Q&A with Dorothy Allison

Written by J.T. Leroy on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

A little girl
is abused by her stepfather, and one of the ways she deals with the horror,
fear and the general degradation of being a victim is she masturbates to the
eroticism of it.

think such a taboo premise would have child advocacy groups up in arms. Instead,
Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina was a National Book Award
finalist. For me it was the first book I ever read that explored the relationship
of love, violence, abuse and sex with such unblinking honesty it made my skin
crawl with painful recognition. She has been surprisingly forthcoming about
her involvement in the lesbian leather scene, and how abuse gets eroticized.
She followed Bastard with her second novel, Cavedweller, in 1998.
I recently spoke with Allison by phone.

So you were
in the s&m scene?

Yeah. (laughs)
Surprise, surprise… The problem with having children is you never get to go
to parties no more! (laughs)

I guess you
went to the lesbian…?

Yeah, it used
to be more divided up than it is now. When I moved to San Francisco there was
a large fairy presence that was very mixed, men and women. I started out being
friends with a lot of female dominants who didn’t really break themselves
off that way. They were essentially lesbians, but they were working girls. There
were lots of friends who were men, and they would invite men to their parties,
but the party scene was a whole different thing… It breaks out pretty easy.
It’s fairly simple to separate that from your life.

What do you

I moved to
California to get healthy, because I was in a really terrible relationship and
I was physically very sick. I had immune dysfunction. In fact, one of the reasons
I moved out here was one of my girlfriends tested positive for AIDS and I was
pretty sure I would come up positive. I thought I was gonna die… You know
how you make all these decisions when you think you’re going to die? This
was the late 80s, well, ’87…and then I discovered that in fact I was
HIV negative… I had fucked my immune system pretty thoroughly. But there’s
something about thinking you’re going to die that the whole world shifts
around. So I decided to live cheap…live on my savings and what I could hustle
and try to finish a book before I died…even if I wasn’t going to die!
(laughs) Then I moved out here and it was a very different place.

So you were
writing Bastard?

I had started
Bastard while I was finishing Trash. Published it that next year.
But you know it doesn’t break out so easy. I was writing Bastard,
but first I finished the stories in Trash, one of which, "Gospel
Song," is a section of Bastard.

And you just
expanded that?

No, no…it
doesn’t quite work like that. I had been trying to figure out how to write
Bastard and I didn’t know… It takes a long time to get the voice
right, it takes a long time to figure out how to tell that kind of story, and
there were a number of different approaches. It’s very hard to explain
how a voice really starts to work. Lots of different versions, lots of stuff
you throw away. Eventually it gets right and then you start paring it down.

San Francisco
has changed. I remember, you could live so cheaply…

Yeah, it’s
pretty scary. I came here with nothing but some savings and the ability to write
reviews and hustle.

When you say
hustle, what do you mean?

Well, mostly
putting together a living out of nothing. Although I did some phone sex, but
I was horrifically terrible. People would give me their perversions and I’d
be so interested I’d want to talk to them about their perversions instead
of helping them to get off. I wasn’t directed enough to be a good whore.
Really bad. But I had so many friends who were working girls… I had been an
anthropologist, and, I don’t know, I just always made friends with working

Were you surprised
at what happened with Bastard?

Shit yes. I
don’t understand the American literary marketplace. It’s a fairly
absurd thing… I guess my big surprise is that I met some real human beings
in publishing and kinda liked them… Anytime you actually make some money and
not have to hustle every minute I’m astonished, totally astonished. But
I don’t think that’s why any of us write.

How did you
get the manuscript to Dutton?

Oh, honey!
It’s an old story. I had an old friend, a commie faggot who wanted to learn
how to be an agent. And he acts as my agent. And I was incredibly arrogant.
I went to New York and interviewed editors to find one that I could stand. Because
I wasn’t dependent on them for money, and because I was very clear that
I wasn’t looking to them for expertise, it was possible to be arrogant.
I made a small list of five people, and I thought, I can work with these people.
There was one straight woman. One gay man. And two lesbians. And one woman who
just didn’t know. But she was a good editor…

But then, I
don’t push people about this shit anymore. I used to care intensely that
everyone identify themselves from the gate, but I don’t care anymore…
Define "are you a lesbian," "are you bisexual," "are
you heterosexual"? What actually have you done, what toys have you used?
How much of a pervert are you? What credentials do you have to claim that? I
don’t care no more.

When the book
got successful do you think that people in the industry were bothered that you
weren’t as marketable to the mainstream?

Yes. They want
to make money.

Did anyone
ever say anything to you?

cagey. They never say things. You can never catch them on it. You always catch
them secondhand and they deny it. For example, I would write a press release.
They would write a press release based on my press release. And somehow all
the lesbian and really queer perverse content would disappear. I would rewrite
the press release and put all that shit back in. I would be very frank, very
clear…but then I would show up in a small town or a bookstore, see the press
release and all that stuff was gone again. Then, when I would grab the publisher
and say, "Why?" They would say, "Oh, well, I just assumed that
you wouldn’t want to have that…" Because they’re always working
with people who are not out, or who were being cagey. They have this standard
of polite behavior…

Did you get
a lot of female groupies?

(laughs) You
mean ones that want to screw you? Yeah. A few. A few. To the point that Alix
[Allison’s partner] said you’re going to have to tell them that you’re
not sleeping around anymore. Because it was too embarrassing. I was too tired.

When Bastard
came out were you in a committed relationship?

Yeah. And Alix
has often said that she’s really grateful that we got that in place because
it never [would have] happened after… You gotta remember that for all the
ones that come to you with love and generosity, there are the ones that come
to you with a lot of hostility and rage.

Is it jealousy?

Jealousy is
everyday, writers know all about jealousy. Jealousy is okay. I’m jealous
of other good writers… But there’s other stuff, there’s counting


a Native American custom. Instead of fighting someone straightforward or really
fighting to kill, you just leave a mark and step away. You just come up and
taunt someone and back away. You get a certain amount of that. I find that hard,
’cause I’m a redneck and I have a temper. (laughs) And I love teaching.
And occasionally I’ve wound up in situations in the last few years where
I would go and do some short teaching gig. And I’m a hardworking teacher.
I believe that if you’re going to teach you do it with everything and you
give them as much as you’ve got at the time. And also it’s very rare
that I get a chance to teach. Because I have a child… And a couple of times
I’ve set up classes and there I am…and I get wonderful young writers.
I get better writers than anyone, almost, I know. People who come in ready to
open their heart and do some great work. Every once in a while I’ll get
that situation and some little shit will show up and all they really want to
do is count coup, steal time and leave a mark. And it’s a pain in the ass.

Has Cavedweller
been optioned for a film?

Yeah. If it
ever happens I’ll be surprised. I was astonished that Bastard actually
made it into a movie. I know Barbara Kingsolver, she’s had The Bean
on option for a decade. Mostly movies don’t happen. But it’s
been under option. You don’t make a whole lot of money unless they actually
make a movie. Although you don’t make any money compared to what the screenwriters
and all those people make. Writers are like not terribly important in Hollywood…
You know Dennis [Cooper], I think he sold Frisk for a dollar in the hopes
of getting a decent movie made. I’ve sold short stories for a dollar in
the hopes of getting a decent movie made. Hasn’t happened yet. There’s
a woman in Paris that wants to make a movie out of an essay in Skin called
"Personal History of Lesbian Porn," and I’m like…we could discuss
this. Let’s talk! What did you intend? (laughs)

I wanted to
ask you about the s&m stuff. Bastard, when she’s being abused
and being stimulated by the abuse, it was the most honest thing that I’d
ever read.

It was the
most important thing for me to get in there. And it was the part that I expected
to have trouble. It’s gotten a little easier, a little bit better. But
there’s this myth that if you’re raped or if you’re abused, where
they say if it’s violent it’s not erotic. But it is erotic.
And how it gets turned around in your head…it’s bad enough that you got
to survive being raped and fucked with, then you have to survive being erotically
stimulated by it. Then you got to live in the world and make peace with that
stuff. And if then you have to pretend that you didn’t have the feelings
that you had, or somehow feel deeply guilty, that you’re contributing to
the downfall of civilization because you got a hard-on because someone–[deep
sigh]–treated you that bad. That was too much. I needed to be really matter-of-fact
about it, and I knew that it was one of the places where I was most at risk.

For people
being outraged?

No, for me
being ashamed. That’s where the biggest risk is. There’s a part of
me that can deal with people being outraged more than being ashamed…

The problem
I always ran into, especially as a feminist, it’s like the chicken and
the egg shit… They want to know what came first. And I don’t know what
came first. My mother married my stepfather when I was five. The earliest memory
I have of him is him molesting me. And it is paired with being beaten. There’s
no place within my psyche where that doesn’t exist. But my earliest memories
of jerking off are always about being beaten or being in some terribly dangerous,
horrific situation, in which the risk was a big piece of it. And I don’t
know if I eroticized abuse in order to survive. I don’t really know. But
on some level, I don’t really care. It’s the condition. It’s
what’s always been there. And it’s really clear to me that it’s
not about retraining your sexual desires. Did you ever get any of that shit?
Retraining your sexual desires! There was this huge thing in the women’s
movement for a long time, about how we were supposed to retrain our erotic fantasy
life. Like you’re supposed to get rid of all that violent imagery, try
to eroticize gentleness. Mutually reassuring, pleasant sex, flowers, I don’t
know, mushrooms, whatever. I don’t believe it would work. Which is not
to say I didn’t try. All I ever found was that I could stop the erotic
charge completely, but I couldn’t make myself be erotically charged by
something that didn’t work. And I couldn’t stop the fact that in a
situation in which I was afraid I would also be turned on.

Does that mean
vanilla sex just didn’t do it for you?

Honey, you
lick my pussy right, I’ll come. But it would never be as interesting to
me as someone who was licking my pussy while he was hanging onto my throat and
threatening to kill me.

Did you ever
fear you could go too far?

Oh, I went
too far. I wound up in a few hospitals. When you’re young and you’ve
been really seriously messed with… I didn’t have boundaries.

How did you
get them?

Well, feminism
helped. Because then you’ve got a place to go to talk. When I was in New
York, the biggest thing that really made a real difference in my life was being
in a community of people who would say, "Don’t go home with her. She
will hurt you more than you want to be hurt. That one is crazy." Just the
information of who could fuck you the way you needed to be fucked, but not do
you permanent damage. Because you know, you go out there hungry with lust, and
lust will make you crazy, lust will get you into situations where you are in
real serious trouble. And without any information.

But I stumbled
into a young community in which a lot of information was available, and I worked
really hard to make more information available. We formed the Lesbian Sex Mafia
in New York. We created a support group for what was at that point…the code
word was politically incorrect–when people could practice politically incorrect
sex. It was a women’s group but we were open, we didn’t give a shit
if you were lesbian, bisexual or heterosexual or if you started out as a boy.
Which got us into a lot of trouble, because everybody wanted to make definitions
about what a woman was and what kind of woman you could be to be in any kind
of group. But we were in need. We just needed some basic information. And mostly
a sense that you aren’t crazy, that erotic desire is complicated and perverse
and if we all get together maybe we can make ourselves a little bit safer.

There were
some people in that community, in the leather and s&m scene in New York,
who’d beat you the fuck up, rob you, leave you scarred up and fucked, steal
everything you had, call your boss up and tell them what you’re doing at
night, blackmail you… I had some little cunt try to blackmail me. No, it was
a very dangerous community. We couldn’t clean it up, but we could share

Do you worry
about your son growing up and finding out that this is what you do?

Well, I think
it might be complicated (laughs heartily)…but my experience is that all teenagers
start out as prudes. I think when you’re, like, nine you think all sex
is absurd. You don’t distinguish between people who get fucked up the ass
or do heterosexual pussy fuckin’… And all sex is absurd. And the
idea that your mama had sex is horrific. We’ll go through that first. The
rest of it is just different levels.

But how would
you discuss with him s&m?

Well, he’s
only seven, so I haven’t had to yet. I’ll probably figure it out as
it comes along. But he lives in San Francisco! And he lives in my community
of friends. He sees leathermen, and he sees costume and presentation. And that’s
all he sees of sex at this point anyway, and that’s all I care for him
to see at this point. He knows. He knows that there are lesbians and there are
straight people and we talk about this. The thing about children is that they
are incredibly conservative. We used to have these discussions where here’s
my son saying, "Women can’t marry women. Women marry men." And
I’m, "No, honey, women can fall in love with women, love women, and
men can fall in…" You know, we had to educate my son, the hell with the