“A lesbian is a memoir.” – Lou Robinson
“Lesbian-feminism invites us to be present, to follow the crumbs.” – Julie Enszer1
“We saw ourselves as the last hope on earth.” – Lise Weil2
Lise Weil’s memoir In Search of Pure Lust tracks her adventures within lesbian communities in the late 1970s through the 80s and 90s, chronicling her journey as she comes into her sexual identity, falling in and out of love. Weil brings us with her to lesbian bars in New York City, feminist communities in Western Massachusetts, lesbian concerts in Boston, and feminist bookstores in Montreal. Her narrative follows an explosion of lesbian cultural spaces and production. Woven throughout Weil’s personal trials and joys are critical moments of lesbian-feminist cultural history-flash points in Reagan-era U.S. and international politics.
While her communities are aflame, Weil searches everywhere for romantic love. We wait in anticipation with Weil for letters from lovers and friends–letters with poems, ruminations about feminism, and gossip about other lesbians. Lesbian feminists like Mary Daly, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich appear in the story as both muses and characters, and their presence contextualizes her own work. Weil provides a firsthand account of the First National Lesbian Conference, held in 1991 in Atlanta, transporting the reader to a high-stakes, feverish past.
Witnessing the journey of a fiercely radical, deeply empathetic older lesbian roots me to my community, history, and sustains me as an activist. As the founder and editor of Trivia: A Journal of Ideas (1982-1991, re-launched as Trivia: Voices of Feminism, 2005-2011), a groundbreaking literary journal that received national dialogue and attention, Weil enacted her lesbian feminism through writing and editing. Lesbian desire burns through the pages as she chronicles the collaboration and exploration happening all around. Writing is how Weil creates visionary possibilities for lesbian life, “As lesbians…we were here to create and embody new forms.”3
Weil chooses to live a non-normative life, prioritizing love for women within the context of expansive and revolutionary love. She questions heterosexist norms of gender, relationships, and romance; love and lust are informed by societal norms but also individual vulnerability and wounds. Desire is painful; desire is also “bigger than [I] can ever know.”4 The unsanitized descriptions of Weil’s reckoning with her sexuality shatter assumptions that come from homogenization of lesbian lives.
Weil confronts contradictions of her love for women head-on. She questions how and why she loves and lusts as she does, specifically within the context of lesbian feminism.
Look what happens when I tell the truth about my feelings: my lover leaves me, my friends desert me, a whole community rises up in revolt. And I want out. Out of this rigid, oppressive hardware. Out of these walls that once protected me, made me feel I had a home in this world.5
Conflicts like those described by Weil highlight the need for compassion and emotional care in lesbian and activist spaces to this day. Empathy for these challenging parts of living as a lesbian are important in my own work. I don’t seek nostalgic descriptions of a romantic past of lesbian feminism, I value honest portrayals wrestling with tension, both internal and external. Weil interrogates internalized homophobia and self-hatred as her identity evolves and as she gets to know more women, and her desire is revealing.
The turning points in Weil’s identity journey come at us through sensory whirlwinds, immersion in nature is tied to self-discovery. When relationships, communities, and even words fail, the natural world offers grounding and perspective. She writes, “There is absolutely no difference…between loving her body and loving the earth.”6
Early in her memoir, Weil describes a lesbian writers’ group in upstate New York and how lesbian writers like Lorde and Rich offered strength and encouraged the participants’ writing, “…they kept us company in our subversions.”7 I look to lesbian histories for guidance: to gain a sense of self, to understand lesbian lineages, and to imagine our futures. I understand the fears expressed by my elders. I know younger lesbians are losing access to our history.
Most Americans don’t have any connection to lesbian history, and the little understanding they do have of lesbian culture is based on stereotypes and assimilationist media depictions. Groups like the Daughters of Bilitis, the Combahee River Collective, Dyke Action Machine and writers like Judy Grahn are underrecognized. Visionary ideas like anti-capitalism, community production, and a public, passionate reverence for the dead were rallying points for lesbians in the 70s and 80s. Weil’s organizing history includes work on nuclear disarmament and other environmental justice causes. There are subversive ideas within lesbian feminisms of the past. We must have accountable, ongoing conversations about transphobia, gender identity, and lesbian history if we want to sustain intergenerational movement spaces that hold space for nuance, complexity, and disagreement. Weil’s book encourages this dialogue.
Accessing lesbian histories like hers may be the most effective way to sustain intergenerational solidarity. Ownership over one’s narrative is restorative, reparative, and nourishing for individuals and communities. Stories like Weil’s connect me to lesbian pasts that otherwise remain lost and hidden, in turn providing a balm for the alienation and loneliness I experience as a radical queer person. I read about Weil rushing from Boston to Western Massachusetts, fueled by anticipation and desire for self-discovery.
Heading west on Route 2 on that Saturday in April there was no question in my mind. I was driving to my destiny. It was cold and raw and rainy. The branches on the maples on either side of the highway were bare, but their tips were red with expectation. Leominster, Lunenburg– even the place names told me I was moving into another dimension. ‘Exit at Millers Falls. And don’t get your hopes up–it’s a grimy old mill town and there aren’t any falls, at least not that I’ve been able to see.’ Grace’s directions were full of landmarks; the whole way there I was picturing the road winding along the Sawmill River that led to the pumpkin-colored farmhouse across from the hill.8
The next weekend, I found myself in those exact towns tracing her steps through the few remaining gay enclaves that still persist there. I look at each farmhouse in Leverett and Montague and imagine the chaotic, wild work of Trivia in this rural setting, the brilliance, squabbles and everything in-between.
I walk through my own city and think about the Cambridge Zendo Weil visited on Sparks Street, where she meditated on desire, lust, and love. Her vivid memories give new depth to these familar places. By reading In Search of Pure Lust, I relived parts of own my life and inhabited alternative lives. Queer theorist Nishant Shanani defines these emotional engagements with history in a context of reparative retrosexualities.
[I]t is the shared relationality produced by the exile of shame that marks the reparative value of queer retrosexualities. It is not the affective state of shame that is, in itself, reparative. But it is its shared memory, transformed in retrospect that marks the reparative possibilities of shame for queer thinking.9
Alienation and shame lift. These connections repair me.
“We were the true outsiders, the ones who could and would remake the world.”10
A Discussion with Lise Weil
Anna Weick: Thank you for writing this book. I’m so grateful that it exists. What was your process for deciding to write this memoir?
Lise Weil: The memoir began some fifteen years ago as a meditation on lesbian desire. When I came out lesbian desire was at the center of an entire culture and movement. It was definitely at the center of my own movement in those years–it became my guiding light. But over time, as one love relationship after another crashed and burned, I had to admit that as a guide it wasn’t terribly trustworthy. At the same time, I had begun sitting zazen in a Buddhist Center where we were vowing every day to “extinguish all desires.” There was an obvious tension here and I wanted to explore it. The other thing that happened was: the more I wrote about that period and the incredibly rich culture we had created, which by then had mostly disappeared, the more fully I remembered it, the more desperately important it felt to memorialize it in as much detail as possible. Before I knew it I was writing a memoir.
AW: I see your memoir dismantling assumptions about expected paths for lesbian self formation and growth. How does your story respond to or engage with assimilationist, corporatized discourse around LGBT rights and feminism?
LW: One of the things I’m trying to convey about the way we lived and loved is that, in the contexts I was in, we wanted very much to do away with preconceived ideas about love and relationships—and about identity itself. “Lesbian” had a subversive charge to it back then—even after we’d made significant inroads into the culture. When I was Visiting Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Hamilton College back in 1987 I offered a course called “Lesbian as Monster” in which we read one book after another in which lesbians were defiantly unassimilable. So I would say that my story does not in any way respond to or engage with the kind of discourse you’re referring to here.
AW: How do you enact your feminist belief of “loving with deep recognition?” And how does your Buddhist practice relate to this? How does awareness of the natural world connect with presence and recognition for loving women?
LW: “Loving with deep recognition” is what I say in the book feminism has to be about if it’s to mean anything. It’s an insight that comes to me a bit less than midway through the book—but in no way am I able to practice it with any kind of consistency through the remainder of the book. Buddhist practice is what helped me cultivate and sustain that kind of recognition, which in my experience was so often at odds with desire. It is / was fundamentally an education of the heart.
You know as I was writing it I wasn’t conscious of nature’s role in supporting that kind of love but as I reread the book I notice that the most intense love scenes tend to take place in wild natural settings—in the woods, by the ocean. This could be just because in my mind, and more often than not in my life, wild feelings and wild places go together. In the spring I took my lesbian literature class to a roaring waterfall near Ithaca and just had them sit there for a few hours and write. I wasn’t sure exactly why, but it’s been my experience that the deepest recognitions—about everything—happen in wild places…
AW: Desire shapes lesbian cultural history, notably with Audre Lorde’s cornerstone work Uses of the Erotic; now I see the term used by younger lesbians who hunger for our histories and lineage. How have lesbians redefined the role of desire in social movements? Can you separate the desire for a new world and the desire for love with other women? How can lesbian desire not only cause personal rebirth, but transformational change for communities?
LW: I had no idea younger lesbians (apart from you) were hungering for our histories and lineages–that’s encouraging!! I like to say we were the most embodied liberation movement in history because desire—physical, erotic desire—was the engine. And it’s true that for me, lust for women and lust for a truly livable world could not be separated. I don’t know how many others felt this way. And of course it only makes sense if you are part of a liberation movement and you see your desires as deeply subversive–which we did. In desiring women, in making women the objects of thought and desire, we were not only desiring what the culture denigrated and relegated to second class status, we were removing our attention from men. “Taking our eyes off the guys” as we used to say. And that in itself was a very powerful act.
I don’t know, do you think this is the case today? In the the #MeToo movement, for example? It’s significant I think that the woman who brought Bill Cosby down is a lesbian. And I believe the #MeToo movement should be giving a whole lot more credit to second-wave feminists and especially lesbians than they do. But the fact is by definition #MeToo is about reacting to men—it wouldn’t exist without them. So I don’t see it being about breaking free from men and male culture in the same way as the movement I’m writing about in the book.
AW: You’ve written elsewhere about spaces for lesbians disappearing. I was struck in your book by the vivid descriptions of being in physical community with lesbians: in their presence and face to face. Around the table in the farmhouse; in a conference room; walking along the beach are moments the reader feels acutely. What do you think young lesbians and feminists today can do to move forward when lesbian bars, bookstores, and other spaces are disappearing?
LW: Yes. One of the motivations for writing the book—especially in the last years of writing—was to document those spaces, and as much as I could about the culture we created, especially once I saw how quickly those the spaces were vanishing. Honestly, when I think of how it is for young lesbians and feminists today I could get very weepy. We had a whole world to live in!! Whereas you…well there are still a few conferences and music festivals… but I think most of what you have now is online. And it’s just not fair, and I think no wonder young lesbians integrate, assimilate, when there’s so little in the way of an alternative to the vapid and voracious mainstream culture.
What can you do? Well exactly what you’re doing. Build bridges to the culture that once was. Reconnect with it – that’s number one. Then reconstitute those spaces! And invent new ones…
1 Julie R. Enzer, “Feverishly Lesbian-Feminist: Archival Objects and Queer Desires,” in Out of the Closet, Into the Archives: Researching Sexual Histories, ed. Amy L. Stone and Jamie Cantrell (SUNY Press, 2016), 163.
2 Lise Weil, In Search of Pure Lust (She Writes Press, 2018), 106.
3 Weil, 75.
4 Weil, 74.
5 Weil, 265.
6 Weil, 98.
7 Weil, 6.
8 Weil, 90.
9 Shahani, Nishant. Queer Retrosexualities: The Politics of Reparative Return. (Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2012) 19.
10 Weil, In Search of Pure Lust, 241.
ANNA J. WEICK is a revolutionary feminist, lesbian zinester, union member, and socialist dyke. She is an MA candidate at Goddard College where she studies intergenerational lesbian activism and queer historiography. At Wellesley College, Anna conducted research on lesbian art history and reproductive justice activism. By day Anna supports the movement to end mass incarceration as an administrator in a criminal justice policy reform center. She lives in Somerville, MA with her partner and cat.
LISE WEIL, editor of Dark Matter Women Witnessing, was founder and editor of the US feminist review Trivia: A Journal of Ideas (1982-1991) and co-founder of its online offshoot Trivia: Voices of Feminism, which she edited through 2011 and which is now published by an editorial collective at the U of Arizona. Weil’s short fiction, essays, reviews, literary nonfiction, and translations have been published widely in journals in both Canada and the United States. She lives in Montreal and teaches in Goddard College’s Graduate Institute, where she recently helped found a concentration in Embodiment Studies.