Saturday
Sep282013

Growing Up Golem

By Donna Minkowitz


Riverdale Ave Books
September 2013
978-1936833603


 

I have always understood that I had to use special means to get ahead. I had special deficits, I knew—the very opposite of superpowers. Don't ever put me near a flame, because I'd go up like a straw doll soaked in kerosene. Don't tap me even lightly on a special panel in the middle of my back, because that would turn me off until you chose to turn me on again. I had to lie as hard as I could so that no one ever found out.

So when I first came down to try my luck at the Village Voice at twenty-two, I took over one of the two "free" computers intended for all freelancers, seized it as my own. I'd put my files and my coffee cup there, my own guerrilla seizure just like Fidel or Che. Everything I did felt like a revolutionary appropriation to me then, or some sort of theft. I was the best freeloader in Brooklyn. I would sponge $20 from a friend with no intention of paying it back ($20 in Eighties dollars, that is), or bagels and hummus and salad from the buffet of a conference I was not attending. I used my sister Josie's credit card, with her permission but no intention of paying her back on time. Since she made more money than me, I thought it was fine to make her lay it out until I paid her. If you want to know my mindset, think of my kinsman the Gingerbread Man, running and successfully getting away from all those sets of lips and teeth.

When another freelancer objected to my taking over the computer—only one ever did, though sad to say it was the one who later won the Pulitzer—I played dumb. "Yeah, that's my stuff," I said politely, smiling. "Oh, is it not supposed to be there? I'm sorry." But I'd kept it there.

I needed my own recognized place at the Voice, and I also needed what that place would signify: that I was a "real" and legitimate writer for the paper, one who was entitled to a private desk and phone line. I pretended that I had these already; I expropriated them, or, to use my favorite phrase, I "liberated" them. There was a phone line at the "free" computer; I told the Voice phone operator to put my calls through to me at that extension, and it became "my" phone line.

I knew nothing about reporting, not even that one ought to tell the truth. My mother had made me lie for her forever, and taught me that truth is a matter of fighting for one's interests, not revealing secrets for nothing. So the Gingerbread Man became my model: he looked like a person and so effectively became a person, until someone finally caught and ate him.

My plan was to write for the Voice as much as I could until that happened.

Soon—as they say in bountiful 12-step—I "acted as if" I should be given a column. The Voice, ridiculously, obliged! The column was called Body Politics. Oh, if you insist on holding me to petty accuracies I must reveal that I shared the column, alternate weeks, with a cantankerous and talented sea-monster named Richard Goldstein. Richard, seventy-three feet long and colored orange with big, unpleasant, gray constricting coils down the length of his body, was my editor. Everyone else was afraid to work with him. Everything gay in content had to get past Richard before it could be allowed into the paper, and he was a terrifying guardian. He was also a brilliant writer in his own right, but he didn't start writing about Gay Love till I was in college, when I read him for the first time and wanted to lick his throat and hands for hours. I didn't know he was a sea-monster and didn't have a throat or hands! His writing was so good that I would have sucked his monstrous coils.

Richard was rather like my mother but with a penis, and with less narcissism about his personal appearance. He was the most dominant person I have ever met, but then, at 22 I was most accustomed to interacting with dominant and terrifying persons, and it was probably more comfortable for me to go into Richard's office and have him wrap his tentacles around me and squeeze, than it would have been to have a gentle, kindly editor.

I wooed him—this was the word I always used for what I did with Richard—I was a most persistent suitor, once I'd found out he was the Cerberus of Gaydom, and I wooed him with the fierce young queer demonstrators in my articles, hot boys and girls marching without a police permit, radical commentary and doggie treats until he sighed, contented, like a mesmerized hogfish and rolled over.

My power to sing Richard to sleep was only partial, of course. Sometimes he would lick story ideas from my hands slowly and rhythmically for hours only to stir of a sudden and leap ferociously for my throat. The copy editors and fact-checkers hated him because they were the least powerful people at the paper and he was rude to them, kept them waiting for hours, and often prevented them from doing their jobs on pieces he had written or edited, overruling them in the exercise of the only authority they had. The copy editors and fact-checkers were mostly my age (I had been a freelance copy editor in their ranks during the whole time I'd wooed Richard) and they were all also writers, but unlike me had won over no monster-editor to their side. I would smile inside whenever Richard was rude to them, feeling the cosmic joy of being preferred by a parental sea-monster who was nasty and hurtful to all the other children.

 

 

I flattered myself that he was never nasty and hurtful to me. In fact, he was—many times- but I trained myself assiduously not to notice. I told myself that I knew how to talk to Richard, knew how to endure him and how to deal with him, because we had both been enchanted horribly by our parents. Richard had told me about his own underwater childhood less than a year into our writer-editor relationship. First, my mentor had told me a piece of news about myself that shocked me.

"You're obsessed with violence in your writing," Richard told me, after I had turned in a piece about a lesbian who had taken her lover, who'd just been raped, to the emergency room, only to be set on by hospital security guards who dyke-baited the couple and beat the crap out of both of them. It wasn't just the subject of the piece, which was my first large article for the Voice. It was the graphic—almost pornographic—quality of the writing, where I mentioned every bruise on the rape victim's lover, how many inches each had measured, according to her doctor, how her lover, who'd been anally raped, had been sitting in the emergency room covered with shit.

Reader, I took it as my duty to report on the size and location of the bruises and how many times they hit her because I was afraid no one would react with enough outrage. I was afraid people wouldn't think what had happened was as bad as all that. You could say I was responding like the golem I was, protecting my community from the pogrom that encircled it.

In fact, after the Voice published the article, ACT UP demonstrated inside the entrance to the emergency room where the employees had beaten up the women. 400 people chanted at the top of their lungs inside that entrance, and left the wooden statue of Jesus on the wall covered in Silence = Death stickers. It was as though I myself had summoned a golem, a golem named ACT UP, that had toddled into the hospital and, with the weight of its enormous body on the floors, made St. Vincent's quake.

The hospital initiated reforms after that.

St. Vincent's was the main medical facility in the Village, and the place where most people with AIDS went then when they were ill.

It was only after the article had been published that I considered the fact that the rape victim's lover was an extremely belligerent, indeed a violent person who just may have started the fight. It didn't make the guards' assault on the couple less outrageous and unjust, just less telling about the utter egregiousness of homophobia at the hospital.

(Actually, a few years later, the lover, who'd been so impressed by how powerful a golem ACT UP was that she joined the group, threatened me at the crowded ACT UP meeting. I'd said "Shh!" to her when she was talking loudly and I could not hear the speaker. "Don't ssh me!" she yelped. "If you know what's good for you.")

When Richard informed me back in 1988 that I was obsessed with violence, I took a deep breath.

"You're right," I said, and began to think about all of the other reported pieces, essays and poems I had written about violence. There were at least 380 of them in the years since I had first started writing in sixth grade. I wrote a column called "Body Politics," after all, because I knew what it was like to have a body that had been shaped to serve. My different, actionable, pressable, queer body had been, I believe, badly battered by the very process that created it—not by being made gay, Lord knows! but by being made with a body that my owner intended to control. It is nauseating just to inhabit a body designed to do the will of another, and the vertigo I experienced whenever my mother moved my parts for me made it hard to touch the soul that was inside me.

 

 

At the Voice I lived to punish police and prison guards, and anyone anywhere who fractured people's bodies. I wrote about sexual abuse, rape, baby- and wife-beating. I created article after article out of what Lenin—a journalist originally!—called "exposures," revelations of horrible things that were being done to human beings, and must stop (as he put it so eloquently in his essay "Can a Newspaper Be a Collective Organizer?", 1902.)

But mostly I wrote about being queer, because that was a good metaphor for my own extreme physical disenfranchisement. My body was supposed to do the will of others, not its own. Like Pinocchio's body, made of trees, it was supposed to obey, and never play. Pinocchio was told that if he obeyed completely he would finally be allowed to be a real boy, but as for me, I doubted (despite Lenin, despite what I was able to accomplish with St. Vincent's) that I could ever be real.