An Interview with Marcia Cohn Spiegel, March 8, 2006
Interviewed by Beth Ribet

B: What is your relationship to Andrea?

I'm her aunt by marriage. Her mother was my husband's sister. When I got engaged to my husband and went back to meet his family, Andrea was 4 years old. She was a darling, happy, beautiful little girl with a head full of black curls.

In one of our last conversations Andrea told me that when she was little she saw that I acted in the world and did things that she didn't see the other women in her life doing. It gave her hope that in her own life she would not be tied to just being a homemaker, that women could make a difference in the world. I was very honored that she thought so.

She saw me as somebody who does go out and try to change the world. I saw her as giving me permission to do whatever it takes to make that change. My joke was that we wound up doing the same work, only we wore different uniforms to do it. My work was about creating change in the Jewish community. I was, at the beginning, addressing issues of domestic violence and sexual abuse and addiction. I was invited to synagogues and women's organizations and universities. I did it in a black dress and a string of pearls, and she did it in blue jeans or a t-shirt, or her overalls. But we were doing the same work, and often to the same audiences.

In the beginning, she didn't believe it was possible that there would be change. And my whole focus was, there has to be change. I think at the end, we may have almost switched places. I think I was reaching a place of despair, in terms of whether we're really advancing. She ended up encouraging me, you know, "you've got to keep at it, it's possible, change is happening."

B: You mentioned that she gave you permission to do whatever you needed to?

Her actions gave me permission. Because she could do what she could do, her actions gave me permission to do what I could do --- push the boundaries, tell the stories, go beyond what's really supposed to be okay.

B: What was it like for you to read her work?

She always sent me copies of whatever she wrote immediately. I read everything she wrote as it came out. Sometimes it was very uncomfortable. I think one of the more difficult ones was Intercourse, because she totally transformed images and metaphors in ways that were in your face.

There were a lot of family stories in her fiction, that I knew were very true. I thought, oh good, right on, and I thought, that's okay because nobody in the family is ever going to read this but me! I had to laugh sometimes.

She was a good writer, but she was an incredible speaker. Her use of language was so nuanced. As a rhetorician, to hear her speak was just amazing. I have the collection of her speeches and essays, and they don't match the power that she had when she delivered them in person. Tremendous power. I didn't always agree with everything. Sometimes she went a little further than I would have or used images that I wouldn't have. It was just that we come from very different places and ages and times, and so it was not surprising that we would not be in 100% agreement. But I was certainly in 100% support.

B: How did the rest of Andrea's immediate and extended family relate to her writing and work?

When Andrea's parents, Harry and Sylvia Dworkin visited me one summer, I took them to walk along the esplanade in Venice Beach. We stopped at the book store on the beach and I showed them the area where all of Andrea's books were featured and displayed. They were quite surprised. It was almost as if they had no idea of the importance of Andrea's work in the world. They knew she wrote books, but I don't think they truly understood the impact that her books were having in changing attitudes and the extent of that impact.

I think her father was very supportive, very proud of her. Her mother was very ambivalent, I think. In one of her first books she said something about her mother coming from a very poor family. And the whole family got upset about that. My husband grew up in a family that didn't have a dime to give him to go the movies and he would go out and collect Coca Cola bottles and milk bottles for their refunds, in order to get the money to go to a movie. And to me, that's very poor. I think that some of her aunts really got very turned off on her work because they felt that she had shamed the family publicly. In a way I thought that was very funny, that they were more upset about that than her coming out as a lesbian.

My kids, my family, were supportive and excited about what she was doing, and proud of what she was doing, and talked about it to their friends, "Andrea Dworkin is my cousin." My kids remember when she was in her middle teens. She took them around Philly and did things with them. She was their big cousin. They were always very proud of her and we were connected in that way.

B: Can you tell me more about your memories of her as a child or teen?

When I read her books about what her life was like, it's very hard for me to picture the child I knew. I'm not questioning her stories. But when you're not always there with someone, you only see who they are when you see them. The Andrea I knew growing up went to Sunday school, she went to Hebrew school, she was a good little girl. Her mother was always sick. She's written about that a lot. She was frequently sent to live at another aunt's house because her mother wasn't well. But also when her mother was home, she really couldn't do very much, because she had heart problems. So I always saw Andrea in this light, as being this sweet little girl who did what she could.

On the surface she was who the family expected her to be. She wasn't a troublemaker. Maybe I didn't have enough imagination or exposure to really go a little deeper with her about what her life was like, being sexually abused. In one of the books she writes about the first time her mother lets her go to a movie theater, and a man sits down next to her and fondles her. And when she goes home, she's telling people what happened. The question is, "well, did he do anything?". Well from her point of view, what he did was something. And what they wanted to know was whether there was penetration. And she didn't understand what they were talking about. "Did he do anything?" "Yes, I'm telling you this is what he did."

Every time I read that it just made me cry, because you really understand the sadness of a child, surrounded by people who are concerned about appearances. I think about the horrors that happened, that she never got support for as a child, never shared. I think about the terrible loneliness of a child who doesn't have anyone who's going to understand who she is beneath the surface she presents.  

The first time where we were able to communicate was after she was in jail. When Andrea was arrested in NY for picketing, the family never said anything to anyone. They kept it quiet, hoping it would go away. I first learned about it quite a bit later when I read an article in Time Magazine that talked about the arrest and what happened to her in jail. I immediately wrote to her to offer my support and make contact with her.

B: How did she respond when you contacted her?

First of all, she said not to make assumptions about why she was thrown into jail or who she was connected with, because I was kind of making up my own story. She was saying "don't do that, because the truth, your reality and my reality are not the same reality, so you have to know what mine is." From that point on, whatever we had to say to each other, there was no game-playing. That was very powerful.

I was this very middle-class, conservative Jewish housewife who knew nothing about the world into which she was moving or the issues she was addressing. She really pushed me forward to look at a lot of things. I can remember being at Sisterhood bookstore when she would read, and the people who would come to hear her, and how her words opened them to their experience. It was so extraordinary just to see. It was incredible to see that. She was able to acknowledge the reality of their lives.

I think this is where my work parallels hers, in that I have to tell the stories for the people whose stories aren't being told. Recently I've been doing more work on issues of rabbinic sexual abuse. That's such a hush-hush subject. I saw her in New York before I gave a speech in which I actually named Shlomo Carlebach as a sexual offender. I gave the speech at a conference on Neo-Hasidism, where he was being honored. He's a cantor, and one of the most prominent founders of what's called Jewish renewal.

B: Tell me a little bit about Andrea and John. What was it like to spend time with the two of them?

John always reminded me of her brother. Sweet-natured people. I also knew John from the Center for Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence. We met a conference where he was doing something on men against violence.

They were such a lovely couple together. I saw them at their Park Slope house in New York. It was such a beautiful place, with their cats, and they each had their floors where they worked, with their offices and their writing places. It was a relationship with reciprocity and real love. There was something very sweet and wonderful about being with them. He was devoted to her. He gave her the space that she needed and the support that she needed.

B: What did you usually talk about when you did see her?

When we were together we were talking about rape and incest and organizations, about her books, about all the work we were doing.

B: How did Andrea connect with you after her drug rape experience?

After she had been raped, she came out here to LA, to speak with the rape crisis center, and to have some therapy to work on the issues of the rape. We were together several times and we talked about all kinds of things and she did not tell me why she was there. I think she kept getting to the point where she wanted to tell me, but she hadn't been that open with anybody. After she left LA, she told me. I was in New York, and we went out to dinner. It was probably 6 months after it happened. She really wanted me to know, but on the other hand, she really didn't want me to know. Finally, when we were face to face and no one else was there, then she talked about it.

B: When did you last see her?

The week before her death. I was in Washington. I was speaking at the Jewish Women International Conference on Domestic Violence. We made a date for dinner, she and John and I, near their apartment. It was a catch-up. I hadn't seen her for about a year, since before her knee-replacement surgery. She was very thin. I had not seen her that thin. In some ways, it was disturbing.  

We went to this lovely restaurant near their apartment. She told me, "I can't really tell you about this book, it's too complicated, so we'll wait, I'll tell you another time." John talked about his work. They were talking about living in Washington, and what that was like. They were so happy, that was the joy of it. She loved Park Slope, but she was liking the new apartment too. It didn't have three flights to get up and down. The cats were beginning to like the apartment, although she talked about how they would have to be in bed with her. They were starting this new life. She was starting this new book, and John was very happy in his work. So it was just lovely.

A week later I got home and found out that she had died. That was really hard. I heard from someone who was on Nikki Craft's network. She called me and she said, "I can't believe Andrea died", and I said, "It can't be, I mean I was just with her." She said, "Well, I just got this announcement that she's died." So I called John's house and his sister was there, and she said, "Yes, she died." That was Sunday morning, April 10th. He hadn't yet gotten through her address book. It was a terrible shock.

I had been saying to her years ago that I was concerned about her health because of things that happened to other people in the family. She said to me, "if I drop dead of a stroke, it won't be the worst thing in the world." She was concerned that someone would try to murder her, specifically someone in the porn business. She was always very careful. If I was trying to put someone in touch with her I always went through her agent.  I never gave them any way of reaching her, because she truly had to fear for her life. She had been very outspoken during that time in Minnesota when she and Catharine MacKinnon actually changed the laws about pornography there. Pornography is big business. These were not the safest people in the world to deal with.

B: Was Andrea religious? Did she connect with Jewish spirituality at all?

She went to Hebrew school and religious school. She was one of those children who asked questions and never got adequate answers. We never really talked about religion, although I was very involved in it.

B: Do you know if anyone's saying Kaddish for her?

I did for the month after. I don't think anyone else did. She's the last. Her mother and father and brother all are dead. John really wanted the family to come together at the time of the funeral. Two of my kids were there. Her other cousins were there. Her one remaining aunt was there. We all came together and we spent the day together and then we went to the memorial. Then John and his sister came and we had a little ritual in this restaurant and we said Kaddish.

B: If you were describing Andrea to people who don't know her or her work, what would you say?

She was someone who, through personal experience, realized how cruel the world could be, how unacknowledged the suffering of women could be, and how difficult it was to create change in attitudes.

She was concerned for women every place and for the kind of abuse that women suffered. How women were used in military interventions as a way to get at the enemy, where rape becomes a military tool. The whole issue of pornography, which she understood from her own marriage and personal experience of it. She tried to create more understanding of what the dehumanization of women does to people. Because she did this, she made people very nervous and very uncomfortable.

There were feminists who came to me and said, "please tell your niece to wear different clothes when she goes in public, like, don't go to the supreme court in your overalls and vest!". And I said, "you know, I don't do that, I'm her aunt, I don't have to do that." Someone said, "tell her to get her hair cut." She and I once talked about that, about clothing and hair styles as being a statement. This was her statement, "this is who I am, you take me for who I am, I am not going to dress to fit your model." But there where people in the feminist movement who really did not like that.

I was attending a Jewish feminist meeting and was delighted to meet Betty Friedan. When I mentioned to her that I was Andrea's aunt, thinking she would be happy to make that connection, rather she became angry and violent. She actually came at me, and was held back by friends. I learned that she was furious with Andrea because she felt that her stance on pornography threatened freedom of speech and freedom of press.

But Andrea just journeyed on. She just took in all this pain, from other people's lives, and from the things that happened to her. She felt it with such passion. I think that made people very nervous. People are frightened of that level of passion.

When she died, I said to John, "the obituaries for her were so laudatory, on and on about her work and what she did. And yet her books wouldn't even be reviewed in their newspapers, and if they were they were torn apart." In her death, they were able to see who she was and what she was doing.

London was an exception. They adored her in England, she was on the BBC all the time. She or John said, the BBC knew if they had to reach someone in America at 3 in the morning, they could always reach Andrea. She had a following. They did a memorial for her in London, with the Lord Mayor.

Whenever I went to hear her speak, at Take Back the Night, or at a bookstore when she did a reading, I looked around and I saw the women whose lives she had changed. She gave them courage, just by telling their stories, acknowledging their reality. I saw that, and that was incredible to see.

B: What recommendations would you give feminist historians or biographers about what's important to consider in her life and work?

There was a time in the beginning where she was part of a big feminist network in New York. I remember I was collecting poetry, and I can remember Andrea just sending me a list of 40 or 50 women to be in contact with. As time went by, differences erupted within that group. I see this happen in many organizations in the feminist movement, they begin coming apart internally because of differences in ideas, and ultimate goals and the process by which we get there. So while Andrea had a big support network in the beginning, it really fell apart. In the end, as an individual, she had a lot of friends, she had a lot of individual people supporting her. But it wasn't the same kind of community.

 I think we have to acknowledge within the feminist movement that this kind of thing happens, and that it's really okay. The danger is, when that shared vision or goal begins to change, it's important not to attack people. That worries me in the feminist movement. I feel that people betray each other in ways that are not okay. When Betty Friedan found that I was Andrea's aunt and went for me, I thought, what on earth is that about!

B: How have you been dealing with her death in the past year, how are you doing?

It's been hard. You know, I didn't see her that often, but it's real loss. I think that we both understood the importance of each other's work and acknowledged it in a world where a lot of people don't want to know about these things. I miss her.

After she died, I sent John some pictures of her as a little girl. This sweet, cute, little girl. And then in contrast, looking at the pictures of this woman with the gray hair, I thought, wow! This little girl became this woman and all the stages in between. I think what I miss is getting to know where she would have gone, if she had been able to continue. I miss knowing how that part of the story would have turned out.

B: What would you say to people who didn't know her but are missing her writing and work?

She told the stories of people's pain. People can find a way to reach into their own pain to reach out to help others. That, ultimately, is what she did. It's not easy. It's not necessarily going to be gratifying. But that's how we begin to create change, by being able to share, to tell our own stories. She told a lot of hers in fiction. Whether we do it in fiction, or in memoir, it's urgent that we don't let those stories get hidden again, that we keep them out there.

B: Are there particular ways you've worked on memorializing or remembering her?

I sent a donation to the Schlessinger library. When I've done lectures around issues of abuse --- I always did when she was alive too --- I bring up her name and that she was my niece, and I honor her for the work that she has done, and the importance of her work about addressing issues of sexual abuse and rape.

B: Is there anything else you want people to know about Andrea?

I think that people probably know this. She was incredibly brave. She surmounted all of the things in her life with dignity and grace and courage and humor. If there was ever real bitterness, it was more about the difficulty of a world that was so hard to change and so hard to move. But she didn't stop. She didn't say, it's impossible and I can't do this. She just kept going.

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