Q&A with Dorothy Allison
A little girl is abused by her stepfather, and one of the ways she deals with the horror, fear and the general degradation of being a victim is she masturbates to the eroticism of it.
You'd think such a taboo premise would have child advocacy groups up in arms. Instead, Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina was a National Book Award finalist. For me it was the first book I ever read that explored the relationship of love, violence, abuse and sex with such unblinking honesty it made my skin crawl with painful recognition. She has been surprisingly forthcoming about her involvement in the lesbian leather scene, and how abuse gets eroticized. She followed Bastard with her second novel, Cavedweller, in 1998. I recently spoke with Allison by phone.
So you were in the s&m scene?
Yeah. (laughs) Surprise, surprise... The problem with having children is you never get to go to parties no more! (laughs)
I guess you went to the lesbian...?
Yeah, it used to be more divided up than it is now. When I moved to San Francisco there was a large fairy presence that was very mixed, men and women. I started out being friends with a lot of female dominants who didn't really break themselves off that way. They were essentially lesbians, but they were working girls. There were lots of friends who were men, and they would invite men to their parties, but the party scene was a whole different thing... It breaks out pretty easy. It's fairly simple to separate that from your life.
What do you mean?
I moved to California to get healthy, because I was in a really terrible relationship and I was physically very sick. I had immune dysfunction. In fact, one of the reasons I moved out here was one of my girlfriends tested positive for AIDS and I was pretty sure I would come up positive. I thought I was gonna die... You know how you make all these decisions when you think you're going to die? This was the late 80s, well, '87...and then I discovered that in fact I was HIV negative... I had fucked my immune system pretty thoroughly. But there's something about thinking you're going to die that the whole world shifts around. So I decided to live cheap...live on my savings and what I could hustle and try to finish a book before I died...even if I wasn't going to die! (laughs) Then I moved out here and it was a very different place.
So you were writing Bastard?
I had started Bastard while I was finishing Trash. Published it that next year. But you know it doesn't break out so easy. I was writing Bastard, but first I finished the stories in Trash, one of which, "Gospel Song," is a section of Bastard.
And you just expanded that?
No, no...it doesn't quite work like that. I had been trying to figure out how to write Bastard and I didn't know... It takes a long time to get the voice right, it takes a long time to figure out how to tell that kind of story, and there were a number of different approaches. It's very hard to explain how a voice really starts to work. Lots of different versions, lots of stuff you throw away. Eventually it gets right and then you start paring it down.
San Francisco has changed. I remember, you could live so cheaply...
Yeah, it's pretty scary. I came here with nothing but some savings and the ability to write reviews and hustle.
When you say hustle, what do you mean?
Well, mostly putting together a living out of nothing. Although I did some phone sex, but I was horrifically terrible. People would give me their perversions and I'd be so interested I'd want to talk to them about their perversions instead of helping them to get off. I wasn't directed enough to be a good whore. Really bad. But I had so many friends who were working girls... I had been an anthropologist, and, I don't know, I just always made friends with working girls.
Were you surprised at what happened with Bastard?
Shit yes. I don't understand the American literary marketplace. It's a fairly absurd thing... I guess my big surprise is that I met some real human beings in publishing and kinda liked them... Anytime you actually make some money and not have to hustle every minute I'm astonished, totally astonished. But I don't think that's why any of us write.
How did you get the manuscript to Dutton?
Oh, honey! It's an old story. I had an old friend, a commie faggot who wanted to learn how to be an agent. And he acts as my agent. And I was incredibly arrogant. I went to New York and interviewed editors to find one that I could stand. Because I wasn't dependent on them for money, and because I was very clear that I wasn't looking to them for expertise, it was possible to be arrogant. I made a small list of five people, and I thought, I can work with these people. There was one straight woman. One gay man. And two lesbians. And one woman who just didn't know. But she was a good editor...
But then, I don't push people about this shit anymore. I used to care intensely that everyone identify themselves from the gate, but I don't care anymore... Define "are you a lesbian," "are you bisexual," "are you heterosexual"? What actually have you done, what toys have you used? How much of a pervert are you? What credentials do you have to claim that? I don't care no more.
When the book got successful do you think that people in the industry were bothered that you weren't as marketable to the mainstream?
Yes. They want to make money.
Did anyone ever say anything to you?
Well...they're cagey. They never say things. You can never catch them on it. You always catch them secondhand and they deny it. For example, I would write a press release. They would write a press release based on my press release. And somehow all the lesbian and really queer perverse content would disappear. I would rewrite the press release and put all that shit back in. I would be very frank, very clear...but then I would show up in a small town or a bookstore, see the press release and all that stuff was gone again. Then, when I would grab the publisher and say, "Why?" They would say, "Oh, well, I just assumed that you wouldn't want to have that..." Because they're always working with people who are not out, or who were being cagey. They have this standard of polite behavior...
Did you get a lot of female groupies?
(laughs) You mean ones that want to screw you? Yeah. A few. A few. To the point that Alix [Allison's partner] said you're going to have to tell them that you're not sleeping around anymore. Because it was too embarrassing. I was too tired.
When Bastard came out were you in a committed relationship?
Yeah. And Alix has often said that she's really grateful that we got that in place because it never [would have] happened after... You gotta remember that for all the ones that come to you with love and generosity, there are the ones that come to you with a lot of hostility and rage.
Is it jealousy?
Jealousy is everyday, writers know all about jealousy. Jealousy is okay. I'm jealous of other good writers... But there's other stuff, there's counting coup.
There's a Native American custom. Instead of fighting someone straightforward or really fighting to kill, you just leave a mark and step away. You just come up and taunt someone and back away. You get a certain amount of that. I find that hard, 'cause I'm a redneck and I have a temper. (laughs) And I love teaching. And occasionally I've wound up in situations in the last few years where I would go and do some short teaching gig. And I'm a hardworking teacher. I believe that if you're going to teach you do it with everything and you give them as much as you've got at the time. And also it's very rare that I get a chance to teach. Because I have a child... And a couple of times I've set up classes and there I am...and I get wonderful young writers. I get better writers than anyone, almost, I know. People who come in ready to open their heart and do some great work. Every once in a while I'll get that situation and some little shit will show up and all they really want to do is count coup, steal time and leave a mark. And it's a pain in the ass.
Has Cavedweller been optioned for a film?
Yeah. If it ever happens I'll be surprised. I was astonished that Bastard actually made it into a movie. I know Barbara Kingsolver, she's had The Bean Trees on option for a decade. Mostly movies don't happen. But it's been under option. You don't make a whole lot of money unless they actually make a movie. Although you don't make any money compared to what the screenwriters and all those people make. Writers are like not terribly important in Hollywood... You know Dennis [Cooper], I think he sold Frisk for a dollar in the hopes of getting a decent movie made. I've sold short stories for a dollar in the hopes of getting a decent movie made. Hasn't happened yet. There's a woman in Paris that wants to make a movie out of an essay in Skin called "Personal History of Lesbian Porn," and I'm like...we could discuss this. Let's talk! What did you intend? (laughs)
I wanted to ask you about the s&m stuff. Bastard, when she's being abused and being stimulated by the abuse, it was the most honest thing that I'd ever read.
It was the most important thing for me to get in there. And it was the part that I expected to have trouble. It's gotten a little easier, a little bit better. But there's this myth that if you're raped or if you're abused, where they say if it's violent it's not erotic. But it is erotic. And how it gets turned around in your head...it's bad enough that you got to survive being raped and fucked with, then you have to survive being erotically stimulated by it. Then you got to live in the world and make peace with that stuff. And if then you have to pretend that you didn't have the feelings that you had, or somehow feel deeply guilty, that you're contributing to the downfall of civilization because you got a hard-on because someone?[deep sigh]?treated you that bad. That was too much. I needed to be really matter-of-fact about it, and I knew that it was one of the places where I was most at risk.
For people being outraged?
No, for me being ashamed. That's where the biggest risk is. There's a part of me that can deal with people being outraged more than being ashamed...
The problem I always ran into, especially as a feminist, it's like the chicken and the egg shit... They want to know what came first. And I don't know what came first. My mother married my stepfather when I was five. The earliest memory I have of him is him molesting me. And it is paired with being beaten. There's no place within my psyche where that doesn't exist. But my earliest memories of jerking off are always about being beaten or being in some terribly dangerous, horrific situation, in which the risk was a big piece of it. And I don't know if I eroticized abuse in order to survive. I don't really know. But on some level, I don't really care. It's the condition. It's what's always been there. And it's really clear to me that it's not about retraining your sexual desires. Did you ever get any of that shit? Retraining your sexual desires! There was this huge thing in the women's movement for a long time, about how we were supposed to retrain our erotic fantasy life. Like you're supposed to get rid of all that violent imagery, try to eroticize gentleness. Mutually reassuring, pleasant sex, flowers, I don't know, mushrooms, whatever. I don't believe it would work. Which is not to say I didn't try. All I ever found was that I could stop the erotic charge completely, but I couldn't make myself be erotically charged by something that didn't work. And I couldn't stop the fact that in a situation in which I was afraid I would also be turned on.
Does that mean vanilla sex just didn't do it for you?
Honey, you lick my pussy right, I'll come. But it would never be as interesting to me as someone who was licking my pussy while he was hanging onto my throat and threatening to kill me.
Did you ever fear you could go too far?
Oh, I went too far. I wound up in a few hospitals. When you're young and you've been really seriously messed with... I didn't have boundaries.
How did you get them?
Well, feminism helped. Because then you've got a place to go to talk. When I was in New York, the biggest thing that really made a real difference in my life was being in a community of people who would say, "Don't go home with her. She will hurt you more than you want to be hurt. That one is crazy." Just the information of who could fuck you the way you needed to be fucked, but not do you permanent damage. Because you know, you go out there hungry with lust, and lust will make you crazy, lust will get you into situations where you are in real serious trouble. And without any information.
But I stumbled into a young community in which a lot of information was available, and I worked really hard to make more information available. We formed the Lesbian Sex Mafia in New York. We created a support group for what was at that point...the code word was politically incorrect?when people could practice politically incorrect sex. It was a women's group but we were open, we didn't give a shit if you were lesbian, bisexual or heterosexual or if you started out as a boy. Which got us into a lot of trouble, because everybody wanted to make definitions about what a woman was and what kind of woman you could be to be in any kind of group. But we were in need. We just needed some basic information. And mostly a sense that you aren't crazy, that erotic desire is complicated and perverse and if we all get together maybe we can make ourselves a little bit safer.
There were some people in that community, in the leather and s&m scene in New York, who'd beat you the fuck up, rob you, leave you scarred up and fucked, steal everything you had, call your boss up and tell them what you're doing at night, blackmail you... I had some little cunt try to blackmail me. No, it was a very dangerous community. We couldn't clean it up, but we could share information.
Do you worry about your son growing up and finding out that this is what you do?
Well, I think it might be complicated (laughs heartily)...but my experience is that all teenagers start out as prudes. I think when you're, like, nine you think all sex is absurd. You don't distinguish between people who get fucked up the ass or do heterosexual pussy fuckin'... And all sex is absurd. And the idea that your mama had sex is horrific. We'll go through that first. The rest of it is just different levels.
But how would you discuss with him s&m?
Well, he's only seven, so I haven't had to yet. I'll probably figure it out as it comes along. But he lives in San Francisco! And he lives in my community of friends. He sees leathermen, and he sees costume and presentation. And that's all he sees of sex at this point anyway, and that's all I care for him to see at this point. He knows. He knows that there are lesbians and there are straight people and we talk about this. The thing about children is that they are incredibly conservative. We used to have these discussions where here's my son saying, "Women can't marry women. Women marry men." And I'm, "No, honey, women can fall in love with women, love women, and men can fall in..." You know, we had to educate my son, the hell with the world!
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