APRIL 12, 2014
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 automation and destroy the male sex.
THESE ARE THE FAMOUS opening words of 1968’s SCUM Manifesto, issued from a brilliant, damaged mind. Over the years, the document and its author, Valerie Solanas, have been celebrated and debated, discovered and disowned. Both have been variously described as satirical, scatalogical, disturbing, prescient, gender-essentialist, hateful, radical, and transphobic — and indeed, they are all that and more. Breanne Fahs’s The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol) is the first biography of Solanas, an attempt to piece together her controversial life in the context of the radical 1960s and ’70s, when the women’s liberation movement was splintering as quickly as it was flowering.
It becomes apparent throughout the book how dogged Fahs was in her quest to put all the pieces of her subject’s itinerant life in some kind of order. “Isolation followed Valerie,” she writes. This became a research problem, as many of Solanas’s contemporaries refused to be interviewed. Some said that recalling memories of her would unsettle their lives; others, like longtime radical feminist Jo Freeman, simply argued that “Valerie should be forgotten.” A few seem downright haunted by her memory. Among those is her son, David Blackwell, one of two children Solanas had and gave up as a teenager. Blackwell is the only one of the book’s interviewees who wants desperately to remain associated with Solanas, appealing to Fahs to recognize his mother’s intensity in him (“Listen, let me tell you, when you’re talking to me, you’re talking to Valerie”) — it’s both touching and troubling. Luckily, some of her more reasonable associates show up. Second-wave feminist thinkers like Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Vivian Gornick, street comrades like Ben Morea of the anarchist gang Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers, and Solanas’s longtime boyfriend Louis Zwiren bring nuance and dimension to a public image that has long verged on caricature.
The book does a solid job of setting the stage for Solanas’s troubled life, with cobbled-together descriptions of a childhood marked by divorce, a heavy-drinking father who may or may not have sexually abused her, and a personality that simply did not mesh with what was expected of young ladies in the 1940s and ’50s. But the centerpiece of Fahs’s tale is the protagonist’s life in New York City’s East Village — the panhandling, trick-turning days that honed the needling dialogue in her first play, Up Your Ass; the start of her uncompromising attempts to get her work published; and the dark blooming of her fixation on Andy Warhol.
Mary Harron’s 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol offered some backstory to Solanas’s gripe with — and eventual assassination attempt on — the celebrated artist, but Fahs goes deeper, by explaining how much influence Warhol’s Factory and its superstars (or, as Solanas called them, “stupidstars”) wielded in New York’s art scene at the time. “Andy created women as offshoots of the male imagination, something Valerie could never (and would never want to) live up to. She was a dangerously real product of a world hell-bent on treating women as mirrored distortions of the male ego,” writes Fahs, and indeed, within the Factory’s silver-lined walls Solanas was given about as much consideration as a stray wad of chewed gum. And yet, marginality was everything to Solanas. Why was she attracted to Warhol and the Factory scene in the first place? Fahs attempts to puzzle that out, surmising that Andy, who hardly treated Solanas well, nevertheless “stood in for a variety of emotionally charged, missing, or distorted figures” in her life. But, though Warhol may or may not have agreed to turn Up Your Ass and the SCUM Manifesto into movies (as Solanas believed he did), his interest in status and surface glamour was fundamentally at odds with both her voice and her goals. As Harron puts it, “She was a revolutionary, whereas Warhol had no desire to change the status quo.”
The book’s most interesting parts come with Fahs’s exploration of the conundrum Solanas posed to the burgeoning women’s liberation movement. In the wake of her attempt on Warhol’s life, Solanas became the catalyst for seismic fractures within the National Organization for Women. New York chapter president Ti-Grace Atkinson and powerhouse lawyer Florynce Kennedy acted as her advisors and pro bono counsel; as part of NOW’s radical faction, they believed that every woman deserved their support, and that Solanas was a symbol of the victimization of women everywhere. As Atkinson wrote her recollection: “finally some woman had done something that was appropriate to the feelings we were having.”
But Betty Friedan, president of NOW, along with her fellow liberal feminists, argued that supporting a would-be assasin with clear mental health issues — not to mention a lesbian — would harm the women’s liberation movement’s legitimacy, and subsequently blocked all efforts to help her. For the frustrated radicals of NOW, this underscored that the organization’s reactive, classist leanings were ossifying into irrelevance. Within a short time, both Atkinson and Kennedy would leave to form new orgnizations (the October 17th Movement and the Feminist Party, respectively).
Not that any of this really mattered to the woman who accelerated this dissatisfaction: Solanas herself had as many issues with organized feminism as she did with any other institution. In the years following the shooting, as she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and shuttled between various mental hospitals and correctional facilities, Solanas regularly lashed out and threatened feminists she believed had appropriated her work, sending barbed missives accusing Atkinson, Kennedy, and others who advocated on her behalf of being “professional parasites” who had committed the sin of “interpreting me & explaining me & expounding on my motives to the public.” It’s this section of the book that had me wondering what Solanas, had she lived, would make of the vast, varied, and very often contentious landscape of feminism that exists now. Despite her uncompromising stance on women’s liberation and her scorn for the “daddy’s girls” who populated liberal feminism, Solanas is actually a perfect example of what these days is known as “choice” feminism. Simply put, she believed that her behavior was liberation because she had chosen it. She was a lesbian who slept with men both companionably and vocationally; she was an anticapitalist who plied the world’s oldest profession; she was an antiauthoritarian who sought out big names to legitimize her work. To her, these weren’t compromises, but markers of freedom.
Certainly, current feminism has little interest in Solanas’s politics. In the context of today’s big-tent approach, her essentalist beliefs in the superiority of women and the uselessness of anyone with a Y chromosome comes across as transphobic bigotry. (In fact, a vocal group of transgender activists and allies protested a 2013 San Francisco event planned to mark the 25th anniversary of Solanas’s death; the event was ultimately canceled.) Solanas’s writing in both Up Your Ass and the SCUM Manifesto was so prescient that there’s no doubt that she would want at least partial credit for everything from the rise of Queer Studies to the wry lampooning of handwringing articles about whether women can really have it all. But everything she hated about organized feminism is still in evidence today — its insufficient radicalism, its co-optation by capitalism, and especially its habit of anointing its own superstars to speak for the whole of the movement. And yet, her belief in her own exceptionalism mirrors much of contemporary culture, in which everyone from tech company founders to megachurch pastors believes that they alone have the calling and the power to change the world.
Ultimately, Solanas’s belief in a one-woman revolution was untenable, in no small part because full-blown mental illness had convinced her that a nefarious entity called The Mob (“money men” who called the shots in publishing) was monitoring and conspiring to destroy her. It’s interesting that Fahs’s account of those final years—self-mutilating on the street in Phoenix and dying a lonely death in a San Francisco welfare hotel—are so viscerally presented, given the spotty biographical information available. There’s no question that Solanas’s belief in the necessaity of theorizing “from the gutter” would have her denouncing today’s inclusive, increasingly professional landscape of feminism. But perhaps she can rest easier (if not in peace) knowing that Fahs has painted a sympathetic portrait of her uncompromising life that — for better and worse — wears its powerful ugliness on its sleeve.