To devotees of current academic feminism, there must be something faintly embarrassing about Andrea Dworkin. Whereas women’s studies trailblazers—and many of their followers—favor a torturous prose style laden with postmodern jargon, Dworkin’s own writing is as unadorned and unfashionable as it is wrathful. Dworkin, an arch-feminist and anti-pornography crusader famous for claiming that all heterosexual intercourse is tantamount to rape, has been on the scene for some time, and thus her ideological comrades would be loath to ostracize her because of her earlier contributions to the cause of radical feminism. Yet one gets the distinct impression that Dworkin—much like Mary Daly, another old-school provocateur—has outstayed her welcome: to the postmodern crowd Dworkin must seem so vulgar, so retardataire.
Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant, Dworkin’s latest work, is highly unlikely to alter that impression. This short volume, purged of its few references to recent political events, would easily be mistaken for a feminist broadside circa 1972. Not one for the linguistic legerdemain of the lit-crowd, Dworkin instead offers punchy, dime-store sentences chock-a-block with obscenities. One can picture graduate students perusing Heartbreak with bewildered consternation: hasn’t she ever read certified academic gurus like Lacan, Derrida, Irigaray?
Dworkin tells us that “You might say that in some sense I was fully formed in the sixth grade.” This observation offers more insight into Dworkin than she might care to admit. Dworkin’s prose, with its heavy peppering of expletives and a fascination with matters scatological, is indeed puerile. And Dworkin’s description of her career is equally sophomoric. She presents herself as the saintly champion of the downtrodden, fighting a lonely battle against the Forces of Evil.
It is not surprising, perhaps, that Dworkin’s interest in self-hagiography warps her understanding of gender relations in modern America. Indeed, Dworkin presents a very skewed, black-and-white portrait of women’s lives in the United States. To Dworkin, “Men are shits and take pride in it”; “good, civic-minded citizens” have “no empathy” for rape victims. (Dworkin clearly means “sympathy,” and not “empathy,” but no matter: the charge is ludicrously simple either way.) No one, in short, ever believes a woman—save Andrea Dworkin. In Dworkin’s life—at least as she presents it—men, with frighteningly few exceptions, have been nothing but deadbeats, exploiters, and rapists.
This is all particularly unfortunate because it impairs Dworkin from offering cogent analysis of the horrors of rape—a subject with which, by virtue of her position within the women’s movement, she is thoroughly familiar. The frightening stories of the rape victims she has known—which constitute some of the few genuine moments in Heartbreak—are almost lost in Dworkin’s extremist, divisive rhetoric. One is left with the sense that Dworkin, despite all her years listening to the grim tales of raped and abused women, has strikingly little insight into the ghastly phenomena that so enrage her.
Yet even those fiercely in-step with Dworkin’s rancor are unlikely to draw much from Heartbreak. The book’s chapters—vignettes, really—are so short that they present little more than the crudest insights into their topics. Dworkin is content to hurl insults in the place of offering argument. In one characteristic moment of the book, Dworkin tells us that “The backlash against feminism has been deeply stupid,” but then fails—as usual—to offer any explanation. A few angry tirades against equity feminists again demonstrate Dworkin’s modus operandi; she excoriates one writer as a “wife of a multi-millionaire” who “pursues a golden career writing (without talent) about how she wants to be home mopping up infant vomit.” Everyone who disagrees with Dworkin is a sell-out, a member of the “pro-rape contingency,” or an abettor of the “patriarchy.” With the exception of a handful of moderately entertaining tales—a run-in with Allen Ginsberg, and some collegiate hijinks, for example—the chapters of Heartbreak merely chronicle the seemingly endless ire of their author.
Although Heartbreak is clearly intent on ruffling feathers, the appropriate response to Dworkin is not shock, but pity. Hers is a world in which six out of every five women are the victims of rape, and eleven out of every ten men are maniacal troglodytes. Dworkin has paralyzed this rancor into a career as a powerful, famous feminist—now that’s a real heartbreaker.