The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant:
BR: In your chapters on the Left and on the murder of Petra Kelly (the founder of the Green Party) by her lover, you described experiences of confronting intense sexism within activist organizations. What more can you communicate to women and girls about the possibilities or problems of working with male activists or with the contemporary Green Party?
working with male activists, youll always confront some kind
of deep-seated double standard or misogyny. It doesnt mean that
you shouldnt do it, but do it with your eyes open. Theres
a tendency that many of us have, I include myselfto romanticize
men who are on our side or who claim to be on our side. My view has
always been about this, that we know them by what they do, not by what
they say. Not that words arent important, but its easy
enough to be a sympathizer with feminism and in particular a sympathizer
with a particular feminist without making any kind of material contribution.
I think that its on the level of material contributions that
men need to be known by feminist women.
BR: Your descriptions of anti-Semitism and Christian dominance in your educational experience and neighborhood and in your time in Greece were really powerful and frightening to read. Your previous book, Scapegoat, engaged with Jewish identity and women in really powerful ways as well. What do you want your readers to understand about the impact of anti-Semitism in shaping your feminist politics and about the relationship between anti-Semitism and sexism?
AD: The importance
that it had for me was that I found out about the Holocaust when I
was very young, and before American Jews talked about it, and they
certainly didnt talk about it in front of children. Ive
written about that I think in an essay in Life and Death, where I went
to an aunts houseI just called her an aunt, but she was
actually a cousinand she was bouncing off the walls. It was April,
and that was the month that was hardest for her. She was a survivor
of all the concentration camps on Schindlers list, but she was
never one of Schindlers Jews, and so she also had the experience
of the death march from Auschwitz. She had what we now call flashbacks.
She was re-living what had happened to her, and she was telling me
about it, and I was ten. She was describing it for me. I didnt
have any intellectual barriers to it, so I could see what she was describing.
So, I knew things about the Holocaust that at that time other people
in the United States didnt know, and it always made me feel very
strongly about torture, about human rights. It set me off in the direction
of wanting to do something about what I call social sadism. You know,
accepted sadistic acts against people.
BR: Relative to your high school and college education, youve described this predatory, emotionally and sexually exploitative dynamic between male professors and female students. What can feminists do to resist and end the sexual exploitation--- or the sexist exploitationof youth within education?
AD: Boy, that is so hard! That is such a hard question. The high school teacher that I described in Heartbreak was also the only one who would answer questions honestly or with some degree of recognizing you as an intelligent human being who was curious. Then he took advantage of that curiosity by turning it to sex, in particular sex with him. In the college that I went to, the faculty were parasites on the student body. The faculty being mostly malealmost all maleand the students being almost all female, that was taken as just par for the course. It was just considered normal. In my generation, a lot of us who were rebellious took that to be the right way to do things. We wanted to be seen as adults, and we wanted adult relationships with people. We were disgusted by being treated like children, even when we were children. There will always be predatory men who are good at exploiting the vulnerabilities of much younger people. Hopefully with feminism, there wont be as many of them, it wont be such a way of life. But for now, there are these manipulative men, and children are easy to manipulate. At some point it hits youprobably when youre not so young and pretty anymorethat youve been used a lot by men who really dont care about you, but only about themselves. In terms of what to do about it, as far as I can see, its like the sunshine laws in politics. The only thing you can do about it is be honest with kids, instead of trying to sugarcoat childhood and pretend that its a time of total innocence that shouldnt be marred by knowledge. You have to really be honest with children about the kind of world they live in, not in a way that frightens them, but in a way that just doesnt lie to them.
BR: If you
were speaking to a room of teenage girls, what would you say to them
about survival, and sexuality, and men?
AD: Survival and sexuality and men well, first of all, I probably would never be asked to speak to a room of teenage girls, so there are problems I dont have to solve. (laughter) But what I would tell them would be about the exploitation of women. And I would tell them about having more pride than to do anything just because a man tells you that he loves you or he wants to have sex with you. Try to find that thing inside that tells you what you really want to do, what choice you really want to makeand to see yourself as the choice-maker. Also realize that the world is bigger than you are, and you cant fight it only as an individual. You have to fight it politically, as part of a movement, while at the same time, always honoring your own individual integrity. I would point out that most teenage girls who get pregnant are pregnant, the Justice Department says, by men who are very much older than they arein their late twenties and early thirties. Those men have no sense of responsibility towards the offspring. They are breaking the law, because they are not supposed to have sex with those girls, and men often exploit women for sex. Now what some teenage girls would do would be to say: "but none of thats true about me. You know, it might be generally true, but thats not the way he is with me." I would say that its more likely to be true than not, and they would leave, believing probably what they believed when they came into the room, but later, they would remember it, and it would make a difference.
BR: In your chapter on talking with Anita Hoffman (who was married to Abbie Hoffman)--- helping talk her out of prostitution, you describe realizing that your experiences in surviving prostitution and your knowledge of sexual violence could help other women and girls. Since then, have you drawn on your experiences of prostitution in your feminist work?
AD: Well, I draw on it by writing about it--- by writing about prostitution in general, and by acknowledging my own experience with it. The BBC made a documentary of a group of prostituted women out in Oregon with whom I had very long conversations. Those conversations were filmed and edited. I have a transcript of the whole thingseven or eight hours. That transcript is now in the Schlessinger library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I have been able to network with women who are trying to get out of prostitution or have in some way or another put it behind themand that includes famous women like Linda Marciano (aka Linda Lovelace) who just died recently, and it includes women that nobody has ever heard of, who feel like they are nobody, and other feminist activists who have had the experience. So its become an important part of my life. I didnt feel that I could publish a book without going into the experience of prostitution. And that may be part of what puts people in general off about this book. They seem to find that its a book about sexual abuse. Its not, really. But the last third of it certainly is about prostitution, and I felt a responsibility to do that.
BR: Youve been the trusted recipient of so much individual testimony about sexual violence. What has it meant to you to hear and carry those stories?
been very hard. I still honor that women have trusted me as much as
they have, women I dont know. When I travel, I usually find that
I could go to any city in the United States, and there would be a group
of women who cared about whether I lived or died. That warms my heartthat
obviously would make anybody feel very good. And, it validates my work.
But, its like living inside a nightmare that doesnt stop,
and thats really the point, that it doesnt stop.
BR: In your chapter, "Sister, can you spare a dime?", you described how the leadership of the National Organization for Women sicced the police on a protest of the sex industries by poor women in 1984. What has been your perception or experience of the NOW since then?
AD: I havent had many. Every now and then, a local chapter invites me to speak, but not very often anymore. I have nothing to do with NOW. Im a member, but I have nothing to do with it.
BR: What do you want to communicate to upcoming feminist writers?
funny, Im working on an essay on writing right now. So Ive
been thinking about it a great deal.
BR: What are you working on next?
AD: Ive started something. I dont know if Im going to finish it. Its something Ive wanted to do, but I had the vision of doing it later in my life. Its a piece of fiction, and I am not sure if Ill continue with it or not. Im very ambivalent about itI am not writing the way I thought that this project should be. I dont know whether to trust myself or not, to follow the kind of prose I started out with. So, Im just not sure what Im going to do. I still have health stuff people tell me that the recovery from major surgery is a long one. I get more mentally tired than I used to; I tire out more easily when I do things. This is the first time in my life as a writer that I havent known exactly what I wanted to do. In some sense, its scary not to have something thats pulling me forward.
BR: What was it like to write your memoir? Did it feel different from your other work?
AD: It was different because I was sick the last few years and was in a great deal of pain. I started working on it, and when I was trying to think about things in my earlier lifethings that made me feel happy, things that I like to rememberI would make my way up to my office. We have a lot of stairs, John and I, in our house, and I have arthritis in my knees, so it was very hard for me to come up to work. I wasnt working every night the way I used to work. I would work just a couple of hours during the day on the memoir, and I didnt know if I had anything or not. But, it went relatively easily, and its the second book of my life thats been a real gift to me. The first one was Ice and Fire, which I wrote one summer and re-wrote the next summer. This book, Heartbreak, I wrote in three or four months, after taking nine years with Scapegoat, so it felt like a gift. I wrote it in a completely different way than any of my other work has been written.
Ribet's Review of Heartbreak