It began with her fear of stairs. One day in November 1969, Adrienne Rich, a poet known to other poets but not yet to the wider world, paused at the top of the steps in her sister’s house in Boston, overwhelmed by a sense of peril, until her sister came to help. “Touching her, I felt no fear,” Rich wrote in a letter, “but what I did immediately feel was that something very serious had happened to me, something I had better fight—that I couldn’t let myself in for a life of being helped up and down staircases.”
When she got back to New York, her fear spread to the three subway entrances near the apartment, on Central Park West, where she lived with her three sons and her husband. These she had descended many times—sometimes in great pain and limitation from the arthritis that plagued her from her twenties on. But now, her mind seized up worse than her body ever had. Even when she managed to overcome it, anxiety followed her down to the subway platform. Rich felt something “coming on very fast, capable of paralyzing my life.”
The trouble seemed to pass quickly. Rich found a psychiatrist known for his clientele of writers and artists, Leslie Farber. Farber told her he could give her medication but would prefer not to, that the best thing she could do was enter analysis and probe the sources of that deep compulsion. In their first sessions together, Rich felt she could “risk entering certain zones more immediately than I could ever have done with someone I loved … I have never before had such a sense of the intensity of an attention which was not really trying to elicit anything but which therefore was able to receive the whole message.”
What came out in those therapy sessions would surprise nearly everyone Rich had ever known. It changed her life, her poetry, and her politics—a transformation that has hardly been traced before, because Rich herself often avoided direct discussion of the subject. Within months, she would leave her husband of 17 years, the Harvard-trained economist Alfred Conrad. Within a year, Conrad would drive up to the family’s house in Vermont alone, in a state of unarticulated despair. It was October 1970. He bought a gun, went out into the woods, and shot himself.
In the years that followed, Rich began to cut ties with old friends, including some of her closest confidants. She left New York for the West Coast, where she would live for the rest of her life. She came out as a lesbian. She began to write more prose, revealing a talent for polemic. Her feminist politics bloomed suddenly into a very explicit sort of radicalism, the kind unafraid to march onto the pages of intellectual journals and complain that “the way we live in a patriarchal society is dangerous for humanity.”
She also became famous. In 1973, she published Diving Into the Wreck. It was her ninth book of poetry, but its mixture of anguish and strength of conviction vaulted it past all her previous work. Many of these poems were explicitly feminist in concern, as with “Trying to Talk With a Man,”
Out here I feel more helpless
with you than without you
You mention the danger
and list the equipment
we talk of people caring for each other
in emergencies—laceration, thirst—
but you look at me like an emergency
With this book she won the National Book Award for poetry, tied with Allen Ginsberg. It positioned Rich as one of the foremost poets of her generation and a leading feminist thinker. A young Margaret Atwood wrote that hearing Rich read from it “felt as though the top of my head was being attacked, sometimes with an ice pick, sometimes with a blunter instrument: a hatchet or a hammer.” A male reviewer called it angry, which it was, but women responded in droves because they were angry, too.
By the time of her death in 2012, Rich was a towering figure, an abstracted Great Poet and Important Feminist, whom The New York Times eulogized as “a poet of towering reputation and towering rage.” Some of this praise has made her sound like a statue, not a person. Her radical feminist beliefs had a curiously distancing effect, often thought too blunt, too simplistic. It seems hard for people to imagine that these ideas could be the result of a complex mind, a complicated experience. And like many artists, Rich was wary of those who wanted to connect her work too closely to the shape of her life. When she died, she asked that her friends and family refrain from participating in any full-length biography; many of her archived letters to close friends are sealed until 2050.
But during the 1960s and into the mid-1970s, Rich wrote often about her innermost concerns to her friend, the poet and critic Hayden Carruth, who was at the time living in relative isolation with his wife and child in Johnson, Vermont. The letters he kept span almost a thousand pages among his papers at the University of Vermont, and Carruth, for whatever reason, left access to them open. Her literary trust granted permission to quote from the letters for the purposes of this article, though Pablo Conrad, her middle son and literary executor, declined to be formally interviewed for it. They paint an intimate portrait of her intellectual and political awakening, one which has scarcely been seen before.
When W.H. Auden gave Rich the Yale Younger Poet’s prize in 1950, he famously said that her poems were “neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them.” That line is so often quoted because her life inverted it, as she became more famous and more overtly identified as a poet of anger.
Rich was brought up to be a very conventional and—more important—very successful sort of poet. Born in 1929 in Baltimore, nothing in her background suggested artistic precocity. Her father was Jewish, having grown up in Birmingham, Alabama; her mother was a Protestant from Atlanta, Georgia. Arnold Rich had encouraged her to write verse from the age of four. He himself was not an artist, but a doctor, with a particular expertise in tuberculosis. He had, consequently, concentrated and divided his literary ambitions among his two daughters, wanting Adrienne to be a poet and her sister, Cynthia, to be a novelist. “I think he saw himself as a kind of Papa Brontë,” she told Carruth in 1965, “with geniuses for children.”
The Rich daughters were at first schooled at home by their mother, only sent out in fourth grade. Their father drove them to write every day, expounded on principles of prosody, the theory of how a poem sounds. He loved, in particular, Rossetti and Swinburne, thought “poetry had fallen on hard days more or less after the death of Oscar Wilde.” In a characteristic fit of pride, he’d printed one of Rich’s early poems, an “allegory on suicide,” as a chapbook. Obedience was a singular virtue in the household, hard work the method of greatness.
But Arnold Rich could not prevent other influences from pressing on his daughters. Worldly subjects began to look like avenues of rebellion. “I went along with all of this,” Rich wrote to Carruth about her father’s plans, “but in secret spent hours writing imitations of cosmetic advertising and illustrating them copiously, thinking up adjectives for face cream which Madison Avenue had in those innocent days not even stumbled on.” In some letters she speaks of hating her father. Her marriage at 24, she said in her 1976 book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, had been a kind of break between them. “She had ceased to be the demure and precocious child or the poetic, seducible adolescent,” she wrote of her younger self. “Something, in my father’s view, had gone terribly wrong.”
Among the things that had gone “wrong,” and would keep going “wrong” for the rest of her life, was her poetry itself. Rich started writing looser, blank verse, gradually breaking from the rules of prosody her father had instilled, in what she seemed to consider her first successful book of poetry, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, in 1963. There are hints throughout her work that she was amused to discover that all the flattery she’d received from her father had been a kind of control and she saw how her changing verse was a literal break with patriarchy. In the title poem, often identified as her feminist breakthrough, Rich would write of time as male, judging women’s behavior by the lowered standards of chivalry:
Bemused by gallantry, we hear
our mediocrities over-praised,
indolence read as abnegation,
slattern thought styled intuition,
every lapse forgiven, our crime
only to cast too bold a shadow
or smash the mold straight off.
That poem, composed between 1958 and 1960, was first published in 1962 in the Partisan Review. It was then still a year before Betty Friedan would publish The Feminine Mystique. Sylvia Plath was still alive in London, the poems that would make up Ariel as yet unpublished. There was no New York Radical Women collective, no SCUM Manifesto, no consciousness-raising groups. And yet Rich had, all by herself, put her finger on the upsurge of feeling—that feeling being anger—that would come to define the second wave of feminism. “A thinking woman sleeps with monsters,” is another of the most resonant lines in Snapshots.
But until Diving Into the Wreck, Rich was still reserved about her politics. Her letters to Carruth track little feminist reading—Simone de Beauvoir comes up in passing but mostly as an object of gossip. Gloria Steinem makes no appearances, nor Juliet Mitchell, nor Shulamith Firestone, nor any of the writers of the great feminist tracts. Rich was perhaps tailoring her remarks for her audience, Carruth not having much engagement with feminist politics himself. But judging by these letters alone, it would seem that her political and social views were formed mostly through her reading of black writers. She loved, in particular, the early work of James Baldwin. But as late as June 1968 she was having doubts about his work, too:
James Baldwin is as dead as Medgar Evers. Was he always, or did he die a slow death? I haven’t reread any of the early essays or that first novel that seemed so good to me five years ago. Maybe our perceptions are getting sharper. Maybe he sharpened them, blunting himself in the process.
Rich really began to think like an activist when she ventured out into the world of work. In 1966, still recovering from an operation for her arthritis, Rich began to teach, first at Swarthmore (where she did not like the students) and then at Columbia (where she liked them very much). These were her first excursions back into the real world after her sons were grown, and her early remarks on teaching are flavored with a feeling of new freedom:
[The students] are extraordinarily unhypocritical, candid, impatient of anything that seems abstract or mere ritual. I feel they live in a different time-scale from us. I like them better than most of their elders, I suppose, but I have never felt so concretely that I’m thirty-eight, middle-aged, and drenched in assumptions which they haven’t even heard of.
This was an unusual reaction. Most writers end up disliking teaching, claiming it takes them away from their own work. From the beginning, Rich had a much more open mind.
That urge to examine her own assumptions was compounded when, in 1968, she began teaching at City College in its Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK) program. SEEK was originally conceived as an admissions scheme; the idea was to get more black and Puerto Rican students from struggling high schools into the university. Under SEEK, the top graduates of local high schools were automatically admitted to the university, provided they first went through a series of classes designed to beef up their writing and mathematics skills. Rich taught language to small classes in this program for two years, beginning in the fall of 1968.
In an essay she later wrote on the experience, “Teaching Language in Open Admissions,” Rich was wary of the “banal cliché” that, as a privileged teacher, she would learn as much from her students as they would from her. They did nonetheless force her to see a certain section of literature in a different light. Rich found herself, in an effort to lead her students to the discover of “the validity and variety of their own experience,” teaching from black literature for the first time. Her coworkers also included a number of black feminists—the poets Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, and Audre Lorde among them—who would become lifelong friends and allies.
Rich somewhat downplayed her exposure to black writing before she taught at SEEK. She had, after all, always read Baldwin. She also kept up with Eldridge Cleaver and the other polemicists. And among the writers she most admired, her letters to Carruth tell us, was LeRoi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka. She liked the urgency of his message, though she had a complicated reaction to his fiery persona:
We whites with our malfunctions and hang-ups and blocks and sense of alienation—I mean we people with raw nerves who take life so hard—well, a bad novel is a bad novel, but what about somebody like LeRoi, some of whose literary criticism is the best I’ve seen in a long time, and some of whose social incantations are as bad as the next demagogue’s? LeRoi always did think that Baldwin was essentially white-spirited, denying things in himself, with nothing really to write about except his own exquisitely exacerbated sensibility. But what is happening to LeRoi is a different process, at least what I see of it, a totally understandable and relevant madness, but a madness no less.
SEEK plunged her into the midst of it. “It is the only thing I’ve ever done from a political motive,” she told Carruth, “(I applied for the job after King was shot, as a political act of involvement, from which I’ve gained such a sense of doing something practical and effective.” This proved intoxicating, in fact sending her into a flurry of composition—most of the poems that comprised her Leaflets are dated 1968. The book was dedicated to Carruth and his wife, but one of the poems she drafted, in late September, after she’d begun teaching at SEEK, was dedicated to Jones:
Terribly far away I see your mouth in the wild light:
it seems to me you are shouting instructions to us all.
Rich was becoming more involved in radical politics, and yet in all these letters of the later 1960s, there is little to no mention of the women’s movement, or of marital unhappiness. She and Conrad spent New Year’s Eve 1968 at the apartment of some of Rich’s students, who “agreed we would not say ‘Happy New Year’ because no one expected or dreamed that 1969 would be happy,” but who also sat up all night reciting poetry to each other. “These are the students of whom people say that they have no interest or love for anything written before today, that they don’t properly revere the classics, that they don’t read, etc.,” Rich wrote to Carruth. Already, she knew better.
This sharpening and blunting is an interesting metaphor for the life of an artist in politics. Rich recognized and even agreed with the politics in the work but was afraid to wield them herself, just yet. She believed, as she would later write in a 1983 essay called “Blood, Bread and Poetry,” that politics had little place in art. She writes of being told, after the publication of Snapshots, that her work was “bitter” and “personal.” “It took me a long time not to hear those voices internally whenever I picked up my pen.”
In the middle of all this is the enigma of Alfred Conrad. From these letters we learn only certain things about him, such as that he shared his wife’s politics and attended protests and leftist talks with and without her. Sometimes he even seemed to be ahead of her radicalism. He proposed, for instance, that the couple stop paying taxes on account of the unconstitutionality of the war in Vietnam. He was a native of Brooklyn, who was born Alfred Cohen but later changed his name to Conrad, and became a man of what you could call a kind of solid conventional success: He earned all three of his degrees at Harvard. His academic work bore the proof of his leftist beliefs; he co-authored a celebrated paper on the economics of slavery in the antebellum South. And once he became a full professor at City College, he often got involved in conflicts with the administration.
Evidently he had quite a bit of personal charm, if of a reserved kind. When Sylvia Plath met him in April 1958, she recorded in her journal that he was “doe-eyed.” And perhaps shy at first. But when they sat down to dinner, he loosened up: “I talked to Al about … tuberculosis, deep, deeper, enjoying him.” But Plath is one of the only people who left behind any record of Conrad. Beyond these bare facts there is not a great deal known of him.
In October 1967 Rich and Conrad joined a number of other writers and poets—Robert Lowell, Denise Levertov, Galway Kinnell, and Norman Mailer among them—in Washington for a march against the war in Vietnam. Rich was still recovering from a surgery and did not actually walk in the larger of the two protests, held on the twenty-first, but made it to a smaller march and a planning meeting among the poets. Rich reported to Carruth:
The order of events for the public meeting was being discussed, and Denise was announcing that she and Galway were thinking of chaining themselves to the gates of the White House. Galway, by the way, like all of us, was dressed with a care and propriety rarely attempted by him, looking rather as if he were going to a funeral. Denise had a leg encased in surgical bandage, having somehow knocked her knee two days earlier, and probably shouldn’t even have marched, let alone try to chain herself to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The notes of the comic in this description were shoring up a certain depression. Rich had been feeling intermittently depressed throughout the 1960s, a state she often chalked up to her captivity in hospitals and occasional blocks in her writing. But she also did not seem to feel much connection, in the end, to the social movements of the time—not to the anti-Vietnam students, not to the counterculture, nor even a clear connection to the civil rights movement. A month after the protests, she wrote to Carruth of her worry about those to whom “political protest comes too easily,” holding that activism ought to be more difficult for the average “honest man.”
“At times the state of poetry fills me with despair. My own, the whole shooting match,” Rich continued. “The kind and quantity of polemical poetry around these days is awesomely depressing. I’d like to keep poetry safe for the future by forbidding that it be written for two or three generations.” It still worried her, in other words, that her life was becoming more and more bound to ideals of social change which seemed still, to her, to threaten her art.
There were clearly infidelities in Rich’s marriage—some of them her own—but throughout the 1960s Rich gave no hint of wanting to leave. Alfred Conrad was in fact quite intricately associated with the SEEK program that had instilled new energy in Rich. In April 1969, funding for SEEK was under threat and students occupied a campus of the college. Conrad was one of the few professors students spoke to and respected. “He is deeply impressed with [the students’] maturity and realism,” Rich proudly reported to Carruth. His colleagues vilified him for joining with the students, but he stood with them, anyway.
The first hint of any trouble, in fact, appears only when Carruth began to complain to Rich of restlessness within his own marriage. (He would separate from his wife Rose Marie in 1980.) He did not preserve his own letter to Rich, but her reply makes clear that he had made some kind of overture:
I will not flirt with you. I love you too much for that, and I know this is a danger zone. For years now I have believed that honest, loving and deep relations were possible—known they were possible—between men and women who have permanent relationships elsewhere. But proceeding on that assumption, one takes on much difficulty and much responsibility. Even if I didn’t know and love [Rose Marie] I should be anxious that I, at a distance, not become a focus of fantasy, something more glamorous and idealized than any near-at-hand woman—myself included, if I were near at hand—could be. I feel a responsibility to be very lucid, to demand that you too be very lucid.
The letters hint at no physical relationship or developed affair. But Rich once again lapsed into the role of Carruth’s soother and caretaker: “I think you feel you’re a failure, while for me you have been one of the exemplary figures, against whom I set the chasers after success and the people held together with vanity and prestige.” She urged him to begin reading Rollo May, the chief of a school of psychoanalysis sometimes called “existential” because of May’s tendency to draw from the arts and philosophy in his analysis of the mind. She also asked him not to chase after her so clearly:
We are both engaged in extraordinary marriages. The strange paradox of love is that it longs, each time it occurs, to be eternal & exclusive. We don’t know what to do about these feelings, we falsify or mis-identify them. What we have to do, I think, is commit ourselves as best we can to each love, and acknowledge that there are as many loves as one needs, but that loyalty to one need not involve disloyalty to another.
It was a few months after this sort of letter that the troubles with the stairs began. And as Rich’s relationship with her new therapist, Leslie Farber, deepened, so did a sense of distance from Carruth. Her letters begin to remind him “how little you know me.” Farber shared, with Rich and with Carruth, a love of French existentialist writers. And increasingly Farber was a confidant more important to her than any other in her life. Carruth, who had been in therapy himself, tried to warn Rich she was getting too close to the psychiatrist, but she did not listen. “I feel very destructive toward others to whom I would ordinarily turn,” she replied.
At the same time, she was informed by a doctor that the surgeries she’d undergone had not been successful. The arthritis continued to cause daily pain. Among the medical advice she was given were instructions to avoid the stairs whenever possible. “I just have to face becoming more and more of a cripple,” she wrote dejectedly.
Please don’t write me that all of life is compromise, that I can be ‘active mentally’ as the doctor put it … I depend on you for your pessimism as much as your humor and your reassurance of affections.
Another operation was scheduled and performed in March 1970, and another course of physical therapy began. Conrad was arrested for protesting a draft board, occupations at the college continued, and Rich began complaining of exhaustion. She would drive up to the family’s house in Vermont and sleep for days. Her letters to Carruth got more and more abstract, especially when they touched on her conversations with Farber. But finally, when he once again seems to have brought up her attractions for him, she responded with a full-court feminist response:
Of course Rose Marie is jealous—I would be too, if you have made mysteries about yourself and me, forced her to “intuit,” etc. Think of all that she has invested of herself in you, in your life together. Think of all that any bright, attractive, vital women invests in bourgeois marriage, in her husband and family. Her independence and autonomy are postponed or resigned altogether; her own spirit is almost continually being asked to take second place to the needs, the will, even the passing moods, of her man.
The letter continues along these lines for some time until finally Rich signs off,
If this sounds like a Women’s Lib rap, baby, it is.
During this time, she was distant from both her friend and her husband. Within two weeks Conrad had visited Carruth in Vermont, alone. In a Guardian interview in 2002, Carruth recounted that Conrad had visited him in June 1970 to complain about their split. Rich wrote to Carruth that she could offer no “tidy explanations” but that she was separating from Conrad. “Some of it is uniquely peculiar to Alf’s and my very complicated relationship, and to who we each were long before we knew each other.”
Conrad spiraled out from this rapidly. Rich wrote to Carruth that he needed the separation just as much as she but “finds it almost impossible to admit to this, as if it implied some kind of failure.” Carruth, flabbergasted by the sudden change, wrote hectoring letters back, telling Rich he worried she was moving from her “proper center.” “This is not something I am doing to or against Alf or out of vindictive anger,” she replied. Nor, she said at the end of July 1970, was she contemplating divorce. She had no plans to live with someone else. She would get herself a studio apartment.
Even after moving out, Rich continued to spend some time with Conrad and her children. “Alf & I talking a lot, in the car on leaf-strewn roads, or by the stove evenings,” she wrote to Carruth as late as the fourth of October. But by the thirteenth she’d changed her mind again: “I feel Alf is in bad trouble—I can’t help him anymore & I am trying at best not to provide damaging occasions for him—but he needs friendship.” The same day she wrote the letter, Conrad wrote a check for the gun.
Carruth, living nearby, would be the one to identify the body. “I will never finish being grateful that you could be there,” Rich wrote to him a few days later. “I think (absurd!) that Alf would have wanted you there.” In 1998, when Carruth published autobiographical fragments he labeled Reluctantly, he wrote of Conrad without naming him:
Some years ago I had a friend whose domestic life was in a shambles. Part of the trouble was not his doing, but he was so bound up, so repressed and inhibited, that he could talk to no one, either psychiatrist or friend, about it. He was forty-five years old, had three minor children, was a success in his work, a liked and respected person. He went into the woods and shot himself. ... Anyone could have told him that what he should do was forget the whole mess and go to California; this is the common, effective American expedient. He was simply incapable of this. Incapable. In such a case can anyone say with certainty that his suicide was wrong?
I found the letters between Carruth and Rich in a roundabout way. I was trying to make sense of how Rich’s feminist beliefs fit with other women writers and critics of her generation. After the success of Diving Into the Wreck, Rich would promptly begin a study of motherhood that became Of Woman Born. This book, published in 1976 and now a classic, was among the first to articulate the ways in which the biological facts of procreation had been used as a justification for patriarchal control. “The experience of maternity and the experience of sexuality have both been channeled to serve male interests; behavior which threatens the institutions, such as illegitimacy, abortion, lesbianism, is considered deviant or criminal,” she wrote. Later, she would also write an influential essay on “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” in which she argued that lesbian experience was “a profoundly female experience, with particular oppressions, meanings, and potentialities we cannot comprehend as long as we simply bracket it with other sexually stigmatized existences.”
These writings and others aligned Rich with very radical feminists, the type that often advocated for outright war between the sexes—placing her closer in her beliefs to Shulamith Firestone than to, say, Gloria Steinem. Rich was adamant that there was a great abyss of experience between men and women, and frequently pessimistic that the divide could be overcome unless women were allowed to speak on their own terms. Still, her poet’s faith in language led her to believe that women could make themselves heard, if only they dug down deep enough into their own experiences.
Rich was the only fellow traveler of the so-called New York intellectuals to dive so headlong into the women’s movement. And the attitude most of these people took toward women’s liberation was that it was incalculably vulgar and intellectually poisonous. Even Elizabeth Hardwick, whose writing is often now classified as feminist, once told an interviewer, “I don’t know what happened. She got swept too far. She deliberately made herself ugly and wrote those extreme and ridiculous poems.” This remark had the opposite effect on me than the one intended: I wanted to know more about how this one person had managed to stand up to the rest.
Besides, I had suspected that the distance between these extremes had been greatly exaggerated. My mind got caught on the snag of an argument Susan Sontag had had with Rich in the pages of The New York Review of Books. At the time, the building and revival of the reputations of women artists was one of the few projects everyone in the movement could believe in; Rich herself had written on Anne Bradstreet. “Feminists would feel a pang at having to sacrifice the one woman who made films that everybody acknowledges to be first-rate,” Sontag had written in her essay on the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, blaming the movement in part for the rehabilitation of a propagandist.
It was then 1975. Rich was getting deeper and deeper into the movement. She wrote in to the Review in the role of a whip, trying to impose a kind of party line. On a reading of Sontag’s prior work, she added, “one imagined Sontag not to dissociate herself from feminism.” Then she went in for a bit of flattery twined with condescension: “One is simply eager to see this woman’s mind working out of a deeper complexity, informed by emotional grounding; and this has not yet proven to be the case.” Sontag delivered a 2,000-word riposte, a searing document that excoriates those who would see everything through the lens of gender. “Like all capital moral truths,” she wrote, “feminism is a bit simpleminded. That is its power and, as the language of Rich’s letter shows, that is its limitation.”
The argument sounded familiar to me. It was a diorama of the internecine warfare you still see at work in feminist discussions today. There is a fair argument that “feminism” is now a word rendered almost without meaning because it covers such a wide spread of politics. In that context, it often seems that the only common denominator of feminism is to be dissatisfied with “feminism.” Feminists too, hate simplemindedness. But we don’t abandon it because it has, as Sontag put it, capital moral truth.
I learned as I suspected that the gap between Rich and Sontag was not so very wide as it looked. In Sontag’s archive at the University of California, Los Angeles, there is a letter from Rich. “I’m sure we can do better than this,” Rich begins, saying she’d like to meet up in New York to talk about the exchange. “Your mind has interested mine for a number of years—though we often come from very different places.” She cited mutual acquaintances and a love of Marie Curie. To this, Sontag eagerly replied that she, too, would like to meet when Rich was next in New York. Suddenly, in those two letters, the image of Rich as a polemical firebrand falls right through the floor.
I do not know if the two ever met in the end. I do know that eventually Rich came to see herself as engaged in a project analogous to Sontag’s, at least in terms of its intellectual seriousness. In the preface to Arts of the Possible, Rich quoted Sontag’s complaint that the serious had become “quaint” and “ ‘unrealistic,’ to most people.” In fact, Rich, too, had become dissatisfied with feminism as it existed by the end of her life. She disliked the sudden rise of personal essays, “true confessions” as she called them. She felt that this displaced a feminism actively opposed to capitalism or racism or colonialism.
Perhaps this explains why Rich left such strict instructions against a biographer digging into her life. She simply, and admirably, did not want her personal life to overshadow the things she believed in. But her political change did not happen without this personal catastrophe; at least, it seems, it could never have happened in the same way.
Today there is a tendency to portray the radical feminists as flat figures. Even on the left, the movement has been stereotyped as a trove of dogmatics, unshaven man-haters who want female supremacy. They are, to borrow Sontag’s frame, thought simpleminded. There is little recognition that their political beliefs bloomed from actual human conditions, that they were and are people with full lives, changing their minds and learning, motivated by flashes of sadness and anger. They have become as abstracted as the movement itself. There are certainly criticisms of radical feminism worth mounting—one that seems particularly trenchant against Rich herself is her alliances with a number of feminist writers who demonized transgender women. But simpleminded? They did a lot better than that.
For the first couple of years after Conrad’s death, Rich kept things much as they were before it. She taught at the SEEK program; she wrote long, searching letters to Carruth. “Sometimes I feel relief that he was able to make, for once in his life, a clean statement about the way he was feeling,” she wrote just a few days after Conrad’s death. Later she would become more philosophical: “It’s clear to me that I had never finished with Alf, that something goes on in me now which has to do with him, like a cut off limb that still tingles.” She pronounced herself unwilling and unable to get involved with anyone else. For a while she didn’t want to write about the suicide either, horrified as she was by the “romanticizations” of others.
Romanticization became a theme with Rich in this period. In the middle of 1970, Robert Lowell left Elizabeth Hardwick for another woman. Almost as soon as she heard, Rich fired off a letter. “I feel we are losing touch with each other, which I don’t want,” she wrote him. “Perhaps part of the trouble is that the events of my own life in the past four or five years have made me very anti-romantic, and I feel a kind of romanticism in your recent decisions, a kind of sexual romanticism with which it is very hard for me to feel sympathy.”
It seems that in the aftermath of Conrad’s suicide, this is what happened: Rich began to lose faith in most forms of love. Occasionally she’d openly say so to Carruth. She was clearly unwilling to use a new romance to patch over the wound, too. This led to a lot more psychoanalysis. And a lot more time spent with women.
In a long letter to Carruth dated August 1971 that presaged many of the arguments she’d later make in Of Woman Born, Rich gave a very simple account of the source of her ideas about gender:
And above all, talking—with my women friends, not one of whom, whatever her situation, does not feel relief and hope and new courage in the crystallizations and confirmations that are taking place. And with men, including my therapist, with whom I have had extremely moving and amazing talks.
Her letters become almost wholly preoccupied with gender politics. Where formerly any discussion of sexual life has been, at best, oblique, Rich becomes suddenly frank:
For me, there has sometimes been that element, but more often a strange joyful sense of power—of taking some kind of mana into me with the sperm of a man, but also (and this I hope I’ve ceased to need or want) simple power over the man in terms of my body being absolutely necessary to him at the moment of intercourse.
Perhaps an initial period of concern was warranted, on Carruth’s part. After a few of these letters, most of which simply asked him to consider the possibility that women’s liberation really had something to say for itself, Carruth became angry with Rich. He began to become suspicious that she was moving away not just from him, but from all men. Her tone in the letters became increasingly defensive. She wrote him a letter about a long car trip she’d taken with Elizabeth Bishop—in which Bishop told her she had secretly sympathized with the women’s liberation movement—but such was the breakdown of the relationship that she felt compelled to add, “No, I haven’t been into a lesbian experience.”
When finally she told him, in 1974, that she had begun seeing a woman, he accused her of a “sexual switch.” “Too shallow, and rather cruel,” she replied, angrily, to the accusation. They stopped writing to each other for a while, and though the friendship resumed, it was rockier. The few post-1974 letters in these files are more careful, and the correspondence stopped entirely in 1977.
Another of Diving Into the Wreck’s poems, “Song,” could be read as a report of recovery from the events of 1970:
You want to ask, am I lonely?
Well, of course, lonely
as a woman driving across country
day after day, leaving behind
mile after mile
little towns she might have stopped
and lived and died in, lonely
Rich deflected the success of Diving Into the Wreck when she accepted its National Book Award. All those years of moving with her students had left her convinced that the project of language was not something any one person ought to be able to claim. “We, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Walker, together accept this award in the name of all the women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world, and in the name of those who, like us, have been tolerated as token women in this culture,” she said in her speech.
That was it, the moment she smashed the mold entirely. Things like this did not happen in America, particularly in literary and intellectual America, in the 1970s. They are starting to happen more now, of course. It is no longer such a strange, unusual thing to point out that there are more voices to be heard. Maybe our perceptions have sharpened. Maybe she sharpened them.