“I often had the impression that I don’t belong to me,” wrote Valerie Solanas, some years after she shot Andy Warhol and entered the feminist canon. Solanas was writing to Ti-Grace Atkinson, one of the feminists who had worked to support her cause after the shooting, to explain her rejection of feminism.
Solanas had been the cause of major developments within the movement. As her biographer Breanne Fahs has detailed, the National Organization of Women (NOW) had split in two over the question of Valerie, this strange, possibly crazy woman who’d shot an artist: Liberal feminists, meaning roughly those who aspired to “equal status” within the capitalist system as it existed, were adamant that this kind of violent action could not be supported if the movement were to retain any credibility. Betty Friedan, the founder of NOW, once sent an enraged telegram to Solanas’ lawyer: “DESIST IMMEDIATELY FROM LINKING NOW IN ANY WAY WITH VALERIE SOLANAS. MISS SOLANAS’S MOTIVES IN WARHOL CASE ENTIRELY IRRELEVANT TO NOW’S GOALS OF FULL EQUALITY FOR WOMEN IN TRULY EQUAL PARTNERSHIP WITH MEN.”
And yet,the reason Friedan had to send a telegram in the first place was that some women were convinced that Valerie Solanas was supremely relevant to the goals of feminism, perhaps the most relevant thing going. Atkinson, then chapter president of NOW, was one of them: “All I saw was: she had shot Warhol. I knew there was exploitation and it matched,” Atkinson said, “because finally some woman had done something that was appropriate to the feelings we were having.”
Friedan successfully lobbied to have Atkinson kicked out of NOW, but she didn’t kill the momentum of that movement. This splinter group of women, more concerned with tearing down the system than getting a better place within it, formed the core of what came to be called “radical feminism.” Solanas’ positions in the SCUM Manifesto (the acronym standing for Society for Cutting Up Men) — her identification of men as the fundamental problem with the world, her seemingly paradoxical self-characterization as both lesbian and“anti-sex” — were often incorporated into that movement by those to follow. In some cases, Solanas’ points also contributed to its ugliest legacies, such as radical feminism’s ongoing attacks on transgender women, whom Solanas (whose arguments about male inferiority had always been emphatically biological) seemed to deride, when she bothered to acknowledge them at all.
Yet Solanas herself, when offered a position of sacred martyrdom within a movement created specifically on her behalf, responded only in order to explain that what she had done was not “appropriate” to feelings that some mythical“all of us” — women? Feminists? Radical feminists specifically? — were having,and to rebuke those women for presuming to understand her at all.
“I know you, along with all the other professional parasites with nothing of their own going for them, are eagerly awaiting my commitment to the bughouse, so you can then go on t.v. & write press releases for your key people ‘defending’ me & deploring my being committed because of my visions,” she told Atkinson. “I want to make perfectly clear that I am not being committed because of my views or the ‘SCUM Manifesto;’ there’s a lot involved in my case that neither you nor your fellow parasites are aware of... Nor do I want you to continue to [word lost here; we can assume it wasn’t a polite one] your cultivated banalities about my motive for shooting Warhol. Your gall in presuming to be competent to discourse on such a matter is beyond belief. In short, do not ever publicly discuss me, SCUM or any aspect at all of my case. Just DON’T.”
Yet they did. They (and I) continue to do so to this day. The strangest thing about Valerie Solanas’ now-mythical status within the feminist movement — the biographies, the biopics, the blog posts; our whole steady stream of“cultivated banalities” on Valerie as mad prophet, avenging angel [Ed. Note: see above], misunderstood satirist, poor doomed canary in the coal mine of mid-20th-century patriarchy —is that it was something she could actually see coming. And it was something that she resisted, kicking and screaming, all the way.
Partly this was simple concern over misrepresentation: Valerie Solanas actually was not a feminist, at least not in the way most people would understand the term. The idea of “representing all of us,” or of belonging to an “all” or an “us” in the first place, was anathema to her. She was a born loner, a woman whose sense of her own power came from being on the outside of things. (“Traditionalists say the basic unit of the ‘society’ is the family; ‘hippies’ say the tribe; no-one says the individual,” she complained.) She proudly hated men, but that didn’t mean that she particularly liked women: In fact, some of the SCUM Manifesto’s most scathing criticism is directed at women she thought were selling out to the male system, women she termed “nice, passive, accepting, ‘cultivated,’ polite, dignified, subdued, dependent, scared, mindless, insecure, approval-seeking Daddy’s girls.”
But there was something else at play, too. It’s instructive to note exactly what Atkinson did to enrage Solanas: She had “defended” and explained the SCUM Manifesto to the media, without actually bothering to read the SCUM Manifesto first.
Solanas did not necessarily identify as a feminist, but she did identify as a writer,and Atkinson had given the writer a profound insult. Solanas’ work was not meant to serve as a prop in someone else’s movement. It was not meant to serveas a soapbox that some other woman could stand on to make her own political points. It was meant to be read.
By skipping it, Atkinson’s had conveyed a problem much deeper than any one relationship: Listening to Valerie had become less important, maybe even less “feminist,” than talking about her. She was treated, not as a writer, but as a story. Even her supposed allies were telling the world who Valerie Solanas was and what she meant, and even for them, the Manifesto,her most important effort to answer those questions — “read my manifesto,” she famously told reporters after shooting Warhol; “it will tell you what I am” — was not where they were getting their information.
What Solanas railed against, with Atkinson and with others, was the one thing that became inevitable the moment she pulled that trigger: The process of becoming less important as a person than she was as a symbol.
This is where the question of Solanas’ mental health — she was diagnosed with schizophrenia,served three years in a mental hospital in lieu of prison, and became increasingly delusional and unable to care for herself over the course of her life — becomes especially relevant. Her feeling that even her new radical friends were “eagerly awaiting her commitment to the bughouse” was not unfounded.
Feminism has always had trouble with its madwomen. We seem to like them well enough when they’re made up: Feminist book titles like The Madwoman In The Attic or Reviving Ophelia, or the various treatises on characters like Lady Macbeth and Medea, show that the idea of a woman driven to destruction and self-destruction by her society resonates widely even among neurotypical women. Similarly, when women are both crazy and dead (Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton; for that matter, Solanas herself) they find very little trouble in being adopted. And madwomen were also useful to feminists as threats of what they would become, or feared they were becoming, under unremitting patriarchy: “In the absence of feminism,” second-wave activist Cathy Levin wrote, “women take tranquilizers, go insane, and commit suicide.”
But fictional women, dead women and hypothetical women all have one thing in common: They can’t talkback. They also don’t require care. Their illnesses, their self-medication,their poverty or psychotic breaks, can never demand more support than we feel like giving. Their manic anger, borderline clinginess or depressive apathy can never grate our nerves. They can’t break us with grief — if you already know that Ophelia and/or Sylvia dies at the end, you never wonder what you could have done to save her — and they can’t scare us, and most importantly, they can’t lash out at us, piss us off, or disagree with our interpretations of their lives. Madwomen, as symbols, require very little of the commitment,patience or compassion that actual women with mental illnesses tend to need.
Give feminists a dead crazy lady, and we’ll make her a saint. Give us a live one, and watch us squirm. Despite feminism’s reputed sanity-restoring powers, the accounts of lived mental illness in second-wave and radical feminism tend to be shadowy,and found largely among stories about women that other feminists had rejected.
Shulamith Firestone,author of The Dialectic of Sex, was schizophrenic. She was also seen as arrogant and “unsisterly,” accused of having “male hormones” because she was too publicly assertive and wouldn’t help with sweeping floors, and was eventually kicked out of the group she had founded, the New York Radical Women. She starved to death, at the age of sixty-seven, in her own apartment. Jo Freeman, a friend of Firestone’s, wrote an essay about “trashing;” her own crime had been individualism, the fact that, when her group members wrote a protest letter to a magazine that she believed was unpublishable, she wrote amore concise letter on her own, which did in fact get published where her group’s was rejected. For this, she was treated to the same round of insults and exclusion Firestone had experienced. When she sought out other “trashed”women, Freeman wrote, “most of the women at that meeting dropped out as I had done. Two ended up in the hospital with nervous breakdowns.”
One of those anonymous women may have been Firestone. But that leaves at least one other woman with a mental illness history and a bad feminist track record unaccounted for. The implication in Freeman’s essay is that these women were somehow “driven mad” by their poor treatment, and indeed, it’s very possible that losing one’s social and political support system could be stressful enough to trigger a mental health crisis. But one also wonders, given Firestone’s alleged “male hormones,”if being non-neurotypical — overly intense, overly moody, irrational-seeming, strange — made certain women stick out enough for it to be a liability. If the symptoms, in fact, caused the trashing, rather than the other way around.
Certainly, the women who flocked to Valerie as a symbol often found themselves incapable of dealing with her as a woman. (Freeman herself told Fahs that “Valerie should be forgotten.”) The Warhol shooting seemed potently symbolic: An obscure female artist, claiming that famous male artists were stealing her work and exploiting her labor, had shot one of them. It was (relatively) easy to look at this and see nothing but radicalism: A comment on women’s marginalization within the arts,a comment on how men had historically profited by taking credit for women’s work and ideas, or simply one woman using violence to protest the structurally violent system. In the radical context of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, itwasn’t even all that strange. The Weathermen were blowing up buildings, the Black Liberation Army was taking up arms to defend communities; why shouldn’t the feminists be shooting men?
But the real Valerie Solanas did not deploy her rage solely in politically useful acts; it was a quality of her being, flowing out of her, hitting targets that had no strategic value. She called Robin Morgan, who had organized to raise funds for her hospital care, and threatened to throw acid in her face. She left Ti-Grace Atkinson sobbing over her kitchen sink as a friend forcibly removed Valerie from her apartment. Indeed, even for a sympathetic reader, it’s hard to reconcile a heroic image of Valerie Solanas with the many feminist women who came away from her feeling emotionally shattered, or — as Atkinson has said, unequivocally — abused.
The Atkinson example is instructive: Solanas had gotten into Atkinson’s apartment, despite Atkinson’s initial unwillingness to see her, by claiming that it was her birthday. (It wasn’t.) Atkinson invited her feminist friends over and, despite having given up cooking, baked a cake. Once in the apartment, Solanas announced that she was in no way a feminist, and also, that she would be living with Atkinson for the foreseeable future. This was an announcement she made while shoving a pen in her pocket against Atkinson’s body, pretending it was a gun.
“I was crying because I didn’t cook for anybody,” Atkinson said, “and I realized she’d lied to me andI’d done something I don’t like to do in order to please her or honor her in some way, and she just spit all over me. I was crying because no man could getaway with that with me.”
I include these incidents, not to trash Valerie Solanas, nor to demonize people with mental illness. The vast majority of schizophrenic people are not abusive — they’re far more likely to be abused, in fact — and the vast majority of mentally ill people are never violent a day in their lives. But, as a bipolar woman myself,these instances are important to me, because they remove Solanas from the realm of the mythic. They show me that she was not merely “misunderstood,” or a martyr, that her violence and “madness” were not beautiful, or poetic, or a convenient phenomenon that women can latch onto to give dignity to their own frustrations, but real, the real problems of a real woman with a real and debilitating illness which, eventually, really killed her.
Similarly, seeing Solanas as ill, and not just driven to extremes by her oppression, takes nothing away from the brilliance of the SCUM Manifesto. Many women have recounted the disturbing, exhilarating moment when Valerie Solanas first made them laugh — when they realize that this crazy, ranting woman, this genocidal misandrist and bogeyman of the patriarchy, this attempted murderer for Christ’s sakes, is not only making sense, she’s actually cheering them up. Here’s mine: “[The] problem of mental illness will never be solved while the male retains control,” she wrote, “because, first, men have a vested interest in it — only females who have very few of their marbles will allow males the slightest control of anything[.]”
Which is to say, the SCUM Manifesto is undeniably not a “rant,” but a satire of historical misogyny,and an erudite one to boot: Solanas’ assertion that “the male is an incomplete female” is just gender-flipped Aristotle, and her thesis that men’s bad behavior is overcompensation for their “pussy envy” is Freud. Yet it’s also not a sane book. To force an artificial division between “mentally ill Valerie” and “genius writer Valerie” is to both demean her struggle and miss the point: Solanas doesn’t operate from a lofty, Swiftian remove. Instead, the tension and energy of the Manifesto is generated by the dance between intellectual satire and emotional honesty. There’s authentic rage and pain and paranoia running underneath and against the jokes and literary references. What makes it a thrilling read is the sense that, no matter how over-the-top Solanas’ statements are, and no matter how ironic she’s being, she might also mean every word.
Yet I’m able to reflect calmly on the Manifesto’s brilliance in part because I’ve never had to forcibly remove Valerie Solanas from my house. A dead Valerie carries none of the threat that a live, complicated, hurting Valerie would. I can claim this Valerie for feminism. I can tell you what she meant. I can project my own conflicts onto her, and spew my cultivated banalities about her motives, and I can ignore the fact that, if she were alive, there is a 100% certainty that Valerie Solanas would tell me to go fuck myself, in part because she’d already said she was not a feminist.
This, I suspect, is part of why Solanas raged against the process of being transformed into an icon. The symbol of Valerie could live as long as people were interested in it;and, once it was established, the real Valerie was more or less disposable. Not“belonging to herself” meant that “she” was a commodity to be used, modified and discarded as others saw fit. The woman Valerie Solanas could be shunted away“into the bughouse” and still provide a viable occasion for symbolic Valerie Solanas to be discussed at press conferences. The woman Valerie Solanas could disappear entirely, and her “defenders” would only intensify their efforts,which were now even more tempting with the real Valerie Solanas unwilling or unable to speak for herself.
The woman Valerie Solanas died homeless. In the years before her death, she wandered the streets of San Francisco and ate out of dumpsters. The police knew her as “Scab Lady” because of her preferred method of self-mutilation: Stabbing herself, over and over, with a fork. With every year that Scab Lady walked the streets, the legend of Valerie Solanas and the SCUM Manifesto gathered more fans. It was as if one had been sacrificed to feed the other: As if Valerie’s desire to “belong to me” had been denied so thoroughly that her heart was now being produced and purchased in cities around the world while the rest of her was left,emptied-out, wandering through California in the hopes of finding it again.
I wonder, very often,what Valerie Solanas, that consummate ironist, would have made of this. The fact that we learned to love her book only after we’d managed to shut the rest of her out of the room.
[Art by Matt Lubchansky]