Civic Memory, Feminist Future

A personal and political history from Lidia Yuknavitch

:: 1968 ::

I am five and I’m the exact height of the top of the surgery scar on my mother’s leg. I know this because she lets me sit on the toilet when she is getting dressed each morning. The scar is kid-high and the length of my torso. Pearly white railroad tracks covering her “birth defect.” My mother is “disabled” though that word is never used in our house. My mother’s leg is six inches shorter than the other leg. I don’t know what “disabled” means but we heard it once when we did the March of Dimes walk door-to-door nice people giving donations something about children. I walk everywhere with my mother. We can’t afford a car San Francisco is made of hills. Later in life I’ll learn just how much walking all of those miles gave her pain in her leg.

Today we walk to a “polling station.” We wait in the line. We walk up to a “polling booth.” This year my mother begins to explain what “Democrats” are and she cries describing “assassinations.” John F. Kennedy is a word I know. Shot dead. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a word I know. Shot dead. My mother loved Bobby Kennedy the best. Shot dead. Nixon is a word I know my father swears at the television at night. God damn asshole is a word I know. The “Vietnam War” came into our living room through the television. Once I saw a fire hose and German Shepherds back some black people against a wall on the television and I cried and I couldn’t understand why dogs would do that. Our dog named Maggie would never do that. My best friend Merrit is black and he wears a white shirt and tie almost every day to kindergarten. My teacher Mrs. Webb is black.

John F. Kennedy is a word I know. Shot dead. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a word I know. Shot dead. My mother loved Bobby Kennedy the best. Shot dead.

People make fun of me my hair too white people make fun of me I’m too shy people make fun of me I’m a crybaby. My favorite place to be is in a tree.

We go behind a plaid curtain plaid like my skirt. My mother pulls a lever. She whispers “Oh…Belle…” Belle is my nickname. My mother was born in Texas but she married a “Yankee” and left and never went back. Then she takes my hand and turns and opens the curtain.

I step with her into the future, a daughter and a mother moving though time and space, her lopsided heels clicking our misshapen path against the floor.

It will take years to undo that year. It will take lives.

:: 1980 ::

Seventeen is the heat and sweat of Florida and the rush of hormones but my desires move toward other girls about to be women and I do not have a prom queen body or a Seventeen body. I have an athlete body. Training two hours five thirty A.M. to seven thirty A.M. then high school then pool again four P.M. to six P.M. In between the waterworld hours I skip class with a boy gone to man who is infinitely more beautiful than I am. His brown skin his black hair his black eyes his perfect hands his desire for others like him. He makes art. He makes me a burgundy satin prom dress. My biceps bulge but I have no cleavage.

Seventeen is the heat and sweat of Florida and the rush of hormones but my desires move toward other girls about to be women and I do not have a prom queen body or a ‘Seventeen’ body.

Seventeen is the cusp of everything. A girl’s mind morphs toward woman faster than her brain can track, and so her body lurches and grinds forward more like an animal’s. All around her images from her culture of what to be, what to look like, how to be wanted and thus counted.

At fifteen we moved from Seattle, Washington to Gainesville, Florida, my father told me that we moved so that I could train with the best swimming coach in the nation, Randy Reese. It was a big sacrifice they made. For me.

In reality, a place my father never lived, we moved because his engineering and architecture firm, CH2M Hill, transferred him. I’d already survived a childhood with my father. I’d survived an adolescence, though not without war wounds from the home front. My body carried a story underneath all the cover stories he told. From fifteen to seventeen I swam for my fucking life.

Why would a father tell a daughter that story? Why do men with power tell us stories away from what we know in our bodies? What do we do with the stories left ringing our ribs like tuning forks? Why do they lie?

At seventeen, I understand what voting is. I’m in honors English and History classes. I know my turn is coming up. But that’s not where my dreams live. All my kid life I dream of going to the Olympics.

Why would a father tell a daughter that story? What do we do with the stories left ringing our ribs like tuning forks?

At eighteen I’m on a high school relay team with the fastest time in the nation. Torry Blazey Holly Blair Michelle Reagan. 200 Yard Medley Relay. 1:47.620. All Americans listed in Swimming World.

The 1980 Summer Olympics boycott is one part of a number of actions initiated by President Jimmy Carter to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Where do the dreams of girls trying to swim or run from home go? Do they leave? Do our body stories make a nexus with the politics and histories of war and men? Or do they stay in our bodies, hidden like skin secrets, waiting for some future tense where we too might become realized?

What would a realized woman look like in America?

I don’t vote.

I get a swimming scholarship from Texas Tech University, but in my heart I quit.

Ronald Reagan becomes president.[1]

:: 1983 ::

My first marriage dissolves.

My beautiful baby girl fish dies in my belly waters the day she is born. I leave reality and enter a real place called grief and psychosis. Everything is fractured water.

When I emerge, I am a writer; stories pouring from my body as if an entire ocean had been waiting there. Or maybe the voice of a girl — the one I was, the one who died in the belly of me, or the one who survived her father’s hands and house — either way, she has an ungodly fire in her.

:: 1984 ::

I vote.

I vote because a new rage has emerged inside my body.

I have not yet learned that the rage is hope. I don’t care about the democratic nominee for president, I care about Geraldine Ferraro. Geraldine Ferraro is the first woman presidential candidate representing a major American political party. I know that she is not the first woman to attempt ascension within the law and land and realm of the fathers, I know that Victoria Woodhull, whose running mate was Frederick Douglass, ran for president in 1872, for example, preceded her. She founded her own newspaper. She was the first woman to own a Wall Street investment firm. Douglass voted for Grant.

I vote because a new rage has emerged inside my body.

I have not yet learned that the rage is hope.

I know that Belva Ann Bennett Lockwood ran in 1884. She drafted the law passed by Congress which admitted women to practice before the Supreme Court; she then became the first woman lawyer to practice before the Court.

I know that Shirley Anita Chisholm was the first African American woman to seek a major party’s nomination for U.S President in 1972. Before becoming the first black woman to serve in Congress, she was a school teacher and director of child care centers. I also know that Patsy Takemoto Mink ran in 1972, also one of the first women of color to serve in the U.S. Senate.

I know because I take women’s studies classes in college, where I discover that this information has been left out of my entire American education. All those women’s bodies. Voices. Stories.

The shape my rage takes is art. Drawing art painting art performance art and writing stories. So many stories are pouring out of my fingers I can’t keep up with them. I don’t even know where they are coming from, though I have a hunch they are coming from all the fathers who enact power on the bodies of others, biological fathers and state fathers and fatherlands and father heroes and father saviors and god the father from what’s left of the Catholicism I was raised up and through. I am away from my father for the first time in my life. I suddenly wake up to the idea that America and democracy and capitalism are all about fathers. A certain idea of a father as head. Hero. Leader. Person with power. I denounce all fathers.

Rage blooms and grows in my mind and body and gut — where my daughter lived her entire life until her birthdeath — like an unapologetic violent flower. Thank oceans there is a word and action for it: feminism.

Ronald Reagan, formerly a Hollywood actor, is elected president. His face the word for it.

:: 1989 ::

The art I love most: Kathy Acker Karen Finley Lynne Tillman Laurie Anderson Andres Serrano Joel Peter Witkin Tim Miller Robert Mapplethorpe Holly Hughes Barbara Kruger Carolee Schneemann Cindy Sherman. In all of their work violence, death and sexuality kiss. Like in my life.

In 1989 two art pieces draw controversy to the NEA, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment. Jesse Helmes emerges on the scene leading and effort to repress artistic production with obscenity laws.

In 1990 the NEA Four, performance artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes have their grants vetoed.

In March 1990 NEA grantees begin receiving a new clause in their agreements that states:

Public Law 101–121 requires that: None of the funds authorized to be appropriated for the National Endowment for the Arts … may be used to promote, disseminate, or produce materials which in the judgement of the National Endowment for the Arts … may be considered obscene, including but not limited to, depictions of sadomasochism, homoerotocism, the sexual exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts and which, when taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

I hate Reagan. I hate “Morning in America,” Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign which uses nostalgic images of America’s heartland to help sell an optimistic future televised image.

In 1990 the NEA Four, performance artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes have their grants vetoed.

I hate how the Reagan administration begins sending arms to Iran, via Isreal, in hopes that the weapons sales will lead the Iranians to pressure allies in Lebanon to release American hostages. The secret arms shipments violate Reagan’s pledge never to negotiate with terrorists. Again.

Underneath that cover story Congress passes a law banning the diversion of US government funds to support Nicaragua’s anticommunist Contra rebels. The Reagan administration violates the new law, leading to the Iran-Contra crisis. Reagan wins a second term in a historic landslide.

In 1986 a Lebanese magazine breaks the news that the U.S. has been secretly selling weapons to Iran. President Reagan delivers a nationally televised speech to address the Iran arms-for-hostages scandal. “Our government has a firm policy not to capitulate to terrorist demands,” he says. “We did not — repeat, did not — trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we.”

Attorney General Edwin Meese, a staunch Reagan loyalist, begins an internal investigation into White House involvement in the Iran-Contra Scandal. Meese allows Iran-Contra conspirator Oliver North to shred thousands of potentially incriminating documents before they can be seized as evidence.

Meese finds administration officials guilty.

Marine Colonel Oliver North is fired.

In 1987 President Reagan goes on national TV to deliver a ridiculous apology for Iran-Contra: “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages,” he says. “My heart and my best intentions tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it’s not.”

The same year I watch Reagan give a speech in Berlin, telling Soviet Premier Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall.” Where does he get off? People of color in my country are dying starving crawling from border to border.

How to Suppress Women’s Criticism

Because I am high up in college, I’m reading about Marxism and Psycholinguistics and Semiotics and Feminisms — Eco Feminism and waves of Feminisms and Psychoanalytic Feminism and Marxist and Socialist Feminism and Cultural Feminism and Radical Feminism — Deconstruction and Literary Theory and Social Politics and Sociology. All I see is a sea of fathers and a runaway global kinesis made of money and power and guns. I understand this as capitalism. I understand my country as creating policies that have brutal, war-making and death-making consequences.

I understand my body as collateral damage.

All I see is a sea of fathers and a runaway global kinesis made of money and power and guns. I understand this as capitalism.

My favorite writers are Ursula Le Guin and Doris Lessing and Toni Morrison and Leslie Marmon Silko and Elfriede Jelinek and Margaret Atwood and Maxine Hong Kingston and Marguerite Duras and Christa Wolf and Arundhati Roy. All of them telling and telling how the brutality of history is written on the bodies of the vulnerable and disenfranchised. How those bodies are walking skin maps of the spectacular and endless violences we commit culturally. Politically. Globally. All of them unwriting varieties of violence at the site of the body. All of them naming women and children as the necessary “matter” to colonize.

:: 1989 ::

I’m standing in a shitty voting booth in Eugene, Oregon. I vote so hard my eyes shiver. But even my heart sinks watching the televised image of Michael Dukakis riding around in an impotent tank. When Lloyd Bentsen debates what appears to be a moron-boy, Dan Quayle, and he delivers his best line, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” I cry for nearly an hour.

Not because I could see the democrats were losing, but because memory came rushing back into my body. Loss. Grief. My mother. Her scar, her limp, the cancer that ate her lungs and breasts alive. The return of the repressed. A Nixon-ness coming back for revenge. The civil rights era being subsumed by consumer culture and capitalism. Television images forever asking us, are we dead yet? What brings us back to life and why? And when?

George H.W. Bush becomes president. But war was already being written across our bodies as well as the bodies of those we intended to colonize. Oil, power, land grabs, guns and money subsume all humanity, it seems.

I go to the courthouse in Eugene to protest Desert Storm every day and every night. No blood for oil. I’m accidentally on the cover of Eugene Weekly. I’m accidentally in a writing class with Ken Kesey. But I know there is no other father coming to save us.

:: 1997 ::



HON. JOHN T. DOOLITTLE of California, in the house of representatives

Tuesday, April 15, 1997

American Family Association:

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee: I want to thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today on behalf of American Family Association. As you are aware, for the past eight years AFA has been the leading organization opposing federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1989, AFA president Rev. Donald Wildmon called to national attention the funding by the NEA of Andres Serrano’s work “Piss Christ’’ which consisted of a crucifix submersed in the artists’ urine. The fact that such a blasphemous work was federally funded outraged a great segment of American society and precipitated a battle to end federal funding of the agency. That battle will not end until funding for the NEA ends, rest assured of that fact….

The threat that the NEA poses in the prosecution on obscenity and child pornography cases is not merely hypothetical. The difficulties I have outlined in this regard were faced by the U.S. Department of Justice during my years in the criminal division with respect to the funding by the NEA of an exhibit by the late Robert Mapplethorpe.

The American Family Association is convinced after years of monitoring the NEA that the agency will never change. While it is only a small portion of its annual budget the NEA continues to fund pornographic works as “art.’’ Some of the more recent and troubling works funded by the agency include grants to a group called FC2 and another called Women Make Movies, Inc. FC2 was provided $25,000 in the past year to support the publication of at least four books according to U.S. Representative Peter Hoekstra who has been tracking the NEA: S, by Jeffrey DeShell, Blood of Mugwump: A Tiresian Tale of Incest, by Doug Rice, Chick-Lit 2: No Chick Vics, edited by Cris Maza, Jeffrey Deshell and Elisabeth Sheffield and Mexico Trilogy, by D.N. Stuefloten. These books include descriptions of body mutilation, sadomasochistic sexual act, child sexual acts, sex between a nun and several priests, sodomy, incest, hetero and homosexual sex and numerous other graphically described sexual activities. Women Making Movies, Inc. received $112,700 in taxpayer money over the past three years for the production and distribution of several pornographic videos. Here are descriptions of but two taken from the groups catalog: “Ten Cents a Dance,’’ a depiction of anonymous bathroom sex between two men; and another called ”Sex Fish’’ which is “a furious montage of oral sex.’’

Oral sex is not art and the NEA and Congress should not pretend that it is. Please stop offending the taxpayers of America. Funding for the NEA should be eliminated.

I find my first literary tribe when I am published by Fiction Collective Two (FC2). Lance Olsen becomes a lifelong art and heart comrade. Ralph Berry becomes an experimental writing mentor to me. Jeffrey Deshell and Elisabeth Sheffield rise like human beacons illuminating for me how writing can work against the grain of cultural repression. Like Kathy Acker, Doug Rice blows the top of my head off by daring to place sexuality and the brutality of fathers and capitalism naked on a page; Blood of Mugwump becomes one of my favorite books. My stories also appear in Chick-Lit 2: No Chick Vics, edited by Cris Mazza, Jeffrey Deshell, and Elisabeth Sheffield.

Then congress holds hearings on the hill on the topic of art and obscenity, and all of our art flashes up like burning crosses.

:: 2001 ::

I vote for Bill Clinton twice. I know that he is a womanizer, I know that he lies, I know that the sentence “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” is a crisis in representation. Everything we seem to have gained carries within it loss. Every birth has as its other, a death. My daughter’s. Every sex act has my sexual history in it. My body carrying a culture.

Everything we seem to have gained carries within it loss. Every birth has as its other, a death.

Bill Clinton’s presidency ends with a sex act.

George W. Bush is elected. A witless wealthy begetting of fathers.

My son Miles is born the year 9/11 happens. I’m breastfeeding Miles in our house in the woods. George W. Bush is on the television visiting a primary school in Florida when he gets the news. I see Miles’ face at my breast. I see the face of Bush there on my TV, I see the faces of children. Seven minutes of Bush just sitting there processing what he’s been told.

Suffer the children.

Who are we?

What is history? Does it live in our bodies or on our televisions? Do we move within it, or against it, or do we merely view it, consume it and move on? What can we move or not move? What part is ours to move?

:: 2008 ::

Did we choose the savior story? Did it save us? Has it ever? And what was the story underneath? And what work did we do to save ourselves and each other? Did we forget what might be coming?

:: 2016 ::

There is no photo for what my father did to his daughters.

It came into our bodies as a habit of being, a structure of consciousness, a way of life. Maybe it is akin to feeling discovered and conquered and colonized. Maybe the first colonizations are of the bodies of women and children, and from there they extend like the outstretched hand of a man grabbing land. Cultures.

In my body my father and all the fathers after tried to annihilate my spirit.

He failed, but I carry the trace of the war in my skin song.

On the television a man stomps around behind a woman while she is trying to speak. I’ve seen this movie before. It’s called my life. All the reasons people named for why Hillary Rodham Clinton was not good enough are exactly the same as everything ever said to women who were driven to stand in that place called power. Or was it simply self?

On the television a man stomps around behind a woman while she is trying to speak. I’ve seen this movie before. It’s called my life.

We did not survive all this way to let it ride.

:: 2017 ::

This is your present tense calling.

In some ways, I was born to do what’s coming: to step exactly into the chaos and dark in order to live a life at all. There was no moment of my childhood that gave me joy except those rare pieces of time when I was out of the house of father. Thank oceans for swimming, for all the waters that have saved me.

We do know how to stand up. We do know how to hold a hand out for others, to make a human chain of hands and bodies against the wrong. We have to love the planet and animals and vulnerable people differently — with our whole bodies. No other now but this. The rest of life is reaching toward each other, loving into otherness, coming out of the dark, like some of us had to do as kids just to survive. If you forget, or if you become exhausted, ask your native brother or sister or people of color brother or sister or LGBT brother or sister. If this kid so scared she sometimes choked on her own breathing to get a word out of her mouth could do it, then all of us can.

We do know how to stand up. We do know how to hold a hand out for others, to make a human chain of hands and bodies against the wrong.

If I could survive and escape my father’s house, then it is possible for all of us.

[1] The year after my birth, Ronald Reagan appeared in his last film before he left Hollywood for politics. The Killers, based on a story by Earnest Hemingway, was a crime film starring Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes, Angie Dickinson, and Ronald Reagan. The movie remains notable for being Reagan’s last theatrical film before entering politics, as well as the only one in which he plays a villain.

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