I never read Sexual Politics. That's the most famous work of Kate Millett, who died earlier this week. This text, feminist scholars say, is one of the first to highlight the role of patriarchy in women's oppression, calling out male writers for their thinly disguised sexism.
They call Kate Millett a feminist scholar too, though she primarily just wrote what she wantedabout Iran, about torture, about mental illness, about her motherand made sculptures and the odd film or two. Sexual Politics sits on my shelf, and in light of being a nonbinary writer and accidental activist who runs a performance series about gender, sexuality, and feminism, I really think I should read it soon. But that isn't the Kate Millett book I read when I was 18.
Despite this obvious gap in her bibliography, I consider myself a Millett devotee, which made writing her obituary for the Windy City Times a weirdly painful task. I remember being 18 and seeing on her website that she offered writing classes on her Christmas tree farm in Poughkeepsie, New York, and realizing that by the time I was ready to be her student, she might be too old. I remember going to see the film She's Beautiful When She's Angry with the woman who is now my girlfriend and tearing up when Kate Millett appeared on the screen. I'd never heard her speak before, only seen the bubbly pictures of her beaming in round glasses, or the sterner later ones with her sheaf of hair and level gaze.
The book I read first was The Loony Bin Trip. I can't believe the college library had it, an obscure relic of some purchaser, no doubt. I was writing a novel ( at 18, I know ) with a bipolar character who was also, probably, gay. Millett's orientation came as a slight surprise, and I find it funny that the thing I perhaps related to the most in her relationship with Sophie was her sense of disconnection. Their relationship was failing, partly as a result of Millett's condition, and I think … I felt bad for her? I wanted to have a partner I wanted to care about so deeply.
I don't know what made me keep reading Millett after that. I was suspicious of my motives too. I was 18 and accused of being gay for years. I figured that explained my curiosity on the subject. It must have been Sita next, because, well, perhaps I was going to write about a lesbian relationship? Again, that aching disconnection, the constant processing, appealed to me, the mundane, ever-present wonderings of where you might be in your love's esteem. It seemed to hint at a desirable passion, a passion that years of reading voraciously never quite gave me before. It scared me, but it also excited me.
And then, of course, there was Flying, the most remarkably raw descent into Millett's mind that she ever wrote. There's a scene where she loses a notebook in a London cab, the notebook where she's actually writing the memoir, a testament to the work's fevered feel. Millett was fiery, flighty yet oddly on point. She provided a cavalcade of detail and emotion to make her point, and it often seemed like she didn't care that you cared what her point was, just that she got to express it. What are my feelings on Flying? I winced at her shame, her sense that her life was out of control, appreciated the cameo by her friend Yoko Ono and her new famous husband and observed how tenderly Millett wanted her shy friend Bookie. Above all, I marveled at her candor.
As I reacquainted myself with Millett's past to craft her obituary, marveling how the Wikipedia page had grown since 2008, I found this bit of language, "Millett wrote her autobiographical books Flying and Sita about coming out as gay partly an important consciousness-raising activity. She realized beginning an open dialogue is important to break down the isolation and alienation that hiding in privacy can cause."
I don't think Kate Millett gave me the sense that it was OK to be gay or bi: she took a lot of crap for daring to express herself and she wasn't ashamed to write about that crap or her insecurities. But she let me start that dialogue within, and she did give me the sense that sexuality and love were infinitely complex, a message that slid neatly into my rapidly assembling worldview. If I hadn't read her, I don't think I would have been quite as willing to express the curiosity that led me to take a writing class on Gender and Difference. It was taught by an old gay man, who shared with us incredible, poignant scenes about attraction and identity in Baldwin and Woolf, but was sorely lacking in knowledge on lesbian sex writing.
So was I: I brought in Flying for us all to read in class. People read it out loud, their eyebrows shooting off their heads at the phrase "turrets of her cervix." Everyone agreed it was universally terrible, overwrought, which, frankly, embarrassed the shit out of me, because this was their one shot to learn about how to write a lesbian sex scene. I wasn't even out at the time, out barely even to myself, and I brought this in! It was that important to me! And I don't agree. I can "recall" the phrase "turrets of her cervix" so clearly, the crinkling of The New York Times, her enemy, thwarting her access to her lover's hips, describing the frenzied passion I had yet to experience. That I recall the scene means it's indelible in a way Millett probably wanted.
I'm not alone in finding Millett a touchstone. Linda Bubon wrote on my Facebook page that she partly wanted to start Women and Children First Bookstore after she couldn't find Sita anywhere on a shelf. If you've read Fun Home, you know Alison Bechdel checked Flying out of the library and brought it home to her closeted father, the last book they collaboratively read together. I identify so much with young Bechdel and her stack of books, her independent study of lesbianism. Millett, even in 2008, was a relic of another age, but she's what I found, and her complicated message was the right message for me.
In a bookstore in 2014, visiting Boston with my girlfriend at the time, I found a signed copy of Sita. I debated. I had a copy of Sita already, though Millett was often both out of print and weirdly hard to find in used bookstores. I did not need to spend any more money on this trip. But I knew, as I held the old hardcover, this would be the closest I ever got to Kate Millett. The signed Sita sits on my bookcase now. I read it to understand my own relationship ambiguity, and to celebrate the complications living a life according to your desiresintellectual, physical, and emotionalcan lead. I wish I had gotten to meet its author.
Liz Baudler is a Chicago-area freelance writer whose work often appears in Windy City Times. She co-hosts Sappho's Salon, a performance series about gender, sexuality and feminism, at Women and Children First Bookstore.