Okay, so I'm looking through the Seal Press catalog for the second time, just to see if I've missed anything interesting, and what calls my attention is the bio of one of the editors of a book called Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism, and I can't necessarily tell whether the interviews will be challenging and provocative or dull and fawning -- but what I do notice is the bio for co-editor Emma Bee Bernstein -- right after her name we see the years marking her life, 1985-2008. But nothing telling us how she died. So I know it must not be what is generally considered a tragic accident (car/plane crash) or a noble battle (cancer), and I go online to find out how she died at age 23.
Suicide. But I can't figure out why. All the available accounts -- her parents, her co-editor, her parents' friends -- point to a particular narrative where here she was, something like a child prodigy born into a New York family of artists and writers, publishing interviews at age 12, drawn to dreaming and strident visions, traveling cross-country after finishing college at the cloistered University of Chicago to work on this new project about feminism and the future with her camera as accessory to her vision, filled with so much hope and possibility and yet overwhelmed by a monster, a monster of depression that she finally succumbed to.
I'm suspicious of this narrative...
She killed herself inside the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice, Italy, where she was working as an intern. What did this final gesture mean to her? Did she leave a note? What was this depression about? Where are the cracks in the story, and why does everyone insist on sealing them up after her death? If her death means anything, can't it at least mean that her life becomes revealed in all its complications? Would she have wanted that?
I also don't believe in this vision of depression as a monster that challenges the hopefulness of a feminist visionary. We live in a horrible world where violence covers violence covers violence and here we are wrapped in it, no matter what. Feminism, or any intense analysis, means that you see all of the horror, you uncover all the layers, and, yes, you try to figure out a way to challenge the violence but you rarely succeed and you keep trying. You keep trying but sometimes it's not hopeful, you are not hopeful and you try to act with hope anyway but really what is hope if you're still surrounded by violence, this world, your role in it?
My question is this: how do we know that Emma Bee Bernstein didn't kill herself because of her feminism, not in spite of it, and what would it mean to think about this gesture, in all of its sadness and yearning, as something she wanted us to pay attention to, not to cover up like an aberration?
Mattilda also blogs at Nobody Passes.