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Hillary Frey | The Nation

Hillary Frey

Author Bios

Hillary Frey

Hillary Frey, a former Nation editor, is the Books editor at Salon.com.

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If you've never set foot in the likes of Club Paradise, Scarlett's, New
York Dolls, Secrets, Peepers or the boldly named Booby Trap (yes, it
does exist), your image of a strip club might be bor

After I saw In the Bedroom, Todd Field's moving film based on Andre Dubus's short story "Killings," I was delighted when a slim volume of Dubus's stories arrived here at The Nation.

The Nation reported on Dr. Pendergraft's troubles in
"Abortion on Trial" by Hillary Frey and Miranda Kennedy, June 18, 2001.

British folk-rocker Billy Bragg has to be the only popular musician who
could score some airtime with a song about the global justice movement.
The first single from Bragg's England, Half English (Elektra),
"NPWA" (No Power Without Accountability), is destined to become an
enduring anthem for anticorporate organizers everywhere. Just before leaving England to tour the United States in April, Bragg took a few minutes to talk with
Nation assistant literary editor Hillary Frey about
globalization, Woody Guthrie, the duty of a political songwriter and,
perhaps most important, why the AFL-CIO should be sponsoring free rock
concerts. A longer version of this interview appears on The
Nation
's website (www.thenation.com).

HF: I've read that you were politicized during the Thatcher years
in England. How did that happen, and how did your politics find their
way into your music?

BB: When Margaret Thatcher was first elected, in 1979, I didn't
vote. Perhaps that was the arrogance of youth.... It was at the height
of punk, and I was titularly an anarchist. Although, frankly, that was
more of a T-shirt than a developed idea. Her second term, between 1983
and 1987, really brought my political education. By then, Thatcher had
started to chip away at the idea of the welfare state and what that
stands for--free healthcare, free education, decent affordable housing
for ordinary people.

Then, the 1984 Miners' Strike [which protested pit closures and paltry
pay increases for workers] was the real politicization for me. I started
doing gigs outside of London in the coal fields and found that I was
able to articulate what I believed in so that these people who we were
doing benefits for--the miners--didn't think I was just some pop star
from London trying to enhance my career by doing a few fashionable
benefits. I began to define myself by something other than the standard
"Blowin' in the Wind" sort of politics, which aren't that hard to
articulate.

HF: You were in New York City when the World Economic Forum [WEF]
met, and I heard you speak about the groups organizing demonstrations. I
recall a comment to the effect of, "If you really want to be doing
something active and participatory you would organize your local
McDonald's." What are your opinions on the tactics of the global justice
movement?

BB: I feel very strongly that the movement is a positive thing.
The fact that it hasn't yet defined itself in a clear ideological way
doesn't mean that it won't eventually. I feel very much on the
activists' side. However, I don't believe you can change the world by
smashing up fast-food joints.

My approach is perhaps a little more traditional left; I believe that if
you want to change the world, as I said, you should be organizing
fast-food joints. To me, that is a positive way of changing the world.
It's a lot slower, and it won't get you on CNN. But the sort of
campaigns that I've worked with in the USA--Justice for Janitors,
living-wage initiatives in LA and cities like that--have all been rooted
in labor organizing.

HF: How did your relationship with the labor movement evolve?

BB: I made a very strong bond with the labor movement in England
during the Thatcher years, particularly during the Miners' Strike. And
those bonds have stood me in good stead when coming to a country like
the United States, where not only are the politics very different from
the ideological politics of my own country, but I'm a foreigner. As an
internationalist I support UNITE, who are trying to end sweatshop labor
in the clothing industry; we're doing that in the UK as well. That is
the sort of internationalist angle prevalent in the global justice
movement too, and it's something that I can support across borders.

HF: I was surprised to see that your tours are actually sponsored
by a union.

BB: I've just come off a tour actually, that was sponsored by the
GMB, which is one of our general unions.

HF: I can't imagine a union being involved in a concert here in
the United States.

BB: I know! In 1992 I participated in a concert in Central Park
marking the eightieth birthday of Woody Guthrie that was sponsored by
one of the big soft-drink companies. Now why could it not have been
sponsored by the AFL-CIO? Why couldn't the AFL-CIO say, "This is what we
do, we put on free gigs." This is what unions do--bring people together.
The unions have been doing this in the UK for a while, and certainly all
over continental Europe. I've been doing gigs in Italy and France
organized by the big unions there for the last two decades.

How do you explain to young people what unions are for--do you wait
until they're in trouble? Do you wait till they're in a dead-end job?
Wait till they're fired? Or do you get in before with some positive
ideas of what a union is?

HF: Speaking of Woody Guthrie... A few years back you recorded,
with the band Wilco, Mermaid Avenue Vols. I and II--two records
comprising songs written around unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics. How did
you get to be the lucky one rooting around in the Guthrie archives and
recording his words?

BB: Woody Guthrie is the father of my tradition--the political
singer/songwriter tradition. I've tried to answer the question of why
[Woody's daughter] Nora chose to give me the great honor of being the
first one in her father's archives.... I guess Nora saw something in my
experience that she thought chimed in with Woody's. Who writes about
unions in the United States and the song gets on the charts? All of the
postwar singer/songwriters have grown up in a nonideological atmosphere.
Their influences have been single issues like the civil rights movement,
Vietnam, campaigning for the environment. There's not been that whole
ideological struggle really going on in the USA.

HF: Is it harder to write political music now than it was when
you started?

BB: It's much more difficult to do this now, without Margaret
Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and the Berlin wall and apartheid--these
things were shorthand for struggles that went on across the world. Now I
don't miss any of those things; I have absolutely no nostalgia for the
1980s whatsoever, and I never want to see any of those things again. But
the job of the political singer/songwriter is perhaps more challenging
because, with a subject like identity, which I deal with on England,
Half English
, it's personal--it means different things to different
people.

HF: But it's clear there is plenty happening now to respond to.
The single from your new record, "NPWA" (No Power Without
Accountability), strikes me as a paean to the global justice movement.

BB: The job of the singer/songwriter is to try to reflect the
world around him, and obviously the global justice movement has been the
big cause célèbre since Seattle. When I was in New York in
February, there was stuff I saw going on the like of nothing I've ever
seen on the left before.

I went to a Methodist Church where activists were speaking about how
they were going to organize the demonstrations [around the WEF] two days
later. They asked me to sing a couple of songs so I sang "NPWA"--and
then they wanted me to sing the "Internationale," and that really
touched me, because we do have a strong tradition on the left, and one
of the things we have to gain from the demise of the Stalinism of the
Soviet Union and the Berlin wall is that we have an opportunity to
create a leftist idea outside the shadow of totalitarianism. And there,
in New York, among very radical young people, I thought, "OK--this isn't
really so different from what I know. It's just a different approach to
get to the same place." And the fact that I've been doing this for
twenty years and people are still interested--I feel fortunate. I figure
I must be hitting some bases.

England, Half English is available now from Elektra Records.

British folk-rocker Billy Bragg has to be the only popular musician who
could score some airtime with a song about the global justice movement.
The first single from Bragg's England, Half Engli

Jeff Tweedy may be best known to Nation readers as Billy Bragg's collaborator (along with his band Wilco) on the Mermaid Avenue recordings of recent years--two great albums that set unpubli

Hillary Frey reviews Jennifer Egan's Look at Me.

 

Kate Millett. Feminist, sculptor, lesbian, activist, advocate, New Yorker to the core. Just over thirty years ago, Millett published the hugely influential bestseller Sexual Politics, and Time pasted her portrait on its cover to give a face to what was then called Women's Liberation. But just a year later, it looked like the beginning of Millett's end: At nearly the same moment, she was booted out of academia (Sexual Politics had been her PhD thesis), outed as a lesbian and practically abandoned by the movement she helped create. Switching gears, she embarked on a film project and another book, Flying. As different from the highly theoretical Sexual Politics as one could get, Flying was composed literally on the fly. Jumping from Europe to the Bowery to her farm outside of Poughkeepsie, Millett produced, as the New York Times Book Review put it then, an "autobiographical work of dazzling exhibitionism"--a sort of stream-of-consciousness, blow-by-blow of what happened to her in the period following her accidental rise to fame.

Her first book as a "writer"--Millett described Sexual Politics as written merely "in mandarin mid-Atlantic to propitiate a committee of professors of English"--Flying is a trying read; too much detail, too many characters and, simply, too many words. Modeled on the style of documentary film, with which Millett was enamored at the time, Flying was meant to capture "the voice we hear in our heads, sentence fragments...phrases as familiar as guilt in childhood, as easy as the feel of wheels, as necessary to survival as food, as encouraging as the sound of an engine turning over.... I wanted to write a book in American." She accomplished that mission for sure, and has, for better or for worse, continued to write in the same pressing style for the past thirty years; from The Prostitution Papers (1971) to Flying (1974), from Sita (1977) to The Loony-Bin Trip (1990), Kate Millett has consistently captured the world the way she has experienced and lived it.

But with that kind of truth comes a ton of pain, and Millett has stepped on more than a few toes (with her oft-heavy foot) along the way. Sisters, lovers, her once-husband, sculptor Fumio Yoshimura--all have co-starred in her books, and not in the most flattering roles. But the latest co-star, mother Helen Millett, is perhaps the person Kate Millett has most worried about wounding with words. And with good reason. While others have been upset with Kate the writer, for publicizing what could have been kept private, Helen Millett was often upset with Kate the daughter, for living the way she did. In Flying, Millett describes a phone conversation during which Mother asks after her writing.

"You're not going to put that awful stuff about Lesbianism in it?" Hit finally. At last.... "Katie, you are not writing about that Lesbianism, are you?" She is a terrier after a bone now.... "Well Mother, that has to be in it because it's part of my experience." Now there is just her nervous wail.... She escalates to moaning. I am a freak. One queer drop queers it all.

Describing her mother-inspired anxiety to Doris Lessing over lunch in 1971 (the year she composed Flying), Millett explained, "You see if I write this book my mother's going to die. She has already given me notice." Lessing laughs. "Mothers do not die as easily as they claim. My own announced her intentions with every book I wrote."

Lessing, of course, was right. Helen Millett did not die after Flying was published, despite that book's leitmotif of gay liberation. Nor after the harder to handle Loony-Bin Trip, in which she had a key role as an accomplice in getting her own daughter committed to the Mayo wing of the University of Minnesota. And she made it through Sita, an elegy focused on lesbian love and sex, crafted in remembrance of the lover Millett most obsessed over, who eventually took her own life. In fact, Helen Millett lived into the 1990s; and perhaps surprisingly, this was largely thanks to her most difficult of three daughters, Kate.

"I began writing about my mother," Millett explains in her new book, "in 1985, when my elder sister Sally...forced me to pay attention and understand that our mother Helen Millett could actually die and indeed was old and recently ill enough to do so certainly, and perhaps soon." A collection of sketches composed during visits to the Millett hometown of St. Paul, Mother Millett is simultaneously a portrait of the mother as an old woman, a confessional and an argument against forced institutionalization, specifically of the aging and infirm. In the beginning, things aren't so bad; the 88-year-old Helen has trouble hearing and walking--both of which conditions her physician simply writes off as part of old age--but she is nestled happily in the Wellington, a deluxe apartment complex for the elderly who are able to take reasonably good care of themselves. Helen seems to have accepted her advanced age, and even speaks openly of dying. Still, she is not without some fear. "There are only two things I'm afraid of.... Just two things," Helen tells Kate. "I'm scared of falling. And of nursing homes." About falling, Kate can do little. But quietly, Kate makes a deal with herself over the nursing home: "You're safe with me, I think. I've been put away, I'm not likely to do it to anyone else."

Months later, after Helen undergoes shunt bypass surgery for a brain tumor her family doctor failed to locate for some ten years--fear of falling explained--Kate rushes to St. Paul once more to find her mother installed in St. Anne's Home, a full-service nursing facility. During her post-op recovery, Helen was overcome by a condition called "hypercalcemia"--literally, an attack of calcium on the body; her doctors say there is no hope, a diagnosis that excludes her from the "self-sufficient only" Wellington and lands her in the "cost-conscious box," St. Anne's. But Kate, unlike others in the Millett clan, refuses to accept this as her mother's fate. "This is my own mother abandoned," she writes of first seeing Helen, tiny in her white bed. "Dying of abandonment, parked here to die like the mothers of strangers parked to die at St. Peter's Asylum when I worked there as a college kid." So when Helen looks at her daughter and says, "Now that you're here, we can leave," Kate ignores the rules and whisks her mother out the door and back to the Wellington.

Kate relishes the moment. "She picked the right daughter," she writes. "We are on the lam. It's a movie, it's the most unlikely American car fantasy, we are Thelma and Louise, this frail old woman beside me, and I some undefined criminal type: I light a cigarette." If only for an evening of lobster and baseball (Helen's a huge Twins fan), the escape is exhilarating. But as that one lovers' evening stretches into a weekend, the jailbreak turns from a simple transgression into a bona fide scandal. Despite the considerable challenge of tending to her mother--rising every two hours through the night to see her to the bathroom, cleaning up after her frequent bouts of vomiting--Kate becomes more and more determined not only to save her mother from St. Anne's but also to restore Helen's independence and dignity. "She must have her own life," Millett convinces herself. "She risked her life giving you birth, laid down her life to support and raise you. Risk your own life a little."

This is not easy, especially for Mother, who is bullied by her daughter constantly and escorted through a grueling schedule of daily therapies. And for Kate, both the slow life of the elderly and the stifling Midwestern-ness of St. Paul are almost too much to bear; the longer she stays with her mother, the more distant and unreal her New York artist existence becomes: "You are losing your own life here somehow, your life energy, maybe even interest in your own life. Hers has become more interesting, a challenge." As she accepts that challenge--which requires canceling a book tour in England to stay longer in St. Paul, lining up various folks to help out with her farm back east, postponing work on another book--she actually begins to take pleasure in it. The smallest victories are huge triumphs, like getting through a day without Helen vomiting or working out the details of various Medicare benefits. (Few are thriftier than Kate Millett, who reminds us more than once that she gets by on just $12,000 a year.) And as the extended Millett family, who unanimously thought Helen would be safest in St. Anne's, see the changes in their matriarch, Kate is overwhelmed by a sense of satisfaction.

We have succeeded. And in succeeding I have turned back time.... we have given Mother her own life back, an acceptable life compared to the despair and quick death at St. Mary's. But in restoring Mother's life, something of mine is restored as well. As if I have prolonged my own youth, assured I would continue as a daughter not an orphan.

Through a complicated (yet cost-effective) mix of part-time caregivers, bath ladies, daughter's visits and willpower, Mother Millett lived in the Wellington for the four final years of her life, and never again put one tiny foot inside a nursing facility.

Mother Millett is moving in that way. It's the story of a mother and daughter who, in some sense, save each other: Kate rescues Helen from St. Anne's and restores her to a respectable retirement in the Wellington; Helen gives Kate the opportunity to redeem every sharp word spoken, every obscenity put into print, by allowing her daughter to save her life. But it's also a political work, an extension of The Loony-Bin Trip that reinforces Millett's first argument against forced institutionalization, but focuses on the elderly, whom we are often eager to put away.

In the course of springing her mother, Kate discovers that the use of "restraint"--strapping residents into their beds--is a not uncommon practice at St. Anne's. Looking over the nursing notes in her mother's file, she finds that such treatment was recommended for Helen--"specifically a black belt, a great hunk of rough fabric like a huge karate belt with which one is tied to the bed and made immobile and helpless"; the notes convey that Helen "does not cooperate in taking every medication put before her...and even strikes the hand that would administer, refuses many blandishments, is not adjusting. An unwilling resident, who from the moment she entered the place seems to have provoked the admitting nurse." There is a palpable sense of personal pride in Millett's account; like daughter like mother, one might say. But there is also a very important current of indignation that propels this book, and Millett's other work, down its wild course.

That indignation stems from deep beliefs in rights to self-determination, freedom and dignity--beliefs that have inspired the entirety of Millett's writing. Her involvements with various movements--feminism, gay liberation, justice for political prisoners, nonviolence--are obvious extensions of those basic convictions; each of her books, even the super-personal Sita, is a manifesto. She wrote The Loony-Bin Trip out of a desire to affirm "the integrity of the mind...its sanctity and inviolability"; Flying intended "a structure for 'coming out' and an ethic in nonviolence to live by"; the slim Prostitution Papers--lengthy and frank interviews with two New York City prostitutes--was aimed "at direct action. 'Organize, organize' this book calls out." Even though, time and again, she describes herself--wills herself--an artist first and foremost, Kate Millett is, at her very core, an activist.

Millett is, and probably always will be, thought of primarily as a face and name of 1970s feminism. Yet, although she wrote what is a pioneering work of feminist theory, Millett is largely lost to an entire generation of women. Sexual Politics--which, through hilarious close readings of Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence (and lots of less hilarious theoretical analysis), showed how stifling patriarchal attitudes impressed contemporary literature--is rarely taught in the classroom, despite the rise of women's studies. In fact, most of Millett's work was out of print until a year ago, when the University of Illinois Press reissued several of her books.

Kate Millett has recorded, from the beginning, an alternative life--one centered on justice, complicated love, making art and honesty. And even as her work is self-indulgent at times, even as she pats herself on the back a bit too much for being so bohemian, her work is engaging and personal and political in a unique way; by virtue of being composed in real time--note that her memoir of the feminist movement, Flying, was written in 1971!--it lacks the nostalgia of so many popular memoirs of "the movement" today. And as Millett has moved through her life, she's left a lot of work to learn from.

I'm guessing that Mother Millett will not be a popular book, but I think it should be. As young activists search for ways to define their own movements, Kate Millett contributes a novel idea: Think outside yourself and fight for your mother's, or father's--or grandmother's and grandfather's--rights. Eventually, they will be your own.

When a renowned abortion doctor opened a clinic in Ocala, Florida, he was seen as a public pest. So local authorities used the courts to get rid of him.