Rebel Girl - Processing Kathleen's Book

Me at Juxtapoz with the poster from Olympia's IPU music festival that I didn't even attend but still have... to this day!

Last week, on the day it was released, I bought Rebel Girl, at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, and I could not have been more excited. I'm nearly done. Maybe another 30 pages, but I need to get this out because I can't stop thinking about it.

It's Kathleen Hanna's memoir as a feminist punk, the bulk of which takes place in Olympia, Washington, in the early 90's. I was very eager to learn what she had to say about her experience in that city at that time, because I was there, too.

She fills in a lot of gaps in my understanding of what I experienced when I lived there from the spring of 1992 until January 1994, as well as how that time has continued to affect my life (and the lives of millions of others) long afterward.

It's given me a lot to think about. Or, if you like, it's blown open a lifelong wound that I don't know will ever heal.

I ended up living in Olympia because I was 23 years old and had next to nothing except a friend who would let me stay with her. I had no home, job, money, school, partner, family support, few friends, and nowhere else to go. I had a crappy car and some clothes.

In 1991, I met Naomi when we worked together at the 1-800 call center for Red Lion Hotels in our mutual hometown of Vancouver, Washington. She was on her summer break from college and carried a copy of something written by William S. Burroughs, so I knew she was cool. I knew I wanted to be friends with her.

In the fall, after she went back to school, I got fired because I got my nose pierced and refused to take out the small hoop that was healing a hole in the side of my right nostril. I didn't find a new job before I ran out of money, so I had to move out of the apartment I shared with my friend Heidi and into a shitty old trailer in my mom's driveway. When it rained, the trailer's roof leaked above the bed, so I slept next to a big bowl to catch it. It was autumn in Vancouver, so it rained all the time.

From the Help Wanted ads in the newspaper, yes, in the paper newspaper, I found and was hired for a job as a live-in caregiver for a paraplegic man in Oregon City who sexually harassed me. It's amazing really, that someone who I had complete physical control over still managed to be so demeaning and creep me the hell out. I controlled his food and fluids (those going in and those coming out) and his shit and showering and medication, yet he used our situation to ask lots of questions about my private life and make unwanted comments about my body. I was not a fan of that guy, but that doesn't excuse the fact that I went out at night and got too drunk to come home and put him to bed, not once, but twice.

Someone did come to rescue him, as I knew they would. He lived next door to his parents, various siblings, and cousins, so he didn't have to sleep in his wheelchair. He was fine. But obviously, he fired me and therefore I also became homeless.

After I'd exhausted my couch surfing options in Vancouver and Portland, Naomi invited me to visit her at Evergreen State College, which is located in a lush forest just a short drive from the center of Olympia, the capital of Washington state.

When I arrived and walked into her dorm's living room, everyone looked up at me and smiled, and Naomi exclaimed, "Hi Robyn! You look BEAUTIFUL!! Let's do acid and go downtown!" That surely exaggerated compliment was a salve to hear because I felt like there was nothing nice in the world left for me. With no responsibilities and feeling adventurous, I agreed and we did exactly that. My first exploration of Olympia proper was a magical experience.

Naomi let me "live" on the futon in her dorm's dining room. Six women were living in that dorm, and I made it seven. I never got enrolled at the college, though I very much wanted to, and I really was an imposition on everyone who lived there. When I got an opportunity for a cheap room next to the school, with a super nice guy named Dan, in Associated Student Housing (ASH), I took it. I got a job at the school cafeteria over the summer, where I met Conrad, who became my roommate, along with James, and then James' drama, sorry, girlfriend, Rachel, who was prone to crying, screaming, slamming doors, and being generally disruptive. I lived in the living room and rented the two bedrooms to Conrad and James so I could afford to live there.

It was Conrad and James, who were in a band together, that introduced me to The Scene. Living out at the college, I was hardly aware of anything going on in town.

Olympia changed me and affected the direction of my life in a massive way. In some sense, I feel like it saved my life.

Prior to losing my job at Red Lion and then my job as a live-in pooper scooper, I had given up the privilege of living at my parents' house in order to live with a boyfriend and go to a community college in Vancouver, Washington, so that I could build a real life to parent the child I had when I was a child and had been convinced to not give up for adoption. I'd lost the privilege of raising my child when I told my parents that I planned to move out to be closer to that school, which was a full hour's drive from their house in the woods of Battle Ground, Washington.

"You're free to do what you want, but you aren't taking that baby anywhere," is what my step-mom said to me following a dramatic silence at the kitchen table when my boyfriend and I revealed that we were going to get an apartment and move in together, as a family.

That boyfriend isn't my child's father, but he loved me and he was up for the whole thing - me, my baby, the three of us living together, all of it. He was and is a good guy who turned into a great dad to his own kids a few years later. It wasn't anything to do with him. It was me.

My parents did not want me to take my child with me.

I was free to do what I wanted, but I wasn't taking that baby anywhere.

It turned out I also wasn't free to even take my baby with me part of the time or for sleepovers or for any extended time. Things got worse over the next year. I was in a constant state of stress, fighting with my parents for access to my child. Eventually, my relationship with my boyfriend became too strained and we broke up. I lost that apartment. My latest but still shitty car had problems. I dropped out of school. I got my nose pierced and got myself fired. I lost the next apartment. I lived with that guy in the wheelchair and got myself fired.

Everything fell apart.

Olympia was where I landed after I fell so far from my family and my child... a life that I was exhausted with anyway and was glad to have some distance from. I didn't want to be separated from my child though, and that was a big part of why I was struggling so much. I was alternately finding hope and inspiration in Olympia's vibrant cultural scene while facing the demoralizing situation of my parents trying to take custody of my child away from me and give it to themselves.

My life was not settled, but it was starting to take shape. It wasn't the right environment to raise a child full-time, though I strongly believed there was no reason why I could not have my child with me some of the time.

It took me a long time to fully appreciate that not only did my parents not try to help me get into a position where I could have my child even part of the time, or all of the time as they promised when they campaigned against my plan of adoption by a lovely and desperate couple whose hopes were later crushed by my changing my mind at the last minute. They didn't just not help me, they fought against me. Initially, my parents wanted me to keep and raise my child myself, or so they claimed. I was 19. "You're going to be an amazing mother," they said and probably wanted to believe. By the time I was living in Olympia, they were actively fighting against me even having unsupervised visits.

It's true, I had a part-time job, no health insurance, and a mediocre-at-best car. I lived in a cheap apartment across the street from a college I wasn't enrolled in with roommates they'd never met, but I knew them! It wasn't where a child might ideally grow up, though it wasn't unheard of. It was a college dorm. It was lively, to be sure, but other children lived there. It wasn't a den of iniquity. It was clean and well-lit, and I had food and medicine, and functioning utilities. It wasn't the seedy underbelly of the carnival that they assumed. Everything was safe. I would never have asked to bring my child there if I thought it wasn't.

My parents never visited me in Olympia. Not once. They never saw any of the five places I lived, some more potentially permanent than others, but all perfectly acceptable. They were acceptable for me, and in my opinion, they were acceptable for my child as well, at least for a visit. They were all safe and nice in their own way. We were young. We were artists and dreamers. We ate and grew healthy food. We read books and listened to records. We talked about feminism and music and people we knew and those we wished we knew. Yes, we had parties, but people are allowed to have parties. I didn't live in a frat house. I lived with hippies and hipsters. I loved Olympia.

To me, my parents' environment was not better. To me, it was bad in ways they could not see. We had and have different values. I value freedom and expression and growth and learning and health and participation in culture. I did not see those values reflected in my family's home. Ever.

Things became ever more volatile with my parents. Following her announcement that I was free to do what I wanted, my step-mom stated that she and my dad had "retained the services of a lawyer" which caused me a minor stroke, I'm certain. At this point, they were actively seeking custody, which I was fighting them for without any representation. Why were they not allowing me to bring my child to visit me? I begged them in person, over the phone, and I wrote letters (some I sent, some I still have) pleading to let me take my child to spend time with me where I lived. I could have demanded, at first, while I still had custody. But at that point, I thought I still had my parents' love to lose. I didn't realize it was already lost, so I was measured in my quest for time with my child.

Only once, in two years, was I allowed to bring my child to visit me in Olympia. Otherwise I always had to go back to the family home I hated, where my child was living with them.

I was very angry with my family, despite my natural desire for them to love me. I felt betrayed and abandoned by the people who were supposed to love me and be there for me, more than anyone else in the world.

I remember having an emotional breakdown once and Naomi came over to console me.

"I don't know what to do with my life, I don't know what I want, I'm so confused and scared and and and..."

She asked me, calmly as she was always calm, "What do you want to do? If you could do anything, what would you do?"

I replied that I'd make a magazine. I'd write.

She said, "Do what you want. You can do what you want to do. Make a zine. Lots of people do that here."

And so I did. My zine gave me a purpose and a direction.

She asked me what it would be about. I replied that it would be about The Scene, in town. I found it so fascinating and exciting.

It became hugely empowering to me, for a while. At first, The Scene showed me that people just like me were writers and musicians, filmmakers, and artists. The Scene was made of people like me who participated in sharing their creativity, in their style and in their words and music and pictures. The Scene was full of inspiring people who opened up the world to me.

The Scene also held people who were challenging. People who were trouble and not who they seemed. People who were a weight or who just weren't part of where I wanted to go.

I was eternally distracted by boys who I wanted to love me. I constantly felt guilty and ashamed of having a child that I'd basically abandoned, although there was no path back to my role as my child's mother, as I was not welcome in my family home. All my meager resources were in Olympia.

In trying to participate in The Scene, my focus was entirely on connecting with others in it, but I found it difficult to be seen or heard.

I think that's one reason Kathleen was such a fixation point for that little society. She was loud and bright, and beautifully so.

It was so much like high school. We were all technically adults, but we dressed and lived as if reclaiming our childhoods in some way, I thought. Kathleen says the same in her book. It's nice to get the validation of that perspective, even now.

In Rebel Girl, she talks about Olympia and Kurt Cobain and says that The Scene was not welcoming to Kurt. That those same Scenesters who looked down their nose at me, also looked down at him. Even when Nirvana blew up and he became wealthy and famous, they still looked down on him because that made him a "sell-out". I didn't realize the depth of that. I don't dare presume how individual people treated him, but he seemed ... fragile about some of them. When I think about how Courtney Love treated and talked about Kathleen, and how she talked about The Scene, and that song she wrote about Olympia, I can see that her derision was defensive.

The Scene was teeming with rich kids playing rock star, according to Kathleen. I had no idea how pervasive that was. I knew some were more supported by their parents than others. I knew Hannah Sternshein had a trust fund. She was "heir" to the Nathan's Hot Dog "fortune". But, at one point, Hannah also worked at McDonald's, so, shrug.

How did they all... live? People had jobs, many of them did, but they weren't well-paying career jobs. They had cool clothes and cars and seemed well-fed. They were able to travel and just hang around cafes all day. Clearly, they were supported in a way I was not. They had something that made them more valuable to The Scene than I did.

The Scene required that you bring it something of value, like a sacrifice, like an oblation. Here you are, my god, my Scene - I bring you... this fanzine.

I was not rich. I did not make friends with many of the rich kids. I interviewed the rich kids. I took photos of the rich kids. I went to their shows and took in their stories. I was not fully cognizant of the delineation between the very privileged kids and the tragic ones, like me, who struggled to have enough money to eat and who were always in danger of becoming unhoused. I didn't really want to see that separation. I wanted to believe that Olympia was where anyone with a pure soul, a creative mind, and a passionate heart could flourish and be venerated for it.

I remember that I was on food stamps. I was so broke that I was on FOOD STAMPS. I would go around town to different grocery stores and buy a precise amount of food so the cost was just over an even dollar amount. Because, back then, food stamps were actual paper coupons, and when you paid with them, you got actual cash coins as change back when the total was short of an even dollar amount. I was so paranoid that I'd be found out milking my food stamps for SPARE CHANGE that I would go to each store only once. As if the food stamp police were on my tail...

That's how I got enough money for a beer, so I could go to the East Side Tavern and play pool, which was free, and pass the time hoping to run into someone, hoping to meet someone.

The entire time I lived there I was desperate for someone to save me. I think people could smell that on me. I went from boy to boy, pleading for security, for affection, for rescue. Rescuing myself felt impossible. I don't think I believed I could. I was pretty sure it was down to luck, meeting the right people who would throw me a line.

I mean, I wanted to do what I wanted to do, with my time. I think I felt like someone should take care of my basic necessities so I could work on my zine and my art. I did not want to chase a career, at all. I wanted to be in this world for art - images, words, music - stories.

In Rebel Girl, Kathleen describes her years of scraping by, stripping for money to pay for tuition at Evergreen... where I wanted to go so badly. But, I owed $400 to the federal student loan program for dropping out halfway through a semester back in Vancouver. I wasn't eligible for any financial aid until I paid back the Pell Grant I already flunked out on.

She stripped to get the money to go to stay with her sister so she could get the abortion care she needed. She stripped to get the money needed to fix her band's tour van. Frat boys would come into the club and put on, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and make her strip to a song named after something SHE wrote.

I think the reason I'm writing this is to process all these years of wondering why I didn't do more. Or, why haven't I done better? Why didn't my life become all about art and stories? I am in a place where I automatically think, oh it was just too hard for me and that's why... that makes sense.

I couldn't have been a stripper, not after what pregnancy did to my body.

However, I am very grateful for my foray into peep shows several years later, with silly outfits and distasteful nudity in a raunchy back room at the Covered Wagon Saloon, dancing to Def Leppard and AC/DC, serving jello shots from my cleavage. That was amazing. That was empowering as hell. Thank you, my beloved Boobzilla.

I wasn't cool.

I wasn't rich.

I wasn't connected.

I wasn't beautiful.

I have no musical talent, and I couldn't carry a note if I had a bucket.

I want to understand why my life turned out the way it has. I thought I had good enough excuses for the ways in which things had not turned out how I wanted. To this day, there is a regular mental tide of blaming and reasoning and listing causes and effects. I could have been... I could have done... if only this or that.

I'm 54, soon to be 55, and sometimes I feel so far from what I hoped for as a child, as a teenager, and as a girl trying so hard to be part of The Scene. I wanted to contribute something of value and be loved for what I brought, not for some association that was externally assigned to me. I wanted attention and validation for my pain. I wanted people to be on my side. I wanted attention to my wounds! It was all so unfair!

But it was all so unfair for Kathleen, too. She wasn't one of the privileged ones in terms of money. She had a lot of awful shit happen to her. While she was practically worshipped by many, she tried projects that didn't work out. She put things out there that got negative feedback, sometimes really mean feedback. She was adored by some, hated by some, and totally ignored or dismissed by others. She was criticized, threatened, and snubbed, too. The thing is she kept at it. She had her vision, I guess. She knew what she wanted. I think? She chased boys, too. She was insecure, too. She was sexually assaulted, too. She had deep, fucked up family trauma, too.

I assumed as much from the songs she sang. I knew she wrote most of the lyrics, but I didn't know the depth of any of them. I am so glad to have read her book for insight into the songs as well.

Bikini Kill's songs were a source of strength to me during my struggles. But, they weren't my songs. They weren't my contribution. I was there for the feminism, but I had no confidence or ideas to advance it beyond what I was able to glean from the feminist artists around me. I had no vision for the future of feminism. I have a talent for parroting what sounds reasonable and right to me.

I was more of an equalist, in that I wanted to please everyone equally. I wanted to please all the men around me because to displease them meant they wouldn't be interested in me, and they wouldn't rescue me. I wanted to please the women around me to validate my pain and heal the wounds of being an outcast in high school, rejected by my friends after having a baby, and betrayed and abandoned by my parents.

There are a lot of stories in the world that speak to the pain of rejection. We know how it can manifest when children are not only unloved at home but unloved in their social environments away from home. And I mean all forms of it - whether blatantly abused and bullied or simply ignored or treated with contempt, as I was.

I think what's really eating at me about Kathleen's book is having to accept the complex truth, her complex truths, about rejection, and standing out and fitting in. Those issues bedeviled her as well. For "those of us with ravaged faces", we struggle to imagine how hard it can be as the queen of The Scene, whether the queen wants the job or not. All the attention looks like an affirmation. And for those of us who've been ignored and invisible, it looks like getting what we need. It looks like winning. There was absolutely nothing about Kathleen, according to her book and according to my recollection of being around her for two years, that indicated she did not want to be the center of attention. She did, but when it came at her in violating ways, of course she was miserable. It must have been a painful journey to get what she wished for only to realize it didn't fix anything. It didn't fix her family trauma. It didn't erase the many experiences of trespass against her body. It didn't make her existence easy, and it came with a bunch of its own trauma and unexpected awfulness. It was hard. I can see that now.

Even those with enviable success have bitter struggles and thwarted dreams. Accepting that makes me have to admit that there are no excuses and no reasons why I couldn't do this or that other than myself. I shrink down and give up easily. I think I can't take the pain of rejection or failure. I currently don't even have the guts to look for a new job despite being miserable at the one I've been at for the past seven years.

What Kathleen has given the world through her grit and determination, and I will always be grateful for this, the stories and art that she has put into the world, I have taken and used to empower myself (and again, I think millions of other women have as well) to embark on my own healing and creative endeavors (it's not like there have been none), however awkward, painful and embarrassing.

I'm doing it again with this book. I'm taking what she's given (to be fair, I paid the full $29.95) and using it to process my own pain, again. And I'm using it to try to give myself the courage to take agency in my unwieldy life, again.

She was and is an absolute freight train of passion for women's empowerment. In the face of the truly awful things she encountered along the way, she went on and on and on, writing, singing, screaming, putting herself on stages, and opening her heart and guts to the world so that others could not only process their pain but hers as well. And, I phrase that specifically, putting the healing of others first, because I really do see that as her north star. She's all kinds of contradiction and humanness. She's not an idol. She is an icon, but she's also a person. I remember the one time we hung out, just us, just for a little visit, in my room that I was subletting at the dyke house in Oly: she was nice. She was genuine and really nice to me.

Everyone wanted a piece of her though. I only now have a sense of what it is to have people climbing up your ass constantly asking for things, wanting to befriend you because of the connections you have. When I was an art journalist, I had my own experience of being connected to something and suddenly having a million people being nice to me.

Actually, that was my second experience with that phenomenon.

In high school, I was a total dork. I wasn't a popular pretty girl with feathered hair and the coolest shoes. I was the girl who was keeping score of who was at the top, who was in the court, and who was a nobody. I was always on the fringe. Not a total nobody, but not a somebody... until Landon.

In my junior year, in French class, I met Landon Selfridge, and he flirted with me. And he ... sort of hung out with me? We made out once? Twice? I don't remember, but there was a very short period of time where I was publicly associated with him. I wasn't his girlfriend per se, but we were sort of together, and that was enough to change my social status in a noticeable way.

Landon was and probably still is a very physically attractive person. His personality was a delight as well. He was so funny and silly and smart and worldly... oh I loved him so. Everyone loved him. He was as kind as he was magnetic. And when I was associated with him, I also became magnetic. The popular girls to whom I'd previously been invisible started making eye contact. Then they began to say hi. Eventually conversations and invitations to hang out outside of class began to occur.

But, as randomly as he was into me, he was over me. And what do you know, the light stopped shining in my direction. I went back to being unloved.

So, I knew what it felt like to experience positive attention for something outside oneself, and for something that others wanted for themselves.

Although, in my case, it was for something that someone else had bestowed upon me and could be taken away.

It was the same when I worked at a famous art magazine. I was a big ol' nobody wanna-be in the San Francisco art scene of the 2000s, but I just kept showing up, with nothing to give, nothing to show for myself. No oblation. I wasn't a rich kid. I wasn't a famous or connected person who could do anything for anyone... until I got a job at Juxtapoz.

After I started working at Juxtapoz, a lot, and I mean a LOT, of people wanted to be my friend. It would have been sickening if it wasn't so healing. I wanted to believe it so badly. I wanted to believe that the people who were making eye contact and saying hi and asking me to hang out outside of class... outside of art shows... well this time they meant it, maybe? This time they were really seeing me. This time all my hidden value was being truly seen. I was finding my place, right?

Three years later, when I was no longer writing for or editing any art publications, a quiet descended upon my phone, my inbox, and my social media, nascent as it was then (oh sweet MySpace). It wasn't so abrupt as it was in high school, but it wasn't subtle either. The light stopped shining on me again, and I wandered off to work at a society magazine because I could get health benefits, which I desperately needed after suffering a massive trauma to my face in a bicycle accident during my low-paid sojourn into art journalism.

I made $14 an hour working for Juxtapoz. I lived in San Francisco in a studio apartment in the Mission and I lived on $14 an hour. My rent was $925 a month and I drove an old, green VW Golf that I bought just so I could commute all the way out to High Speed Productions offices in Hunters Point. I hated that car. And quite frankly, I hated going to that office.

It's ironic, because while other people saw me as someone on the inside, someone who could help them get what they wanted, I was shunned to a windowless storage room in the basement at first. I was not a "cool kid" in that office. I was sexually harassed by Jake Phelps. I know. How dare I speak ill of the venerated dead? Well, sorry. He was an asshole to me. I was condescended to by the editor-in-chief when I started, and it was the next editor-in-chief who got me fired for yelling at him and speaking non-deferentially to him in front of others. Poor baby.

Fausto Vitello treated me with respect. Robert Williams treated me with respect. Gwynn & Sally Vitello treated me like a person. Kevin Convertito was a friend, and William Haugh, and the kid who eventually ended up taking over the website (he's rad I just can't remember his name off the top of my head.) Deena, Jenny, and Tina were pals. The guys at Slap Mag were lovely. Everyone else was a fucking asshole.

Mario, the maintenance person, was the best one there. John Trippe said that to me, verbatim. I had been contributing to his art website, Fecal Face Dot Com, for a year, for free. I believe he was rightly disgusted when I told him that I would be working at Jux but still wanted to contribute to FFDC. He whatever'd me. In any case, I needed a damn job. And I wanted That Job.

A year before I was hired to work at Juxtapoz Art & Culture Magazine, I wrote in my actual journal, on paper, with a pen: one year from now I want to be working at Juxtapoz magazine. And one year from then, I was.

I loved that job so much. I worked on my work for Juxtapoz all. the. time. It was my white whale. I loved it enough to put up with how trash I was treated. I let the contempt and backstabbing and malignant gossip slide right on by. I was able to withstand the meanness of people who felt it was their place to pass judgment on my private and personal life.

I think about how galling that was to me, and I think about Kathleen and how her personal business became everyone's favorite topic of conversation.

People in Olympia, and I mean everyone, we talked about her constantly. Positive, negative, and neutral. Sightings, analysis, anything just to breathe her name out our mouths. It made us feel important to merely mention her.

"I saw Kathleen at Yardbirds."

"I saw her at the Smithfield."

"I saw her outside The Martin."

"I saw her talking to Slim."

"She made eye contact with me when we passed on the street!"

That's what can happen when you show yourself. People take what they want and don't necessarily reciprocate.

People are selfish and, annoyingly, not omniscient, so we can't see all the angles. We say and do whatever for our own reasons that have nothing to do with other people's individual realities.

I see that deeply in Rebel Girl. I see the juxtaposition of our internal and private lives next to what others see and say about us.

Kathleen is an artful communicator. She conveys so much more than she actually says.

That's why and how she inspires me, still. That's why she's still the queen of my world, whether she wants to be or not.

I would love someday to thank her directly for what she has given me, given all of us, but for now, I will thank her by buying her book, recommending it to everyone (it's really, really good), and buying tickets to watch her have a conversation on a stage. I will thank her by giving her money for her valuable work. She is the one who's famous and beloved, but I feel like I've gotten a bargain in this transaction.

Love you like a sister, always, soul sister, rebel girl.

--

P.S. For those keeping score, my parents eventually secured custody of my child and never gave it back. I tried but failed. It's been a source of pain and aggravation for pretty much everyone involved ever since. After it became clear I'd lost and my parents had won, everything fell apart for me in Olympia, too. I moved to the Bay Area with my friend Jane. I was poor and precariously housed there as well. It took me about two years, but I got a stable living situation. I got a job I could sort of live on. I got back into school. I got myself a little career. I got health insurance. I got a nice car. I lived, but I didn't get to be an amazing mother. I moved back to Portland 28 years later, though, and I'm still trying.