Saturday, February 23, 2008


My novel-in-progress, Ginny Bates, is crammed to the gills with references to lesbian-feminism and other subcultures that will not be noticed or make sense to a reader who "wasn't there, then". We existed in a world within your world, which you knew about only dimly, if at all, but which was extraordinarily rich and interconnected to us (as well as to Myra, Ginny and friends). Below I offer explanations of such possible asides that occur in the second section of the novel that I posted, entitled January 1990.

In this excerpt appears the first concrete references to AA and Al Anon. These organizations and the concept of "recovery" occur frequently in Ginny Bates, as the idea of recovery occurring simultaneously with revolutionary liberation on a societal scale is a key theme of the book.

The Clean and Sober movement swept through the lesbian community during the 1980s, fueled by adaptation of traditional 12-step models (big on g*d and hierarchy) to more egalitarian models and, especially, the book published by Jean Swallow in 1983 (Spinsters Ink), Out From Under: Sober Dykes and Our Friends. Jean was a friend of mine. I saw her weekly while she was writing this book, and while she hoped it would have a large impact, I don't think she knew it would help launch a movement. Jean was a few years older than me, and like me had come out early, at a time when going to bars in rural areas or small towns was the only hope you had of meeting other lesbians, but we also knew that in larger cities there was a political movement we could plug into. That version of "political lesbianism" I think provided an alternative to bar life which helped make it possible for lesbian alcoholics to be able to go into recovery without losing their access to community.

Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America, by Lillian Faderman (1991), quotes Jean Swallow as stating that, circa 1983, 38% of all lesbians were alcoholics and another 30% were problem drinkers. I was not an alcoholic, but I had substance abusers up close and personal in my dyke life -- enough so that I chose to quit drinking in 1983, when Jean's book came out. I just couldn't think of a logical reason to consume alcohol any more, and a hundred reasons not to; but it was also an act of solidarity. I've broken that promise to myself a couple of times since then, to have a beer with a meal or, once, to get drunk at my father's third or fourth wedding (depending on how you count his marriages). It's not been worth it.

Faderman's book states that "Boston alone had eighty weekly AA meetings for lesbians in the late 80's. San Francisco had ninety such weekly meetings. Living Sober conventions that targeted the lesbian and gay community attracted large, rapidly growing numbers. The Living Sober contingents were the biggest in the Gay Pride parades at the end of the decade." This was certainly my memory of how things were in San Francisco.

Faderman goes on to say "A whole culture of sobriety developed to replace the bar culture that had been so pivotal to the lives of so many lesbians in the past. Women who, outside of the lesbian community, might not have identified themselves as being in need of 'recovery' found support for such identification within the community, and 'clean and sober' became a social movement for lesbians."

Concomittant with the clean and sober movement was the recovery movement, addressing not only the issues of being close to someone who is/was a substance abuse, but expanding to apply principles of dismantling codependency to all our relationships within the lesbian community. Theory grew to link this kind of recovery with feminism, with overthrowing the patriarchy, eliminating racism and classism, and undoing the effects of child abuse (especially child sexual abuse). This was a subculture within the larger lesbian community that, at least among the women I knew, seemed to encompass almost half the community. There seemed to be a "recovery" group for almost every kind of behavior, and even those of us who were in these groups or using some version of the model were often self-conscious about our fervor and focus. In my circle, at least, we made fun of ourselves, even as we recognized that we were each saving our own life.

The subject of recovery, and dependence on "therapy", has created divisions with the lesbian-feminist community that are well-addressed in this review of a book attacking "psychology" as not lesbian-feminist by Foxx Silveira at Feminist Reprise. It is true that some women I've known withdrew from activism when they went "into recovery" of one form or another. It's equally true that recovery enabled women to become MORE politically active, more effective, and (most important to me) leave behind suicidal or self-destructive behavior. I don't see why you have to choose between self-help and activism; it's a false dichotomy, as far as I'm concerned. And the key to success in both is to disavow hopelessness.

Also in this chapter Margie (as a toddler) quotes from the Judy Grahn poem "A Woman is Talking to Death". I have printed this poem in total on this blog here. The effect of this work on lesbian-feminism really cannot be overestimated.

(Judy Grahn 2007)

And -- for those of you who can get there, Judy Grahn will be reading (with Nickole Brown) in Santa Rosa, California as part of the Wordtemple Poetry Series on April 4, 2008. Never to be missed.


kat said...

Hey, thanks for the heads up. I don't go up to Marin/Napa very often, because of the drive, but I'll certainly try to make it to see Judy Grahn

letsdance said...

Thank you, Maggie, for your explanation and history of the recovery movement's effect on the lesbian community. I did not know that history.

I got into ACA in the early '90s (a decade before I came out). Like you, I quit drinking in solidarity with recovery friends whose lives had been so impacted by the addicts in their lives.