SARAH SCHULMAN with Jarrett Earnest
The novelist, playwright, and critic Sarah Schulman has been chronicling bohemian life in the East Village since the late 1970s. Her work as participant and chronicler of ACT UP is the stuff of queer legend, as is her co-founding of MIX NYC, the NY Queer Experimental Film Festival in 1987 that is going into its thirtieth year. Her newest book Conflict is Not Abuse is aimed at disentangling “conflict,” as a Power Struggle, from “abuse,” which is Power Over. The difference, she argues, is that if we work together to recognize our complicity in conflict we can resolve them before they spiral out of control. We met in her apartment on 9th Street on the eve of the presidential election.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): The occasion of our conversation is your new book, Conflict is Not Abuse, but I wanted to talk with you about the larger trajectory of your writing because there is an unbroken river of thought in your nonfiction that goes from Stagestruck (1998) to Ties that Bind (2009) through The Gentrification of the Mind (2012) and Israel/Palestine and the Queer International (2012) and culminates in this new book. Something I wondered about was the context of your upbringing in a Jewish family in New York City. Some things about this book that have been touchy relate to “victimhood” and I’m wondering how your relationship to that discourse was shaped by growing up in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
Sarah Schulman: My family was truly victimized. My grandmother who lived with us had two brothers and two sisters exterminated by the Nazis, and my grandfather’s sister was murdered by Nazis—this was very close. I was born thirteen years after the end of the Holocaust. It was very real to me.
Rail: In your bio at the back of Conflict is Not Abuse you cite two books that made you want to be a writer: The Diary of Anne Frank (1947) and Harriet the Spy (1964). Positioning The Diary of Anne Frank at the beginning of your relationship to being an artist makes me think that your Jewish identity was intimately connected with it.
Schulman: I knew about the Holocaust since I was born. There was never a time I didn’t know about it. I was from a generation where the kids sat there while the parents talked. So of course it’s very influential in everything I do—it’s my number one influence.
Rail: When in your adolescence were you first conscious of being attracted to women?
Schulman: I don’t know the answer to that. I was in elementary school in 1962—this is before feminism so keep that in mind—and our nursery school teacher was getting married and was marriage-crazy so she organized the class into a mass wedding. Everyone had to line up boy-girl and march down the aisle, but I refused and said that I would be the photographer and I ran around the wedding holding my hands as though I were holding a Kodak Instamatic snapping fake photographs—that is my coming out right there. My father grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, which was a poor, gray town. He came from one of those Jewish families that had a store they lived over. He had two best friends from that town and one of them broke up with his wife and came and lived with us in our apartment. His kid came to visit him in our house and she told me that when she grew up she wanted to be a lesbian. That is the first time I heard that word.
Rail: How old were you?
Schulman: Six or seven. But it wasn’t a word that was bandied about, the way it is today. I think one of the really key events around this was when I was at the University of Chicago, where I went and dropped out before going to Hunter College. At the University of Chicago it was almost completely forbidden to discuss homosexuality in the classroom. They had a “Great Books” curriculum, which was a required program that ended with Marx, Freud, and Weber—this was before post-Structuralism. We weren’t allowed to study anything by women. There was only one thing in the whole of “Great Books” by a woman and that was Sappho in the pre-Socratics. So we never read primary texts by women. We took courses like “Images of Women in French Literature” where we read Madame Bovary, Nana, and all these books by men. I took that class, and once when Colette was mentioned I raised my hand and said, wasn’t Colette a lesbian? And the teacher replied, if a writer is a lesbian or not is as important as if she’s right handed or left handed. Now, I’m sitting there as a future lesbian writer thinking, I’m not sure but don’t think that’s right!
Rail: When were you introduced to lesbian culture?
Schulman: At that time there were two levels of public high schools—district school and magnet schools. If you were a good student you could go to the magnet school, and they were gender-segregated: Hunter was for girls and Stuyvesant was for boys. Audre Lorde and Cynthia Nixon went to Hunter for example, and I went there at the same time as Elena Kagan. I started in 1971, the year abortion became legal in New York City before Roe V. Wade made it national in 1973. So here I am in a school full of girls; the women’s movement was exploding and there was a lot of gay stuff—there were girls who were couples and we knew who they were. There were consciousness-raising groups. Someone wrote “Gay Liberation Come Out” on the wall of my school—I was exposed to all of that.
But even younger, I think when I was eight or nine, there was a gay bar raid and a guy was arrested who was Argentinian who didn’t have a green card. They took him into the police station on 12th Street and he tried to escape and jumped out the window and was impaled on the fence. I lived on 10th Street, and I knew about that. So I had knowledge of gay things.
Rail: When did you connect those two parts of your life, your writing life and lesbian identity?
Schulman: Probably from the beginning. For example, The Diary of Anne Frank had lesbian content that the father censored out, so I probably sensed something. Similarly Harriet the Spy was written by a lesbian, Louise Fitzhugh. She was part of a circle around Trude Heller, who was Carmen McRae’s lover, and who owned a jazz club on 11th Street, which included people like Marijane Meaker, who wrote lesbian pulp novels under the name Vin Packer and had an affair with Patricia Highsmith. There was this whole circle of lesbian writers in the West Village that Louise Fitzhugh was a part of. I’m sure both of those books had huge lesbian subtexts.
Rail: One of the things I thought was the most important about Conflict is Not Abuse connects to our contemporary moment, where people displace conflict through various means. One is through media where you don’t have direct personal interaction, or by deffering to institutional structures that intervene, whether that is a school administration or on up to the state. How you see conflict working differently now than twenty years ago?
Schulman: In the book I give the history of the transformation of the feminist movement against male violence and I really try and show that it is post-Reagan where we start seeing the constant message that police should be the arbiters of human relationships. That began the bureaucratizing and professionalizing of social services so that they become part of the government, eliminating the grassroots sector the community was providing. You also get the emergence of corporate television shows like Law and Order showing us that there is one perpetrator who is evil, there is one victim who is innocent, and the answer is the police. It’s now been thirty-six years that we’ve been told that police are the appropriate arbiters of relationship conflict and that is not true—it’s true for abuse, perhaps, but for conflict it is absolutely not true.
Rail: I’m wondering if it’s more common to avoid having actual conflicts in person, which makes the conversation urgent and immediate. What does it mean, then, to disagree as human beings.
Schulman: We’ve conflated taking responsibility with having something be your fault. So, for example, if someone wants their partner to leave and they won’t, it now escalates to if you don’t do it right now then I’m calling the police, then they call the police. What if the community around those people, friends, neighbors, and families, instead said we’re going to come over and find out what’s going on. What would be revealed if they stayed? What do you think the problem is? What are the alternatives to calling the police? To me, that intervention is what loyalty really is. That means we allow people to say I overreacted without being punished.
Rail: How do you understand the construction of community in this context?
Schulman: It’s whatever groups you belong to. I’ve lived in this apartment building since 1979 and there are a few people I’ve lived with this entire time. We have seen each other through all kinds of shit—horrible breakups; overdoses—and there’s a sense of community that you live in. So that’s one kind of community. For some people it’s their family, or friends, or religious categories; a lot of us are in cliques; some of us have work colleagues. There are all kinds of witnesses to our lives.
Rail: If the community is the regulating mechanism—
Schulman: It’s not regulating, it’s liberating.
Rail: —you propose the community intervene to resolve conflicts, that it is the community’s “responsibility” to do that.
Schulman: I want the people around us to say that if we negotiate, in other words, if we acknowledge our participation in creating conflict, then they are still going to love us and have compassion for us. Right now if we do that it becomes a grounds for rejection.
Rail: I am interested in this book as an argument for the direct and interpersonal as a way of working through problems together, which is increasingly rare now, even in the art world. People are very polite now, very professional, and there are few places where people have sustained serious disagreements around art or culture; when those erupt one or both parties are totally vilified.
Schulman: I don’t see it as polite. I see it as entitled and increasingly assimilated into the power structures, especially the white power structure. An entire sector of white gay people, that in my time had no rights at all, are being assimilated into the white power structure and are being offered access to the punishment apparatus. It’s not politeness—it’s power.
Rail: I’m in complete agreement on the level of the “personal,” but when that becomes abstracted into larger entities—which your book does, moving from interpersonal to communities to religious and national groups—it breaks down. For instance, your morality is epitomized by a certain moment of gay activism, grounded in opposition to a dominant culture. The reason I asked about your Jewish background is that it is an intellectual tradition that comes out of religious belief, which then ideally creates a baseline moral and ethical imperative across the community. And so, severed from that on a larger scale, I’m not sure how we have conversations about shared moral or ethical behavior across these various, diverse “communities.” I don’t see where we talk about beliefs like that now.
Schulman: I don’t agree with you, but I see what you’re saying. I don’t think it has to do with being Jewish, I think it has to do with coming from an oppression experience.
Rail: There’s a part of your interview with Andrew Sullivan from 1998 that you reproduce in Gentrification of the Mind, where he says “you keep referring to extreme leftists as the community. They’re not the community. They are not. They represent tiny factions of gay people in this country. We know from exit polls that thirty-three percent of gay people voted Republication in 1998. Imagine that is underreporting. Forty percent are voting Republican. Are they not the community? Where do they come from?”—Today, Caitlyn Jenner is pro-Trump. What does that mean for the “gay community”?
Schulman: I think I address this directly in the book talking about white reconciliation. It’s the famous Donald Suggs line that “the drag queens who started Stonewall are no better off today, but they made the world safe for gay Republicans.” The more alienated people were the ground troops that allowed those ensconced in privilege to come out. So maybe that is now entirely generational. Maybe there are entire generations of white gay people who have no oppression experience, and that is why I quote T.L. Cowen on this, that there is a “new abject object.” There is a new queer. So certain white queers have been assimilated into the power structure and have access to the police. The New Queer is the undocumented, HIV+, trans, poor person, person of color—they are the ones that are now the exclusive objects of the anti-queer wrath of the state because the power structure itself has not changed, it’s just re-arranged.
Rail: I’m wondering how you understand the responsibility of the present generation to the past, because there is one moment in Gentrification of the Mind where you say “The editors are gentrified, they don’t understand their own responsibilities.”
Schulman: I think it has to do with the reconciliation with the family. In my lesbian generation the leaders were Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. We would go to hear them speak and there would be hundreds of people in the auditorium; their books would come out and everyone would run out to read them and discuss them. That was a multigenerational community in which elders were respected. The Lesbian Herstory Archive was about reclaiming the past; “the voices we have lost” is their slogan. Because so many of us were excluded from our families we formed this multigenerational simulacral family. The queer community that I’m a part of is a community of men and women. My closest collaborator, Jim Hubbard, is a man who I worked with for thirty years; if we lived in the ’40s, we would have been miserably married to each other. These are all replacements by people who were excluded from biological family. But now if you’re a thirty-two-year-old white lesbian and you went to Smith and you have a nice job at a publishing house and you have a nice girlfriend and you get married and your family brings you in, you don’t need those other lesbians out there. You don’t need those older people who made this all possible for you—you don’t even have to know them or have anything to do with them because you have everything you need. So probably it’s that family reconciliation and the reintegration of white gay people into the privilege machine that breaks down that relationship to the past.
Rail: Your life unfolded at a particular time in history and you have also written histories of that period. Those are not the same thing and in some ways they seem like they might be at odds with each other. How have you navigated that?
Schulman: I say at the beginning of the book that I’m undisciplined. It’s all one big thing to me— the whole thing, all one big canvas. I don’t have footnotes. I never claim that anything is exactly what happened on any given day, so it is all making art to me, except that some of it is nonfiction.
Rail: How do you see the distinction between fiction and nonfiction?
Schulman: I really don’t know and I also don’t know why something is nonfiction or why it is a play, I don’t understand any of that.
You know I spent three months telling my shrink, this book is crazy and when it comes out I’m going to be revealed as crazy and all the credibility I’ve built in thirty years is going to go down the drain. And then I got this blurb from bell hooks and I thought this book is not crazy! I just needed someone who I respected to tell me that. Everywhere I go now people are engaging me, either to disagree or discuss or grapple with it. So, amazingly, it’s hit something in people, probably for two reasons that were unintended. First is the election—every time you see Trump telling you how victimized he is it’s a pure enactment of what I am describing. But second is Call-Out culture, which is why I’m getting all these twenty and thirty year olds at my readings because they are sick of Call-Out culture, taking each other down over nothing. Both of those things are zeitgeist.
Rail: I want to connect this to social media as an apparatus, as a totalitarian tool, which I believe it is. Hannah Arendt describes totalitarianism as fixing and regulating people’s proximity. In The Origins of Totalitarianism she says, “It substitutes for the boundaries and channels of communication between individual men a band of iron which holds them so tightly together that it is as though their plurality had disappeared into One Man of gigantic dimensions.” What you’re addressing is an effect of the way culture is structured right now through technology, in which people’s relationships are held at a certain proximity, with social media seeming to offer endless connectivity and closeness while keeping people forever removed from each other. One effect is that the boundaries between public and private selves have dissolved within discourse.
Schulman: Here is an example of that: I have trolls falsely claiming that my book, is of all bizarre things, “pro-police.” I ask them what they are referring to and they have nothing. So then I offer them a free copy of the book, and only two people took it. They don’t want to read it, they just want to keep spamming falsities. So then I say, can we talk on the phone? No, they don’t want to talk on the phone and they have paranoid reasons for that. They want to have a Facebook chat so that they have a record—for what! We’re not going to court, you don’t need a record! Anyway, they insist on this laborious back and forth in which there is no affect so nothing can be resolved but this is mirrored in real relationships, in which people hide behind technology, or use email to make unilateral accusations that absolve their own real feeling or participation. They won’t pick up the phone because then there might be some love there, some connection revealed, and the responsibility of that is unbearable. It is easier to see oneself as victimized, instead of repressed, or projecting, or anxious rooted in experiences from the past that this current person did not create.
Rail: My experience is that when misunderstandings happen it is impossible to fix them via text message.
Schulman: Given that, one of the questions I ask in the book is, why would you rather have an enemy than a conversation? Given that people know that they can’t fix it by text, why do they refuse to talk? Because they want the victimization. There is a commodity to seeing oneself as persecuted. Once you recognize that you’re participating in creating a conflict you give up that commodity which is constructed to entitle you to compassion.
Rail: You’ve developed your own form of nonfiction which is personally driven but not autobiographical, historically and theoretically attuned but impressionistic. At the beginning of Conflict is not Abuse you write, “I now am able to ask you to read this book the way you would watch a play: not to emerge saying, ‘The play is right!’ but rather to observe that the play reveals human nuance, contradiction, limitation, joy, connection, and the tragedy of separation.” How did you get to that?
Schulman: Well I just realized that. That is the first time I figured that out. When Empathy (1992) first came out Kate Millet wrote this blurb that got truncated and didn’t actually appear, but she said it was “the American thought-sentence.” That is how she described the way it was written, and I always thought that was accurate. Because I write so much there is a lot that is just ongoing, though the genres are sometime unclear.
Rail: However, in a way it seems like saying “I’m writing this as an artist” is a caveat positioned to wiggle out of the hard spots of making an argument.
Schulman: No. I wrote this play about Carson McCullers that was developed at the Sundance lab and Diane Paulus, who now runs American Repertory Theatre, was there as a beginner director and she looked at the play and said, I can’t figure out how you did that—you didn’t take sides—and she was referring to my depiction of the difficult marriage between Reeves and Carson McCullers, and I didn’t. It’s one of the reasons why my novel The Child (2007) about a romantic and sexual relationship between a forty-year-old man and fifteen-year-old teenager was so hard to publish, because everyone kept saying, you don’t come out against their relationship. It’s always been my view that as a novelist my job is to take it from the character’s point of view. So, that way of telling a story, where I’m not taking sides in certain ways, maybe that is where my forms comes from.
Rail: Memoir or autobiographical writing is an increasingly popular mode within critical and theoretical texts. One of the complexities of writing about historical events you’ve experienced is that you’ve also lived it. I kept thinking while reading Gentrification of the Mind as you’re chronicling the changes of the East Village during your life there, that you were also, like, twenty-three at the time; how can one disentangle the sensations and excitement of your life as a twenty-three-year-old in the East Village from your later historical analysis of what was going on at the time?
Schulman: AIDS starts when I’m twenty-three. One of the great interviews in the ACT UP oral history is with Cesar Carrasco and he talks about how we are this phenomenon of these people who experienced a plague, and there are not a lot of examples of that in history. Time moves on and nobody else is going to experience it the way that we experienced it and we are going to die out and it effects us forever and everything we look at is going to be through that lens. I’m saying what that’s like. We all read hundreds of different writers so all this different information about experience just becomes a cumulative thing, its not just like we’re reading one person.
Rail: What are some models you’ve looked toward in writing nonfiction?
Schulman: Adrienne Rich wrote this really important article “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980) that was kind of like the Communist Manifesto of my generation, which can almost not be read now because tonally it’s so completely not of this moment. It reads like someone who is very enraged. It’s amazing because it bursts open all these paradigms about what’s “objective,” what’s “natural.” Then Audre Lorde, who was my college professor, wrote “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” (1978), in which she describes being diagnosed with breast cancer and realizes that all the things that she’s said in her life that got her in trouble, that even if she had never said them, she would still have breast cancer, and she comes up with this insight that, your silence will not protect you. Those are my models of “nonfiction.” They are both extremely emotional and experiential.
Rail: Emotion is a troubled category—the whole pull of Donald Trump is emotional. The reason emotions have been figured as bad within art and discourse is that they are so unstable and easily manipulatable. But it seems to me that the “antidote” is not the suppression or banishment of emotion but to attend seriously to the emotional realities that are at play. A lot of Conflict is not Abuse is about that. How could we approach the emotional components of our discourse?
Schulman: These are my suggestions: talk in person. Ask other people to help you negotiate. And try to go through the order of events so that each person can understand what the other person’s perspective is even if they can’t agree with it. More communication, not less. It’s not a guarantee, because what’s going on now is not working.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.