Shulamith Firestone. Robert Roth

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Shulamith Firestone*

Robert Roth

At the Free Association, an alternative school in the 70s, a friend was leading a feminist workshop. I was the only man in the room. My presence was interfering with the comfort and flow of discussion. This led to its own long discussion. The upshot was this would be the last time I would attend the group. It didn’t feel great to have to leave but understandable. At the time I was in the beginnings of an extremely close friendship with Shulamith. Our contact was heady and intense. I was one of maybe three people in the world she was talking to. She was withdrawing from political activity and was leaving it all behind. Because of that, and because she was in fact paranoid, I couldn’t tell anyone I knew her. The women in the group were all reading Shulamith’s book. And there I was being asked to leave by a group of women emboldened in part by the book. Her face on the back of the book was staring at me from various directions.

The next day I told her the story. She understood why the women did it. Essentially agreed with them.    Also found it ironic. We’ve been friends pretty much from then to the present. She would disappear for long periods of time then reappear. Tear up her Rolodex then reassemble the numbers. We haven’t had contact the last few years. She sent me a Rosh Hashanah card three years ago,  sending her warm wishes to Arnie and Mark. I was the intermediary between her and a filmmaker that was referred to in the Times obituary. She was a very close friend. She wrote and did art work for And Then. Came to a lot of our parties. We were in discussion groups and writing groups for many years. Everything was kept low key. I loved her very much. She would go crazy. Go on medication. Go off it. She wrote whole bunches of wonderful things that didn’t get published. Also did magnificent art work. She was close with Arnie and other people I know.

This is a very sad day.

I can’t help but feeling, I feel almost certain of it, that something similar happened to my friend Karen  Cohen but I don’t think there was a soul who had any idea how to reach me. One day to the next she stopped calling. Shulamith dead in her apartment; undiscovered for a number of days.

I first met her in the Paradox a macrobiotic restaurant on the Lower East Side, later renamed the East Village for purposes of real estate marketing. Yoko Ono ate there before she was “Yoko Ono”, though well on her way to being that. As well as Jerry Rubin. And I’m sure countless other similar people. George Dennison lived in an apartment above the restaurant.

Somehow Shulamith and I  wound up at the same table. She was absolutely focused, and filled with ideas, theories and passion and categories. She was working on her book. Which was combining so many factors my head started spinning as she spoke. I just surrendered to what clearly was going to be a major accomplishment. I told her I wrote poetry. Just to say something.  To her poetry existed  in a much higher realm than the theoretical historical work that she was doing. So my status elevated in the blink of an eye. Saw her once on a TV  show called For Women Only where she was a guest with Eleanor Holmes Norton. Two such very young women. Barbara Walters when she took over the show changed the name to Not for Women Only. An interesting change that instantaneously diminished whatever disruptive power the show had.  Sadly and not surprisingly, I don’t remember the name of the original host.

There was a period over a few years when I would periodically see Shulamith in the neighborhood. Her appearance changing each time. She would gain and lose weight. Her hair style different her clothing different. It felt more than just  normal changes;  they looked like disguises; she confirmed to me later that they were. But I always knew it was her. One day I approached her in the post office. And said something like I’ve seen you over the years and you always look  different. But I know it is you. Always wanted to say hello. But hesitated. The contact was immediate, electric, thrilling, scary and deep.

I went to her apartment a small pad on 2nd  St.. There was a medium sized blackboard in the middle of the room. Plot outlines, time-lines, history of the characters all laid out in detail. It was extremely impressive. She showed me sketches, small paintings, colored drawings. One was called Asshole and it was a colored drawing or water color of an asshole.  Couldn’t get the image out of my head for months. I was totally eroticized  by it.

I invited her into a discussion group. She agreed but only if I introduced her as Kathy and not tell anyone who she was. I agreed. It was not a great thing to agree to. At the end of the day it was worth it. Because our friendship blossomed. But I would never do it again except if someone was really in trouble. Because you are constantly  making up things on the run, misdirecting, deceiving. It became very unpleasant.

And resulted in a few bruised feelings.  A double deceit with a lover. Because Shulamith was someone whose work she  admired. And “Kathy” was a woman I was clearly intoxicated by. They eventually became friends. Remember  them both in a bar one night. Their auras intense. One a reddish orange, the other a bright yellow. Which was which I don’t remember.

Shulamith wrote an extraordinary poem about her descent into hell. Step by step, stage by stage. It was not included in a feminist anthology about first person accounts of years in the movement and what happened afterward. I told my friend, one of the editors of the anthology, that I thought it was mistake not to include it.  My friend was extremely defensive about it so I let it drop. Shulamith was hurt by the rejection. And as good as the anthology turned out to be, it felt very hollow at the core to me. During the time she described, I saw her sitting in the street looking deranged, a shopping bag lady surrounded by clothes and/or books. It scared me half to death. Didn’t know what to do. Had to gather myself and essentially ran away.

Shulamith  periodically called me from Boston where she lived for a couple of years. She was working at a company where she had a low paying, bottom of the totem pole job. Someone the firm wanted to do business with was visiting them. I think she was a very important scientist from a European country. Certainly “important” and from Europe.  She somehow saw that Shulamith worked there and was beside herself with excitement  and insisted on meeting her. The  bosses never heard of “Shulamith Firestone” and were barely aware that Shulamith was working there. But suddenly she became a major asset to them. So they had to go get her (I think she was working in the basement but here my mind might be embellishing) and she became an intricate part of the wooing of the scientist over the next few days,  going out for lunch, dinner etc.  She worked there a while longer. I don’t think any of this affected her pay or the work she did. But it did affect how she was treated by the people running the place. How exactly I don’t remember but it was decidedly mixed.

One characteristic not often commented on was that she was one part genuine screwball, a characteristic she shares with almost all my close friends. She had for example a rag mop and big bucket with a wringer for her tiny 2nd Street apartment. And she was very dramatic in how she described mopping the floor. With grand strokes and full involvement. She had a sense of absurdity about situations and about herself. One time she and I put our heads together to figure out a solution to some problem, maybe to move something from one place to another. We came up with the most convoluted ass backwards solution. But we got it done. I remember her standing on the top of the stairs and I was standing on the bottom and she flashed a big smile and said,“We’re the wise men of Chelm.”

She said this twenty times better than I’m going to. Anyway one time as we were watching people in the street she said that it was very important that mothers train boys to open doors for women. Because when a woman was burdened down with heavy packages that even if nothing else changes at least that would provide some minimal relief.

Loved quoting this to people. No one quite knew what to do with it.

One time I called Shulamith and she invited me to a demonstration in midtown outside a hotel where Bill Clinton was celebrating his 50th birthday. It was a demonstration protesting the assault on welfare. She was in real good spirits that day.

One pretty big concern of Shulamith’s was that she would be thrown off SSI if she made too much money on Airless Spaces and then on the newly re-released Dialectic of Sex. And of course not make nearly enough money to make it worthwhile. My blood boils whenever I think about it.

Fell in and out of Shulamith’s life for decades (or maybe thrown out then re-embraced). Always loved her. A wonderful friend. Deep, compassionate, honest in ways few people can be. She suffered greatly often harrowingly. Even with that, knowing her brought me great joy and affirmation. In addition to The Dialectic of Sex,  Airless Spaces is a magnificent book, as are many other things she wrote over the years, most of which haven’t been published. She was also a wonderful painter and poet. And could be funny as hell. She helped change consciousness and paid a terrible price for it.

The crazed woman or man on the outskirts of a village wailing at the moon. Everyone keeping a watchful if distant eye out for them. Food supplied. Shelter provided. No one frightened by it.   No one’s sleep disturbed. Worrying only if the shouting stops.

Here you go mad in isolation. Screaming rages in small apartments disrupting the sleep or equilibrium of one’s neighbors. People who themselves are often cut off and isolated. People who are in no way equipped to handle someone in such extreme pain. Particularly someone they barely know at all.

What happened to Shulamith. The immense responsibility falling on friends and family. They themselves probably teetering on the edges of emotional fragility. To let her die. Be injured. Not let her die.  Become her jailor. Betraying her. Put a chemical lock on her emotions, on her creativity. Commit her to a hospital. Without community it is all so horrible.

One time she complained about a medication she felt was even more pernicious than the others. It masked the side effects. She spoke less slowly. Moved more quickly. She sounded and looked more “normal”.  “How I sound is not how I feel,” she said.

Arnie and I would know early on when she went off her medication. Weeks before the full effects would surface. Suddenly very sharp,  shimmering perceptions would flash out. No way we couldn’t start laughing. They were so vivid and poetic. Like a sudden burst of light breaking through   thick, dense clouds.

In speaking about someone, she would catch deep personality traits. The articulation of them so precise, maybe too precise. They were not exactly nasty but almost so. And other perceptions sudden and unexpected would stop you up short.  That’s when we knew trouble was ahead.

There was a period when she would speak about “bright normals” a pretty devastating category that I suspect included people like the editors of the New Yorker or those very bright policy makers in government. People that would constantly try to marginalize someone like Shulamith whose awareness and intelligence leaped across  centuries. Who had a connection to the universe that was  rare and profound. Who could tap into the deepest historical currents, who was not a part of the “real” world.

Of course no one is ever  “normal.” In that way Shulamith was unfair and like all such formulations it can freeze someone into something they are not. Still it was a kind of revenge category toward a smug oppressive arrogance unaware of its own extreme limitations.

One Final Memory. I was visiting Mark in Somerville. I thought it would be a nice idea to introduce Shulamith to my good friend Joseph who was a novelist and who wrote a semi regular column for The Real Paper. (As an aside Joseph and I at some point in summers past hawked both The Real Paper and The Boston Phoenix in the street).

Anyway the meeting was a total dud. Joseph  and Shulamith didn’t connect in any way. There was no hostility. Just absolutely no chemistry of any kind.

Now I  had a distinct relationship with each. And in some way was a different person with each. Certainly a different dimension of myself revealed to each. Interestingly enough the other day when I started writing this I was tutoring a student who was taking a sociology course. One of the terms she was learning was “impression management” that Erving Goffman used to describe just such a situation. It is that people present different impressions of themselves to different people in different circumstances. Never heard the term before, but here my impression management ( as he described could happen) really went out of whack. Shulamith and Joseph each kept laying claim to the Robert they knew. Each never  having seen parts of the Robert the other knew. I felt exposed and totally like a fraud (if you ratchet that word down a few notches).

Finally we wound up down by the Charles River. It was at night. There were no other people around. We sat on the bank of the river. Inches apart. The only people in the world at that spot.  Each gazing out at the water. Three people who in certain significant ways were the same person. And there was probably not a thing we were seeing, an emotion we were feeling,  a thought that was occurring to us that was remotely the same.

Periodically I have tried to write up that scene but I’ve never been able to.

I think they ran into each other sometime later and had a warm exchange.

*Shulamith Firestone (January 7, 1945 – August 28, 2012) was a Canadian-born feminist. She was a central figure in the early development of radical feminism, having been a founding member of the New York Radical Women, Redstokings, and New York Radical Feminists. In 1970, she authored The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, an important and widely influential feminist text. Firestone was found dead in her New York apartment on August 28, 2012. She lived in a reclusive fashion and had been in ill health.  (editor’s note).

3 Comentarios

  1. I too have had that experience of loosing a friend that was already lost, first to themselves, then to the world. Oddly enough she too was found dead in her apartment weeks after her death. The police officer who found her looked at the things around her place and knew at some point she had belonged somebody and though there was nothing in the apartment that made it clear who she was he felt just by what was there someone would want to know she was gone so he spent a couple of months trying to “place” her with those of us who had lost her.

    I wanted to call or write the officer and thank him but my friend who had the contact information was afraid I’d be burdened with the details of her final days.

    Years ago I had gone to the Brooklyn Botanical gardens and had fallen in love with the rocks and the plants growing on the banks of the Japanese pond. I found a stick on the ground and took the sketchbook and ink I always carried in my purse and did an ink drawing. When my friend saw the drawing, in a moment of foolishness I gave the drawing away to her and have never forgiven myself for it. But I tell myself my painting was one of the things that said this is someone not to be lost just because others and I had let go of her. After her son died of a drug overdose she dissolved into a world of alcohol, anti-depressants and bitterness.

    Where Shulamith maybe knew too much of the world to function my friend was a southern belle who didn’t know enough to survive. Perhaps they needed a little dose of each other for balance. There is an icy blanket of snow covering everything outside while the ground is warming up preparing for spring . . . a rebirth and remembrance of what has been.

  2. Robert, that was an absolutely magnificent portrait. So rich and so real. And by the way, I used to go to those Free Association meetings, but I don’t remember the feminist meeting you were describing. I do, however, remember a group of us petitioning for a child care component, and several of the more prominent men not taking it seriously or suggesting that the women be in charge. So many contradictions unresolved in those days, as now. I also used to go to Paradox! Remember you could sometimes get free food if you were really down and out. Anyway, thanks for sending me a link to this portrait.

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