- The Guardian, Thursday 30 September 2004
There was a time, not so long ago, when Andrea Dworkin thought her life was over. Just over four years ago, she wrote an article for New Statesman magazine about being drug-raped in a hotel room in France. She had been drinking a kir royale in the bar, she wrote, when she started feeling sick and weak. She made it back to her hotel room, where she was brought dinner by a waiter - the same waiter who had served her her drink - and passed out. When she woke five hours later, she was bleeding internally, bruised and disoriented.
"I couldn't remember," she wrote, "but I thought they had pulled me down toward the bottom of the bed so that my vagina was near the bed's edge and my legs were easy to manipulate. I thought that the deep, bleeding scratches, right leg, and the big bruise, left breast, were the span of a man on top of me. I had been wearing sweatpants that just fell right down." The hardest thing to cope with, she said, was the not remembering: she couldn't be certain what had happened. "They took my body from me and used it," she wrote, and ended, "I am ready to die."
This experience, and the strongly divided reaction to her article, led to a self-imposed exile from Europe. She is in the UK this week, but has not been back for five years. Her account of her drug-rape was questioned by some feminists. Why, people asked, had she not called a doctor, or reported the rape to the police? How could she be sure of the details of the attack when, by her own admission, she had been unconscious for several hours? And, most strikingly, why did Dworkin, a radical feminist, run through a checklist of reasons she might have been raped - a list she might otherwise have dismissed as a catalogue of myths about rape victims. "I blame me no matter what it takes. I go down the checklist: no short skirt; it was daylight; I didn't drink a lot even though it was alcohol and I rarely drink, but so what? ... I didn't drink with a man, I sat alone and read a book, I didn't go somewhere I shouldn't have been ... I wasn't hungry for a good, hard fuck that would leave me pummelled with pain inside."
Dworkin's account of her rape, like much of her writing (including the feminist texts Pornography: Men Possessing Women and Intercourse), polarised opinion. People believed her, or they didn't; they were either with her, or they were against. "It was unbearable being disbelieved by my so-called sisters," she says. Even her long-term partner, the writer and feminist activist John Stoltenberg, found it hard to believe her, looking, Dworkin wrote at the time, for "any explanation other than rape". The article was not published in the US.
There were those who stuck by her. "After it happened," she says, "Gloria Steinem sent a psychiatrist who specialises in post-traumatic stress syndrome to see me. I was drowning and took the offered hand. I still talk to her every week. At first I wanted very much to die. Now I only want to die a few times a day, which is damned good. I still feel intense suffering and loneliness. I have fought very hard to be able to work again."
She is in London this week to visit friends and to find a British publisher for her autobiography, Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Militant Feminist, published in the US two years ago.
Given that the past four years have seen her professionally, and to some extent personally out in the cold, it is an unexpectedly uplifting and hopeful book, a reflective and often funny journey through a life that charts her love of music, literature, rebellion and women. There are a number of surprises. For instance, considering her attitude towards sex ("I don't have intercourse. That is my choice"), there is the stand she took against campus rules during her time at Bennington College, Vermont, when she was 18: "From 2am to 6am the houses in which the girls lived were girls-only," she writes. "One could have sex with another girl, and many of us did, myself included. But the male lovers had to disappear, be driven out like beasts into the cold mountain night. The elimination of parietal hours was a huge issue, in some ways as big as the war. It was law and order versus personal freedom, and I was on the side of personal freedom."
This episode is one of the many contradictions in Dworkin's life. Another is her friendship with the poet and gay liberationist Allen Ginsberg. "To me he was like a god," she says. "I plucked up the courage to visit him after we met at an event. He told me over and over again as I was leaving, 'I love you, I love you.' It was very strange."
Dworkin and Ginsberg ended up sharing a godson. In Heartbreak, she describes the confrontation that turned them into sworn enemies. On the day of their godson's barmitzvah, child pornography was criminalised by the supreme court. Dworkin was delighted, but knew that Ginsberg had problems with the legislation.
"Ginsberg told me he had never met an intelligent person who had the ideas I did," she writes. "I told him he didn't get around enough. He said, 'The right wants to put me in jail.' I said, 'Yes, they're very sentimental; I'd kill you.'" When I repeat this story to her, she chuckles, and says in her slow, throaty way, "Oh good , I love that. Don't worry, you can print it now, he is very dead." (Ginsberg died in 1997).
The myths that surround Dworkin - that she is hard, aggressive, a man-hating misery - contradict the reality. In person, she is shy, softly spoken and courteous, with a cracking sense of humour. (The critic John Berger described her as "the most misrepresented writer in the western world".) I have met her several times, and am always struck by how caring and generous she is. Once, we were having tea at a London hotel when I saw a mouse under the table and screamed. Dworkin held my hand and muttered soothingly, all the while screaming for a waiter to "come immediately". My pathetic phobia became her emergency - impressive in a woman whose writing deals with life and death.
She is principled to the point where she will lose friends and alienate colleagues rather than sacrifice an inch of ground. The feminist author Robin Morgan says, "Andrea is a dear friend, a fine writer, a fierce intellect, and someone with enormous personal, political, and literary integrity, and the scars to show for it. She is much misunderstood, but then compromise isn't really a working word in her vocabulary."
She has a dark sense of humour. During the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, when Dworkin was having bitter rows with Clinton's feminist supporters, she told me, "What needs to be asked is, was the cigar lit?" Does she now lose much sleep over Bush? "He needs to go. Half of the American people want him out."
Even so, she figures she is still more unpopular than the president in the US, mainly for her stance against pornography, interpreted by many as an assault on the first amendment (freedom of speech). To libertarians and pornographers, her name has become synonymous with censorship and rightwing, Christian ideals, but Dworkin denies links with either camp. "The power of the state and of the moral right seduced many feminists," she says, "but I would never compromise my principles. They use the language of obscenity and decency, not women's equality."
Dworkin has written 13 books to date, first achieving notoriety with Pornography in 1979, and until the drug-rape was a regular on the feminist lecture circuit. Her life, as well as her work, has been shaped by sexual violence: she was assaulted in a cinema at the age of nine, and her former husband was physically abusive. She says she first learned about "social sadism" from listening to her aunt, a Holocaust survivor.
She wrote Heartbreak in four months. Was this because it had been inside her all along, bursting to be written? "My other books were written with blood, sweat and tears," she says. "This one almost just appeared, like a gift." The book is the result of a deal she made with her US publisher: she wanted to write a different book, Scapegoat, about the links between Jewish identity, antisemitism and misogyny, but they were more interested in her autobiography, a book she had not planned to write. So she spent nine years on Scapegoat, then four months on the memoir.
For all the controversy and doubt that surrounded the New Statesman article, she is excited about being back in the UK and says she feels her work is better understood here. "I can't get published in the US without great difficulty. They took my last two books, but I am literally censored by newspapers and television networks. I have heard from several people that they are afraid to be seen with my books. This is the kind of cowardice that is creeping up on Americans lately." Even so, she has another book in the pipeline, and has written two chapters of Writing America: How Novelists Invented and Gendered a Nation, a look at the contribution that writers such as Hemingway and Faulkner have made to American identity, a move away from previous, more overtly political works.
So what does the future hold? There are moments in Heartbreak that show us Dworkin at her most raw and emotional. "I have a heart easily hurt," she writes. "Apartheid broke my heart. Apartheid in Saudi Arabia still breaks my heart - I don't understand why every story about rising oil prices does not come with an addendum about the domestic imprisonment of women in the Gulf states. I can't be bought or intimidated because I'm cut down the middle. I walk with women whispering in my ears." Elsewhere, there is a sentence that reads almost like an epitaph: "I think I've pretty much done what I can do; I'm empty; there's not much left, not inside me." But Dworkin wrote this two years ago, and she isn't giving up yet. "I thought I was finished," she says, "but I feel a new vitality. I want to continue to help women."