Editor’s Note: Ellen Willis, a valued contributor to The Nation and a crucial figure in the women’s liberation movement, died on November 9. We invited several of her friends, colleagues and admirers to contribute to this appreciation of her extraordinary life and work.
Ellen and I had a connection that began before we were born. Our mothers were sisters, and very close; we were their first pregnancies, practically simultaneous. They wrote letters to each other constantly before and after giving birth, which they did a month apart. Our earliest pictures show us in the same crib, eyeing each other warily. Ellen was the first person I knew besides my parents, and almost the first thing I remember knowing was that she was smarter than me. That, of course, was long before I knew she was smarter than anyone.
I remember the time both of us, aged 4, were crayoning, and I managed to rip through my coloring book. “I hate these crayons,” I cried. “Judy, don’t be so sarcastic,” she said coolly, a word I wouldn’t understand for years (it would be even more years before I understood she was using the word incorrectly; being a typical 4-year-old, at that moment I really did hate those crayons). At the time, she simply floored me; I stared at her, awed.
As kids, we were together for holidays, vacations and most of the summer, which we spent in Ellenville, New York, the small Catskills town where our mothers had grown up. Because of the war, and our fathers’ absences, Ellen and I made it to age 6 before we had to deal with siblings, first one, then two years later another, apiece (our mothers really were amazingly in sync). Becoming big sisters was a challenge. We handled it by first developing a deep yearning for a big sister of our own, and second, inventing one.
Her name was Margaret, our favorite name of the moment, and she was, we decided, away at camp–this, we figured, would explain her absence to anyone churlish enough to question her existence. We painstakingly composed a letter from her, which had her complaining about camp–Ellen thought that was a good touch, since we could then act annoyed at her complaints. We spent several days running around the small town of Ellenville, calling her name, informing anyone who looked at us quizically that she was just up ahead, around the corner. For some reason this whole venture satisfied us.
The odd thing was it never occurred to either of us that there was no way we could have had a mutual older sister. Obviously, it had never occurred to us that we weren’t sisters ourselves.
We shared many things, growing up. Books, for one. Almost every year we had a special book. We were 10 when we discovered Anne Frank. She affected us strongly, though not, I’m afraid, the same way she affected everyone else. What got to us was the fact that she had been on the spot at a particularly important time and place–and written it all down, earning eternal fame. We immediately started diaries of our own, even giving them names, silly as that seemed, since it had worked for her. We then set out to find adventures to record. It was slim pickings, back in 1950s surburbia, but we strove valiantly. One day we went for a walk and a dog followed us for an hour–Sandy, an amiable Irish setter. Thrilled, we ran home and rushed to our notebooks to record it.