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Allison - A Question of Class

Allison - A Question of Class - A Question of Class The...

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Unformatted text preview: A Question of Class The first time I heard, “They’re different than us,W don’ t value hu- man life the way we do,” I was in high school 1n Central Florida. The man speaking was an army recruiter talking to a bunch of boys, telling them what the army was really like, what they could expect overseas. A cold angry feeling swept over me. I had heard the word they pronounced in that same callous tone before. They, those peo- ple over there, those people who are not us, they die so eas11y, kill each otthrWsocasually They are different we Ithgg . hWhien I was six or eight back 1n Greenville, South carolina, I had heard that same matter-of- fact tone of dismissal applied to me. “Donftyou play ,with,,her. I don’t want you talking to them.” Me and my family, we 1134311832111 been they. Who am I? I wondered, listening to that recruiter. Who are my people? We die so easily, dis- appear so completely—we/they, the poor and the queer. I pressed my bony white trash fists to my stubborn lesbian mouth. The rage \. was a good feeling, stWrWonngemi purer than the shame that followed it, the fear and the sudden urge to run and hide, to deny, to pretend I did not know who I was and what the world would do to me. My people were not remarkable. We were ordinary, but even so we were mythical. We were the they everyonestalks about—the un- ‘ grateful poor I grew up trying to run away from the fate that de- stroyed so many of the people I loved, and having learned the habit 13 14 Skin: Talking About Sex, Class 81 Literature of hiding, I found I had also learned to hide from myself. I did not know who I was, only that I did not want to be they, the ones who are destroyed or dismissed to make the “real” people, the impor- tant people, feel safer. By the time I understood that I was queer, that habit of hiding was deeply set in me, so deeply that it was not a choice but an instinct. Hide, hide to survive, I thought, knowing that if I told the truth about my life, my family, my sexual desire, my history, I would move over into that unknown territory, the land of they, would never have the chance to name my own life, to un- derstand it or claim it. Why are you so afraid? my lovers and friends have asked me the many times I have suddenly seemed a stranger, someone who would not speak to them, would not do the things they believed I should do, simple things like applying for a job, or a grant, or some award they were sure I could acquire easily. Entitlement, I have told them, is a mattenof feeling like we rather than thEy You think you have a right to things, a place in the world, and it is so intrinsically a part of you that you cannot imagine people like me, people who seem to live in your world, who don’t have it. I have explained what I know over and over, in every way I can, but I have never been able to make clear the degree of my fear, the extent to which I feel myself denied: not only that I am queer in a world that hates queers, but that I was born poor into a world that despises the poor. The need to make my world believable to people who have never experienced it is part of why I write fiction. I know that some things must be felt to be un- derstood, that despair, for example, can never be adequately ana- lyzed, it must be lived. But ifI can write a £5.t__ory that so draws the reader in that she imagines herself like my characters, feels their Sense of fear and uncertainty, their hopes and terrors, then I have come closer £9 knowmg myself as real, important as the very people I have alwaysewatchedwith awe. I have known I was a lesbian since I was a teenager, and I have spent a good twenty years making peace with the effects of incest Dorothy Allison 15 and physical abuse. But what may be the central fact of my life is that I was born in 1949 in GreenVille, South Carolina, the bastard daughter of a white woman from a desperately poor family, a girl who had left the seventh grade the year before, worked as a wait- ress, and was just a month past fifteen when she had me. That fact, the inescapable impact of being born in a condition of poverty that this society finds shameful contemptible, and somehow deserved has had dominion over me to such an extent that I have spent my life trying to overcome or deny it. I have learned£w£t£h£great diffi- cgl£y£that£the vast maiority of people belieVe that poverty is a volun- mmagedailon II III ‘ I I ” I have loved my family so stubbornly that every impulse to hold them in contempt has sparked in me a countersurge of pride—com- plicated and undercut by an urge to fit us into the acceptable m M s and theories of both mainstream society and a lesbian-feminist rein- terpretation. The choice becomes Steven Spielberg movies or Ers— kine Caldwell novels, the one valorizing and the other caricaturing, or the patriarchy as Villain, trivializing the choices the men and women of my family have made. I have had to.fightb1;9,a,£1.&§£1££§li- 5w” zations from every theoregcalgewpomt :5 anLW/r«mru Traditional feminist theory has had a limited understanding of class differences and of how sexuality and self are shaped by both desire and denial. The ideology implies that we are all sisters who should only turn our anger and suspicion on the world outside the lesbian community. It isaaafixto say, that the patriarchy did it, that poverty and social contempt are products of the world of the fathers, and often I felt a need to collapse my sexual history into what I was willing to share of my class background, to pretend that my life both as a lesbian and as a working-class escapee was constructed by the patriarchy. Or conversely, to ignore how much my life was shaped by growmg up poor and talk only about what incest did to my iden- tity as a woman and as a lesbian. The difficulty is that I can’t ascribe everything that has been pmblematigabdniitmyJifesimply-and easily ”WWW W «magi-7mm , 5‘» 16 Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature to theepataiarehyyorstoaincgst or even to the invisible and denied class struct ..,Ffimfa’ryfiifijfic:f4ugfi,_AVL,;,’;_7,r .3; .a, w 1 ure of our society. In my lesbian-feminist collective we had long conversations about the mind/body split, the way we compartmentalize our lives to survive. For years I thought that that concept referred to the way I had separated my activist life from the passionate secret life in which I acted on my sexual desires. I was convinced that the fracture was fairly simple, that it would be healed when there was time and clarity to do so—at about the same point when I might begin to understand sex. I never imagined that it was not a split but a splingtfigring, and I passed whole portions of my life—days, months, years—in pure directed progress, getting up every morning and setting to work, , working so hard and so continually that I avoided examining in any way what I knew about my life. Busywork became a trance state. I ignored who I really was and how I became that person, continued in that daily progress, became an automaton who was what she did. I tried to become one with the lesbian-feminist community so as to feel real and valuable. I did not know that I was hiding, blending in for safety just as I had done in high school, in college. I did not recognizethe unpgse to forget. I believed that all those things I did not talk about, or even let myself think too much about, were not important, that none of them defined me. I had constructed a life, an identity in which I took pride, an alternative lesbian family in which I felt safe, and I did not realize that the fundamental me had almost disappeared. It is surprising how easy it was to live that life. Everyone and everything cooperated with the process. Eggglung in our culture— books, television, movies, school, fashion—is presented asif it islge— ing seenbxooe. pair, of eyes, shaped by one set ihagclegheerdby one pair of ears. Even if you know you are not part of that imagi- narfcreature—if you like country music not symphonies, read books cynically, listen to the news unbelievingly, are lesbian not heterosex- ual, and surround yourself with your own small deviant community . Dorothy Allison 17 —you are stillwshaped.byatliathsgsayfiwlgartfiflaflit- The only way I found to resist that homogenized view of the world was to make myself part of something larger than myself. As a feminist and a radical lesbian organizer, and later as a sex radical (which eventually became the term, along with pro-sex feminist, for those who were not anti-pornography but anti-censorship, those of us arguing for sexual diversity), the need to belong, to feel safe, was just as important for me as for any heterosexual, nonpolitical citizen, and sometimes even more important because the rest of my life was so embattled. The first time I read the Jewish lesbian Irena Klepfisz’s poems,* I experienced a frisson of recognition. It was not that my people had been ‘ ‘burned off the map’ ’ or murdered as hers had. No, weh__a__d been encouga ed to destroyypfiggglfigggmagexgyisible because we did ‘1‘: ' ”Em “ME” “w%‘ v, Atwmwwfio Wrawga‘wanwW ALA; ,oflthehoble,apooegenerated-by,..the.middleclass. Even now, past forty and stubbornly proud of my family, I feel the draw of that mythology, that romanticized, edited version of the poor. I find myself looking back and wondering what was real, what was true. Within my family, so much was lied about, joked about, de~ nied, or told with deliberate indirection, an undercurrent of humili- ation or a brief pursed grimace that belied everything that had been said. What was real? The poverty depicted in books and movies was romantic, a backdrop for the story of how it was escaped. ' The poverty portrayed by left-wing intellectuals was just as romantic; aptfonfifgragsalhfigflle eiép'é': and fiddle. classes, and from their perspective, the wgrfing-classhero wasmvarlably male, righteou l indignant, randimhumanlygnoble. The W- . olmateitliggahomentor arraigned. The poverty I knew was dreary, deadening, shameful, the women powerful in ways not generally seen as heroic by the world outside the family. My family’s lives were not on television, not in books, not even comic books. There was a myth of the poor in this country, but it ’34 Few Words in the Mother Yngue: Poems, Selected and New (Eighth Mountain Press: Port- land, Oregon, 1990) 18 Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature did not include us, no matter how hard I tried to squeeze us in. There was an idea of the good poor—hard-working, ragged but clean, and intrinsically honorable. I understood that we were tagbad poor: men who drank and couldn’t keep a job, women, miianably piglgnant be- fore marriage, who quickly became worn, fat, and old from work- ing too many hours and bearing too many children; and children with runny noses, watery eyes, and the wrong attitudes. My Cou— sins quit school, stole cars, used drugs, and took dead- end jobs pumping gas or waiting tables. We ,YXEEC £19} giggle, not grateful not even hopeful. We knew ourselves despised. My family was ashamed of being poor,o of feeling hopeless. What was there to work for, to save money for, to fight for or struggle against? We had generations before us to teach us that nothing ever changed, and that those who did try to escape failed. My mama had eleven brothers and sisters, of whom I can name only six. No one is left alive to tell me the names of the others. It was my grandmother who told me about my real daddy, a shiftless pretty man who was supposed to have married, had six children, and sold cut—rate life insurance to poor Black people. My mama mar- ried when I was a year old, but her husband died just after my lit- tle sister was born a year later. When I was five, Mama married the man she lived with until she died. Within the first year of their marriage Mama miscarried, and while we waited out in the hospital parking lot, my stepfather molested me for the first time, something he continued to do until I was past thirteen. When I was eight or so, Mama took us away to a motel after my stepfather beat me so badly it caused a family scan- dal, but we returned after two weeks. Mama told me that she really had no choice: she could not support us alone. When I was eleven I told one of my cousins that my stepfather was molesting me. Mama packed up my sisters and me and took us away for a few days, but again, my stepfather swore he would stop, and again we went back after a few weeks. I stopped talking for a while, and I have only vague Dorothy Allison 19 memories of the next two years. My stepfather worked as a route salesman, my mama as a wait- ress, laundry worker, cook, or fruit packer. I could never understand, since they both worked so hard and such lonmw we never had enough money, but 1t was also true of my mama’s brothers and sisters who worked hard 1n the mills or the furnace industry. In fact, my parenta d1d better than anyone else In the family. But eventu— am stepfather was fired and we hit bottom—nightmarish months of marshals at the door, repossessed furniture, and rubber checks. My parents worked out a scheme so that it appeared my stepfather had abandoned us, but instead he went down to Florida, got a new job, and rented us a house. He returned with a U-Haul trailer in the dead of night, packed us up, and moved us south. The night we left South Carolina for Florida, my mama leaned over the backseat of her old Pontiac and promised us girls, “It’ll be better there.” I don’ t know if we believed her, but I remember crossing Georgia in the early morning, watching the red clay hills and swaying grey blankets of moss recede through the back win- dow. I kept looking at the trailer behind us, ridiculously small to contain everything we owned. Mama had packed nothing that wasn’t fully paid off, which meant she had only twogthmgs of worth: her washing and sewing machines, bah of them tied securely to the trailer Walls. Throughout the trip I fantasized an accident that would burst that trailer, scattering old clothes and cracked dishes on the tarmac. gin again as new people with nothing of the past left over. I wanted to run away from who we had been seen to be, Who We had been. That desire Is one I have seen in other members of my family. It 13 the first thing I think of when trouble comes—the geographic so- What hides behind that unpulse is the conviction that the life,you mi. WISLF’MW havehazed, the person you are that running away is easier than trying to change things, that change lybettermoffabandnned 545" Aer-34 20 Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature itself is not possible. Sometimes I think it is this conviction—more seductive than alcohol or violence, more subtle than sexual hatred or gender injustice—that has dominated my life and made real change so paLnfiil and difficult. I Moving to Central Florida did not fix our lives. It did not stop my stepfather’s violence, heal my shame, or make my mother happy. Once there, our lives became controlled by my mother’s illness and medical bills. She had a hysterectomy when I was about eight and endured a series of hospitalizations for ulcers and a chronic back problem. Through most of my adolescence she superstitiously re- fused to allow anyone to mention the word cancer. When she was not sick, Mama and my stepfather went on working, struggling to pay off what seemed an insurmountable load of debts. By the time I was fourteen, my sisters and I had found ways to discourage most of our stepfather’s sexual advances. We were not close, but we united against him. Our efforts were helped along when he was referred to a psychotherapist after he lost his temper at work, and was prescribed drugs that made him sullen but less violent. We were growing up quickly, my sisters moving toward dropping out of school while I got good grades and took every scholarship exam I could find. I was Lfirst person in my family to graduate from high school, and the fact that I went on to college was nothing short of astonishing. We all 1magine our lives are normal, and I did .1392ka my life was not everyone’ s. It was in Central Florida that I began to realize just how different we were. The people we met there had not been shaped by the rigid class structure that dominated the South Caro- lina Piedmont. The first time I looked around my junior high class- room and realized I did not know who those people were—not only as individuals but as categories, who their people were and how they saw themselves—I also realized that they did not know me. In Green- ville, everyone knew my family, knew we were trash, and that meant we were supposed to be poor, supposed to have grim low-paid jobs, have babies in our teens, and never finish school. But Central Florida meamwwmwmm Dorothy Allison 21 in the I960s was full of runaways and mimigrants, and our mostly white working-class suburban school sorted us out not by mcome and famfly background but by intelligence and aptitude tests. Sud— denly I was bogsted mto the college-bound track, and while there was plengpfggpgmt for my inept social skills, pitiful wardrobe, and slow drawling accent, there was also something I had never ex— perienced before. a protect1ve anonymity, and a kind of grudging not/see overty and hopelessness as a foregone conclusion for my life, I could begin to imagine other futures for myself. ‘ I In that new country, we were unknown. The myth of the poor settled over us and glamorized us. I saw it in the eyes of my teachers, the Lion’s Club representative who paid for my new glasses, and the lady from the Junior League who told me about the scholarship I had won. Better, far better, to be one of the mythical poor than to be part of thew had known before. I also experienced a new level of {‘35ng fear 9: 193mg what hadnevenhefore been nnaginable. Don’ t let me lose this chance, I prayed, and lived 1n terror that I might sud- denly be seen again as what I knew myself to be. As an adolescent I thought that my family’s escape from South Carolina played like a bad movie. We fled the way runaway serfs might have done, with the sheriff who would have arrested my step— father the imagined border guard. I am certain that if we had re- mained in South Carolina, I would have been trapped by my fimily’s heritage of poverty, jail, and illegitimate children—that even being smart, stubborn, and a lesbian would have made no difference. My grandmother died when I was twenty, and after Mama went home for the funeral, I had a series of dreams in which we still-lived up in Greenville, just down the road from where Granny died. In the drearhs I had two children and only one eye, lived in a trailer, and worked at the textile mill. Most of my time was taken up with deciding when I would finally kill my children and myself. The dreams were so vivid, I became convinCed they were about the life 22 Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature I was meant to have had, and I began to work even harder to put as much distance as I could between my family and me. I chpflied the dress, mannerisms, attitudes, and ambitions of the girls I met in college, changmg or hiding my own tastes, interests, and desires. I kept my lesbianism a secret, forming a relationship With an ef- feminate male friend that served to shelter and disguise us both. I explained to friends that I went home so rarely because my stepfather and I fought too much for me to be comfortable in his house. But that was only part of the reason I avoided home, the easiest reason. The truth was that I feared the person I might become in my mama’s house, the woman of my dreams—hateful, violent, and hopeless. It is hard to explain how deliberately and thoroughly I ran away from my own life. I did not forget where I came from, but I gritted my teeth and hid it. When I could not get enough scholarship money to pay for graduate school, I spent a year of rage working as a salad girl, substitute teacher, and maid. I finally managed to find a job by agreeing to take any city assignment where the Social Security A...
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