Dancing Into Shadow: For Kate

Last week, just as I was finishing the blog, I learned Kate Millett had died in Paris at age 82. It was possible to rush in a mention. But a mention about the loss of an old friend was unthinkable. So I’ve waited until now, remembering . . .

We met in the late 1960s, amid the furious budding of contemporary feminism. I’d heard about an interesting dissertation dealing with sexism and literature being written by some feminist artist newly back from years living in Japan, and I tracked her down. Warm but shy, she let me read her dissertation, and I convinced her to let me publish an excerpt from it in an anthology I was compiling—a little book called Sisterhood Is Powerful. “But it’s just a dissertation,” she shrugged, “Only academics will be interested, not the general public.” Nevertheless, the inclusion of that excerpt triggered editors’ interest in that dissertation—which became a little book called Sexual Politics.

Both activists, we ran into one another at demonstrations and meetings, and became friends—but friends in a way different from other political friendships, because both of us were also artists: Kate a sculptor and painter, me a poet and writer. This was the constant thread that would run through decades of our friendship. Even when we quarreled or were on the outs with one another, Kate always showed up at my poetry readings and I always showed up at her art exhibits.

Yet Kate was also with me on the boardwalk in Atlantic City at that first Miss America Pageant Protest in 1968. She then volunteered her Bowery loft for a dance to raise funds for lawyers’ fees, since some of our women had been arrested in Atlantic City. For years after, we laughed ruefully about what happened: hundreds of people showed up and danced long and energetically, literally breaking her floor—which then required serious shoring up so as not to collapse the whole building, and the bail money ultimately went (at least a partial way!) toward that.

I remember many meetings in that loft. Also many dinners, just the two of us, because Kate’s husband Fumio was spending time in his native Japan, and because when I had Kate over, my husband Kenneth would be present. (We were both then married to male artists in “open, sexual revolution” style couplings of the period—from which we both eventually extricated ourselves. And we both had had bisexual experiences–Kate successfully, me definitely not so much at that point.)

But when it was just the two us in the loft, we talked politics and art, laughed and argued, drank copious amounts of wine, smoked our lethal cigarettes and an occasional joint, and devoured her signature garlic roast chicken with boiled Irish potatoes. One night, Kate decided to vary the menu, and I arrived, wine in hand, to find her meditating how to combine a huge pot of boiling water with two live lobsters. Both of us were squeamish so we kept juggling them back and forth, laughing so hard that one lobster escaped Kate’s grasp and scuttled along the floor to hide behind the refrigerator. (This was years before the movie “Annie Hall.”) We tried poking the poor escapee with a broomstick. We tried moving the refrigerator. The other lobster looked at us with plaintive, beady eyes from the kitchen sink. Finally we gave up, opened another bottle of wine, and ate scrambled eggs.

A growing movement has growing pains (I tried to address this in my memoir, Saturday’s Child). Schisms flared. Marxist feminists vs. socialist feminists vs. radical feminists vs. liberal feminists, omigod. Anti-intellectual, ultra-egalitarian rhetoric was popular, and verbal arrows were lobbed at “individualistic tendencies” spied in any woman trying to contribute to feminism in her own voice, independent of anonymous collectivity.

We were, after all, women of the “New Left,” still influenced by male style, jargon, and more-radical-than-thou hierarchies. Some women found the sudden freedom to dare express pent-up anger less scary if directed at another woman instead of at a man. Young and self-righteous, we could be quite cruel to one another, at times disguising personal feelings like fear, desire, or jealousy as political criticism. I was denounced by some for using what literary and editorial skills I had to produce Sisterhood Is Powerful. Kate was vilified when word got out that TIME Magazine wanted her to pose for a cover picture. Under movement pressure, she refused. TIME proceeded, with a portrait of her by Alice Neel, but Kate was condemned anyway, for being a “star.”

It was painful enough to weather ridicule and hatred from men, but from other women—other feminists—it was devastating. You needed a strong sense of yourself and a sturdy ego to survive such trashings. Fortunately, though shy, Kate had an ego the size of Montana, and mine was the godzilla that ate Cleveland, maybe because we’d had to develop such defenses to survive as artists. In any event, it was useful, since for being honest about bisexuality, we also were each maligned in stereo: by homophobic movement heterosexuals enraged that “such people” had emerged as articulate feminist spokeswomen, and by movement lesbians appalled because bisexuality was perceived as a “cop-out” for the real thing. You can imagine my wry smile on reading mourning quotes by certain people so eager to see their names in the paper they forget they were among the stone throwers back then.

Kate and I differed on how we handled that fame/notoriety, as well as the rare moment of solvency that followed. When Sisterhood Is Powerful took off like a rocket, I started the first feminist grant-giving foundation–The Sisterhood Is Powerful Fund–and poured the royalties into it, so the money would build the movement, create rape-crisis centers, battery shelters, feminist periodicals, and so forth. It never occurred to me to do otherwise. Kate, who proudly acknowledged she was at heart an Irish peasant, scolded me “Robin. Don’t. Be. A. Fool.” She urged me to do what she was doing—use the royalties to buy real estate. She bought a farm in upstate New York for her own use and delight, eventually to become a women’s art colony. Kate was probably right. I sometimes had trouble paying my electric bill, but didn’t touch the royalties. Nevertheless, The SIP Fund was depleted in time; the farm will last, part of Kate’s legacy.

It became a legend, an Amazonian arts colony that grew holiday trees to help sustain itself. And Kate, ever the true bohemian, could be found on a Manhattan street corner at Christmas time, selling her trees to people totally unaware of their mittened saleswoman’s identity. The farm was where Kate wrote her books and made her art—the large “Fat Ladies” statues, the ink-on-paper drawings, the silk-screen works she devised so that she could produce inexpensive prints average folks could afford, since she felt strongly that everyone should be able to have art—real, original art—in their homes. The farm was where friends came and went, especially in late August to celebrate Obon, the Japanese festival of the dead, of the ancestors. The Obon feast was observed by lighting candles inside small paper bags, makeshift lanterns, then setting them adrift on tiny leaf-and-twig rafts across the pond, where their light floated into darkness.

Kate loved playing hospitable matriarch, and I always felt welcome. I brought Kenneth there once, and my son Blake came as a child, enchanted by Obon. Later, I brought a lover there, and friends, and Kate beamed at it all. When I embarked on hosting a series of home-cooked dinners to bridge artist friends and political friends in Manhattan, Kate was a regular, since she filled both categories.

She could be high maintenance, at times, yes. I’m sure I could too. But she also suffered from trying to self-medicate with alcohol, in her struggle with what we didn’t know at the time was bipolar disorder. It flung her into moods and actions she couldn’t control, some violent, about which she would courageously write in The Loony Bin Trip. When finally diagnosed properly, she was unable to get an appointment with the much-in-demand doctor who had pioneered lithium treatments. But we got lucky—he happened to be a former boyfriend of mine. So I picked up the phone and made nice. And Kate got in. That was a good day.

Our arguments were of a pretty high caliber, considering some of the sister-bloodletting going on around us. For instance, while we both had originally perceived feminism as part of the left, I came to see the left as part of feminism. I reported one hilarious, true, still timely example in The Demon Lover, this way:

An old friend and I are sitting at dinner. She is a white, middle-aged American of Irish descent, a feminist, a lifelong pacifist. She is also a sensitive and intelligent human being. The food is well-prepared, the wine mellow, the conversation stimulating. In concert, we mourn epidemic violence. She teases me: she remembers a time when I dismissed her pacifism as bourgeois liberalism, when she worried that her morning newspaper headlines would proclaim my death in a shootout with the FBI or my arrest on some sabotage charge that would mean a life behind bars. I volunteer that now she has every right to say I told you so and we laugh. We’ve been talking politics for two decades. In concert we bemoan the mounting power and terrorism of the state. In concert we express alarm at right-wing vigilantism and we mourn left-wing loss of humanitarian vision.

“The humiliation of being oppressed,” I venture,” informs every aspect of suffering—the humiliation that one’s behavior is totally dictated by the oppressor.” She nods. I am hardly saying anything new. “The frightful thing is that even revolutionary behavior itself has been dictated by the oppressor—who always claims that no, this time it’s different. Somehow, though, women are outside that pattern. Maybe we can leap free of that mode of imitated rebellion entirely.”

She stares at me. I’ve lost her.

“You can’t be saying . . . Surely you’re not including national liberation struggles in that pattern!” She says this incredulously.

I begin to stammer. I hadn’t thought I was saying anything particularly outrageous. “Well, yes, I am,” I mutter. “I mean, I do think that national liberation movements—however just and however many women are involved in them–have been demonstrably male led for male-defined purposes with male tactics and male definitions of power. Not coincidentally, they’ve all betrayed women after ‘liberation.’ And each one claims it’s different. Surely that’s not new. So national liberation movements, too–”

She interrupts me, horrified. “You can’t possibly mean all of them. Maybe the Iranian revolution, yes. Or some of the Latin American or African ones, those that settle for being mere coups.”

I feel we’re on dangerous ground, but I still don’t understand why.
“Well,” I mumble, swallowing hard, “no, all of them.”

“That’s crazy!” She says, her voice rising. “That’s reactionary!” She’s shouting now. “You can’t lump them all together like that! The Irish are different!

As the years wore on, we saw each other less frequently—no break, simply busy lives and human drift. But if I had a poetry reading in New York or she had an art-show opening, there we were for each other, picking up as if we’d never stopped.

When Sophie Keir came into Kate’s life to stay, trailing clarity, stability, and sanity, friends exhaled deep sighs of relief. Sophie deployed intelligent love, and Kate loved her back with what I could call a wild sanity: the healthiest, best part of herself. Their love sustained itself for decades, and kept Kate alive and productive in her writing and art. After so long together, they married a few years ago, and indulged each year on a trip to Kate’s adored Paris. There she died on September 6, perhaps fittingly, in her beloved City of Light.

A feminist generation is marching again, this time into shadow.

Another generation will march into the sun.

Kate’s feminist writing stands tall among work that changed consciousness and saved lives. But to find the friend I’ll miss, I look at a large black-ink-on-white-paper work of hers I have. There are her lyrical, witty, Japanese influenced swoops and dots that gradually register to the eye as a woman’s buttock, thigh, vulva, and clitoris. Like its maker, this spare yet lush exuberance of flesh exposes itself with such sensual purity it shocks.

To find the friend I miss, I look for the flame of her flickering in a soft summer wind, as it dances across dark waters into the night.