April 9, 2018

Anatomy of a Trainwreck: Valerie Solanas

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Today, on what would have been the eighty-third birthday of would-be Andy Warhol assassin Valerie Solanas, we’re revisiting this passage from Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… And Why.

 

“I ask you, ladies and gentlemen,” the talk-show host asked, “have you ever heard anything more sick and perverted than this woman?”

This was 1967, on the set of the conservative Alan Burke Show. The woman in question had shown up, against her friends’ advice, in answer to Burke’s open call for lesbians willing to be interviewed on-air. She had, apparently, kept her cool throughout most of the show, while Burke taunted her with questions about her sexual experience with men: “What’s the matter, Valerie, can’t get one? Didn’t anyone ever take you to prom?”

Valerie Solanas had been sexually abused from a young age. She had borne two children by the time she was fifteen, one of them quite possibly her father’s. We don’t know if she told any of this to Alan Burke; the producers didn’t keep a tape of her appearance. Anything we know about the episode comes from interviews that her friends gave to biographers after the fact. One thing they are all clear on is that, after enough of these questions, Valerie had begun crying and cursing at Burke. The producers cut her mic, and Burke walked off the set.

Valerie chased him across the stage and tried to hit him with a chair.

The frightening thing about The Alan Burke Show, in retrospect, is that well before anyone knew who Valerie Solanas was—before she made any headlines, or did any of the shocking things that would eventually make her a household name—it established her role in public life. From the very first moment she showed up, on Burke’s set and in the living rooms of his viewers, she was a madwoman in a cage; a scary, angry, man-hating lesbian that you could poke with a stick until she lashed out.

By the end of the next year, of course, she would have a résumé to fit the job description. Solanas’s mental health is not really in question: In an attempt to murder Andy Warhol, art critic Mario Amaya, and Warhol’s manager Fred Hughes, she shot Warhol in the gut and Amaya in the hip. The gun jammed while she had it aimed it at Hughes’s head. After the shooting, she spent time in mental institutions, public housing, or homeless. She was paranoid, occasionally violent, and by the end of her life, she was a derelict, known to the local police as “Scab Lady” for her habit of self-mutilating by stabbing herself repeatedly with a fork.

But to say that she was crazy misses the point that she was also a philosopher of craziness. Flash back to La Salpêtrière*, and the collection of women housed there: the addicts, the prostitutes, the homeless, the queer. All the women society no longer had a use for. From this cast-off and collected scum of the earth arose the whole idea of the “madwoman.” And from a madwoman (a prostitute, a queer woman, a homeless woman, an eventual addict) arose SCUM.

The SCUM Manifesto—which Valerie was already self-publishing and giving lectures on before she met Warhol—was meant to build a utopia out of the women who had been thrown away, a perfect world run by “those females least embedded in the male ‘Culture’ … too uncivilized to give a shit for anyone’s opinion of them, too arrogant to respect ‘Daddy’ or the wisdom of the Ancients, who trust only their own animal, gutter instincts.” The world of ruined women, in her view, was the only world worth living in: “Unhampered by propriety, niceness, discretion, public opinion, ‘morals,’ the respect of assholes, always funky, always dirty, SCUM gets around.”

It was less a refutation of misogyny than a script flip.Women were emotional? Well, “having a crudely constructed nervous system that is easily upset by the least display of emotion or feeling, the male tries to ensure a ‘social’ code that ensures perfect blandness, unsullied by the slightest trace of feeling or upsetting opinion.” Women were led astray by sexual appetites? Behold: The male was “obsessed with screwing; he’ll swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a river of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him.” It was an erudite satire, calling on the whole history of women’s mental health—Solanas had done both her undergraduate and postgraduate work in psychology; the Manifesto takes time to flip off Freud by declaring that men’s personal deficiencies are due to “pussy envy”—but written from the other side of the mirror. A tour of La Salpêtrière, with Louise Augustine holding the camera.

In another decade there might have been a place for her to land, or at least a label by which she could be understood: Feminism, queer theory, and punk have all claimed her since. But in the early 1960s, Valerie’s society of dirty, angry, fucked-up women didn’t exist. She was writing to will it into being. She tried to physically incarnate it, by writing a play (the immortally titled Up Your Ass) wherein Bongi Perez—sort of a roughed-up, wisecracking, queer lady street Jesus—heckles “nice,” brainwashed women out of their illusions. At one point, a man tells her that she’s ugly, so she pulls him behind the bushes and fucks him to prove a point; in the grand finale, a frustrated suburban mother strangles her whiny son to death so that she can go pick up chicks with Bongi. It’s that kind of play.

It would have been Valerie’s world, on stage. Made real, and corporeal, and with her at its center. In the story of her life, nothing was so important, not even the SCUM Manifesto. (She’d thrown that to publisher Maurice Girodias in an attempt to get out of a bad contract; he’d wanted a novel, and refused to publish what she gave him — until she was in the news). It was the play that she wanted Andy Warhol to film, that she gave to him, that he tried to make disappear by offering her a movie role instead; it was the play that, finally, Warhol claimed he’d just plain lost, and refused to return to her.

How could he have known what she would do? How could a woman who had already taken so much humiliation—sexual abuse, poverty, losing her children; homelessness, begging, sex with men she hated, to stay on the right side of starvation; being laughed at and booed by a studio audience; a night when Warhol incited a friend to call Valerie a “disgusting dyke” and then sneered when she said she’d been molested—be expected to do anything but take one more insult, a very minor insult, a lost copy, as par for the course?

How could anyone know what Valerie would do, when a powerful man tried to make her work disappear?

 

* From earlier in the book: “The legendary Paris hospital of La Salpêtrière … housed women who had gone wrong…. [Their] crimes were many…. They drank too much, or had sexually transmitted diseases. They were developmentally disabled, or epileptic. They were old. They were prostitutes. They saw things, or heard voices, or refused to eat. The crimes were many, in La Salpêtrière, but the punishment was always the same: Here, in what Georges-Didi Huberman called ‘the city of incurable women,’ you were chained to the walls and left to die.” Louise Augustine was a patient there, “the much-photographed poster girl for hysteria, [who] managed to escape La Salpêtrière in the middle of the night dressed as a boy and was never seen again.”

 

 

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