On Telling the Story of Injustice Through Memoir
Michelle Bowdler and Kenny Fries in Conversation
Michelle Bowdler and Kenny Fries—two memoirists, social justice advocates, and LGBTQ authors—first met in as undergraduates at Brandeis University in the early 1980s and their writing brought them back together 40 years later. They discussed how their identities, values, and writing intersect.
Michelle Bowdler: My memories of you, Kenny, were of a smiling, brilliant young man who made me feel like I was the only one in the room, studying, laughing, eating a meal together. I remember you telling me after spending a semester abroad in London that you were gay and being so happy for you, having only come out myself the year before. I also remember vividly the day you said to me that you wanted to be a writer. Years later, my wife, Mary, and I visited Provincetown and I found your memoirs and poetry books featured in a bookstore. I ran up to her shouting, “Kenny Fries—he was my good friend in college. He told me he would be a writer.” I fanned the books out so she could see the titles. “Look at these. He did it. I am buying all of them.”
I was in my early thirties by then, having given up on my own dreams of writing after a violent assault waylaid my career track. By the time I felt able to think about the future again, I had veered on a different path in the public health field. The work I committed myself to would bring me back to writing three decades after we first met.
Kenny Fries: For a long time after Brandeis, for decades, I’ve kept a photo of us from commencement. If I remember correctly, we met around the time of Adrienne Rich’s visit to Brandeis, an event that would be crucial to both my writing and identity as a gay disabled Jewish writer. After Rich died, I wrote about meeting her, and our subsequent correspondence and acquaintance in How Adrienne Rich Taught Me To Drive: The Education of a Gay Disabled Writer. We initially reconnected because a professor at Tufts, your workplace, was teaching a disability-related class and you put us in touch.
But we truly reconnected when In the Province of the Gods was first published in 2017, and you told me about your book, Is Rape a Crime? which I was so glad to read and blurb when it was published last year. I was so thrilled that your book was longlisted for the National Book Award! In reading it, I realized our books had something important in common: during what were traumatic times, we both looked to our primary love relationship for the solace we needed. In this way, though our books deal with “larger” issues, at their essence our books could be described as love stories.
It was so good to spend time with you again. It was as if we just picked right up again, which makes me very happy.
MB: I had also hoped to be a writer but didn’t mention it to anyone since I didn’t think it would ever happen. Following your career mattered so much to me. It made me feel like it was possible to want something so much and work hard to make it happen—and I did when I was ready. I am truly grateful to you and I learned so much reading your work—how to write honestly and fearlessly about one’s life and the larger meaning of one’s personal experiences. I became an author in my late fifties and it still feels unreal since I wondered for years if it would ever happen. I felt like I owed the effort to that young girl you knew in back at Brandeis.
Your work has persistent themes of living with difference—both literal and figurative. In Body, Remember, you talk about the intersection of being Jewish, gay and disabled and these are central to your other memoirs and poetry as well. Can you talk about the trajectory of your writing and how this led to you became a voice for disability rights over these many years?
KF: I never set out to be an activist. I became a voice for disability rights because of my writing. Body, Remember was part of a two-book deal. The other book was Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out, which was published the following year, becoming a groundbreaking anthology, the first multi-genre collection of U.S. disabled writers. It is in Staring Back that I “outed” Adrienne Rich as a disabled writer, which became a focus of our interactions of the next decades.
Early on, I was interested in disability culture beyond my own writing. Interestingly, earlier in my career, I was seen as a gay writer. But, over time, that has changed. I think I’ve become more known as a disabled writer. I don’t think my writing changed. Perhaps the world, or the marketing of books changed. I don’t know.
MB: I am glad you mentioned that. My book seems to be perceived primarily as a social justice treatise—indicting how multiple systems fail victims of sexual assault. My identity as a lesbian informs the entire memoir and the family I built central to my healing. While the fact of my sexuality is central to the story, it has not been the primary way in which the book is talked about or reviewed. I find that interesting and have yet to see it in the LGBTQ section of a bookstore. Maybe that speaks to a change in our world—that the fact of one’s gender, sexuality, or any other specific aspect of one’s identity does not necessarily become the center of their book’s identity. I see that as progress.
To veer a little to next projects, I understand you are writing now about the Nazi extermination of people with disabilities. It sounds so very important. Where did this project emerge?
KF: In 2013, I had a grant to research the lives of disabled people who grew up in what was East Germany. But soon after arriving in Berlin, I realized I couldn’t understand disability in Germany unless I went back to Aktion T4, the Nazi program, and its aftermath, that mass murdered 300,000 disabled people, which was a precursor to the Holocaust, the “Final Solution.” In 2014, I moved to Berlin to continue the research I began the year before. Excerpts from Stumbling over History: Disability and the Holocaust, have been published in The New York Times, The Believer, and Craft, and last year, with the support of a Canada Council for the Arts grant, I created What Happened Here in the Summer of 1940?, a video series based on excerpts from the book, combined with historical and personal photographs.
History as memoir, is how I describe Stumbling over History. I never lose track of the personal, even when writing about history, or from research, something I learned to do when writing The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory.“Who I am and how I survived had to be part of the story and I stand by that choice.”
In a way, Stumbling over History harkens back to the intersectionality of being disabled, gay, and Jewish that was a focus of Body, Remember, because, all three “identities” were anathema during the Third Reich. An ex-boyfriend once called me “the Nazi Trifecta,” which I’ve written about for the Jewish Book Council.
In your book you also deal with intersectionality. How do you see that reflected in the narrative of Is Rape a Crime? And how were able to write such a personal book when writing about such a hot-button topic as rape and sexual assault?
MB: I believed that to fully make clear the long-term impact of rape that I had to be honest and explicit about its impact on victims or survivors over many years and their families. These details felt like a critical juxtaposition to how rape is addressed in the law enforcement, courts, government, and even the medical profession. Who I am and how I survived had to be part of the story and I stand by that choice. The book takes on misogyny directly and asks us to look at the fact that while rape is a felony, it is uniquely minimized and victims expected to pass a test of veracity the moment they report the crime to law enforcement—if they ever do.
The fact that the overwhelming victims of rape are female is something we must look at as we unravel why rape victims are not believed, rape kits sit untested in cities around the country and rape conviction so rare. I also quote research about how non-binary, gender non-conforming and LGBTQ people experience sexual assault at higher rates than those who are straight and cis gender, and that BIPOC+ individuals assaulted at higher rates than white people.
KF: Is the feedback you get about the book more about the writing, the message of social justice within the book or both?
MB: Readers have said many different things to me—that the writing itself spoke to them or the message demanding change within the pages of the book was what most resonated. I take none of this for granted and appreciate every single note I have received. I was a political activist in college and let that go as well after my assault. Every time someone says to me, “Thank you for your work,” I get tearful. Writing this book helped make meaning out of an unimaginable experience and I feel so fortunate that a dream I thought had died has been realized and meaningful to others. I am so grateful to the agent and editor who saw something in my book and led me on this incredibly meaningful journey.
And Kenny, you mention Adrienne Rich as someone who inspired you as a writer. I want to take this chance to thank you for inspiring me with your deeply honest and heart wrenching books. Your work has mattered to me and gave me hope as I took the time I needed to get back to the page. Thank you for your friendship then and now.
Michelle Bowdler is the author and her book Is Rape a Crime? (Flatiron) which was longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award for Nonfiction, named a Must Read Book by TIME Magazine and the Mass Book Awards, and on the 2020 best books lists of Publishers Weekly, the Boston Globe and Book Page. Michelle is a recipient of the Barbara Deming Memorial Award for nonfiction and has been a Fellow at Ragdale and MacDowell. Her writing appears in two anthologies, The New York Times, Ms. Magazine, Psychology Today, The American Medical Society Journal of Ethics, Literary Hub, and other journals. Her work has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize.
Kenny Fries is the author, most recently, of In the Province of the Gods (Creative Capital Literature Award), which is now out in paperback. His other books include The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory, and Body, Remember: A Memoir. He edited Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out and his books of poems include In the Gardens of Japan, Desert Walking, and Anesthesia. His next book will be Stumbling over History: Disability and the Holocaust, excerpts of which have appeared in The New York Times,The Believer, and Craft, as well as are featured in What Happened Here in the Summer of 1940?, his video series about Aktion T4, the Nazi program that mass-murdered disabled people.
Is Rape a Crime? by Michelle Bowdler is available via Flatiron Books.