On “Leaving Neverland”

I finished watching Leaving Neverland. Part two is extraordinary and moving. The men are present and touching, grappling with the complexity of their childhoods and the legacy of those experiences in their adult lives. Wade’s mother asks, “How could you not have told me?” It was the question my sister asked me about the sexual abuse I experienced at the hands of a man trusted and revered by my family. I was 14. My cousin, to whom it also happened, was 11 when it began for her. It happened to me twice in the course of a day and night. That’s all, and yet it marked my life, because the person who is doing it to you has no idea how they are changing you from that time forward. You are never going to be the person you were before those experiences, but this is only something I can tell you looking back over many decades. My sense of myself and of the world was spliced in that day. It never occurred to me to tell anyone at the time it happened, just as it did not occur to Wade and Jimmy to tell anyone, despite the fact that other boys came forward. It is part of the enchantment of the experience that you live with it inside you in ways that are not translatable. The film conveys this beautifully in the attention it pays to these men, remembering their lives with far less interest in blame than in seeing who they were and who the man was who ushered them to sex before they had words for these states of being. I was older and could attach language to it. Also, I was not seduced and did not love the man, as Jimmy and Wade loved Michael. I knew all sorts of things I could not speak about. The film is important in tracing the natural history of sexual abuse inside the people it happened to, inside the families that allowed it to occur, inside the culture that accepted the limitless power of certain individuals and still accepts their power.

I posted this on Facebook, then added these comments about switching focus to the bad man away from those who were manipulated: So often in stories about sexual abuse, the focus is on the abuser, so people can aim their righteous attention without having to take in the more nuanced and layered story of the person who came under the influence of power. What does it feel like being a child with the potential to upend the reality of everyone you know? That condition alone has enormous weight in your psyche, especially if it is unable to be shared. When I wrote about “The Incest Diary,” I found the same wish to shift focus to the bad man from the female narrator who was taking pains to present the moment-to-moment variability of her consciousness. Some people found that too difficult to look at, so they shut it down. To me, what these men are doing on camera in their vigilant accounts is riveting because it feels so right and because what happened to them and who they were in those moments also contains a component that will remain mysterious and unanalyzable.

Was It Good for You? On #MeToo by Laurie Stone

L i s t E n U P Was It Good for You? An essay by Laurie Stone  Women’s Review of Books Vol. 36, No. 2, March/April 2019

The other day I read a story by Paul Bowles in Points in Time (1982), set in Morocco, where Bowles lived. The story takes place 150 years in the past and concerns a young Jewish woman who marries into the family of a Muslim man, smitten by her beauty. In order to marry him, she must convert to Islam. Shortly after the marriage, she realizes she has made a mistake. She is made the servant of the other female members of the family and told she cannot leave the house. Bowles writes: “When she remonstrated with Mohammed [her husband], saying she needed to go out for a walk in the fresh air, he answered that it was common knowledge that a woman goes out only three times during her life: once when she is born and leaves her mother ’s womb, once when she marries and leaves her father’s house, and once when she dies and leaves this world.” He advised her to walk on the roof like other women. She decides to leave, anyway. Her husband is shamed, and she is captured as an infidel and beheaded.

The story made me think about many things, including the beauty and threat of circulation as a concept and about the many calls we are hearing, many in contradictory contexts, for things and people to be removed from circulation. Among them are objects, such as the Confederate flag, called on to be removed from public spaces and relocated in museums. Calls for the work of certain male artists accused of sexual aggressions, such as Roman Polanski, to be deposited in archives and banned from public viewing. Calls for certain male performers, professors, writers, and editors, accused of offensive statements and behaviors, such as Lorin Stein, fired last year as editor of Paris Review for sexual harassment, to be removed from their jobs.

The desire to nail whatever bastard you can get your hands on as puny reparation for thousands of years of unpunished male violence has been driving #MeToo usefully and buoyantly since the election of Trump. #MeToo is not exactly a movement, and it’s not exactly organized. It has generally been depicted as Feminism: The Reboot, as it has gone about raising consciousness, like a giant leaf blower gathering dessicated scoundrels. These are the men, protected by handlers and money, who say to women, “Let me feel you up, let me fuck you, and, though I will make you feel like a worthless worm, I can make you rich and successful.”

This is ordinary sexism, a word too small, it seems, for the colossus of hate mongering and abuse it must carry on its bony shoulders. The women’s movement had been documenting the uninvited gropes and threatening mind games of male humans for fifty years, but it took a stolen election by a massive criminal with proud contempt for women to make feminism—or a version of feminism—palatable even to men. As each rodent has gone down, he’s squeaked, “This is business as usual. You’ve changed the rules! I call foul.” For the first time in a concerted way there are hairy consequences.

#MeToo has managed to reveal slime-as-usual practices in worlds that have pretended to be prettier than they are, among them the academy, broadcasting, and publishing. But #MeToo risks diverting its momentum with fuzzy thinking, and I want to focus on this here, in hopes of expanding its attention beyond the terrible things done to women of a sexual nature to other terrible things. In hopes of moving beyond the acts of individuals to the gender biases in institutions, among them religions. #MeToo is thrilling when it exposes criminals and predators. It is chilling, however, when the target of a #MeToo campaign—for lack of a better term—has committed no crime or readily identifiable harm and has, rather, caused offense, or rattled some people, or triggered them, or made them feel an emotion they didn’t want to feel. Sometimes the emotion is arousal, but let’s put that aside for a moment. We need to look more carefully at category mistakes and keep in mind whether a call for punishment or decirculation in the name of feminism actually expands—or crimps—freedom for women.

Here are some categories that ask us to think about circulation. The list is not exhaustive.

Objects that symbolize harm and spread harm.

Confederate flags and Confederate monuments come to mind. These objects, celebrating the haters of the past and authorizing the hatred of racists now, have no place in public space, the way swastikas have no place in public space. What to do with them once they are collected? That’s the messy question. Document and destroy them? Install them in museums, as if museums and archives are places where objects and ideas can go to die? As if museums can speed the process of detaching these artifacts from social relevance? They can’t. Museums and archives are not going to drain the poison from cultural wares, nor should they be tasked with the job.

Counter examples are concentration camps and slave quarters as museums, which preserve the history of the oppressed rather than memorializing the accomplishments of those in power. Perhaps in our cultural moment we want histories that only express points of view from under the boot. Here’s to new kinds of museums with no obligation to established power that will want to assume this responsibility.

People who have committed crimes of violence against females and continue to make art.

In 1977, Roman Polanski was charged with rape by use of drugs of a thirteen-year-old girl. He pled guilty to a lesser charge of “unlawful sexual intercourse” and fled the US. As repulsive and cruel as these acts are, my feeling is this: punish the artist and leave the art alone. Banning art does not look good on a movement, ever. (Theoretically, even if a Confederate monument existed you could classify as art, it, too, might call for a particular form of display and explanatory label text. To my knowledge, this object does not exist.)

When you learn discomfiting facts about a person, you can’t look at their work the same way as before. It messes with your head, and you may feel so turned off, you don’t want to engage with it further. You could also find yourself turned off by work made by a person who did not do bad things. For example, I have always loved the work of Ricky Gervais, but right now he’s on my shit list because he makes a loud point of referring to the worst people he can think of as cunts. Ricky thinks there is nothing more debased in existence than female genitalia, and to that I say, “Go fuck yourself.” Still, I will probably watch his next Netflix performance, while publicly expressing my problem with him.

If you continue to engage with the work of an artist who has done bad things, what you have learned will produce a new reading of their work. It has to. At the same time, you can’t judge the work itself only by the qualities of the person who made it. Bad people make good art. Turning away from a work of art or the artist who made it is a personal choice. Advocating for its removal from circulation is a social choice. The motive is partly to punish the artist. Don’t let them earn more money and acclaim, since they are bad, the thinking goes. Some also argue that a work of art made by a person who does bad things contaminates the culture. This last notion is more contaminating of a culture than any work of art could be.

Art, for the most part, is more complex and mysterious than the person who made it. That’s why it needs to remain in circulation. Take Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, a film you could see as a feminist document in a certain light, a film in which John Cassavetes combines the solipsism of the New York actor with the ordinary inobservance of the coddled husband to produce a man who believably pimps his wife to the devil to get better acting parts. Polanski’s wit steers this film, perhaps because he knew he would have done the same thing as Rosemary’s husband, perhaps because he also identified with the targeted and isolated Rosemary. No more Rosemary’s Baby produces a duller, more shriveled world.

Some people argue that removing the art of men who do bad things to women will make more space for the work of women artists and minority artists. Nice sentiment, but that’s not how art works in the world. There isn’t a fixed-sized art pie, i.e., a smaller piece of production for you guarantees a bigger piece of art pie for me. Art moves in and out of fashion, sure, and the work of male artists has been more supported than the work of female artists, but removing the art of men is not going to help female directors get jobs, and it will not benefit the cause of freedom for women.

Firing men from jobs who do bad things to women or who promote men who do bad things to women.

I say fire away—if the men are criminals or prove themselves unfit for the job. Ian Buruma fits this description. He was fired last September as editor of The New York Review of Books for publishing a self-serving defense (with unchecked false statements) by Jian Ghomeshi, a man publicly accused of physical and sexual brutality by nearly twenty women, including one charge of overcoming a woman’s resistance by choking. Ghomeshi was acquitted at his trial, but Buruma made the wrong bet about the times he was living in, believing that Ghomeshi would be seen as a victim of social media rather than a serial abuser who got off without a jail sentence.

This is what Buruma said to Isaac Chotiner in a Slate interview about his reasons for publishing the Ghomeshi self-defense: “I’m no judge of the rights and wrongs of every allegation. How can I be? All I know is that in a court of law he was acquitted, and there is no proof he committed a crime. The exact nature of his behavior—how much consent was involved—I have no idea, nor is it really my concern. My concern is what happens to somebody who has not been found guilty in any criminal sense but who perhaps deserves social opprobrium, but how long should that last, what form it should take, etc.”

I have to say, the comment that grabs me by the pussy is this: “The exact nature of his behavior … I have no idea, nor is it really my concern.” Whoa. Why is it not your concern since you gave him space to lie about it in your paper? All the things Buruma cares about are valid to care about regarding moral opprobrium and term limits on shunning, but not caring about what the man actually did and the women he did it to? Bye, bye.

Deposing men who do creepy and humiliating sexual things to women that are not crimes.

I have devised this category for Louis CK, although others no doubt belong here as well. In November 2017, Louis admitted to asking women who came to his hotel rooms if he could masturbate in front of them. He gained their consent. These women wanted to work with him professionally, and the ones who stayed felt they had to watch him jerk off as part of the deal. Louis said in a public statement he was sorry. After his admission, he was fired from his current jobs. A film he was in was shelved. And past episodes of his TV show, Louie, remain unavailable for streaming.

Last August, he made an unannounced appearance at a comedy club in New York City. The next day, on Facebook, a female writer weighed in that he had not sufficiently redeemed himself to get back on stage. I was struck by the peculiarly Christian concept of redemption coming into play in a case like this, and I was reminded of the long fissure in the women’s movement dividing women who see their role as moral reformers and women who advocate for the sexual liberation of all people. I place myself firmly in the second camp. About the matter of redemption, as far as I am concerned, human beings don’t fall and therefore do not need to be redeemed. We are not on a path with an ideal narrative arc of right living. We are not on a path, period.

Causing someone to look at your penis is a form of flashing. In private, though, it’s something people do all the time in ordinary sex, so the category of taking out your penis in your own hotel room isn’t actionable in itself. The room was not a public space. Louis flashed women who wanted to be in his orbit. They didn’t work for him, so legally it’s not sexual harassment. He wanted to see them squirm or submit as part of his excitement. He was a shit.

How long does he remain out of circulation? Is he ever allowed to earn money again as a writer and performer? Some people have argued his future earnings should fund the women he grossed out and other art projects by women. Maybe he will direct some money that way, out of a sense of obligation or positive public relations, rather the way after the Exxon oil spill in Valdez, Alaska, Exxon paid for animal rehab facilities there.

Some people have argued that Louis’s appearance at the comedy club wasn’t announced, and that those in the audience therefore had no choice but to see him—another instance of whipping of it out, as it were. It was argued that his premature return trivialized the harm he had caused the women he coerced and, in a sense, all women who have been harassed.

Indeed, you can see his appearance as a form of aggression, but there is also a tradition in comedy clubs of unannounced sets by stars trying out new work. In clubs, too, if you don’t like an act, you can walk out and come back. You’re not in lockdown. What people who complained meant is they wanted a trigger warning, even though comedy is the thing that lampoons trigger warnings and other forms of pre-emptive protection. Comedy is the thing that is supposed to take you hostage and unteach you how to feel. If you feel comfortable and safe in a comedy club, you are at some other kind of performance.

I don’t find sexist humor funny because the power position in comedy is the place of no power. Louis knows this some of the time. The way we all do. He can switch moods in startling ways, slipping between hilarity, embarrassment, failure, and yearning. Will he have anything to say that can move us if he passes over what happened to him? I think he could turn his experience into a subject for comedy if he were willing to struggle with it. How was he feeling when he flashed his cock at unsuspecting women? What did the looks on their faces tell him? How does he feel about the impact of all this on his daughters? To make this funny, he would have to put himself in the position he placed women in without portraying himself as a victim. A man like Louis, who thinks very hard about comic sources, should be able to get it done.

Louis is an artist, who wants to work. His art is interactive, and he’s got to show up somewhere, at some point. Some people have argued, No, he doesn’t have to show up anywhere. He has occupied enough real estate in the zeitgeist. I say to that, Well, I don’t want to see a single person in the GOP and most Democrats appear in public, but I don’t think you are going to help me with that.

You want to tell Louis about the pain his actions have caused? Tell him. Maybe he will hear you. You don’t like him? Don’t go see him. If you don’t like the films of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, don’t see them, either. If you don’t like the people who fund their work, boycott them and protest outside theaters. You may be a minority voice, but it’s the way cultural change happens, not through banning artistic expression. How to help women speak publicly against abuse without being consigned to the role of scold or gravitating toward it? Through comedy, would be my bet.

Firing men from jobs in the name of feminism who blunder publicly in ways that are difficult to categorize.

On November 26, 2018, the day film director Bernardo Bertolucci died, the film critic David Edelstein posted on Facebook: “Even grief goes better with butter.” The quip captioned a still from Last Tango in Paris, depicting Marlon Brando atop a prone Maria Schneider. It’s from the scene in which Brando’s character anally rapes Schneider ’s character, using butter as lube. Schneider’s face is anguished, and her fists are balled up.

On November 27, the NPR show Fresh Air, where Edelstein worked as a contributor, issued this statement: “Today we learned about film critic David Edelstein’s Facebook post in response to the death of film director Bernardo Bertolucci. The post is offensive and unacceptable, especially given actress Maria Schneider ’s experience during the filming of Last Tango in Paris. The post does not meet the standards that we expect from Fresh Air contributors, or from film journalists associated with WHYY NPR. We appreciate the apology David posted, but we have decided to end Fresh Air’s association with him, and have informed David accordingly.”

Here is some background on Edelstein’s use of the word butter. Because in the film butter is used as lube, butter became a sex joke from the movie’s 1973 premiere on. I saw Edelstein’s post and thought, Wow, that’s really tone deaf and dumb. I remembered reading about Schneider ’s 2007 interview with the Daily Mail, where she described her treatment by Bertolucci during the filming of Last Tango. Writing in The Washington Post on November 26, 2018, Elahe Izadi lays out what happened during filming and the repercussions of those events, drawing on accounts by Schneider, Brando, and Bertolucci.

I summarize. Brando and Bertolucci were having breakfast before the filming of the rape scene and together devised the notion of using butter. They didn’t inform Schneider, who was 19 at the time. The rape was in the script, but not the butter. She did not know she could have called her agent and refused to perform something not in the script. She says her tears in the scene were real. After the movie, unprepared for the degree of public scrutiny she experienced, she used drugs and attempted suicide. She died of cancer in 2011.

In 2013, during a filmed interview, Bertolucci said he purposely withheld the use of the butter because: “I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated.” He said Schneider hated him for the rest of her life and that he felt guilty toward her. In interviews Brando also said he had felt humiliated by Bertolucci. It was cold during the shooting of his one, full frontal nude scene, and his parts shrank. The scene was later scrapped. Schneider said she thought Bertolucci was in love with Brando and that originally her role was supposed to be played by a boy. Amid the ferment of #MeToo, Bertolucci’s manipulation of Schneider was revisited and widely condemned.

The association of butter and anal sex is not a problem for me now or in the past. Anal sex is about sex. The problem for me is not that a fictional scene depicted anal rape. The problem is what we now know about Schneider ’s experience at the hands of Bertolucci. This is what bears on Edelstein’s remark. Another thing. The reason butter became a sex joke has to do not with the anal rape of Schneider’s character but with a later scene. Brando’s character says to Schneider’s character, “Get the butter,” because he wants her to finger him anally, and she does. When I saw Last Tango in 1973, people had more to say about the second scene than the first, and this speaks to the times. A girl gets raped, oh yeah, that happens. A guy gets penetrated, even though he asks for it, well that spurred all kinds of anxious and titillated homocurious responses. It was also as if a generation of boys and girls, raised to have vanilla sex, were invited to a better party.

After Edelstein posted his quip, people on social media instantly let him know the joke was a bomb. The reason it bombed is that it made Schneider the target. It trashed her, given her experience with Bertolucci. It trashed all women who have been slimed sexually and emotionally by older men in the name of art. It insulted all women who have been slimed sexually and emotionally in the name of nothing but freewheeling sadism. So that would include all of us.

On November 28, Andrew O’Herir wrote a piece in Salon about Edelstein’s firing, in which he outlined attacks on the film critic, most influentially and sternly by actor Martha Plimpton. Plimpton reposted Edelstein’s bad joke on Twitter, calling for his firing and saying she had avoided any mention of Bertolucci’s death “precisely because of this moment in which a sexual assault of an actress was intentionally captured on film.” In fact, as Elahe Izadi makes clear, Schneider alleged no actual rape or “sexual assault” in her account. She felt violated by being excluded from decisions about the rape scene, and she felt the manipulation Bertolucci had engineered. O’Herir asks, “Does it make it all better if we conclude that Edelstein was making light of a fictional rape, or a fictional incident that might be rape? Definitely not, as he has acknowledged. Furthermore, it’s baffling that a person so deeply immersed in movies and media either didn’t know or had forgotten about Schneider’s comments, and Bertolucci’s subsequent half-apology.”

After Edelstein deleted his original post, he wrote again on Facebook on the same day: “Regarding Bertolucci’s death, I made a stupid joke here on my FB page that turns out to have been beyond stupid—grotesque. The first and only time I ever saw Last Tango was in 1977. I remembered the scene in question as part of a consensual, increasingly s&m relationship that ends with the woman being forced to shoot the man. I didn’t remember it as a rape and I didn’t know the real-life story about Maria Schneider. The line was callous and wrong even if it HAD been consensual, but given that it wasn’t I’m sick at the thought of how it read and what people logically conclude about me. I have never and would never make light of rape, in fiction or in reality.”

Let’s pause for a moment. Isn’t there always a way to make a joke about something if you can figure out how to frame it? I think there is. The sanctimony of Edelstein’s mea culpa has the same tenor as the sanctimony in rebukes of him. How about we ditch all sanctimony. It’s not that feminism can’t take a joke. It’s that jokes involving feminism beat up people who have already been beaten up. There could have been a way to make excellent cracks about Brando’s cold-weather weenie and Bertolucci’s crush on him and include butter, had Edelstein thought in these terms. In that inattention lies the ease of trivializing everything that is not you, in Edelstein’s case a straight white male, and it’s breathed like air.

In a saner social moment, when taking offense was not actionable, Edelstein would have received a reprimand and been offered clear guidelines about the acceptable content of his posts on social media. His firing is an example of what I have taken to calling “sensitivity harassment.” Words can hurt, but to censor them and fire the people who use them has a far more chilling effect on our society than social interaction with these moments. What should be the reach of organizations to police the speech of employees when they are not on the job? How do you feel about a dismissal on the grounds of unspecified moral standards? How do you feel about an organization speaking for feminism when its real aim is to cover its ass for fear of pushback or simply to clean house of an otherwise bothersome employee? What specifically feminist positions and understandings does NPR expect from its contributors? I would really like to see these spelled out.

What offends you is always going to be my endangered devotion, and vice versa. You believe in God and want me to believe in God, for example. I believe religions promote gender discrimination. I don’t even want the power to make you stop believing what you believe for this reason: Repression and moral opprobrium from all political stances serve power and money. Power wants a populace that is frightened to dissent, whose members are in seeming lockstep agreement, and who will police each other so repression becomes internalized and reflexive. Then you have people you can control and sell ideas and things to. My first concept for this piece was to convene a round table of views on Edelstein. A surprising number of people I queried told me they did not want to risk placing themselves in the line of social media fire.

A society becomes changed not by fiat but when outmoded ways of thinking are tossed into dusty corners and forgotten, like the lives of millions of women and girls in the actual world, who have been destroyed because their existences caused offense. Nothing can be cleansed, and among things considered contaminants might be your ideas or mine. The ideas of feminists are among the first things to be erased when waves of social cleansing are enforced. That’s why, from a practical perspective, it’s a terrible idea for women and feminists to line up with censorship.

Everything exciting and challenging in the world is a mixture of terror and pleasure. Some sort of sexual feeling or erotic response or negative erotic response is part of every interaction we have with other people of all ages and even other animals throughout our lives. Let’s not pretend otherwise as a way to simplify our conversations about abuse, rape, harassment, and other unwanted attention that takes a sexual or erotic form. Seeking safety may be the most dangerous thing we can do. There will never be a solid, agreed upon notion of safety, and I don’t want to be protected from what you think it’s bad for me to know or do.

When you hear about another white, tone-deaf man losing his job because he caused offense, you do not need to care about the man. You need to care about the issue of circulation and things being denied that right. The circulation of the female body in public space, unguarded by male protection and permission to move, is among the most transformative social actions in the world.

Laurie Stone is author most recently of My Life as an Animal, Stories. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and criticat- large on Fresh Air. She won the Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle and has published numerous stories in such publications as N+1, Tin House, Evergreen Review, Fence, Open City, Anderbo, The Collagist, New Letters, Tri- Quarterly, Threepenny Review, and Creative Nonfiction. Her next book, Postcards from the Thing that is Happening, is a collage of hybrid narratives. Her website is: lauriestonewriter.com.

A Freelance Writer’s Story

Make what you want of this story. I have to tell it to you. It may sound like something you’ve heard before, and you have! Another publication with very very fucky ideas of how to interact with its contributors is my subject once again. If you splain me the woes of the academic wee tender little guy trying to do its bit for the literary what-the-fuck-ever, I will hunt you down and do something you won’t like. I haven’t decided what, so don’t hold me to it. You don’t need to feel sorry for me. I am not a hurt or abject thing. If you are a publication like the one I am going to describe, stop doing this shit. Understand that it is disgusting and stop doing it. If you are a writer who, like me, gets embroiled with these kinds of publications, please abstain from complying with their bullshit. 18 months ago or maybe it was 19, a delightful human asked me if I would write something about a writer who had been an influence on me, something like that. I said sure. The delightful human said, Can you get it in quickly, like a week? Maybe the delightful human said ten days and said the fee was $50. I wrote the piece the next day and sent it. The delightful human was delighted, and then nothing happened. Nothing. After six months I inquired. The delightful human was not in control of the publication in any way and so could not tell me when the piece would run and when, if ever, I would be paid. More than a year passed and I received an email that started with Congratulations! Your piece is going to be published in blah blah issue. I thought, why are you congratulating me? You are congratulating yourself by congratulating me. I didn’t apply for anything. I fulfilled a commission. I was also sent several forms to print out and send back if I wanted to be published and paid. I filled out the forms. Nothing again. Months passed, and I received a proof of the piece. All fine and the bio was fine. Fine, fine, fine. More months passed. Yesterday I received another email saying I had to fill out the forms or else, you know, no money, etc. It also said Congratulations! I wrote back and said I had filled out the forms and sent them back and wasn’t going to do it again. I asked why people in the office could not keep track of this stuff. No one has replied. I considered filling out the forms again for a hair of a second. It was more of a thought experiment to see if it could even entertain that possibility. I thought for the same hair second about not writing this post and looking like the asshole I paint myself to be. But that would be, you know, not me. I feel hatred for these people, who are probably wonderful, all of them, really terrific people who care about lots of stuff that matters except thinking they are a professional entity engaging with professional writers. They don’t think we are professional writers. They don’t think about us at all.

Summer of Dead Birds

The Summer of Dead Birds By Ali Liebegott New York, NY; Feminist Press, 2019, 104 pp., $17.95, paperback
Reviewed by Laurie Stone

The press release for Ali Lebegott’s new book, The Summer of Dead Birds, describes it as “a chronicle of mourning and survival, a vulnerable and honest document of depression and failed intimacy.” Would you read that? The press release imagines you are a sad lesbian, full of yearning for all the loves you have lost and loves you have yet to lose, plus dogs who will die on your couch. And it imagines you want your sadness to amount to something like wisdom, acceptance, or meaning, along with pet hair and lint. If you are this person, The Summer of Dead Birds is not for you. Read something else.

Liebegott’s book is about nothing but the narrator’s voice as it swings back and forth in time, and this focus is part of the wondrous accomplishment of the 84, plot-resistant, linked lyric poems that comprise it. Its publication (press release notwithstanding) is owed at least in part to writer Michelle Tea, head of the Amethyst Editions imprint at Feminist Press. Five minutes after Tea published her first book in 1998, The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, a memoir of growing up druggy and queer, she was gathering writers for anthologies, establishing RADAR, a reading series in San Francisco, and producing Sister Spit, a traveling troupe of writers and performers that has included Eileen Myles, Beth Lisick, Dorothy Allison, and Justin Vivian Bond. Why float around in your own private tide pool when you can populate a queer sea? Through RADAR and Sister Spit, Tea has collaborated with Liebegott, who is also a visual artist and probably best known as a writer/ producer of Jill Soloway’s TV show Transparent.

Ali, the narrator of The Summer of Dead Birds, is in fact a sad lesbian, who has lost love and is traveling with an old dog. A survivor she is not, though, and nor does she wish to be. The word survivor has lost all meaning from overuse. Plus, it describes nothing true. To Liebegott, survival is not a credential or a moral category. She doesn’t think we survive anything. We continue with the sum of our experience, or we do not continue. The Summer of Dead Birds doesn’t want to lift you up. It wants to excite you about the natural history of sorrow and to point out the similarity between freedom and grief. Driving alone, part exile and part escapee, Ali seeks “a humble beaten god / like a bad petting zoo goat / always shooed for gnawing the wall / a god like a bar buddy / with a flawed and sloppy past / knuckles fucked from punching walls.” A goat like Ali.

I lied about there being no plot. There’s a tiny one. The mother of the woman Ali is married to dies of cancer, and Ali’s shrink tells her, “Few lesbian relationships survive the death of a mother.” She’s so angry when she hears this, she determines to stay, except a year later she drives off with her Dalmatian, Rorschach. The book is their road trip. Not much happens except encounters with dead and dying animals that summon memories of other dead and dying things. The book is partly a love letter to the woman Ali has left and partly notes on ambivalence worn like a second skin.

Liebegott’s writing is startling in its observation of the outer world that is also an inner world, and, like a road trip, it unravels what you think you know. We come to love Ali as she lopes along, responding to small moments of need and confusion that expand in her attention to them. The first poem begins (Liebegott omits periods):

the birdbath is always half-empty / where we live, it can be dry in three days / this morning while I filled it / a bird the size of a dust ball tried to fly / never getting higher than an inch off the lawn/ a dove sat on a nearby branch / flapping its wings slowly and sadly / the way we numbly open and close a cabinet door / when there’s nothing inside to eat / finally, the dust ball gave up / fluttered inside a cinder block to hide / I feel guilty leaving the birds thirsty / Still, I didn’t fill the birdbath

Writing about the woman who is dying, Ali evokes the bardo of almost-dead, where significance goes almost unseen and where moments of seeming nothing become forms of everything: “you hated that she only wanted to watch cooking shows / while she was dying and could barely eat … I was embarrassed she would waste any part / of her evaporating life discussing the flat tire / so I pulled up a chair to watch the cooking show, too” Elsewhere Ali recalls: “the laundry was made up solely of your mother ’s pajamas / the drawstrings became tangled around the agitator / I struggled to free them but they wouldn’t budge / this was the first time I cried, it didn’t matter if I freed them / your mother wasn’t going to live long enough to wear / them again”

Liebegott occasionally tosses in abstractions such as “soul” or “prayer.” Religious language, like the language of advertising, relies on signal reactions in the reader rather than creating a concrete moment we can enter. There are florid patches, too, that try to push emotion on you rather than earn it. Liebegott writes of the mother ’s cancer, “her own body abducted one cell at a time.” There is no abduction. The mother has a disease in which cells replicate indiscriminately, and it might have offered her more range as a writer to observe what those cells actually do.

Mostly the book is sly and surprising, melding sadness and comedy. Driving with Rorschach, Ali comes upon a scene of road kill, and in the way that anything dead feels like all dead things and in the way the stab of death stirs the excitement of sex, the moment is touching and absurd:

this land of flattened pigeons in Pompeii poses / wings upraised and trying to flap away from their bodies / two puffed-out pigeons seduce each other by dancing / and pecking the ground dangerously close to their / flattened brother / … if my therapist were here I’d say, / I desperately need the inlove pigeons not to eat the flattened one

Liebegott brilliantly evokes the way, in anticipation of a moment, we look forward to looking back at it. “My most treasured things,” Ali says, “aren’t mine yet.” Along the way we learn that Dalmatians have spots all over, including on their gums, that dogs love grief because they get to walk more, and that Dalmatians are the only dogs that smile. (This may not be true.) The writing burns hottest when reversing expectation, most especially the cliché of the male loner searching for space out West. In Liebegott’s hands this becomes a comic and anxious ode to escape for its own sake: “what if,” Ali writes near the end of the book,

you leave knowing there’s nothing where you’re going / the hand out the window, the red rocks, all that / the hot wind blowing in the window, the back of your T-shirt / stuck to the seat, wet with sweat”

When asked in interviews why women don’t write more about the road, Liebegott says they do, only people don’t want to publish those books or publish women who write “authentic queer characters.” In a 2013 interview in the blog HTMLGIANT, she told Janice Lee she thinks about queer kids in libraries—like the queer kid she was—“looking for a book that reflects your experience and you can’t find one…. As a writer, I always try to put a little lifeline in my book for that reader. That, and category fuck as often as possible.”

Asked by Lee who she would rather sleep with, Dostoevsky or Van Gogh, Liebegott answered: “I think Van Gogh, but that might be ageist, because I think I’ve only ever seen portraits of Dostoyevsky as a balding man. Van Gogh had really bad teeth, right? I think Van Gogh, although they both seem like terrible problematic relationships, so either would do. It’s tough. But probably Van Gogh.”

Laurie Stone is author most recently of My Life as an Animal, Stories. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and critic- at-large on Fresh Air. She won the Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle and has published numerous stories in such publications as N+1, Tin House, Evergreen Review, Fence, Open City, Anderbo, The Col lagist , New Let ters, Tri – Quarterly, Threepenny Review, and Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on Postcards from the Thing that is Happening, a collage of hybrid narratives. Her website is: lauriestonewriter.com.

 

The problematic of the deviant female narrator.

She is not so nice. Maybe not nice at all. Refusing her gender assignment even if she likes some things that are girly. (Who doesn’t?) She can’t be likable by conventional values, and she doesn’t need to be likable, but as a voice talking to you she needs to keep you listening. I think she needs to seduce you into feeling like a co-conspirator in her refusals. She needs to make you think you are her because you probably are her in some part of yourself, regardless of the sex you think you are. She needs to make sure she hasn’t set you up as the thing she is rejecting, that she wants to outsmart, that she is showing she is cooler and more daring than. If she does that, you will close the book, as well you should.