Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (And Shot Andy Warhol)
(The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2014)
It’s about damn time there’s a biography of Valerie Solanas, author of the SCUM Manifesto and shooter of Andy Warhol. A writer, revolutionary, and icon, a frustrating reality of her life was that, no matter how singular her voice, Solanas consistently found herself surrounded by others who (well-meaning or malicious) endeavored to use her for their own agenda—a life’s work incessantly stolen. As she describes it in a letter to radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson, “I often had the impression that I don’t belong to me.” So, finally, a biography—an attempt to understand Solanas as Solanas.
One of the most polarizing figures in modern feminism and art, Solanas’s ideas took shape in manifold forms, but she remains most well known for the SCUM Manifesto, which somehow manages to be both irreverent and sincere, hilarious and straightforward. It is pervasive enough that when I first got the Internet in high school in the late ’90s, I remember searching for feminism and anarchy and finding my way promptly to SCUM, a 1967 feminist manifesto that traces most of the world’s problems back to men, from war and marriage to boredom, suburbs, and “Great Art.” She puts forth the idea of “pussy envy,” promotes an intersectional view of oppression, and champions automation as a way to stop working, collapse the government, and eliminate men. Some people feel that SCUM is a joke or satire. To read it as such is to miss its actual political and literary powers, which are many.
Making note of the above appropriation, the impression that Solanas did not belong to herself, and the constant misuse of SCUM, is not to suggest anything like pity. Pity and empathy seemed to frustrate Solanas, emotions that distracted from her work and made it difficult to approach the writing as the nuanced and penetrating political art that it is. After all, when you’re pissed off, you don’t want some guy to feel bad for you—you want him to stop acting like such an asshole.
And plenty of people certainly were acting like assholes, making Solanas’s ability to maintain her convictions so long all the more startling. In Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (And Shot Andy Warhol), Breanne Fahs, an academic and feminist, recounts many of those injustices, the daily hardships and humiliations Solanas lived through: systemic and personal, somatic and psychic, insouciant and intentional. She survived sexual abuse, lived on the street, panhandled to survive, and was routinely mocked in the press and in her social world, lied to and cast aside. She was placed in some of the most atrocious prisons and mental hospitals that the atrocious prison complex had to offer. Restaurants refused to serve her, people on the street spat at the sight of her. When her work was published, no one bothered to give her royalties or to print it without error. Just about every single person spelled her name wrong. Andy Warhol flat out lost her play (an irreverent comedy of genders). Solanas responded, reasonably, by doubting everyone’s intentions and developing fierce defenses to protect her work, work that she continued to believe in, recognizing its revolutionary potential and importance despite the rich, loud voices of the world telling her otherwise.
Of course, I’m doing the inappropriate empathy-thing here (as maybe does the biography, to a small extent). Even a pitch-perfect and flawlessly researched hagiography would miss the Solanas mark. She did not want to be a platform, a thing other people could use to explore their own ideas. She just wanted people to see her play and to read her manifesto. Why did she shoot Andy Warhol? “Read my manifesto.” How will she defend herself at trial? “SCUM Manifesto will be my entire defense.” She even sent a letter to an imagined cabal of semi-powerful men (the Mob, she called them) claiming to be a group who kidnapped Valerie Solanas and demanding that those men publish her manifesto in the New York Daily News if they want her to be released. Her manifesto. Her manifesto. Read her goddamn manifesto.
This chronic lack of attention and respect informs the particular success of this biography. As Fahs describes, attempting to piece together Solanas’s life is like “pursuing the movements of an invisible wolf.” Despite the many challenges, however, Fahs comes up with what will likely be as close to a comprehensive biography of Solanas as will ever exist. Rather than stick to the familiar SCUM/Warhol narrative, the text moves from childhood Valerie, writing parody pop songs at the age of eight, through a number of romances and friendships, a life as an out radical dyke at the University of Maryland in the 1950s and to New York. She becomes tight with Ben Morea of Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers. She finds some success, struggles with finances and housing, writes constantly, and shoots Andy Warhol. The resulting rifts and debates in the feminist community are gracefully documented (and tied back to Solanas, who is in regular contact with a who’s who of the National Organization for Women). Following imprisonment and further exploitation, she has a brief bit of success in republishing her manifesto on her own terms before falling further into delusions and paranoia. She appears, covered in scabs and cawing at strangers, on the streets of Phoenix for several years before relocating to San Francisco, where she eventually dies in the Bristol Hotel.
Fahs constructs this story (a good deal of which is previously untold) with a cool mixture of sympathy, appreciation, and something that approaches objectivity. She reports facts and lets others provide the commentary, only occasionally intruding on the narrative in Solanas’s favor, most often when she feels the need to remind us that Solanas was right in her expressed paranoia (people were stealing her work and refusing to pay her). While it is evident that Fahs appreciates Solanas, the book generally avoids commendation and condemnation in equal measure.
Straightforward, then, but also consistently hilarious, challenging, and poignant. After all, it’s a Valerie Solanas biography. Fahs shows her subject to have been ridiculously and subversively funny. When a feminist calls Solanas a “semi-absolutist,” she retorts, “I’m not; I’m an absolutist. What the hell is a semi-absolutist anyway?” She offers Maurice Girodias, founder of Olympia Press, a position as “Top Turd at all Turd sessions” of SCUM and regularly refers to him as “lowly toad” in letters. In short, she’s likable, even as she makes what seem to be obvious mistakes, a fact that makes her slow move into mental illness (a condition likely exacerbated by systemic violence) all the more, well, sad.
And there it is again, feeling bad for Valerie Solanas. It’s true, people treated her awfully (and a lot people treated her with love, too), and she often lived in inhumane conditions. But Solanas was a revolutionary artist, and the more time passes, the more significant and prescient her revolution appears to have been, which is in many ways all she ever cared about. How magnificently powerful, to maintain humor, insight, and self-confidence in the face of so much violence. A biography of Valerie Solanas then, hell yeah. You should go read her manifesto and then you should go read this.