Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir
- By Rebecca Solnit
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi
- March 27, 2020
An affecting reflection from the writer who made herself heard above the cacophony of men explaining things.
As a young woman, Rebecca Solnit was subject to fainting spells. She had experienced a growth spurt that her weight could not keep up with, and the imbalance caused dizziness. For years, she endured teasing for her skeletal looks, though that was not all she endured.
Indeed, her extreme slenderness in the photo of her young self that graces the cover of this unconventional memoir — and the vulnerability it conveys — is much of what makes the image vaguely disturbing. She notes that the skirt she wears in the photo had a waistband of 20 inches. “I could have snapped in two.”
In many ways, her physical manifestation mirrored the conflict she felt: on one hand, needing to disappear into invisibility to avoid the unbidden attention thrust upon her; on the other, being thoroughly invisible — virtually non-existent — when it came to making her mark as a young female author.
Solnit spends significant time in Recollections of My Nonexistence evoking an era — in this case, the Bay area of the early 1980s, just before AIDS exploded into the Castro and other storied gay neighborhoods. She describes with loving nostalgia the apartment she rented as an undergraduate, in a beautiful old Victorian, a small place she would inhabit for 25 years.
She also describes the many ways that she and other young women felt vulnerable during those times — ways that society seemed to find unremarkable, and that, therefore, were never remarked upon.
Violence against women — both random acts and those perpetrated by current or former intimates — seemed both endemic and epidemic. Lurid news stories mined the crimes for whatever prurient nuggets were available, but no one seemed to consider that these were any more than one-off incidents, indicative of nothing in particular, within the society in which they occurred.
In a stark example, Solnit notes that she has written virtually all her published works at a small desk given to her by a friend who “had been stabbed fifteen times by an ex-boyfriend to punish her for leaving him. She almost bled to death...she was blamed for what happened as victims often were then; there were no consequences for the would-be murderer.”
Perhaps it’s because I’m a direct contemporary of hers, but so much of what Solnit describes here resonates with me for its pitch-perfect description of what I believe so many of us experienced as young women, such as this:
“And so there I was where so many young women were, trying to locate ourselves somewhere between being disdained or shut out for being unattractive and being menaced or resented for being attractive, to hover between two zones of punishment in space that was itself so thin that perhaps it never existed, trying to find some impossible balance of being desirable to those we desired and being safe from those we did not.”
(Do young women today have a markedly different experience? Perhaps changing norms have allowed them to build up a reservoir of confidence that we were missing — confidence that allows them to not care, to push back, to voice their outrage. I wonder.)
Certainly, there is also uplifting lived experience that forms Solnit as a writer. She notes that a waitressing gig, cut short by her “inability to remove corks without a graceless struggle,” opened her to landing a research position at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, “the best job I ever had,” and one that was pivotal in her work and life trajectory.
That boots-on-the-ground training in art drew her into that world and led to a string of writing projects as she discovered artists and movements that captivated her but that no one had written about yet.
Many such happy coincidences paved the road of Solnit’s life and career. Her brother’s involvement in the protests at Nevada’s nuclear test sites drew her from the coast into the desert states, where she found both a primary subject and a palpable freedom of movement and of choice, where she truly made her own way.
Her delicious descriptions of that time, tramping about in various western locales, unhurried, sleeping in the snug bed of her truck or out in the open, engender envious feelings of having lived the wrong life.
The book is broken into sections of related chapters, and I found “Hopscotch” especially lovely for the way Solnit considers different ways to tell the story of a life: by pulling threads of a theme, by following branches from one connecting element to another, or perhaps by returning again and again to a starting point and taking a new path each time, as in a children’s game of hopscotch.
All of this pulls and returns to Solnit’s invisibility to the powerful white men in the worlds of art and publishing. They used her youth and gender to dismiss, ignore, or silence her, and when that didn’t work, they used their power to derail her.
Early on, she discovered gay men as her fellow travelers, men who taught her “that what troubled and frustrated me in straight men was not innate to the gender but built into the role,” and who taught her that not all men see talk as entirely transactional, or, even worse, as completely one-sided.
Though Solnit has written over 20 books, she is best known for a 10-page essay she wrote before breakfast one morning in 2008 called “Men Explain Things to Me.” It went viral as soon as it was published and engendered the term “mansplaining” (a New York Times word of the year in 2010), along with an entire genre of works about things men have explained to women. (Just today, I saw a story on nylon.com by Kristin Iversen called, “Men Explain Fiona Apple to Me.”)
What is perhaps most revelatory in Solnit’s observations — briefly considered in the 2008 essay, more widely explored here in Recollections — is her insight that the treatment of women is on a continuum that moves easily from silencing to battering to raping to murdering. Society treats them all as unrelated phenomena, one-off incidents indicative of nothing in particular.
Solnit makes a powerful argument to the contrary.
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Jenny writes a bi-monthly column and reviews frequently for the Independent, and serves on its board of directors. She also writes a bimonthly column for Late Last Night Books. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny is a member of PEN/America and the National Book Critics’ Circle. Previously, she served as chair of the Washington Writers Conference and as president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.