Radical Feminism

04.23.13

Shulamith Firestone's Madness

In the New Yorker, Susan Faludi describes the madness of Shulamith Firestone, the founding mother of radical feminism:

Her friend Robert Roth, the editor of the literary magazine And Then, recalled her wandering the East Village in disguise—sporting odd clothes and hairdos, and calling herself Kathy. Sometimes she kept far out of sight.

She took a summer fellowship at an art school in Nova Scotia, where she tried, unsuccessfully, to work on the multimedia project, and then lived, for a time, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she worked, unrecognized, as a typist at M.I.T. John Duff recalled visiting her in the early seventies at her Tenth Street apartment and “this cockroach was walking across her desk.

She went to crush it, and its guts smeared out in this really grotesque awful mess. And her remark? ‘That’s the story of my life.’ ”

It’s unclear when the first symptoms of schizophrenia surfaced, but the decisive episode in its onset was a family crisis. In 1972, [her brother] Daniel had left the family faith, quit a job at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he had been teaching classics, and joined a Zen monastery in Rochester, New York. Two years later, he drove to a desolate area of New Mexico, made a makeshift Buddhist shrine, and shot himself in the heart, a fact not revealed until after he was buried with full Orthodox rites, a privilege that is denied in the case of suicide. Firestone refused to attend the funeral. …

[When her father died at age 65, [her sister Laya] had to send friends to Shulamith’s apartment to get her to call, and, when she finally did, she was “ranting delusional stuff about how we were all part of a big conspiracy.” [the third sister] Tirzah told me, “It was when our father died that Shulie went into psychosis. She lost that ballast he somehow provided.”

In early 1987, Firestone’s landlord on Second Street called Laya to say that the situation had become “dire.” Neighbors were complaining that Firestone was screaming in the night and that she had left the taps running until the floorboards gave way. Laya flew to New York and found Shulamith emaciated and panhandling, carrying a bag holding a hammer and an unopened can of food. In the roman à clef, Firestone wrote that she had not eaten for a month—fearing that her food had been poisoned—and “looked like something out of Dostoevsky (which actually helped her beggar’s earnings).” The next day, Laya took the action for which, she said, “Shulie never forgave me,” and brought her to the Payne Whitney Clinic for evaluation. Her condition was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia, and she was involuntarily transferred to a residential facility in White Plains. “I am in deepest despair with no movement possible in any direction,” Firestone wrote to Laya some weeks later. “Do not rest assured. Things are not O.K.” On the back of the page, she scrawled in red ink, “Are you even on my side? Are you on your own side?”