“Her broken heart had something to do with the collapse of culture.”
Freud, existentialism and Empathy
by Caty Simon
“Most gay people find out about gay things from the mainstream media.”
-from “What I Learned About Empathy” by Sarah Schulman, in the Arsenal Pulp edition of Empathy
I was one of the last generation of queer teen girls doomed to library lesbianism. I searched yellowed index cards (index cards!) for any mention of homosexuality, looked desperately for all that stuff that dares not speak its name in the subtext of modernist novel after modernist novel. Here’s what I found out about being queer from these Freud-inflected texts: being a lesbian was juvenile. Being a lesbian was penis envy. Being a lesbian was narcissistic. Being a lesbian was the inability to have a vaginal orgasm and be a Real Woman.
I found scant consolation in scandalous footnotes about Vita Sackville West and Virginia Woolf. When I discovered The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing at the age of 12, I thought I’d found a feminist and socialist bible I could really identify with, but even Lessing wrote about Lesbianism (with a capital L) as a last resort that desperate women were reduced to.
Reading Sarah Schulman’s Empathy almost twenty years later, I felt that I had finally found a book that takes on feminism, lesbianism, radicalism and psychoanalysis and allows the queer woman to emerge triumphant, simply by deconstructing these old tropes and exposing them to the light of scrutiny.