Swans Commentary » swans.com March 26, 2012  



From The Beatniks In The 1960s To Today's Fundamentalists
Always Imposing their Rules on a Woman's Body


by Karen Moller





(Swans - March 26, 2012)   In the percolating underground of San Francisco in 1959 I recognized my own impatience for talk, for joy, and perhaps enlightenment. I knew being a beatnik was not just about eating bagels and discussing Nietzsche. I can't say I had any real idea of what beatnik goals were, but I had a vague idea that it shouldn't be men dictating the behavior of women. No sooner had we been freed from the burden of being virgins than they wanted to shackle us with the rule -- women should be a common, available property to men. Beatnik sexual pressure was as threatening and confining as the sexual constraints of normal society. Worse yet, birth control was hard to come by, and male beatniks, happy to populate the world with replicas of themselves, had no intention of fulfilling the generally accepted role of father.

I was shocked to hear beatnik men proclaim their sexual generosity, stating they were more than willing to "share their chick with a half-dozen guys." In the same breath, they might even declare a woman was no longer considered property, without the least perception that she might in fact belong to herself. They even claimed that pursuing one's happiness at someone else's expense was evil without ever relating that to their own actions. My disillusion with this rebel society grew and I slapped away the hands that tried to grope me in bars and cafés, insisting; "I am not your common property!" I refused their pseudo-intellectual pick-up lines: "You should flow with life," or "Get in touch with your sexual being." I turned a deaf ear when they called me bourgeois, inhibited, or puritanical.

It was clear to me that I would never be accepted or fit in with San Francisco's avant-garde ragbag of artists and poets. I wasn't joining, but I wasn't leaving. I was still on my way to Europe, which would require a lot of "rabbit," so I went job hunting. Fisherman's Wharf seemed like a good place to start. Walt Disney must have inspired the builders of that area as it could have provided settings for some of their comic strips. The kitsch Hawaiian restaurant where I applied for a job fit in perfectly. The place was dark, almost cave-like, lit by colored lights that sparkled off the walls covered with nets and shells. In spite of being Canadian and under 21, I got the job and, thanks to generous tippers and free meals, I began to put away money for my trip to Europe.

Determined as I was to accept rules on my own terms, I was about to discover that my smug indifference to sex was no safeguard. Through my own ignorance I was about to fall into the same trap that lay, in those days, just below the surface for any young girl who stepped out of line. It all started very romantically one afternoon as I sat eating a double-decker sandwich in the local Italian café with a few friends. A young man, perhaps ten years my senior, entered the café and took a seat quietly in the corner. Only with reluctance did he join our conversation. His curious Bronx accent brought back memories of Damon Runyon radio stories. His was a voice that I thought could leave egos dangling like abandoned marionettes. That was exactly what it did to me, as the soft tones curled about my heart.

He was the child of Italian emigrants from Calabria, and had grown up on the East Coast of America. The early years with his alcoholic father followed him like a sinister shadow and made him too restless to stick at anything. In the end he took pride in his rootless and directionless existence; joining protest marches and the Civil Rights movement before drifting off to San Francisco's intellectual and poetic environment, where lack of worldly success and a sporadic education often added special distinction. Somehow, it all made him seem more romantic, the outsider, a self-declared black sheep, not even fitting in with the beatnik community. To me he resembled those two anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti. No doubt, had he found himself in similar circumstances, he would have said, as Sacco did, "Had we not been accused of un-American activities, I would have spent my life discussing anarchy on street corners."

Of course, when you meet a guy you like, up comes the question of sex. Are you going to do it or not? I had lost my virginity at 16, as well as my interest in sex. I guess when I tried it with him I was hoping for some kind of miracle, but it didn't happen. Instead, I felt the same vague disappointment. Is this all? One day, to my surprise, I had an orgasm. How it happened was a mystery. I had read about orgasms, but most books seemed to skirt the subject, hinting at some vague sensation of ecstasy not all that physical. That made sex more interesting. However, since my generation was still so full of inhibitions and misinformation, sex wasn't much fun until later when men started to ease up on what they felt was permitted. It now sounds ridiculous, but what they thought was permitted before the 1960s was mostly limited to a guy getting on top of a woman and pumping away till they had an orgasm.

I was of course pretty ignorant myself, and that ignorance extended to other sexual areas. There was an underlying consensus that it was not quite proper for a well-brought-up girl to know too about contraception, and like many other things in those days, I left birth control up to the man. However, it was not long before I skipped a period and found myself face to face with a sympathetic but resigned doctor. "My dear," she said, "I understand and weep for you, but this is America. What choice do you have?"

When I look back now, I see the women in that beatnik world waiting for sadness to happen. Like me, they did not see it coming. The doctor's words, "You are pregnant," made me feel like I had rented a room in hell. I walked out into the street and sat down at a café, indecision turning into agony. The first thing that caught my eye was a couple walking down the street. It was obvious she was one of those beatnik girls, carrying her baby and following her man, while struggling to make enough money to be able to eat. I knew the type. She didn't look too good around the edges, kind of like a flower cut from her roots. As I watched, her beatnik man stopped one of the tourists, a guy obviously hanging out in North Beach hoping to pick up one of those loose girls. The beatnik indicated that for a few bucks, the tourist could have his wife. "It's too beautiful, man!" he said to the guy. "She's such a whore; she'll screw anybody for me."

I sat watching the minutes roll back rather than forward as I imagined getting up and beating some feelings into the man. Instead, I decided I had seen enough of those immoral men and masochistic chicks to know that I wanted no part of their world. Things were not getting better for women, things were getting worse. Those so-called poets and artists were beginning to expect women to have their babies and take care of them financially as well, even to the point of selling their own bodies.

Art school and the slight deviation to San Francisco had simply been part of my preparation for a life of painting and living in Paris. Now I was running in panic after a fading dream. I swore to myself that it did not matter how many doctors said I had no choice or how much the world laughed at the idea of a woman artist. I was not going to give up my future. I had some money in the bank -- not that much, but I knew as long as I could support myself no one could expect me to be obedient to them. I gave a month's notice at my job and tried to ignore my pregnant state. This wasn't easy when every morning on the bus to Fisherman's Warf I could feel my stomach grinding up while I puked into a paper bag, pretending to cough. I was shaking by the time I got to work. Just an ulcer, I said to the owner, between my clenched teeth, hoping it would go away.

One evening in a jazz club I met Elise, a dark-eyed intellectual a few years my senior. She had just stepped off one of those long-haul buses from New York and was living in the same cheap, smelly hotel as me. The next day when we met for a coffee she leaned toward me and said, "Society is diseased. Beatniks are just internal intellectuals screwing up, but it doesn't matter. We're into something big that our parents cannot understand. Now we're just a handful of people listening to each other, but it won't always be so." She hinted she was on some kind of quest for personal retribution, out of rage against the backlash that she thought was threatening her friends. Her friends, I soon discovered, were all the people I dreamt of meeting, like Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Willem de Kooning.

"New York wasn't good for me," she added. "I got into all the stuff that nice Jewish parents don't like. I wanted to be an artist, but my parents objected." They said she would get into bad company, drugs and -- without actually saying the word -- sex. "You know the usual story. They came to America after the war, just happy to be alive. They are always talking about free trade, free market, a free press, but my freedom really scares them." She smiled one of her rare smiles before adding, "I am free. I know it, but they think of me as an awkward dog that needs disciplining. That is why they sent out the men in white coats and locked me up! Said I didn't have emotions like other people. Now I'm in hiding."

"But how could they lock you up?" I asked. "You aren't a kid!"

"I am to them. If your mom thinks you're nuts and signs the necessary papers, they come and get you. They can do what they want to you in there."

I was horrified. That possibility had never occurred to me. I thought Elise was unusual and courageous, but not nuts. I glanced at her, her dark hair almost covering her face not quite hiding her tears. The thought went round and round in my head -- they locked her up for doing what we all want to do. Live creative lives and hang out with people interested in the same things as ourselves.

"It's over for me here," I said watching the golden dimness of the sun sink behind the dark line of the horizon. "I'm going to Europe. I'm in trouble." Now it was my time to cry, but I refused. I was too humiliated by my stupidity. Her gaze moved down my body and stopped just below my bellybutton. I nodded, thankful that she made no comment.

At the end of the summer, I headed for New York, the city my father had once described as "a city populated by men who resembled hard-boiled eggs and unfortunately ruled by dandies and thieves." On the boat trip to France, the question turned incessantly in my head. How is it that I now found myself on my way to Europe -- pregnant? My fantasy of being liberated like my male heroes now looked like wishful thinking. After all, Kerouac was a guy who hung out with other guys, then slouched off to the next adventure, leaving his pregnant girlfriends to look after real life. For a moment, I wondered if it would someday be possible for a woman to be free to live like a man.

Paris is now no longer a city where students can easily find cheap hotels and restaurants, but some of the other changes are remarkable. For instance, contraceptives are sold in pharmacies and girls can now get legal abortions. In 1959, both were criminal offences. In defiance of those laws, imposed by the French state, women had been having illegal abortions as a form of contraception since the beginning of time. It was something I had been counting on. My discreet inquiries yielded nothing till one day, wandering around the Opera, I met what I thought was a rather exotic Frenchman. He invited me to lunch and then to the Moulin Rouge. When he tried to seduce me, I told him I was pregnant and watched with relief as the desire faded from his expression. Kindly, he made me an appointment with a liberal-minded doctor where I fabricated a story of domestic tragedy. Although, her office was very clean and she professional, I spent the next few days back at the hotel fearing that I was about to die. The resolve that I had stored away so carefully exploded in haunting visions of my dead body being discovered by the hotel manager. "Just another foolish virgin who got herself into trouble," he would say to the police. Even when I began to believe I would live, I could not rouse myself. The horror of what I had done seemed to seep out from the walls and fill me with dread.

Arnold, a fellow student, rescued me from my melancholy. He called at my hotel and, after surmising there was little actually wrong with me, he took me by the arm and guided me to the Pont des Arts, where I leaned over the embankment beset with the thought of throwing myself in that brown, swirling mass of water. How many young men and women seeking relief from guilt had thrown themselves into the Seine, I wondered?

"Nasty weather to drown in," Arnold said, as if he could read my thoughts. I glanced at him and much to his embarrassment, I began to cry.

When I look back today, I look at America with sadness. Why, in the fifty-odd years that have passed, has there been so little progress? Why in a country of universal education is fundamentalist America trying to restrict women's rights and impose laws on them as intolerant as the Ayatollahs in the Middle East or the beatniks in the sixties? Why are women so silent? There is never a question in Europe about reversing women's right to abortion. It is not a government or party issue. Women are not children and they have the right to decide what happens to their bodies. Taking responsibility for our lives includes preventing unwanted pregnancies but as well, not letting politicians dictate and make laws that restrict our rights.

I believe every child should be a wanted child -- that creates happy children and responsible adults. Forcing women to have children they do not want is not a solution and will only cause more problems later. No one should ever have to suffer the dreadful experience of an abortion and there is no reason why they should with the availability today of contraceptives and education. I do not regret my choice. A poverty stricken and ambitious student would have made a very bad mother, but I do regret being ignorant and leaving the responsibility of birth control up to a man.


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About the Author

Karen Moller is the author of Technicolor Dreamin': The 1960's Rainbow and Beyond (Trafford Publishing, 2006, ISBN: 1-412-08018-5) and a fashion designer who lives half time in Paris, France, and the other half in Venice, Italy.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published March 26, 2012