The Passion of Ellen Willis
"She didn't believe in God. But she believed. Optimism was her faith."
September 8, 2015
Sep 8, 2015
21 Min read time
"She didn't believe in God. But she believed. Optimism was her faith."
Ellen Willis in the fall of 1969 or summer of 1970, outside Colorado Springs. Photo courtesy of Steve Dyer.
“My deepest impulses are optimistic, an attitude that seems to me as spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect,” the radical cultural critic and journalist Ellen Willis wrote in 1977. The sentence sums up the writer, the woman—and her contradictions.
Willis, who died of lung cancer in 2006 at sixty-four, was one of the great public intellectuals of her generation. Read the latest anthology of her work, The Essential Ellen Willis (2014)—the posthumous anthology that won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism this year—and you will see that she was virtually incapable of writing a poor sentence or conceiving an unsurprising insight. Her rigor was unmatched, her fearlessness an inspiration. In every piece, wit lilted like an aria over a basso continuo of moral seriousness.
A self-described “irrepressible crank,” Willis was skeptical as a detective, logical as an engineer. “Irreverent” doesn’t begin to describe her loathing of received truths and ideologies. She was also the smartest person anyone who knew her ever knew. So it is easy for friends and admirers to understand the “intellectually suspect” part of that sentence.
But “spiritually necessary”—or for that matter, spiritually anything? Spiritual is a word for self-help books and weekend meditation retreats. Associating it with Willis was a little embarrassing. Many who knew her bracketed it off as Ellen’s weird thing—the thing that didn’t fit.
It’s not that Willis believed in some all-knowing, mercurial patriarch in the sky (or on earth). But on an LSD trip in the ’60s, she had experienced “something that Westerners have most commonly called ‘God’—the source of all truth, beauty, goodness.” She called it Reality, and from then on questioned (as she questioned everything) but never belittled it.
“The essence of this reality is infinite energy,” she wrote her brother, Michael, in 1975. That energy is “the source & stuff of all creation,” dancing with itself in an infinite variety of patterns, making up a universe that is “ultimate[ly] benign,” she said.
The letter was a reply to one Michael had written from Israel, where he was about to join an Orthodox Jewish sect. “I’ve had my lack of faith shaken,” he said. The turn of phrase tickled Ellen, but mostly it alarmed her. She set off to Jerusalem to rescue her brother, although nine years younger a temperamental and intellectual twin. But the trip—chronicled in her masterful essay “Next Year in Jerusalem”—became a grapple with her own lack of faith. After a month she returned to her New York life of drugs, sex, existential doubt, and—what made embracing religion impossible for her—feminism. The piece could be interpreted as a rejection of faith.
But what about that God-like something? “I think if we understood this energy and how it works, we would understand miracles,” she’d written Michael.
She didn’t believe in God. But she believed. Optimism was not just an impulse. It was her faith. Ellen Willis, the very model of a modern secular intellectual, believed in miracles.
• • •
It must have become apparent soon after Ellen Jane’s birth that Mel and Miriam Willis had a genius in the cradle.
The first child of a left-leaning New York City cop and a housewife, the sloe-eyed, curly-headed Ellen was her father’s pride and protégée. Mel recited poems, drew diagrams of magnets and bodily systems and explained them “in riveting detail,” Willis remembered in his eulogy. “Her father treated her like a son,” said her dear friend Ann Snitow, the feminist scholar and organizer. “They had a deep colloquy.”
By the age of four, according to her cousin Judy Oppenheimer, Ellen’s language was sophisticated, her delivery authoritative. Coloring with crayons, Judy pressed hard and ripped through the paper. “I hate these crayons!” she cried. “Judy,” Ellen chided, “don’t be so sarcastic.” That neither girl knew the word’s meaning did not diminish Judy’s awe.
Two future writers, close as sisters, Ellen and Judy read together: Heidi, My Secret Garden, Little Women. “I am so glad you liked the books,” nine-year-old Ellen wrote Judy in 1951. “I, too, enjoyed the humorous story of ‘Tom Sawyer,’ and its world-famous characters: Huckleberry Finn, Becky Thatcher, & all the rest.”
In 1952, inspired by Anne Frank, they started diaries. Ellen’s reveals an avid Girl Scout, club starter, secret-code maker, and spelling-bee competitor. Already she was a scholar, prose stylist, critic—and feminist.
“I went back to school today and it sure felt good,” she entered on the first page. “I’m to be transferred to the new school, 184. But I haven’t been given any information.”
She didn't believe in God. But she believed. Optimism was her faith.
“[Sara and I] started a very interesting story about three girls and a treasure map,” she wrote a few days later. “I was rather disappointed in the Kate Smith show because it was almost all awarding and hardly any entertaining. Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca were good, though.”
January 16: “Sara and I continued our rigmarole.”
January 17: “I didn’t get called on at Hebrew enough to get extra credit. I guess I should sing the blues today, Dear Diary.”
Also in January: “Poor Alice! I hate to think of her without Randy. She is stupid though. She thinks it’s everything.”
By high school Willis was a full-fledged egghead, political passionata, and cultural omnivore. “The kids I hang around with have all gone a real intellectual kick,” she wrote Oppenheimer at the end of her junior year. “Naturally, we are all communists, socialists, democrats or some other kind of subversive type.” She was into a “new dance craze, the Savoy . . . . a sort of a corrupted Lindy” and had plunged into a self-assigned summer project: translating Caesar’s Gallic War commentaries from Latin.
At Barnard, on scholarship, she took French, psychology, and philosophy. In 1959, she heard the Beats read. The debate, she told Oppenheimer, was “whether they are the apostles of a new artistic faith or decadent drug addicts.” Willis purported not to understand the poetry, but came down on the side of decadence: “It’s much more interesting than mere art.”
Students were picketing Woolworth’s in New York “in sympathy with the Southern sit-down strikers.” Serendipitously, she sat next to Jackie Robinson in Chock Full o’ Nuts and “couldn’t think of a word to say to him.” She weighed realpolitik against idealism—a signature of her future hard-nosed but tender politics. After Kennedy’s speech on the Bay of Pigs intervention, she wrote:
Somehow a military threat this close makes abstract considerations of international morality seem beside the point. I begin to understand why the Russians are so touchy about our ring of bases and why they were so thorough about squashing the Hungarian revolution. I don’t know if Kennedy is doing the right thing, but can’t think what else he could do.
She raved about Van Cliburn and a production of “Othello,” sent a “testimonial” to Oppenheimer:
1. John Donne’s poetry
3. Spring, which has come!
Mademoiselle selected her as a guest editor, like Sylvia Plath. There she earned her first writing fee: $350 (more than $2,700 in 2014 dollars) for a piece on birth control.
As a kid she both hated boys and wanted to be one. At the same time, she labored to be desirable, which is to say, feminine—charming, thin, quiet, chaste. But mores changed; by college she was less quiet, and no longer chaste. Though a bona fide beauty, Willis never would feel beautiful. Still, the boys streamed through: Alvin, Eric, a Norwegian named Thor.
By graduation, in 1962, she was engaged to Harvey Leifert, a brainy, skinny malink. They fought; she suppressed doubts about marriage. They wed—it was all between Harvey and the rabbi, she complained—and set up house in Berkeley, where she started graduate school and he taught. Willis insisted on splitting the housework but also played the happy bohemian homemaker. “Please send the tribal mask and Corningware red pot,” she wrote her family.
But no tribal mask could disguise the pre-feminist friction at home. In a joint letter, Leifert joked chauvinistically; Willis jokingly simmered. “After reading the erudite comments of my close associate, supra, I am reluctant to add anything,” he said in a postscript. “Ellen’s comments on Moby Dick are especially noteworthy and I look forward to even more deeply analytical treatises after she reads the book.”
Then, in Willis’s hand: “See? This is the kind of bruising my poor little ego must take. I am going to accept meekly and retire, since I feel a somewhat unintellectual sleep coming on.”
He joined the foreign service, was posted to Upper Volta. She stayed home, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. They argued by mail about Vietnam, she moving left, he middleward. The letters were sterile of emotion, much less eros. He irritably agreed to a divorce, which she obtained in Juárez. He said he was sad, but seemed more piqued about being left high and dry in Ouagadougou, while in New York his ex-wife was drowning in men.
It was 1967: what luck for Willis. She started writing for small magazines, navigated the sexual revolution, realizing, as she wrote drily in 1969, that she was suspicious of men. She helped a friend through a near-fatal illegal abortion. Enraptured by rock ‘n’ roll, she became The New Yorker’s first rock critic.
She joined the movement against the war and for everyone’s rights except women’s. At a rally, a woman took the mic to plead women’s cause and was immediately drowned out by hoots and boos. “Take her off the stage and fuck her!” one man shouted. Willis never abandoned the male-led left, as some women did, but also became a leader of the women’s liberation movement. In 1969, with Shulamith Firestone, she founded Redstockings. She began meeting with a consciousness-raising group, the Sex Fools, that would last fifteen years.
An account of her political coming-of-age ends with “We can’t go back.” She never did.
• • •
In Berkeley, between volumes of Proust and Molière, Willis was reading Marx, Freud, and the Marxist-Freudian Frankfurt School. Most exciting were A. S. Neill, Paul Goodman, and, especially, Freud’s renegade student Wilhelm Reich.
Like Freud, Reich believed that the sexual instinct quashed or misdirected was neurosis in the making. But where Freud saw his patients’ tics, coughs, and narcolepsy as “hysteria”—bodily communiqués from inarticulate troubled minds—for Reich the dynamic went the other way, from body to psyche. This sexual instinct was not just unconscious thought and emotion, or a biological drive—both Freudian concepts. It was an energetic substance that floated throughout the universe, in plants, animals, and people. He called it orgone.
According to Reich, childhood sexual repression by family and religion kettled orgone inside a muscular “body armor.” Therapy—holding postures to exhaustion, moaning, punching, and talking—could crack the armor to let intimacy, orgasm, and happiness flow.
But as Reich saw it, the misery of sexual repression reverberated beyond the individual, creating the social evils of capitalist greed and political totalitarianism, as well as people’s willingness to submit to them. Marx proposed violent proletarian revolution to free the masses of these cruelties, but Willis noticed that proletarian revolution hadn’t cured anyone of their sexual problems, and it hadn’t freed women from anything. Freud tried to cure his patients’ sexual neuroses, but he was the ultimate bourgeois apologist: to him, libido was anarchic and destructive; its restraint was necessary to civilization.
In Reich’s revolution, orgasm was the Molotov cocktail. Released to experience ecstasy, people would no longer need to dominate or be dominated.
Orgone was that free-ranging energy, the human tropism toward the light that Willis had felt on acid and called Reality. It was what her brother called God. But unlike a transcendent god, orgone resided in muscle and tears and semen. Here was the link between the metaphysical and the psychological, between the body that craved freedom and the collective will, and goodwill, to achieve it. If the desire for pleasure was innately human, then pleasure was a human value and a human right.
Coming down from acid, “I knew that connecting with Reality . . . was the crucial business of life, the key to freedom, sanity, happiness,” Willis wrote in “Next Year in Jerusalem.” “But I didn’t know how to proceed.”
Reich gave her a way to proceed. Connecting with Reality was the business of politics.
“This is what freedom is like, this is what love could be, this is what happens when the boundaries are gone,” she wrote in the introduction to No More Nice Girls (1992), her collection of essays from the 1980s. “The power of the ecstatic moment . . . is precisely the power to reimagine the world, to reclaim a human identity that’s neither victim nor oppressor.”
The unconscious was political.
• • •
Photo courtesy Nona Willis Aronowitz
If you’re getting the impression that Willis was some sort of medium, drawing down Reality from the spirit world, let me disabuse you. Her feet were firmly on the pavement, her intelligence trained on the ever-spinning lowercase-r reality around her—from abortion to terrorism, the “man shortage” to Monica Lewinsky, The Sopranos to Sarajevo.
Willis’s gaze repeatedly returned to the place where the optimism of Reality collided with the gnarls of reality: feminism, sexual love, popular culture. Willis wrote about rock not just because she dug it, but because digging into it got at what Americans felt and thought and did politically. Today, this is a given. But in the ’60s, serious criticism of mass culture hardly existed—except, that is, to pan it as the Devil’s playground or the opiate of the masses.
A rock ‘n’ roll fanatic from a lower-middle-class family that could think for itself, thank you very much, Willis called out the whiners for their puritanical bourgeois snobbery. She also refuted the accusation leveled largely by white male leftists and liberals that cultural radicalism—feminism, gay liberation, movements for academic and artistic freedom—had led the left and/or the Democratic Party on a detour from the “real” (read: economic) issues and off a cliff to suicide.
The seminal takedown of this position—or a version that blamed the right more than the left, but was essentially the same—was her critique of Thomas Frank’s 2004 bestseller What’s the Matter With Kansas? The book described the culture wars of the 1990s—to-the-death political battles over abortion, school prayer, gay rights, and sex education—as a massive political scam. As Frank saw it, the GOP colluded with religious conservatives to divert blue-collar voters with these supposedly elitist fetishes while it screwed them by cutting services, busting unions, and deregulating everything.
For all of Frank’s humor and vivid observation, Willis detected the insensate heart of a vulgar materialist. “To dismiss as ‘hallucinatory’ people’s embattlement about what moral and cultural norms will govern their everyday lives and intimate relationships is to say that people (at least working class people) do not . . . care deeply about anything beyond the size of their paychecks.” Challenges to cultural institutions arouse intense yearnings for fulfillment as lovers, parents, or children, as well as anxiety, guilt, and rage both conscious and unconscious—and thus, conflict. These passions are far from a political sideshow, she insisted. They are the main event.
When the feminist “porn wars” erupted in the 1980s, Willis decried anti-porn theorists’ reduction of the entire sexist culture to one phenomenon. But she didn’t write the issue off as irrelevant, a distraction from the real work of feminism. The freedom fighter in her opposed the movement to censor pornography with laws that would define it as violence against women, both the crime itself and propaganda for it. But neither was she entirely onboard with the “pro-sex” camp. These feminists argued that sexually explicit materials represent fantasy; fantasy is mysterious in origin; desire just is—end of story. (Of the debate over what porn is, Willis’s immortal adage: “What turns me on is erotica. What turns you on is pornography.”)
To Willis, fantasy wasn’t right or wrong, but it did have meaning. “To me it is axiomatic that consenting partners have a right to their sexual proclivities, and that authoritarian moralism has no place in a movement for social change,” she wrote. “But a truly radical movement must look . . . beyond the right to choose, and keep focusing on the fundamental questions. Why do we choose what we choose? What would we choose if we had a real choice?” Why should sexual tastes, unlike everything else, be immune to influence by cultures of masculine domination and the punitive nuclear family? Why should these tastes be exempt from political interrogation?
To write off everything that most people enjoy or care about as a narcotic, or the product of false consciousness, or okay but meaningless is not only to write off most people, Willis contended. It is to deny history. During the ’60s, consumption didn’t kill political rebellion. Wanting stuff didn’t preclude wanting community, transcendence, and justice. Goods—hallucinogens, records, hippie garb—could be vehicles of liberation.
It is also to write off the future. In “Three Elegies for Susan Sontag,” published a year after the writer’s death and a year before her own, Willis lamented Sontag’s descent from hope to pessimism, from a brief giddy flight of delight in camp and pop culture during the ’60s to its “wholesale, contemptuous dismissal” forty years later. Back then, Sontag suggested, pop was optimistically subversive, but barbarous capitalism had turned it nihilistic; loving it was naïve, irresponsible.
Willis didn’t buy it. “The culture was complex then as it is complex, if much scarier, now. The question remains: What of human possibility? Do we simply abandon the idea?”
Her unspoken, obvious answer: of course not.
• • •
“For most of my politically conscious life, the idea of social transformation has been the great taboo of American politics,” Willis wrote in a review of Russell Jacoby’s Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age (2005).
From the smug 1950s to the post-Reagan era, in which a bloodied and cowed left has come to regard a kinder, gentler capitalism as its highest aspiration, this anti-utopian trend has been interrupted only by the brief but intense flare-up of visionary politics known as ‘the sixties.’ Yet that short-lived, anomalous upheaval has had a more profound effect on my thinking about the possibilities of politics than the following three decades of reaction. The reason is not . . . that I am stuck in a time warp, nursing a romantic attachment to my youth . . . . Rather, as I see it, the enduring interest of this piece of history lies precisely in its spectacular departure from the norm. It couldn’t happen, according to the reigning intellectual currents of the fifties, but it did.
The exploration of what “it” was, why it was no longer, and how it could, in updated form, happen again engrossed Willis all her life. She was, in her deepest soul, a utopian. But as she saw with increasing clarity that her dreams would not be realized in her lifetime, she was saddened. And as a consensus gathered that even believing in those dreams constituted wingnut nostalgia, she was marginalized.
Her longtime partner Stanley Aronowitz, whom she married in 1998, believed her marginality was political. “When she’d complain that she wasn’t part of ‘the conversation,’ I’d say, ‘Ellen, that’s because you’re a radical.’” Richard Goldstein, Willis’s later Village Voice colleague and close friend, thinks her uncompromising rigor and need for “complete freedom,” both political and expressive, kept her from publishing in many mainstream outlets: “Ellen would not be hemmed in,” he said.
But Willis was not marginal because she stood at the far end of a particular spectrum of opinion, Snitow told me. She wasn’t even on the spectrum. “People get famous when other people are ready to hear what they’re saying. Ellen was extremely previous—way out front, beyond the paradigms people were using. Most academics [and journalists] clump around the thinking of the time. She didn’t gather the discourse at a particular moment and work with that.”
One example: at a conference of socialist scholars after 9/11, while others debated the role of oil and American foreign policy in mobilizing the attacks, Willis proposed that sexual repression was at the heart of Islamist terrorism. The kindest response she got was laughter.
“Ellen had no sense for fashion,” Snitow concluded. Then it was we who laughed.
• • •
Willis hid her lovely body in odd, baggy clothes. She evaded small talk, froze in radio interviews. In her last decade, running the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program she founded at New York University’s journalism school, her introversion made teaching a trial. “She would lob a question. Everyone would sit there terrified. And she wouldn’t say anything,” author Kate Bolick recalled. “That could go on for forty-five minutes.”
She couldn’t converse and cook at the same time. “She’d say, ‘I’m concentrating’ and wave me off,” her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, remembered.
But Willis was not lost in thought. She was found—vitalized and connected. The philosopher Jay Bernstein witnessed an exchange between Willis and Aronowitz at a panel discussion where she was onstage and he was in the audience. He challenged her. They argued. “It was like watching two people make love in public,” Bernstein recalled. “Their mutual fascination with each other’s minds made everything about their relationship both intellectual and eroticized. For Ellen it was a necessity. For Stanley, it was great good fortune.”
So when Willis was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, while undergoing treatment from chemotherapy to Reichian therapy, that passionate energy must have sustained her. She kept attending meetings, seeing friends, and writing. Ever optimistic, she thought she would survive. She buckled down on a long-delayed book tentatively titled Cultural Unconscious in American Politics: Why We Need a Freudian Left—“the Reich book.”
Willis thought her way from the first shock of the body’s fallibility through its ultimate failure. She approached her illness with “a combination of curiosity and annoyance,” said Bernstein, who accompanied her to chemo each week.
“The very nature of talking to Ellen made the distinction between the emotional and the intellectual almost imponderable,” he continued. “I was willing to take a conversation intellectually anywhere, with whatever its consequences, and with that she was perfectly comfortable. That’s the way she processed her life. No matter how difficult and human and existential it was, it was another thought to be thought.”
The thoughts kept coming until they could come no more. “One day she walked into the kitchen and said, ‘The strangest thing is happening. I’m misspelling words,’” Aronowitz told me. “Ellen Willis did not misspell words.” The cancer had reached her beautiful brain. Six weeks later she was dead.
When I read her husband and daughter the passage beginning “My deepest instincts are optimistic . . .” they both were sure it was inscribed on her gravestone. Still, I wanted to fact-check. So I drove to the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, and in an unmapped section on a weedy path, I found the square, low monument.
They were wrong. The inscription—also Willis’s words—reads: “It is the longing for happiness that is potentially radical, while the morality of sacrifice is an age-old weapon of rulers.”
I liked this better. It resolved something that puzzled me: Willis was an optimist. She believed in a mysterious energy propelling us toward happiness and freedom. But was she happy?
Yes, Goldstein said. “She was anxious and she was happy. Ellen was happy because she had a loving childhood.”
No, Aronowitz said. “I think she was not a happy person because . . . at the fundamental level, the psychoanalytic level, she had unresolved relationships with her parents, especially her mother.”
“I wouldn’t call her a happy person,” NYU colleague and friend Susie Linfield told me. “But she was capable of great delight”—in chocolate, dancing, sex, motherhood, and friendship. She laughed at contradictions, including her own—how, for instance, did this great critic of the nuclear family end up in one? Willis referred to herself, Stanley, and Nona as “the Nukes.”
Longing for happiness was apt. “For Ellen, happiness was an aspiration,” Aronowitz said.
Happiness may be temperamental. Some babies are beatific from day one; others start griping and never stop. Some people with good lives are miserable; some with objectively miserable lives feel good.
But you don’t have to be happy to be an optimist, and optimism doesn’t necessarily make you happy. “Optimism isn’t the same thing as wooly-headed happiness,” Snitow said. “She was an optimist because she felt that human joy is possible.”
Optimism may be a feeling, but foremost it is a faith: the belief in something despite evidence to the contrary. Willis found a surfeit of evidence that whatever happened in the ’60s would not happen again soon. As murderous misogynist fundamentalisms from American evangelical Christianity to Serbian nationalism to jihadist Islam gained strength, evidence that humans are a good and freedom-loving species grew sparser. As for the energy that purportedly fueled that love of freedom, she had no proof at all beyond an LSD-induced vision.
Faith by definition is constantly tested; it must constantly be reaffirmed. So optimism was more than an impulse for Willis. It was a decision, a political commitment. It made her brave, funny, tireless, and sane.
I put a pebble on the gravestone and began to cry. But I was also elated. I could feel the energy that was Ellen Willis billowing around me. I could feel the miraculous revolutionary power of joy.
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September 08, 2015
21 Min read time