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Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.
With these words, Valerie Solanas begins the SCUM Manifesto. The mythos of Solanas for me preceded knowing her life story or reading SCUM Manifesto. The mythos of Solanas, of a woman advocating killing men as a rational and reasonable response to living in this patriarchal society infused my consciousness before I could put a name to it. The idea of a “Society for Cutting Up Men” seemed simple and elegant: a space that could contain anger—reasonable and justified anger, an action for women conscious of the wounds of the patriarchy. SCUM was a beacon, a possibility, a joke, a vision, a debauchery, a corruption.
SCUM was imaginative and righteous. As a young woman, I appreciated SCUM and the idea of a good girl gone bad. Isn’t that who Solanas was? A presumably good girl who gave up on being good to write a truth? A deeply ironic, eviscerating truth? This is how I imagined Solanas even after reading SCUM Manifesto and later her play, Up Your Ass.
Breanne Fahs’s new biography, Valerie Solanas, tells the life story of Solanas, filling in details with extraordinary skill and aplomb. Fahs renders a robust portrayal of both Solanas and the 1960s and 70s, decades that greeted Solanas’s manifesto with interest and import.
Solanas was born in New Jersey in 1936, the middle of the Great Depression. She died in 1988 in San Francisco, poor and living at the Bristol Hotel on the edge of the Tenderloin district. In spite of the notoriety she achieved for shooting Andy Warhol and for her published writing, Solanas lived a life generally relegated by society to the margins: poor, female, queer, crazy.
Solanas’s marginality makes finding documents to tell her story with vivid, compelling details challenging, even difficult; given this difficulty, some biographer might revert to to spectacle. Fahs resists the impulse of speculation, the desire to turn Solanas into a comedic or tragic tableau. Rather, Fahs reconstructs Solanas’s life with extraordinary care and attention. Using extensive archival research and interviews, conducted by Fahs and filmmaker Mary Harron (who directed I Shot Andy Warhol), Fahs organizes Solanas’s life story into five chapters: Sounding Off, Shooting, Provocation, Madness, and Forgetting.
While the narrative of the biography hinges on the shooting of Warhol, the achievement of Valerie Solanas as a biography is how Fahs thickly narrates the long life of Solanas, resisting defining her by a single action. Fahs examines the world of Solanas’s childhood and young adulthood, including the precarity of her family, the child she bore, her teenage lesbianism, and her years as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland. She evokes a world of creative women living in NY in the 1960s and 1970s and their relationships with men. Fahs situates Solanas in a larger culture and society that helps us to understand the complexities of her character and actions. Most refreshingly, Fahs values Solanas as a human being and as a political figure; she renders Solanas through a fulsome narrative of her life in order to examine and value Solanas in new ways.
For feminist historians, two things are notable about this biography. First, Fahs deftly situates Solanas in relationship to the burgeoning women’s liberation movement. In “Provocation: The Contentious Birth of Radical Feminism,” Fahs connects Solanas with key leaders and spokespeople of the women’s liberation movement and highlights conflicts that arose from Solanas shooting Warhol. Fahs examines what feminist leaders thought about Solanas and her action of shooting Warhol, including when they expressed solidarity with Solanas and when they distanced the cause of women’s rights from Solanas’s thinking and her actions. This chapter alone contributes texture and nuance to contemporary histories of women’s liberation.
Second, Fahs teaches us new ways to think and write about mental health through her careful engagement with Solanas. Fahs paints the psychic and emotional landscape of Solanas without pathologizing her and without pitying her. Fahs resists viewing Solanas with pathos or pity not only in early narratives of Solanas’s life, but also in her later years when she clearly struggled for any dignity. One of the striking images that Fahs provides of Solanas is between 1981 through 1985 when Solanas lived in Phoenix, Arizona. A local police officer described her as “gaunt and thin. . .standing in the intersection barefoot, wearing a white nightgown that came down to her knees and wrapped in a thin white blanket.” Lest this image be too angelic, a bit later, Fahs describes her body covered with scabs; she carried a kitchen fork with her and would “dig at every part of her body with the tines of a fork.” Throughout the book, Fahs explores these types of complexities about Solanas: the angelic and the mutilated, the incendiary and the abject, the fierce and the feral. Through thick descriptions of the environments in which Solanas found herself, Fahs allows Solanas’s ideas and actions to unfold; she illuminates a mind that is, if not always reasonable, generally understandable given the circumstances she endured. Perhaps the most impressive achievement of the biography is how Fahs writes about Solanas: she makes her humane and human.
What does Valerie Solanas offer to lesbian and queer readers? Certainly, Valerie Solanas offers another life story of a lesbian—and there are far too few biographies of lesbians published. Though, was Solanas a lesbian? Like how Fahs considers Solanas’s mental health, Fahs turns to the historical record to illuminate various moments: when Solanas identified as a lesbian in high school, when she refused the label lesbian, when she had female lovers and male lovers, and when she refused lovers. Solanas loved both men and women queerly. Lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, sexual refusenik, all could describe Solanas. Fahs’s storytelling illuminates the social construction of sexuality, not only during Solanas’s lifetime but also our own.
Valerie Solanas is a biography of a compelling, charismatic, contemptible, and incorrigible woman. It is a biography of the effects of class in the United States on one woman’s life. It is also the biography of an artist. Fahs ends with Solanas’s own words from her 1977 corrected SCUM Manifesto: “The true artist is every self-confident, healthy female; and in a female society, the only Art, the only Culture, will be conceited, kookie, funkie females grooving on each other, cracking each other up, while cracking open the universe.”
Solanas and Fahs are both artists, “cracking up each other, cracking open the universe.”
Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol)
By Breanne Fahs
Paperback, 9781558618480, 383 pp.