Seeking Solace in SCUM

by Haley Mlotek


At the moment, I don’t feel like praising a manifesto that calls for the extermination of a particular gender. This is my own fault. If I had just filed this essay when I was supposed to, I could have avoided this stupid fucking problem.

But watching my news feeds fill themselves up this last week, I felt like I was being force fed. I could have turned it off. But that felt like the ultimate luxury, to close my eyes and pretend like it wasn’t happening. I haven’t watched his videos, or read his manifesto, but his presence has had a drastic impact. I’ve never followed the Didion cliché of writing to find out what I feel: I’ve always had a feeling first; the challenge was to find the right words to describe it. This is the first time I have words and research and context but am unable to identify even one concrete feeling.

What are we to do when someone shows us, in ink, exactly who they are and who they hope to become?

I’ll never know if I knew about the SCUM Manifesto before or after I knew about Andy Warhol. It’s hard to differentiate when one person takes up so much cultural space; the other objects around seem to get farther away, like traditional three-point perspective. But Valerie Solanas’s writing continues to pull me to her. Mary Harron said that the SCUM Manifesto “feels as if it were written in one great rush. It isn’t quite like anything else, but it does resemble Artaud’s surrealist manifesto… Also de Sade in its vision of human nature… And, more disturbingly, it resembles the better bits of writing by the Unabomber.” When I want to think of Valerie as being separate from Warhol, am I doing her a disservice, imagining her to be wholly satirical when the manifesto had at least some glimmer of truth? When reporters asked for a comment at the police station she was booked at, Valerie told them to read her manifesto for answers.

Breanne Fahs’s brilliant Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote Scum (and Shot Andy Warhol) is clear at least that satire was a long tradition in Solanas’s writing, and that she used humor and hyperbole to make her points. She wanted to kill Warhol because of a perceived slight — made so, so much worse by her undiagnosed and untreated paranoid schizophrenia.

But I am so, so torn on how to explain why Valerie Solanas wrote one of the most important feminist works we’ve ever seen, why the SCUM Manifesto deserves your attention this month, of all months, or any month. The SCUM Manifesto is, obviously, in entirely its own class — “SCUM will kill all men,” she writes, just after declaring free subway and bus tokens for all — and I don’t really think it’s fair to compare it to the Unabomber, or to our most recent domestic terrorist. It’s more that I feel compelled to acknowledge the place they hold in our cultural space, perhaps all equally in focus. Another paraphrased Didion cliché (my last, I promise): Do we read these manifestos not in order to live, but because we lived? Because they show us, at least, a record of the attempt to articulate what the writer felt?

Valerie Solanas — author, playwright, scientist, philosopher, visionary, sex worker, friend, sister, daughter, splinterer-of-feminist-movements, and, fine, almost-assassin of contemporary art’s most beloved male artist — was big on dedications. She dedicated her play, “Up Your Ass,” to herself, writing:

I dedicate this play to Me; a continuous source of strength and guidance, and without whose unflinching loyalty, devotion and faith, this play could never have been written. Additional acknowledgements: Myself — For proofreading, editorial comment, helpful hints, criticism and suggestions and an exquisite job of typing. I — for Independent research into men, married women and other degenerates….

This week will mark forty-six years since Valerie’s assassination attempt of both Warhol and her publisher, Maurice Girodias — the shots heard ‘round ironic representations of pop culture then and forever. Valerie is married to Warhol now, never mind until death did them part. Breanne Fahs’s incredible book does not try to minimize that connection; it only asks us to think of the event as a moment in Valerie’s life, connected to everything before and everything since, rather than the moment.

Towards the end of Valerie’s life, she spoke often about the million-dollar advance she believed she would receive for her authorized memoir, Valerie Solanas, which she was convinced would sell twenty million copies. “Valerie hated the idea of imperfection, of others representing her life and work, of errors to the official record of how things went down,” Fahs wrote in her preface. “The irony of now writing a book called Valerie Solanas that gives an ‘unauthorized’ account of her life, offering up a text filled with the potential for error (and, of course, Valerie’s posthumous cosmic revenge) is not lost on me.”

In one of those moments, Valerie was a features reporter for her university newspaper. She wrote satirical pieces about the oppressive nature of the patriarchy she saw on campus. Men complained. One of them wrote a letter to the editor that said, “It would appear that Miss Solanas establishes a point only so that she can stab something or someone with it.” The precedent was set. Solanas’ writing would always be read as half joking, half serious, and fully dangerous. In another moment of hilarity, Arthur Miller once complained to hotel management after Valerie left posters advertising auditions for “Up Your Ass” in the Chelsea Hotel lobby.

Mary Harron’s extensive research for her film I Shot Andy Warhol provided a pathway for Fahs’s biography, because so much of Valerie’s life was unaccounted for; she moved frequently, unable to make rent, and her letters home seem deliberately vague on her whereabouts. Through interviews with Harron, as well as Ti-Grace Atkinson, Jeremiah Newton, Ben Morea, Ultra Violent, and family like Judith Martinez (Valerie’s sister) and David Blackwell (Valerie’s son, given up for adoption at birth), amongst others, we get a real sense of who Valerie was to the people who lived and worked with her, the people who loved and feared her — and what transpired on the day of Warhol’s shooting.

Valerie went Lee Strasberg’s studio, hoping that he would want to produce her play. Strasberg wasn’t there, but his student Sylvia Miles was, waiting to start preparing for her role in Midnight Cowboy. Miles had a bad feeling, and made Solanas leave.

But then — and this is the part I can’t stop thinking about — Fahs details how Solanas went to Margo Feiden, a child prodigy who had produced “Peter Pan” on Broadway when she was only sixteen years old. Feiden let her into her apartment and allowed Valerie to talk about why Feiden should produce her play and join the SCUM Movement. Margo remembers her being quick and intelligent, with an answer prepared for every question.

When Margo refused to produce the play, Valerie took out her gun and told her she was going to shoot Andy Warhol, become famous, and then Margo would have to produce her play. Margo refused, tried to reason with her, but Valerie left.

Here’s the part I can’t believe: Margo, obviously, called the police to tell them what had happened. She called her police precinct, the police precinct in Andy’s neighborhood, and even the offices of New York’s mayor and governor to warn of a serious threat on Warhol’s life. Everyone told her to stop wasting their time, even asking how she could possibly know what a real gun looks like. (Similarly, the New York Times dismissed her account as well.) “As I was frantically making these phone calls,” Margo told Fahs, “I left the television on, knowing that if Andy were shot, regular programming would be interrupted with breaking news.”

When the news finally did come on the screen, she broke down, guilt-ridden over her inability to stop Valerie. “And I’m still not over it,” she said. The questions the police asked were not entirely about whether or not she knew what a gun was. The question seemed to be, how could one woman know what another woman was capable of?

Something strange happened the other day: I left my house. That’s not the strange part, although I don’t do it so often anymore. I work from home, and also lately I hate everyone and everything, so I tend to stay inside as much as possible.

I’ve only recently started to feel isolated. Since the sun came out I’ve begun to feel claustrophobic. I’ve needed to remind myself why, exactly, the ability to stay home for days and days without ever leaving is a good thing for my career, my life, my sanity. For the first time in years I’ve begun to crave the outside world, to sit in the park and do nothing, to just be outside and warm.

So I did leave my house the other day, and as I stepped outside and felt so happy to step into pure sunshine and real warmth, I immediately noticed the black car with the windows rolled down blasting some sort of talk radio, a man in sunglasses in the front seat, not looking forward or to any one side exactly, sort of looking up.

I turned the corner and didn’t think anything of it, but the sound, the hateful chatter of talk radio, followed me. I got a block away before I realized it wasn’t that loud at all, it was just close. The car was creeping along my street with me but I was too ashamed to be scared, unsure if I was paranoid or narcissistic, assuming the worst without hard evidence. I wanted to look at the license plate but I didn’t want to look to my side or straight ahead so I just kept, in my sunglasses, sort of looking up.

I ducked into the park where the car couldn’t follow me. The car began driving at the regular speed limit, sped away, the chatter disappearing with it.

That night, around ten, I met some friends for drinks — alone — at a bar not too far from my house. A male friend asked if I had walked from my house. I told him no, guiltily; I was ashamed to have been so lazy, but I took the bus, a three dollar indulgence to my paranoia. He was glad to hear it. Everyone was talking about the three women who had gone missing in my neighborhood (since located, thank God), not to mention the other woman who had been abducted not too far from my home and escaped after being held for 28 hours. He asked me to please not walk at night, to stay with my boyfriend or on buses or in cabs, to indulge that paranoia because it just wasn’t safe. I thanked him, sincerely, touched. His concern was so infuriatingly gratifying — like, yes, a man also thinks I should pay my way out of being afraid to walk down my street! I must be doing something right! And then my boyfriend met us at the bar and after midnight we walked home, slowly, enjoying the summer night the way I’d been dreaming of all winter.

It’s boring to hear about other people’s dreams, I know, but please hear me out. A few months ago I began reading books by Virginie Despentes, finishing Baise-Moi in a single night, and I dreamt I murdered a woman I didn’t know with a knife and her blood, red in my peripheral vision, turned orange when I looked directly at it. Last week, I read Jane: A Murder for the first time and dreamt of seeing a magic hour from inside my apartment, watching the sky go from pink to navy, while I knew a woman was screaming, though I didn’t actually hear it, I just knew it was happening. A few days ago I read An Untamed State and dreamt of a beach where I was totally alone but for once didn’t want to be. Isolated and claustrophobic in all that open space.

I read Twitter, too, even though I shouldn’t have, and then dreamt of sitting at my computer with my fingers resting on the keyboard, not typing, not moving, seeing a scroll of information go on and on and on. I saw that photo of the man in Santa Barbara everywhere, the selfie taken in his car at magic hour, and felt isolated and claustrophobic, alone in my infinite space.

This month has been hard, I say to my female friends, but all our months are hard. There’s nothing to distinguish that hard uphill feeling from one month to the next. Sometimes its aggravated by major events like the Isla Vista killings, by police statements that say the disappearances are not connected, by signal boosts and trigger warnings and male friends who are concerned with your safety because, of course, they are not like those men.

I don’t dream of the one man who I would, honestly, like to commit an act of violence against — the only person on earth whom I think I would kill with my bare hands, or would take a knife or a gun if the opportunity arose. But I have waking dreams. Sometimes I’ll be walking down the street or brushing my hair and I imagine some elaborate dream scenario. We bump into each other, see each other at some public space, and I’m not scared, or sad, or panicked, but I am calm and cool in a way that makes men cower at women’s feet. I know I am at a disadvantage: My panic would make me weak in the knees; I remember the strength of his hands, believing that their force on my shoulders and ribs would bruise me (it didn’t, no marks). He could fit one hand around my neck and still make his fingers touch, I know. But in my waking dreams he is terrified of what my hands can do.

I know what is wrong with Valerie Solanas. I know, too, what’s wrong with films like Spring Breakers, or the writings and films of women like Virginie Despentes, that transferring the perpetration of violence to a different gender is subversive only in theory, that all violence is wrong. I know a manifesto that leads to murder is an open and shut case. But; but. I am haunted and soothed, betrayed yet comforted, by the imaginations of women whose hands could be instruments of destruction.

When women write, or threaten, or commit, acts of violence, they are anomalies; Margo Feiden couldn’t even get a police officer to take a real statement, let alone protect Andy Warhol, because it was a woman on the wrong end of the gun. Even when women are quite obviously the targeted victims of an attack, still we read and write and tweet about how they were barely targets, how their gender was an almost nonexistent part of the threat or act.

The night I re-read SCUM Manifesto I slept peacefully. No dreams. Even with the dreams, I loved reading all those books, loved discovering what those authors created for me. I know what men are capable of; I know what women are capable of. I know what kind of violence and cruelty men and women can write. Still I read. Valerie was asked by reporters what her motive was. “I have a lot of very involved reasons,” she said. What’s mine for continuing to read, knowing what I know? I have a lot of very involved reasons.

Haley Mlotek has a lot of opinions. She is the publisher of WORN Fashion Journal.