Last year, around this time, I received word that a long ago friend of mine, with whom I had sporadic communications in the previous decades, had died. She was Shulamith Firestone, whom I met way back in 1964, in Chicago. It was after I’d returned from bumming around Europe and then Mexico for around a year and a half, and had made some of my first films. We met because she was the girlfriend of my friend Charles (Chick), from my days at the Institute of Design, (IIT). I went to Mexico to be in a film for him – which if I recall he ended up cutting me out completely though I was, comically, his lead character! On my return to Chicago in summer of 1964 we shared a flat at the south end of the Loop, immediately beside the “L.” The trains went by, loudly, like clockwork, right out the window. Through this I got to know, fall in love with Laya, (and the rest), Shulie’s younger sister. I remained in touch with her through all these years, as, fitfully, I did with Shulamith, who went on to become a kind of shooting star of the then birthing feminist movement. She was deeply involved, as the following material will show. I saw her occasionally after she moved to New York, and once took a little trip with her from there to Boston, I think in the early 70’s – the reasons for which are lost in the fog of my memory. I saw her a handful of times since, and corresponded with her a little. The last email, perhaps less than a decade ago, said something to the effect that she – the Shulamith I had known – no longer existed, deleted by the meds and institutionalization she’d been through.
While I couldn’t say I’d been present enough to actually observe, I did see enough, and my experiences in the radical left of the time (one of the founders of the left group Newsreel; deeply involved in the Chicago convention, and many other things) showed me in principle how such things seem to work, and to surmise that Shulamith, way out front in what at the time was a social heresy, got chewed to pieces by the mass media, and then by her erstwhile radical sisters. Such is the way of politics, of whatever tilt. As noted in the following, she withdrew in consequence, though perhaps it did not withdraw from her.
With Laya’s OK, I post the following, as I think it provides a glimpse into the tenor of those times, and perhaps in turn a small bit of history for those who were not present then, and for some who were, but were not actively involved inside, a clearer picture of what happened in those years.
Perhaps it is a function of time, age, experience, and of course a close personal connection – but as I read this my eyes tear. I am thrown back upon my whole life’s trajectory, back to those fervid days of youth, one in this instance arbitrarily set in the turmoil of the 60’s. For those who preceded me it might have been the trauma of the Great Depression of the 30’s, or of World War Two which left its stamp. For those of the current younger generation it might be the shock of 9/11 (and perhaps realizing that their own government had a hand in it).
As I watch the age spots blossom across my skull and skin, and see the slackening muscle tissue of my body, and am proffered the clear message that death is next – be it tomorrow or 20 years – it cannot help but provoke reflection. Talking with my peers these days, often we concur that it – life, this process we go through – all means nothing, that whatever success (or failure) we have experienced, at bottom, it means nothing. It is a process, which goes nowhere, and finally is empty of any meaning. Such is the wisdom with which a long and fully lived life concludes. The day of Shulamith’s death isn’t really known – her body was found some days after she had died, perhaps of a heart attack, perhaps of starvation. As in the old black spiritual, you must cross that river by yourself. By necessity, Shulamith did, though in a real sense tragically, she lived much of her life in the isolation of herself.
I do not in any way believe in an after-life, or the other consolations we invent for ourselves to wash away the reality of death, or the termination of ourselves, and the final meaninglessness of our lives. I wish I had had the opportunity in life to give Shulamith what she needed and deserved, a kind of comfort which life refused her.
[For an excellent article on Shulamith, by Susan Faludi, see this.]