Staging Andrea's Last Words
A manuscript discovered after Andrea Dworkin's death, written about her drug rape, is now a theater piece. Her life partner tells why.
In May 1999, at the age of 52, Andrea went to Paris. She had just completed her book Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel, and Women's Liberation, a monumental project that consumed her for nine years. The work included immersion in Holocaust literature and was so draining her health suffered. She needed a break badly. She wanted to take a vacation in Paris, a city she loved.
She was happy there; we spoke daily by phone and she told me. She took long walks. She saw art. She began writing a new book. She was resting and replenishing what she had sacrificed for Scapegoat.
One day she called in a state of alarm and agitation. She told me she thought she had been raped. In the hotel. While she was blacked out from a drugged drink. She was beside herself with confusion and distress. I tried to think fast and calm her. I said she should call her gynecologist, whose number I would get her. She didn't want to deal with authorities because she didn't speak French. I told her she should fly back home immediately on the first flight she could get.
The experience had shattered her. She struggled to recover. She had terrifying nightmares. She consulted two therapists. She went on antianxiety meds. Her health declined further.
For Andrea, writing was always a way to understand what she otherwise could not, so I was relieved when soon after the Paris ordeal she told me she had begun to write about it. Months later she showed me a first-person essay titled "The day I was drugged and raped." When I read it I was troubled. I recognized the veracity of everything in it, but I was fearful that this pubic disclosure would hurt her. I also knew this was an instance when the last thing I should do was make editorial suggestions or be a filter. If only for the sake of her healing process, Andrea needed to speak aloud what she wanted to say, on her own terms. So in June 2000, about a year and one month after she was drug-raped, the piece as she wrote it was published.
Neither Andrea nor I anticipated the disbelieving and derisive attacks that followed—a contemptuous cacophony that accused her of, among other things, concocting the story to get attention. As I knew her to be tormented daily by ongoing and worsening physic and physical symptoms resulting from the trauma, I was shocked and angered by this reaction. Not only did it bear no relationship to her reality; it exacerbated her pain. I thought the attackers, all women, should be ashamed.
In the last years of Andrea's life, the dark cloud that hovered after Paris slowly lifted and let in light. Her fighting spirit was reclaimed and she was working again. She wrote and published Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant. Though she could no longer accept speaking engagements (she was unable to travel due to bone disease, as she describes in "Through the pain barrier"), at the time of her death in April 2005 she was deep into researching and writing what would have been her fourteenth book.
After Andrea died, I found a manuscript on her computer that I did not know existed. The text file had been closed and date-stamped August 30, 1999—about three months after her drug rape in Paris. I took a look, realized it was about that anguish, saw it was dedicated to J.S. (me) and E.M. (Elaine Markson, her dear friend and agent)—and promptly put it aside. I could not bear to read it.
As time went by and my grief became not so constant, I realized that whatever emotional reaction I was avoiding, I had a responsibility to read that piece. When I braced myself and finally did, I was overwhelmed and awed. Because what I discovered was a 24,000-word autobiographical essay, composed in twelve impassioned sections, as powerful and beautifully written as anything Andrea ever wrote. It was searingly personal, fierce and irreverent, mordantly witty, emotionally raw. It was also clearly not a draft; it was finished, polished as if for publication. And I understood why she did not show it to me or Elaine. She had to have known it would devastate us. Because she had written it in the form of a suicide note.
Obviously it wasn't an actual suicide note, or at least didn't turn out to be. Andrea lived on after completing it, kept to an intense writing schedule, and died in her sleep of heart inflammation. But in choosing to write in that form, she found and released language with which to speak in her emotional extremity that gave utterance to the experience of being a drug-rape survivor as no other major writer has ever done.
As Andrea's literary executor, I now had to decide what to do with that manuscript. Clearly she wrote it for her own sake, to excavate and exorcise her pain by shaping it into language through the agency of her art. But I honestly did not know whether she meant it to be in the world.
One day as I was rereading it, something about the writing struck me: the voice of it was like a dramatic monologue or monodrama, an eloquent solo theater piece. I began to think that a live performance of the work could be a way for Andrea's words to be in the world. Heard by an audience, aloud on stage. In a way that would honor and express the passion from which she wrote.
In early May 2014 the piece, titled Aftermath, was performed six times in New York City in the Willa Cather Room of the Jefferson Market Library. The text was entirely Andrea's (the original manuscript cut by half to run 90 minutes). The director and dramaturg was Adam Thorburn, a longtime friend and collaborator. The performer was a phenomenally gifted actor, Maria Silverman.
Audiences were intensely engaged. Night after night in post-show talkbacks there was overwhelming sentiment that the piece should go on. From those talkbacks it was clear that Aftermath spoke both to people who knew Andrea (and/or her work) and to people who had never heard of her. A post-performance online survey asked audience members to say what the piece was for them and meant to them. Here are some responses:
"The writing was painful, poetic, incisive. The actress was superb."
"It was intense, painful, occasionally funny, and incredibly worthwhile."
"Moving, touching, gut wrenching in the best way, brilliant writing, superlative performance, beautifully directed...wanting more!"
"It blew me away. So full of deep truths, so beautifully written, so powerfully performed. I thought it was fantastic."
"This was incredibly moving. As honest and powerful as anything I had heard in a long time."
Aftermath has since been accepted into the United Solo Theatre Festival in New York City, where it will be performed in fall 2014. I am seeking other circumstances in which audiences in the U.S., and someday around the world, can have the powerful experience of Aftermath.
At each step in putting this theater project together, I have wished I could talk with Andrea about it. I would want to tell her how the words she showed no one are now reaching and affecting audiences in live performance.
As an author Andrea was always an artist, and Aftermath as literature is no exception. The stirring writing ranges dramatically over many themes—her aspirations when she was young, her erotic and romantic relationships, the marriage in which she was battered, her understanding of the connection between Jews and women, her take on President Clinton's behavior, her deep commitment to helping women, her critique of women who betray women. And the fact that Aftermath is acted means audiences get to hear an emotional dimensionality in Andrea's voice that in life she shared only with me and her closest friends—trenchant and oracular, as the public knew her, but also tender, sardonic, sorrowful, vulnerable, funny.
Andrea also always wanted her art to be of use. To matter, to make a difference. So I would want to let her know that through Aftermath her fearless, unfiltered articulation of her solitary anguish in the aftermath of being drug-raped is now touching other survivors of sexual abuse, female and male—helping them come to terms with what is incomprehensible and unspeakable about their own experience, helping them not feel so alone in it.
To receive updates about Aftermath: The Andrea Dworkin Theater Project, "like" its Facebook page. For tickets to the United Solo run in New York City, click here. For production inquiries, email [email protected].
John Stoltenberg's essays include "Living With Andrea Dworkin" (1994), Imagining Life Without Andrea" (2005), and "Andrea Was Not Transphobic" (2014). This article is adapted from "Andrea Dworkin's Last Rape," originally published in the UK in Feminist Times.