On Ellen Willis

Ellen Willis never became a brand or icon the way Susan Sontag did, though they were roughly the same age, and wrote about similar things. As a writer and a feminist myself, I had been and am her target audience, and even I was only dimly aware of her when we first met, six years ago, after I'd enrolled in the graduate program in cultural reporting and criticism she'd founded at NYU.


By the time I arrived at Ellen Willis’s memorial service, Riverside Memorial Chapel was packed with what I took to be friends and family. I hurried to the last open pew and asked the woman sitting there if I could reserve space for two. She said yes, though her averted eyes suggested that the pew wasn’t hers to let. Later, as the congregation was rising to leave, she asked my friend and me if we’d known Ellen personally. Yes, we’d been her students, we explained. And she? “I never met her,” she said. “I read one of her books years ago, and it changed the way I think about feminism. I saw in the paper that she’d died, and here I am.”

I was surprised to hear this. A longtime journalist and cultural critic widely known for her political essays and active role in the late 1960s women’s movement, Ellen had a tremendous influence on many people before dying November 9, of lung cancer at her home in Queens. But she never became a brand or icon the way Susan Sontag did, though they were roughly the same age, and wrote about similar things. As a writer and a feminist myself, I had been and am her target audience, and even I was only dimly aware of her when we first met, six years ago, after I’d enrolled in the graduate program in cultural reporting and criticism she’d founded at NYU. I’d always pictured Ellen’s acolytes to be an ardent if loose network of readers she’d attracted in the late 1960s as The New Yorker‘s first rock critic, the devotees she’d inspired through her long tenure at the Village Voice, aging activists, feminist thinkers, and ex-students—not random, unnamed fans a generation younger who fell, by birth, outside the reach of her most visible epoch, yet were nonetheless compelled to give over a Sunday to her funeral.

That someone as intellectually fearless as Ellen didn’t create around herself a cult of personality had something to do with her collectivist impulse. By temperament she was shy and realistic, but the ‘60s had shaped her into a committed activist who genuinely, not just rhetorically, prioritized ideas over the furthering of her own career. Ellen’s longtime good friend, the writer Karen Durbin, eulogized her as “a rationalist with a mystic’s longing for wholeness and transcendence, and a self-described democratic socialist for whom individual freedom was the sine qua non of a decent civilization.” That impatience for liberation compelled her myriad obsessions—pornography, Janis Joplin, reproductive rights, O.J. Simpson—each of which she deemed as important as the next, since it all added up to that massive, thorny thicket that is American culture. “How can anyone claim to hate America deep down and be a rock fan?” she wrote in 1969. “Rock is America—the black experience, the white experience, technology, commercialism, rebellion, populism, the Hell’s Angels, the horror of old age—as seen by its urban adolescents.”

On the page, she was terribly rational, and convincing, as well as funny. (I often think back to “Classical and Baroque Sex in Everyday Life”, which has lines like, “Eating in bed is baroque, although artichoke hearts and sour cream are more classical than potato chips and pizza,” and, “The apotheosis of multiple orgasm is an establishment baroque substitute for the old-fashioned classical ideal of coming together.”) This persuasiveness, combined with her personal demeanor, which was understated to the point of being utterly inexpressive, made her seem intimidating upon first meeting. Unless you were an extroverted, non-reactive type, it was easy to take her stoicism as a personal indictment, or even just assume that she was mean. Or so I thought when I first met her in 2000. But then I took the trouble to find her three essay collections, Beginning to See the Light (1982), No More Nice Girls (1992), and Don’t Think, Smile! (1999), and learned that churning beneath that seeming aloofness was one of the sharpest, most honest and generous minds I’d ever meet.

The essay that drove this home was “Next Year in Jerusalem,” which I went on to photocopy and mail out to various friends over the years. In 1976, Ellen’s shock and incredulity over her younger brother Michael’s sudden conversion to Orthodox Judaism led her to visit him in Jerusalem for six weeks. Michael was 25, Ellen was 34. They’d been raised in a secular, middle-class liberal household in Queens (which means, yes, that after an adulthood spent in Greenwich Village, she’d returned to her natal neighborhood in later age and died not far from where she was born). That Ellen’s own worldview had been forever changed by the 1960s made it even harder for her to stomach that someone she loved was signing on to what initially seemed a chauvinistic, oppressive religion. But rather than rail against her brother, she exchanged letters, asked questions, heard him out, and ended up traveling to Israel herself to see if the same thing would happen to her. All this from a woman who argued convincingly against the very idea of the nuclear family! The 20,000-word chronicle of the trip and her internal conflict, published at length in Rolling Stone, is painful, truthful, unsentimental and, in spite of being so deeply personal, utterly without self-regard. At the funeral, Michael devoted the entirety of his eulogy to that essay alone.

And that, over time, was what I came to learn from Ellen the person. It wasn’t that she was without affect, it was that she was practically without ego, or at least as egoless as someone can be while still being a real person who’s not a complete drip, or a saint. (She did have an adorable laugh, which entailed shrinking back and putting her hand to her mouth—an uncharacteristically feminine gesture.) When I think of that year I worked with Ellen as her graduate assistant, I remember us sitting for hours and hours, a couple of yards apart, typing away at our computers: she working on essays or lectures or emails to friends, I probably on emails to friends, in near-monastic silence. We talked about our lives occasionally, but for the most part Ellen saved herself completely for the page. It was the first time I had witnessed, so close up, such a singular intellectualism. Hers was a life completely committed to its ideas.

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