Illustration by Milano Chow
Vice: This story feels really autobiographical.
John Stoltenberg (Dworkin’s widower): Andrea was married in Amsterdam to a Dutch radical and anarchist who began to beat her horribly, and she made her escape from that almost literally with just the coat on her back. She managed to come back to the United States and bring her two dogs. One of them was named Velvet and one of them was named Gringo. Somehow, Andrea got these dogs shipped to the United States and picked them up, and because she had almost no money, she was not able to support both dogs. She gave up Velvet for adoption. It was one of the great remorses of Andrea’s life. It haunted her that she wasn’t able to take care of that dog. I think that she began writing this novel to work through that experience of abandoning a dog with whom she clearly identified—not least because they shared that brutal environment of this sadistic man.
’m half dead from grief because I turned into trash. There was the day I hit my dog. I changed sides. I went to the killer side even though I was fraught with fear. I was garbage inside. I had become trash. What could I do if I couldn’t touch her without making her bleed. He had contaminated me, I was poisoned inside, I was closer to death with maggots on me. I never believed I could do it and yet there I was, her desperate eyes half-shaded, looking at me, the devil. I shaked. I couldn’t stop trembling. I was some kind of poison tree. I never had been so close to suicide because hitting her was slandering every part of me. I don’t know how the men do it over and over again. I did it over and over again. She was so afraid of me and she loved me. The worst was that she loved me. I went down by the river. I took her with me. We sat and watched the water move without moving. She was small for her breed. When she sat, her interior side made half of a circle, the underbelly a gray and white color, vulnerable, exposed. Then as her body went to the top she got darker and her edge made a line against the sky. If she breathed heavy the edge moved, pumped up and down, moved as if it were a small mountain straining against the sky. She was a world, a simple line drawing that made a universe as if there were nothing else. There could be things everywhere, grass swaying in the wind, rain pouring down, hills stubborn and stationary, cans and bullets and men, several men, and still she was everything and everyone. There could be a landscape that had brushstrokes, tiny, wild, and she was the unity, the act of grace, the beauty. No one knows enough about how any of them bring to earth the sublime but with her there was no point guessing. She was one of the great artists before modernity, a desperate affirmation. She was small for her breed. She had a circle at her center. There was an empty round space in her middle. It was tender, it was simple, it was empty, and then her body pushed up to the top, an edge, a line, against the sky, against the mountain or hill or landscape, a flat landscape filled with color, and she sat. She sat. Her head moved not at all. Her head had dignity, beauty, and a profile that did not show age so much as time. She sat still. She was small, not dainty but elegant, a head made of something like crystal or clay though it was flesh and blood. Her eyes were sad because I had turned on her and hurt her. Her eyes were brown with a green tint and they were filled with sorrow. She was young but grief aged her. I can’t remember when it started except for the fact that it did start; he hit me, I hit her, except that it can’t be that simple. I was afraid of him, that he would come back and there would be shit on the floor or some other egregious error she did but I’d be blamed and his fist would get me. There is no reason. What I remember is that I pounded her and her body collapsed inward and her eyes looked up and around as if trying to see what had gone wrong in the world, what hideous thing I had done or why, where the pain came from, why the day smashed open, why. I had the same reaction to him, why. But for me it was worse because I knew better, someone hurt me and I knew it was a calamity. There’s no reason except I had reached the point that I was ready to die because I couldn’t stand it anymore and maybe she couldn’t either, I think she couldn’t. I didn’t have her grace or beauty. I was just someone, a person, trembling, afraid. I’d put on clothes to cover my bruises, I’d hide the marks he made on me, I was just a fucking awful human being, not someone important or special, not someone who stood out or up. There was nothing good about me. I crawled around the floor when he’d chase me, a newspaper or belt in hand. I was just someone, in human terms no one. She had a whole world surrounding her body as if it were the backdrop. She existed and everything else was background. I never wanted to be important. I didn’t deserve attention, even his attention. I was quiet and I was without any special qualities. She on the other hand had a dignity that included purpose and quietude. When the men wrote about existentialism they meant her and her way of living, I’m sure of it. I had a feeling of being garbage and nothing, not the sun or moon, could erase it or make it less desperate. I wormed around, never knowing what I could do. I was a stupid kind of person, no one. I was passionless and had a lack of what some ladies call self-esteem, but what is that? I want to go into a shack and live there until I died and no one could convince me otherwise because there’s hair and eyes and you use them on men and all the other body parts but it’s garbage really, to think that you can get one or have one, a personality or a talent, it’s easier to be one, someone’s piece. When I hit her I wanted the floor to open up and grab me inside it and I think that’s fair or as fair as anything could be. I was grapes tread on or something else tread on and it had nothing to do with don’t tread on me, I just was stepped on all over but the tragedy was her because the life was in her. I’ve never loved anyone so much. I took her with me when I ran away and no one ever tried so hard to make her be safe but she wasn’t safe from me and so how could it be that she had any place? I’m in love I would think but how can I love this thing, she’s a thing even more than I am but it’s not true because I’m a thing even more than she is. I would have given her my heart, my soul, all my money, all my things, I didn’t have much but it was all hers. Let them say what they want but I’m desperate for the love of her, of her. The girls would say I loved a dog as if that’s something dirty but I never touched her in a bad way except when I was corrupt enough to hit her, in which case my love for her meant nothing. She was small for her breed, which is why he had contempt for her but I didn’t have contempt for her so why would I hurt her? There’s pit bulls and other ugly, mean dogs and they’d attack people but she was a small dog, not meant to be small, a German shepherd, the dog of anti-Semitism, except that’s such an insult to her because she was never going to be used to hurt Jews and I have a friend who was in jail in South America and the police used German shepherds to attack and frighten the prisoners and I’d die before I’d let that happen to her, but there’s the big, angry dogs who kill without meaning anything, who’d rip someone apart, tear out their necks and pull off their arms and she’d never do that, except that she had a tragic life because I gave her one, I gave her a tragic life, and I’m the one who’s guilty, not her. I see people playing with their dogs and I want her to have that sweet kind of life but she couldn’t have it because of me, because I wasn’t sweet with a sweet life and the boy I lived with wasn’t sweet either. He wanted a big dog, a dangerous dog, an aggressive dog, a master of aggression like he himself was. He wasn’t small for his breed or cute or sweet, he didn’t have a sweet life but he didn’t want one. He was a big dog, aggressive and mean. I was nothing but he wasn’t nothing. How did I end up here? The girls talk about love and all that. ANDREA DWORKIN Vice: Was this man so brutal in real life? John: I believe so. Andrea went to a palm reader once, and she was told that she was going to have very important relationships with two tall, blond men. This brutal husband of hers was the first and I was the second. In terms of stature, we were more alike than different. During the first ten years Andrea and I lived together, it wasn’t uncommon for me to walk into the bedroom and for her to wake up totally alarmed because she believed I was this husband of hers. I took that to be her body’s sense memory of something that was so horrible that the slightest little thing could trigger it. A lot of women have reacted to the extremeness of Andrea’s life, and have a hard time comprehending. “How could so much bad happen to one person?” On the other hand, she has a wide readership of women to whom worse has happened. What was Andrea like in person? So sweet and funny. She knew me better than I know myself. Dworkin’s book Intercourse, is being reprinted by Basic Books later this year.