Adrienne Rich. (Source: The Poetry Foundation)
Adrienne Rich, source of this blog's title inspiration, and a poetic influence of mine, passed away a few weeks ago (March 27, 2012). Since then, I've been thinking about her often, at first only as she was a favourite author, but then because I was recently confronted with news about her support for a trans-exclusionary radical feminist.
I haven't always found myself in agreement with her ideologically, especially when her conceptions of feminism and sexuality got a bit too essentialist for me. And perhaps I should have suspected that she might well follow that essentialism a little too far off the path into a pool of bigotry, but I was still shocked when I discovered that she--someone who confronted the overlap between sexism, classism, and racism and thus seemed to support an early intersectionalist incarnation of feminism--could support transphobic radical feminists.
The incriminating quote that is circulating the internet can be read about here; in short, Rich seems to have been quite profoundly involved the process of Janice Raymond's book 'The Transsexual Empire'. I've not read anything by Raymond, but if you scroll down in that Wiki article you'll see some pretty sickening quotes in that book. Her book, as I've learned, has had a lot of destructive impact on the way trans* women are treated in the world, its arguments used as a basis to justify countless theories as well as directly exclusionary policies that seriously diminished the well-being (physically, mentally and emotionally) of many trans* individuals. And this is simply unacceptable to me.
I can't seem to find any evidence that Rich ever spoke about her involvement with Raymond's book. It baffles me, in some ways, because she showed in other cases that she was never revisited these associations she had with the woman who wrote that book; she was definitely in a position to speak out and clarify her involvement, and for someone who stressed accountability and responsibility in all her writing, this upsets me. As Rafe Posey put it in this piece, "I can’t just think, “Oh, well, she was a poet, and she changed poetry, so her views on trans women are private and don’t matter.” That would be dangerous, and it would also be untrue".
I too am disturbed that I am only discovering this now, that it is only being talked about now, because that is a reflection of the erasure of trans* women's voices, and also an indication of Rich's scholars and more dedicated readers that they thought they could just ignore this aspect of Rich's impact and not confront it, question it, or critique it. There is this implication that it 'doesn't matter' that she supported such abhorrent beliefs, because she did other supportive, proactive things. I can't do it. I can't let that slip.
Someone said to me I was being ridiculous, judgmental, even, that I couldn't just appreciate the creation without the creator.. But I can't overlook these things. I believe we are whole people, and we are accountable for all of our actions; we can't separate, bifurcate ourselves. I also believe we have a deep connection to what we create, and what we say, what we express. Doing or saying some good things does not let the bad things slip quietly away out the back door untouched and unchallenged; we need to all personally confront those things. And she didn't do that. She was silent. And as Audre Lorde wrote, 'your silence will not protect you'. Adrienne Rich reinforced for me that poetry is a political act, and it is especially for this reason I am so disappointed in her.
I can't repeat enough what the post on You're Welcome states: We can begin by acknowledging that it matters. All the things people say and do matter. Yes, of course we are all flawed, but what does that mean? To me, it just reminds me that we all need to confront all the messy hatred and stubborn beliefs in ourselves.
For a woman who wrote that we must 'read and write as if our lives depended on it', it saddens me that she didn't seem to realize by her writing she was further condemning the lives of others. Where was the responsibility, the lucidity she swore herself to, in all of this?
I am curious to know, if anyone is reading this, how others reconcile these kinds of complexities in what people make, and the beliefs and statements they might otherwise express. I just feel sad and nauseous when I think about her now; she wrote some beautiful, powerful things, but I can't look at them in the same light any longer. This has happened before, with figures and creators that I have admired to a lesser extent, but I guess, in mourning her, I am also mourning the loss of the role of her poetry in my life.