Lewis isn’t concerned with incremental changes within our existing systems—Full Surrogacy Now, for example, doesn’t make any concrete policy proposals or spend time worrying over issues like the gender pay gap or paid family leave. She’s concerned with much bolder possibilities: In Lewis's utopian future, the family as we know it no longer exists. Everyone, regardless of gender, is a surrogate; we mother each other.And so, no, Lewis didn’t find that looking after her sick mother contradicted her stance on the nuclear family. If we had achieved the ends of family abolition already, there would have been a vast network of people to care for her mother in those final months of her life, not just Lewis and her brother.“Nothing could have better illustrated the impossibility, the unjustness, and the structural scarcity—for all concerned—baked into the heart of the private nuclear household,” she said.
Lewis imagines a future where the labor of making new human beings is shared among all of us, “mother” no longer being a natural category, but instead something we can choose.
Much of the writing Lewis did during and immediately after her schooling foretells Full Surrogacy Now. But she also applied her critical feminist eye to film and television, writing about Nymphomaniac, Phantom Thread, The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu adaption, and a British reality dating show called First Dates. It was this last piece of criticism that caught the attention of Verso editor Rosie Warren.“Review” isn’t quite the right word for what Lewis does in these essays. She’s not evaluating the artistic success of these works so much as she is reading them closely to understand how we are living in the world as it is, and how we might go about making it otherwise. Phantom Thread, for example, isn’t a wry love story, but proof that romance is ”a series of atrocities people perpetrate on one another in the name of love and art, for the sake of class power.” And The Handmaid’s Tale—a favorite subject of criticism for Lewis—is hardly a feminist dystopia for its cosplaying fans. Rather it is a feminist utopia, portraying a fantasy of solidarity where all women experience exactly the same form of oppression, regardless of other identity categories like race or class.
In Lewis's utopian future, the family as we know it no longer exists. Everyone, regardless of gender, is a surrogate; we mother each other.
Even so, Haraway doesn’t get a free pass. Though Lewis builds on the theory found in Cyborg Manifesto and other early Haraway texts, she has critiqued some of the scholar’s more recent argumentation. In 2017, Lewis penned an essay for Viewpoint Magazine arguing that Haraway appeared to betray her own principles in her latest book, Staying With the Trouble. In Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway envisions a utopian post-gender future created by every member of the human species; but in Staying With the Trouble, Haraway calls for a dramatic reduction of the population in order to reduce humanity’s effects on the climate—a cynical turn toward misanthropy, Lewis wrote.To Lewis’s surprise, she received an email from Haraway herself not long after the piece went up, inviting her into conversation with several other big-name feminists who were cc’ed. Haraway told Lewis that she had no choice but to “contend” with what Lewis had written: a well-argued piece of criticism. (Haraway told me she wasn’t available for interview due to travel.)
Lewis’s call to abolish the family is also a call to re-energize and repoliticize feminism.
Sitting beside me in her apartment, Lewis showed me a scrapbook her mother had made, filled with photos of her playing with buckets of water and grinning at the beach—a reminder of her own arguments in Full Surrogacy Now that we should, figuratively, return to the “wateriness” in which we were gestated. It is at this time, Lewis says, when we are suspended in amniotic fluid, that the boundaries of our physical selves are in flux. To acknowledge that this is also true in life—that we are all inextricably connected to each other, biological family or not—would create the conditions for “radical kinship.”She also showed me one of the zines she and Osterweil gave to guests at their wedding, which include speeches from friends and promises to each other. The latter could not properly be called “vows,” because they are in fact disavowals: of the institution of marriage, the biological family, and the dysfunction that both can breed. (They had a more traditional ceremony in Boston, at the request of Osterweil’s mother.)To spend any amount of time with Lewis is to feel that the world she imagines is nearby. Whether we realize it or not, many of us are already familiar with her arguments for abolishing the family. When we talk about the prevalence of domestic violence and child abuse—when some of us find ourselves within family units that perpetrate these crimes—we acknowledge that, in horror movie parlance, the violence is coming from inside the family.We may not call it “family abolition” or “full surrogacy,” but many people have begun to erect the caregiving communes Lewis wants to see realized. Queer people build “chosen families,” as do other marginalized groups who depend on each other for their survival. And even within traditional nuclear households, parents might find themselves saying that it “takes a village” to raise children—an acknowledgement that it’s not a job one can do on their own.In many ways, Lewis shows us, the family has already been abolished. At the same time, the “open-source, fully collaborative gestation” she imagines remains on a distant horizon. Riffing on a famous quote from the philosopher Fredric Jameson, Lewis considers that “if it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, it is perhaps easier still to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the family.”Nonetheless, Lewis sees glimmers of this future everywhere. When she is surrounded by her partner and her friends, she sees that she is “mothered by many.” They are not her biological relatives, but they are each other’s kin in an even truer sense: They have chosen to care for each other without the dictates of the nuclear family structure. In Lewis’ feminist utopia, family has not vanished; it has become more wild, more abundant, and less constrained.Just a few days after her mother died, Lewis confused a woman crossing the street for her. “It provoked, in the moment, a torrent of intense tears,” Lewis wrote on Twitter. “But now I’m thinking about it and realizing she hasn’t just evaporated. She’ll always be around even after she stops haunting (e.g.) pedestrian crossings in Philadelphia.”Mothers, of course, are everywhere.Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.Follow Marie Solis on Twitter.
"I know the family not to be a benign ‘default' situation. I’ve always known.”