May 2014

Danielle Sherrod


An Interview with Breanne Fahs

"Too drastic, too crazy, too 'out there,' too early, too late, too damaged, too much." Thus describes the ever controversial and usually misunderstood Valerie Solanas, the woman you remember as the one who, depending on your view, wrote the SCUM Manifesto or shot Andy Warhol. Solanas has been a maligned figure for decades, both fetishized by radical feminists for her willingness to step away from the system as a whole and equally hated by progressive feminists for her unwillingness to compromise.

But between the black and white, comes Breanne Fahs's new book. Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol) painstakingly attempts to shed light on who Solanas actually was and what led to her radicalization. I had the privilege to speak with Fahs about her new book, as well as what Solanas has meant for feminism and culture, so many years later.

If you ask most people about Valerie Solanas, they will be able to tell you on a base level what they know about her: SCUM and shooting Andy Warhol. What about Solanas drew you toward writing this book? What do you think is most commonly overlooked about Solanas?

Valerie's story has a force to it. I have been drawn to her work and to her story ever since I first read SCUM Manifesto back in college. I had, at that point, never laughed as hard reading a piece of writing, and it wasn't the sort of laugh that comes from pure comedy, but rather, a laugh at the line she walks between what is absolutely and fundamentally serious and the absurd. Valerie is a master of the absurd, and we still don't know whether she was 100% serious, or whether she saw herself as a satirist, as a master of wordplay and fun. After writing this book, I feel completely convinced that it was both, simultaneously; she was both incredibly serious and also incredibly funny.

The manifesto is a document, like all manifestos, that feels pressured, rushed, written in a hurry, but that's false. She took years to craft this dynamic piece of writing, and she agonized over its precision as well. I wanted to write this book because there are so many things about Valerie that people just don't know, that I too didn't know, and it's a story of so many things that interest me and that I believe will interest others: the 1960s "Warhol scene," so populated by almost mythical figures of aloofness, drugs, music, and emerging queer identities; radical countercultural New York City, the epicenter of it all, and Valerie was right in the middle; madness, and the story of how mental hospitals abused, manipulated, and psychoanalyzed so many women who wanted to break out of traditional gender roles; and the relationship between art and writing. To this last point, I would add that I think it's fascinating that, when people read SCUM Manifesto, they immediately want to locate Valerie as a person amidst the writing.

We do this more to women than to men; we want their biographies to explain their work. I am not intending this with my biography of Valerie -- this is not a book meant to explain the SCUM Manifesto. This book is meant to de-center the (frankly quite sexist) idea that shooting Andy Warhol was the epicenter of her life, the pinnacle of her existence, the "climax" of it all. Valerie was a writer; that she was also an attempted murderer or that she shot Andy Warhol was secondary to her life as a writer. The book explains, in part, what she went through to try to connect. It is an extraordinary story of an extraordinary life; I am just so proud to have been able to tell it.

What's interesting is that in your book, you portray Solanas as "a woman who detected a spirit of collective anguish" rather than her commonly recognized position as a woman destroyed by her own mental illness and subversive impulses and actions. What pulls you toward this defense and why is there more than meets the eye?

I don't see myself as in the business of "defending" Valerie; in fact, I don't think there's anything to defend. Like many radicals of her time (and now), she was a complex creature, capable of anger, violence, rage, sadness, self-destruction, but also capable of making an impact on the world, trying to feel out the tremors of the women's movement, looking to understand and fight back against something that hadn't even been named yet at that point.

To construct her as one or the other -- as indefensible or as defensible -- seems false to me. Patriarchy and oppression and feminism and the women's movement and sexual liberation were all just vague traces at the time Valerie started her attack. I find that incredible in so many ways.

I still teach SCUM Manifesto now and find that many students, if I present the text without a context (which is fascinating to say the least!) believe that it was written recently; they simply cannot believe that Valerie wrote SCUM in the mid-1960s, before the women's movement had taken off, before we had words like "queer" in an affirmative sense, before women were expected to do more than marry and have children. Something in Valerie's compelling mix of madness and genius (and I don't say this lightly -- her IQ scores are in the ninety-eighth percentile) was visionary. She predicted test-tube babies, ATMs, a surveillance state (which has gotten exponentially worse now), and even Viagra (she called it her "Perpetual Hardness Technique" and believed it would render men docile).

This combination of madness and genius is not unlike others with that unique combination (Nietzsche, for example). Valerie understood that there's no point in fighting back if you don't go for the jugular; feminists today could take a few pages from that book! I think Valerie understood that radicalism was necessary; liberalism -- people blowing with the wind whichever way the wind blows -- really doesn't accomplish much. MLK knew this difference. His "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" talks so beautifully about the problem of hearing "Just wait, just wait, and change will come." It doesn't come. We have to come crashing through the gates, banging down the doors, setting fire to the establishment, to achieve real social change. Valerie knew this. The other radicals of her time -- Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker, for example -- knew this. You can't go part way. You have to go all the way. "Sometimes we need to scream," they say.

And to speak to your last point about this image of Valerie destroyed, I would disagree that these things destroyed Valerie. The book suggests that Valerie was destroyed more by trying to exist so far outside of her time, so far ahead of the curve of queer and feminist politics, so far outside of any context that could support women writers or women psychologists (she had initially gone to grad school to study psychology), or really any ambitious, self-determined women. Valerie fought the system of patriarchy and sexism from her early days as a child right up until the end; she kept trying and trying, sometimes connecting, but mostly not. And the fact that she somehow connects now, that people come to her work and find something compelling about it, that it's far more interesting than simply the "writings of a madwoman," says something about this paradigm. I've spoken to a lot of radical feminists and many of them have similar stories. How far ahead of one's time can one get? What is the cost to trying to see way into the future? What price do people pay when they attempt to "break things," especially traditions and social norms? This interests me, and Valerie is such a lovely example of this.

Avital Ronell compared Solanas to "Lorena Bobbitt, a girl Nietzsche, Medusa, the Unabomber, and Medea." Catherine Lord claimed that the feminist movement would not have happened without her. Yet you say that she would have deplored being a figure for feminism. Why is that?

Valerie really didn't see herself as a social movement figurehead; she wanted to be a writer, first and foremost. There's an interesting story in the book about how radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson found a letter in one of Valerie's trunks (this trunk had been acquired by the courts after her imprisonment and Ti-Grace had been called down to assess whether it had any value). Valerie had apparently written a letter to a prominent constitutional lawyer about the Equal Rights Amendment sometime in the 1950s and had received a rather condescending response from him about her inquiry. Valerie had kept this letter, along with some of her "pornographic" writings and a copy of SCUM and Up Your Ass in this trunk, notable because she had so few personal items she kept or carried around. She didn't even keep letters from family, but she had kept this letter. I always see this as a sign that Valerie may have at one time tried to be "within movement" or to attempt to understand liberal or incremental social change; as usual for that time, her efforts were met with condescension and "just wait, just wait" rhetoric. I think about this anecdote because it reminds me that radicals are not simply born radical; they become radicalized. Every radical has told me this, and every person I know who identifies as radical and has engaged in radical political activism of any kind will tell you this.

Something has to radicalize you; something has to push you toward that as a political solution or identity. Valerie didn't want to be a feminist, I think, because the early feminist movement was plagued with liberal sentiments and ideologies. Early NOW did not want to deal with "the personal is political" (a phrase which came later in relationship to radical feminism) and issues of sex, marriage, the money system, and so on; they wanted to petition and lobby and make incremental change. They were liberals, and Valerie despised liberalism. As Valerie wrote, "If SCUM ever marches, it will be over the President's stupid, sickening face; if SCUM ever strikes, it will be in the dark with a six-inch blade." We can read this as literal, or as a sort of mentality, a position from which she is arguing that we can't just preserve the status quo by asking for "equality"; we have to destroy the foundations of inequality. There's a difference, and it's something we as feminists today still don't deal well with. We are very interested in what I call "PR feminism," a sanitized, nice, friendly, happy version of feminism that relies upon assimilation, liberalism, and openness. Valerie called it a "civil disobedience lunch club." While I do believe that principles of connection, friendship, and even love have a place in the feminist movement, I also believe that radical social change requires us to question everything, down to the level of how and why we connect with others, how we understand the category "women" at all, how we imagine a place for outrageousness. In short, Valerie still scares us, and is still marginalized and on the fringe, so feminism as a movement has a long way to go to accommodate and understand its more radical edges. And I suppose that, regardless of whether Valerie wanted feminism, feminism sure as hell needed (and currently needs) Valerie! We need all of the radicals, and we need them desperately. We need to remember that when feminism spends too much time being welcoming and wishy-washy at the expense of its anger, worrying about PR and "friending" on Facebook at the expense of engaging in intense and difficult dialogues, we lose touch with our identity and the power of our movement.

In many ways, Solanas represented societies, and really, "progressive feminism's," worst nightmare. Instead of equal pay and respect, she was demanding to "overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex." It seems like she was a fractured figure, but one that still represents the most "radical" of the feminist movement and the most "disdained" of contemporary and accessible feminism. Why do you think she continues to be such a figure in feminism, as well as history?

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a radical feminist who I greatly admire, called Valerie a "destroyer" and said, "Perhaps destroyers like her can never transform their energy but only inspire others." This has really stuck with me when writing this biography of Valerie -- how much she destroyed, how her destruction paved the way for something new, for something else.

When I was traveling in India several years ago, I remember also being struck with the way that Hinduism appreciates and even reveres destruction as a transformative force; they build temples for the god of destruction, seeing it as something that can spiritually transform us. Perhaps Valerie, and other destroyers, are so threatening because we live in a culture here in the U.S. that doesn't appreciate or value destruction as a transformative force. I see this even in my teaching; I try and try and try to convey to students that destroying our previous belief systems, destroying certain ideas even (for example, the idea that certain political debates really have "two sides" and some sort of moderate middle), destroying "how we've always done things" are all incredibly important in the process of becoming educated. If we burn down the house, we get to build something entirely new, with entirely different architectural plans, entirely new modes of seeing space. Valerie is one of our destroyers, and for that, we should value her.

And I'm not talking about the literal act of her violence against Andy Warhol. That's something different entirely. Shooting people really isn't all that interesting compared to the power of ideas that can destroy, ideas that can burn things to the ground metaphorically and ideologically. I would hope that, at some point, feminism, other critical identities and fields, and social movements in general, would learn to better value their destroyers. They are essential to helping us see what is possible, what can be. Valerie's tendencies to destroy, and her story of suffering, have much to teach us, much to convey. I read this story and feel overwhelmed by the sadness in it, the anguish, the loneliness of Valerie. And yet, I somehow also feel deeply, deeply inspired and in awe of her, plagued with the pain of the gender norms of her time, aware of the ways in which her struggle maps onto a thousand other women's struggles.

All women, if we pay attention to it, are haunted by accusations of madness, insignificance, triviality. We will eventually encounter others who tell us that we are "crazy bitches," that our work doesn't matter as much as men's work, that our concerns and fears and thoughts are not all that important. I hope that readers can look at this story and see Valerie, but also see themselves, as any good biography hopes to do.

I want readers not only to connect to Valerie, but also, in some small way, I want to help Valerie connect to a context that is more ready to hear her words and her story. We need to understand our destroyers if we are to understand anything about our future as feminists or even as a country or a culture.

After Solanas becomes this household figure and then fades from the collective consciousness, she then spends the last part of her life residing in and out of mental hospitals and died in poverty. It seems like she served this sensational purpose and then suffered deeply. Why is it that she disappears into the ether like so?

I had originally called this biography A Life of SCUM, and I did this because Valerie's story is so deeply connected to and mapped onto the story of SCUM Manifesto that it was impossible to separate the two. Valerie always imagined that, if only she could publish a correct edition of SCUM Manifesto, if only her words were not plagued by typos and misspellings and sabotaging errors (mostly from her publisher Maurice Girodias), if only she could somehow get out her pure and precise SCUM Manifesto to the world, she would be able to achieve greatness. This story propelled her along for some time, all through her years in prison and mental hospitals, and even the years after that. But once she actually did publish, in 1977, the correct SCUM Manifesto, and once it, too, did not seem to "land," did not seem to connect in the way she had hoped, she, along with the manifesto, seemed to disappear. I found this timeline really poignant and incredibly sad. It was as if at the moment that SCUM Manifesto could no longer prop her up and hold her together, at the precise moment that SCUM Manifesto in its fully realized version failed to connect, Valerie also ceased to exist. She disappeared into the ether because she, in some ways, finally let go of SCUM Manifesto (though not fully; her last recorded conversation had her asking Ultra Violet about the manifesto and asking her to get a copy for her from the Library of Congress). Valerie defined her life by her writing, and defined herself as a writer; once she no longer did so, her madness consumed her.

As a sidenote, though, it's also worth considering the exciting possibilities and potential of what we don't know about Valerie. This has a tendency to create elaborate myths about her life, some of which I'm hoping to add some clarity to. That said, myth-making around Valerie has been inspiring a lot of fascinating creative works, including books like James Reich's Bombshell, Sara Stridsberg's The Dream Faculty, Ali Joy Richardson's new play in Toronto, and several other dramatic works about Valerie's life. I was asked recently if I knew how Valerie escaped from prison and mental hospitals and the short answer is, "I don't know." The longer answer is, "Perhaps that will be its own sort of myth that will inspire creative art." I am continually fascinated by, and inspired by, filling in the gaps, elaborating what we don't know, knowing more about Valerie. The end of her life, the "ether" to which you refer, gives her a sort of power, I think.

In this day of Facebook status updates (and I loathe, loathe, loathe Facebook to no end) and Twitter feeds and photographing what we eat and broadcasting every supposedly "hip" thought that crosses our minds -- isn't that something? -- to really consider sections of a person's life that simply vanish? And what traces will we leave behind? How will others understand us decades from now, in this narcissistic age we occupy? It's all so fascinating to me. I'm obsessed with the traces we leave behind, with the stories we tell about ourselves, our social movements, our sexualities, our identities, our families, our history.

Creating narratives out of fragments and traces is what we do, I suppose, in therapy, in biographies, in history books, and so on, but I wish we gave more thought to the possibilities inherent in what we don't know, too.

It becomes evident in your book that you had trouble talking to people who knew Solanas. Why is that?

Valerie was homeless for much of her life, went by a zillion different names (often unwittingly) with a zillion different (mis)spellings, alienated most people who tried to help her, changed addresses dozens of times per year and often more, and mostly vanished from the public record. She never owned a home, had a steady phone number, got married, paid taxes, or left any sort of paper trail in a consistent way. Add to that that she was extremely paranoid, often did not want to be found, ran from police, and had frequent schizophrenic breaks and you see what I mean about the difficulty of tracking her life! On a deeper level, though, I think there's more to why it was hard to find and dial into Valerie's networks.

Valerie was an especially difficult person, a destroyer, as I mentioned earlier, and because of this, she left people who knew her with wild ambivalence about her. I spoke to people who felt such hesitation about how to understand or frame her, or who ended up asking me most of the questions about her biographical details because they wanted to know more about her life (something I hope this book helps to make more clear). Valerie left an impression on people, and it was often difficult for people to consider whether they even wanted to "unearth" Valerie again, even in a verbal interview sort of way. Valerie can have a kind of haunting intensity even now, even for those who hadn't seen her for forty years. I even felt this at times. She was so angry, so volatile, so completely fanatic about accuracy and truth that I felt intensely preoccupied with writing about her even when I had finished for that day or that period of time. I have never had a relationship to my own writing quite like my relationship to this story and to this manuscript. I dreamt about it a lot, thought about it a lot, felt that once I got started on it again it would intrude into my other activities and patterns. I'm a therapist so I typically consider myself quite adept at not letting the stories of others intrude or take over my "personal life"; with Valerie, I was helpless against this. There's a kind of manic energy around her, difficult to fully detach from. And in that sense, I think some of the people I talked to feared Valerie's cosmic revenge for not representing the "truth" (whatever that is...) accurately and precisely. Maybe that analysis makes me sound a little crazy, but I do know that many biographers feel this way. We bring to life the person so vividly in our minds and (hopefully) on the page that they come alive. Valerie is alive in people's memories -- from Margo Feiden's account of the morning of the shooting, to Jeremiah Newton's memories of reading for Up Your Ass, to Ultra Violet's descriptions of Valerie's clothes, to Louis Zwiren's memories of Valerie's favorite songs and favorite foods.

These people seemed to still smell her, hear her words bouncing around in their brains. It's eerie, really.

What do you hope readers will take away from your biography of Solanas?

I have ambitious hopes for this book and its potential effect, though of course we never know how our work will be received until we get readers to tell us. I want to help illuminate the complexity of Valerie's story. It's not as simple as some would portray -- we don't merely have in front of us the story of a woman who was sexually abused in childhood, who then created SCUM Manifesto, shot Andy Warhol, went to prison, and disappeared. That's a huge oversimplification of an incredible, funny, chaotic, and complicated story. Valerie's personality, intensity, and humor deserve more recognition.

I also want the story of trauma to come across in the book -- how trauma can imprint and appear and reappear throughout a life, and how completely messy and inconsistent trauma can be. Valerie dealt with unbearable realities -- sexual abuse by her father, losing her two children to others and never really having the opportunity to care for them, having her uterus tampered with at a mental hospital, being queer in an age that had no framework for such an identity, living most of her life without consistent food or shelter, trying desperately to be a writer when she had no audience and knew little of how to promote her work or get it published, working as a prostitute for much of her adult life, struggling with crushing mental illness that led to severe paranoid episodes (many of which had roots in reality), getting hospitalized for years on end in some of the country's worst mental hospitals, being ridiculed and taunted about her gender, and even, in the end, trying to survive drug addiction and abject poverty. And yet, Valerie nevertheless fought back against these traumas, against the story of her demise and her destruction. She created a manifesto that will outlive us all, a work so unique that it continues to be reprinted, read, and circulated today in record numbers. She found her way to the epicenter of the countercultural movement of her time, blasted her way in to Andy Warhol's Factory scene, wrote a play that even today's queer theorists are far from fully understanding or categorizing, and she tried to say something and do something about the misery and anger women felt at the time.

I want the book to contribute to the history of feminism by situating Valerie (and particularly debates and fights about Valerie) at the inception of radical feminism. To understand Valerie, her violence against Andy, and her works as central to the birth of radical feminism is critically important and often overlooked. Most importantly, I want this book to resonate with readers on a personal level, connecting to their own stories of madness, ambition, suffering, and radical impulses, and on a collective level, reminding feminism (and all social movements and social collectives, really) that if we cannot honor and acknowledge those on the fringe, those who destroy, those who push us over the edge, then we really cannot understand ourselves at all.