s also appeared in an indie film with artists I know personally, called Vamp Bikers, in which Alig plays a homicidal sociopath who slowly, brutally murders his friend.
I accidentally watched this at a film screening I attended in Brooklyn years ago, having no idea what I was getting into. It made me want to throw up, seeing him happily take part in a campy fictional portrayal of a murder so similar to the one he actually committed, and being celebrated for this. Many people around me were excitedly saying they hoped that Alig might attend the screening.
His website, michaelalig.com describes him as an “artist, writer, curator.” You can hire him to produce your party, or buy one of his many pop art paintings for $500 a pop.
I think this is all abhorrent. I’ve had debates with friends over this, and have been asked, “Well, he served his time. Shouldn’t we have compassion? He was young and on a lot of drugs when he did that. Don’t you think he should get a second chance?”
Perhaps. Perhaps a chance at living as a free person again, yes, perhaps that, but definitely not a chance to be celebrated for being the famous club kid who murdered his friend. And it’s not lost on me that the person he murdered was a poor, lesser known gay man of color, and I wonder if he would have gotten out of prison so early if he’d been the one who murdered Michael.
Perhaps more shocking than this, is the life and reception of essayist and novelist Norman Mailer. When speaking about feminism and women’s liberation Norman Mailer said: “We must face the simple fact that maybe there’s a profound reservoir of cowardess in women that had them welcome this miserable, slavish life.”
In his book Advertisements for Myself, Mailer claims that a writer without “balls” is no writer at all:
I have a terrible confession to make — I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. Out of what is no doubt a fault in me, I do not seem able to read them. Indeed, I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale. At the risk of making a dozen devoted enemies for life, I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn. Since I’ve never been able to read Virginia Woolf, and am sometimes willing to believe that it can conceivably be my fault, this verdict may be taken fairly as the twisted tongue of a soured taste, at least by those readers who do not share with me the ground of departure — that a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.
I would argue that Norman Mailer spoke and wrote just as violently, grotesquely and shockingly about women as Valerie Solanas did about men. But he was not saying any of these things or writing his sexist texts as a parody or protest of his own subjugation.
Norman Mailer is still widely celebrated for both his fiction and essays, including numerous works that take a stand adamantly against feminism and women in general. In 1968 and 1980 he won the Pulitzer Prize. In 2005, he won the National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In 1960, he attempted to murder his wife by stabbing her multiple times in the chest, barely missing her heart.
While his wife lay in the hospital in critical condition, a day after the stabbing, Mailer appeared in a scheduled interview on The Mike Wallace Show, where he spoke of the knife as a symbol of manhood. He was briefly arrested two days later, though his wife refused to press charges, saying that she feared for the safety of their children if she did so. She did, however divorce him once she recovered.
The parallels between Mailer and Solanas are as astonishing as their differences. The only reason I can find for the differences in how they are popularly viewed is that Mailer was a man, speaking and acting violently against women in a sexist society, and Solanas was a woman, doing the reverse in this same society.
I can’t help but conjure Solanas’s legacy when looking at the current questions that keep popping up on the subject of violence, art, and who we celebrate today. Do we forgive Louis C.K. for serially masturbating on countless women he worked with? What does forgiveness mean? Does it mean he continues to enjoy the same level of reverence and celebrity as before? Can we still enjoy Michael Jackson’s music knowing that he had ongoing sexual relationships with what seems to be an endless stream of young boys? Should we still be patronizing Woody Allen’s films? Is it alright to feel heartbroken over the loss of the Bill Cosby so many knew and loved? What of the beautiful works of so many beloved male authors I have spoken about above?
I do not have clear answers to these questions, nor do I think there is one rule of response that is correct for every situation, but I do know that the social hammer has come down hard on women who commit similar acts of violence, especially when those acts are directed at men. I do know that sexist bias has judged one of my artistic heroes much more harshly than her male counterparts.
I do not condone or celebrate Valerie Solanas’s shooting of Andy Warhol. But when people bring up Valerie Solanas as if she is a horrendous, murderous, bat-shit crazy, worthless, hysterical, violent criminal whose literary artwork is as valuable as the ramblings of a madwoman, suggesting that she should be written off as nothing more, I always think to myself, “Well, that’s exactly what she would have expected from this society.” Much less has changed since she first released the book in 1967, than I would have hoped. Those opening lines still remain eerily significant: “Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore, and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete autonomation, and destroy the male sex.”