Whose poster hung on your wall as a teenager? Whose record did you wear out? Whose life story could you not resist? Fascination works in mysterious ways—it can be born out of inspiration, or repulsion, or both. In these daring essays, some of the most provocative writers of our time offer a private view on a public figure. In the process, they reveal themselves in beautiful and unexpected ways, blurring the line between biography and memoir.
Original essays include Introduction by Amy Scholder, Mary Gaitskill on Linda Lovelace, Rick Moody on Karen Dalton, Johanna Fateman on Andrea Dworkin, Danielle Henderson on bell hooks, Hanne Blank on MFK Fisher, Kate Zambreno on Kathy Acker, Justin Vivian Bond on Karen Graham, Jill Nelson on Aretha Franklin, and Zoe Pilger on Mary Gaitskill
“A smart plunge into fandom’s sober fringe.” —Wayne Koestenbaum, author of My 1980s and Other Essays
|Publisher:||Feminist Press at CUNY, The|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||1 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Mary Gaitskill on Linda Lovelace
Icon of freedom, innocent carnality; icon of brokenness, and confusion; icon of a wound turned into or disguised as pleasure-source; icon of sexual victimization, sexual power, irreconcilable oppositions; icon of 1970s America; icon of Everywoman. And just another skinny white girl with average looks and a little flat voice, a type you barely notice even if some version of her is everywhere.
I saw Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat because my boyfriend was the projectionist at a hippie film co-op. It was 1972 and I was seventeen. My boyfriend was twenty-five and neither of us was interested in porn which we thought of as a corny old-person thing. But Deep Throat, an X-rated comedy about a woman whose clitoris is in her throat, was supposed to be something different, and we were curious, then won over by the film's dirty goofballery. "She just seemed to like it so much," said my boyfriend, and his voice was not salacious as much as tickled. I liked it too, it was funny — but liking and arousal are very different. I wasn't excited by Deep Throat, and the only thing I could really remember about it afterward was Lovelace's sweet smile and the strange expression in her eyes, a look that I could not define and still can't, a look that was not happy yet that seemed to go with her smile.
I was however wildly excited by the next movie I saw at the coop, a film that on the face of it has nothing in common with Deep Throat, but which remains, in my imagination, weirdly linked with the porn comedy; it was Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, an emotionally stunning silent film made in 1928 about the persecution, psychological torture, and death of an inexplicably, helplessly powerful nineteen-year-old girl. I'm sure it sounds ridiculously arty, but trust me, my reaction was not artistic. I was horrified by this film, but also moved and so aroused that I was embarrassed to be in public, even in the dark. I don't like images of persecution or death or torture, but liking was irrelevant; Passion demanded a powerful response and my body gave it.
Anyway, in 1980, when Linda Lovelace wrote a book (with journalist Mike McGrady) about her experience called Ordeal, then joined Catharine MacKinnon's anti-porn movement, I fleetingly remembered her sweet, strange-eyed smile, and how different it seemed from the woman claiming that anyone who watched Deep Throat was watching her being raped. I was vaguely sad but not that surprised; it seemed just one more piece of senseless effluvia flying past.
Fast-forward to 2012, when not one but two mainstream biopics about Linda Lovelace were being made at the same time, I learned of these films because of a brief involvement with a guy who had some vague connection with one of the films as well as very strong opinions on its subject. He felt nothing but contempt for Lovelace, whom he described as a deeply stupid liar who refused to take responsibility for any of her actions, including her participation in pre-Throat porn loops, particularly one in which she enthusiastically received a dog. He told me that in Ordeal she claimed, among other things, that she was forced by her husband/pimp, Chuck Traynor, to "do" the dog, but that "everyone" knew it was a lie, that she was "into it," that is, she liked it.
This was all news to me, but I shrugged and said, I don't blame her. We've all done things that, while not embarrassing in our own private self-scape, would be embarrassing if projected on a public movie screen. Besides she had kids. If you had kids, would you want to talk about dog-fucking with them? My friend said she turned on Women Against Pornography and said they used her too. I said, they probably did; those women are bonkers. He came back, but then she posed for a magazine called Leg Show, to which I said, so what, that's not really porn and she probably needed the money. We changed the subject and broke up later that night.
But the conversation made me care about Linda Lovelace in a way I previously had not, and made me want to defend her. It also made me curious. Lovelace and her husband/pimp Chuck Traynor are dead (both in 2002), as is Deep Throat director Gerry Damiano and Lovelace's costar Harry Reems, so why was a grown man talking like a school-yard bully about her ten years later? Why was her story suddenly of such pop-cultural interest that forty-plus years after Deep Throat, two mainstream film companies wanted to tell it?
When the biopic titled Lovelace came out the following year (the other, Inferno, floundered and was killed), I saw it and became something more than curious. Lovelace is a candy-colored, feel-good story of a nice girl forced into porn by an abusive husband, who nonetheless blooms with the attention of celebrities like Hugh Hefner, is redeemed by feminism, is accepted by her family, gets married, and starts a family of her own. Critics and viewers responded tepidly, but to me the bowdlerization was even more obnoxious than my former friend's contempt. Why, after more than forty years, were people so insistently sanitizing and simplifying this story?
I suppose I shouldn't have wondered. Deep Throat was an extreme phenomenon that, whimsically and unselfconsciously, confirmed and challenged the status quo of masculine privilege by creating a fantasy world of blowjobs that gave pride of place to female orgasm. This preposterous polarity was heightened by the film's combination of high and low (in terms of register or pitch), the way it put together silliness and lightness of spirit with the florid id-imagery of porn, especially the image of its star, an appealing girl happily splitting her pretty face to get hairy dick impossibly far down her throat. Made in six days for $45,500, with sitcom dialogue and a kooky soundtrack, the film grossed $50 million: Screw's Al Goldstein fell in love, the mafia made a killing (literally), President Nixon condemned it, New York Mayor Lindsay banned it, and the glitterati lined up to see it, including Jack Nicholson, Truman Capote, Liz Taylor, and Jackie O. Harry Reems was arrested and eventually did time for obscenity; Linda Lovelace became an international celebrity.
She may've been average-looking, but (in addition to her famous erotic "trick" and her ardent way with it) Lovelace projected the perverse charm of innocence soiled but blithely so, a fragile, playful persona that was uniquely, darkly radiant, dirty and ethereal both. She appeared at a time that is hard to imagine now, when porn has become normalized and commodified to the point that middle-class teenagers might sport license plates that read PORN STAR and actual porn stars are featured in mainstream news websites. Nineteen seventy-two was a transitional time, both libertine and innocent in every direction, with traditional values asserted as aggressively as they were rebelled against. It was a time when many people must've found it wonderful to see a sweet-faced young woman with a touchingly delicate figure and a girly voice swallowing throbbin' gristle till her nose ran, yet whom you could watch without feeling nasty because she liked it so much. The 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat includes footage of a press conference at which Lovelace appears in a long, pale gown with a rose in her teeth; she looks anything but average. She is beautiful, puckishly so, and surrounded by absolutely gaga men who look as if they are witnessing the arrival of a woman riding in from another world astride a thunderbolt, a world in which good and evil bang together (pun intended) with joy, and anything is allowed without consequence.
It is poignant to consider this explosion of glamour and sexual exuberance emanating from an utterly unglamorous, abused and abusing couple, but — for a minute it seemed like anything was allowed, and when anything is allowed, what really is abuse?
Abused or not, Lovelace suddenly had offers she never dreamed of, from television, movies, and lecture circuits, and she gamely tried to make use of it all, trollish husband in tow. But either because she lacked the talent or because she was simply too overwhelmed by the whole thing, none of it worked for her. She dropped out of sight, divorcing Chuck and marrying childhood friend Larry Marchiano. Until that is, she produced Ordeal and re-emerged as an antiporn activist. Her besotted fans were disappointed; her former colleagues were angry, and in some cases hurt — according to porn star Annie Sprinkle, Deep Throat's director was "heartbroken" by her claims.
The Other Hollywood, by Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osborne (with Peter Pavia), is an "Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry," and it is jammed with people expressing their anger and disgust at Lovelace — even people who plainly state that yes, Chuck Traynor beat his wife. "I mean, this was a woman who never took responsibility for her own shitty choices — but instead blamed everything that happened in her life on porn. You know, 'The devil made me do it.'" (Gloria Leonard, 267) In a personal exchange with me, Annie Sprinkle was gentler about it: "I do think Linda was in an abusive relationship. And she was definitely traumatized by it ... And I strongly believe that she had a ball doing Deep Throat and that she was treated like a star, and went through a horrible time simultaneously with her husband ... I'm sure she also associated Deep Throat with that horrible time in her life."
I liked that interpretation and took it further, possibly in a too-romantic direction. I thought that the relationship must've at least started as consensual, that there was probably an element of coercion from Chuck, that what she was feeling then was part fear and part willing excitement, but at some point the excitement tipped over into real fear, and eventually Lovelace could not tell where one ended and the other began. I wondered if Traynor, pimp that he was, knew for sure. Once out of the relationship, I imagined that Lovelace simply lacked the confidence to describe what she did and felt in a nuanced way, and that it was very, very nuanced and contradictory. So she went with either "I liked it" or "I was raped."
This is a very rational, mild, and forgiving way to think of an experience that was none of the above. Just how "none of the above" it might've been became apparent when I read Ordeal. That book, which is now out of print, has been so dismissed that I almost didn't read it. I can see why it was dismissed; the experience it describes is so relentlessly, ridiculously miserable, so helpless and hapless, so utterly incongruous with how Lovelace initially presented herself. Some of it does strain credulity; as I read the beginning of it, I asked myself out loud, "Where were her instincts?" It's a good question: if her portrayal of Chuck Traynor is at all accurate, he was the kind of guy that even a very young and naîve girl could see coming from a mile off; you don't need special shrewdness or even much experience to recognize a predator, all you need is animal instinct. But some people's instincts have been ruined. Some people's instincts have been so ruined by such disrespectful treatment that, for them, disrespect is not merely a norm, it has a kind of hyper-reality. Such people don't necessarily identify as masochistic in a conscious way. They are sometimes just weird people whose strange ways of dealing with the world can make them a pain in the ass. It's hard to want to know them, that is, to know how hurt they are, and how intractable the damage is. I don't quite believe everything in Ordeal, but even if half of it is true, the "horrible time in her life" was neither nuanced nor contradictory, and at no point involved "having a ball" or "being treated like a star."
But, while it expresses a low opinion of porn, Ordeal doesn't actually blame porn for anything. The book is appreciative of some people in the business (for example the late porn star Andrea True) and depicts Deep Throat as a big step up from the stuff Lovelace says she was forced into previously. She describes Gerry Damiano and most of the other people involved with the film as relatively decent and considerate, including a soundman who offered to protect her from Traynor if she gave him a "signal." As grotesque as it is, I can't dismiss it; too much of it rings true. But it's also impossible to dismiss the appealing, even delightful way she looks in Deep Throat, or her otherworldly radiance in the following press conferences and interviews. In spite of her eerie, sometimes dead-looking eyes, there is nothing in her voice or body language that suggests terror or victimization, not even during a scene in which she's pretending to be menaced by a pretend rapist with a gun. Really, she does look like she's having a ball. A ball in hell maybe, but a ball nonetheless.
This equal-and-opposite mixed signage is what makes Lovelace a compelling, even profound figure, a lost soul and powerful icon, defiled innocent, sexual rock star who posed for a skin mag at fifty-two. All these years later, her redemption is important for feminists (and not only those with an antiporn fixation) because, in spite of her Sadeian trajectory, her experience is a fun-house version of the sometimes excruciating contradictions that many women experience in relation to sex.
Consider this mild and typical anecdote: a friend of mine, now in her fifties, told me how, in her twenties, she used to walk into the St. Mark's Bar and Grill and every time she did, this same guy would grab her breasts and everybody would laugh. She said thinking about it now made her furious. When I asked her what she did at the time, she said she laughed too because she didn't know what else to do. And I remember what she was like in her twenties; she flirted and giggled a lot, and loved attention. So which is true, the giggly girl who just laughed when the guy grabbed her, or the angry woman in her fifties? Now consider this more extreme contradiction: a therapist once told me that some women orgasm when they are raped. I had never heard this before and found it hard to believe. I said, "So, if the rapist said 'she liked it,' he would be telling the truth." The therapist said, no, she did not like it. But for some people the adrenal arousal of terror turns into global arousal that becomes sexual.
I thought of that when I read in The Other Hollywood that Linda was constantly turned on, that she was "soaking wet," and that she really seemed to be "into it" with the dog. In Ordeal, Lovelace writes that she was forced into the scene with the dog, that there was actually a gun on the set. But in The Other Hollywood, actress Sharon Mitchell says that when she briefly walked onto the set it "didn't look like they were forcing her to do anything," rather that it "looked like they were forcing the dogs!" Mitchell says that she was so upset by the sight of Linda's arousal that she became terrified and ran down the stairs (51). The first striking thing about this anecdote is Mitchell's mean-girl brutality; she didn't realize how many people would say the same shit about her? Was the sight of arousal really so terrifying? Or was she running from terror itself, terror wound together with arousal so tight that she didn't consciously know what she was looking at or running from? The second striking thing is that although everyone else involved describes one dog on the set, Mitchell apparently saw "dogs" — kind of like Lovelace seeing a gun that everyone else says wasn't there. Chuck Traynor did hit Linda and he did own guns. If he ever pointed a gun at Linda, even once, in her mind it was probably always there.
Or not. Maybe there was no gun and she knew it. Maybe she was terrified anyway. Fear is powerful sometimes even when there is no immediate threat. Sometimes it motivates people without their knowing it except in hindsight, if at all.
When I was seventeen I was violently raped. It was horrible, but I got through it and did not believe it affected me overmuch. It did not inhibit me sexually; in the years following the experience I was promiscuous, even aggressively so. Sometimes I had sex without really knowing why, but that seemed true of many, many people at the time. Then one day when I was nineteen something happened. I was with a guy and we were fooling around on my bed, still fully clothed. Playfully, he raised himself over me, grabbed my wrists, and pinned them. I went completely blank. I don't know how else to describe it. As he put it later, my body went limp and my eyes "empty." Scared himself, he let go of me and said something like "What's wrong?" I said, "I thought you were going to start hitting me." Shocked and upset he replied, "I would never do that, how could you think that?" I said "I don't know," and I meant it. I had no idea how much fear I'd been carrying and was so surprised by my own blanking out that I didn't even understand it at first. We talked some — I don't remember if I told him about being raped or not — but sex was out of the question.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Icon"
Copyright © 2014 Amy Scholder.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
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.
Table of ContentsIntroduction by Amy Scholder
Mary Gaitskill on Linda Lovelace
Rick Moody on Karen Dalton
Johanna Fateman on Andrea Dworkin
Kate Zambreno on Kathy Acker
Justin Vivian Bond on Karen Graham
Jill Nelson on Aretha Franklin
Hanna Blank on MFK Fisher
Danielle Henderson on bell hooks
Michaela Angela Davis on Harriet Tubman
John Reed on Leslie Van Houten
Zoe Pilger on Mary Gaitskill