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The Personal is Capital: Autobiographical Work and Self-Promotion

Sharing territory with the rags-to-riches ideal, the U.S. victim story is usually told from the perspective of an oppressed person who makes good.
Freya Johnson and Annalee Newitz

Issue #32, April 1997

Every woman adores a Fascist.
— Sylvia Plath

What Plath means to say in this line of poetry is that every woman loves to be a victim — and she makes this point repeatedly in her autobiography of suicidal depression, The Bell Jar. Written in the 1950s, Plath's autobiographical work is famous for updating and prettifying the kinds of victim stories that have been popular in the United States since slave narratives of the early nineteenth century. Sharing territory with the rags-to-riches ideal, the U.S. victim story is usually told from the perspective of an oppressed person who makes good. The victim escapes her plight to find freedom and self-reliance, telling stories about her past in the interest of preventing it from ever happening again. Frederick Douglass' slave narrative exhorted generations growing up after the Civil War to curb violent racism; later, writers like Sylvia Plath turned Douglass' type of suffering into a self-perpetuating art, offering us stories of near-suicides rather than near-homicides at the hands of their oppressors.

Now the victim narrative has re-emerged, particularly in autobiographies. Many of these stories are not just about the victimized self, but the work of marketing it. Traditional victim narratives are being transformed into a profitable pop genre which is more interested in economic triumph than social transformation. Four recent autobiographical tales of pseudo-victimhood document these trends. Sapphire's Push, Howard Stern's Private Parts, Larry Flynt's An Unseemly Man, and Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss all question the distinction between self revelation for the "good of society" and self-revelation for personal profit. In these books we find a movement away from the traditional moral payoff of a victim's self-creation to the material payoff of self-promotion.

What we see in each of these autobiographies is the use of self-revelation as a form of social protest. Yet this protest looks a lot like the kind of social exploitation these authors are presumably trying to eradicate. Sapphire, Stern, Flynt and Harrison are writing in a time period when it is no longer politically acceptable to describe the oppression of other people as a means of helping them, or identifying with their struggles. To describe oppression, then, we are left with only ourselves to talk about — and one of the most powerful models of selfhood we have in the United States is that of the victimized minority or woman. But what happens when white men like Stern and Flynt can carry off a victim narrative previously reserved mostly for women and people of color? And what happens when an "incest victim" like Harrison simply refuses to claim her experiences were a form of victimization? Ultimately, we get a snapshot of how "selfhood" is getting understood in a country where it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the victims from the oppressors, and self-disclosure from sensationalism.

Inauthentic Ethnic Autobiography

In Push, a bare-all "autobiography" by first time novelist Sapphire, the author spares no detail of depravity as she chronicles her "journey out of Harlem's lowest depths" to become first literate, and then with this book a best-selling author. Following directly in the tradition of slave narratives and other forms of self-narration associated with "politically correct" identity politics, she emphasizes the abjection of her former condition in order to increase the moral imperative for her assent into literacy/freedom (and in Sapphire's case — employment as an author). The novel's opening paragraph immediately prepares the reader for what is to come:

I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver. That was in 1982. I was out of school for a year. This gonna be my second baby. My daughter got Down Sinder. She's retarded. I got left back in the second grade too, when I was seven, ëcause I couldn't read (and I still peed on myself). I should be in the eleventh grade, getting ready to into the twelf' grade so I can gone n' graduate. But I'm not. I'm in the ninfe grade.

Written partially in this first person "street girl" vernacular, partially in the literate third person, Push details precisely her enjoyment of fried chicken and of fucking her father, her and her obese mother's schemes to cheat welfare, Little "Mongo's" (her daughter by her father) dirty unchanged diapers, and her inability to read even the page numbers in "maff" class.

Except that this book is not an autobiography. "A black street girl speaks," claims the publisher (Knopf), but actually the book is told from the point of view of Precious Jones, a young black woman whom Knopf's publicity invites us to confuse with Sapphire, the author. Unlike the illiterate, impoverished Precious, however, Sapphire is a college-educated professional dancer-turned-poet and performance artist. She also happens to have taught literacy in Harlem and is an out lesbian, much like Blue Rain, the teacher who drags Precious up from the depths of depravity to literacy in the novel. Suddenly a novel that already reads like political pornography for Republicans has lost even the shaky claim to "authenticity" that the book's cover and press-releases would like to imply. What Knopf's marketing strategy reveals is the degree to which "authentic victims" have become a recognizable commodity. Rather than understanding Precious' narrative as devolving upon the hard work of escaping marginalization, we must view it for what it is: a calculated "push" into the competitive book marketplace. If people believe that Precious is just another name for Sapphire, and buy into her "autobiography," then Sapphire's work will pay off in the shape of fame and royalty checks.

Push transforms the well-known and culturally sanctioned genre of PC self-narration into a morally questionable genre of PC self-tabloidization and self-promotion. Sapphire panders to our voyeurism with invented tales of racialized debasement. She confirms our worst fears and assumptions, telling us in rich and satisfying detail what people on both ends of the political spectrum always suspected was true about life in the ghetto. Gingrichian conservatives can wallow with pleasure in Sapphire's descriptions of Precious's tastes and practices and her lurid depictions of both Precious's and her mother's obese foul-smelling bodies, their eating binges with grease running down their chins, their sexual enjoyment of Precious' mostly absent and brutal father, and their determination (until Precious pulls herself up by her emblematic bootstraps) to subsist on welfare and pump out genetically substandard children. Meanwhile, lefty-liberal types can feel morally uplifted by the "authenticity" of the narrative voice, the fact that one of "these people" is finally telling ëher story"; because of course it is well known that "authenticity" provides immunity from accusations of voyeurism. Even if Sapphire invented Precious, she evades political suspicion because she is herself a black woman, and is presumably authorized to speak for what theorists sometimes call "the subaltern."

Transgression for Fun and Profit

I want people working hard for me... .You come on my show, you'd better perform. I'm busy telling everyone that I jerk off every night and stick my fingers up my own ass; you'd better open up too.
— Howard Stern

Judging by the furor surrounding Howard Stern the "shock jock"'s radio show, TV show, bestselling autobiography, and now movie, one would think he had stuck his fingers up more than just his own ass. While it's not surprising that the usual suspects — PTA members and church groups — would get their underwear in a bunch over Stern's explicit bad-boy humor which ranges in topic from masturbation and defecation, to homo/heterosexuality and bestiality, to name just a few. But when the City of West Hollywood (of all places) prevented a public appearance by Stern, and numerous celebrities — including Roseanne — insisted on going on record condemning his tastelessness, it became clear that a new nadir of naughtiness had been reached.

Howard Sterne — auto(erotic)biography Written by a white male, Private Parts does not enjoy the luxury of PC "authenticity." Although Stern narrates his own rise from abjection (in his case nerdy wimpdom) to cultural viability (popularity), his equally explicit tales of his own sexual experiences fall outside the sacrosanct rubric of "victimhood," rendering their narration purely transgression for fun and profit. Central to many of the condemnations of Stern, (thoughtfully provided by Stern himself at the end of the paperback edition of Private Parts) is shock at his masterbatory tendencies — both literal and metaphorical. Just a sampling: The Cape Codder complains that Stern's book is "about nothing. It's inane. It's about Stern's sexual adventures with nothing left out," while The Boston Globe whines that "on the whole the book is a lot like one of Stern's favorite topics and activities) — masturbation. Something best kept private, and purely self-referential." The problem, apparently, is that as his autobiography's title suggests, Stern makes public what should be private, and it should be private because it is about himself. You can talk about masturbation in the service of art (everyone's been doing that since the turn of the century) or in the transmission of a moral message ("look how depraved I was before I was enlightened") but if you do it just to exploit yourself and make a buck, then in the words of one reviewer you "might as well just open a string of massage parlors." Basically, the admonition is: "Don't be a whore."

As Howard Stern points out, sticking his fingers up his own ass is about work. What goes unsaid in the vitriolic attacks on Stern's self-promotion is that his book is first and foremost a work history, not a sex history. It is about how he became, as he calls himself, "The King of All Media" — the most popular syndicated radio personality in the country. A major part of the Howard Stern scandal is not his subject matter, but his popularity. "It's horrible, it's insulting, IT'S NUMBER ONE!" lamented one reviewer of Private Parts, while Caldor's Bookstores, in a symptomatic fit of wishful thinking, not only refused to sell the book but even rewrote the New York Times best-seller list, leaving Stern's book out of the number one slot and bumping all other titles up a notch in their in-store displays. While the "work" that he does is largely comprised, of course, of his carefully deployed on-going sex history, the "product" is his phenomenal ratings and book sales.

In fact, by placing himself firmly on the "whore" side of the victim/whore dichotomy, Stern problematizes and confuses this distinction: "I'm always ready to go along with a good marketing scheme if it means a few extra bucks in my pocket," he remarks, by way of providing a raison d'être for his autobiography. Yet his book reads almost like a parody of the victim narration genre that Push so clearly comes from. Stern tells of his victimization by black kids in high school who beat him up continually and implanted in his mind forever a sense of his phallic inadequacy — "I'm hung like a pimple," he tells us. While the form of the narrative is ridiculously similar to PC "up-from-slavery" tales of triumph in that it sharply contrasts his status before as a flailing, failing, farting dorky unknown with his status now as a major media phenomenon, it explodes irreparably the myth of a sacrosanct, uncommodifiable self outside the realm of capitalism, thereby drawing uncomfortable attention to the artificial distinction between "genuine" victim narratives and the whorish self-tabloidization he so enthusiastically indulges in. Private Parts forces us to recognize that when supposed "moral" credentials are stripped away, all of these self-revealing narratives are about the work of self-creation — the story of how one has become successful by selling oneself to the public. By pretending to claim victim status himself while at the same time clearly mocking that status, Stern forces us to grapple with our usually unquestioned assumption that claiming victimization in some way exempts you from selling out or selling oneself.

Consensual Incest and Pornography Without Victims

Kathryn Harrison and Larry Flynt write their autobiographies after fairly successful careers selling published materials which toy with the idea of what's "private," and with the violation of privacy. Harrison has cracked the New York Times Bestseller list with two of her previous novels (fact check), and created a small sensation with her graphically sexual, often disturbing, tales of perverse, incestuous relationships. Flynt is widely known as the multi-millionaire publisher of Hustler magazine, and is celebrated as a crusader against censorship and obscenity laws. The Kiss and An Unseemly Man are explorations of why their authors decided to go into the business of marketing sexual narratives. Not surprisingly then, these autobiographies are like Sapphire's and Stern's in that they deal frankly with sex, a supposedly "private" topic. This has become the focus of publicity surrounding these books — including the recent film based on Flynt's memoirs, The People vs. Larry Flynt — leading journalists and activists to call Harrison an attention-grabbing "sensationalist," and to brand Flynt an evil immoralist and oppressor of women.

typinggirl So great has been the general outcry that when we went to see The People vs. Larry Flynt in Berkeley, there were dozens of ominously liberal-appearing, youthful picketers standing in the street waving signs denouncing the film and declaring that "sex is sacred." Reviews of The Kiss have reflected this sentiment, wondering at how a writer could openly discuss incest, that most sacred of taboos. Yet the "sacredness" being violated by Flynt's life story, and perhaps even more profoundly by Harrison's, is less involved with sex itself, and more to do with an understanding that sex should be accompanied by victimization narratives.

Although Flynt and Harrison have multiple opportunities to claim victim status as Precious and Stern do, to cry "somebody made me do it!", they refuse, instead offering complicated accounts of personal agency in situations where most people are least comfortable imagining it. Harrison's autobiography about incest with her father, which was consensual and took place in her early twenties, details her early history as a young woman who chose to have transgressive sex in part to "grow up" and become an inspired artist. Incest confession narratives have become almost a genre unto themselves in US pop culture, one which usually involves rape, victimization, and intense trauma. Yet Harrison uses these generic conventions to tell a counter-story of incest, in which she is oppressed by her own enormously passive-aggressive personality far more than she is by having sex with her father. While Harrison is disturbed by what has happened, she is also perversely satisfied by it; and this is the problem so many media commentators have had with the story.

Having written a sexually transgressive autobiography without claiming to be a victim, Harrison's motivations have mystified critics. As a result, the book has been categorized as a kind of ruthless career move, intended to jump-start Harrison's recently flagging sales. In Push, where incestuous desire is clearly designated as victimization, its graphic depiction is permitted and even celebrated as heart-breakingly real, a measure of the heroine's triumph. The Kiss comes across as cleverly commodified obscenity precisely because we cannot truly blame any "bad guys" for what happens to Harrison.

Likewise, Flynt's autobiography recounts events that might, told another way, read like a laundry-list of social wrongs which made him into a sexual "bad guy." As a boy, Flynt lived in the hill country of Kentucky, where he was poor, illiterate, and watched his parents go through a messy divorce. His early life included being forced to kill a kitten, sexual molestation, the military, and constant prejudice against his "hillbilly" background. "We like to pretend we don't have class prejudice in America, but we do. I know what it feels like, and not many things make me angrier," Flynt says, noting that his "humble" origins have haunted his career. Like Stern, Flynt uses the embarrassment of his heritage as the backdrop for his rags-to-riches rise up the economic ladder. His previously degraded status becomes his strength, the origin of his desire for order, education, and financial power.

Choosing the skin mag industry, he writes, was less a matter of sexual desire than a clever business choice to cater to the tastes of working-class hillbillies like himself. Key to Flynt's self-description is his repeated assertion that every step he took was carefully planned, with a maximum of personal agency involved — he never wants us to see him as a passive victim of circumstance. After teaching himself to read in the Navy, Flynt begins research on how to run a business, consuming books like Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich and Elmer Letterman's How Showmanship Sells. He realizes that the most important step an entrepreneur can take is to know his audience, and as a result Flynt's first business venture is a working-class bar called Hillbilly Haven. "I was aiming to serve a blue-collar clientele ... I was completely dedicated to the task of making money," he explains. Hustler magazine is just another Hillbilly Haven, dedicated to serving Flynt's own class while paradoxically making Flynt himself a member of another. For Flynt, pornography is consensual sex, and therefore sexual victimization is irrelevant. He's more interested in empowering the (male and female) working-class: with Huster, they get to make money, and see "themselves" represented in a national magazine. Flynt's triumph is his ability to grow rich and gain power in a social system which reviles not only his class background, but his tastes, sexual predilections, and politics. He emerges the victor at the end of his life story, scorning the idea that victimization — his own or of women — made him the man he is today.


What these pseudo-and anti-victimization autobiographies share is a growing investment in the idea that our private desires, selves, and histories can and should be put up for sale. Sapphire makes the bestseller lists by confirming our basest assumptions about the vampiric welfare underclasses. Meanwhile, Stern gets famous for confirming that angry white males aren't quite as self-righteous and self-satisfied as either liberals or conservatives would like to believe. In revealing himself as wimpy, neurotic, underendowed, he makes neither a formidable enemy nor a convincing hero. He's angry because any claims to coolness he might temporarily possess are constantly undermined or stripped away. The fact that Stern's self-revelation and tabloidization were greeted with controversy, while Sapphire's fake autobiography was read as "a gritty, semiliterate novel praised almost without exception for its unsparing realism," tells us something more than a little disturbing about our current cultural moment. The "work" of self-creation and self-promotion is acceptable so long as the self-revelation doesn't reveal, let alone sell, a self which doesn't exist within standard categories of victimhood.

Even when Harrison and Flynt refuse the victim label, their autobiographies exist in an uneasy relationship with the victim stories an audience might be expecting from them. Flynt's upward mobility through porn, and Harrison's successful marketing of her sexual history, put consumers of their autobiographies in the position of having to admit that they want to read about transgression for its own sake — not for "their own good." The Kiss and An Unseemly Man fly in the face of the unspoken rule that it's OK to make money from private stories, as long as they involve confessions of passive victimhood. Implicit in responses to Harrison's autobiography is the notion that if Harrison would have been willing to claim victim status, then the money she made off her story would have been somehow "pure." Her book advance and royalties would not yield the dirty money of sensationalism, but instead be deserved payback for the wrongs committed against her. Similarly, what outrages people about Flynt's self-depiction is his unabashed desire for money made the "bad" way, by pandering to people's secret thoughts and desires. To the end, he staunchly insists that the Hustler empire grows out of consensual acts of economic consumption rather than oppressive acts of sexual victimization.

One might say the popularity of these autobiographies can be attributed to nostalgia for a time when self-revelation stood a chance of changing people's minds about injustice in their social world. But in a culture industry which markets authenticity, confession stories, and talk shows, self-performance is like any other job — you sell your time, tell your tale, and hope for the break that will bring in the cash. No longer given cultural carte blanche to exploit "the other," these authors offer narratives where they exploit their own private lives, bestowing on audiences a form of cynical selfhood fashioned out of recycled tales of abjection and escape. Perhaps more depressingly, it has become nearly impossible for autobiographers to be anything but victims in their own life stories: American audiences seem appalled by the idea of personal triumph without victimhood. Victim stories are still working on and for their creators — even when there are no more victims involved.

Freya Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department at UC-Berkeley, writing her dissertation on transgressive sex and violence in American literature.

Annalee Newitz is a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department at UC-Berkeley. She is the co-editor of White Trash: Race and Class in America (Routledge), and is writing a book about economic horror in American pop culture.

Copyright © 1997 by Freya Johnson and Annalee Newitz. All rights reserved.