“I believe that we are all, openly or secretly, struggling against one or another kind of nihilism. I believe that body and spirit are not really separate, though it often seems that way. I believe that redemption is never impossible and always equivocal. But I guess that I just don’t know.” —Ellen Willis, Beginning to See the Light
Ellen Willis and I met at The New Yorker in 1968, when I was an editorial dogsbody and she was the magazine’s first-ever rock critic. Instead of letting me hate her for that, she was extraordinarily nice and friendly in a shy, wry sort of way. After a while, she took to perching on a corner of my desk—something other New Yorker writers only did if they were going to ask you for a date. Ellen just wanted to talk. I had an anti-war poster on my wall, and we talked about Vietnam and became pals. Eventually we started talking about women’s liberation, a subject I found so seismic that I kept my hands under the desk so she wouldn’t see them shaking while I casually protested that it really wasn’t my thing. What I was really feeling during those conversations were little shocks of recognition, the kind that if you let them can propel you past your own fear.
Nudging my politics as she worked out her own, Ellen helped me learn what I really was, what I really wanted, and what I didn’t. She brought things out in me that I didn’t know were there, among them an anger I’d never admitted to and a willingness to be an outsider. And I’m just one of countless people she touched. She turned me on to the Velvet Underground with a piece so brilliant that Lou Reed asked her to write the liner notes for his Rock and Roll Diary 1967–1980. When I subsequently met Reed at a movie premiere and mentioned that Ellen was a friend, he lit up. Before the evening ended, he asked somewhat hesitantly if there was some way that he could put his celebrity, such as it was, to use in the fight for abortion rights. And I thought, Ellen, your reach is vast.
One long-ago summer when we were both failing to extricate ourselves from fractious relationships that we pretty much knew were doomed anyway, Ellen said, “Sometimes I think I’d rather be right than happy.” I knew what she meant—score that point even though the fighting itself makes you miserable. But in fact, what Ellen really liked was to be right and happy. Ellen was unquestionably an intellectual; she spent her days and a fair number of her nights trying to figure out as much of the world as she could get her brain around. But she was a rationalist with a mystic’s longing for wholeness and transcendence, and a self-described democratic socialist for whom individual freedom was the sine qua non of a decent civilization. A child of Reich as well as Freud, she placed great value on the body and its pleasures, particularly sexual ones; she saw a life devoid of pleasure as a form of death. She despised fixed hierarchies, bullies and authoritarians of all kinds, and Puritanism on both the left and the right. Attempts to shame women and rein them in sexually made her furious. She was impatient with some feminists’ obsession with fighting pornography, particularly when reproductive freedom, that cornerstone of female autonomy, was under relentless siege. At her memorial service on November 12, Stanley Aronowitz, her husband and lover of 25 years, called her “a woman of the Enlightenment.” She was her own best example: In Ellen, mind and body were twin engines of a profoundly passionate life.
Ellen and I were friends for 38 years, although our lives diverged in the last 10, she disappearing (as I saw it) into the alien world of academe, while I threw myself down the rabbit hole of full-time freelance writing. Still, we found time for occasional dinners, and one magic day before she got sick, we turned twentysomething again, hanging out in the Village for hours, blissfully pigging out on greasy burgers and gooey ice cream, wandering through a bookstore plucking things for each other to read, not heavy tomes to improve our minds, but favorite mystery and science-fiction novels. (George Pelecanos, be proud: Ellen Willis loved you.) And we talked about guys, musing, remembering, dissecting. I reminded her of something she confided when she was dating Stanley. “I think it’s getting serious,” she’d said. “I’m feeling paranoid.” Trust Ellen to locate the terror and comedy of love.
At 64, Ellen died too young, but she still left a rich legacy, including Beginning to See the Light, No More Nice Girls, and Don’t Think, Smile, three juicy collections of her reporting, cultural criticism, laugh-out-loud humor pieces, and amazingly vibrant political analysis. Ellen was a fearless, incisive critic, but she also created as much as she critiqued. Among her creations were the influential women’s liberation group Redstockings, which she founded in 1969 with Shulamith Firestone after men yelled, “Take her off the stage and fuck her” when Firestone spoke at an anti-war rally in Washington, and No More Nice Girls, a guerrilla-theater action group formed in the wake of the 1977 passage of the anti-abortion Hyde Amendment. And a few years after she joined the faculty of NYU’s journalism school in 1990, Ellen designed and was directing a groundbreaking graduate concentration in Cultural Reporting and Criticism, inspiring similar programs elsewhere. But if Ellen were here, she would surely point out her most cherished creation, the 22-year-old political and cultural journalist Nona Willis-Aronowitz.
When news began to circulate of Ellen’s death last Thursday morning from metastasized lung cancer (for the record, she never smoked), the reaction was startling. Within hours, personal tributes were popping up in e-mails and blogs all over the net, along with more formal but sometimes heartfelt notices on the websites of publications Ellen wrote for, including The New Yorker, The Nation, Dissent, and this paper, where she joined me on staff as a fellow senior editor in 1979 and stayed through the ’80s (returning to write a column in the mid ’90s). Even The New York Times, which tends to snub the American left as well as the livelier, pleasure-loving brand of radical feminism, weighed in with a graceful obit by Margalit Fox, who clearly knew and appreciated Ellen’s work.
Most of the tributes in the immediate wake of her death came from colleagues, former students, writers she had edited years ago, and even people who’d only known her briefly. The one that brought it all home for me came from Lauren Sandler, an editor at Salon who had been Ellen’s student. In an e-mail, Sandler wrote, “Ellen’s death has shaken into me a sense of why I do this, what the purpose is, where my outrage and passion lie, as well as my drive to celebrate life and sharpen my thinking and the thinking of others. Which all comes back to her, of course. I have no idea who I would be without her.”