Last Friday, at Bluestockings Bookstore in New York City, the Feminist Press celebrated the publication of the first biography on Valerie Solanas’s life, Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol). Researched for over 10 years, author Breanne Fahs was interviewed by former Le Tigre member Johanna Fateman about the book’s making, as well as her objectives as the biographer of a woman who remained mysterious most of her life.
“I felt haunted by Valerie,” Fahs revealed about the manifesto writer. “It was haunting to write about someone who cared so much about accuracy.” Fahs dedicated a decade to her research, interviewing as many individuals as possible, considering that many of those who were known to have interacted with Valerie during her lifetime, too, have mysteriously disappeared or have died. As Fahs’s notes in one of the book’s editorial moments, “my search for Valerie sympathizers and friends has led to many dead ends, as several committed suicide, others chose to cut their ties to her, and still others have fallen into obscurity.”
Fahs and Fateman both agreed that Solanas’s most infamous work, The SCUM Manifesto, “has a sort of zine quality,” with Fateman adding that she was 18 when she first read SCUM, and she “kept it with all of [her] zines and donated it along with the entire Riot Grrrl collection” to NYU’s Fales Library.
SCUM, writes Fahs, was “theorized from the gutter.” Solanas’s life consisted of undeniably traumatic experiences, from her sexual abuse by her father to her two unwanted pregnancies by the time she was 16. She lived in poverty throughout her life, seeking shelter with acquaintances and paying her own rent, when she could, through prostitution.
After the birth of her second child—the father was a married sailor whose family paid for her nine month “leave of absence” from school—Valerie was sent to a private school for wayward girls where she had her first lesbian experience. While she reneged variously on her sexual identity throughout her life—indeed, in SCUM, she advocates for an asexual life, “paint[ing] paints sexual desire as a complete waste of time”—she identified openly as “an out lesbian with the occasional boyfriend.”
The book is filled with biographical gems. Solanas was mentally unstable, and her anger was doled out without discrimination, man, woman, or child. Fahs recounts an anecdote describing Solanas’s ruthless behavior, in which she peed in a roommate’s orange juice after getting into an altercation with her.
The 1960s were for Solanas her most productive period. She moved to New York City in this decade and met—and arguably stalked—Andy Warhol…and shot him, too.
While there are many unpublished works, and, Fahs mentioned during Friday’s events, an unknown number of manuscripts that were destroyed by Solanas’s mother after her death in 1988, three remain in the public domain, which have ensconced Solanas as the epitome of a ferocious feminist killjoy: The SCUM Manifesto; the play, Up Your Ass; Or, From the Cradle to the Boat; Or, The Big Suck; Or, Up From the Slime; and the magazine article, “A Young Girl’s Primer on How to Attain to the Leisure Class.”
The “Society for Cutting Up Men” was not only a text but a way of life for Solanas. “Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women,” the Manifesto begins, “there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.”
Solanas arranged for various SCUM meetings throughout New York City to both indoctrinate people—both women and men, the latter of which could be a part of the Men’s Auxiliary before their destruction, of course—and promote her own writing.
Of course, Solanas, being a nefarious trickster and unrepentant shit-stirrer, took it upon herself to create change through characteristically salacious acts which more often than not involved diddling her clitoris. As Fahs relates about one particular diddling sequence involving the seduction of a woman named Wilda, “[Valerie] would undo her jeans and fiddle with her clitoris…. Apparently she did this at a SCUM meeting and was making some sort of sexual overtures at Wilda, who would have none of it.”
She also whipped out her clit for Andy Warhol, who thought she was an undercover cop—so she showed him her “badge.”
Fahs thoughtfully contextualizes the shooting of Warhol in order to both outline the sequence of events leading up to the event as well as to divorce the shooting as the defining event of Solanas’s life. The inset of glossy images, placed in the middle of the book, include many from the day of the shooting. Below is the photo of Solanas looking gleeful as she is taken into custody:
Fahs, who clearly admires Solanas’s contribution to a type of wild feminism, remains the objective biographer of Solanas’s life. The Solanas she fashions in her narrative is not sympathetic but understandable. Perhaps Fahs does this out of deference to Solanas, who seems to have been the last person to ever want someone’s pity.
Solanas, whose own presence in feminist discourse has been hotly contested, has been given new life by Fahs. This biography is a testament to not just the historical person of Solanas, but to the kind of feminist symbol she has become—one that, arguably, like Solanas herself, has been sidelined to the margins of feminism.