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SCUM Rising

The long afterlife of Valerie Solanas

Valerie: or, The Faculty of Dreams: A Novel by Sara Stridsberg. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pages.

“I told you from the start just how this would end.” — Hole 

On June 3, 1968, Valerie Solanas was hauled into Manhattan’s 13th Precinct booking room after shooting Andy Warhol in the torso. She’d turned herself in to a rookie traffic cop in Times Square, explaining that Warhol had “too much control of [her] life.” When reporters at the station asked why she did it, Solanas was more evasive. She claimed she had lots of reasons—but didn’t elaborate. “Read my manifesto and it will tell you who I am,” she said.

That was only partly true. The SCUM Manifesto, which Solanas self-published a year earlier and peddled on the streets of New York, can’t be read at face value. Part satire, part feminist cri de coeur, part science-fiction reverie, it’s a text whose rhetorical power depends on excess. Solanas edges past absurdity and into a kind of fanatical idealism in which men are strategically exterminated and women are free to “create a magic world.” There’s no more war in Solanas’s would-be utopia; no government; no economy; just big-hearted women “grooving” on each other. It’s hard to not be swept up in her theatrics, even if you suspect she’s being facetious—and maybe she isn’t. The SCUM Manifesto is equally amusing, arresting, and bludgeoning, without claiming allegiance to any one mood. 

Solanas wasn’t interested in gender equality or partnerships. She wanted to blow up the whole goddamn charade.

Today, the SCUM Manifesto bears all the hallmarks of its time: slangy, pissed off, feverish with social and political revolution. But in the late sixties, the manifesto was a fresh countercultural missile. It was still over-the-top, of course, but it appealed to a generation fed up with the hypocrisy and hierarchy of institutional America. Few contemporary readers—especially women—agreed on when Solanas was joking and when she wasn’t. The cadre of radical second-wave feminists who rallied in her defense may have believed her when she wrote, “The elimination of any male is, therefore, a righteous and good act, an act highly beneficial to women as well as an act of mercy.” More mainstream feminists, including those in Betty Friedan’s National Organization for Women (NOW), were wary of championing Solanas, lest that support be misconstrued as an endorsement of violence. Friedan even dispatched a panicked telegram to Ti-Grace Atkinson, the president of NOW’s New York chapter and an early Solanas booster: “Desist immediately from linking NOW in any way with Valerie Solanas. Miss Solanas [sic] motives in Warhol case entirely irrelevant to NOW’s goals of full equality for women in truly equal partnership with men.”        

Solanas wasn’t interested in gender equality or partnerships. She wanted to blow up the whole goddamn charade, as SCUM’s infamous first paragraph attests:

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.

Was she serious? Not even Solanas went—or stayed—on record one way or the other. The SCUM Manifesto carved deep schisms in feminism, activism, and pop culture that partisans on all sides backfilled with contradictory interpretations of her message. Over the years, she came to emanate an aura of grubby menace and martyrdom that intensified as she spiraled into very public paranoia. Her interviews were chock full of lies, boasts, and delusional self-promotion, as when she told the Village Voice in 1977 that she’d been offered a hundred-million-dollar advance for her next book. Whether she was a genius exploited by powerful men, or a crackpot armed with a typewriter and a .32 pistol, was anybody’s guess. More than a half-century after the shooting that made her newsworthy, Solanas still seduces. And she still confounds. 

As with recent reappraisals of radical feminists Andrea Dworkin and Shulamith Firestone, Solanas isn’t so easy to pigeonhole. It’s clear she suffered from mental illness (she believed the Mob bugged her uterus), and she was abused–emotionally and sexually—by men she trusted. Dworkin and Firestone’s “violence” was ideological; Solanas actually tried to murder somebody. Her legacy can’t be refurbished as cleanly as, say, Dworkin’s, who this year received laudatory write-ups in publications that once scorned or ignored her. As Cynthia Carr noted in the Village Voice in 2003, “At one time, Valerie Solanas seemed the feminist ghost least likely to rise from the grave. The one and only member of the Society for Cutting Up Men, she was just too mad and too bad.”

Solanas is still mad—but perhaps less bad these days. She’s messier and more pitiable than her feminist contemporaries. Readers today risk taking her too seriously or, like Warhol, not seriously enough.

Valerie: or, The Faculty of Dreams: A Novel by Sara Stridsberg is the latest in a small rash of books, films, and television shows that find inspiration in Solanas’s story. The novel was originally published in Stridsberg’s native Sweden in 2006, where it was awarded the prestigious Nordic Council Literature Prize. (The English-language edition is translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner.)

Stridsberg begins the novel with a disclaimer: her book isn’t a biography but “a literary fantasy” that doesn’t adhere to the facts of Solanas’s life. It doesn’t even adhere to the facts of geography or history. The real Solanas was born in 1936, in Ventnor City, New Jersey, next door to Atlantic City. Her parents—Lou, a bartender, and Dorothy, a dental assistant—were first-generation Americans from working-class families. The Solanas of Valerie is born in Ventnor, Georgia, an invented desert hamlet where the sky is the “same pink as a sleeping tablet or old vomit.” She lives with her mother in a “desert house with no pictures, books, money, or plans for the future.” 

From there, though, the novel more or less follows the chronology of Solanas’s life: her student days in the animal laboratory at the University of Maryland’s psychology department; her career as a panhandler and sex worker in New York; the writing of her play, Up Your Ass, which she tried to strongarm Warhol into producing. In 1967, Maurice Girodias, the French publisher whose Olympia Press put out highbrow smut including Lolita, Candy, and Tropic of Capricorn, contracted Solanas to write a novel. Convinced she’d been conned into forfeiting all of her future copyrights, she allegedly decided to kill Girodias (there’s no consensus as to whether this was her real motive). He was out of town the day she showed up at his apartment in the Chelsea Hotel, so she went to the Factory and shot Warhol instead. Solanas then ping-ponged between prison and psychiatric hospitals, and in the years after her release enjoyed a fringe celebrity thanks to interviewers who milked her for outlandish copy. Later, she became homeless. She drifted out west. She worked as a prostitute in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, conspicuous in her silver lamé dress, and died there in a welfare hotel in 1988.

The novel is animated by Solanas’s ego, and by her bristly, sarcastic, dreamlike, vulnerable voice.

Although Valerie follows the contours of Solanas’s life, the novel isn’t conventionally plotted. It’s more like a postmodern collage of imagined transcripts and interviews and snippets of lyrics (mostly from Hole’s 1994 album Live Through This), spliced with Stridsberg’s own mythopoetic evocations of Solanas’s life. There’s a metafictional layer, too, as the unruly Solanas rebukes the narrator-cum-author:

NARRATOR: You are the subject of this novel. I admire your work. I admire your courage. I’m interested in the manifesto’s context. Your life. The American women’s movement. The sixties.

VALERIE: Whore material. Screwing material.

NARRATOR: The context—

VALERIE: —there’s no such thing as context. Everything has to be wrenched out of its setting. Frames of reference can always explain away the most obvious causal connections. Buyers, sellers, slack dicks, slack pussies. It’s a question of phenomena that can always be taken apart.

The result is a novel that conveys Solanas’s ambiance but not necessarily her substance: the pain she carried with her so long it hardened into faith. Like Dworkin, Solanas’s pain often transubstantiated into apocalyptic fury, although she was also capable of tenderness, as when she wrote, “The female function is to explore, discover, invent, solve problems, crack jokes, make music—all with love.” Still, pain eats like acid through Solanas’s work, which Valerie mimics in its mix of high-flown imagery and squalid metaphor. Rather than look at Solanas’s pain head-on (“everything has to be wrenched out of its setting”), Stridsberg takes an oblique approach. 

The earliest trauma was Solanas’s sexual abuse by her father. In Valerie, that first assault is depicted with the woozy, sun-dappled lyricism of a Terrence Malick film:

You will remember forever the magical light, the sludgy water creatures, distant birdcalls, rolls of ponderous clouds above. The shade of the trees, a shimmering green yearning and for what, you do not know, just a beast in your stomach wanting out and shafts of light descending through the green darkness.

As the abuse continues, Solanas herself takes the narrative reins:

it was nothing special, it was just that Louis used to rape me on the porch swing after Dorothy had driven into town . . . I rented out my little pussy for no money and afterward he always wept and tried to untangle the knot of chewing gum in my hair . . . there was nothing left to cry about except America would keep on fucking me and all fathers want to fuck their daughters and most of them do and only a minority refrain and it’s not clear why except the world is always one long yearning to go back.

The voice here is closer to Solanas’s actual literary style, as when, in the Manifesto, she writes, “Every man, deep down, knows he’s a worthless piece of shit,” or, “To call a man an animal is to flatter him; he’s a machine, a walking dildo.” In Valerie, the fictional Solanas continues to blurt caustic one-liners: “In every man sits a masturbating little infant with extremely sadistic impulses”; “All married women are prostitutes”; “Only real whores are real women and revolutionaries.”

In addition to these stream-of-consciousness interventions, the fictional Solanas also talks in abstractions, riddles, and in mini-rants that read like outtakes from the Manifesto. Here she is talking with her psychiatrist:

DR. RUTH COOPER: You are extremely ill, Valerie. That doesn’t mean you’re not a very gifted, headstrong woman.

VALERIE: There is no illness. My condition is not a medical condition. It’s more a condition of extreme clarity, of stark white operating lights illuminating all words, things, bodies, and identities. [. . .] Every girl in patriarchy knows that schizophrenia, paranoia, and depression are in no way a description of an individual medical condition. It is a definitive diagnosis of a social structure and a form of government based on constant insults to the brain capacity of half the population, founded on rape.

Maybe Solanas really spoke in such chiseled barbs. Or maybe Stridsberg’s stylized dialogue dramatizes how alien Solanas must have seemed to other adults—how spooky, how feral. She makes very little small talk in the novel; she rarely comments on the weather, or gossips, or repeats clichés like the rest of us. She describes herself as “on the borderline between human being and chaos.” Even her casual conversation is rendered as bleak melodrama:

NARRATOR: And why did you stop writing?

VALERIE: Up to now the history of all societies has been the history of silence. Rebel, psychoanalyst, experimental writer, woman’s potential as dissident. Language has become increasingly a physical substance whose only function is to underline my loneliness.

Like the collage style of Valerie itself, the character of Solanas recycles and remixes other texts, and plagiarizes herself. Elsewhere in the novel, an aging Solanas repeatedly quotes her own Manifesto, especially the maxim, “You’ve got to go through a lot of sex to get to anti-sex.” She paraphrases arguments she first made twenty years earlier. In Stridsberg’s account, Solanas—particularly as she lay dying of pneumonia in the Bristol Hotel—is an echo chamber of language.

Still, she remains a cypher. (Warhol is a cypher here too, an apparition of “shimmering, glittering fagginess” slinking against the Factory’s white walls. But then, blankness was part of the mystique Warhol cultivated.) Stridsberg nixes most novelistic conventions: plot, character development, motivation, epiphany, denouement. Instead, the novel is animated by Solanas’s ego, and by her bristly, sarcastic, dreamlike, vulnerable voice. In the end, Valerie is as much a tragic literary story as a tragic biographical one. Stridsberg conveys how a fitfully brilliant and audacious writer was dogged—and then silenced—by her own words. Solanas never published another book after the SCUM Manifesto, although her fellow lodgers at the Bristol Hotel later reported the clatter of typing from her room at all hours. “She was writing,” Solanas’s mother told New York magazine in 1991. “She fancied herself as a writer, and I think she did have some talent.”

Stridsberg isn’t the only artist who has tried to ventriloquize Solanas, or to understand who she was and what she represented. In I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), directed by Mary Harron, Lili Taylor plays Solanas as a mashup of Fran Lebowitz and Joe Pesci—a slouchy, fast-talking grifter who doesn’t take anyone’s shit. More recently, Lena Dunham delivered a farcical version of Solanas in American Horror Story: Cult, in which Solanas commands a crew of homicidal women from inside her psych ward. Breanne Fahs’s 2014 biography, Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol), comes closest to giving readers the full picture, although even Fahs acknowledges in the preface that there are limits: “Tracking the life of Valerie Solanas, much like pursuing the movements of an invisible wolf, has led to many dead ends.” 

Valerie inhabits Solanas from the inside out and restores her to appropriately mythic origins.

Solanas’s shooting of Warhol is one reason she’s struggled to be taken seriously. It has the quality of bad performance art—of impromptu spectacle—which is reinforced both in Harron’s movie and in AHS. There’s a kind of staginess to the act, like a scene from one of Warhol’s own movies. (And, in fact, Solanas basically played herself in Warhol’s 1967 dud, I, a Man.) There’s also the contrast between Solanas and Warhol, as if they were negatives of each other: the latter deadpan, sexless, almost cryogenic; the former talky, short-fused, earthy. She made an uneasy fit among the glossy Factory superstars, with her newsboy cap and rummage sale clothes. And, of course, there was Solanas’s status as a queer woman on the margins. She was poor, intermittently homeless, and mentally ill in an era during which such people were often lobotomized or locked away in barbaric asylums against their will. With few options available, Solanas risked her life in pursuit of liberation. If her methods were flamboyant, or crude, or violent, well, so was the straight world she fought against. Yet when embodying Solanas, most people inevitably resort to parody or burlesque. She’s easy to mock. 

Valerie does something different. It inhabits Solanas from the inside out and restores her to appropriately mythic origins. The desert backdrop that runs through the novel is a blank canvas on which Stridsberg projects ancient dramas of incest, isolation, and betrayal. But the desert is also a metaphor for how people like Solanas seem to come out of nowhere to hijack history. Several of the novel’s chapters have subheads that situate the reader on a historical continuum: the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests, Marilyn Monroe’s death, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The effect is to juxtapose Solanas—and, by extension, others like her, who were socially and economically voiceless—against the awful gutter wind of history. What Solanas did is trivial by comparison to these epochal events, and yet her Manifesto envisions a world in which such events might be averted. No more war. No more government. No more patriarchy. No more men. 

In that respect, Valerie gives us Solanas as she probably hoped to be: still failed, yes, but vindicated. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that at the novel’s end, a ghost reads to the dying Solanas from the Manifesto, as if it has become a bedtime story. Like the greatest fables, it contains a quotable lesson: “the meaning of life is love.” For Solanas, that line must have been nice to say, even if she didn’t believe a fucking word of it.