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Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz

Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz

5.0 2
by Cynthia Carr, Sara Stemen

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In December 2010, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington made headlines when it responded to protests from the Catholic League by voluntarily censoring an excerpt of David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly from its show on American portraiture.

Why a work of art could stir such emotions is at the heart of Cynthia Carr’s Fire in the


In December 2010, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington made headlines when it responded to protests from the Catholic League by voluntarily censoring an excerpt of David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly from its show on American portraiture.

Why a work of art could stir such emotions is at the heart of Cynthia Carr’s Fire in the Belly, the first biography of a beleaguered art-world figure who became one of the most important voices of his generation. Wojnarowicz emerged from a Dickensian childhood that included orphanages, abusive and absent parents, and a life of hustling on the street. He first found acclaim in New York’s East Village, a neighborhood noted in the 1970s and ’80s for its abandoned buildings, junkies, and burgeoning art scene. Along with Keith Haring, Nan Goldin, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wojnarowicz helped redefine art for the times.

As uptown art collectors looked downtown for the next big thing, this community of cultural outsiders was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight. The ensuing culture war, the neighborhood’s gentrification, and the AIDS crisis then devastated the East Village scene. Wojnarowicz died of AIDS in 1992 at the age of thirty-seven. Carr’s brilliant biography traces the untold story of a controversial and seminal figure at a pivotal moment in American culture.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[Fire in the Belly is] unimprovable as a biography–thorough, measured, beautifully written, loving but not uncritical -- as a concentrated history of his times, and as a memorial, presenting him in his entirety, twenty years dead but his ardor uncooled.” —Luc Sante, Bookforum

“It is no small achievement that Carr, who first met the artist when he was part of the East Village art scene of the early ‘80s, shortly before she began writing for the Village Voice, has managed to portray [Wojnarowicz] in remarkably rich dimensions…. Carr's detailed research into Wojnarowicz's days and nights, friends and fall-outs, hook-ups, loves, losses, travels, homeless stretches, intimate connections…and eventual sickness and death is both heartbreaking and unflinchingly honest. Carr has managed to create not only an essential biography but required reading for anyone interested in the ‘80s art world.” —Christopher Bollen, Interview

“A compelling picture of a time in New York that has now completely vanished, when an existence devoted to art, on the margins, was still possible, and not necessarily something to be romanticized…. The picture of East Village culture that Carr offers--she covered it for years as a reporter for the Village Voice--?is alone worth the price of the book. Despite her friendship with Wojnarowicz in the last months of his life, Carr is willing to paint the artist in clear-eyed prose, balancing unflattering stories of drug use and success-induced paranoia with those of his trenchant and harrowing AIDS activism and defense of freedom of expression. (The intricate details of his battle with right-wing critics will, one hopes, provide fodder for today's protestors.)” —Andrew Russeth, Modern Painters

“Thanks to Carr's meticulous portrait, [Wojnarowicz's] work again feels primal, magicked away from the bluster of whatever controversies it provoked. We come away from a book like this with a keen sense of life's strangeness and haste, its abuses and beauty, its ultimately terrible vanishing.” —Jeremy Lybarger, The Brooklyn Rail

“Biographers often have an uncommon knack for describing even the most fascinating individuals and incidents with the dullest possible prose, boring the reader with the most uninteresting childhood details and rushing the parts that matter. Carr doesn't make such mistakes. At almost 600 pages, her book is monumental, yet somehow it feels concise. She uses short, clear sentences throughout, successfully invoking complicated events and their implications with a staccato grace. While she doesn't depart from the conventional linear structure of the biography, she inhabits it with a vitality so often lacking…. thankfully Carr reveals the contradictions and complications of [Wojnarowicz's] life, an important task of any successful biographer…. Fire in the Belly is an impressive work that clearly took years to make…. Carr breaks free of one of the most deadening strictures of the conventional biography: she enters herself not just into the narrative, but into the life of the person she is investigating. While this first meeting happens by chance, and only results in a casual acquaintanceship, Carr's simple act of disclosure allows for the most intimate parts of the book. Fire in the Belly centers around the life of Wojnarowicz, but it also serves as an unofficial history of 1970s and 1980s West Village gay life (and the West Side piers in particular), the emergence of AIDS, the East Village art scene of the 1980s (most extensively), and the censorship wars of the late-‘80s and early-‘90s…. In some ways this book serves as an elegy for a culture of artists in downtown New York ravaged by AIDS…. This is not just a story about an explosive artist who led a tumultuous life, or even an explosive artist and his equally dynamic and equally complicated friends. It's a story about ‘us'…. not just a tender biography of one brazen individual but an intimate text displaying the possibilities of connection in the face of adversity.” —Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Bookslut

“A prodigious chronicle…. Wojnarowicz emerges from these pages as a forceful, enigmatic character…. probing, masterful storytelling…. A sprawling, elegiac biography that mourns the loss of David Wojnarowicz and the art scene in which he flourished.” —Hannah Calkins, Shelf Awareness

“[A] lucidly composed, skillfully contextualized first complete biography of David Wojnarowicz…. The most powerful sections of this engrossing book give insight into the intersection between the culture wars of the early 1990s and Wojnarowicz's 1991 work, Tongues of Flame.” —Publishers Weekly

“Former Village Voice columnist Carr weaves an intense…portrait of a complex artist in a complex time. Carr knew David Wojnarowicz (1954–92), the controversial creator of the art film A Fire in My Belly, and she bears him witness in this politically charged look at his life. Using her skills as a reporter, Carr has pieced together this moving though unsentimental tribute from interviews with friends, candid conversations with Wojnarowicz before his death, and his own deep and provocative writings. She also discusses the politics then and now that dominate the so-called culture wars. An up-close look at the devastation of AIDS, this first full-length biography explains Wojnarowicz's powerful iconography in the context of a (literally) dying art scene.” —Marianne Laino Sade, Library Journal

“[Carr] tells [Wojnarowicz's] life story remarkably thoroughly and can't-put-it-down readably. Her quotations of his writing reveal an able Kerouacean.” —Ray Olson, Booklist

“[Carr] delivers the definitive biography of this complicated artist…. she provides a thoroughly researched picture of his life and times…the author offers some intriguing insights about Wojnarowicz's inner demons and his devotion to his art.” —Kirkus Reviews

Library Journal
Former Village Voice columnist Carr (Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America) weaves an intense if sometimes over-detailed portrait of a complex artist in a complex time. Carr knew David Wojnarowicz (1954–92), the controversial creator of the art film A Fire in My Belly, and she bears him witness in this politically charged look at his life. She writes of his painful life and prolific career as a poet, artist, and activist before he died from AIDS at age 37, and, at the same time, she documents the rise and fall of the East Village arts scene in the 1980s. Using her skills as a reporter, Carr has pieced together this moving though unsentimental tribute from interviews with friends, candid conversations with Wojnarowicz before his death, and his own deep and provocative writings. She also discusses the politics then and now that dominate the so-called culture wars. VERDICT An up-close look at the devastation of AIDS, this first full-length biography explains Wojnarowicz's powerful iconography in the context of a (literally) dying art scene. Recommended for art and queer studies scholars. [See Prepub Alert, 1/21/12.]—Marianne Laino Sade, Maryland Inst. Coll. of Art Lib., Baltimore
Kirkus Reviews
Former Village Voice arts reporter and columnist Carr (Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, A Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America, 2006, etc.) examines the life and art of provocative artist David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992), a star of the downtown New York art scene of the 1980s. The author, who covered the arts during Wojnarowicz's heyday and knew him personally, delivers the definitive biography of this complicated artist, from his troubled childhood to his untimely death from AIDS-related complications at the age of 37. After years of abuse as a child, he left home while still a teenager; for a time, he was homeless and prostituted himself to men in Times Square. Soon he became a Beat-influenced writer and quickly moved into visual arts, including painting, sculpture and photography, as part of an East Village–based art scene that included such notable figures as Keith Haring, performance artist Karen Finley and underground filmmaker Richard Kern. His controversial art, which portrayed such disturbing images as burning children, skeletons and disembodied heads, ambitiously addressed what he termed "the wall of illusion surrounding society and its structures." His work took a more activist turn after the 1987 AIDS-related death of his close friend, photographer Peter Hujar, and his own AIDS diagnosis the following year. Carr conducted countless interviews with the artist's surviving friends, family and acquaintances, and she provides a thoroughly researched picture of his life and times. While the author offers some intriguing insights about Wojnarowicz's inner demons and his devotion to his art, the narrative is repetitive in parts--particularly when Carr relies on his journals, in which he worries constantly about loneliness and his difficulties revealing himself to others. An ambitious bio that may seem overlong to casual readers but will appeal to Wojnarowicz's most fervent fans.
The New York Times
Fire in the Belly is a smart match of author and subject. Ms. Carr was a columnist and arts reporter for The Village Voice from 1984 to 2003, and she is intimate with Wojnarowicz's milieu…[her] biography is both sympathetic and compendious; it's also a many-angled account of the downtown art world of the 1980s.
—Dwight Garner

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Bloomsbury USA
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Fire in The Belly

The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz
By Cynthia Carr

Bloomsbury Publishing

Copyright © 2012 Cynthia Carr
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59691-533-6

Chapter One


One day in September 1954, Ed Wojnarowicz lost his salary gambling. All of it. This led to a quarrel with his wife, Dolores, and he went out to get plastered. When he came home drunk, he seized Dolores by the throat, choking her, muttering that he'd kill her. He grabbed a gun, threatening to shoot her, the children, and then himself. Dolores locked herself in the bedroom with the kids and heard Ed fire three shots. Silence. She crept downstairs to find him slumped over the kitchen table. Dead? When she approached, he jumped up laughing, waving the gun in her face. The divorce petition describing this incident does not specify whether it occurred just before or just after the birth of the couple's third child, David, on September 14.

Ed Wojnarowicz was a seaman on passenger ships, working the boiler room. He stood a wiry five foot ten, hawklike around the eyes and nose, with a tattoo on his left upper arm. He had met Dolores McGuinness in Sydney, Australia—at a soda shop. At least that was the story. She'd been raised in a convent. Or in an orphanage. Or in a fractured family where she'd been abused. So their three children variously told me. None of them knew much about her. Nor the year their parents had married. Nor whether they had family in Australia. Dolores was a brunette with delicate features, a beauty. The divorce papers state that she'd married Ed in Sydney in 1948, on September 14—the same day as David's eventual birth. She was sixteen to Ed's twenty-six.

Dolores had just turned eighteen when their daughter, Pat, was born in January 1950. In the short marriage of Ed and Dolores, major events clocked in at two-year intervals. After Pat came Steven in 1952, then David in '54, and the parents' separation in '56.

David, Steven, and Pat experienced childhood without stability or security, spiked for some years with violence, then chaos, then neglect. Ed committed suicide for real in 1976. Dolores did not respond to repeated phone calls and a letter to her home in Manhattan requesting an interview. She was not in touch with David at the end of his life. Nor had she been in touch with her two surviving children since the early 1980s. Pat attempted to reconnect in 2002, but it didn't work out. (Dolores called her daughter late in 2011, but the upshot was unclear.) Nor did Pat and Steven have any contact with each other. This family was beyond dysfunctional; it had shattered.

Childhood was painful to resurrect for David's brothers and sisters, including his half-siblings from Ed's second marriage, Peter and Linda. All but Pat cried at some point while talking to me, and Pat had big holes in her memory. She has lived in Paris since the late 1970s and goes for weeks at a time without speaking the language in which these things happened. As she put it: "I have a lot of stuff that's been blocked out."

Pat insisted, however, that her very early years were happy—the years spent in or near Red Bank, New Jersey, where David was born. Asked for an example, she recalled sitting under a big tree with Steven and David when she was probably six, and suddenly feeling an overwhelming love for them. What Steven remembered of the years when his parents were married was that Dolores would occasionally lock all three of them in the attic and leave for the day while their father was at sea. Steven remembered the attic's intense heat, and having to pee out the window. Pat said that usually they were locked in there as punishment, sometimes for a long time—"we'd amuse ourselves by going to the toilet in boxes." David remembered nothing from this period of his life. If he had, he might have mentioned the corrective braces he had to wear on his legs at night because he was pigeon-toed.

When Dolores filed for divorce in October 1956, she alleged that Ed's cruelty had started in May 1948, five months before the wedding. The date is mentioned three times, including once in Ed's rebuttal, so it can't be a typo. But the cruelty didn't turn physical until the month of David's birth. Before that, Ed was often drunk, verbally abusive, and absent from home without explanation. But he was just beginning his alcoholic spiral in the 1950s, and the violence was intermittent. In 1955, he threw a mirror at Dolores, cutting her on her face and head. In 1956, he came home drunk, chased Dolores upstairs, then closed all the windows and turned on the gas. She heard a crash and came downstairs to find Ed on the floor, laughing. A few months later, Ed again threatened to kill her.

In his counterclaim, Ed denied everything, adding that in August 1954 he had won six hundred dollars gambling and had given it all to Dolores. He pointed out that they had reaffirmed their wedding vows in July 1951, at a Catholic church in Highlands, New Jersey. (They had married in Australia under the auspices of the Church of En gland, and Ed was a serious Roman Catholic.) Ed also claimed that Dolores had deserted him in the summer of 1956. That was when the couple separated. Dolores moved, with the children, to the Molly Pitcher Village Apartments in Red Bank. When the divorce papers were filed that fall, Ed gave his address as Pier 86 in Manhattan, his ship's berth—later the site of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. He was paying seventy-five dollars a week in support and getting two or three hours with the children every sixteen days.

David was too young to have any memories of the year or so spent at the Molly Pitcher Village Apartments, but it was probably here that he was hit by a car and broke his leg. His lifelong fascination with creeping crawling things was already apparent. Pat recalled that he once brought dozens of caterpillars into the apartment in a paper bag. They were in the curtains. On the chairs. "You could just scoop them up," said Pat. He would also pick up big black ants and eat them.

Ed did not contest the divorce, which was granted in June 1957, but he'd been petitioning the court since the beginning of that year to get more time with his children. With the court's permission, he took them to his relatives in Michigan for the month of August 1957. A couple of months later, he sued for custody, even though he was seldom home. He told the court that he would place the children either with his mother in Detroit or in an institution in New Jersey. Meanwhile, Dolores had converted to Methodism and was unhappy with the court's order that she raise the children as Catholics. In January 1958, the court ruled that it could not decide a religious difference of opinion between parents and a month later confirmed that Dolores had custody, again ordering Ed to pay seventy-five dollars a week in alimony and child support.

For reasons none of the children understood, Dolores placed them in what David, then three years old, later called "either an orphanage or boarding home." It was the latter, but clearly felt like the former, and Dolores may have taken them there within weeks of getting custody. At least, that would be Ed's claim, and she never rebutted it. All three children hated this home, their memories differing only on which religion they were force-fed. The woman who ran the place with her teenage son was strict and abusive. Pat said that when kids misbehaved, "she would take a thorn branch, smack their butts," and that they had to sit by the piano every Sunday and sing hymns because the woman was Baptist. Steven hated the food, was thrown into cold showers for bed-wetting, and remembered spending every Saturday night reading Scripture because the woman was Jewish. David recalled a lack of food, cold showers, beatings, and standing at attention for hours while the woman played piano. Dolores came to visit on weekends, according to Pat. David remembered just one visit—when he followed Dolores outside to a waiting taxi to tell her how awful the place was, and Dolores replied that there was nothing she could do. Steven thought their father visited more than their mother did. Ed would usually take them to stay with him at a hotel for the weekend.

In September 1958, just before David's fourth birthday, Dolores applied to the court for permission to move the children to New York City. She'd been commuting back and forth, she said, looking for work as a model. And she asked that Ed be held in contempt of court because he hadn't paid any support since March. Ed's reply was that Dolores had "abandoned" the children in March and that she'd been "gainfully employed" since April—so he'd decided to send her just sixty dollars a week, the kids' share. According to Ed, she was already living in New York City, which would explain why the children weren't just in daycare but boarded full-time.

The court never had a chance to adjudicate on any of these claims. On November 9, Ed kidnapped his children. He showed up at the boarding home during one of his visitation weekends, told them to pack their bags because he was taking them to stay at the shore, and soon they were all on a plane to Detroit. Before they boarded, however, Ed called Dolores from the airport to tell her that the children wanted to live with him on a farm. Directed, no doubt, by her father, Pat then got on the phone to reiterate, "I want to live with Daddy on a farm." Years later, Pat still felt guilty about possibly saying such a thing. (Pat didn't recall doing this, but Dolores told her later that she had, and that it broke her heart.) In December, the court issued a warrant for Ed's arrest.

An important unstated point about the kidnapping is that Dolores would have known exactly where her children were going. Ed's sister Jean lived on a Michigan farm. That's where Ed had taken the children for the previous summer's court-approved vacation. That's where the family had always vacationed.

Ed's roots were in Michigan. He'd grown up in Hamtramck, a city that was completely surrounded by Detroit and, during his youth, mostly Polish. Ed's parents were immigrants. His father committed suicide during the Depression—by drinking ammonia, or so Ed eventually told Steven. Ed began working on a banana truck shortly after that. Working and drinking. He'd been eight years old. Ed brought Dolores to Michigan after they married, and Pat was born there. By the 1950s, most of the Wojnarowiczes had moved to Dearborn. But Michigan was not a convenient location for a merchant seaman. Ed moved his family to New Jersey after Pat was born in 1950. By the time he kidnapped the children and fled back to Michigan, he was working as an assistant engineer on the S.S. United States.

None of the children remembered when the kidnapping occurred. (The November '58 date comes from court records.) When David created the "Biographical Dateline" for his retrospective, "Tongues of Flame," he placed it a year earlier, in 1957: "Ended up with distant relatives on a chicken farm." His aunt and uncle. Distant? But then, David never felt much connection with his extended family or took any interest in his ancestry. He also had an imperfect sense of time, often situating events in the wrong year in his own account of his life.

Pat and Steven both said they'd lived mostly in Dearborn after the kidnapping—with their grandmother and Ed's two unmarried siblings, Helen and John. A few undated snapshots exist, with the children posed outside a small brick house. Here we get the first faint intimations of the menace Ed later became to his kids. Steven remembered Uncle Johnny intervening: "Eddie, that's enough. I'm not going to let you beat 'em." Or, "Eddie, that's enough. Leave 'em alone." And Pat still thought of Uncle Johnny as her hero. "He would stick up for me," she said, though she couldn't remember how.

Nor could either of them remember how long they were in Michigan or when they returned to New Jersey. Pat knows for sure that she attended school in Michigan—because it was a Catholic boarding school she hated. Then one day, Ed returned from one of his sailing trips with a woman he introduced as their new mother. This was Moira Banks—known as Marion—a native of Scotland who'd been working as a nanny on Long Island. She'd met Ed on the ship while returning to New York from a visit with her family. She was two years younger than Dolores and, like her, had no family support or resources in this country.

The children spent, at most, a year in Michigan. In 1959, David appeared in a class picture at the Dryden Street School in Westbury, Long Island, with a Thanksgiving mural on the wall behind him. And his half-brother, Pete, was born there in December. After David published his Dateline, he was surprised to learn from his sister that they'd once lived on Long Island. He thought they'd been in New Jersey the whole time. But then, the geography of childhood had been something of a blur for them all. None of them could remember the names of all the schools they'd attended.

They didn't live on the Island for long. Ed didn't like it there. So in 1960, he moved the family back to New Jersey, renting in Parlin at 3108 Bordentown Avenue. Their one-story house was part of a long row all built from the same blueprint, like unlinked boxcars on a track. The area was just developing then, still farm country. And here David begins to come into focus as an individual. He made trips alone into the woods to look for critters. He found a kid who'd give him three dollars for a frog. He developed a risky game with a friend: lying down on busy Bordentown Avenue, just beyond the crest of a hill, so semitrailer trucks nosing over the top would suddenly have to hit the brakes while David and his friend got up and ran away.

David's half-sister, Linda—Ed's fifth child—was born in August '61 while they were living in Parlin. Soon after, Ed bought his first house, a split-level with a one-car garage at 9 Huntington Road in nearby East Brunswick. Here David lived until he left New Jersey for good.

In 1990, before he published Close to the Knives, his "memoir of disintegration," David called his sister and said he needed her to sign a permission form, agreeing to let him report "the private facts concerning her abuse," as the Random House legal department put it. David had included a story about their father picking her up and slamming her to the ground, then kicking her, while "brown stuff" came out of her ears and mouth. Pat had no memory of this—which David found shocking—but she signed the paper, thinking it could easily have been an incident she forgot. Or blocked out. "Because there was so much violence going on," she explained.

Still, Pat tried to emphasize the positive when possible. She had some memories from Huntington Road when her father "could be OK. And we weren't scared." That's when Ed was sober. But it seemed that he was rarely sober. Ed was an alcoholic who would never hit bottom, who would just keep falling. And when he was home, the family lived in a state of terror.

Steven remembered a kind of physical intensity their father had: how his lips would curl and spit would come out of his mouth, how the look in his eye said he wanted to kill, how—quite apart from the physical pain—he inflicted psychological pain that Steven thought more severe. He'd wave a beer can, demanding, "Know what I'm gonna do with this?" till Steven assumed that he was going to get it jammed down his throat, and then Ed would say, "I'm gonna drink it." He'd go into a tirade, telling them how worthless they were, how stupid, how like a seagull. ("All you do is eat, shit, and squawk.") He loved to lecture. He'd ramble through "the same old hunting story of how he caught a deer," as Pat put it. "You had to sit there for hours. You'd just die." He'd lash out if a kid's attention wavered. During one of these interminable sessions, Steven dared to scratch his legs, only to have his father pick up a jar of pickles and heave it at him.

Then there were the beatings. David usually didn't go into specifics apart from "got beat," but Pat and Steven both recalled their father using his fists, or his belt, or a stick, or a dog leash, or a two-by-four. He never broke their bones, said Pat, but they would be black and blue, and afraid for their lives. Steven felt he was treated differently by their father—treated worse—because he was the big boy, chubby and growing fast. (Eventually David would be taller than any of them, at six feet four, but he was both short and scrawny during the Jersey years.) Steven remembered bleeding from his eyes, ears, and nose, then being sent to the market with lips swollen "out to here" and people staring but not inquiring. Years later, David would say that he felt compelled to tell the Real Deal in his work because he never forgot the way the neighbors averted their eyes and shut their mouths.


Excerpted from Fire in The Belly by Cynthia Carr Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Carr. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Cynthia Carr was a columnist and arts reporter for the Village Voice from 1984 to 2003. Writing under the byline C. Carr, she specialized in experimental and cutting-edge art, especially performance art. Some of these pieces are now collected in On Edge: Performance at the End of the Twentieth Century. She is also the author of Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Artforum, Bookforum, Modern Painters, the Drama Review, and other publications. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007. Carr lives in New York.

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Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Cynthia Carr has hit the stickball out of the neighborhood. She takes us on a journey which forces us to confront his fears as well as our own. It is concise in its mystery of this man and his art...and the mystery of a movement, and the courage of creation. We walk with him and discover that true "Fire in the Belly." Read it with courage and wonder.