Valerie Solanas was born into a middle-class New Jersey family in 1936. She graduated from the University of Maryland with a major in psychology in 1958 and briefly pursued a master’s degree in the same subject at the University of Minnesota. Faced with demoralizing sexism in the majority-male department, Solanas dropped out of the program after two semesters and headed to Berkeley, and then to New York, where she began writing and hustling. Always needing money and often homeless, Solanas crafted an art out of swindling men on the street. In 1965, she wrote the first of her two main works, a play called Up Your Ass, which she ceaselessly peddled to Andy Warhol. Up Your Ass was too radical even for Warhol and his Factory crew; it centered on Bongi Perez, a lesbian hustler, sex worker, and all-around nasty bitch, just as Solanas regarded herself. When a man tells Bongi, perhaps in admiration, “I’ll take it you’ll do just about anything,” she replies, “Well, nothing too repulsive—I never kiss men.”
Solanas, who was allegedly sexually abused at the hands of her father as a child and gave birth secretly to two children while in high school, swung between defining herself in homosexual and asexual terms, although she also had sex with men, sometimes for free. Later, she became known for her support of women’s rights in college, where she penned brazen and witty op-eds for the student newspaper. Her life grew into itself around the time she began writing her 1967 SCUM Manifesto in New York, lugging around her typewriter and little else as she bounced from place to place, writing in the streets and on rooftops. The Manifesto, a circuitous and biting 11,000-word screed against patriarchy, imagines a class of abject, downtrodden gutter women—scum—who destroy traditional morality, the state, and the male sex. Rejecting politics, strategy, and moderation, Solanas took a decidedly un-feminist tack in laying out her feminist aims. “SCUM will not picket, demonstrate, march or strike to attempt to achieve its ends,” Solanas wrote. “If SCUM ever strikes, it will be in the dark with a six-inch blade.”
SCUM, which may or may not have stood for Society for Cutting Up Men, was in part what led to Solanas’s attack on Warhol, the larger part being her growing paranoia; she was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. Solanas had sold the rights to SCUM to Olympia Press; when the book wasn’t immediately published, she grew convinced that she had also sold the rights to Up Your Ass and an indefinite number of future works. This, in turn, morphed into a belief that Warhol—whom she believed had promised to produce her play—was in league with Olympia and conspiring against her. After she was arrested for the attempted murder, she told the press, “read my Manifesto and it will tell you what I am.” When Solanas decided to reclaim her life through attempted homicide, she became famous, but as the woman who shot Andy Warhol, not as the woman who birthed the radical and hilarious SCUM Manifesto and released unapologetic rage into feminism.
Solanas’s legacy is hard to qualify. She has been alternately reviled and adored, and ultimately beatified, by radical feminists; anxiously decried by mainstream liberal feminists; and dismissed by everyone else. Though SCUM has been published in several editions over the years with prefaces by figures including Michelle Tea, Vivian Gornick, and Avital Ronell, Solanas’s life and work have remained largely unexamined, functioning more as a cautionary tale than anything else.
If there has been little critical attention paid to the history of radical feminism as a whole, Solanas has been particularly overlooked. Her life has mostly been catalogued in bits and scraps as it relates to the lives of others. Solanas appears as a bit player in cultural histories of the ’60s, mentioned in radical feminist histories by Jacqueline Rhodes, Alice Echols, and Barbara Crow, and memoirs from the Factory crowd. A brief and inaccurate description in Bob Colacello’s comprehensive 1999 Warhol biography, Holy Terror, (“Valerie Solanis [sic], author of a manifesto for a rabid Women’s Lit cult called SCUM”) was left uncorrected in the book’s reissue this March.
In her 1998 collection of stories Airless Spaces, Shulamith Firestone recounts two encounters with Solanas in New York in the late ’70s. In the first, Firestone visits Solanas in her lovely apartment, nicer than Firestone’s own, and tries not to discuss theory with her (“Frankly, I thought it was a big mistake to recognize Valerie as one of us, a woman’s liberationist, let alone to embrace her book as serious feminist theory”). Later, in 1979, Firestone sees Solanas again, this time on the street, begging and covered in sores.
Even Mary Harron’s 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol, the rare work that takes Solanas herself as its subject, frames Solanas’s life and work only in terms of the Warhol shooting. The film ends with the event itself, Solanas’s life supposedly captured in its brevity.
This is the situation facing Breanne Fahs in her new biography, Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol). Fahs attempts to piece together Solanas’s life by collecting, cataloguing, and presenting virtually everything known about it. Describing her research in the book’s preface, Fahs talks about sifting through
dusty, lefty zines like Holy Titclamps and DWAN, transcripts of conversations now twenty years old, news clippings, DIY art mags, Hollywood scripts, material from a coroner’s office, half-recorded answering-machine messages, discussions in cat-filled apartments, blurred photos, narratives from shaky memories, phone calls, missing files, consciousness-raising rants of radical feminists, browning letters and postcards, Library of Congress copyright registries, run-ins with the Warhol elite, notes from meetings in now-demolished diners, posters featuring the middle finger, long-forgotten pamphlets and newsletters.
Using these sources, Fahs manages to construct a rough chronology of Solanas’s 52 years, with sections dedicated to her early life, her involvement with the feminist movement, and her experience with mental illness and time spent in psychiatric facilities.
“Some lives are exemplary, others not; and of exemplary lives, there are those which invite us to imitate them, and those which we regard from a distance with a mixture of revulsion, pity, and reverence,” wrote Susan Sontag in a 1963 New York Review of Books essay. “It is, roughly, the difference between the hero and the saint.” When Solanas shot Warhol in 1968, her life attained a sense of inevitable martyrdom. In Sontag’s dichotomy of hero and saint, Solanas certainly wasn’t a hero. As she told Howard Smith in a 1977 Village Voice interview, “I go by an absolute moral standard.” When Smith tells her, “I’m sure you are not a saint,” she replies, “Yes I am. I don’t rip people off. Compared to you I absolutely am. Most certainly. Oh yes. You can put that in print.”
Solanas was right: she became radical feminism’s saint, even though she only sacrificed for herself. Shooting Warhol wasn’t meant to help feminism, or even to promote the argument of the SCUM Manifesto, but to give Solanas the freedom—at least as she perceived it—to publish her writing. In doing so, however, she gave up any hope of being known as an artist. Because Solanas had written SCUM Manifesto, which was immediately consulted by the press and the public after the shooting, her attack on Warhol was interpreted as a strictly feminist act, an eruption of female rage against the male sex, and many embraced her as a symbol of the radical feminist movement. “All I saw was: she had shot Warhol. I knew there was exploitation and it matched because finally some woman had done something that was appropriate to the feelings we were having. She was fighting back. That’s what it felt like,” said Ti-Grace Atkinson, a radical feminist and then chapter president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), who came to Solanas’s aid when she was arrested. Atkinson’s belief was echoed by Kate Millett, the author of Sexual Politics, who told Fahs, “There was once a suffragette who threw herself under a horse at Ascot in a desperate attempt to get the attention of the government so that women would get the vote. The shooting was like that. I don’t think it meant that one had to go shoot someone to be consistent with SCUM’s notions.”
Atkinson, one of Solanas’s biggest supporters, figures prominently in Fahs’s biography. Atkinson visited Solanas in jail, sent her money, and pushed NOW to embrace what she saw as Solanas’s cause. Liberal feminists in and outside the organization pushed back, afraid to associate the movement with someone angry, dangerous, mentally ill, and lesbian. Betty Friedan, NOW’s founder and first president, even sent telegrams to Solanas’s lawyer telling her to “DESIST IMMEDIATELY FROM LINKING NOW IN ANY WAY WITH VALERIE SOLANAS. MISS SOLANAS’S MOTIVES IN WARHOL CASE ENTIRELY IRRELEVANT TO NOW’S GOALS OF FULL EQUALITY FOR WOMEN IN TRULY EQUAL PARTNERSHIP WITH MEN.”
In fact, Solanas hated feminists, whom she called “schmucks,” “dupes,” and “know-nothings.” She told Atkinson “she was never a feminist, had no interest in any political movements, and was a writer and an artist, nothing else.” She also threatened to throw acid in Atkinson’s face, and had no patience for praise, criticism, cooperation, or, really, proximity to anyone else, feminist or otherwise.
Inasmuch as Solanas’s texts critiqued contemporary gender relations, however, she and her work still resonated with the general feminist project of the 1960s. It’s hard to blame the early radical feminists for trying to bring her into their fold, for taking her outrageousness as their sustenance. But feminism, even as long as it’s been about rejection, destruction, and reconstruction, has been about actionable suggestions, political posturing, and collectivity. Solanas wanted nothing to do with a group, a plan, or a movement.
Solanas’s relationship with Atkinson and other radical feminists who came to her aid was ambivalent at best and violent at worst. When Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and many of the women who would make up the radical group Cell 16 visited Solanas at Elmhurst Hospital, she seemed happy to have the company, even acting out Up Your Ass in its entirety for her guests. However, as the weeks stretched on after her arrest, Solanas became more and more volatile, sending a number of aggressive letters to Atkinson criticizing her interest and involvement in her life. When Solanas found out Atkinson hadn’t yet read the Manifesto, which was almost impossible to find at the time, she wrote in a letter: “Florynce [Solanas’s lawyer] told me that you hadn’t read it (the Manifesto). That being so, you really have no business writing and publicly speaking about it. It’s also obvious that, not only do you not understand SCUM, but that SCUM is not for you. SCUM is for whores, dykes, criminals, homicidal maniacs. Therefore, please refrain from commenting on SCUM + from ‘defending’ me. I already have an excess of ‘friends’ out there who are suffocating me.”
Solanas reacted with distaste to NOW’s radical feminists trying to frame her case in terms of sex discrimination. The group’s more radical members argued that Solanas was being treated differently than violent male criminals, because her crime had to do with economics rather than romance. Writing to Atkinson again, she said:
I want to make perfectly clear that I am not being committed because of my views or the ‘SCUM Manifesto.’ . . . Nor do I want you to continue to mouthe [sic] your cultivated banalities about my motive for shooting Warhol. Your gall in presuming to be competent to discourse on such a matter is beyond belief. In short do not ever publicly discuss me, SCUM, or any aspect at all of my care. Just don’t.
At the time, in October of 1968, she also told Judith Brown, “I am not being discriminated against because of sex. That’s a contrived issue designed to give some unimaginative leeches something to rap about.”
Solanas framed her relationship with Atkinson and feminism as the latest iteration of the suffocation and denial of agency she’d been through before: “One thing I had resented about you was what struck me as a proprietary attitude towards me + SCUM. I often had the impression that I don’t belong to me, but to Girodias, Warhol, you—whoever wants to grab me + SCUM + monopolize us.” She felt herself to be owned by the members of NOW, who spoke for her in the way a husband or publisher would.
As crucial as it was for Solanas to remain officially outside the feminist institution, her effective sacrifice—simultaneously destroying her own reputation and bolstering the rage and hope of radical feminists—allowed the movement to define itself; her actions, as polarizing and troubling as they were, made space for new radical actions and theories. By staking out a place in the sand miles to the left of anyone else, she pulled the conversation in the opposite direction from the one espoused by NOW and its relatively moderate, homophobic, and acquiescent members. As Fahs notes, for Solanas “[w]ithin-movement feminists could never truly ‘unwork,’ could never sabotage, undermine, and operate on a criminal basis.”
Solanas may never have been one of them, but many feminists derived their moral compasses from her and mapped their own boundaries onto lines she had drawn. As the patron saint of the extremity and depth of women’s rage, the example she set framed a new kind of discourse and direction for radical feminists, rescuing a movement she may not have even wanted to save.
In the years after 1968, Solanas’s ideas gained some influence among radical feminists outside the hothouse of NOW. As Fahs notes, “Valerie’s text had become close to required reading among radical feminists within months of the shooting.” Olympia Press capitalized on the event and finally published SCUM Manifesto officially, making it readily available to curious fans for the first time in August 1968, just a few months after the shooting. (Solanas had previously self-published SCUM, and so the manifesto had a much smaller initial audience.) Among other groups that Solanas saw as derivative of her work, organizations like Cell 16, W. I. T. C. H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), and C. L. I. T. (Collective Lesbian International Terrorists), penned their own SCUM-inspired manifestoes and held readings of Solanas’s work. She had struck a chord; as Majority Report editor Joanne Steele admitted, “[Solanas] was the first to say you can hate your oppressor.”
Solanas herself was declared mentally unstable, and spent five years in various mental institutions rather than serving serious prison time. Her paranoia never got better; during her time in mental institutions she developed her fear of the Mob, whom she believed tracked her every move through a device implanted in her uterus. After her release in 1973, she met Louis Zwiren, an agoraphobic drifter, with whom she lived on the Lower East Side and had a romantic relationship with over the next four years. She held an editing job with the feminist newsletter Majority Report and self-published her own, corrected version of the Manifesto in 1977. But Solanas sunk back into schizophrenia when the book didn’t sell well, rejecting the Manifesto and any mention of it for the first time in her life. In late 1979, her relationship with Louis deteriorated, and she voluntarily left her state-assisted housing and became homeless again. For a time she fell off the map completely, resurfacing in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1981, where she was known by the local police as “Scab Lady” for her erratic behavior and many self-inflicted wounds. She moved to San Francisco in 1984, where she stayed in a welfare hotel until her death of pneumonia in 1988.
None of the number of interpretations and judgments of Solanas’s life has escaped the force of mythology clinging to her story. This story, which above all emphasizes her attack on Warhol, has hid Solanas’s work behind her actions by locating her value in her incomprehensibility. Fahs’s biography elucidates, but never quite overcomes, this incomprehensibility. Instead, Fahs tries to give readers the tools to cut through Solanas’s mystique with the stunning amount of information her book provides. Fahs lobs as much research as she possibly can at the image of Solanas as a man-killer, diluting her reputation with anecdotes, new information, and careful contextualization of Solanas’s past.
Though this dedication to presenting as much information, as many interviews and letters as possible, sometimes clouds the picture—the biography would have benefited from a timeline, and more sign posts to keep the reader from getting lost in the swirls of Solanas’s personal drama, her institutionalization, and the internal politics of NOW—Fahs has effectively eschewed an easier narrative in favor of presenting Solanas in her many contradictions, humanizing her without erasing her undeniable impact.
This approach is particularly helpful in tracing Solanas’s relationship with feminism. Fahs presents Solanas’s views in all their various manifestations, from her obsession with the Equal Rights Amendment in college to her later refutation of feminism and her rage at her co-optation by the radical movement. Through the staggering number of anecdotes and letters she presents, Fahs is able to emphasize just how often and how dramatically Solanas’s disposition could shift, showing Solanas begging Ti-Grace Atkinson and other feminists to come visit her in the mental institution and then threatening their lives for speaking out on her behalf. Although Fahs refuses to leave out details in order to construct a more coherent picture, by the end of the book she has revealed Solanas to be both undeniably outside the feminist institution and completely invaluable to it.
As Fahs makes clear, Solanas both revealed and heightened the tensions between feminist factions in NOW. Unable to bear the strain, the organization eventually ruptured completely, with as many radical feminists, Atkinson among them, leaving to form their own groups. But as Atkinson later realized, “[the shooting] had nothing to do with feminism at all. It had to do with an artist’s rights.” Solanas was profoundly solitary. Her thought and behavior were incompatible with feminism’s collectivity, no matter the similarities in ideology they shared. As one of Fahs’s interview subjects described it, “She had a lonely rage.” Solanas’s call to exterminate men is vital to understanding her work, inasmuch as it demonstrates her commitment to politically detrimental views. Feminism folded itself into the wings of history; Solanas refused to budge.
Solanas’s many gifts were largely taken from her, used to advance a political purpose from which she set herself apart. But while she was denied gratitude during her lifetime, she at least thanked herself. As she wrote in the introduction to Up Your Ass in 1966: “I dedicate this play to ME a continuous source of strength and guidance, and without whose unflinching loyalty, devotion and faith this play would never have been written.”