Young women, who've never lacked abortion rights, are tough to mobilize.
How many times did we hear during the endless campaign that Bush wouldn't go after abortion if elected? Republicans, Naderites and countless know-it-alls and pundits in between agreed: Pro-choice voters were too powerful, the country was too divided, the Republicans weren't that stupid and Bush didn't really care about abortion anyway. Plus whoever won would have to (all together now) "govern from the center." Where are all those smarties now, I wonder? Bush didn't even wait for his swearing-in ceremony to start repaying the immense debt he owes to the Christian right, which gave him one in four of his votes, with the nominations of anti-choice die-hards John Ashcroft for Attorney General and Tommy Thompson to head Health and Human Services.
On his first full day in office, Bush reinstated the "gag rule" preventing international family-planning clinics and NGOs from receiving US funds if they so much as mention the word "abortion." (This action was widely misrepresented in the press as being a ban on funding for performing abortions; in fact, it bans clinics that get US aid from performing abortions with their own money and prohibits speech--whether lobbying for legal changes in countries where abortion is a crime or informing women with life- or health-threatening pregnancies about their legal options.) A few days later, Thompson announced he would look into the safety of RU-486, approved by the FDA this past fall--a drug that has been used by half a million European women over twelve years and has been more closely studied here than almost any drug on the market. In the wake of Laura Bush's remark to NBC News and the Today show that she favored retention of Roe v. Wade, both the President and the Vice President said the Administration has not ruled out a legal challenge to it, placing them to the right of Ashcroft himself, who told the Judiciary Committee he regarded Roe as settled law (at least until the makeup of the Supreme Court changes, he did not add).
Don't count on the media to alert the public. The press is into champagne and confetti: Who would have thought "Dick" Cheney would be such an amiable talk show guest! Time to move on, compromise, get busy with that big tax cut. "Who in hell is this 'all' we keep hearing about?" a friend writes, "as in 'all agree' that the Bush transition has been a smashing success?" An acquaintance at the Washington Post, whose executive editor, Leonard Downie Jr., claims to be so objective he doesn't even vote, says word has come down from "on high" that stories must bear "no trace of liberal bias"--interestingly, no comparable warnings were given against pro-Bush bias. So, on abortion, look for endless disquisitions on the grassiness of the anti-choice roots, the elitism of pro-choicers and the general tedium of the abortion issue. Robin Toner could barely stifle a yawn as she took both sides to task in the New York Times ("The Abortion Debate, Stuck in Time," January 21): Why couldn't more anti-choicers see the worth of stem cell research, like anti-choice Senator Gordon Smith, who has several relatives afflicted with Parkinson's (but presumably no relatives unwillingly pregnant); and why can't more pro-choicers acknowledge that sonograms "complicate" the status of the fetus? In an article that interviewed not a single woman, only the fetus matters: not sexuality, public health, women's bodies, needs or rights.
Now is the time to be passionate, clever, original and urgent. I hate to say it, but pro-choicers really could learn some things from the antis, and I don't mean the arts of arson, murder and lying to the Judiciary Committee. Lots of right-wing Christians tithe--how many pro-choicers write significant checks to pro-choice and feminist organizations? Why not sit down today and send President Bush a note saying that in honor of the women in his family you are making a donation to the National Network of Abortion Funds to pay for a poor woman's abortion (NNAF: Hampshire College, Amherst MA 01002-5001)? March 10 is the Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers--send your local clinic money for an abortion "scholarship," flowers, a thank-you note, a bottle of wine, a Nation subscription for the waiting room! (Refuse & Resist has lots of ideas and projects for that day--call them at 212-713-5657.)
The antis look big and powerful because they have a built-in base in the Catholic and fundamentalist churches. But (aha!) pro-choicers have a built-in constituency too: the millions and millions of women who have had abortions. For all sorts of reasons (privacy concerns, overwork, the ideology of medicine) few clinics ask their patients to give back to the cause. Now some providers and activists are talking about changing that. "My fantasy," Susan Yanow of the Abortion Access Project wrote me, "is that every woman in this country gets a piece of paper after her procedure that says something like, 'We need your help. You just had a safe, legal abortion, something that the current Administration is actively trying to outlaw. Think of your sisters/ mothers/daughters who might need this service one day. Please help yourself to postcards and tell your elected representatives you support legal abortion, join (local group name here), come back as a volunteer' and so on." If every woman who had an abortion sent her clinic even just a dollar a year, it would mean millions of dollars for staff, security, cut-rate or gratis procedures. Think how different the debate would be if all those women, and the partners, parents, relatives and friends who helped them, spoke up boldly--especially the ones whose husbands are so vocally and famously and self-righteously anti-choice. If women did that, we would be the grassroots.
* * *
Correction: It was Joe Conason, not Chip Berlet, who reported that John Ashcroft had met with the St. Louis head of the racist Council of Conservative Citizens. Berlet's equally fascinating story, cut for space reasons, was that Ashcroft made a cameo appearance in a 1997 Phyllis Schlafly video that claims that environmentalism, feminism, multiculturalism, gay rights and even chemical weapons treaties are part of a conspiracy to bring about One World Government. See clips at www.publiceye.org.
Throughout the last campaign, while liberal Democrats warned that Bush was much more reactionary than he pretended to be, Naderites argued that Democrats were much less progressive than their rhetoric. From the evidence of the first days of the Bush Administration, it turns out both were right.
For all the dulcet compassion written into his inaugural address, Bush turned right even before entering the White House. His nomination of John Ashcroft as Attorney General showed contempt, not compassion, for the broad center of American politics. His environmental troika--Norton, Abraham and Whitman--are an affront even to Republican environmentalists. While professing her love for nature Norton preposterously invoked the California power crisis as a reason to start drilling in the Arctic wildlife preserve. The troika also threatened a review of the environmental regulations Clinton issued in his last weeks in power.
On his first day in office Bush targeted women's right to choose by reinstating the odious gag rule defunding any international organization that counsels women abroad on family planning and abortion. He also opened fire on women's rights at home, announcing that "it is my conviction that taxpayer funds should not be used to pay for abortions or advocate or actively promote abortions either here or abroad." He hailed those gathered at the annual national protest against Roe v. Wade, saying that "we share a great goal" in overturning the constitutional protection of a woman's right to seek an abortion. And Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced that he would review RU-486, which anti-choicers want banned, fearful that it will make abortion more accessible. So much for compassion.
Bush launched his push for an education plan that will demand lots of testing in exchange for a little new funding for beleaguered urban and rural schools. The $5 billion annual price tag for his education bill is mocked by the $68 billion annual tax cut he wants to give to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans--to say nothing of the tens of billions about to be thrown at the Pentagon. But Bush knows what he calls "my base." The lily-white, mink-draped crowd at his inauguration broke into loud applause only twice: when Bush promised to reduce taxes and when Chief Justice Rehnquist was introduced. So much for bipartisanship.
Yet, despite the stolen election, the wolf politics after a sheep's campaign and a furious and frightened constituency, many Democrats in the Senate seem content with getting rolled. Conservatives in the party didn't pause before trampling their leaders to embrace the tainted President. While Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle was urging his troops to hold off on any announcements about Ashcroft, the opportunistic Robert Torricelli and dubious Democrat Zell Miller of Georgia were hailing the Missouri tribune of the Confederacy as Attorney General. Despite a furious reaction by Democrats across the country, opponents like Ted Kennedy are struggling to summon even forty votes against a zealot whose career has been marked by his willingness to abuse his office for political gain. While Daschle was trying to get some agreement on a smaller tax-cut package from Democrats, Miller leapt in to co-sponsor the equivalent of the Bush plan with Texas Senator Phil Gramm.
Dick Cheney's former opponent, Joe Lieberman, didn't even thank African-Americans and the unions for their remarkable support this past fall before kicking them in the teeth in January. He joined nine other New Democrats in an unctuous letter to "President-Elect Bush" indicating their willingness to work with him on an education bill and urging him to make a top priority of the fight for "Fast Track trading authority" for "expansion of trade in the Americas." Lieberman et al. begged to meet with Bush as early as possible. So much for Democratic unity.
But the Democratic collaborators are likely misjudging the temper of the country. What the inaugural also revealed was the depth of voter anger nationwide. Demonstrators often outnumbered celebrators along the parade route. And from San Francisco to Kansas City to Tallahassee, citizens turned out to express their dismay at the installation of the illegitimate President. Bush seems committed to refighting old battles against choice, affirmative action and environmental and consumer protection, as well as to waging a new offensive in the continuing class warfare of the privileged against the poor. But citizens are showing that they are ready to resist. Some Democrats--Maxine Waters, Dennis Kucinich, Jan Schakowsky, Barney Frank, George Miller and others in the House, as well as Kennedy and Richard Durbin in the Senate--are already engaged. The day before Bush was sworn in, the Progressive Caucus led a daylong conference on political reform that featured a bold agenda and a promise to push for change at the state and national levels. In the coming fray, Democrats who decide to cozy up to the new Administration are likely to find themselves caught in the crossfire.
On November 7, voters in Alabama erased from that state's Constitution a provision dating from 1901 that declared that "the legislature shall never pass any law to authorize or legalize any marriage between any white person and a Negro, or descendant of a Negro." This declaration represented in part a desire by white supremacists to express as fully as possible their intention to expunge the racially egalitarian symbols, hopes and reforms of Reconstruction. Although Alabama had never enacted a law expressly authorizing interracial marriage, in 1872 the state's Supreme Court did invalidate the law that prohibited such unions. But it promptly reversed itself in 1877 when white supremacists regained power. The Alabama Constitution's disapproval of interracial marriage, however, had still deeper roots. It stemmed from the presumption that white men had the authority to dictate whom, in racial terms, a person could and could not marry. It was also rooted in the belief that certain segments of the population were simply too degraded to be eligible as partners in marriage with whites. At one point or another, forty states prohibited marriage across racial lines. In all of them blacks were stigmatized as matrimonial untouchables. In several, "Mongolians" (people of Japanese or Chinese ancestry), "Malays" (Filipinos) and Native Americans were also placed beyond the pale of acceptability.
Rationales for barring interracial marriage are useful to consider, especially since some of them echo so resonantly justifications voiced today by defenders of prohibitions against same-sex marriage. One rationale for barring interracial marriages was that the progeny of such matches would be incapable of procreating. Another was that God did not intend for the races to mix. Another was that colored people, especially blacks, are irredeemably inferior to whites and pose a terrible risk of contamination. The Negrophobic Thomas Dixon spoke for many white supremacists when he warned in his novel The Leopard's Spots that "this Republic can have no future if racial lines are broken and its proud citizenry sinks to the level of a mongrel breed." A single drop of Negro blood, he maintained apocalyptically, "kinks the hair, flattens the nose, then the lip, puts out the light of intellect, and lights the fires of brutal passions."
Although opponents of prohibitions on interracial marriage have waged struggles in many forums (e.g., academia, the churches, journalism), two in particular have been decisive. One is the courtroom. In 1967 in the most aptly titled case in American history--Loving v. The Commonwealth of Virginia--the United States Supreme Court ruled that prohibitions against interracial marriage violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Although much credit is lavished on the Court's decision, it bears noting that nineteen years earlier, in 1948, the Supreme Court of California had reached the same conclusion in an extraordinary, albeit neglected, opinion by Justice Roger Traynor.) When the federal Supreme Court struck down Jim Crow laws at the marriage altar, it relied on the massive change in public attitudes reflected and nourished by Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" address (1963), the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). The Court also relied on the fact that by 1967, only sixteen states, in one region of the country, continued to retain laws prohibiting interracial marriage. This highlights the importance of the second major forum in which opponents of racial bars pressed their struggle: state legislatures. Between World War II and the Civil Rights Revolution, scores of state legislatures repealed bans against interracial marriage, thereby laying the moral, social and political groundwork for the Loving decision. Rarely will any court truly be a pioneer. Much more typically judges act in support of a development that is already well under way.
Unlike opponents of Brown v. Board of Education, antagonists of Loving were unable to mount anything like "massive resistance." They neither rioted, nor promulgated Congressional manifestoes condemning the Court, nor closed down marriage bureaus to prevent the desegregation of matrimony. There was, however, some opposition. In 1970, for example, a judge near Fort McClellan, Alabama, denied on racial grounds a marriage license to a white soldier and his black fiancée. This prompted a lawsuit initiated by the US Justice Department that led to the invalidation of Alabama's statute prohibiting interracial marriage. Yet the Alabama constitutional provision prohibiting the enactment of any law expressly authorizing black-white interracial marriage remained intact until the recent referendum.
That an expression of official opposition to interracial marriage remained a part of the Alabama Constitution for so long reflects the fear and loathing of black-white intimacy that remains a potent force in American culture. Sobering, too, was the closeness of the vote; 40 percent of the Alabama electorate voted against removing the obnoxious prohibition. Still, given the rootedness of segregation at the marriage altar, the ultimate outcome of the referendum should be applauded. The complete erasure of state-sponsored stigmatization of interracial marriage is an important achievement in our struggle for racial justice and harmony.
"Throughout my life, I have been searching for a way to connect with other human beings," writes Tobias Schneebaum. That search for human connection has led him--a New Yorker born on the Lower East Side to Orthodox Jews from Poland; a painter and a gay man--to live among people who couldn't have been more different from himself: cannibal and headhunting tribes in the jungles of South America and New Guinea.
Schneebaum is best known for his first book, Keep the River on Your Right (1969), an engrossing, often astonishing account of his experiences among a tribe living a Stone Age existence deep in the Madre de Dios rainforest of eastern Peru. In 1956, Schneebaum, a successful painter, was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study art in Peru. But once he arrived there, he abandoned his studies to venture, alone and unarmed, into the jungle. A knapsack on his back, sneakers on his feet and the admonition to "keep the river on your right" to guide him as he walked, he was unprepared for what he might encounter yet open to whatever might come his way.
Seven months after Schneebaum went into the vast equatorial forest, the US State Department presumed that he was dead. Back in New York, newspapers reported the mysterious story of the prominent local artist who had vanished in the Amazon. But after a year Schneebaum emerged, naked and covered in body paint. He had found the settlement of the Amarakaire, a tribal people who ended up adopting him and initiating him into their culture, which, to his surprise and delight, sanctioned same-sex relations among men. Schneebaum spent many a happy night in the Amarakaire communal lodge, entwined with his comrades in the all-male sleeping piles.
For much of the book, the recounting of his experiences reads like a combination boy's adventure story (albeit a particularly strange one) and an amateur anthropologist's report. But the tale eventually takes a very dark turn. The Amarakaire were hunters, and on occasion their prey included other human beings, as Schneebaum found out to his horror when he unwittingly accompanied them on a raid of a nearby village. He witnessed young Amarakaire warriors, with whom he had enjoyed friendship and sex, efficiently and remorselessly slaughter the male villagers and butcher the bodies for a feast in which he partook, eating a piece of a heart.
This horrific episode constituted only a brief moment of his time among the Amarakaire, and it takes up only a little more than a page of the book. But it was surely the most shocking and sensationalistic of his experiences, and it has haunted him ever since. Indeed, it took him nearly fourteen years, from his return to New York till the publication of Keep the River on Your Right, to disclose what happened. (In a 1988 interview with the London Sunday Telegraph, he said that he wrote the book to "exorcize those demons.")
Traumatized though he was by his encounter with cannibalism, he never lost his appetite for traveling to and living in distant places, always preferring to take the isolated and unknown path, often discovering his destination along the way. His wanderlust has carried him through South America, Europe, Africa and Asia, and he has related his experiences in several books. It's not a large oeuvre. Since River--a countercultural classic, also popular with gay readers, that has never gone out of print--he has published Wild Man (1979) and Where the Spirits Dwell (1988), and he is the author or co-author of several volumes about the art and culture of the Asmat people of Irian Jaya (West New Guinea). Now, nearly 80, Schneebaum has a new book, Secret Places: My Life in New York and New Guinea, in which he reflects on his amazing life. He is also the subject of a first-rate new documentary, Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale. The film, by the siblings David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro, has been winning awards at film festivals and has footage from Peru and Irian Java. (More on the doc, hereafter referred to as KRYR, later.)
In Secret Places, Schneebaum writes that he has lived two lives, one in New York City, the place where he was born and grew up and from which "I made forays into distant parts of the world," and New Guinea, "a place to which I have now been going for more than 25 years." His two lives "are completely separate from each other, each lived intensely and fully," he says. Yet, despite their distinctness, the two worlds, and his experiences in them, do illuminate each other. In a series of related essays, he examines several decades (from the early seventies to the late nineties) of his search for human connection, in the jungles and villages of Irian Jaya, among sexually polymorphous tribesmen, and in Manhattan, among his largely gay circle of writers and artists.
Schneebaum confides that his intense need for fellowship and acceptance has always coexisted with a contradictory impulse toward anonymity and independence. He traces this to his unhappiness as a child over the atmosphere of intense religiosity and discipline (including physical punishment) imposed by his immigrant father. "I was obsessed with drawing and with my need to lose myself, willing myself into another world where my father could not wallop me." The young Tobias had glimpsed a vision of another world during a family trip to Coney Island, where he saw a sideshow poster promoting the appearance of the "Wild Man of Borneo."
The startling image of this creature, human yet wild, undomesticated, captivated the timid and introverted boy. Many years later, after his discharge from the Army at the end of World War II, the adult Schneebaum traveled to Mexico, making the first of his forays into remote places. There, wandering in the depths of a forest, he encountered a tribe known as the Lacandón. At that moment, the repressed memory of the Wild Man returned:
The combination of my recollection of the Wild Man of Borneo and the Lacandón meant the beginning of a new life for me. The intensity of that experience marked the path I would follow for the next fifty years. I became obsessed with looking for a people who would accept me, teach me how to live without a feeling of aloneness, teach me love and allow for my sexuality.
It was in West New Guinea, Irian Jaya, among the Asmat people, that he found what he was looking for. He was determined to go from the moment in 1961 when he heard of the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in Asmat territory. Schneebaum was not fazed by the possibility, widely believed at the time, that Rockefeller had been captured, killed and eaten by the Asmat. (In the documentary KRYR, Norman Mailer, Schneebaum's East Village neighbor when they were young, speaks admiringly and with amazement of Schneebaum's fearlessness: "When he went on to have his extraordinary experiences, I thought, Toby has so much to him. What kind of a novelist am I that I didn't see it?") The artist had been awe-struck by the Asmat carvings that Rockefeller had collected and put on display in the Museum of Modern Art. "That exhibition alone would have been enough to incite me into going to Asmat," he recalls. "The power and ferocity of the carvings, in fact, invaded my dreams and kept me from sleeping for the next several days."
It took Schneebaum ten years to finally get to Irian Jaya and Asmat territory. When he arrived, in 1973, he was determined to find a way to stay. Catholic missionaries from the Crosier order had established the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress in the provincial capital of Agats. The missionaries did not insist that the Asmat forsake their culture in order to adopt Christianity. They instead were intent on helping the Asmat preserve their traditions. (Up to a point, of course. Rather than kill and devour their enemies, the Asmat were convinced to partake in the symbolic flesh-eating of the Eucharist.) Schneebaum offered to catalogue the museum's extensive collection of Asmat carvings and other artifacts.
The Asmat had almost entirely given up headhunting and cannibalism by the time Schneebaum arrived. But they retained their animistic belief in the power of spirits, benign and malevolent, to affect human affairs. Schneebaum is particularly good on the spiritual aspect of Asmat art: "Every cut in wood with knife of bamboo, shell or steel used to produce a carving that embodies the spirit of an ancestor is one more step toward the appeasement of the dead, all of whom remain alert.... Until the carving is complete and is being used in ritual life, the spirit is doomed to wander the earth."
Schneebaum devotes one chapter of Secret Places to the 1991 visit by some Asmat to the American Museum of Natural History for a demonstration of their carving and traditional dances. Footage of the event appears in KRYR, but Schneebaum provides some additional, wonderful details. Before arriving in New York, where the Asmat were put up at a Hasidic-owned hotel, they enjoyed staying up all night to watch porn videos. "When they dressed at the hotel for performances," Schneebaum reports, "they painted themselves, put feathers in their hair, added necklaces and wrist- and leg bands, and then went out looking marvelously wild. New Yorkers appeared indifferent, barely giving them a cursory glance as they went by."
But before long the blasé New Yorkers were captivated, hanging around the hotel, where, in the lobby, "there was always a curious juxtaposition of the decorated Asmat rubbing shoulders with Hasidic men in black hats and long black coats, with ringlets dripping from their temples."
In Irian Jaya, four separate strands of Schneebaum's life came together--art, in the superb, magical carvings of the Asmat and his own drawings of their artifacts; the world of writing (the books Wild Man and Where the Spirits Dwell); anthropology (the ethnographic information captured in his journals); and "the world of sexual excitement." Of the Asmat men and their response to his overtures, he reports, "there was never any violent reaction to my touch, never any sense of shock. There was only acceptance and pleasure at my approach."
In the chapter "Marriage," Schneebaum compares two of his lovers, Douglas, a young New Yorker who is a gifted dancer, and Aipit, an Asmat with two wives. It's one of the best parts of the book, rich with lyricism and tenderness, as well as astute cross-cultural analysis of male same-sex relations. Douglas improvises a wedding ceremony between himself and Schneebaum while they are sitting on a park bench in the East Village; Aipit, in his remote village, tells his American friend of mbai, the Asmat tradition of ritual male partnership, a lifelong arrangement that coexists with the partners' marriages. Of his lovers Schneebaum writes, "I cherish them both. I am wedded to them both."
Schneebaum wrote the chapter before he returned to Irian Jaya in 1998 with the KRYR film crew. He had feared that Aipit was dead, but the grizzled old fellow turned out to be very much alive. The camera captures their mutual joy in being reunited after many years, providing one of the film's most poignant and delightful moments.
Personal needs, especially sexuality, clearly motivated Schneebaum's explorations. Does that make him guilty of a kind of sexual tourism? Has "going native" been a way for him to relieve himself of the white man's burden, in this case the strictures of Judeo-Christian sexual morality? Schneebaum's candor about his motivations and his willingness to show his own vulnerability "balances the inevitable privilege of his position," as David Bergman observes in his perceptive foreword. Traditional anthropologists profess objectivity but often bring their personal baggage to the study of so-called primitive peoples. Schneebaum, it should be noted, has never called himself an anthropologist. He did acquire a master's degree in the field some twenty years ago, believing that formal training would benefit his study and cataloguing of Asmat art. (His most systematic observations in Secret Places concern Asmat art and culture.) If not exactly anthropology, the book offers an original and idiosyncratic amalgam of travel writing, memoir, ethnography and art history.
There remains, however, the question of the unequal relationship between foreign observers and the observed, and how the very presence of outsiders inevitably produces change. Schneebaum acknowledges his own role in this regard:
As the years went by, however, it became more and more obvious that change not only was inevitable, but had long since begun and was rapidly accelerating. It was also obvious that I was part of the change, was even one of the main media through which it was taking place. I had brought change simply by my presence, by wearing clothes; by bringing tobacco, steel axes, and knives as trade goods; by the very fact of my skin color.
After he completed cataloguing Asmat art in 1983, his work for the Agats museum was completed. With no other way to continue visiting Irian Jaya, he accepted invitations to lecture on Asmat art and culture to tourists visiting the area on cruise ships. The Asmat, he reports, have tailored their culture to the tourist market. Their welcoming ceremonies are self-conscious performances ("Well, then? Is that enough?" an Asmat man asks Schneebaum after a lively session of drumming and dancing staged for cruise-ship passengers), and their carvings, now made for foreign markets, lack "the spirituality and intensity" of artifacts formerly created for traditional rituals.
But the worst transformations actually preceded Schneebaum's arrival. When Indonesia took control of Irian Jaya from the Dutch in 1963, it sealed the territory from the outside world and conducted a policy of mass killing that resulted in the deaths of thousands. The massacres were followed by a campaign to "civilize" the indigenous peoples, including the Asmat, by attempting to eradicate their traditional culture. Since then, logging has destroyed much of the forest that sustains the Asmat. Many Asmat are now logging on the traditional lands they have lost, receiving a pittance for each tree they fell. Neither the film KRYR nor Secret Places explores this history or the resistance of the inhabitants to Indonesian oppression, a serious omission.
The political turmoil has changed the face of tourism in Irian Jaya; the cruise ships have ceased going there, at least for the time being. For Tobias Schneebaum, elderly, frail and suffering from Parkinson's disease, there may never be another return to the land that "bewitched" him decades ago. But in his Greenwich Village apartment, filled with Asmat artifacts, he feels the spirits of the world in which he lived and loved. "When I open the door and enter, I am again in Asmat, leaving the outside world behind."
"Perhaps," he considers, "it is the spirits who write my stories."
To judge from magazine covers, the American divorce rate is either a disaster for children or no problem at all. First came the famous "Dan Quayle Was Right" article in The Atlantic in 1993, with a cover line that said divorce "dramatically weakens and undermines our society." Then, in 1998, Newsweek heralded The Nurture Assumption, whose author, Judith Rich Harris, argued that whether parents divorce makes little difference in children's lives because genetics and peer groups determine their problems. This September, Time featured The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, a book whose authors, psychologists Judith Wallerstein and Julia Lewis and journalist Sandra Blakeslee, brought the gloomy news that a majority of children of divorce still suffer twenty-five years later. What's a reader to think?
The facts are not in dispute: The American divorce rate doubled in the 1960s and 1970s and has held steady or possibly declined a bit since then. At current rates, about half of all marriages will end in divorce. One million children experience a parental divorce every year. Most of them are upset in the immediate aftermath of the breakup. Some act out, others become withdrawn. Too often, fathers fail to provide adequate financial support and mothers and children see their standards of living drop. Without doubt, going through a divorce is a traumatic experience for parents and children alike.
But are most children harmed in the long term? On this question, recent media coverage has lurched between two extremes. At one end is the doomsday view that divorce sentences children to life at emotional hard labor. In this view, a parental divorce starts a chain of events that leaves most adult children anxious, unhappy and often unable to make a commitment to a partner. At the other end is the evolutionary psychologists' view that children's behavior is genetically programmed, so that whether parents divorce doesn't matter very much. According to this line of reasoning, divorce is just a flag that identifies genetically challenged families whose troubles would have occurred even if the parents had stayed together.
Said this starkly, neither extreme seems convincing. Yet it is a sad fact of public debates about social problems that the extremes tend to capture everyone's attention. Magazines are sold and talk shows are fueled by the announcement that a particular problem is devastating American society and then by the news that--wait a minute--it's really not a big problem after all. There's little patience for discussions of problems that are serious but not calamitous. And yet the gravity of many social problems lies in the demilitarized zone between the extremes.
For example, consider teenage childbearing. It was initially declared a scourge. A leading researcher wrote famously in 1968, "The girl who has an illegitimate child at the age of 16 suddenly has 90 percent of her life's script written for her." More recently, however, some researchers and commentators have argued that most teenage mothers would not be better off had they delayed having children. Teenage childbearing, it is alleged, merely reflects growing up in disadvantaged circumstances. Poor teen mothers would still be poor even if they hadn't had their babies. While there is some merit to this argument, research suggests that having a baby as a teenager does add to the difficulties girls from disadvantaged backgrounds face.
Research on divorce also suggests that extreme views are inaccurate. But you wouldn't know it to read the latest report by Wallerstein and her colleagues on her long-term study of children of divorce. In 1971, she selected sixty families that had been referred by their attorneys and others to her marriage and divorce clinic in Marin County, California, shortly after the parents separated. Wallerstein kept in touch with the 131 children from these families. Her book on the first five years, Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce, written with Joan Berlin Kelly, contained insightful portraits of the difficulties the children faced as their parents struggled with the separation and its aftermath. Her book about how they were doing at the ten- and fifteen-year mark, Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce, written with Sandra Blakeslee, became a bestseller. It chronicled the continuing problems that most of the children were having.
For her new book, she was able to talk to ninety-three of the children at the twenty-five year mark. Her striking conclusion is that most of these individuals, now 33 years old on average, have suffered greatly in adulthood. A minority have managed to construct successful personal lives, but only with great effort. The legacy of divorce, it turns out, doesn't fade away:
Contrary to what we have long thought, the major impact of divorce does not occur during childhood or adolescence. Rather, it rises in adulthood as serious romantic relationships move center stage. When it comes time to choose a life mate and build a new family, the effects of divorce crescendo.
Young adults from divorced families, Wallerstein writes, lack the image of an intact marriage. Because they haven't had the chance to watch parents in successful marriages, they don't know how to have one. When it comes time to choose a partner or a spouse, their anxiety rises; they fear repeating the mistakes of their parents. Lacking a good model, they tend to make bad choices. (In the realm of work, in contrast, Wallerstein's subjects had no particular problems.)
A woman who took the role of caregiver to a distraught parent or to younger siblings while growing up, for instance, may choose a man who needs lots of caring in order to function. But she soon finds his neediness and dependency intolerable, and the relationship ends. Wallerstein writes of one such woman in her study:
She described how she would come home after work and find her partner lying on the couch, waiting for her to take charge. It was just like taking care of her mom. At that point, she realized she had to get out.
Young men, Wallerstein tells us, were wary of commitment because they were afraid their marriages would end as badly as their parents' had. Many avoided casual dating and led solitary lives. She tells the story of Larry, who after courting and living with Grace for seven years still could not bring himself to marry her. Not until she packed up and left in frustration did he agree. He told Wallerstein:
I realized I loved her and that she was important to me but I was unable to make a decision. I was afraid because of the divorce. I was afraid of being left and I think that is why I was afraid of making a commitment to her.
Other children in the study turned to alcohol, drugs and, particularly among girls, early sexual activity. Wallerstein writes that sexual promiscuity was a result of girls' feelings of abandonment by their fathers. Their low self-esteem, their craving for love and their wish to be noticed led them to seek sexual liaisons and sometimes to start ill-conceived partnerships and marriages.
Overall, we are told, close to half the women and over one-third of the men were able to establish successful personal lives by the twenty-five-year mark--but only after considerable pain and suffering, much anxiety about repeating the mistakes of their parents, many failed relationships and, for one-third, psychotherapy. The rest were still floundering. Only 60 percent had ever married, compared with about 80 percent among all adults at their ages. Moreover, only one-third had children, as if they were afraid of doing to children what had been done to them.
Without doubt, a disturbing picture. And what makes it even more disturbing is Wallerstein's claim that her subjects are more or less representative of the typical American middle-class family that undergoes a divorce. Her families were carefully screened, she assures us, so that the children were doing "reasonably well" at school and had been developmentally "on target" before the divorce. Nor were the families especially troubled before the breakup, she says. "Naturally," Wallerstein writes, "I wanted to be sure that any problems we saw did not predate the divorce. Neither they nor their parents were ever my patients."
This claim to have a sample of typical, not unduly troubled families is, however, contradicted by the extensive psychological problems that the parents displayed when they were assessed at the initial interview. But you won't find that information in this book or the previous one. Only in the appendix to her first book, Surviving the Breakup, in 1980, does Wallerstein discuss the parents' mental states. There we learn the startling information that 50 percent of the fathers and close to half the mothers were "moderately disturbed or frequently incapacitated by disabling neuroses or addictions" when the study started:
Here were the chronically depressed, sometimes suicidal individuals, the men and women with severe neurotic difficulties or with handicaps in relating to another person, or those with long-standing problems in controlling their rage or sexual impulses.
And that's not all: An additional 15 percent of the fathers and 20 percent of the mothers were found to be "severely troubled during their marriages." These people "had histories of mental illness including paranoid thinking, bizarre behavior, manic-depressive illnesses, and generally fragile or unsuccessful attempts to cope with the demands of life, marriage, and family."
Typical American middle-class families? Hardly. These were by and large troubled families of the kind one might expect to come to a divorce clinic for therapy. Why this information was excluded from the nine-page appendix on the research sample in the new book--why an interested reader can only find it buried in the appendix of a book written twenty years ago--is puzzling. Does Wallerstein now consider this information to be in error? Irrelevant? Or just embarrassing?
The problem for Wallerstein is that troubled families often produce troubled children, whether or not the parents divorce. So it may be a considerable overstatement to blame the divorce and its aftermath for nearly all the problems she saw among her children over the twenty-five years. In a study of the records of several thousand British children who were followed from birth to age 33, Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, Christine McRae Battle and I found that children whose parents would later divorce already showed more emotional problems at age 7 than children from families that would remain together. The gap widened as the divorces occurred and the children reached adulthood, suggesting that divorce did have a detrimental long-term effect on some of them. But a large share of the gap preceded the divorces and might have appeared even had the parents stayed together.
Sensitive to the particularities of her sample, Wallerstein recruited a "comparison sample" of adults from nondivorced families. The comparison sample, we are told, was selected to match the socioeconomic level of the families in the study. In many respects, the individuals in the comparison group were doing better than the study's children, which Wallerstein presents as evidence that divorce really is the cause of the difficulties in the latter group. But since the comparison sample presumably was not matched on the parents' chronic depression, suicidal tendencies, problems in controlling rage, bizarre behavior and manic-depressive illness, their inclusion does not prove Wallerstein's case.
What, then, can we take from Wallerstein's study? It is an insightful, long-term investigation of the lives of children from troubled divorced families. It gives us valuable information on what happens to children when things go wrong before and after a divorce. And things sometimes do go wrong: Many divorcing parents face the kinds of difficulties that Wallerstein saw in her families. Her basic point that divorce can have effects that last into adulthood, or even peak in adulthood, is valid. She was one of the first people to write about children who seemed fine in the short-term but experienced emotional difficulties in adolescence or young adulthood--in her previous book she called this the "sleeper effect"--and now she is the first to describe it in detail among adults who have reached their 30s. Psychotherapists, social workers, teachers and other professionals who see troubled children of divorce and their parents will find her analyses instructive. Parents and children who are struggling with divorce-related problems will find her analyses helpful.
But no one should believe that the negative effects of divorce are as widespread as Wallerstein claims. Some portion of what she labels as the effects of divorce on children probably wasn't connected to the divorce. And the typical family that experiences divorce won't have as tough a time as Wallerstein's families did. Parents with better mental health than this heavily impaired sample can more easily avoid the worst of the anger, anxiety and depression that comes with divorce. They are better able to maintain the daily routines of their children's home and school lives. Their children can more easily avoid the extremes of anxiety and self-doubt that plague Wallerstein's children when they reach adulthood.
What divorce does to children is to raise the risk of serious long-term problems, such as severe anxiety or depression, having a child as a teenager or failing to graduate from high school. But the risk is still low enough that most children in divorced families don't have these problems. In the British study, we found that although divorce raised the risk of emotional problems in young adulthood by 31 percent, the vast majority of children from divorced families did not show evidence of serious emotional problems as young adults.
Except for Wallerstein, many of the writers most concerned about divorce now appear to recognize this distinction. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, who wrote the "Dan Quayle Was Right" piece in The Atlantic (drawing heavily on Wallerstein's earlier work), acknowledged in a more recent, book-length treatment, The Divorce Culture, that a majority of children probably aren't seriously harmed in the long term. But she argued that even if only a minority of children are harmed, divorce is so common that a "minority" is still a lot. And she is correct. Divorce is not a problem that "dramatically weakens and undermines our society," but it nevertheless deserves our attention.
For that reason, some of the remedies Wallerstein suggests would be useful: creating more support groups in schools for children whose parents are divorcing, insuring that divorced fathers contribute to the cost of their children's college education and educating newly separated parents about how to shield their children from conflict. Measures such as these would help some children without imposing undue strain on parents, schools or the courts.
Less clearly useful is Wallerstein's recommendation that parents in unhappy, loveless, but low-conflict marriages consider staying together for the sake of their children. I think she is probably right that children can develop adequately in "good enough" marriages that limp along without an inner life of love and companionship. There were millions of these marriages during the baby-boom years of the 1950s, when wives weren't supposed to work and women were forced to choose between having a career and being a mother. The result was often frustration and depression. Few people (not even Wallerstein) want to constrain women's choices again. Certainly, unhappy parents have an obligation to try hard to change an unsuccessful marriage before scuttling it. Without doubt some parents resort to divorce too hastily. But no one as yet has a formula that can tell parents how much pain they must bear, how much conflict to endure, before ending a marriage becomes the better alternative for themselves and their children.
Least defensible is the attempt by Wallerstein to inform readers whose parents have divorced that their problems with intimacy stem from the breakup. In high self-help style, Wallerstein tells her readers:
You were a little child when your parents broke up, and it frightened you badly, more than you have ever acknowledged.... When one parent left, you felt like there was nothing you could ever rely on. And you said to yourself that you would never open yourself to the same kinds of risks. You would stay away from loving. Or you only get involved with people you don't care about so you won't get hurt. Either way, you don't love and you don't commit.
And so forth. Wallerstein plants the seed of the pernicious effect of exposure to divorce as a young child--and then waters it. Yes, the reader thinks, that must be why I'm so anxious about getting married. Never mind that making a commitment to marry someone is anxiety-producing for young adults from any background. Or that we live in an era when the average person waits four to five years longer to marry than was the case a half-century ago. Wallerstein encourages readers to believe that most of their commitment problems stem from their parents' divorces. But parental divorce isn't that powerful, and its effects aren't that pervasive. To be sure, it raises the chances that children will run into problems in adulthood, but most of them don't. Unfortunately, that's a cover line that doesn't sell many magazines.
I have been waiting for Manifesta to come out. I had certain hopes for this book. In particular, I was looking forward to using it as a corrective addition in a course I'm teaching on "Third Wave Feminism and Girl Culture." When I first taught this class last spring, my students became increasingly frustrated with the overwhelmingly personal tone of the contemporary feminism we were reading. Our central texts, and until now they have been the central texts of the self-proclaimed Third Wave, were three anthologies, all published in the past five years: Barbara Findlen's Listen Up: Voices From the Next Generation; Rebecca Walker's To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism; and Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake's Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism. While each of these collections takes its own approach to the Third Wave, they share an emphasis on the singular experience of young women and the occasional young man as grounds for a new generation of feminist politics ("young" in this context generally designates those born between 1964 and 1980). Specifically, all three anthologies grapple with how to combine some version of feminist politics with what Third Wave Agenda calls the "lived messiness" of real life. After reading assorted articles in which individual Third Wavers describe their intimate struggles with eating disorders, gender dysphoria, racial difference and antifeminist workplaces or, conversely, their sustaining attachments to various punk rockers, my students begin to ask, "Isn't there some Third Wave theory we could read?"
Last spring I suggested to my students that, for the moment, this return to experience in all of its messy multiplicity might be the unifying theory of the Third Wave (we might see it, for instance, as a historically necessary return to the "personal" moment of "the personal is political"), but I share their longing for a militant, argumentative feminism--one that would abandon the personal essay with its fetishization of contradiction and get on with elaborating a political program. Contemporary feminism needs the kind of intervention Manifesta purports to be. Billed as "a powerful indictment from within of the current state of feminism, and a passionate call to arms," Manifesta aims to challenge the experientialism and fragmentation of the emerging Third Wave with history, political argument and activism. These are, to my mind, exactly the grounds on which to confront the Third Wave, but how effectively Manifesta manages this confrontation is another question entirely.
Written by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, both journalists, activists and Third Wavers themselves, Manifesta turns out to be a strange book. Some of this strangeness no doubt derives from its collaborative production. The two writers seem to be trying to repress, rather than sharpen, their differences, and this results in a book that is, narratively, both bland and contradictory by turns. This general atmosphere of forced consensus extends to the content as well. As Richards outlines in her introduction (each writer provides an introduction, not to the book but to herself), she and Baumgardner created Manifesta by combining their separate book projects, one on activism and the other a cultural analysis of current feminism, into one text. The end result is a long, wide-ranging and episodic book that touches on everything from Barbie and Riot Grrrls to voter registration and Title IX without ever fully integrating its cultural and activist components. Perhaps the strangest thing about the book is its title, for Manifesta is neither short nor scrappy like the best of its genre (e.g., the SCUM and Communist manifestoes). I was, however, encouraged to find that the book does contain (finally! on page 278) an actual "thirteen point" manifesta that distills its uncontroversial pro-choice, pro-ERA, anti-domestic violence agenda.
Its structural peculiarities aside, Manifesta does supply several potentially powerful correctives to contemporary feminism--the first of which is a historical perspective. One of the striking features of works of Third Wave feminism published so far is their general impatience with, and desire to break from, the feminist past. (Although the editors of both Listen Up and Third Wave Agenda make a point of pledging their allegiance to the Second Wave, their contributors for the most part do not.) Third Wavers frequently accomplish this break by declaring the Second Wave outmoded, unrealistically militant and irrelevant to the lives of young women. Melissa Klein describes this renunciation in her contribution to Third Wave Agenda, "Duality and Redefinition":
Many young women hesitate to take on the mantle of feminism, either because they fear being branded as fanatical "feminazis" or because they see feminism not as a growing and changing movement but as a dialogue of the past that conjures up images of militantly bell-bottomed "women's libbers."
In Third Wave writing, reductive caricature--those "bell-bottomed feminazis"--often displaces and deters real historical knowledge about the politics, accomplishments and legacy of the Second Wave, not to mention earlier feminisms. (For an especially sharp and poignant instance of the Third Wave's failure to recognize the Second, see the foreword and afterword to Rebecca Walker's To Be Real, in which a bewildered Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis wrestle with the treatment that feminism of the sixties and seventies receives in the book.)
Baumgardner and Richards reject this species of feminist ahistoricism. Point 5 of their manifesta aims
To tap into and raise awareness of our revolutionary history.... To have access to our intellectual feminist legacy and women's history; for the classics of radical feminism, womanism, mujeristas, women's liberation, and all our roots to remain in print; and to have women's history taught to men as well as women as a part of all curricula.
Against the Third Wave's rebellious declarations of independence, Baumgardner and Richards insist on a cross-generational, continuous understanding of feminism secured through the study of feminist history. "Having no sense of how we got here," they write, "condemns women to reinvent the wheel and often blocks us from creating a political strategy." Manifesta works throughout to supply some of this prehistory by linking current feminist cultural forms and figures to earlier ones. The Lilith Fair, for instance, is presented in the tradition of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, and prosex profemininity Girlie feminists are recognized as descendants of Helen Gurley Brown.
The authors systematize their version of feminist history in a chapter titled "What Is Feminism?" Here they produce a sketchy, breakneck overview of United States feminism from Seneca Falls, through the Nineteenth Amendment, the Second Wave and the ERA, up to the Third Wave. They make some attempt to be multiculturally and politically inclusive by mentioning Native American matriarchies, Sojourner Truth and Emma Goldman, but what they call feminist history here is fundamentally the history of white, middle-class liberal feminism and its record of US governmental reforms. Manifesta's restricted focus on liberal feminism is, unfortunately, systemic. In the rest of the book, where Second Wavers provide most of the historical counterpoint, Baumgardner and Richards repeatedly offer up liberal feminists as representative of all feminism: Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Carol Gilligan, Gloria Steinem... Please note that our authors met while interning at Ms.
Feminists on the left and feminists of color will not find their history represented in Manifesta. The contributions of Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Lydia Sargent, bell hooks, Heidi Hartmann, Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, to name only a few, go pretty much unmentioned. This historical prejudice is especially striking, given that recent anthologies tend to date Third Wave feminism from the critiques that women of color launched against liberal feminism toward the end of the Second Wave. In this context, Manifesta's historical sensibility reads as reaction, as a call for a return to some imagined white, homogeneous Second Wave feminism. On the few occasions that Baumgardner and Richards deign to mention leftish feminisms, they criticize leftists not for their politics but for being unnecessarily divisive, for undermining some presumed feminist consensus. Barbara Ehrenreich and Katha Pollitt, for instance, receive sharp criticism for having the gall to "[point] their fingers" at other feminists.
This anxiety about feminist dissent permeates Manifesta. Like a mantra, Baumgardner and Richards repeat phrases like "everyday feminism," "the same old feminism" and "organic" feminism, as if there were some reassuring common sense that united all feminists. For our authors, this "same old feminism" designates the same old liberal reformism, and while I praise their historical instincts--the Third Wave needs its past more than it knows--I wish Baumgardner and Richards had worked harder to be more fully historical. Not only do they provide the feminist history that is most likely to be familiar to readers without their help (through mainstream institutions like Ms., NOW and the Democratic Party) but their reductive version of the feminist past is unlikely to speak to the interests and experiences of women of color, working-class and radical women, or queers (though of all differences among women, they give the most lip service to sexual difference). Manifesta's history simply isn't adequate for comprehending, much less galvanizing, the actual class, racial, sexual and political heterogeneity of American women.
The second correction that Manifesta brings to the Third Wave is an insistence on political argumentation. If Third Wavers are vulnerable to charges of navel-gazing, of musing endlessly and confessionally over the contradictions between feminism and life, the authors adamantly resist this deferral of political consciousness. Throughout Manifesta they insist on making feminist sense of the world, using anecdotal narratives and statistical data (they admit to being obsessive fact-checkers) to remind us that the pay gap between women and men persists and remains substantial (74 cents to the dollar, by current calculations), that rape and domestic violence still operate to restrict women's independence, that the sexual double standard continues to distort female sexuality and that reproductive rights are only partially and tenuously secure. Although their political consciousness remains disappointingly close to their own experiences and needs as young professional white women (they give an inordinate amount of time to the injustices that face female journalists in New York City, while other feminist issues, like daycare, racism, gay-bashing and collective bargaining in the pink-collar ghetto, receive little to no treatment), at least Baumgardner and Richards model the process of politicizing experience, of seeing the personal as political. "Consciousness-raising," they argue, "must precede action."
At a deeper level, however, Manifesta simply isn't argumentative enough. In fact, the argument we most expect from a work of contemporary feminist theory--a systemic analysis of the causes of women's oppression today--is entirely absent. If the Third Wave intends to remake feminism for this generation, then it needs a comprehensive account of the specific material conditions that currently determine (and determine differentially) the social and economic position of women in the United States and outside the United States as well. Such an account requires thinking through systems (capitalism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia) in the way many Second Wavers did, although it does not require that the Third Wave simply redeploy arguments generated in the seventies. After all, material conditions change. Instead of systemic argumentation, however, Baumgardner and Richards offer up a loose platform of issues: prison reform, pay inequality, military access for women, negative body images, the ERA, egalitarian healthcare, etc. Because Manifesta lacks a coherent structural account that could link these disparate issues (e.g., through the underlying socioeconomic processes that produce them), readers are unlikely to recognize any inner logic in this collection of so-called women's issues. Nor can Manifesta provide an argument for prioritizing one issue over another. In Baumgardner and Richards's account, feminism becomes analytically rootless, seemingly implicated everywhere, but no more effective or necessary in one arena than another.
In the absence of sustained structural analysis, our authors use large quantities of populist boosterism to hold the book together. Their populism underwrites two of Manifesta's larger claims, the first of which is that despite what critics say, feminism is everywhere in contemporary culture, just waiting to be acknowledged. The authors announce the existence of what they call a contemporary "Feminist Diaspora"--a large, dispersed population of "everyday" feminists who embody the Second Wave's success in establishing feminism as part of our cultural common sense. "For anyone born after the early 1960s," they assert, "the presence of feminism in our lives is taken for granted. For our generation, feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice that we have it--it's simply in the water." Of course this is a controversial proposition, as it assumes that the feminism of the sixties and seventies was disseminated uniformly to young women throughout the United States, irrespective of class, racial, educational or geographical distinctions. You get a very different picture of feminism's reach if you talk to women who, although "born after the early 1960s," were raised in rural areas, in immigrant families or in working-class neighborhoods. But if it's true, as our authors say, that feminism can now be taken for granted, that it has become part of popular consciousness, this presents Baumgardner and Richards with a unique dilemma. "The only problem," they acknowledge, "is that, while on a personal level feminism is everywhere, like fluoride, on a political level the movement is more like nitrogen: ubiquitous and inert." So even though they see "a generation of [young women] leading revolutionary lives," our authors concede that these same women are "best known for saying, 'I'm not a feminist, but...'"
Point 1 of the manifesta contains their plan for attacking this lack of feminist self-identification: "To out unacknowledged feminists, specifically those who are younger, so that Generation X can become a visible movement and, further, a voting block of eighteen- to forty-year-olds." As far as I can tell, "outing," in this context, consists of making feminism so enticingly broad and nondemanding that young women, realizing they are in no way required to interrogate themselves or their social practices, will claim feminism for themselves. "Maybe you aren't sure you need feminism," Baumgardner and Richards coax,
...or you're not sure it needs you. You're sexy, a wallflower, you shop at Calvin Klein, you are a stay-at-home mom, a big Hollywood producer, a beautiful bride all in white, an ex-wife raising three kids, or you shave, pluck, and wax. In reality, feminism wants you to be whoever you are--but with a political consciousness.
By asserting that young women are already feminists, if unconscious ones, Baumgardner and Richards feel empowered to claim that there is, indeed, a feminist "movement" afoot today. Although they admit that it does not consist of "a huge force of conscious feminists" (i.e., it does not look like anything we'd recognize as collective action), they repeatedly refer to "the movement" as if saying the word could call the social form into being. I share Manifesta's desire for a movement (the fizzled Riot Grrrl was arguably the closest--and it wasn't very close--we've come to collective feminist action in the last decade), but I don't believe that calling whatever women do to survive "a movement" or trying to swell the feminist ranks with prepolitical young women is the most effective way to get us there.
Baumgardner and Richards's populist strategies also emerge in the second of their larger claims, namely that political differences between types of feminism really don't, and ideally shouldn't, matter all that much. Our authors take a staggeringly latitudinarian approach to feminism. They stage extended defenses of Naomi Wolf and Katie Roiphe, both of whom most feminists consider conservative backlashers, in order to assert their rightful membership in the feminist camp. "We have to put down our relentless search for feminist purity," they argue,
...and look at Katie Roiphe, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Naomi Wolf, and the rest of the emerging young women as what they are: feminists, the next generation.... Yes, all feminists deserve critique and debate, but save your political vitriol for the young babes who are right-wing and political.
Baumgardner and Richards also extend feminist inclusion to "Girlie" types, those young women, vaguely associated with Bust's readership, who find personal empowerment in the cultural trappings of traditional adolescent femininity. They even make a case for Monica Lewinsky as a contemporary feminist icon, calling her "a twenty-three-year-old White House intern who owned her own libido and sexual prowess."
What our manifesta writers hope to gain by stretching feminism to its outer limits in order to include Roiphe, Wolf, Girlies and Lewinsky is a kind of "big tent" feminism that could take on "right-wing babes" like Christina Hoff Sommers, Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter. And they are not the first Third Wavers to promote this kind of feminist populism. Rebecca Walker, in To Be Real, argues that we should "[broaden] our view of who and what constitutes 'the feminist community,'" so as to "stake out an inclusive terrain from which to actively seek the goals of societal equality and individual freedom." What they lose in the stretch, however, is any real content to feminism, other than the crudest and too often imaginary distinction between the right and left wing. Baumgardner and Richards would do for feminism what Clinton did for the Democrats over the past eight years: try to absorb, rhetorically, everyone from left-liberals to centrists in order to build a strategic coalition against the radical right. But why should the broad spectrum of feminists be forced to define themselves negatively and homogeneously against a few shrill right-wingers? While feminists need to be able to come together around issues that concern us, and I think we do, our differences are politically meaningful and, to my mind, ultimately productive. Roiphe, Wolf et al., for instance, raise important questions about the Third Wave revalorization of beauty, sexual power and femininity. What happens to feminism when it reclaims the very sources of power the patriarchy has always been happy to grant us? Why is it difficult to recognize feminist "agency" in the circumstance of a young female intern, smitten with male presidential power, dropping to her knees? Rather than subordinate our differences in the service of the flabby populism Manifesta promotes, I would like to see contemporary feminism embrace contention, sharpen its differences and strengthen its analysis.
There are limits, however, even to Baumgardner and Richards's feminist magnanimity. Their inclusionism breaks down not only around the "divisive" left but in their engagement with psychoanalytic Second Waver Phyllis Chesler. Chesler elicits their ire for, apparently, using the wrong tone of voice. In her 1997 Letters to a Young Feminist, Chesler draws on her longstanding engagement with feminism to delineate what she sees as the Second Wave's "legacy" to the next generation. Specifically, she focuses on the contradictions produced by Second Wave feminisms (e.g., between the ideology of "sisterhood" and the reality of female competition, between movement egalitarianism and the hierarchies "professional" feminism reproduced) and presses younger feminists to learn from and supersede these contradictions. In keeping with her training, Chesler approaches her Letters through the lens of the family drama and uses the persona of a feminist mother to address imagined feminist daughters (and, in the last chapter, her real-life feminist son). The phony intimacy of this address makes for some serious rhetorical melodrama: The reader is regularly addressed as "darling" and "my dear" by an overbearing Ma Chesler. Despite its stylistic goofiness, however, Chesler's book remains one of the few Second Wave feminist "memoirs" (and there are now many) that work to instrumentalize, rather than glorify or recant, the feminist past in order to serve the feminist future.
Baumgardner and Richards are unable to recognize how Chesler's book, like their own, attempts to build a bridge between the Waves. Instead, in an angry "Letter to an Older Feminist," our authors perform their rebellion against Chesler and her cohort, exclaiming "You're not our mothers." "We let you off your mother trip," they announce, "Now you have to stop treating us like daughters. You don't have the authority to treat us like babies or acolytes who need to be molded." As much as our authors say they want to connect with the Second Wave, they clearly want the connection on their own terms. It's OK for Chesler to participate in the Third Wave as an icon, as an inspiring bit of history, but Baumgardner and Richards would rather she quit trying to contribute her own work. "Read our books, buy our records," they command the Older Feminist. Ever vigilant of ageism when it's directed at younger feminists, here Baumgardner and Richards themselves, unnecessarily, reproduce a generation gap.
My favorite part of Manifesta, and the final corrective it offers to the Third Wave's nearly exclusive focus on cultural critique, is its insistence on activism. In the final section of the book, in a chapter titled "What Is Activism?" Baumgardner and Richards push young feminists to take action. "Activism," they write, "starts with the acknowledgment of injustice, but it doesn't stop with the rant...or even with the manifesta." To insure that their readers develop realistic expectations, the two debunk what they say are four myths about activism: that "activism will bring an immediate and decisive victory," that activism "has to be huge," that activism requires "superleaders" and, finally, that contemporary feminism is "politically impotent." Baumgardner and Richards also challenge the common preconception that volunteering is necessarily the highest form of activism. They make a fabulous distinction between "activist" and "charity" types of volunteer work, defining the latter as those positions (like candy stripers and literacy instructors) that have a long tradition of relying on unpaid female labor. Readers are directed away from the feminized sector and are encouraged instead to turn their efforts toward the "activist" groups--those "organizations that are too ahead of their time to be funded by the government"--and to continue to lobby for pay for their work. Central to successful activism, Baumgardner and Richards suggest, is a "clear intention, a realistic plan, and an identifiable constituency," and they provide steps for developing these strategic elements. In addition to an appendix containing contact information for numerous activist organizations (along with record labels, makeup brands and sex-toy shops), Baumgardner and Richards also provide a series of "creative social justice" issues that they think warrant activist involvement, such as political asylum for female refugees who have suffered gendered forms of violence, getting female reproductive care into prisons and pressing the National Honor Society to strike down its exclusion of pregnant women. For each issue they provide concrete avenues for action: Lobby the President, recruit Ob-Gyns to go into prisons, petition the NHS with lists of male members who have impregnated women.
While I love its demystification of activism, I remain unenamored with Manifesta's overall political vision, which never moves much beyond liberal reformism. For all their talk of "revolution," Baumgardner and Richards are primarily interested in, as they call it, putting the "participatory back into participatory democracy." The book, moreover, contains no clear sense of how issue-by-issue reformism of the type they advocate could lead to the "revolutionary movement" and larger social transformation they often invoke as their long-range goal. Despite its political tunnel vision, however, Manifesta works productively, in my view, to reorient the Third Wave toward action, particularly action beyond just the cultural level. Baumgardner and Richards encourage young feminists to engage with politics, the law and (to some extent) the economy, and they supply concrete strategies and realistic expectations for beginning this kind of activist work. Manifesta provides a solid starting place for reformist-style activism, and in the current moment, any activism is better than none. Who knows how young feminists might be revolutionized through the types of activism Baumgardner and Richards advocate; Manifesta could lay the groundwork for more radical forms of political action.
All in all, I think Manifesta suggests a formula, if not the specific content, for a better version of Third Wave feminism. We need to build on the feminisms that have preceded us, but we need the history of all feminisms, not just the least controversial, most mainstream forms. We need to embrace political argument, but we need to root our arguments in a larger understanding of the conditions that oppress us--all of us. We also need to be able to argue among ourselves about what feminism at this historical moment ought to look like, and to do that we have to dispense with the idea--itself an artifact of the backlash--that feminism needs warm bodies more than it needs theory or principles. We need to fight the seemingly widespread preconception that a state of feminist grace is prerequisite to action and that essay writing should be our preferred mode of activism. We need to get busy in the ways Manifesta urges and in many more. Without meaning to, Manifesta also prompts us, through some of its engagement with "older feminists," to think about how the Third Wave may be founding itself on unexamined ageism. In the end, a better version of Third Wave feminism might involve changing the name as a first step toward unloading altogether the dubious politics of generationality.
Judith Butler, who is a Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, is a troublemaker. She announced as much when she arrived on the critical feminist scene in her second and most well-known work, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, first published in 1990:
Contemporary feminist debates over the meanings of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism. Perhaps trouble need not carry such a negative valence. To make trouble was, within the reigning discourse of my childhood, something one should never do precisely because that would get one in trouble. The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms, a phenomenon that gave rise to my first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: The prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it.
In the 149 dense pages that follow this preface, Butler took on a host of psychoanalytic theorists, from "Freud and the Melancholia of Gender" to "Lacan, Riviere, and the Strategies of Masquerade." She also critiqued "The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva" (who uses semiotics in the service of psychoanalytic critique) and "Monique Wittig: Bodily Disintegration and Fictive Sex," whose The Lesbian Body and other works are, according to Butler, limited by Wittig's humanism. In Gender Trouble, Butler's admiration is reserved for Michel Foucault, the openly gay philosopher of power most famous for his History of Sexuality and Discipline and Punish, a philosopher whose terms are evident in Butler's preface above: "the reigning discourse of my childhood"; "rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms"; "the subtle ruse of power." Butler's genealogical critique of gender, i.e., a critique of gender's very origins, a critique of the very terms of the critique, was a grand synthesis of the most radical European ideas about sexuality and sexual identity. Simone de Beauvoir's famous statement in The Second Sex that one is not born but rather becomes a woman is a conceptual starting point, but only a starting point. Foucault's work on the journals of Herculine Barbin, a nineteenth-century hermaphrodite so tortured by his/her predicament in a sexually normative world that s/he commits suicide, enables Butler's challenge not only to the categories of gender but to the categories of sex itself. But what stands head and shoulders above Butler's illustrious collection of radical theories is Gender Trouble's overarching claim that gender, and possibly even sex itself, is not an expression of who one is but rather a performance.
Toward the end of Gender Trouble, Butler poses a set of questions that indicate the practical, political direction of her critique:
What performance where will invert the inner/outer distinction and compel a radical rethinking of the psychological presuppositions of gender identity and sexuality? What performance where will compel a reconsideration of the place and stability of the masculine and the feminine? And what kind of gender performance will enact and reveal the performativity of gender itself in a way that destabilizes the naturalized categories of identity and desire?
Not only did Gender Trouble immediately appear on feminist-theory syllabuses around the country, it became a foundational text of queer theory. Is it any wonder it provoked a backlash?
Antigone's Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death is a slender, very well-written book that is the published version of the Wellek Library Lectures Butler gave at the University of California, Irvine, in May 1998. Butler starts out:
I began to think about Antigone a few years ago as I wondered what happened to those feminist efforts to confront and defy the state. It seemed to me that Antigone might work as a counterfigure to the trend championed by recent feminists to seek the backing and authority of the state to implement feminist policy aims. The legacy of Antigone's defiance appeared to be lost in the contemporary efforts to recast political opposition as legal plaint and to seek the legitimacy of the state in the espousal of feminist claims.
Butler's study of Antigone led her someplace she had not anticipated. Rather than view Antigone as the figure who defies the state in the person of her uncle, Creon the King, who has forbidden her to bury her brother Polyneices--"I say that I did it and I do not deny it"--Butler follows some of her own most important intellectual mentors, namely, the Enlightenment philosopher and founder of dialectics, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and the poststructuralist psychoanalysts Jacques Lacan and Luce Irigaray, in viewing Antigone "not as a political figure, one whose defiant speech has political implications, but rather as one who articulates a prepolitical opposition to politics, representing kinship as the sphere that conditions the possibility of politics without ever entering into it." Butler is interested in Antigone as a liminal figure between the family and the state, between life and death (this is the choice she must make, and in her defiance of Creon she chooses the latter), but also as a figure, like all her kin, who represents the nonnormative family, a set of kinship relations that seems to defy the standard model.
In addition, there is a contemporary occasion for Antigone's Claim, one that is elucidated in Butler's new preface to the tenth-anniversary edition of Gender Trouble, in which she declares her interest in "increasing the possibilities for a livable life for those who live, or try to live, on the sexual margins." I do not think it amiss to describe Antigone's Claim as dedicated to those who try to die on the sexual margins. Though directly referred to only occasionally in her text, it is the specter of death as a result of AIDS that haunts Antigone's Claim, and the particular dilemma AIDS presents to those who live and die outside the boundaries of normative family and kinship relations. Toward the end of the third and final chapter, "Promiscuous Obedience," Butler states:
For those relations that are denied legitimacy, or that demand new terms of legitimation, are neither dead nor alive, figuring the nonhuman at the border of the human. And it is not simply that these are relations that cannot be honored, cannot be openly acknowledged, and cannot therefore be publicly grieved, but that these relations involve persons who are also restricted in the very act of grieving, who are denied the power to confer legitimacy on loss.
The outlines of the troubled Theban family are well-known. Oedipus Rex, actually written after Antigone (442 BCE) though its action precedes it, begins with the problem of a plague. As a priest informs us:
A blight is on the fruitful plants of the
A blight is on the cattle of the fields,
a blight is on our women that no children
are born to them; a God that carries fire,
a deadly pestilence, is on our town,
strikes us and spares not, and the house
is emptied of its people while black
grows rich in groaning and in
Soon, of course, we learn what the trouble is, when the blind seer Teiresias informs Oedipus the King, "You are the land's pollution." Unwittingly, the man has murdered his own father during an altercation at a crossroads, wedded his own mother and produced four offspring who are in fact his half-siblings. This unbearable truth causes his wife and mother Jocasta to hang herself in the polluted bedchamber, where afterward Oedipus tears the brooches from her robe in order to blind his own eyes. Toward the end of Antigone's Claim, Butler raises an issue that supports my reading of the book's contemporary occasion: "Consider that the horror of incest, the moral revulsion it compels in some, is not that far afield from the same horror and revulsion felt toward lesbian and gay sex, and is not unrelated to the intense moral condemnation of voluntary single parenting, or gay parenting, or parenting arrangements with more than two adults involved (practices that can be used as evidence to support a claim to remove a child from the custody of the parent in several states in the United States)."
In Oedipus at Colonus (401 BCE), the middle play of the trilogy but written last, an old, blind Oedipus is led onstage by his daughter Antigone. (Sigmund Freud, who did so much for the Oedipus myth, referred at the end of his life to his daughter and fellow psychoanalyst Anna Freud as his "Antigone.") Here, the theme of proper burial, which is so important a theme in Antigone and in Antigone's Claim, receives advance treatment. Oedipus begs of Theseus, King of Athens, a proper burial when he dies, that Theseus accept "the gift" of his "beaten self: no feast for the eyes." The oracle has prophesied that if Oedipus's sons do not tend his corpse, Thebes will be conquered by Athens, and Oedipus wants revenge on his sons because they drove him into exile from Thebes. When Polyneices makes an appearance toward the end of Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus not only rejects his son's plea to join his side against his other son, presently in possession of Thebes, he curses them both; a curse that comes to pass between the action of Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, when in battle both brothers die at once on the other's sword. Polyneices' final words in the trilogy are spoken at the end of Oedipus at Colonus to his beloved sister Antigone, to whom he offers a blessing if she will honor his corpse with burial rites. And here we have arrived at Antigone and Antigone's Claim.
From the start of her career, Judith Butler has been on a quest for a theory of the subject that might work for "those who live, or try to live, on the sexual margins." As she stated in her new preface to the recent reissue of her first book, Subjects of Desire: "In a sense, all of my work remains within the orbit of a certain set of Hegelian questions: What is the relation between desire and recognition, and how is it that the constitution of the subject entails a radical and constitutive relation to alterity?" Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit has underwritten most of Butler's work, as has the work of Lacan, whose seminar on "The Ethics of Psychoanalysis" is the other major influence on Antigone's Claim. The book both follows from Butler's earlier work and turns in some interesting new directions; namely, it moves explicitly into the realm of ethics and implicitly into practical politics.
While Butler has tended in the past to focus particularly on the section of the Phenomenology of Spirit that deals with the famous "Lordship and Bondage" relation, in Antigone's Claim she makes what seems like an inevitable advance in the text, given the confluence of her present interests, into the section of the Phenomenology that deals with "the true Spirit: The ethical order." In this part, Hegel argues that it is the "Family" that "as the element of the nation's actual existence...stands opposed to the nation itself; as the immediate being of the ethical order, it stands over against that order which shapes and maintains itself by working for the universal; the Penates [household gods] stand opposed to the universal Spirit." For Hegel, it is woman who is associated with these household gods that stand opposed to the universal Spirit or the state; it is woman who is associated with the divine, as opposed to the human, law. The figure of Antigone upholds the divine law when she buries her brother Polyneices (twice) in defiance of her uncle Creon, who has ordered that the corpse of a man who threatened the integrity of the state will be left to rot in the sun, torn by beasts and birds.
Butler's affinities with a philosophical tradition arising from Hegel--the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxist philosophers and social critics (though she rarely if ever refers to them in her work)--are not limited to her use of difficult language, which notoriously won her a Bad Writing Award from the journal Philosophy and Literature. Butler shares with the Frankfurt School a fundamental, one might say foundational, debt to the Hegelian dialectic, which Marx harnessed in his theories of history. Hegel explains his dialectic in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit:
Knowledge is only actual, and can only be expounded, as Science or as system; and furthermore, that a so-called basic proposition or principle of philosophy, if true, is also false, just because it is only a principle. It is, therefore, easy to refute it. The refutation consists in pointing out its defect; and it is defective because it is only the universal or principle, is only the beginning. If the refutation is thorough, it is derived and developed from the principle itself, not accomplished by counter-assertions and random thoughts from outside.
The Hegelian dialectic is a philosophical tradition a classical liberal humanist like Martha Nussbaum does not, apparently, have much sympathy for. It's unfortunate that Nussbaum did not take on this philosophical difference in attacking Butler in The New Republic last February. Instead of accepting the work as being of a tradition "that seeks to provoke critical examination of the basic vocabulary of the movement of thought to which it belongs," in Butler's self-characterization, Nussbaum isolates her as a philosopher:
Butler gains prestige in the literary world by being a philosopher; many admirers associate her manner of writing with philosophical profundity. But one should ask whether it belongs to the philosophical tradition at all, rather than to the closely related but adversarial traditions of sophistry and rhetoric.
According to Nussbaum, Butler is a "new symbolic type" of feminist thinker, influenced by a lot of French "postmodernist" ideas. In Nussbaum's vision, Butler is the Pied Piper of academia, traipsing off with all the "young feminists" behind her. Not only does Nussbaum claim that Butler's ideas are philosophically soft (if they are even philosophy at all), but she claims that Butler is leading a trend away from engaged feminism, having traded "real politics" for "symbolic verbal politics." The "new feminism" of Judith Butler "instructs its members that there is little room for large-scale social change, and maybe no room at all." From here, Nussbaum stoops to condescension ("In public discussions, she proves that she can speak clearly and has a quick grasp of what is said to her") and, ultimately, after several swipes at Butler's "sexy acts of parodic subversion," to the astonishing claim that Butler "purveys a cruel lie, and a lie that flatters evil by giving it much more power than it actually has": Butler's "hip quietism," according to Nussbaum, "collaborates with evil."
In Antigone's Claim, it is not only Antigone's public grief over Polyneices and her insistence that she bury him that absorbs Butler's interest but also the way in which her defiance of Creon, her condemnation to death and the taking of her own life (like her mother, Jocasta, she hangs herself) "fails to produce heterosexual closure for that drama"--if Antigone had complied, she would have married Creon's son and presumably become a mother. This, Butler claims, "may intimate the direction for a psychoanalytic theory that takes Antigone [as opposed to Oedipus] as its point of departure," namely, a psychoanalytic theory that would step outside the confines of compulsory heterosexuality.
And yet Butler's attraction to this particular family drama goes further back. While for Freud and for Lacan after him the Oedipal drama is a paradigm that in various ways instates, by way of prohibition, normative heterosexuality and kinship relations, Butler views this drama differently. In its deviations from the law and in its apparent need for prohibition, the most famous Theban family represents not just the predicament of those who live on the sexual margins but in a more historical sense, the family and kinship relations of our times:
Consider that in the situation of blended families, a child says "mother" and might expect more than one individual to respond to the call. Or that, in the case of adoption, a child might say "father" and might mean both the absent phantasm she never knew as well as the one who assumes that place in living memory. The child might mean that at once, or sequentially, or in ways that are not always clearly disarticulated from one another. Or when a young girl comes to be fond of her stepbrother, what dilemma of kinship is she in? For a woman who is a single mother and has her child without a man, is the father still there, a spectral "position" or "place" that remains unfilled, or is there no such "place" or "position"?... And when there are two men or two women who parent, are we to assume that some primary division of gendered roles organizes their psychic places within the scene, so that the empirical contingency of two same-gendered parents is nevertheless straightened out by the presocial psychic place of the Mother and Father...that every psyche must accept regardless of the social form that kinship takes?
Butler sees in the Oedipal story an allegorical reflection of things as they presently are; what if, rather than prohibiting such things, we took them as our starting point; what if we accepted the nonnormative? Second, Butler wants to move the fulcrum of the drama a generation forward because Antigone occupies a position not only between life and death, and not only between private and public, between the family and the state: Antigone figures for Butler a desirable transition into the world of ethics that does not forget familial origins. This is made clear in Antigone's extended exit speech, one Butler focuses especially on. On the point of being led away to her death, Antigone argues that her brother Polyneices is irreplaceable and therefore had to be honored by her even though it means her own death. A husband or child could have been replaced, but since her parents are no longer alive, not a brother.
What is the law that lies behind these
One husband gone, I might have found
or a child from a new man in first child's
but with my parents hid away in death,
no brother, ever, could spring up for me.
Such was the law by which I honored
In this speech one senses that Antigone is finally at peace. For she, like the rest of her family, is characterized as much by her personal moral sense as she is by her strange kinship predicament. And one senses in Butler's interest in these lines a homage to those who have lived, or have tried to live, and to those who have died "on the sexual margins."
While partisans debate whether a victorious George W. Bush would nominate Supreme Court Justices who would overturn Roe v.
On a bitingly cold October night two years ago in Laramie, Wyoming, a biker came upon a young man, unconscious, his sweet face ruined by a rain of blows, bound to a fence with ferocious tightness. Rushed to a hospital, he lingered for five days in the twilight world between life and death, never regaining consciousness.
Even before his death, this young man, Matthew Shepard, had been molded into an icon whose name and image were known to the world. Overnight, he became the centerpiece of a Princess Diana-like cascade of candlelight vigils, more astonishing because of their spontaneity, the inspiration as well for prayer meetings and angry protests. Meanwhile, Laramie was also being remade, tagged by the media as a town without pity.
In the months that followed, the Matthew Shepard story was ceaselessly retold and re-spun. There were stories dissecting the murder and re-creating the events leading up to it. There were biographical sketches of the victim--everyone's brother, everyone's son or secret lover; accounts that constructed, and afterward tried to tear down, the myth of innocence despoiled. There were renderings of the killers, hapless and shiftless characters, caught by the police even as Matt lay dying, young men whose biographies could have been lifted straight from Boys Don't Cry. And there were stories about the place itself, variously portrayed as Our Town and living hell, where these events occurred [see Donna Minkowitz, "Love and Hate in Laramie," July 12, 1999].
The print reporters and TV crews came and went, migrating with the seasons like whales--on the scene in the aftermath of the killing; back again for the killers' days in court. In their wake came those who saw in the tragedy the stuff of film or theater, as well as celebrities like Elton John and Peter, Paul and Mary, resuscitated for the occasion, who charged $42,500 for a benefit concert that wound up losing money.
Beth Loffreda arrived in Laramie a few months before the murder to take up a teaching job at the university, and she's still there. Losing Matt Shepard benefits greatly from the long-view perspective, as well as from Loffreda's personal struggle to come to terms with her adopted hometown.
In the tradition of Melissa Fay Green's Praying for Sheetrock, another beautifully told tale of love and violence in small-town America, Beth Loffreda has crafted a richly layered narrative that encompasses both the deed and the community where it occurred. Laramie is as liberal as things get in the pridefully insular world of Wyoming, a state with fewer than half a million souls, little known to the rest of the nation. The state university is there, its faculty listing slightly to the left, and there are trace elements of "Bo-Bo" life, decent cappuccinos and stylish pottery on offer. But Laramie can't be confused with Austin or Madison--its values are far less worldly, its tacit code of conduct narrower and more rigid. To those who belong, Laramie embodies the best of the American past: unforced hospitality, concern for one's neighbors. Yet many people who live there are treated as if they don't belong. Latinos and Native Americans talk about themselves as outside the pale--exotics if not threats, the subject of unapologetic stares and sometimes worse. Though Wyoming calls itself the "Equality State," the people who live on the wrong side of the tracks in Laramie, their trailers fronting unpaved streets--among them, the men who killed Matt Shepard--are similarly excluded.
Longtime Laramie residents recite that their town "is a 'live and let live' kind of place--we don't get into other people's business," yet there isn't much breathing room for difference. For those who don't fit into the corseted little universe, the pathway to survival entails leading a "don't ask, don't tell" life. When Matt Shepard walked into the Fireside Bar dressed to the nines, his patent-leather shoes gleaming in the light, he was violating the code, to shudderingly terrible consequence. In this sense, the killing was as predictable and overdetermined as the one in Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
Determinism misses the mark, though, for the linkages between place and event are tricky to fashion. Matt Shepard cannot, of course, explain himself. His killers and their girlfriend-accomplices have gone mute, after bouts of braggadocio that obliterated their credibility. This vacuum has been filled with myriad, and sometimes ghoulish, speculations: The killing was a simple robbery or a hate crime; an act tacitly condoned by the prevailing mores; the result of the killers' loveless childhoods; the impulse of someone on a meth high; a way for the murderers to obliterate the dark shadow of the "wuss within." While there is some truth to be extracted from many of these explanations, the mix is unknowable; the reason Matt Shepard was so brutally put to death most likely remains obscure even to the killers themselves.
Losing Matt Shepard is a powerful meditation on the distortions inherent in the ways we comprehend the world. Comprehending the minute particulars is critical to understanding, and reductionism is always perilous; but there's no avoiding the need to simplify reality in order to make meaning. "We make that move too easily--that move from the narrow strip of fence where Matt died to the big cultural and political weather fronts grinding along overhead," Loffreda writes. "That move is necessary, I think, if we want to change that weather, but the trip should be hard, something we can't map out easily in advance."
This tension, between the larger world and the world in a grain of sand, plays itself out in Laramie, which in the wake of the murder becomes a green room--a place of double consciousness where one's values and actions are constantly under scrutiny, an intrusive probing that leads residents to reframe their own stories, to spin their lives to the media and ultimately to themselves.
In recent years scores of gay men have been even more brutally murdered than Matt Shepard, to no public notice. In the early 1990s, Steve Heyman, a University of Wyoming professor who advised the campus's gay group, was found dead, apparently tossed from a moving car; no one outside Laramie paid any attention. But Shepard's story, replete with its widely circulated, indelible and misleading symbols--the crucifixion that really was a more prosaic hogtying; the setting, in a place far less remote than the camera angles depicted--came to represent all the other incidents of gay violence. It served as a Rorschach blot, a way to filter America's uneasiness about homosexuality, to comprehend our love-hate relationship with community.
Organizations at both ends of the ideological spectrum turned the murder to their apparent advantage. The appearances of a defrocked minister and his tiny flock, and Matthew Shepard: Burn in Hell banners (more wittily, a sign reading Save the Gerbils), were offset by the theatrics of a handful of students whose outsized angels' wings kept the preacher's signs out of camera range. National gay groups made Shepard the centerpiece of their fundraising campaigns, though Loffreda points out that they gave nothing back to the gay people of Laramie itself. SOFAITH (Society of Families Anchored in Truth and Honor) seized the moment to assail gay "behaviors" and policies supportive of gays. A Denver-based theater troupe descended on the town, interviewing hundreds of residents. Out of those interviews came The Laramie Project, first staged in Denver and then on Broadway [see Elizabeth Pochoda, "The Talk in Laramie," June 19]. As theater, it's as flat and featureless as the prairie, stultifyingly innocuous, entirely unrevealing of character or motivation, without insight. The play's weaknesses have less to do with the talent of the playwright than with the raw material. Laramie's residents were suffering interpretation fatigue by the time the tape recorders were turned on. They had polished speeches for the tape recorders but little of consequence to say.
Losing Matt Shepard ends with the political push, ultimately successful, to pass a bias-crimes ordinance in Laramie. At the time of the murder, a hate-crimes bill was stalled in the state legislature, for all the familiar reasons, and the killing swayed few if any lawmakers' votes. Soon after the murder, the Laramie City Council issued a proclamation expressing its sympathy to Matthew Shepard's parents and urging that "the healing process" begin--pop psychology become politics--but a handful of citizens, straight and gay, wanted a more concrete response. Eventually the council passed a measure calling for police training and better record-keeping. The detective who developed the case against the killers, himself a model of compassion and forensic intelligence, dismissively characterized it a "feel-good" gesture. Yet in Laramie--a town so conservative that a gay assistant professor feared acknowledging her sexuality for fear of jeopardizing her chance for tenure; a place so fearful of gay-bashing that the phone number for the AIDS hotline is unlisted, to discourage threatening calls--this tiny political step makes a difference. It puts Laramie on record as committed to protecting the most basic liberties of gay men and lesbians. In these times, and in this place, that's cause for cheer.