I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
Madness, SCUM Manifesto, and Valerie Solanas—history’s most famous lipstick misandrist.
Breanne Fahs has written an impossible biography. She worked on Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol) (Feminist Press, 2014) for over ten years, traipsing across the United States to weave together Solanas’s story from postcards, institutional records, zines, the memories of radical feminists and Warholites, and “discussions in cat-filled apartments.” Valerie was homeless for the majority of her life so writing the biography was like “pursuing the movements of an invisible wolf.” Who was the woman who wrote SCUM Manifesto—one of the most charged, prescient, and militant manifestos in feminist history? What happened to her? Fahs managed to gather unforetold reflections about Solanas from every angle, resulting in the gut-wrenching and electrifying story of a person whose assassination attempt against one man was a symbolic, global patricide: a mission to kill postmodern appropriation, capitalism, and male privilege.
Before Solanas shot Andy Warhol on June 3, 1968, she stopped by playwright Margo Fieden’s house for one last attempt at finding someone to produce her play, Up Your Ass. She had tirelessly hustled her work to people all over New York and repeatedly been declined. A “yes” from Fieden could have been a net; it was Solanas’s last stop before the Factory. Small instances of recognition instead of a lifetime of invisibility could have been a net. But Fieden flatly told her, “You’re wasting your time. I won’t produce it.” On hearing this—the familiar answer that drove her mad—Solanas pressed her hand against the bag she was holding to reveal the outline of a gun. But Fieden didn’t cave, even when Valerie took out the gun and pointed it toward the ceiling, declaring, “Yes, you will produce the play because I’ll shoot Andy Warhol and that will make me famous and the play famous, and then you’ll produce it.” She promptly left to carry out the mission.
Fieden immediately called the police, but the great irony of her position is that neither Warhol’s precinct, lower Manhattan’s police headquarters, nor the offices of Mayor John V. Lindsay and Governor Nelson Rockefeller would listen. She told them Valerie was en route to the Factory at that very moment but was met with gendered condescension and dismissal: “Listen lady, how would you know what a real gun looked like?” and “You’re wasting police time.” With her call, Fieden refused Valerie as crazy and turned to patriarchal infrastructure to save postmodern art’s golden boy, only to be told that she, herself, was crazy. As we learn from Fahs’ retelling, Valerie’s x-ray vision, rarely deemed relevant in her time, was central to women who disowned her.
I spoke with Fahs over email and in Tucson, Arizona.
Liz Kinnamon First, I want to acknowledge what is not only a remarkable biographical feat but also a delicate navigation of an unwieldy, demanding, and complex life story. Previous writings on Solanas perpetrated the exact authorial violations she wrangled with while she was still alive, but your cautious approach to the biography of someone who so fervently insisted upon self-authorship is present throughout the text. Perhaps including psychoanalytic interpretations of Valerie and SCUM Manifesto, medical pathologization, and “man-hating,” what kinds of dominant narratives were you attempting to complicate, and what were some of your most pressing editorial concerns?
Breanne Fahs It’s a scary and daunting task to try to write a biography about someone who spent much of her life resisting appropriation, distortion of her words/works, and who was constantly concerned with her own autonomy and editorial authority. I wanted this book to be as close to the actual facts as possible while still breathing life into her story and giving readers a sense of how deeply complicated, difficult, inspiring, frustrating, and (quite frankly) amazing Valerie was as a person and as a thinker. I found that her work had most often been taken up within academic discourse without much new analysis of original material; in short, few people had really emphasized the complications of her life. Instead, academics and feminists were taking up Valerie as a subject for quite a bit of postmodern, psychoanalytic, and even performance art work rather than looking closely at her story. I completely understand how appealing it is to see Valerie through the lens of high theory; her story (and her “self”) is much like a Rorschach test for women’s rage. Ti-Grace Atkinson noted that too—Valerie invites projection about our own relationship to anger and collective anger in particular. I also wanted to show that, while SCUM Manifesto should stand on its own as an extraordinary text, Valerie’s relationship with that text was wholly unique and fascinating. This biography is as much a biography of Valerie as it is of SCUM Manifesto and its relationship to Valerie (or Valerie and her relationship to the SCUM Manifesto). As far as “man-hating,” I think Valerie’s story makes a case for why we don’t always need to try very hard to either sympathize with, or see the horrors of, patriarchy and its impact on women. Valerie’s story speaks for itself as to why she would be angry with men, masculinity, patriarchy, and the roadblocks, setbacks, terrors women faced during that time (and now!). The book is working to allow Valerie’s story to tell that story of “man-hating” and patriarchy in a light I believe most women can sympathize with, feel, connect to, and at the very least understand.
LK I was thinking throughout the book about precisely that—how she was a Rorschach or a litmus test for everyone she encountered, their responses saying just as much about them and their relationships to feminism as about Valerie herself. Here I’m thinking of Paul Morrissey, for example, the conservative film director and Warhol acolyte who thought Valerie was so unworthy of historicizing that he encouraged you to write a biography about Lady Gaga instead; judging from the book, he was just as patriarchally dismissive to her in person as he was posthumously. Even Avital Ronell’s characterization of her as a “limping straggler and wounded anomaly” in the introduction to Verso’s 2004 edition of SCUM comes dangerously close to the deflation of her character by other commentators. Most importantly though was the result of the Rorschach within the bourgeoning feminist movement at the time. You make the provocative claim that Valerie may have catalyzed the birth of what we know today as radical feminism. Can you talk more about the cleavage (both together and apart) of Valerie and other feminists, especially in the direction of figures like Shulamith Firestone and Jo Freeman? In any possible universe could you imagine her in some kind of sustained solidarity with the other radical feminists?
BF I think it’s important to note that radicals are not born radicals—something has to catalyze their transition into thinking in radical ways, and for Valerie, I think she started off by trying more “within system” change. There’s a story in the book about how Valerie kept a little trunk with her most prized and important belongings. This trunk included Up Your Ass and SCUM Manifesto, of course, along with the “Primer” article she wrote, but she also (curiously) kept a copy of a response she received from famed Constitutional lawyer Paul Freund. She had written to him asking about the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) after she had joined the National Women’s Party and had received a patronizing letter back about how the ERA was covered by the 14th Amendment and not to worry about it. I have always been struck by the fact that she chose to carry this letter around with her instead of letters from her family or other items of value. Something about that letter mattered to her, and I think it showed that Valerie did try at times in her life to be “within movement,” but she ultimately found it disappointing and lacking value. With regard to radical feminists, she had a deep, deep ambivalence about the group of radical feminists who came to her aid after shooting Andy Warhol. On the one hand, she desperately needed their help and would write them letters begging them to visit her and to help her with her case; on the other hand, she felt appropriated and used by some of them and was convinced they were stealing her ideas or had ill intention toward her. Remember, too, that Valerie wasn’t entirely wrong about this. I don’t think she necessarily wanted to be a symbol of rage. She was fanatic about representing herself, so here she was in a dilemma about how to best handle her public persona (relying heavily on people like Flo Kennedy and Ti-Grace Atkinson to help her) while she was disintegrating into deeper paranoia and worrying about how to keep the integrity of her work alive. As far as your point about sustained solidarity, I see Valerie as a destroyer, and I mean that in a positive sense. All social movements need their destroyers—the people who break things, smash things, care little for the “proper” channels of doing things, and mostly work to sabotage and unwork the system. Destruction is not always a bad thing; it can be quite transformative and powerful. Valerie’s role with people like Shulamith Firestone and Jo Freeman and the rest of the group was to serve as this sort of destructive outlier. Radical feminists often admired her because she went for the jugular and characterized her world in highly nihilistic terms. Valerie expressed solidarity through destruction; some radical feminists even now feel deeply empathic and politically aligned with Valerie even though she refused to identify or label herself as “within movement.” Valerie said she wanted no part in a “civil disobedience lunch club.” I love that. She reminds us, however recklessly, that sabotage is a genuine political goal that creates powerful outcomes.
LK I also loved that part: “That peaceful shit is for the birds.” Too many “daddy’s girls” who didn’t want to relinquish their loyalties to men or feminists whose responses to misogyny she deemed incommensurate to the severity of injustice. One of the best effects of Solanas’s destroyer role was to foreground contradictions, or just generally material that had been successfully lodged in the radio silence of the unconscious. Betty Friedan sent telegrams in all caps to Flo Kennedy demanding that NOW members “desist from linking NOW in any way with Valerie Solanas” and called Valerie’s politics “irrelevant” to NOW’s goals, but until your book, few would have known that Friedan chased her husband down the beach on Fire Island with a carving knife after a fight, screaming she was going to “cut it off.” Valerie’s apperception was stunning. Many feminists’ empathy and alignment with her now makes so much sense precisely because of her fixation on self-representation; you write throughout the book about Valerie’s visionary predictions of ATMs, test-tube babies, Viagra, and artificial insemination, but I’m obsessed with the fact that she wrote SCUM Manifesto before the Internet: before selfies, before Women’s Studies, before the self-validation philosophy of “feminist narcissism” or the Tumblr hashtag “lipstick misandry.” From mental institutions she warned people to keep on the lookout for her new book, to be titled simply Valerie Solanas. She wore makeup to the factory the day she shot Warhol. Valerie is history’s most famous lipstick misandrist. I might also say that SCUM emerges as almost kitsch or twee for what could be called a fourth-wave of feminists—Internet fluent, vacillating between second and third waves, corporealities extended through technology—but barring the sheen of “cuteness” around those reclamations, the manifesto borders on banal because so familiar, so timely. Valerie was cyborgian with her trunk of personal belongings; her embodiment was augmented, enhanced by the technologies of her ideas. I wonder if you have any thoughts about what you call her “odd contemporariness.”
BF It’s intriguing that you see Valerie’s futuristic sort of vision as “fourth wave” and deeply connected to the ways we now see and understand the Internet. I see this more as one of the great powers of madness. In my work as a therapist and as a writer, I am increasingly convinced that madness has a way of cutting through, rethinking, reimagining, reworking reality in such a way that it allows for clear-sighted thinking about incredibly muddy things, and muddy thinking about very simple things. Her odd contemporary flair was indebted deeply to her relationship to madness and is something that should not be overlooked; madness is so easily dismissed as irrelevant or as a reason itself to not read/engage with/take seriously Valerie’s ideas. I see it quite the opposite. From Artaud to Nietzsche, madness (in men) has a particular place in the line of visionary, forward-thinking progressive “genius” thinkers. Valerie harbored incredibly paranoid ideas but they always took root in the real (as is true for many “mad” people). Avital Ronell has described schizophrenia using the metaphor of the telephone, implying that the speaker needs to connect to someone on the other end. With madness, the speech act may only connect generations later. We may be more receptive now to understanding and appreciating Valerie compared to the 1960s (though she did have a true impact/influence on that time as well). Madness is often like a live wire looking for grounding, looking for a place to “dial in” or connect. Remember, too, that Valerie maintained deep suspicion about technology as well—intrusions about her uterus, concerns about 24/7 tracking and monitoring of people, and surveillance all made her deeply and profoundly anxious. There’s perhaps a lesson in that; if (corporate, patriarchal, banal) Facebook is supposedly our “revolution,” we are in serious trouble.
LK One of the best things the biography does is complicate “madness,” though. While sometimes Valerie’s “mental health skidded on the edge” you also give anecdotes from people who thought she was “uncannily pleasant” and “stunningly brilliant”—a bit eccentric or difficult perhaps but “no more unstable than others,” in the words of Majority Report editor Nancy Borman. And these characterizations varied from person to person but also from one time period to the next. You portray illness as looming, imminent, easily accessible; mental health is a sediment made of layers that accumulate or erode over time according to historical events, stability, and access to resources. In her review of Valerie Solanas at LA Review of Books, Andi Zeisler comfortably writes of Valerie’s paranoia that the “mob” was tracking her with an intrauterine device as evidence of “full-blown mental illness.” But in the book you reveal that she was sent to a series of mental institutions infamous for human rights violations, including physical abuse and murder at the hands of guards, electroshock therapy, and medical maltreatment. Doctors at Bellevue Hospital removed her uterus. As with so many of Valerie’s paranoias, what is really the difference between undergoing an experimental hysterectomy in an asylum and having been violated by the “mob”? I’m thinking about Ronell’s statement that Solanas’s text arises out of “the steady psychoticization of women, a threat under which most of us live and against whose coarse endurance we contribute enormous amounts of energy.”
BF I, too, am struck with the realness of madness that we as women all face. We will eventually be accused of being “too much,” “over the edge,” “crazy” and probably worse, especially if we choose to tell the truth about things. Valerie’s madness was irrefutable, and yet its manifestation and its relationship to truth (her truth, the truth of others deceiving or exploiting her, the truth of what it’s like to be abused or neglected or denied access to power) is a bit more tricky to assess. Foucault has outlined the ways that madness and truth once joined together, in a historical sense, prior to the invention of the mental hospital (which essentially quarantined the mad away from the so-called sane and thus destroyed the truth that people saw in madness). The same can be said of the women’s movement, of feminism, and of US culture today. We choose to see madness not as something that holds a mirror up to ourselves, or shows us parts of ourselves we cannot yet accept/understand, but as something abhorrent and abject, as something used to discard and discredit. Valerie’s madness in no way discredited her as a truth-teller, as the uterus example points out. Maybe that’s a radical statement, but I think feminism can evolve tremendously if we understand not only the madness that many of our foremothers have faced (both in accusation and reality), but the ways that we will inevitably face accusations of it as individuals, as collectives, as women. Ronell’s description of madness as something with “coarse endurance” seems right. In a panel at NYU at the book launch of Valerie Solanas, she, Karen Finley, Lisa Duggan, and I worked to unravel the connection between madness and feminist rage. Rather than running from such accusations of feminists as “crazy” or “angry,” these women dove head on into it, like a crashing wave, and powerfully assessed Valerie in light of her madness and through her madness. Karen Finley performed feminist rage and talked about a homeless woman on the subway as it related to her own family history of mental illness, and Avital Ronell carefully outlined the difference between destruction (something to be embraced and welcomed) versus devastation (something that ends us). This conversation signaled an apt characterization of madness not as a dichotomous experience of “being” or “not being” mad, but as, you say, a complicated sediment, something we must continuously dig through, assess, understand, and work painfully hard to make sense of.
LK Speaking of being “too much,” you wrote this amazing line: “Perhaps Valerie’s energy, vigor, and ferocity provided Andy with an amusing contrast to his own limp personality.” I’m thrilled that, in line with your preference for keeping Andy Warhol in parentheses in the book title, we’ve kept him parenthetical here. But I want to take him out for a minute to comment on the fact that a lot of people at the time of the shooting balked at her choice of Warhol as a target, thinking him an odd symbol of patriarchal culture because he was queer, passive, and the opposite of hypermasculine. Of course this raises questions about what masculinity is, but contrary to the idea of male dominance as primarily operant through negativity, there’s a certain way Warhol makes perfect sense as a target because he embodied the aloofness and indifference afforded by male privilege (or privilege at all). Of course someone who had poured themselves into a work would lash out after continually being shrugged off, belittled, and invisible. The crux of this dismissal was his losing her play.
BF I’m amused that Valerie chose Andy as her target as well; certainly, they had an odd relationship, characterized by some sort of mutual admiration and affection but also anger, fear, and paranoia. Everything about Andy emphasized detachment, aloofness, distance, and a cerebral insistence on not caring or feeling much of anything. His art, too, had this quality of the distanced, alienated consumer, reduced to redundant forms and repetition. Valerie, on the other hand, wanted revolution, and her art/work showed intensity, singularity, persistence, urgency, and had none of the qualities of detachment Andy seemed to so prize. There were many descriptions of Andy sitting in the back room of Max’s Kansas City with his entourage simply floating above the conversation, sitting quietly amused, watching others live while he felt rather dead. One could imagine Valerie feeling enraged by this; she was all heat and venom and energy, and Andy was floating above all of that. I like your analysis of Andy as a quintessential symbol of male privilege, evidenced too by his ability to reinvent himself as the king of the bohemian elite. Valerie and Andy had similar roots, yet Valerie’s attempts to reinvent herself as a full-blown revolutionary were continually met with frustrations and difficulties; Andy’s attempts to declare himself the king of the pop art world were met with adoration and celebrity (and still are!). I still somehow love the fact that they both had affection for each other in some strange, non-romantic way. Valerie shot Andy and he essentially replied, “This is in her nature. She can’t be blamed for this.”
LK I wanted to ask you about the trans* question, since one of the primary charges against Solanas and the manifesto is that they’re transphobic. Did your intimate contact with her during the research process shed new light on this aspect? The criticism seems to center around accusations that she’s essentialist, but I was sort of surprised in re-reading Up Your Ass to find her staging of the encounter between two drag queens, Miss Collins and Scheherazade, more nuanced and spacious than many characterizations of her position. She not only writes Bongi’s intimacy with the queens into the script—they both kiss her on the cheek, Bongi flirts with them—but she uses masculine pronouns in her stage directions at the same time she has the queens referring to each other with feminine pronouns. One reading of this is to see Solanas’ narrative voice as inserting a strong-handed essentialist perspective, with the masculine pronouns overriding the queens’ identifications, though of course this is 1965 and we don’t know how the characters identify beyond what Solanas provides in this scene. But another reading is to see the disparity and contradictions between pronouns and characters’ positions as generative. In this scene, Solanas has Miss Collins make a quasi-come-on to Bongi, which could be read as both heteronormative and queer, given Bongi’s gender non-normativity: “You better watch how you sit, Miss Thing; after all, we’re still men.” Scheherazade responds, “Speak for yourself.”
MISS COLLINS: I face reality, and the reality is that we’re men.
SCHEHERAZADE: You are what you look like.
BONGI: You are very pretty for a boy.
SCHEHERAZADE (controlled anger): What do you mean? For a boy? Look, not to brag but I know what I’ve got.
MISS COLLINS: But do you know where you’ve got it? It’s between your legs.
SCHEHERAZADE: Ooooo, she’s so vile. Miss trashy-ass.
MISS COLLINS: Maybe so, but at least I’d never wear gold eye glitter to an afternoon-mixer. Anyway it’s true, true, true and you know it’s true–you’d jump right in the sack after a piece of pussy.
SCHEHERAZADE (incensed): I AM a piece of pussy.
In the mid-sixties, she’s ventriloquizing this self-conscious conversation that could be read as an interrogation of her own essentialism. Even aside from the play she complicates gender in so many ways: there’s the men’s auxiliary of SCUM, the interpersonal and romantic relationships she holds throughout her life, and her comment that SCUM is a state of mind. Her ideas about gender and her self-presentation are far less clear-cut than her performative textual polemics.
BF I, too, find accusations of her transphobia puzzling and misleading, though I see this more as a function of the fact that Up Your Ass has never been circulated in a mainstream way via publication, stagings (aside from twice in NYC), and analysis of this play/text. Up Your Ass is an astonishingly gender bending, chaotic, fascinating, and difficult text and one that showcases Valerie’s immense abilities to deconstruct traditional notions of gender back in 1965! I mean, if we consider the sorts of gender politics of 1965 (e.g., few women politicians, sex segregated want ads, assumptions that all women will get married and have children, pre-Stonewall, pre-women’s movement, pre-late-60s-cultural transformations) Valerie’s work becomes even more astonishing for its ahead-of-its-time gender critiques. I’ve never read Valerie as particularly attached to gender essentialism, though I can understand that if SCUM Manifesto is taken as a document of seriously arguing about X and Y chromosomes this could be interpreted that way. One review of Up Your Ass in the early 2000s said that Valerie created a version of gender in Up Your Ass that even the best of queer theorists cannot yet understand (in other words, that it’s still ahead of its time). I agree with this analysis. We can’t really locate Valerie’s trans politics or gender politics within the current frameworks of how we label and categorize gender today. I agree with your analysis that Up Your Ass is wildly suspicious of gender essentialism, and it pokes fun at the mere idea of a gender binary. In a sense, everyone in Up Your Ass is genderqueer, or trans, or something else we don’t have a label for yet. This is both exciting in the sense that this work is doing such interesting things with gender, and depressing in the sense that Up Your Ass isn’t published and isn’t circulated anywhere. Nevertheless, it’s a text/play that borders on outright performance art and I hope it will get its due one of these days as both trans-affirming and crazily fun.
LK After the shooting she hurriedly told a reporter, “Read my manifesto and it will tell you what I am.” You pinpoint that she chose “what I am” rather than “who I am.” What do you make of this choice?
BF Valerie often had an inversion where her texts became more of her “real self” than her embodied actual self. “What I am” seems to symbolize that the manifesto is the self, while her living/breathing body (and identities) were secondary. She constructed the selves she most wanted to be in her texts. The “Young Girl’s Primer” article in Cavalier depicts Valerie as a sassy, panhandling, clever woman resisting paid employment, outsmarting men, and recruiting women to wise up. She wrote this while working as a prostitute, sleeping on rooftops, and starving much of the time. She refuses, in her writing, to admit to suffering. She’s always fighting, always funny, always fiercely resistant to any characterization of her as struggling. SCUM Manifesto also reflects a self Valerie created, needed, supported, and nurtured perhaps more than her physical body and actual living being. The text, she imagined/fantasized, would outlive her, would encompass her vision of the world such that she could tolerate the unraveling of her own mental health and physical body. Remember that Valerie spent much of her life obsessing about, plugging, and trying to resuscitate the SCUM Manifesto. Her last recorded conversation has her talking about getting a copy of the CORRECT (1977) edition of the manifesto from the Washington, D.C. copyright office. The story of Valerie is the story of SCUM Manifesto. Choosing the words “who I am” implies that the author still takes primacy. “What I am,” on the other hand, reveals that the manifesto comes first (and always came first) in defining Valerie, and that her actual material reality mattered far less. This is both tragic but also such a poignant statement about the dualistic nature of Valerie’s life. The struggle to create SCUM Manifesto made all the destructive aspects of her life somehow bearable (if barely).
Liz Kinnamon serves as managing editor of Feminist Formations, online editor of Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, and editor of #socialmediaanxieties: a zine on digital failure and attachment.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.