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David Wojnarowicz was an abused child, a teen runaway who barely finished high school, but he emerged as one of the most important voices of his generation. He found his tribe in New York's East Village, a neighborhood noted in the 1970s and '80s for drugs, blight, and a burgeoning art scene. His creativity spilled out in paintings, photographs, films, texts, installations, and in his life and its recounting-creating a sort of mythos around himself. His circle of East Village artists moved into the national spotlight just as the AIDS plague began its devastating advance, and as right-wing culture warriors reared their heads. As Wojnarowicz's reputation as an artist grew, so did his reputation as an agitator-because he dealt so openly with his homosexuality, so angrily with his circumstances as a Person With AIDS, and so fiercely with his would-be censors.
Fire in the Belly is the untold story of a polarizing figure at a pivotal moment in American culture-and one of the most highly acclaimed biographies of the year.
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Fire in The BellyThe Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz
By Cynthia Carr
Bloomsbury PublishingCopyright © 2012 Cynthia Carr
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWHERE SOMETHING BROKE
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.
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Table of Contents
The Truth: An Introduction 1
1 Where Something Broke 7
2 Dissolution 24
3 The Street 39
4 The Secret Life 54
5 At the Shattered Edge of the Map 81
6 The Flaneur 104
7 Go Rimbaud 131
8 Nightclubbing 159
9 The Poverty of Peter Hujar 180
10 A Union of Different Drummers 194
11 Rampages of Raw Energy 217
12 "Will They Allow Me on the Moon?" 230
13 Pressure Point 249
14 A Burning Child 269
15 Hello Darkness, My Old Friend 298
16 "Something Turning Emotional and Wild" 320
17 Some Sort of Grace 346
18 Elegiac Times 381
19 Acceleration 393
20 "Like a Blood-Filled Egg" 421
21 Witnesses 442
22 With a Target on His Back 462
23 "Desperate to Bring a Light" 496
24 "Like a Marble Rolling Down a Hill" 520
25 "Disappearing But Not Fast Enough" 545
Epilogue Throw My Body on the Steps of the White House 575
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.