Revisiting Dorothy Allison’s ‘Trash’
Author: Ella Boureau
March 11, 2019
At the risk of exposing myself as a dilettantish fuckboi, I would like to share with you the way I was going to start this essay:
Any writer worth her salt has a spot on her shelf for her “books of seduction”—a few titles intended to tease, arouse, and intrigue her love interest into wanting her—and for me, there is no better book of seduction than Dorothy Allison’s Trash. Trash is an experiment in lesbian swagger. I have bought Trash—the short story collection that received the first ever Lammy award in 1989—many times, inscribing the title page with coy little messages to my desire-of-the-moment: “Start with ‘Her Thighs’ for a real treat—make sure you are alone xx.” I have loaned my own copy out countless times and subsequently had to hound the borrower tirelessly to retrieve it, ignoring the piteous moans of “Oh, but I’m not quite done with it yet.” Girl it’s been a year, I’m taking my dirty book back. I have read “Demon Lover” aloud over the phone as a way to ensure a second round of phone-sports when my lover had only moments before begged exhaustion. Once I bought a used copy that already had a dyke inscription of its own: “Dear Gladys, thanks for the magical night in the van, xoxo June.” I imagine Dorothy would smirk with approval if she knew all the queer sex her first book has inspired over the years. In terms of literary smut, Trash is in a league of its own. It will keep you up late, incite bad behavior, and make you remember your hunger.
Then I began to re-read the actual book. For sure, there are sexy stories in this collection, which I will get to later. But Trash is not a “book of seduction,” or “literary smut,” at least not in the typical sense. As I read the preface, “Deciding to Live,” I was bowled over at my memory’s capacity to have completely re-written the collection’s essence. So here is how I’d actually like to start this essay: What Trash is at its core is the lesbian’s right to sovereignty over her own pain. The pain inflicted upon her, and the pain she inflicts upon herself and others.
From “Deciding to Live”:
There was only one thing that helped me through those weeks. Every evening I sat down with a yellow legal-size pad, writing out the story of my life. I wrote it all: … the subtle and deliberate lies I had told myself and them, the hidden stories of my life that lay in disguise behind the mocking stories I did tell—all the stories of my family, my childhood, and the relentless deadening poverty and shame I had always tried to hide because I knew no one would believe what I could tell them about it.
Writing it all down was purging. Putting those stories down on paper took them out of the nightmare realm and made me almost love myself for being able to finally face them. More subtly, it gave me a way to love the people I wrote about—even the ones I had fought with or hated.
Dorothy’s decision to be relentlessly honest about a harrowing childhood and complex familial and romantic relationships was a slow process of re-engagement. It’s one thing to write it all down as it happened and lock it away for years as she did; it’s another thing to bring those stories out into the light and to share them. It’s no surprise that upon her first revisiting, she could not quite bring herself to face what she had written:
I told myself the stuff on the yellow pads were as raw and unworked as I felt myself to be, and the funny stories I was telling people were better, were the work of someone who was going to be a “real” writer. It was three years before I pulled those old yellow sheets and read them, and saw how thin and self-serving my funny stories had become. The stuff on those yellow pads was bitter. I could not recognize myself in that bitchy, whiney, hateful voice telling over all those horrible violent memories. Telling [those same stories] out loud, I’d made them ironic and playful. The characters became eccentric, fascinating—not the cold-eyed, mean and nasty bastards they were on the yellow pages… I could not stand it, neither the words on the page, nor what they told me about myself. My neck and teeth began to ache, and I was not at all sure I really wanted to live with all that stuff inside me.
There is something about this passage, and my own distorted memory of Trash that sit uncomfortably together, almost echo each other. The shock of un-recognition, the gulf between what is remembered and the truth of the written word. The first time I read Trash I was 23 or 24, committed to being a young, gay dirtbag. Full of piss and vinegar, writing stories that were so provocative they were censored out of a Best Lesbian Erotica anthology, and seducing anyone who gave me a second glance, just to prove I could. Outraged in the streets, dissociating in the sheets. I think it’s not a coincidence that I was more interested in the philosophies of the sex-positive feminists, the Susie Brights and Betty Dodsons, the Pat Califias and Kate Bornsteins and Dorothy Allisons. This is partially because the alternative to “sex-positive feminism” was basically Women Against Pornography—who not only viewed the female self as perpetual victim in need of protection, but who viciously attacked other feminists that didn’t share their views.
In 1982, Women Against Pornography picketed a feminist conference at Barnard titled “Towards a Politics of Sexuality” and sought to discredit its organizers by trying to get them fired from their day jobs. Dorothy Allison, then a founding member of The Lesbian Sex Mafia (who were planning a “Speakout on Politically Incorrect Sex” at the conference), was one of their targets. I didn’t know any of this at the time I first read Trash. All I knew was that I didn’t want protection, I wanted agency, and as a young person trying to figure out how to be a lesbian, I didn’t see a possibility for agency in the rhetoric of the “anti-porn” feminists. I still believe that between these two, the side I came down on allows for a fuller range of expression and embracing of risk. But there were times when that rhetoric slipped me too easily into a forced sense of cheerfulness, of not wanting to push too hard, appear too oppositional, or too challenging of the rape culture we swim in. I didn’t want to talk about rape, I wanted to talk about rape fantasies. I was unwilling to engage more deeply with one of feminism’s central questions: how to have sexual autonomy in a world that does everything it can to strip you of that autonomy. This unwillingness, this operation of the survival brain that allows us to function under patriarchy, is the same mechanism that enabled me to erase the central violence in Trash from my memory and only remember the sex. This left me blind to the complexity of Allison’s truth telling. Or more accurately, I glimpsed the truth in its fullness, and quickly looked away.
Judith Herman, in her seminal work Trauma and Recovery, argues that this is exactly how trauma functions: “The knowledge of horrible events periodically intrudes into public awareness but is rarely retained for long. Denial, repression and dissociation operate on a social as well as an individual level.” Over a year into the #metoo movement, it seems as if, like reverse Peeping Toms, we are finally starting to peek into the boudoirs of America’s influential men to see how they grasp and cling sweatily to their… power. The conversations being brought into and engaged in the public sphere by women would have seemed unimaginable only the year before. The last time we had such a huge public reckoning was in the early 90s, with the first wave of Catholic church pedophilia scandals. Dorothy Allison’s first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, was published during this reckoning in 1992, the same year that Sinead O’Connor, bald-headed, doe-eyed and trembling slightly, ripped up a photograph of the Pope on SNL and calmly pronounced “Fight the real enemy,” while staring into the camera like a hunter who has finally found her target.
I know many women who have been brought face to face with their own sexual trauma in the wake of #metoo. These women are thinkers, activists, and feminists, suddenly slapped in the face by the depth of their own experiences of gendered violence. The Brown sisters in their podcast How to Survive the End of the World describe this very phenomenon, the strange dissociation from one’s own trauma that can happen even when one’s life work is about resisting violence, how it can remain present but shrouded until a public uncovering shocks the system into recognizing what was there all along. Witnessing this shock in myself and others has made concrete the ways that memory and understanding are largely collective. Perhaps it is this opening in the public consciousness allowing for a deeper reckoning of gendered violence that spurred me to return to Trash, and to see it with fresh eyes.
Obviously, it’s not the stories in Trash that have changed, but we’ve changed, I’ve changed. As a kid, my favorite show was Pepper Ann, but everyone around me loved Recess. I always felt a little lonely about this. Whenever I said Pepper Ann was my favorite, kids looked at me like I was suspect, it was suspect (dyke?) to be too attached to anything so unabashedly weird and female. Finally, unwilling to be alone again in my Pepper Ann love, when my ultra-cool new neighbor asked me what my favorite show was I enthusiastically shouted “Recess!” We were playing badminton and as I said it I smacked the birdie over the net with uncharacteristic athleticism. My neighbor let the birdie fall to the ground, sniffed condescendingly and drawled, “Pepper Ann is way cooler,” as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, which of course it was. I gripped the handle of the flimsy racket and thumbed the nylon netting, burning inside. At last I had met someone who understood, and I had deprived myself the pleasure of real connection. I bring up this small moment because it’s what I think of any time I’m about to stick my neck out. I get nervous, I want to just agree with what everyone else is saying, even though it isn’t true for me. It’s painful to be alone in your truth, but it’s even more painful to be alone in your lie. Because lying always means being alone, even if you are lying to join the group, you aren’t ever really with them. We lie in little ways and big ways, we lie outright and we lie by telling a true story but changing the emphasis, the tone, we omit small details. We lie by letting something happen and not saying anything. We lie by withholding ourselves. We lie so as not to cause awkwardness, feel the sting of rejection, or sting someone else. It’s so much easier to go with the tide, until it isn’t. I can’t say that I’ve learned my Pepper Ann lesson for good, but I can say that I’ve been carried downstream away from myself enough times since my dirtbag days that I know for sure nothing good waits for me down there.
Being deeply honest about what it is like to be female means grappling with one of the darker, unspoken agreements of womanhood: that you are expected to act as a receptacle for everyone’s trash. “Push it down. Don’t show it. Don’t tell anyone what is really going on. We are not safe. Don’t show your fear to anyone. The things that would happen are too terrible to name.” These lines appear and reappear like an incantation in “Mama.” It is a warning, a message of both shame and protective maternal love, an agreement, as I called it earlier, that is not so much willingly consented to as terrorized into. Gender has many such “agreements” which are acquiesced to early on, but which are never consciously given consent. To reveal, and therefore reject, this particular “agreement” of womanhood is to reveal the garbage of the world to people who don’t want to see it, and who will likely blame you for it. To reveal it is to hand the garbage back to its rightful owner. The way Dorothy Allison does this in Trash is to write the characters’ moments of abject powerlessness while simultaneously refusing to give up their autonomy as subjects. Again, from “Mama”:
When we heard [my stepfather] yell, my sister’s face would break like a pool of water struck with a handful of stones. Her glance would fly to mine. I would stare at her, hate her, hate myself. She would stare at me, hate me, hate herself. After a moment, I would sigh, tell her to stay there. Get up and go to him. Go stand still for him, his hands, his big hands on his little body. I would imagine those hands cut off by marauders sweeping down on great black horses, swords like lightning bolts in the hands of armored women who wouldn’t even know my name but would kill him anyway… Imagine vengeance. Imagine justice. What is the difference anyway when both are only stories in your head? In the everyday reality you stand still. I stood still. Bent over. Laid down. “Yes Daddy.”
“I’m sorry Daddy.”
“Don’t do that Daddy.”
The narrator’s autonomy is one shaped by violation, shame and the rage of refusal, even if it is only the refusal of the mind and not the body. There can be so much shame about the physical acquiescence to abuse that we can forget about the importance of the mind’s resistance. Survival can feel like complicity, and the discomfort of these two rubbing against each other is a friction that this author does not shy away from. Her hatred of the man who harms her burns bright. Even as she obeys his commands with her body, her fantasies of a violent revenge are a willful act of sanity, and psychic protection.
This same rage of refusal is what makes the raw, unapologetic sexuality in Trash so beautiful. Refusing shame, refusing silence, refusing sex that is scrubbed of all its darker impulses. In “Her Thighs,” the narrator speaks of only being able to seduce her lover
[…] by calculation, indirection, distraction. It was dear, that cost, and too dangerous. I had to keep a distance in my head, an icy control on my desire to lose control. I wanted to lay the whole length of my tongue on her, to dribble over my chin, to flatten my cheeks to that fabric and shake my head on her seams like a dog on a fine white bone. But that would have been too real, too raw. Bobby would never have sat still for that. I held her by the unreality of my hunger, my slow nibbling civilized tongue.
Dorothy Allison is hungry, and our hunger is always shaped by our deprivations. One could argue that the deeper the initial deprivation, the bigger the appetite. Queerness demands an understanding of the relationship between deprivation and desire. The writer Erica Cardwell once defined queerness as “a willingness to observe desire troubled by a willingness to pursue risk,” and I can think of no better definition for the sex in Trash.
In this moment, there is an enormous emphasis on the trauma of women’s sexuality bubbling to the surface. This is a necessary reckoning, and I’m relieved and astonished it’s happening. But for those of us who are already intimately aware of this reality, bathing in the #metoo conversations can leave us feeling overwhelmed, thrown, and exhausted. There is little conversation around women’s sexual autonomy in the face of systematic sexual assault, there is little to nourish us while dealing with intensity of the aftershocks that so many of us are dealing with personally. I am missing the kind of pleasure treatise Audre Lorde wrote about in her essay “Uses of the Erotic: Erotics as Power,” where she insists that “[an] important way in which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy.” The spirit of Trash holds such an underlining of the capacity for joy in the face of trauma. It redirects us to insist on pleasure even when, or maybe especially when, we have suffered, or are suffering. How not to feel ashamed of the way our pain shapes us, how to embrace all of it and not apologize for it or make ourselves smaller.
I feel the care for agency in Lorde’s essay, the need to be guided by our own senses. What is left unsaid, but perhaps implied, is that to open oneself to erotic pleasure means one must also open oneself to experiencing pain. Or the ways in which for many of us, the hardwiring of pleasure and pain are not separate. Only by starting to experience and witness the way pain has set up its own fully-functional operating system within us can we begin to divest from it. Dorothy Allison’s pain in Trash comes on like an ocean. One is submerged by it, washed in it; one cannot deny its force, its depth of feeling. It is erotic, in Lorde’s sense of the word. And with equal depth of feeling is the insistence on joy, on pleasures stolen and freely given, pleasure found where it has no right to be. Dorothy Allison is a writer who shows her ass, who knew she was licked before she even started, and decided to live anyway. Fuck it, I still think my first impression was right. Trash will keep you up late, incite bad behavior, and make you remember your hunger.