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.”