Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir

Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir

by Rebecca Solnit
Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir

Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir

by Rebecca Solnit


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Shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize for Biography
Longlisted for The Orwell Prize for Political Writing

An electric portrait of the artist as a young woman that asks how a writer finds her voice in a society that prefers women to be silent

In Recollections of My Nonexistence, Rebecca Solnit describes her formation as a writer and as a feminist in 1980s San Francisco, in an atmosphere of gender violence on the street and throughout society and the exclusion of women from cultural arenas. She tells of being poor, hopeful, and adrift in the city that became her great teacher, and of the small apartment that, when she was nineteen, became the home in which she transformed herself. She explores the forces that liberated her as a person and as a writer—books themselves; the gay community that presented a new model of what else gender, family, and joy could mean; and her eventual arrival in the spacious landscapes and overlooked conflicts of the American West.

Beyond being a memoir, Solnit's book is also a passionate argument: that women are not just impacted by personal experience, but by membership in a society where violence against women pervades. Looking back, she describes how she came to recognize that her own experiences of harassment and menace were inseparable from the systemic problem of who has a voice, or rather who is heard and respected and who is silenced—and how she was galvanized to use her own voice for change.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593083338
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/10/2020
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 5.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Rebecca Solnit is the author of more than twenty books, including A Field Guide to Getting Lost, The Faraway Nearby, A Paradise Built in Hell, River of Shadows, and Wanderlust. She is also the author of Men Explain Things to Me and many essays on feminism, activism and social change, hope, and the climate crisis. A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she is a regular contributor to The Guardian and other publications.

Read an Excerpt


One day long ago, I looked at myself as I faced a full-length mirror and saw my image darken and soften and then seem to retreat, as though I was vanishing from the world rather than that my mind was shutting it out. I steadied myself on the door frame just across the hall from the mirror, and then my legs crumpled under me. My own image drifted away from me into darkness, as though I was only a ghost fading even from my own sight.

I blacked out occasionally and had dizzy spells often in those days, but this time was memorable because it appeared as though it wasn't that the world was vanishing from my consciousness but that I was vanishing from the world. I was the person who was vanishing and the disembodied person watching her from a distance, both and neither. In those days, I was trying to disappear and to appear, trying to be safe and to be someone, and those agendas were at often odds with each other. And I was watching myself to see if I could read in the mirror what I could be and whether I was good enough and whether all the things I'd been told about myself were true.

To be a young woman is to face your own annihilation in innumerable ways or to flee it or the knowledge of it, or all these things at once. "The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world," said Edgar Allan Poe, who must not have imagined it from the perspective of women who prefer to live. I was trying not to be the subject of someone else's poetry and not to get killed; I was trying to find a poetics of my own, with no maps, no guides, not much to go on. They might have been out there, but I hadn't located them yet.

The struggle to find a poetry in which your survival rather than your defeat is celebrated, perhaps to find your own voice to insist upon that, or to at least find a way to survive amidst an ethos that relishes your erasures and failures is work that many and perhaps most young women have to do. In those early years, I did not do it particularly well or clearly, but I did it ferociously.

I was often unaware of what and why I was resisting, and so my defiance was murky, incoherent, erratic. Those years of not succumbing, or of succumbing like someone sinking into a morass and then flailing to escape, again and again, come back to me now as I see young women around me fighting the same battles. The fight wasn't just to survive bodily, though that could be intense enough, but to survive as a person possessed of rights, including the right to participation and dignity and a voice. More than survive, then: to live.

The director, writer, and actor Brit Marling said recently, "Part of what keeps you sitting in that chair in that room enduring harassment or abuse from a man in power is that, as a woman, you have rarely seen another end for yourself. In the novels you've read, in the films you've seen, in the stories you've been told since birth, the women so frequently meet disastrous ends."

The mirror in which I saw myself disappear was in the apartment I inhabited for a quarter century, beginning in the last months of my teens. The first several years there were the era of my fiercest battles, some of which I won, some of which left scars I still carry, many of which so formed me that I cannot say I wish that it had all been otherwise, for then I would have been someone else entirely, and she does not exist. I do. But I can wish that the young women who come after me might skip some of the old obstacles, and some of my writing has been toward that end, at least by naming those obstacles.


Another mirror story: When I was about eleven there was a shoe store where my mother got me the engineer boots I favored back when I was trying not to be that despised thing, a girl, and was trying to be what seemed like a separate thing, rugged, ready for action, but something else made the store memorable. If you stepped in front of the mirrors that lined both sides of the center aisle, you could see an image of an image of an image of an image of yourself or the shoe stools or anything, each one more watery and dim and remote, stretching onward, beyond, seemingly forever, as though an ocean lay in there with the reflections and you were seeing farther and farther into the sea-green depths. It wasn't the self I was trying to catch sight of then, but the beyond.

Beyond every beginning is another beginning, and another and another, but my first ride on the 5 Fulton bus could be a place to start, that line that bisects the city, running from downtown, by San Francisco Bay, all the way west out Fulton Street to the Pacific Ocean. The main thrust of this story happens in the middle of that route, in the middle of the city, but for just a moment stay on the bus straining uphill past the Jesuit church whose towers catch the morning light, onward alongside the big park on the south side of the street and avenue after avenue of houses less and less densely packed on earth that is really only sand, to that sandy stretch meeting the Pacific Ocean that covers almost a third of the planet.

Sometimes the whole sea looks like a mirror of beaten silver, though it's too turbulent to hold many reflections; it's the bay that carries a reflected sky on its surface. On the most beautiful days, there are no words for the colors of San Francisco Bay and the sky above it. Sometimes the water reflects a heaven that is both gray and gold, and the water is blue, is green, is silver, is a mirror of that gray and gold, catching the warmth and cold of colors in its ripples, is all and none of them, is something more subtle than the language we have can describe. Sometimes a bird dives into the mirror of the water, vanishing into its own reflection, and the reflective surface makes it impossible to see what lies beneath.

Sometimes at the birth and death of a day, the opal sky is no color we have words for, the gold shading into blue without the intervening green that is halfway between those colors, the fiery warm colors that are not apricot or crimson or gold, the light morphing second by second so that the sky is more shades of blue than you can count as it fades from where the sun is to the far side where other colors are happening. If you look away for a moment you miss a shade for which there will never be a term, and it is transformed into another and another. The names of the colors are sometimes cages containing what doesn't belong there, and this is often true of language generally, of the words like woman, man, child, adult, safe, strong, free, true, black, white, rich, poor. We need the words, but use them best knowing they are containers forever spilling over and breaking open. Something is always beyond.


Sometimes a gift is given and neither giver nor recipient knows what its true dimensions are, and what it appears to be at first is not what it will be in the end. Like beginnings, endings have endless recessions, layers atop the layers, consequences that ripple outward. One winter Sunday when I was young, ignorant, poor, and almost friendless, I went to look at an apartment for rent. I'd found the listing in the want ads of the newspaper, a few tiny lines of information in that dense gray grid, mostly describing places out of my range. People had laughed at me when I'd said I was looking for something for $200 a month, a rock-bottom price even then, but I couldn't afford any more that last semester of my undergraduate education, that third year of my financial independence.

At the time I went house hunting I lived in a tiny room with a window onto a light shaft that was nevertheless luxurious for having its own bathroom in that residential hotel whose other rooms had shared bathrooms down the hall. The entire building shared a single dimly lit kitchen where your food would be stolen from the refrigerator or swarmed over by roaches or both. The other residents were people whose lives seemed to have not turned out well. I was nineteen and my life had not turned out yet; I was still early in the process of trying to figure out who and how to become, the usual task for someone that age. (I had taken the GED at fifteen and started community college full time at sixteen, transferring to a four-year college at seventeen; at nineteen I was a senior at San Francisco State University, the working-class college out in the windy southwest corner of the city.)

I got on the 5 Fulton near City Hall and the bus took me past the housing projects, past a Fillmore Street church where a group of somber black men in suits were gathered outside for a funeral, past ornate old wooden houses and corner liquor stores, up a rise to Lyon Street, where I stepped off, and the bus lumbered on to the Pacific. I found the address, a building with a recessed front door that had, like a lot of the others nearby, an ironwork gate added for more security. The doormat inside was attached to the mail slot with a rusty chain and lock. I rang the manager's doorbell, trudged up the first flight of stairs when he buzzed me in, and met him at the doorway of his apartment on the second floor, from which he dispatched me to the third floor to see the apartment directly above his.

The place astonished me with its beauty. A corner studio whose main room had a south and an east bay window through which light cascaded. Golden oak floors, high coved ceilings, and white walls with rectangular panels of molding. Glass-paneled doors with crystal doorknobs. A separate kitchen with another east-facing window that would explode with morning light when the sun came up over the big house across the street. It seemed luminous, a little unearthly, a place from a fairy tale, immense and exquisite compared to the spartan single rooms in which I'd mostly lived since I'd left home shortly after I turned seventeen. I floated around in it for a while, then went back downstairs and told the manager I wanted it. He said, kindly, "If you want it you should have it." I wanted it passionately; it was more beautiful than anything I'd ever dreamed I could have, and being in it seemed like a dream itself.

He was a big black man of sixty, tall, stout, strong, clearly once very handsome, still an impressive figure with a low, rumbling voice, and if he was dressed that day as he was most days I knew him, he was probably wearing overalls. He brought me into his parlor. That Super Bowl Sunday afternoon when a local football team was in the game and a roar would go up from homes throughout the neighborhood with every score, he was watching black men play the blues on his big TV sitting on its own table near the six-sided green-felt poker table, the light outside filtered through old-fashioned wide-slatted blinds over his bay windows. When he handed me the rental application, my heart fell. I told him that I had already been turned down by the slumlord management company whose name was at the top of the form. One of the employees had disdainfully dropped my application into the wastebasket next to his desk while I looked on; I didn't make enough money to meet their minimums.

The building manager told me that if I got a respectable older woman to apply, he wouldn't tell them of the deception. I took up that offer and asked my mother, who had often refused to go out on a limb for me, if she would. This time she did, filling out and submitting the form. The management company was not suspicious about why a white homeowner who lived on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge wanted the apartment-I think she said something about being closer to work, because she kept the books in a talent agency in the city. They probably gave it to her by rote as the most financially impressive applicant for a small place in a black neighborhood.

For the next eight years, I paid my rent every month by buying a money order and signing her name rather than mine to it. The lease specified that the person who'd signed it be the person who lived there, so I did not officially exist in my home that was not officially mine. Though I would end up spending so many years there, I felt for a long time that I might be chased off at any time and should be as invisible as possible, which reinforced a tendency toward furtiveness, a habit of trying to go undetected, that I'd developed as a child. At some point, the property management company found out that the resident was not the signer of the lease and asked the building manager what was going on. He vouched for me as a quiet, responsible tenant, and nothing happened, but I still felt precarious.

James V. Young was the building manager's name. I always called him Mr. Young. Sometime or other he mentioned that I was the first white person to live in the building in seventeen years. The other residents were mostly older couples, though a single mother and her friendly daughter lived in another one of the studio apartments in that building, which had seven apartments opening off the stairwell on two stories, above a ground floor of garages. That I had moved into a black neighborhood was something I had not yet grasped; it would teach me many things over the years to come, and I would stay so long that when I left, I left a middle-class white place whose buildings remained largely unchanged beyond fresh paint, but where everything else was transformed and something vital had died.

I changed too; the person who moved out in the twenty-first century was not that person who'd arrived all those years before. There is a thread of continuity. The child is mother of the woman, but so much happened, so much changed, that I think of that spindly, anxious young woman as someone I knew intimately, someone I wish I could have done more for, someone I feel for as I often do for women her age whom I meet now; that long-ago girl was not exactly me, not like me at all in crucial ways, but me anyway, an awkward misfit, a daydreamer, a restless wanderer.

Table of Contents

Looking Glass House 1

Foghorn and Gospel 19

Life During Wartime 41

Disappearing Acts 71

Freely at Night 95

Some Uses of Edges 127

Diving Into the Wreck 153

Audibility, Credibility, Consequence 189

Afterword: Lifelines 233

Acknowledgments 241

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