There’s a moment in almost any bad memoir where you start to get the sense that the author is telling you more than he or she actually wants you to know; a moment where the author’s persona, carefully crafted to be winning or fun or poignant or survivorly and magnificently victimized, starts to slip, and you get the sense of a different person trying to speak. This person is less glamorous, or less admirable, or less disgusting, or meaner, or nicer than the person the author is trying to sell you; they’re less fit to be written down. Probably they’re more embarrassing. Typically, it’s the urge to impress the reader that does it; there’s an over-sell, something that makes you see the person pulling the act as deeply unimpressive. The charming, wittily self-deprecating rogue is actually just some dude with Mommy issues pulling an “ain’t I a stinker” act to disguise his many and predictable insecurities; the glorious martyr, strung up on the cross of life for all to behold and weep over, is actually a petty, manipulative, melodramatic child.
It happened, for me, during the first domestic-violence scene in Running With Scissors. (The urge to impress, to give you all the gory details: I come from a family with a history of domestic abuse, too, but I somehow don’t recall it happening in Sensurround and with a script written for the Lifetime channel.) It came early on in A Million Little Pieces, with James Frey getting all hey-bro-check-out-this-crazy-fuggin-shit over severe pain that one wouldn’t imagine a sufferer of said pain to view as entertainment on par with a Saw movie or his nine millionth DVD re-watch of Fight Club. It was all over the J.T. LeRoy stuff, but the experiences described therein were just so godforsaken awful that you couldn’t allow yourself to register it, lest you be unduly skeptical about the harsh realities of child abuse, which is how nobody noticed that the books were written by a woman named Laura Albert until several years had passed and the entirely fictional person of J.T. LeRoy was both a celebrity and a friend of, for some reason, Shirley Manson.
I Love Dick, however, is built entirely on that moment of slippage. To be more precise: It’s as if Chris Kraus started to write, found herself on the edge of that accidental, unflattering honesty — found herself confronting that other person, the uglier person, the embarrassing, un-book-worthy one that other writers try to avoid — and just decided to go with that girl the whole way through. The book is sold as a “novel,” not a memoir. But it’s the truth of it — Chris Kraus is author and protagonist, Sylvere Lotringer is her real husband, Dick is apparently the name of a real (and not unknown) dude who is rumored to have been distinctly un-pleased by the book — upon which the narrative depends. So, where lesser writers (or, in two of the three cases listed above, straight-up liars!) would notice themselves headed for unpleasant, scary, unflattering self-disclosure and steer themselves onto safer ground, Chris Kraus steers right the hell into it. She makes it the road.
So, she used to be anorexic. She’s still a bit anorexic. She has this really disgusting stomach ailment. Do you want to hear about her disgusting stomach ailment? You are going to hear about the ailment! Of her stomach! Which is disgusting! She’s a feminist; she’s attracted to dudes who treat her badly. She’s a feminist; she lives primarily off her husband. (“Sylvere and I are Marxists… he takes money from the people who won’t give me money and gives it to me.”) Also, about her husband: They don’t have sex. Like, ever. She really wants to cheat on him. With this one specific dude. She is prepared to take her husband along on the ride, this ride that is about wanting to cheat on him with this one specific dude, and to make a super-theoretical cutting-edge Performance out of it. Do you think she and/or her husband are deluding themselves, with the intellectualization and super-theoretical cutting-edge Performance-making of her desire to do the sex with this one guy? Because it turns out they totally are! She just wants to sex him! A lot! Also, this one guy: She has met him, like, twice? And he’s not into her? At all? But she’s going to embark on a road trip with the end goal of doing some sex with him, based on absolutely no signals that he would be into this, except for his being generally sexy. And seeming like he would treat her badly. Which, by the way did I mention, she is into.
“I was difficult and unadorable and a Bad Feminist to boot,” Kraus writes, of herself, and you don’t disagree with her. “You don’t know me! We’ve had two or three evenings! Talked on the phone once or twice! And you project this shit all over me, you kidnap me, you stalk me, invade me with your games, and I don’t want it! I never asked for it,” she quotes Dick as saying — and while she has never in fact kidnapped him, and “stalked” him only as part of the pre-negotiated super-ultra-conceptual performance piece, and this is, granted, coming directly after they have (spoiler?) had sex, the man still has a point. (When he shrieks and protests and hates her for threatening to publish I Love Dick, that goes into I Love Dick, too.) But also: “I want to own everything that happens to me now,” she quotes herself as saying to Dick. “Because if the only material we have to work with in America is our own lives, shouldn’t we be making case studies?” And the thing about case studies is, you don’t leave anything out. Especially not if it contradicts what you wanted or expected to hear.
Maybe now is the time to tell you that I’ve been having some serious doubts about my place in Internet Feminism. Not my involvement in Internet; that, no doubt, will go on. Because what else am I going to do with my time? But there are problems, I think, with the terms of the conversation I’ve set up here; there are problems with my own place within that conversation, the person I’ve agreed to be when I talk to you. That outraged, righteous, upright, know-it-all person who has compassion for all the right people and scorn for all the wrong ones, who’s on the right side (your side) of all the issues: I think she’s dangerous, and I think she’s at least partially false. The falseness is the root of the danger; problem with Internet Feminism, or any politics of identity, any system that purports to help you get your life and problems understood better, is when it sets up a too-easy, pre-packaged narrative for your own life. When it gives you the language, the rules for engaging and discussing, but doesn’t help you to look with any greater or more dangerous honesty at what you’re thinking, or how you’re acting, or who you are.
I’ve seen it happen. Too often, I’ve seen it happen; the people who can criticize a post, and then, when asked to back that criticism up, can only quote a different post by another Internet Feminist. The people who can look at a piece of art — or, hell, TV or pop music, those work too — and can only classify it as Oppressive or Subversive, or located at a greater or lesser degree of “problematic”-ness, according to current theories of what is or is not problematic. The lack of original thought, or of aesthetic judgment, is creepy: It suggests that we’re approaching this all like math, like a standardized test to which there are right or wrong answers, rather than as art, or (preferably) life, where what matters is not just your conclusion, but how you got there. And there are other things: The way we’ll go out of our way to invent political defenses of art we like — feminist reading of Twin Peaks, anyone? Because I’ve done that one — because it’s how we can justify liking it, rather than simply saying, I dunno, “it is misogynist as hell but I like how creepy it is and also it’s funny and also I have a thing for the young Kyle McLachlan, Lord help me.” Arguments where we invent political insults (you’re a classist!) to cover up the personal feelings behind them (you’re an asshole!) because we know we can win on the grounds of politics, but might not do as well if we actually, honestly dislike each other. Incidents where we make up political rationalizations (as a woman, I have a right to voice my anger!) for stuff we shouldn’t get away with (I am getting up on your junk and acting like a douche!) no matter who we are, and that we probably, on some level, know to be wrong.
I mean, I’m talking about myself here. You get that, right? I’ve borrowed too much from other people, and haven’t bothered to check those arguments before incorporating them, because they were popular or persuasive; I’ve oversimplified things I was supposed to be critiquing, for the sake of making a point; I’ve rationalized and politicized my tastes and personal dislikes and bad personality traits, to make myself seem like a better person or a better feminist, and at some points I’ve thought — probably, God knows, even said — that “good person” and “good feminist” were one and the same thing. Maybe you’re better than me; maybe you’re pure. But it’s a problem, with any moral system of thought: At some point, we learn what we’re rewarded for saying, how we’re rewarded for seeming, and then we say those things and seem that way, for the reward. It’s like any other set of social norms. But when feminism is used this way, not as a means to get into truth, but as a means to make truth easier or even to avoid it, it’s really not all that different from, say, reading a lot of Ayn Rand. Granted, the results of its clueless or selfish application will probably be better than what the Objectivists have managed thus far. But it’s still something you do for you, rather than for the sake of doing it; it’s a means of propping yourself up. Of self-glorification.
It’s especially bad news when we do this on the level of personal narrative. Which is where we get back to me, to the person I’ve agreed to be while I take part in this conversation. Because, at this point, I have to acknowledge that the extent to which I deplore this way of engaging has to be measured against the extent to which I’ve participated in it. Or contributed to it. Or caused it. Every time I yell at some pathetic anonymous commenter and people cheer, every time I get all righteously outraged without talking about what I’ve done that is the same or worse as what the person I’m outraged about has done, every time I play the toreador and gore a bull for your entertainment, I shudder a little. Because I’m helping it happen: Aiding in the creation of a discussion where we reward outrage and scorn and hatred and Othering of the ideologically impure, the bad feminists and unfeminists and anti-feminists, all the while pretending to a purity that none of us, living in this our inherently compromising and mindfucking world, actually possesses. I’m glorifying myself; I’m letting you glorify me; I’m giving you a false impression of how things actually work, letting you believe that the world consists of Good People and Bad People. I’m telling you that I am Good, and that you are Good to the extent you agree with me, and that people — other people, people on the outside of this discussion, not us, certainly — are Bad if they disagree with us. I mean: This is basically how every terrible thing in the history of humanity has started, the decision that there’s an Us and a Them and the former is good and the latter is bad. Doing it in the name of lofty principles doesn’t mean you’re not doing it; it just means that when the problems — the self-falsification, the repression, the insistence on ideological purity rather than self-examination or originality or thought — creep up on you, you’re less likely to notice them and more likely to rationalize them. Because your aims really and truly are good.
Back to Kraus. “It’s the story of 250 letters, my ‘debasement,’ jumping headlong off a cliff. Why does everybody think that women are debasing ourselves when we expose the conditions of our own debasement? Why do women always have to come off clean?” She is, in this book, difficult and unadorable and a Bad Feminist; she is ugly and creepy and pathetic and deluded and massively self-destructive; she does, sooner or later, start to pull off some massively correct and exciting and WOW BLAMMO revelations about the female condition, precisely because of all this. She finds her way into understanding art, into understanding sex, into understanding women and madness and intellectualism and connection and reading and writing and all of that, how to understand the act of understanding things, precisely by going as far down into this creepy self-delusion of Dick and “loving” Dick (who is really just a phantom, a stranger, an appropriately named avatar of Boy) as she can possibly go. The only way to tell the truth about what she knows and how she’s learned it is to include the fact of herself in it; the only way out is through. “Isn’t the greatest freedom in the world the freedom to be wrong? What hooks me on our story is our different readings of it,” she writes. “You think it’s personal and private; my neurosis… I think our story is performative philosophy.”
There was a time, Kraus says, “when being a feminist meant refusing to be a co-dependent fuck-up.” That time is over, she implies. Time to stop pretending that being female or feminist makes you admirable, and time to stop pretending that being admirable is a pre-condition for deserving basic rights. And, elsewhere: “You argue that the frame provides coherence only through repression and exclusion. But the trick is to find Everything within the frame.” Find everything within the frame of who you are; if who you are is a co-dependent fuck-up, find everything there. Because eventually, from there, from being as deeply wackily fucked up as you are, you get here:
Shame was what we always felt, me and all my girlfriends, for expecting sex to breed complicity. (“Complicity is like a girl’s name,” writes Dodie Bellamy.) … Shame is what you feel after being fucked on quaaludes by some artworld cohort who’ll pretend it never happened, shame is what you feel after giving blowjobs in the bathroom at Max’s Kansas City because Liza Martin wants free coke. Shame is what you feel after letting someone take you someplace past control — then feeling torn up three days later between desire, paranoia, etiquette wondering if they’ll call. Dear Dick, you told me twice last weekend how much you love John Rechy’s books and you wish your writing could include more sex. Because I love you and you can’t or you’re embarrassed, maybe this is something I can do for you?
At any rate in order not to feel this hopelessness, regret, I’ve set myself the job of solving heterosexuality (i.e., finishing this writing project) before turning 40. And that’s tomorrow.
There’s no jargon here; there’s no apology; there’s no sense that now she knows better, and has been delivered from her state of codependent fuckuppery, and can now preach to us all about how to deal with it in an appropriate and Feminist matter. Solving heterosexuality means solving it as she experiences it; it means taking herself, who she actually is, seriously. Refusing to take it out of the equation, or to clean it up or tone it down. If feminism is about understanding the female situation, and she’s female, then her situation is a female situation, and it’s time to understand that. On its own terms, as it is, not as someone else tells her to understand it or as someone else would like it to be. She’s not living up or down to anything. She’s making a case study.
Feminism — particularly second-wave and third-wave feminism — started as a means by which women could tell their own stories with a greater degree of honesty; it permitted us to say the unsayable. I don’t actually love being a mother. I don’t actually want to be a mother, and that’s why I got an abortion. Marriage was supposed to fulfill me, but actually, I’m just bored and depressed all the time. Marriage was supposed to fulfill me, but actually, I just get raped and beaten up. I like to fuck, and I don’t need to be in love to do it. I feel this pressure to fuck, and I don’t want to. I hate playing femme / it turns me on to play femme. Sex work is awful for me / sex work is great for me. You know, I really do like to fuck, but despite the authoritative statements of Freud, the medical profession, and all the dudes I’ve ever boned, I have never ever ever ever in a million years had a “vaginal orgasm.” “Consciousness-raising” was just this; telling stories, saying things that felt unsafe or bad or weird or over-personal, indulging in the messy female business of confession. Later, after we’d all talked it out, put our personal lives on the table, the group was supposed to start working on theories that tied it all together.
But we’ve been doing it for a while now, the feminism thing, and the theories are already out there and readily accessible. They even feel unquestionable, some of the time: Authoritative statements about our lives, like those uttered by Freud or the medical profession. To say that they just don’t feel right, that they don’t describe you or who you are or how your life has gone thus far, feels wrong and heretical; it might get you accused of false consciousness or bad feminism or internalizing the oppressor. Instead of starting where we are and trying to theorize it, all too often, we take the theories and try to cram our lives into them, and ignore or cut off the parts that don’t fit. What we end up with is a vision of ourselves that often feels purer and more Feminist-Approved than who we really are; it feels nice and strong and Good and, most crucially, safe. However, we’ve also barred off all of those messy, complicated, unlikable parts of ourselves, and forbidden ourselves to examine or learn from them. Which is a bad move, given that the messy and complicated and unlikable and as-yet-untheorized, the unspoken and the unspeakable, is where we’re supposed to start.
There are lots of less than admirable things about me. There are lots of less than admirable things about you. There are lots of things in my life that I started to figure out by reading and writing feminism, and there are lots of parts of my life where I’ve used feminism to excuse my own behavior or where the tenets of feminism seem not to have room for my experience, or to contradict it. This is all terribly vague, but trust me: To list all the details would take a month and a massive loss of personal dignity and inhibition. What I Love Dick does is to inspire that sort of courage: To point you to the parts of your life or yourself that you can’t quite look at directly, or that you haven’t quite figured out, and to tell you that they’re where you need to go next. They’re where you’re going to learn the most. And if there’s nothing in your ideology to explain them, well, then: Make some new ideology, lady. People before you have done it. It’s not like you need a license; it’s not like we ever have to stop.