Sunday, November 17, 2013

Desire 101

By Nicholas Stix
June 17, 2006
(Originally written in 1991)

Walking up lower Broadway in NYU country, there can be no doubt as to the identity of the middle-aged woman to my left.

Ruth is almost all gray now. She seems relatively short and withered, in contrast to the robust figure she cut 11 years ago. That was in the spring of 1980 at Stony Brook, when she was one of my professors.

I look over to her in an obvious way, somewhere between a stare and a sidelong glance. It's the kind of look you use when you want someone to know you recognize her but without staring at her dead-on, or calling out her name.
Recognize me, or at least acknowledge me, dammit! In my mind, if not my heart, I know she won't.

The last time I saw her was six years ago, just blocks away. A first semester doctoral student in philosophy, I'd gone to NYU to hear a talk. In the lobby beforehand, I saw her: “Ruth!” Before I could think, I'd grabbed her in a hug and kissed her on the cheek. “Who are you?!” she asked, blinking.

When I told her, she put down her teaching experience as ancient history that now meant nothing to her. The bitterness was still palpable. She'd since found “some money in Holocaust studies.” [P.S. November 17, 2013: Feminist holocaust studies.)

Though beginning to gray, she still looked good. She introduced me to her lover, an amazon of a woman. We all went to the same talk where, with a mixture of jealousy and contempt, I watched Tarzan paw over Ruth in a pretty fair imitation of working-class machismo. I had never seen Ruth look so demure and little girlish. I hadn't known she was a lesbian.

Just five years earlier, Ruth and I had charmed each other in her Philosophy of Education course. “Ruth's a star,” sniped my best girlfriend, Moira, jealously. Moira and I had made a pact to take that, as well as other classes, together.

Moira was used to taking classes taught by men, in which she was the star student. Here, the professor was a woman, and I was the star. Moira, the radical feminist, never had anything good to say about my (invariably Jewish) women professors.
Although she didn't study with my beautiful history professor, Judy, she got to hear my loving descriptions of her. The implicit comparison of a mature woman, known from afar, with the intimately known imperfections of a 19-year-old, was as unfair as it was unavoidable. Moira paid me back with, “Her politics aren't so great.”

Moira and I weren't lovers, mind you. Ours was a wholly platonic relationship. That I once dreamed I'd gone to her dorm room, where she lay waiting to surrender her virginity to me, was surely of no significance.

Ruth assigned us to write our philosophical autobiographies. With my usual procrastination, I was late. To avoid the embarrassment of not having the paper to turn in, I cut class, but ran into Ruth the next day in the “Metaphysics” Building, as philosophy was called. With a hard face she muttered, “You're full of shit,” and kept walking.

The next day, I went to class — without the essay. Ruth had us sit in a circle. Just as I got settled, she approached me with a leer on her face. I had one of those giggly-smiley-scared dumb mugs on that says, “I don't know what's about to happen, but I hope it doesn't hurt too much.” She pulled me out of my seat, announcing to me and the class that I was to sit my behind down somewhere, and write the paper from beginning to end. I did the job in an upstairs stairwell, as ordered.

The finished product mixed revelation with hyperbole: the junior high school vice-principal who called me “a pebble, a pebble trying to be a rock” was there, along with my schwärmerisch self-definition as the quintessential “wandering Jew.” Ruth flattered me, by asking for a copy to keep.

Moira, meanwhile, had set her mind on taking over the Administration Building with her — formerly, our — feminist group. During intercession, she had talked me into co-founding Stony Brook's first Socialist-Feminist Study Group. Moira didn't have much trouble talking me into anything in those days — not that I was in love with her, mind you. Little did I know that Moira's purpose in founding the group was to recruit followers. Maybe she didn't know it yet, herself.

It was a more open time. I could go with friends to a gay bash without being sexually pigeonholed. At such parties, I might bounce up and down on a male acquaintance's knee, without our being identified as lovers. At just such a bash, a lesbian acquaintance confided in me the fears that had earlier kept her from coming out. She spoke, too, of other gay friends still too afraid to come out.

There were augurs of the sexual hardball to come. As I spoke sweetly to Moira of a buddy, she looked at me peculiarly. Noting my tone, she suggested that I wanted to become Mark's lover. Moira had put much energy into disparaging traditional sexual roles and distinguishing between passion and sexuality. Now she switched gears, determining that affection was identical to sexual attraction.

Sexual attraction was necessarily to the same sex. After all, we'd both read Rita Mae Brown's novel, Rubyfruit Jungle, and been thus instructed that heterosexuality is a perversion. I was embarrassed and intimidated by Moira's ideological certainties.

Moira cut her braids short, in a handsome, full look more typical of a businesswoman than a co-ed. A couple of weeks later, she cut it again, this time much shorter. Her brunette locks hung in a shapeless, unattractive mockery of their former beauty and vitality.

This was during the rise of the lesbian glorification of the ugly that proclaimed that beauty had been forced on women by a macho, misogynist, male conspiracy. Moira proclaimed, “I'm a dyke!” which she wasn't, and proceeded with her orthodox uglification. Orthodox uglification was the sexual precursor to political correctness.

It was philosophically necessary to be a “dyke” and to be ugly, even if women didn't turn Moira on. (Men didn't either, for that matter.) Though it wasn't clear at the time, the option of freedom, of saying “No, thank you” to self-definition and subordination to a group, was being killed off.

In early March 1980, Moira told me of her plan to hold a sit-in the following month. Our group had already been replaced by a women-only contingent that Moira led alone. I sat down to write a denunciation, but it wouldn't take. Not yet.
When the day of the sit-in came, I surveyed the high-ceilinged lobby of the Administration Building and I did not like what I saw. Banners spelled women, “womyn” and “wimmin.”

The small, radical, lesbian contingent necessary to carry off a credible takeover (even with their six members, there were only 18 protesters when all were on duty) had exacted its price. Though the original organizers were all either hetero or bisexual and did not feel threatened by men, the lesbians (I'm not including Moira in their number) required that all men feel insulted, and at this they succeeded admirably.

Speaking of men, my aforementioned lesbian friend screamed, “I can't begin to say how much I hate them!” before breaking down in tears. Her rage came out while debating whether men should be permitted to stand outside the building's chained doors after closing, in solidarity. The radical lesbians were opposed, and as usual, they won.

Friends and sympathizers visited during each day. I dropped off the impassioned essay I'd written, sitting on a barstool, during the first day. Moira did not approve; I was not helping the cause. Without naming her, the final draft spoke of our friendship in the past tense. “As I am writing this, ‘Stony Brook Women for Action’ are staging a sit-in in the Administration Building. I was prompted to write this by the dissolution of a very dear friendship with someone who, at this moment, is participating in the sit-in.”

When the school paper, Statesman, ran the essay one month later, mutual friends approached us separately, offering their hopes that our friendship might be saved.

Our philosophy instructor, Ruth, was friends with a radical lesbian sitter, Shulamith. Shulamith and I had crossed swords only two weeks before. At a packed conference on rape attended by about 300 women and perhaps five men, she had stood up and argued, “We know what the truth is, so if there are any men here, we can just ignore them.”

Jumping to my feet, I ejaculated a stream of anger that, unjumbled, went something like, “Nobody has to listen to some dumb broad, either.” In those days, a young man could make a fool of himself without being suspended, forced to take sensitivity training, or followed around by a sexual harassment squad. It was a kinder, gentler time.

One day when I dropped in on the demonstrators, Ruth and Shulamith were both there. Ruth made us shake hands. I think it was a sincere handshake on both sides. That was a reconciliation that Ruth alone, among faculty and students, was able or desirous of effecting.

At the end of that semester, I was off to West Germany for five years. Ruth's non-tenure contract ended that spring and she failed to win tenure. Supporters of her and other female professors swore the non-renewals were the expression of pure, sexual politics.

Ruth had written virtually none of the throwaway publications that were the lifesavers of a publish-or-perish world. Plenty of political hacks did, and once tenured, harnessed young people's confusion and hormones to the purpose of rancor, rather than reconciliation.

Ruth wasn't a great classroom instructor or a profound thinker, but she was an able practitioner of the "3Cs" of teaching: Cajolery, coquetry, and coercion. When I think of her, I remember, too, the fourth “C” she embodied — conciliation. I remember a better, freer time. And I remember Moira and a broken friendship that no amount of “Cs” could ever put together again.

Postscript: I submitted “Desire 101” in 1994 or early 1995 to the State University of New York at Stony Brook alumni magazine, The Brook. The magazine had been publishing alumni memoirs of their time at "SUSB." In 1995, the magazine's editor, Gila Reinstein, had me prepare 800, 1200, and 1700-word versions.

According to a Stony Brook administrator, Reinstein’s successor as The Brook's editorial director, Ceil Cleveland, showed a meeting of administrators printer's proofs of “Desire 101” in the coming issue and praised it as “Just the sort of work I'm looking to publish.”

Yet, when the magazine appeared in 1996, “Desire 101” was not in it. I contacted the editor who had put out the issue (under the direction of Cleveland, about whose role I then had yet to be informed). She ignored me.

I then wrote Stony Brook's president, Shirley Strum (or as I call her, Stürmer”) Kenny, who responded by telling me that I should be supporting the very editor who had screwed me over and ignored me, and personally insulting me (her letter is in a milk crate somewhere, or I’d quote it directly).

I wrote back, asking Kenny, "What is the matter with you?" When Kenny took over in 1994, I had made the mistake of thinking that because she had raised five children, she would not be a feminist harpy. I was wrong.

Only later, when I tracked down the aforementioned administrator who told me about Ceil Cleveland did things become clearer. Since Cleveland, who had been Kenny’s right hand when the latter was the president of the City University of New York’s Queens College, answered only to Kenny, Kenny had to have personally censored my work.

In my essay's stead was a piece written by a lesbian alumna on her trip to Red China with her partner who had not attended Stony Brook. I wouldn't have minded had both essays been published, but as an orthodox feminist, Stürmer Kenny was playing to her power base and would not tolerate any male criticizing her religion.

I have never had any dealings or contact with Ceil Cleveland. I only know that she once showed signs of excellent literary taste. Just today, I discovered that she was the 1950s’ childhood friend in Archer, Texas, of future novelist Larry McMurtry, and served as his inspiration for the young femme fatale in the book and movie, The Last Picture Show. The movie role was played by Cybill Shepherd.

P.P.S.: November 17, 2013. After this appeared at Blogcritics, Ceil Cleveland contacted me. Kenny had not only scuttled my essay, but at least nine others that Cleveland had greenlighted for publication. Kenny had broken her word to Cleveland that she would never meddle in editorial decisions. Cleveland had a much more important title than alumni magazine editor; I believe it was vice-president and/or special assistant to the president. She said that Kenny’s treachery caused, or had a huge role in Cleveland’s decision to resign.

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