Mother Courage

Mother Courage


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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