[Ohio State University Press; 2023]
In the early 1970s, the artist Lee Lozano dropped out of her life. A fixture of the New York conceptual art scene, Lozano was best known for performances that obscured the boundary between art-making and living. Taking the counterculture movement’s call to “drop out and tune in” seriously, she officially withdrew from the NYC art world in 1969 with her General Strike Piece during which she issued the following directives for herself:
GRADUALLY BUT DETERMINEDLY AVOID BEING PRESENT AT OFFICIAL OR PUBLIC “UPTOWN” FUNCTIONS OR GATHERINGS RELATED TO THE “ART WORLD” IN ORDER TO PURSUE INVESTIGATIONS OF TOTAL PERSONAL AND PUBLIC REVOLUTION.
As the project neared its conclusion, she extended it, embarking upon what would later become her most notorious work, Drop Out Piece. For this performance, she strayed even further from the art world. She sketched in her notebook. She smoked grass. She recorded her weight. She dreamed. She threw the I-Ching. She took walks, nowhere near a gallery. Every day she was breathing, eating, sleeping, shitting, performing.
While Drop Out Piece is often considered one of Lozano’s greatest artistic achievements, the actual experience of performing it—that is, of living outside of the world’s gaze—proved to be hard, painful work. Isolated from her community, Lozano no longer had her identity as a public artist to gird her in the world. Adding to her discomfort, she embarked on her experiment without knowing what it would yield, how long it would last, or who she’d be at the end. Drop Out Piece is an early work of durational art, which requires the artist endure extreme hardship—emotional or physical pain, isolation, or exhaustion—for a long period of time. In Drop Out Piece, Lozano confronts one of the greatest fears facing both artists and women: invisibility.
For artists, invisibility signals obscurity and the end of one’s career. As a woman, a state of invisibility is often both feared and desired. For many of us, it is no longer primarily the male gaze that holds the promise of power and legibility but the technological gaze. In the attention economy, existence is synonymous with being observed. Dropping out of society’s gaze can have serious repercussions for our professional, romantic, and social lives. At the same time, we may long to be invisible, especially in public. Looks can kill, they say. Or, as writer Christine Hume puts it, “Men have a way of glancing at women that lets us know we are already dead.”
In Hume’s timely new essay collection, Everything I Never Wanted to Know, women perform various disappearing acts. Some are kidnapped. Others are murdered. Many are the victims of intimate partner assault, their suffering disappeared behind closed apartment windows and garage doors. Hume gives scant details about either the tragic incidents or the women themselves. Nor do we learn how she comes to these stories: news accounts, neighborhood chatter, books, podcasts, conversations with other women. But Hume makes it clear these stories of violence are sticky. Once they are heard, seen, and felt, they stay with her. They form her world. They are the noxious fumes she breathes every day. Hume’s rapid-fire listing of brutal acts made me feel claustrophobic right from the start.
The opening essay, “Question Like a Face,” begins with a moment of violence. The weekend she moves to Ypsilanti, Michigan, where most of the essays are set, a man rapes and beats her neighbor, seriously injuring her, leading to her death. Hume doesn’t linger on her neighbor’s story, but instead, shares another story of gendered violence involving a student who is found dead by a janitor at a local university. Within the next few pages, Hume details six additional instances of gendered violence, one right after another. Bam, bam, bam. As I read, I caught myself holding my breath, waiting for a moment of release, which never comes. One of the book’s great gifts is its ruthless restraint. Instead of offering readers relief, Hume encourages us to tune in to our discomfort. She asks us to confront the current epidemic of violence against women without looking away.
“Do I even know one woman who hasn’t been subjected to male violence?” Hume asks early in the collection. “Do you? Why doesn’t this admission stop us in our tracks?” The world Hume describes in her essays is steeped in sexual violence. I live in this same world, and still, I consume a startling amount of content about violence: cold case documentaries, TikTok recaps of horrific dates, true crime podcasts before bed. And here I was reading yet another book about male violence. What more could I possibly hope to learn about the subject?
I tend to read nonfiction for the dopamine hit of discovery. But as I sat with Hume’s essays, I began to think the point of reading was not to learn something new. Instead, I wondered what reading this particular book might do to my brain and nervous system. I sensed that consuming these stories whole, all at once, without the option to scroll on, would hit my system differently. I wanted to be stopped in my tracks.
Any minute of the day I can open my phone and watch hours of video clips of women detailing their experiences of sexual and physical assault, and then, I can scroll on to puppy dogs. The ubiquity of violence against women is numbing, especially when consumed on a loop backed by pop songs. The last time a man sexually assaulted me, I was, above all, annoyed that the experience ruined my camping trip. Instead of frolicking among sandstone boulders, I was processing in a sleeping bag. Part of my annoyance stemmed from the perceived inevitability of such encounters. In Everything I Never Wanted to Know, Hume questions our collective tendency to numb out when faced with the pervasiveness of violence against women. “What allows me to join the shrug of those who think there is nothing to be done?” she asks.
One way we numb ourselves is by telling soothing stories of bad guys. When a powerful man’s crimes are exposed, our outrage toward him serves as a release valve. Hume argues that public callouts often “become a ritualistic offering of hope and a false sense of justice.” As she points out, most women do not experience a single incident of violence in their lives. “It’s death by a thousand glances, a thousand stares and stalkings,” Hume says. By fixating on individual offenders, we overlook the conditions that make their abuses possible.
Consider the National Sex Offender Registry (NSOR). Hume powerfully argues that the registry is not designed to keep us safe but to “weed out the bad men.” Not only is the list ineffective at preventing abuse, it also outsources our collective responsibility to cops and judges. “The NSOR is symbolic,” Hume writes. It reflects, not the actual number of individuals who abuse, but our society’s racist, classist, and homophobic biases. Those individuals with race and class privilege are more easily able to avoid suspicion and arrest. Registry on the NSOR ensures a lifetime of ostracization and humiliation, foreclosing the possibility of rehabilitation or personal growth. Embracing empathy, Hume encourages readers to imagine different ways of addressing sexual abuse in our communities. She dreams of a world where people are held accountable for their actions but not shunned or punished through a carceral system that itself perpetuates abuse.
In the second section of the book, “Yes, But,” Hume intimately explores how the male gaze turns women’s bodies into objects to be fetishized, consumed, and discarded. On vacation in Lake Michigan, she discovers a bin of vintage Frozen Charlotte dolls, a relic from the Victorian Age. For Hume, the doll is both a product of its time and a portal into the future. Then as now women’s lives—their desires, dreams, decisions—are circumscribed by social expectations that continuously alter our subjectivity and self-worth. Enduring girlhood has left many of us frozen inside, weary of our agency, feeling as if we can do little to alter our worlds. Even when we do protest, our efforts are often discredited, as Hume shows in “The Riot and Run,” a fascinating historical detour into the Nylon Riots of the 1940s. A radical retelling of these protests, Hume’s essay exposes the impulse to discredit women’s accounts of their own experiences for what they are: violent.
The book crescendos with the penultimate piece, “All the Woman I Know,” a brutal, beautiful exploration of women’s ongoing struggle for bodily autonomy, from abortion access to taking up space in public. The piece is composed of fourteen different women’s stories, told in fragments no longer than a sentence or two, broken up by autobiographical interludes about Hume’s own abortion and experiences with sexual violence. Each woman’s story is titled with their name and comes without biographical context. Hume doesn’t tell the reader how she encountered these stories. The narratives are partial and incomplete by design: They resist closure. Even as each woman’s narrative teems with unique personal details, they ultimately offer a collective story of womanhood in America.
“All the Woman I Know” brims with violence: sexual, physical, emotional, legal. As Hume stitches the fragments of each woman’s stories, she weaves a nightmarish quilt of violence that represents both the interconnectedness of women’s experiences and the oppressive weight of living in a capitalistic, patriarchal society. The sense that I was participating in an endurance art project was most visceral while reading “All the Women I Know.” Like many of the collection’s essays, reading one story of abuse after another made me physically uncomfortable and left me emotionally exhausted. To read on, I had to accept the fact that I couldn’t possibly know how whatever violence I’d encounter on the page would affect me.
In “All the Women I Know,” each burst of text begins with the phrase, “No woman I know,” an ironic taunt that makes explicit the many acts of abuse women endure throughout their lives. The repetition of the phrase also imbues the piece with an addictive rhythmic quality that makes it impossible to turn away. Each time I finished one woman’s story, there was another one waiting for me, and another. I thought, I cannot go on. Then, I went on.
Form matters. The experience of reading Hume’s essays powerfully mimics how it feels to live in a world saturated with sexual violence. Like all great works of durational art, Everything I Never Wanted to Know asks us to sit with our discomfort and question our impulse to turn away as well as embrace our capacity to go on anyway. In its unflinching confrontation of pervasive violence against women, Everything I Never Wanted to Know performs a gesture more potent than catharsis: a reckoning. But Hume doesn’t stop at the level of critique. She imagines other approaches, other worlds, and she asks us to do the same. The ultimate hope Hume offers readers isn’t the empty promise of a solution, but the steadfast awareness that another way is always possible.
Elizabeth Hall is the author of the book I HAVE DEVOTED MY LIFE TO THE CLITORIS, a Lambda Literary Award finalist. You can find her on instagram at @badmoodbaby.
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