Rebecca Solnit Doesn’t Explain Herself

In a new memoir, she hides behind the veil

Rebecca Solnit never has to dream about having long uninterrupted stretches of time to write; her day is her own. For decades, she’s been writing about topics that tug at her: feminism, male violence and anger, domestic violence, environmentalism, wanderlust, and the tender place San Francisco holds in her heart. Solnit is the daughter of a lapsed Irish-Catholic mother and a Russian-Jewish father whose savagely violent temper terrorized the entire family, which included her three brothers. She doesn’t delve into all the gritty details of his abuse in her new memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence, and instead hopscotches around her woundedness in the same manner she did in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and The Faraway Nearby.

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She’s written over 20 books, countless essays, and criticism for major venues all over the world. At 57, Solnit has become a cult hero of sorts to a new generation of feminists because of an essay she wrote that went viral.  “Men Explain Things to Me” told of her experience being at a cocktail reception talking to some narcissistic bore who was lecturing her on an incredible book he had just read, unaware he was speaking with the book’s author. Now she’s crafted another elliptical work onto which the mansplainers can latch.

Solnit is a purposefully selective memoirist and shares only what she wishes to. She tells us little about her contentious relationship with her mother who envied her daughter’s beauty, success, and freedom, and with whom she briefly reconciled as her mother slid into the fog of Alzheimer’s. About her three brothers, she says nothing, claiming to respect their privacy. But we suspect otherwise. Solnit doesn’t gear her introspective wanderings towards grief or mourning, healing or forgiveness, or acceptance and transcendence. Rather, she internalizes her psychological pain and channels it into an almost feverish non-stop energy creating books that provoke and challenge us.

She now has her boots firmly planted in the feminist camp but as a young woman she concedes she had trouble hearing their call.  She remembers feeling “furious, back in the day when I had not clear feminist ideas, just swirling inchoate feelings of indignation and insubordination.” Anxieties threatened to overwhelm her.  She had dizzy spells, insomnia, and what felt like panic attacks while walking the street afraid that men would accost her.  Bad things had happened to several of her friends and she feared she would be next.

Solnit admits that when men came on to her she fell mute, afraid her protestations would be met with a maniacal fury. She knew from living with her father how in a flicker of moment “you could be erased a little so that there was less of you, less confidence, less freedom, or your rights could be eroded, your body invaded, so that it was less and less yours, you could be rubbed out altogether, and none of these possibilities seemed particularly remote.”

Male entitlement and privilege enrage Solnit, particularly how often society refuses to challenge depictions of sexism and misogyny. She writes: “the torture and death of a beautiful woman or a young woman or both was forever being portrayed as erotic, exciting, satisfying.” A female dead body was a standard plot device and an aesthetic object.  She points to the films of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch as particularly heinous, as well as the music lyrics of Eminem, Johnny Cash, and the Rolling Stones.

In Solnit’s world, women were disposable; tools of male pleasure. Her assessments about patriarchal culture are razor-sharp but she has trouble matching them up with her own experiences which she always presents to us in some sort of muted form. To cope with her growing unease, she learned karate, how to lift weights, and even how to shoot a rifle, but the powerlessness that was her childhood companion often overtook her. Particularly when she went hiking, walking, or traveled alone, always conscious if someone was shadowing her.

Her early years were fraught with disturbing episodes as she tried to find a loving relationship with a man but often things fell apart. She became adept at “sneaking away, squirming out of tight situations, dodging unwanted hugs and kisses and hands, and gradually disengaging, or absenting herself.” She admits that the fall-out from her childhood may have hurt her ability to trust and really connect with someone, but then runs away from her own assertion with her usual poetic grace and covertness saying, “My body was a lonely house. I was often elsewhere.”

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Rebecca Solnit. Photo by Jim Herrington.

She never allows herself to wallow in the past as if afraid it will swallow her. But the reader grows frustrated with her diversions, sensing that perhaps deeper inquiries might allow her to emerge less scathed. We never hear any references to therapy of any kind, or even the consideration of it. It’s as if she has closed off the past, even while conceding it defines her.

Solnit writes about San Francisco with a special affection, particularly about her first apartment in a mostly black neighborhood where she felt a sense of belonging. There were many churches nearby and “you were never far from devotion.”  She cherished the vibrancy that surrounded her, which stood in stark contrast to the deadness of the suburban sprawl of her childhood. She loved the way “conversations between strangers could be a gift and a sport of sorts, a chance for warmth, banter, blessing, humor, that spoken words could be a little fire at which you warmed yourself.”

A flurry of romances and some friends, most of which seemed to soon wither, left her with endless solitude in which she found solace. We don’t even get a peek at any of her adult relationships or what they felt like for her, or understand the preoccupations of those closest to her. This hinders her narrative. She sometimes seems to be playing with us, or perhaps playing with herself, but the result is we feel she is using her exquisite artistry as a writer as a decoy of sorts that prevents us from truly seeing her. Or allowing her to see herself.

Solnit writes about being a young writer “trying to find a poetics of my own, with no maps, no guides, and not much to go on.”  She feels uncomfortable remembering her first attempts at writing, in which she overly relied upon sarcasm and irony. Critics and readers alike have praised her now famously-known long digressive sentences. They say her writing speaks expressively to the internal contradictions that control one’s inner state of being, but sometimes her lengthy riffs simply seem tinged with a New Age fluffiness that falls flat.

She insists her goal is to find a distinctively female voice that negates the “grail seekers and ring bearers and western explorers and chasers and conquerors and haters of women and inhabitants of the world where women were absent.” But she doesn’t seem to consider that in finding that voice she is simultaneously, and perhaps unconsciously, negating the enormously powerful voices of other females who feel strong, proud, vibrant, and fearless, while still embracing many traditional modes of femaleness. Women who do so without fear of erasure  are still able to see themselves as vital agents of the world, as potent as she is.

But the cover of her book is telling and perhaps hints to Solnit’s unspoken ambivalences. On it, she presents a picture of herself as a young woman standing with her hands held up against a blank wall with her face turned to us in profile. She dresses almost coquettishly, with an elegant hat that has a thin black veil that partially shadows her fragile beautiful face. She wears long black gloves, the kind Jacqueline Kennedy preferred. Her top is just a tiny vest which she wears backwards allowing us to see the sensual curves of her arched back, and her face looks ready to smile.

The choice of this photograph seems to speak to something important that Solnit is unable to tell us. It shows us a stunning woman whose very beauty has the power to destabilize. We try to decipher her intent in choosing such a photograph for her book cover thinking perhaps it is an expression of the now older Solnit mourning the lost opportunities of her youth. Or perhaps regretting some of the choices she has made that have negated for her many fulfilling experiences that are still common for most women. Maybe she’s just wishing she could speak to her younger self and reassure her. One isn’t sure. Solnit leaves us guessing.

Elaine Margolin

Elaine is a book critic for The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Times Literary Supplement, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jerusalem Post, Denver Post, and several literary journals. She has been reviewing books for over 20 years with a sense of continual wonder and joy. She tends to focus on non-fiction and biographies.

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