Many years ago a Spanish man told me Cervantes’ medieval tome Don Quixote was everyone’s favorite novel they haven’t read. The phrase comes back to me when I think of recently deceased feminist Andrea Dworkin, a top contender for everyone’s least favorite writer they haven’t read.
The experience of first encountering Dworkin’s passionate writing varies by reader, but most agree it is peculiarly affecting and rouses deep emotions. After my initial shot of Dworkin, an essay on prostitution, I had a revolution in radical thought that shocked my worldview in a way that altered me forever, and not just about gendered power. On that day I learned to read first the writers that pundits and popular culture most warn me away from, and my education has been richer for it.
Whether you agree with her or disagree, and with thirteen books there is undoubtedly much of both whatever your opinions, the power to provoke feeling is a skill artists of all kinds aspire to and by this yardstick Dworkin is one of the greatest American wordsmiths of all time.
Praising Dworkin’s verbal ability is easy and pointing to where she shines brightest easier (the collection Life and Death can satisfy naysayers to her acumen), but there is more to why more than forty people came to her memorial at Liberty Hall on the hot Sunday afternoon of June 19. The people paying tribute came because Andrea gave them the words to finish the open-mouthed scream they started and didn’t know how to finish. She put form to the swirling, dark feelings of living constantly with sexism and surviving sexual violations in and out of the commercial sex industry. In their own words, here is why they came:
- “The first thing I think of to say about Andrea Dworkin is what so, so, so many women say about her and that’s that she saved my life. I owe her everything.” — Amy Lynn
- “Andrea is the reason that I don’t feel like shit, as a human being, as a psychiatric survivor, as a prostituted woman, as a woman.” — Paddy
- “She gave me the courage to do the work I do today.” — Robyn Shanti, host of KBOO’s Dharma Wheel.
- “She is the stone of my life, the pond of my life, she is the stone that had an important impact and sent out ripples in all directions.” — Peter Qualliotine, co-founder of Sexual Exploitation Education Project.
- “Her support and her criticism affected my thinking about myself, my relationships, the world and my work for twenty years.” — Melissa Farley, Director of Prostitution Research and Education in San Francisco.
Eulogies of another recently deceased feminist who wrote about pornography, Susan Sontag, praised her high intellect and contributions to philosophy, but none I saw credited Sontag for profoundly changing their life. No tales of finding one of her books in the library and reading it nonstop sitting cross-legged in the stacks, or accolades from people crediting her with lighting the spark of their life’s activism in numbers rivaled only by Ralph Nader.
Tess Wiseheart, former Executive Director of the Portland Women’s Crisis Line, spoke of asking new volunteers why they came and having 60 to 70 percent respond that Andrea Dworkin was the reason they volunteered, “Everything we do emanates from people who very much identify by Andrea Dworkin.”
When the personal testimonies concluded the memorial service was moved outside for the release of two doves. Prayers were spoken and the doves, representing hope and peace, were released into the evening sky. The air had the metallic taste of impending rain and as the people dispersed a display unlike any I had seen before began. Two gorgeously vivid rainbows were draped over Southeast Portland and occasional bolts of crackling lightening flickered across the colored arches. The talk of the town for hours afterwards and top story on the local news, Mother Nature’s mesmerizing light show seemed perfectly timed to honor the memory of Andrea’s illuminating life and fierce determination to strike pointedly at injustice.
Andrea Dworkin is mistakenly thought to have tilted at windmills, but if that’s all you remember of Don Quixote then you missed why it is still popular, if little read, five hundred years later. Don Quixote inspired people to see the best in themselves and others, and to make real an honorable world where peasant girls and poor farmers have the dignity of noblewomen and squires. It is the radicals among us who necessarily push at the status quo’s edges and expand what we as a people reconsider imaginable. Society needs this rare and brave type of citizen and Andrea Dworkin was one of the rarest and bravest.
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