A common theme I found among my male teachers was difficulty with the women in their lives. Some lost their wives, others may have wished they could! To the casual onlooker they may have seemed blessed by the abundance of, and the intelligence and beauty of their female companions, but the truth was that they were ultimately alone.
As a young teacher people looked to me for advice about how to live their lives. I sometimes found myself feeling hollow because I knew there was a crucial issue I had never dared examine in my life: how I had applied what I learned about gender as a child. An immigrant from an eastern European old country who eagerly embraced the values of her new home my mother nevertheless harbored many traditional stereotypes about the differences in behavior between men and women. I expected meat with dinner. I would clean neither toilets nor sinks. I had to make all decisions. Looking back on my life I began to see a disturbing pattern. When I insisted I was right I was usually wrong. My wife was almost always right!
I had a scholarship to Duke for graduate studies, and Harvard accepted me. A brilliant career as an academic opened before me, the generosity and expectations of my parents front and center. That was when one of my teachers lost his marriage over money. Another had allowed me close enough to observe the misery of his life with his beloved and loving but emotionally damaged genius of a wife. A predicament not so different than that of my own parents. And my academic mentor was leaving academia, telling me the real world offered better challenges and rewards. It cost him his marriage.
I turned to the one I love and asked her to join me in finding a way. Uniting intention is a good way to start, and the only way to get through, but it doesn’t replace the grueling and ruthless work. Eliphas Levi, the magus not the Japanese band, pointed out long ago that until the genders are truly equal this world will be a hell. Looking at the lives of my fathers I could see the truth of that cabalistic formula, yet ridding oneself of these deformities of human emotional life is a purgatory.
We were lucky that riot grrrl was in full flower then. It was a kind of mystery school, in fact. A way for thousands of young women to gather together, to purge themselves of lies they had internalized. They compared their lives and discovered how much violence is hidden behind the everyday. They exchanged the truths of their experiences in hand cut and pasted zines multiplied on mom’s office copy machine and mailed all over the world. They formed bands, organized all ages shows, collected resources for women’s shelters. They transformed their own lives, and the lives of anyone around them who dared to accept their challenge.
Girls who had lived their lives in silence, doubting themselves, weeping alone to release the stress, found powers and talents they never imagined. Girls who had put in the special needs class discovered they could command audiences with their music and words. Girls who had been taught to think they were stupid discovered they were writers, writers who went on to publish books. Girls who starved and mutilated themselves to look more like the girls in the movies blossomed into documentary directors. And they took a few boys with them, I was very lucky to be one.
Riot grrrl goes on today, as it should, quietly, declared dead long ago, as it was at its height, still a mystery confounding the powers that be. Local is better anyway. Minus the temptations of glamor and power that international success brought to the first wave of riot grrrl the medicine has a better chance of reaching the people who need it. For all the back stabbing, slander, and other unpleasant and inevitable consequences of untreated abuse, riot grrrl also has power to liberate.
There were high priestesses, of course, whose ways with words could redefine and realign a sincere fan’s entire relationship to gender. Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, Corin Tucker, Jean Smith, and equally profound but lesser known riot grrrls released into our culture the transformative stardust of their fulfillment of Aristotle’s dictum that artists reacquaint their audience with reality.
Playing with a riot grrrl band, writing in riot grrrl zines, playing riot grrrl conventions, suffering the crushes and the shunning, the stern talking to’s, and the furious ranting, as the whole world of difference between growing up female unfolded before me, I could see the hollow pretensions of many a religion and many a spiritual path including my own.
It isn’t as easy as worshipping goddesses or role reversal. It isn’t as easy as sharing the chores, or letting her make all the decisions. The true balance is hard to find. And her own path, having to encounter and ride the rage of the real predicament, the path of the survival of the human species, is most heroic. Women must come out to the day. It is already happening at an ever accelerating rate as women transform the work force and the nature of work, politics, and everything else lacking the gender balance that unlocks humanity’s real potential.
In later entries I’ll tell specific stories about that enlightening underground eruption of evolution known as riot grrrl.