Sunday, August 21, 2022

Living through Cookie

I’m shamefully late to the writing of Cookie Mueller. I’m not a John Waters devotee, though I love his work, so I was unaware of Mueller’s maverick career in indie films and the stage. She died of AIDS-related complications at age 40, leaving behind decades worth of writings that ran the gamut from memoir, travelogue, and personal essays to fables, art criticism, and advice columns. The common thread through it all is an incredibly cool, nearly affectless voice describing an uninhibited life of drug excess, worldwide traveling (of the seat-of-her-pants, bohemian, graced-by-luck variety), and living on the margins peopled with crazy, beautiful, talented individuals. I hear Emily Hahn, Jim Carroll, Lucy Sante, and others in her voice, but Mueller was a true, cool original, never bitter nor overly cynical, eminently quotable, a fierce feminist and major partier. I think I would’ve loved to have known her. 

In 2014 artist, actress, and filmmaker Chloé Griffin published Edgewise, an essential oral biography of Mueller, and maintains a lively site devoted to it. And this year, Semiotext(e) published an expanded editon of Mueller's Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, originally published in 1990, adding more than two dozen pieces, many previously unpublished. “What comes off these pages now is in no way anesthetized or anhedonic," writes Olivia Laing in her introduction,
but rather a deep relish for adventure, a powerful, vibrating pleasure at the oddness of people, and the capacity of language to freeze even the most plainly terrifying or distressing material, to make it something that can be appreciated and shared, a communal pleasure rather than a private humiliation. It goes without saying that this is not the dominant style right now, which for this reader at least makes it all the more desirable.
Between the material gathered in Clear Water, YouTube, and online remembrances (I recommend photographer Nan Goldin's 2001 piece in ASX), there's a lot of access to Cookie's extraordinary life and work, thankfully. 


Here are some of my favorite passages from Walking Through Clear Water:
I was always leaving. Every time I left I had a different hair color and I would be standing on the porch saying goodbye to the older couple in the living room. I didn't have anything in common with them except that we shared a few inherited chromosomes, the identical last name, and the same bathroom. ("Alien, 1965")

Next on the street I noticed a gathering of women. I thought this was a little odd since this was long before the days when women felt it their duty to exclude men from their conversations. As I got closer, I realized the blond in the center of the group was extolling the virtues of Jimi Hendrix, after having fucked him the night before. I walked on by. It seemed silly. I'd fucked him the night before she had. ("Haight-Ashbury—San Fransisco, 1967")

Happiness is a fictitious feeling. It was created by imaginative storytellers for the purpose of plot building or story resolution. Fortunately most people don’t know this. They think the lives they are living are actual screenplays or theater pieces. In earlier times people were convinced their lives were the fantastic tales told at the fireside. Because of this, I have seen people stop in their tracks for a moment and wonder where the plot is, but mostly they just forge on blindly. 
        .... Being a human being isn’t easy, what with all these insatiable physical, emotional, and intellectual desires.
        If the ultimate goal in life is to be happy, then you have to admit that one-celled creatures have it all over us. Little germs are probably always happy. They are superior, they don't sing the blues. Think about that the next time you bring out the disinfectant bottle and start scrubbing them away. ("Fleeting Happiness")

“Oh, I never did much, Cookie, I mean in the way of big success and things like that,” she lit a cigarette and brought the other knee to her chin. She reminded me of a giraffe. This is what future women will look like, I thought. Ethereal, long, lean, able to see the scope of things from a higher altitude, ready to lope away when danger threatens. ("Out of the Bottle and into a Danish Remedy")

Each friend I’ve lost was an extraordinary person, not just to me, but to hundreds of people who knew their work and their a fight. These were the kind of people who lifted the quality of all our lives, their war was against ignorance, the bankruptcy of beauty, and the truancy of culture. They were people who hated and scorned pettiness, intolerance, bigotry, mediocrity, ugliness, and spiritual myopia; the blindness that makes life hollow and insipid was unacceptable. They tried to make us see. ("A Last Letter")

The next time you find yourself climbing out on a ledge, give me a call. I can recommend a travel agent. ("Manhattan: The First Nine Years, the Dog Years")

There is a great art to handling losses with nonchalance. ("Brenda Losing")

Top photo of Mueller by Nan Goldin

Thursday, August 11, 2022

The family paradox

The great cosmic joke is that we don't choose our parents, yet we spend the bulk of our lives defining ourselves in relation to them and wrestling with their at-times outsized influence on us. The artist Joe Schactman died in 2000 when his daughter Lilly Dancyger was 12. In her tough, affecting memoir Negative Space, Dancyger explores the pull that her father has on her in both his presence and absence. 

Many memoirs, especially contemporary ones, are variations on the Künstlerroman, the story of how a writer comes into being. Dancyger has lived with art all of her life. Her father was a vagabond sculptor/painter, often using found objects such as tossed hardware, roadkill, and parts of bird corpses in his jarring, sometimes disturbing, work. He remained stubbornly outside of the East Village art scene of the 1980s and '90s. He was also a heroin addict, and left Dancyger's mother, an addict who cleaned up, when Dancyger was small. Dancyger maneuvers among these biographical data points, assembling meaning as she ping-pongs from one truth to the next. Early on she writes, "They say all the cells in your body regenerate every seven years. When I turned twenty, my father had been dead for eight—so if that theory is true, no cell in my body had ever been on the planet at the same time as him." She adds, "I'd changed, cell by cell, into a person he never knew." Charged by this startling realization, Dancyger feels compelled to learn the ways that that person unknown to her father might've been shaped by him.

Throughout Negative Space, Dancyger wrestles with paradox, that stubbornly human dilemma that marks most thoughtful and searching memoirs. "Once again," she observes near the middle of her book, "I was faced with the feeling that by living my life, I was abandoning my father, that each milestone I reached brought me further and further away from him." Written over many years, her book is an attempt to bridge that gap, yet, as countless writers have recognized before her, by writing the book she widens the gap between herself and her subject, that weird discovery that dawns at some point in the writing process: the further we're distanced from our family they clearer we might be able to see them.

Three paradoxes rule the book; call them the Paradox of Family. Dancyger's mother Heidi was sexually abused when she was young, a truth that she confessed to her daughter; she also admitted that her husband, Lilly's father, insisted on having sex with her even she was working through the traumas with her therapist. "I knew that my father adored my mother, thought she was unbelievably beautiful and constantly stopped to admire her. But I never realized there was such an ugly side to this admiration, that it was a sometimes violent, possessive love."

I strained to visualize that dark side, and I waited. I waited for something in me to shatter, for my memory of him to shift—I waited for my idealized, mythologized vision of my father to distort now that I knew about this selfish, coercive side of him. I felt like it should. But it didn’t.

Dancyger writes powerfully about that discomfiting fact that we can be both repelled by and forgiving of a loved one: echoing F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous definition of intelligence, she admits that she somehow "could hold these two images in my mind at once: the brutish, demanding husband who compounded his young wife’s sexual trauma: and my father, endless source of art supplies and projects, who used to wink at me with conspiratorial glee after making references to inside jokes, even when we were alone." The two Joe's lived together in Dancyger's mind, obstinately so, "butting up against each other, contradicting each other, but neither erased the other. I could see more, could see deeper into the story, but the parts I remembered and cherished remained unchanged. Like the frame of the image expanded to show more around the edges, but what had always been at the center stayed the same."

Bound as much to her responsibilities as a writer as to her obligations as a daughter, Dancyger admits that  "Something in [her] mind" sheltered her memory of her father "by walling it off from this idea of him as an antagonist; [she] created a whole other version of him, like a separate character, distinct form the father I loved." We're talking about candid, brave writing here, and its requirements; as so many memoirs do, Negative Space ends up being a book as much about writing as it is about anything else. If Family is the great subject of contemporary American memoir, so is the journey of writing itself. 

Joe Schactman and Lilly Dancyger, San Fransisco, ca. 1996 (via Negative Space)

And that journey's usually fraught. Similar to Alison Bechdel's epiphany in Fun Home—that if her father had embraced his queerness as a young man rather than chosen the heteronormative route, she wouldn't exist—Dancyger recognizes the grim fact that had her father lived, she wouldn't be writing her book, and by extension, likely wouldn't have made the series of profound discoveries about herself and her mother that she does. "In a strange way," she writes, with a touch of regret, "I might not feel as close to him as I do now, his life and story and art such an urgent thread in my life. I hold the image of us together, artist-father and writer-daughter drinking coffee, talking craft and words and life, so tightly that I can almost see it like a photograph."

But it’s an image that would be impossible even if he'd lived—the version of me that I became without him could never have known him. They can only exist together here on these pages, and in my mind. I wonder sometimes what will happen when I’m finally done with this book, when I don't have this search to keep me connected to him anymore. I expect that I’ll mourn him all over again, in a whole new way.

Near the end of the book, Dancyger describes a moment when she's tasked in a writing workshop with making a list of her most crucial personal metaphors. She suddenly realized—"with an audible gasp that caused several writers to look up from their own lists"—that she'd become heir to her father's vast storehouse of images and symbols that had made up his art. "Of course they were mine too, not just to observe and read, but to play with, to make my own meaning out of. I didn't inherit the physical pieces of his artwork; I inherited the language in which his art was written, like I'd hoped to do all along." Chasing after her father’s story "into the core of my own grief, thinking of writing about him as a response to the call of his work" she recognized that she wasn’t simply "layering his imagery into my own creative experience, but building my own identity as an artist out of the pieces my father had left behind for me." The presence of her absent father is everywhere—she hangs his art, much of which is reproduced in the book, in her tiny apartments and interprets it, interviews his friends and art associates, reads his letters and diaries, breathes in the scents of his left-behind shirt as if it were life-giving—and turns out to have been instrumental in her her own creations, less a void filled with grief, though of course it's that too, than a kind of found puzzle piece that completed her own identity as an artist.

In his poem "Ars Poetica" the late Tom Andrews wrote that "the dead drag a grappling hook for the living." That's always seemed to me a graphically effective and powerful way to describe grief, that unwanted thing that seizes and takes you, usually against your will, to wherever it's headed and whatever it is you may or may not learn there. In the middle of her book, Dancyger ends a segment with a knock-out sentence, and an essential discovery: "I had a happy childhood, and my parents were junkies. Both of these things are true." Negative Space is a brave and clear-eyed story about the friction perpetually humming in the center of that conflict.